In 1980, it must have looked like the Pittsburgh-based, Joe Grushecky-fronted Iron City Houserockers band was poised for a breakthrough.
They were signed to the Cleveland International label, which, in 1977, released one of the biggest blockbusters of the ’70s, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. The supporting cast for their second album, Have a Good Time … But Get Out Alive!, included Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man, Steven Van Zandt; Mick Ronson, who had worked with artists like David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed in the ’70s and was currently collaborating with former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter; Hunter himself; and Ellen Foley, who had sung the duet vocals on Meat Loaf’s hit, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
Van Zandt, Ronson, Hunter and Foley all performed on the album, while Ronson was credited as a co-producer, and Van Zandt and Hunter, as arrangers.
The band had major label distribution, via MCA, and the critics were on their side, too. Just look at some of of the raves in the ad for the Have a Good Time, to the right. “New American classic … the Iron City Houserockers take for granted a credibility that Springsteen has to strive for.” From the pages of Rolling Stone, no less. Wow.
They didn’t become superstars, of course, and broke up just a few years later. But Grushecky has had a long and distinguished career, with frequent collaborations with Springsteen to his credit; he still calls his backing band the Houserockers, without the “Iron City.” And the Cleveland International label — revived by Steve Popovich Jr., the son of its late founder Steve Popovich, who co-produced Have a Good Time — is releasing a deluxe two-CD reissue, with demos and outtakes from the original sessions. The album’s greatness should be instantly apparent to anyone who hears it.
I talked to Grushecky about the re-release last week.
Q: It’s amazing that it’s been 40 years, now, since the album came out.
A: Yeah. You know, the Houserockers … we were really critically acclaimed, but we didn’t get on radio. We were part of the Cleveland Entertainment family, and they sort of imploded over the Meat Loaf thing, trying to do a follow-up for Meat Loaf. And it trickled down to have a really negative impact on us, too. I think everybody just threw up their hands in frustration, after seeing we weren’t getting anywhere.
Q: They were just sort of distracted by how huge that album was?
A: There was just a lot of in-fighting between the members and, you know, (producer Jim) Steinman and Meat Loaf, from what I can remember, and the record company. That was their huge money-maker. You would have to ask the surviving members of that, more than me, but I just know that the business guys became distracted by the whole Meat Loaf thing, the whole negative thing with Meat Loaf. Three of the guys in our band headed for the hills, and that was pretty much it.
Q: Headed for the hills? Do you mean you kind of split between two factions in the group?
A: (Bassist) Art Nardini and I, it was really our baby. The other guys came in along the way, and I don’t think they had quite as much dedication to the cause as we did, in the long run. When we were there doing it, there were no problems. But trying to maintain it was a struggle. We were so acclaimed critically that it was almost ridiculous, and there was such a disconnect between our critical claim and our commercial success that it became, I guess, too frustrating for some of those guys.
Q: Mick Ronson is, I think, someone who people know mainly as a guitarist. Obviously, he has some incredible credits as a guitarist. You don’t really think of him as a producer. But he was, I guess, kind of the main producer of this album, would you say?
A: It’s hard to say who the main producer was. It’s quite a unique story. Everybody had their hands in a different spot. Ian (Hunter), Mick (Ronson) and Steve Van Zandt were all really, really close to Steve Popovich. We were newcomers to the music business, let’s put it that way. We had recorded the first record, (1979’s) Love So Tough, and it was really recorded piecemeal. Some nights, we’d play Thursday night in Pittsburgh, drive to Cleveland Friday morning, record for a couple of hours, then play Friday night in Pittsburgh. There was no continuity between sessions. They were piece by piece, over an extended period of time. But never more than one day at a time. And basically just transferring what we were playing onstage to vinyl. We obviously tried to tighten it up a bit. But the first record was so well received that Greil Marcus wrote a rave review about it (in Rolling Stone) and enabled us to go in and record the second record under much better circumstances.
We demoed all the songs that we were thinking of using. You hear a lot of that on the bonus CD. Then we went to New York and had a week of rehearsals at SIR Studios, and then after that we were booked into Media Sound (Studios), We had a buyout, so we could record as long as we want. I think we had 5, 6, 7 days, initially. So it was a whole different ball of wax.
