The music of NRBQ is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great paradoxical pleasures. How can a band this accessible and joyous be banished to the musical fringe? It’s a true stumper. But if widespread success was denied them, the group endured and excelled through relentless bar gigs, college radio play, and via the persistent word of mouth of the converted. Their early days found them hopping labels only to be dumped after disappointing sales, but instead of quitting they smartly decided to put out their own records. 1977’s All Hopped Up was the first, and for new listeners it makes a fine introduction.
Their name originally stood for the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet. Formed by guitarist Steve Ferguson, pianist Terry Adams, drummer Tom Staley, bassist Joey Spampinato (aka Jody St. Nicholas), and vocalist Frank Gadler, they combined a stylistic eclecticism—the titular R&B, rockabilly, early Brit-invasion pop, jazz, and even more into a highly potent and easily digestible brew. But if possessive of an unusual level of diversity, constant factors were also at play. Foremost was a lighthearted sincerity regarding the love of their shared influences, but NRBQ are also one of the least egocentric bands, both musically and in terms of personality, to ever span decades of neglect.
They came together in Florida but moved to New York City where they quickly gathered steam, even playing Fillmore East, and eventually found themselves signed to Columbia Records. This resulted in a truly swell self-titled debut in ’69 that didn’t sell squat. And that’s not really a surprise; if the Q’s long-term lack of a wide following is hard to fathom, in the year of Woodstock they weren’t exactly the height of trendiness. What to make of a group that covered Eddie Cochran, Sun Ra, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Bobby Channel’s oldies station rotation warhorse “Hey Baby” all on the same album? The high number of covers alone was a little divergent from the era’s norm of boldfaced originality.
Well, Columbia had money to make so they thought it a good idea to capitalize on the growing interest in early R&R, putting the band in the studio with Sun Records rockabilly great Carl Perkins for a collab. And y’know, ‘twas a good idea; I’d go so far as to call it a great one. If Perkins was a few years past his shelf life as a true rocker, then it made a certain sense to pair his still worthy essence with some young upstarts that were actually touched by the lean sound the man pioneered. Boppin’ the Blues is a quirky little record however, one that’s inspired wide-ranging opinions over the years, and it ultimately sold no better than the previous NRBQ slab.
Exit Steve Ferguson and enter new guitarist Al Anderson, and exit Columbia and enter Kama Sutra, a label most famous for being the home of The Lovin’ Spoonful. It might seem odd that a company would take a chance with a group whose previous sales figures were so dismal, but back then stakes weren’t quite so high. And critical acclaim surely played a part; fans of the band had begun calling them “the world’s greatest bar band” and in some cases even crowning them as the best thing since The Beatles, so it’s unsurprising they got a second chance.
And Kama Sutra made for an interesting fit, for there is a casual similarity with the no-frills good-time music of the Spoonful. But a bigger connection in terms of throwback sensibility and lack of record sales would be with label mates The Flamin’ Groovies. But ‘72’s Scraps and the following year’s Workshop floundered on the retail front (though they did score their only appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timely “Get That Gasoline Blues” in ’74) and soon after they were once again without a label to call home.
But with the departure of drummer Staley (and singer Gadler), in came Tom Ardolino to fill the chair and in turn set the group’s most enduring lineup, lasting until 1994. They also formed their own Red Rooster label, having had enough of other’s commercial expectations; if the wider record buying public wasn’t interested in what NRBQ were offering, then it made perfect sense to just do it for themselves and their small but devoted (and growing) group of fans.
All Hopped Up was their first for Red Rooster, and its appearance in the year 1977 makes a certain kind of historical sense. If the global punk rock explosion announced in blunt, angry terms that a tide was changing, the release of NRBQ’s fifth LP fits easily into that timeframe as a much better behaved and far more musically astute fellow traveler, one that’s intentions weren’t to topple the musical hierarchy but instead were to just do their own sweet thing without any concern for the fickleness of being up-to-date. Indeed, All Hopped Up has long felt like a close sibling to the previous year’s Have Moicy! album from Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders et al, with both discs’ atmospheres of warm casualness feeling positively disconnected from the worst the late-‘70s marketplace had to offer.
