Saturday, February 03, 2007

Recently Noted in the Blogosphere: Shoes and 20/20

Thers tipped me off to this post at John & Belle Have a Blog:

When It Hits
JBB readers take note: you can buy the first two Shoes albums (Present Tense and Tongue Twister) on iTunes for only $9.99! "When It Hits" is one of my favorite songs ever. But why don't they have the re-release of 20/20's two LPs? The CD is out of print, but why should iTunes care about that? I really don't see what the barrier could be, and it's not as if the record company is making money off the pricey resales.

As I understand it, one has to "apply" to be carried by itunes, and it's rather a lengthy process for independent bands. (I have a friend who bitched nonstop the whole time.) Basically, even though itunes is only providing storage space and bandwidth, they want to be sure that someone out there wants to download your album. There's a certain logic to it, though of course the economics of digital music are completely different, since there's no manufactured "product" per se, just the intellectual property and a bunch of bytes.

The real distinction between Shoes and 20/20 is legal, however. Shoes signed with Elektra in the spring of 1979 not as a band, but as a production team, which gave them final control over pretty much everything. (They were able to swing this, of course, because their demo, the critically aclaimed Black Vinyl Shoes, was a DIY operation from start to finish: they had proven themselves as producers.) In addition, Shoes had a pretty unusual clause in their contract: if Elektra ever let their records go out of print, rights reverted to the band. (It's a sign of the high expectations for Shoes tht Elektra agreed to this deal.) They did, and they did, so now the members of the band, all ensconced in regular life in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, own their own stuff. Dealing with itunes, then, was a matter of them contacting Apple and making the application and arrangements.

I don't know as much about 20/20's legal status (because there's not a book, and I don't have a regular correspondent from that band, though Chris Silagyi commented here a couple of weeks ago and maybe he can fill us in), but I would be very surprised if they had the kind of control Shoes did over their own material, either initially, or in its afterlife. Remember that Shoes came in from outside the system--they were never really an LA band, except fot that brief period during the recording of Tongue Twister. Not so with 20/20.

Steve Allen and Ron Flynt had been childhood buds in Tulsa--they played Little League together (which isn't to say that Shoes weren't--John Murphy and Gary Klebe met in high school and became fast friends, founding a satirical magazine together before there was a band) and then music. They had a band by sixth grade. They went on to Oklahoma State together (another parallel--John and Gary trekked off to the University of Illinois around the same time).

Flynt and Allen eventually went to college at OSU in Stillwater, but Allen dropped out and moved to L.A. to pursue a record contract, following the example of Tulsans Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour, who had just scored a hit in 1975 with "I'm on Fire."

By the time Allen scored his own record deal, for a single on Bomp Records, Flynt and a whole bunch of OSU/Tulsans had moved to L.A., so Allen got both Flynt and Phil Seymour to play on what became the "Giving It All" single (which can be found on Rhino's Shake It Up! -- American Power Pop II CD with 20/20 on the cover). By this time, Mike Gallo had been recruited for the live act, and the band was officially christened 20/20.

The band's first L.A. gig was at the Whiskey (with gear borrowed from Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos). 20/20 already had two multi-instrumentalists, but wanted an extra musician on stage, so they auditioned Peter Case, who had just left the Nerves; he opted out after a single rehearsal to form a band where he would be the only singer-songwriter, the Plimsouls. Chris Silagyi was recruited on guitar and keyboards instead. 20/20 soon started getting regular gigs at the Whiskey, Starwood, and Madame Wong's. In fact, 20/20 was one of the bands that started that whole scene in L.A.

"There were no clubs for new bands to play in," explains Flynt. "Gary Valentine talked Esther Wong, owner of a Chinese restaurant called Madame Wong's, into letting his band play on a Tuesday night, and we played there the next Tuesday. We got to be really popular, and one night we got to meet Brian Wilson and Tom Petty, who'd come down to see us play; that was the first time we met Petty."

Petty and Seymour were best friends, the latter musician having done backing vocals and arrangements on Petty's first two hits, "Breakdown" and "American Girl."

"Tom came down to the sessions, and we met him again," remembers Flynt. "He would often be working in the studio next door. In fact, when we were recording my song 'Remember the Lightning,' which was a bit of an homage to/rip-off of 'American Girl,' he walked into the room. He just looked at me, smiled, and said, 'Sounds good, keep it up.' Of course, he thought it was cool. After all, he'd nicked the riff for his song from Bo Diddley."

Being "inside" the scene was undoubtedly a mixed blessing: it's probable that their deal was closer to a standard one, in which the company retains control of the material and essentially hires the band to write and record "for" them (see Fogerty, John). 20/20 was on Portrait (a sister label to Epic), and if Portrait owns those first two records, they'd be the ones to deal with itunes. But they've been subsumed into Epic, and thence into Sony/BMG. The fate of a small, critically acclaimed pop band probably isn't the first thing on their minds. It's a crime, but what can you do? (Another possibility: Oglio has released the dual disc John and Belle link to, as they did the two excellent 20/20 albums from the 90's, so it's possible they're the ones with licensing power now.)

That's probably more than anyone really wanted to know about this, but it does illuminate some of the issues of ownership and distribution that keep us from getting our music, even in this fabulous modern age of technology.

As Thers notes: "There's more than one of you, apparently." I always suspected as much.


Anonymous said...

There's a simple trick to it. Just a bit more than Frangelico and Vodka.

Chocolate Cake shots

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot NYmary; that was really informative. keep rocking that power pop.