One day Steve (Popovich) showed up with Mick Ronson. It was probably the first day of rehearsal. And then one day he showed up with Steve Van Zandt. And they worked with us, usually separately. Popovich was overseeing the whole process at the time, but Steve Van Zandt would work on the arrangements, and work with the band on some stuff, and then Mick Ronson would work on the other stuff.
And at the same time, Steve (Van Zandt) was working on The River with Bruce. Media Sound was at 57th Street, I believe, and the Power Station, which was where The River was being recorded, was a couple of blocks down. So Steve would often leave us and go work with Bruce. At some point, Steve bowed out, and then Ian Hunter, who was on Cleveland International at the time, started working with us, with Ronson. So it was quite a cast of characters. But Steve Popovich was the ringmaster. He juggled all the balls and kept everything afloat. He kept everybody happy with the whole situation.
Q: And all of this just took a week?
A: We did pre-production for a week and then we had a buyout for about a week. And Steve Van Zandt was there … I can’t even remember how long. It’s been 40 years. But he was there for a while, and then he left to work on The River, and I think Hunter started showing up more then. Ian wasn’t there initially, but he started coming. And then Hunter and Ronson stayed to the end, and Mick became the de facto producer for the whole thing, because he stayed through all the mixes.
Q: Is it possible to say what effect those guys had on your sound, and then sound of the album?
A: A tremendous effect. We were a great local band. We had a sound that was a little different than the New Jersey guys and the English guys. But we related to them. I was a big Mott the Hoople fan. I was a big Southside (Johnny) fan. I was a big Bruce (Springsteen) fan, a David Bowie fan. So we were familiar with all their work. And I was not as studio-savvy at the time. We recorded Love So Tough piecemeal, and I only had eight songs to my writing credit, at the time.
So just working with those guys … they were studio-savvy, they would deconstruct our songs at a moment’s notice, which drove me a little insane because I was so sensitive. In those days, if someone didn’t like one of your songs it was like saying, “Your kid’s ugly.” So I was sensitive to the fact that some of the stuff that I thought was really great, they were just ripping to shreds. And other stuff, they just tweaked it to make sure we were playing it better for when the tape was running, because we were a live band, but recording in the studio and performing live is two different animals. So we were following their advice on how to record some of these songs, and they were getting a better sound. I still think the record sounds great today.
So it was like going to college, for me. I didn’t miss a moment of it. I stayed through every overdub, everything everybody did. I was really serious about learning how to record, and how to write, and how to arrange. So it was a great experience for me.
Q: Another influence I was wondering about, that you didn’t mention … when I listened to it, it really reminded me of Graham Parker & the Rumour. Were they an influence on you at that point?
A: I was a huge music fan, so I was familiar with everybody. We used to get all the comparisons thrown at us. Some people compared us to The Clash. Some people, to Bruce — all the time. Some people compared us to Elvis Costello. Some, to Graham Parker. And those were basically the people we were listening to. But I like to think that, being a certain age, we had the same type of roots as those guys. You could tell we listened to the same music, and that informed our playing and writing style. We all grew up in the ’60s, when it was a lot more universal. You liked the same people. And then in the ’70s, when Parker and those guys were getting hot, I could relate to them, specifically, because I knew where they were coming from.
Q: Your voice reminds me of (Parker’s) voice, in some way. There’s just a similar tone, or something.
A: Well, you know, I never started out to be a singer, so I was learning how to sing those days, myself. I was happy just being a guitar player. Not even a lead guitar player. I just wanted to be a rhythm guitar player. And at some point, I realized that there are a million better guitar players than I am, and I thought my true talent, if I had any, would be in songwriting. So when the Iron City Houserockers finally did form, and we started getting serious about doing stuff, that was it for me. I was concentrating on writing.
Q; The bonus tracks … are we hearing pretty much what was in the vaults, or did you work with them and clean them up?
A: No, I didn’t. There’s no multitracks. They’re all off of cassettes — mainly off of cassettes, and a couple of old reel-to-reel quarter-track that I just had laying in boxes in my basement for 40 years. Nothing was remixed. I wouldn’t even know where the tapes are. They were just transferred to digital. I actually could have done two or three bonus discs. But a lot of the material was the same. I just tried to pick out the best version of the song. My son, Johnny, and our soundman, Brian Coleman, were really instrumental in putting that whole thing together, picking what songs we should put on, and which versions of the songs. The big thing is we were able to transfer everything to digital. And from the cassettes and everything, we had it remastered. But probably 60 or 70 percent of it is just from old cassettes, believe it or not. The worst-sounding source you can have!