I’m not suggesting that All Hopped Up is as grand an album as Have Moicy! No, the latter is flat-out perfect record (and one of this writer’s desert island discs), while the former is by comparison merely great. It starts off with a high-octane take of the ‘50s ripper “I Got a Rocket in my Pocket” from Jimmy Lloyd (né Logsdon), the song sounding like something they might’ve cut circa Boppin’ the Blues, and it’s sure to stoke anybody with a soft-spot for some well-executed neo-rockabilly action. Also sweet is the trombone of Donn Adams (Terry’s bro, who with Keith Spring comprised The Whole Wheat Horns), his blowing giving the tune just the right amount of the unorthodox.
And the Terry penned “It Feels Good” gives off some fine, lightly-Beatles tinged guitar pop vibes that really reinforce the inexplicability of the band never scoring a major hit. It’s pretty and yet instrumentally strong with a fantastic little solo flourish from Anderson, and the maturity of the songwriting and playing help it to linger beyond its deceptive surface insubstantiality. Just like the dozens of songs that served as the Q’s inspiration.
Next they wrestle with the old chestnut “Cecilia” and come up with a posh and fiery update on the jump-blues style, and from there they work out on some old barrelhouse R&B with a terrific cover of Kansas City titan Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush.” Coupled with the previous track, it provides a nice combo-punch of the band’s discriminating yet inclusive classicism, with the sequencing making clear that if eclectic, they were also pretty shrewd concerning how to best present their catalogue of facets.
Some harsh sticklers have occasionally harrumphed an unkind word or two about NRBQ’s unserious side, where a thick vein of often lowbrow humor wafts from songs that flirt with but (to my ear) always stop short of novelty. For those dour souls All Hopped Up is one of the group’s best outings, as they generally keep a straight face throughout. But of course not totally; “Call Him Off, Rogers” finds Adams’ relating a tale of canine aggression in a sideways-hillbilly style that succeeds because nobody forgets the musicianship. There’s Adam’s superb organ, more killer guitar from Anderson, Ardolino’s assertive but non-busy drumming, and when the horns come in it becomes plain that only the sourest of sorts would raise a disapproving remark.
Spampinato’s “Doctor’s Wind” shifts directions entirely. It’s essentially a tone-poem, though it’s also reminiscent of the late-‘50s work of Sun Ra. In lesser hands the nature of this sharp detour would simply fall flat (and it has), but again it’s about sincerity, and also like old man Whitman, these guys contain multitudes (and happily, their records feature no harmful contradictions).
Anderson’s “Ridin’ in my Car” is another exquisite Beatles-esque ditty, the quality of the tunesmithing on par with Costello’s work from the same period; the main difference is that the song here is reflective and just a touch bittersweet instead of pissed off. It’s a song so good they even released it as a single, but nobody…well, you know the rest. And “Things to You” manages to push a similar pop button, actually conjuring a cross between Randy Newman and early Todd Rundgren. Wow.
“Help Me Somebody” kicks up a nice little Doug Sahm-ish mess, though they leave the organ out of the equation, opting instead for a typically gorgeous solo from Anderson. Sly. From there “Still in School” is a descendent of the ‘60s followers of The Brothers Everly, “Queen Talk” is an up-tempo slice of out-of-date horn-laden pop that has vaudeville in its DNA, and “That’s Alright” even recalls the chiming folk-rock of the early Byrds. What a bunch of doozies. Things wrap up with a run-through of the theme from Bonanza with the wickedly wobbly horns of the Whole Wheats blowing up a storm.
Post All Hopped Up, NRBQ returned to the major label scene for one album with Mercury, the also excellent At Yankee Stadium, and then began a long, fruitful relationship between Red Rooster and the folks at Rounder. The albums starting pouring into the racks; they even knocked one out for Virgin (Wild Weekend), and got the obligatory anthology treatment from Rhino. Truthfully, they were so prolific that it was hard for all but the most dedicated to keep up.
But that’s a great thing, for if never a chart sensation it still means that through sheer productivity they touched a lot of people. Anderson left the band in ’94 for Nashville songwriting fame (replaced by Johnny Spampinato) and sadly Ardolino died earlier this year. The easiest route to hearing the early Q on vinyl would be the Sundazed reissues of Scraps and Workshop (and experiencing the sizzling non-LP Live at Ludlow Garage 1970 is basically a must), but for a taste of the Ardolino era, I recommend scouting the used bins for a copy of All Hopped Up. It’s the sound of four guys and a horn section making some of the purest American music ever waxed, and as such it’s surefire recipe for feeling good.
GRADED ON A CURVE: