Buffalo Tom go underground; Brad Delp does the Beatles
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
This time last year, Boston's Buffalo Tom were preparing to take an indefinite
leave of absence. The good but not great reception they'd gotten from the album
they'd put out the previous year, 1998's Smitten (A&M), was a
factor, and then in the wake of the Seagrams/PolyGram merger (which essentially
eliminated A&M by paring down its roster and putting the remaining artists
under the control of Interscope), the trio were in label limbo. Besides, it had
been a decade since Buffalo Tom had debuted, with a homonymous album on SST,
and though the band had sustained a moderate level of success throughout the
'90s, they'd reached a plateau somewhere just shy of the elusive national-hit
single that can turn a regular-guy rock band like, say, the Goo Goo Dolls into
rock stars. It wasn't quite the end of the line, but you sensed that the end
might be close.
And then something strange happened -- Buffalo Tom scored the biggest hit of
their career. The song was a cover that they'd recorded two years earlier for
the Jam tribute album Fire & Skill: The Songs of the Jam (see page
26 for Mark Woodlief's review of the album). The Buffalo Tom track, "Going
Underground," had been chosen as the disc's single and shipped off to British
radio stations, where it immediately went into heavy rotation. By the summer of
'99 it was sitting pretty at #6 on UK charts.
"That's so typical for us," singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz notes over a beer at
the Middle East. "It's Spinal Tap again, the fictionalized story of Buffalo
Tom. You step out of yourself and that's what sells. And it was a very odd kind
of success -- it's one thing to have a hit with a cover song, but this one
wasn't on any of our albums, so it didn't help our catalogue sales. And the
song was so atypical for us soundwise as well."
If you've heard the original "Going Underground," you can easily imagine
Buffalo Tom playing it. The Jam's version is a loud and desperate three-piece
rocker, just the kind of thing that Buffalo Tom specialize in. So the big
surprise is that they chose to redefine the song instead: Janovitz's vocal is
appropriately Weller-esque, but the instrumental setting is transformed into
something softer and more sinister. Working with producer Wally Gagel, they
built the track around drum loops layered with chorus harmonies (by Fuzzy's
Chris Toppin), acoustic strums, and only a few hints of electric guitar. It's
the step outside the usual Buffalo Tom formula that they didn't quite make on
Janovitz admits that "Going Underground" wasn't the band's first choice, but
"That's Entertainment" and "English Rose" had already been taken. And he says
that they their first attempt was a more straightforwardly faithful version of
the tune. "We originally recorded it at the Fort and played it very much like
the Jam. We thought it was different enough, but it wasn't. It came out like a
lot of tributes, like a slightly weaker version of the original. When we did
the second version, Wally made a drum loop and Tom [Maginnis] played drums over
it. What we did was strip away a lot of the angst and put the pop forward. And
it's a real classic, Brill Building-type song with chorus, verse, modulation up
to a key change. It amazes me that Weller was only 20 when he wrote it."
Of course, even Weller's diehard fans probably couldn't make out all the words,
and Janovitz was no exception. "I didn't realize what the lyrics were before we
recorded it, but it's a very '80s mishmosh of issues. Some of those lines are
really dated, like `Nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes.' But there were a lot
of bands writing call-to-arms songs at that time, like the Alarm were, and
`Going Underground' is certainly in that spirit. When I was growing up, I
always heard it as an English slice-of-life, like it was about going on the
Buffalo Tom have played "Going Underground" in concert only a few times, toward
the end of their last American tour and in a London gig while the single was
hot. "It was funny, when we did it in London there was no discernible reaction
-- it was mostly just people yelling for songs from Birdbrain and our
first album. It was the diehard fans that came out, so we didn't wind up
attracting teenage girls like we were hoping."
Although it would be good to report that this left-field hit has given Buffalo
Tom a new lease on life, the band are still going on hiatus, which is usually a
gentle way of saying they're breaking up. But Janovitz isn't certain:
"Personally I have no intention of breaking the band up. There's no reason to.
We all like each other. But after 13 years and six records, we needed to step
outside the cycle. And I can't say with 100 percent certainty that everyone
will still want to get back together after the next couple of years."
Aside from playing solo shows, which he has done from time to time over the
past couple of years, Janovitz now has two other bands going. The Bathing
Beauties began as a for-fun outlet for Janovitz, Fuzzy's Chris Toppin, producer
Paul Kolderie, and former-Juliana-Hatfield/current-Tanya-Donelly bassist Dean
Fisher. They originally intended just to perform cover tunes in a country vein.
But the Beauties, who played a couple of weeks ago at the Abbey Lounge and will
be playing again tonight (February 3) at the Middle East at a benefit for
Helium drummer Shawn Devlin, have started writing their own songs and recording
demos, two signs that they've begun to take the band seriously.
Janovitz has also put together a full-time rock band (name yet to be
determined) with former Letters to Cleo drummer Tom Polce, former Jen Trynin
bassist Josh Lattanzi, one-time Gang Green guitarist Mike Earls, and latter-day
Buffalo Tom keyboardist Phil Aiken. They're currently working on songs that
otherwise would have been on the next Buffalo Tom album, and Janovitz imagines
that they'll probably record an album's worth of material later this year. He
looks at it as a chance for him to try some things that he didn't have a chance
to do with Buffalo Tom. "It will allow me to go outside the paradigm. Buffalo
Tom was a democracy, and some of the songs that would have pushed us in another
direction didn't get agreed on. I know that sounds negative, but it's just the
way bands work -- to move an inch we had to aim a yard."
Bassist/singer Chris Colbourn is more optimistic about the band's future. In
fact, he's hoping to talk Janovitz and Maginnis into playing some shows when
Beggars Banquet releases a Buffalo Tom singles compilation late this spring. As
for the feeling that they're on the verge of a break-up, "Hey, I've felt that
way since Birdbrain came out in 1990, but I'd never say never to
anything. To me it's still the ideal relationship to be working with these
guys, because they bring so much to the table. We've been playing the same
music since we were kids, and that's what I think we'll continue to do."
Although Colbourn has a lot of material stockpiled, he's saving it for the
band. The one major outside project he has planned is incidental music for a
production of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana to be produced
later this year by the Peabody Theater Company -- the same troupe that Fuzzy
wrote music for last year. But he's not itching to do a solo album, even though
his song "Rachael" was Buffalo Tom's last hit. He has, however, been very
understanding about the feeling in the band that it was time to take a break in
the wake of Smitten and the expiration of their contract with Beggars
"That whole year surrounding Smitten was just too difficult because
people had things going on in their lives, there were babies being born
[Janovitz and Maginnis both had children last year]. Other than that, there was
nothing positive about it. But I see our co-op going on; the music business has
never been a big part of it anyway. The other guys feel that you need to
distance yourself before you get back on the high wire, and I'm totally in
support of that. But we're still really young, and we're at the point where we
still have a long way to go."
Beatle Juice are without doubt the only Beatles tribute
band to be fronted by a guy who was at one time selling more records than the
Beatles. Formed by a bunch of North Shore band guys who double as big-time
Beatles nuts, this has been Boston singer Brad Delp's regular outfit for the
past six years. And it's a safe bet that Beatle Juice have now played more gigs
than the stage-shy Boston ever did.
Sure, it sounds weird on paper, but the band have become a real pleasure -- and
not even a guilty one. Although they follow the arrangements to the letter,
they sound more energetic than the average tribute band -- all these folks have
been playing clubs for years (drummer Muzz and bassist Joe Halladay are
long-time Fools), and they get a tangible kick out of the material. And if you
have any classic-rock consciousness, you've got to appreciate Delp's
still-potent voice taking on the Fab Four. He can't help sounding like himself,
even when he's doing Ringo. Oh, and it goes without saying that the songs are
So far the audiences seem to be down with the concept. At a sold-out show at
Johnny D's last month, I heard many shouts for Beatles tunes but none for "More
Than a Feeling." "I was a little worried at first that people would come
expecting to hear Boston tunes," Delp explains over the phone. "Mainly because
I didn't want them to come away disappointed. When we first started playing, at
Bleachers in Salem, we didn't mention anybody in the band. And since Boston
never did any videos, I don't think they knew me from anyone else. They just
liked hearing the songs, and only a couple people came to me and said, `Aren't
you in another band?'
"I consider this more a hobby than a job. I was singing in cover bands long
before Boston, and the Beatles were a big part of that. Doing some of these
songs makes me feel like I'm 15 again. And since Boston is notorious for not
playing, this gives me the feeling of keeping my hand in, the sense of being a
working musician. But we all get excited about this -- [keyboardist] Steve
Baker is the kind of guy who'll call up everybody in the band because he just
figured out how to get the right cello sound on `I Am the Walrus.' "
With about 100 songs in their repertoire, Beatle Juice are roughly halfway
through the Beatles repertoire. They've even done "Free As a Bird" on occasion.
"The amazing thing is that if you look at the Beatles catalogue, they did most
of it between 1964 and '69. And that's less time that it took Boston between
Don't Look Back and Third Stage."
Meanwhile, Boston leader Tom Scholz is now midway through a new album and
aiming for summer release. "You can ask how it's going and the honest answer is
I don't know," Delp admits. "I'll go in and sing a part, then five weeks later
he'll say, `I have a different idea of how this chorus is gonna go.' "
Delp was notably absent on the last Boston album, but on the new one he'll sing
alongside latter-day replacement Fran Cosmo. "We have a mutual-admiration
thing. And I'm glad to have Fran on stage, because he can do all the high notes
on `More Than a Feeling.' It's easier for me to sing Beatles songs than Boston
songs, because most of the Beatles songs don't go above a B. With Boston I can
still get most of the parts, but there's times I have to pay for all the
showing off I did when I was 24."