Q: Well, people don’t expect great sound on demos.
A: Right, they’re demos. I remember “Have a Good Time,” specifically, we played that one time, and recorded it, before the recording sessions. That was one song that was just, basically, on tape. A couple of the other ones, we had been playing live, because we put out our first record in late April of ’79 and, of course, our luck was, we put it out right in the middle of a gas shortage. I don’t know if you remember this, but you could only get gas on the days your license plate ended on. So it pretty much killed any kind of significant touring we could do. And then I had a health scare. I had a tumor I had to get removed from my throat. So I was down about six weeks. So by October, we were done with Love So Tough. That was a very short period of time. But we had gotten the go-ahead to record a new record, so when I was laid up, recovering, I wrote a lot. And then some of the songs I had written in that period, we started playing them out in some of the bars. We played the bars for a month or two … we never took time off. I mean, this whole thing now, this COVID-19, is killing me, because we work constantly at something. So we were recording and writing and demoing at the same time we were playing, like, three, four or five nights a week, sometimes.
Q: And then I guess when the album came out, it was the same as with the first album: You got great reviews but that didn’t translate to big record sales or anything like that.
A: No, but it opened a lot of doors for us. We started playing better gigs. We did The Bottom Line in New York. We had a lot of celebrities come watch us play. Pink Floyd, Neil Young. And then we were able to get an agent and get some better gigs. It put us on the map, too, and I made some lifelong connections. Steve Van Zandt, and I met Bruce from Steve working on this record. And I’m still in touch with Ian. It gave us a legitimacy that a bunch of guys who started in my basement in Pittsburgh maybe didn’t have, before.
We were a serious band: People took us seriously. If you listen to it now, the record still sounds great, and some of the songs feel like they could have been recorded yesterday. And the subject matter hasn’t changed that much
Q: And “Pumping Iron” is still your signature song, or certainly one of them.
A: Yes, that’s my signature song, just about.
Q: So did Van Zandt ever say, “Come with me and watch a River session,” or anything like that?
A: I went down one night with Mick Ronson. Mick Ronson was working on the Meat Loaf followup at the Power Station. So I went down one night. And that’s where I initially met Bruce. But I didn’t go into the studio with him.
Q: Did you feel a kinship immediately with him?
A: Yeah, we did. When the record finally came out, Bruce told one magazine that he was a huge fan of it. It opened a lot of doors for us. Like I said, I still have connections, to this day. Steve Popovich’s son is releasing this, the new one. And Bruce and I have been friends for years and got really closer when he produced (1995’s) American Babylon, and I’m still friends with Steven (Van Zandt) and, like I said, Ian. And it established me. I was able to sustain some kind of career, anyway, through all the ups and downs we had.
I probably would have had a more lucrative career if I would have stayed with some of that stuff, but I’m not a backward-looking person. This is the longest stretch of time working on something that was old, but this record certainly deserved the time and effort that went into it, this time.
I never had a solid business organization behind me after the whole Cleveland International stuff, so just being able to have this conversation about this album, 40 years later, is an achievement.
Q: Would you consider it the favorite of your albums?
A: It’s one of the favorites. You know, I’ve been doing these Wednesday night things (live streams on Facebook) and going through my songbook, and realizing how many songs I have, and how many albums I’ve made. I’m pretty happy with most of my output, through the years, but there’s a couple of records that I think are maybe a little bit better than the other ones, that capture the time and the place a little more vividly. And we never had a budget to do much … American Babylon was the last time we had a budget to do anything that was significant (production-wise). Most of the records were on a shoestring budget. So over the years, all of the skills that we acquired — doing this record and especially the next one (in 1981), with Steve Cropper (producing), Blood on the Bricks — we were able to apply to what came after that. It taught us how to be efficient in the studio, and how to construct songs. All that kind of stuff.
Q: So besides the Wednesday night shows, are you working on any new material these days?
A: Well, actually we just started recording a new record, and we’re three tracks into it. I was really excited about it when all this (the coronavirus) hit, and I got shut down. But I’ve got three songs in the can I’m really happy with.
Q: Can you work on the rest of it remotely, with the guys?
A: It’s hard to do. The new record we were working on, we were rehearsing and recording with the band, kind of throwing back to the old days: Everybody looking at each other in the face, rolling the tape as we played the song. But hopefully we’ll get back to that before too long.
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