Illinois power-pop: Where are they now?
The Numero Group has put together a killer comp of forgotten rock gems from the Land of Lincoln. We tracked down some of the creators to see where they are today.
MTV first shot across the airwaves on August 1, 1981. Everybody knows the first video played, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Nobody remembers the 23rd, “Too Late” by Shoes. Not too shabby for a little quartet from Zion, the last outpost of Chicago’s Northern Suburbs. Of course, the VJs had already popped in two videos by in-state rivals REO Speedwagon by that point. That’s the tragic tale of power-pop in a nutshell. In the ’70s and ’80s, a faction of rock acts like Shoes refused to let the happy harmonies of the Beatles die. Unfortunately, teenagers and radio programmers had moved on to the harder stuff—heavy metal and arena rock. When hooky locals Kevin Lee & Heartbeat opened for Iron Maiden at ChicagoFest 1982, Lee feared the leathered headbangers in the crowd would riot. This month, South Side record label the Numero Group harvests and reissues the cream of Illinois’s skinny-jeans crop with a new comp, Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago. We tracked down the creators of some almost-hits to ask, as a refrain by Tom Orsi goes on Buttons, “Where are you now?”
Kevin Lee & Heartbeat
Around the start of the Reagan administration, Rogers Park Records producer Freddie Tieken signed Kevin Lee, a young songwriter from Bloomington, and put his son, Steve Tieken, on drums. The elder Tieken recorded a single for the group, “Tonight,” in his basement studio.
Lee, who had been in bands since he was 11, was signed to MCA Records as a solo artist a decade later. He played before 25,000 people outside Detroit, a moment he considers his apex. But Lee doesn’t do much looking back. “I’ve been releasing new albums and touring nonstop since I was 18,” he says. The married 51-year-old works in a Chicago restaurant to supplement his ongoing career ambitions. He’s recording a new power-pop album, Breakout, to release in 2013.
The Vertebrats were a true college band: spawned in a university town, flamed out after just a handful of blurred years. The Illini foursome ran from 1979 to 1982, with two of them living together in an off-campus house in Champaign-Urbana. There, the band holed up for an entire weekend to learn enough material for their first “real” gig, playing three 45-minute sets at the legendary U. of I. bar Mabel’s. The ’Brats’ high-velocity tunes were pure anxiety and energy. In “Diamonds in the Rough (Nineteen),” singer Ken Draznik stresses out about the possibility of a draft as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. But you can dance to it.
“We had the most loyal and energetic fan base any band could ask for,” Draznik says, now married with two children in Palatine and working in marketing for a sports equipment manufacturer. “I miss playing for those people.”
The Numero Group releases Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago this week.
In 1973, John Murphy and high-school pal Gary Klebe formed a band; Murphy’s brother, Jeff, joined in ’74. Then they figured they needed to learn how to play some instruments. In 1977, the self-taught group recorded a cult classic, Black Vinyl Shoes, in the Murphy living room. Shoes signed to a major label, Elektra Records, and in 1983 opened for the Kinks at UIC Pavilion. Over four decades, and with a revolving door of drummers, Klebe and the Murphys have kept Shoes going, making more records independently, including the just-released Ignition. Today, all are in their fifties and living in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Klebe co-owns an office supply sales company, where John works in the graphics department. Jeff is a repair tech for a music store.
“There was a huge flow of new bands and most of what radio played was new music, every day,” Jeff says of the salad days. “It was inspiring, exciting and invigorating. It moved fast. You had to run to keep up with it all.”
On January 3, 1988, Dick Clark explains American Bandstand’s arcane 35 to 98 ratings scale to a teenage couple before they judge Julian Leal’s “Get Away.” The record plays. Girls with highly flammable hair and acid-washed jeans sway their hips and snap fingers to Leal’s chunky guitar chords and repeated shouts of “Hey!” The couple give the track an 82, higher than many songs on the show.
Leal, a “fortysomething” father, now lives in Plainfield and works as a contract specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Argonne National Lab. He has built a music room in his basement for his four children, who range in age from 9 to 15. “They jam often,” he says, “but have a long way to go.”