Graded on a Curve:
Groovy Neighborhood

Some bands beat around the bush in communicating what makes them hypothetically so special, offering a slow smoldering come on ala the archetypal filmic femme fatale. Not Pianosaurus. On the back cover of their 1987 LP Groovy Neighborhood the trio’s boldest attribute is specifically and succinctly stated: “All sounds produced on real toys.”

And New York City’s Pianosaurus was a band as a concept with no need for gradual unpacking. If rock ‘n’ roll is kid’s stuff, or at least was once upon a time, then it makes a certain kind of warped sense to approach it with the imaginative tools of children, those playthings intended to be cast aside long before the final stages en route to full-blown adulthood.

To play willfully with toys as an adult is a potentially subversive and even transgressive activity, but paradoxically playing rock ‘n’ roll on toy instruments produces just the opposite effect, perhaps because the rock impulse is so easily absorbed as a statement of nonconformity or at least of stunted growth or arrested development.

Pianosaurus consisted of Alex Garvin, Bianca “Flystrip” Miller, and Stephen Dansiger; Garvin handled toy guitar, lead vocals and songwriting, Miller lent the music crucial spice via half-pint piano and organ, and Dansiger manned the mini drum sets. The group released a pair of persistently elusive live tapes (that is, I’ve never heard ‘em) recorded in NYC clubs Folk City and The Speakeasy before logging some fruitful studio time with Peter Holsapple from The DB’s in the producers seat. Groovy Neighborhood was the result.

It seems redundant to write that nobody else sounded like Pianosaurus, but it’s a fact that still bears stating mainly because Groovy Neighborhood’s songs rely so strongly on well established, some might even say hackneyed models; on one hand they’re flagrantly original, on the other they indulge tendencies and examine territory somewhere between the sincerely homespun and the inescapably cute. This is perhaps why the music continues to stand up as much more than just a curio a quarter century later. If nobody has followed in the band’s footsteps it’s partially down to the tracks they left behind leading unmistakably away from any momentary cutting edge.

And if guilty of cute, the songs aren’t twee or childlike (beyond the obvious, natch) or for that matter are not even accurately described as children’s music, though Pianosaurus are one of the few bands recommendable to ears from eight short months to eighty-eight long years. Part of the reason is subject matter and the music’s unavoidably gentle touch; these toys can only make so much noise, so vocalist Garvin has no need to strain or shout. Instead, he emotes with an even, calm tone that recalls the more polite side of yesteryear’s urban folk movement, particularly as articulated through the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian.

If the essence of city-folk is the explicit topic of “The Speakeasy Song,” the rest of the record smartly sidesteps any too overt connection with that very specific scene. One avenue in avoidance of pigeonholing is the appearance of judicious cover material, of which Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” is the first. And anyone that’s followed that chestnut’s lyrics to their punch line should gather that Pianosaurus are having a bit of fun with their whole concept; picture Garvin relating Marie’s age inappropriateness while plucking a ukulele-sized axe as Miller plink-plonks alongside and Dansiger patters upon a Fraggle Rock drum kit.

But that persistent plink-plonking of Miller is maybe the biggest part of what makes the heart of Groovy Neighborhood beat with such enduring verve. Strumming and singing alone, Alex Garvin is the stuff of an inoffensive open mike night. Add in Dansiger and things are halfway out of the coffeehouse but not quite into the nightclub. Bianca Miller’s fingers are the ingredient that brings everything together into a fully formed, warmly eclectic vision. It sounds unusual, but never unsettling, turning a frankly unpromising tune like “Ready to Rock” into something really singular, and in the process making clear the song’s title is far from ironic.

To be clear though, what Pianosaurus plays doesn’t comfortably translate to nightclub stages, or at least to the rock venues I’ve frequented over the years. It goes without saying that the music lacks “bottom end,” but more importantly nothing in their sound could really overcome a large group of indifferent socialites, much less a crowd turned hostile.

And both of the band’s live tapes were sourced from folk-centric locations, where I’m positive they were treated with respect and went down a storm. But much of their appeal feels connected to the art-music scene that flourished in Gotham’s underbelly throughout the ‘80’s second half, and maybe Stephen Dansiger’s membership in the early, best incarnation of Shimmy Disc’s art-rock/poetry titans King Missile (Dog Fly Religion) adds to this relationship.

But Groovy Neighborhood was made at Water Music Recorders in Hoboken, NJ, a fact that caused this writer to erroneously consider Pianosaurus to be a Jersey band for something close to a decade. That’s because they really seemed like just the trio to quiet down and charm the trousers right off a crowd jam-packed to full capacity in the legendary Maxwell’s while Glenn Mercer and Ira Kaplan hung in the back like local champs. And I wouldn’t necessarily bring up this point, but it leads to another salient observation regarding missed opportunity.

You see, the sole studio slab by Pianosaurus was released by Rounder Records out of Cambridge, MA, a truly splendid label any way it’s sliced, but maybe in retrospect not the best outfit for bringing this band’s wares to market. Methinks they would’ve been a great fit for Glenn Morrow’s then fledgling imprint Bar/None, and indeed Bianca Miller did have a solo track “Sushi Baby” on an early sampler from that very label titled Time for a Change.

But my intention isn’t to be a Monday morning quarterback. Rounder released the LP and a swell job they did too, even getting Gibson Bros. member Don Howland to write some insightful liners. And they were all set to put out the follow up Back to School, but according to Holsapple, Garvin disappeared with the tapes, never turning in the final mixes to the label. And that’s a stone drag, since by the indications of the few people to have heard it the record was a fine continuation of Groovy Neighborhood’s infectious likeability. I’d love to have the opportunity to hear it for myself.

Many people know this band through their cinematic appearance performing the song “Back to School,” not in the Rodney Dangerfield starring opus of the same name but in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed segment of the ‘80’s omnibus film New York Stories, where they also appeared on the soundtrack. And while I enjoy sharing this tidbit of trivia with associates who cock an ear of deep appreciation toward Pianosaurus, it also leaves a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

For it emphasizes with stinging clarity that a cameo in Hollywood movie is no insurance against the clutches of history’s cruel dustbin. Though it’s not really accurate to call Pianosaurus a forgotten or lost band (Groovy Neighborhood is widely available on streaming sites), due to the nagging absence of those live tapes and a second album that essentially doesn’t exist, they are sadly and shabbily summarized far too often as a mere novelty act.

Well, to counter a volley, that’s pure baloney. To be sure, Pianosaurus start with a gimmick but then proceed to transcend it with ease. They don’t cause a listener to forget for a second what’s flowing through their ears, that these are surely grownups playing fully-formed tunes on little kid instruments with an abundance of gusto; rather they inspire them to relish that the experience at hand can be so legitimate and so much fun simultaneously.

But the way they turn in a positively cooking cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” is also illustrative. For the group securely outclasses the vast batch of overdressed, note-obsessed authenticity-plagued pikers I’ve endured over the decades murdering Hooker’s music in the name of the “blues,” and they do it on freaking toys.

Back to School would be a great find for one of our currently thriving reissue labels, like for just one example Light in the Attic. Here’s hoping. But until that time there’s Groovy Neighborhood, truly one-of-a-kind and yet guaranteed to quickly spill out like a bunch of swell stories spun from the heart and mind of an old dear friend.

Graded on a Curve: B+

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  • Pianosaurus Fan

    The worlds’s best toy instrument Orchestra paying tribute to Pianosaurus – see the first song:


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