Still fuckin’ doing it: The Real Kids’ John Felice

Allow me to clarify one thing from the start—there are rock masterminds, there are Rock Masterminds, and then there’s John Felice.

By the age of nineteen, Boston-blooded Felice had not only formed the renowned Modern Lovers with next-door neighbor Jonathan Richman, but, following his departure, he had also laid the foundations for what was to become one of the most high-powered, balls-to-the-wall aggressive rock ’n’ roll bands to ever do it: The Real Kids.

Merging the lean, no-frills songwriting of the mid-’50s rock and rollers with the sheer energy of punk rock (though never mistake them for a punk group), the Real Kids stormed through the ’70s and into the early ’80s with a surefire combination of fabled, manic live performances and two altogether outstanding albums, the first being their immortal Red Star label debut, The Real Kids, and the latter being the no-less-excellent, though consequently overshadowed, Outta Place.

Naturally, in a world where the Misunderstood got ousted after recording six songs and Big Star couldn’t release an album without it getting shelved, widespread stardom sidestepped Felice and company. Though they amassed an unwavering European fanbase, one which continues to be fiercely devoted to the band, the Real Kids opted to hang ‘em up for a spell.

Which is not to say that Felice took anything close to a genuine hiatus. Following a series of one-off, incredibly obscure projects with the Lowdowns and the Devotions in the late ’80s and ’90s, Felice revived the legendary outfit, leading to an immediate return to raucous form. Between frequent touring and the long-awaited (something of an understatement) 2014 release of Shake Outta Control, a semi-follow-up to their original Red Star LP, the band continues to dish out some of the greatest rock ’n’ roll music in the known world.

On the heels of the latest of many European tours, set for France and Spain this time around, along with a new record due out sometime this summer (and another already in the works), Felice remains as occupied and prolific as ever. I caught up with him to discuss, well, a little bit of everything.

So first thing’s first, I’ve always found it strange that the word “punk” gets applied so often to most everything you’ve ever done, the first album in particular.

I’ve been dealing with that for a long time. We were called a punk rock band before it was ever a term you’d hear, before there was a punk rock movement. ’74 was the first time I heard it applied to us, and at that time, I don’t remember ever hearing of a punk rock scene even though I’d seen the Ramones in ’74. Nobody was calling it a punk rock scene. And then all of sudden people were calling us a punk band. I couldn’t understand it but I stopped fighting it after a while. The energy that punk bands have, I’ll take that, but it’s all the other shit, the political attitude, the fashion attitude, all the crap that seemed to go along with the punk rock scene. I could never relate to any of that stuff. But the energy? That I could relate to.

Look at the Stooges and the MC5. People like to say Iggy and Fred Smith and all of them, people try to say they were the first big punk heroes, as if they were trying to invent it.

Those guys had no idea what punk rock was. Even after it had been around for a few years, I don’t think those guys would’ve had a fucking clue, nor did they care. I don’t think they were trying to invent anything. I met Iggy a long time ago and he just seemed like a smarter-than-average, Midwestern kinda guy, whereas the others—I met Fred Smith and Scott Asheton when we played in Detroit in ’76. They were crazy motherfuckers, the kind of guys that would bite off the necks of beer bottles and shit, but they weren’t trying to be punk rockers or anything at the time. They were just crazy rock ’n’ roll guys. I don’t understand what that overriding need to label stuff is about. It doesn’t really serve a purpose to me. And most people get it all wrong [laughs].

For awhile, I actually did assume that you guys started up back in punk’s heyday in the late ’70s.

We really started going in ’74. We were playing gigs as fast as we could regularly. We tried to put the band together originally in ’73, but I was in the Modern Lovers until then. When I left, I started looking to sign some guys to play with and one thing led to another. We finally had some real structure. A set of guys was coming to all the practices, and things were really starting to come together.

When you were growing up in Boston, was it mostly a case of you and the guys heading down to the local record store to find the latest music, or were you also catching just about every rock ’n’ roll show in town?

I grew up in the suburbs just west of Boston Harbor, and there was a record store right at the top of my street and this incredibly cool old jazz musician ran the place. I knew that the Stooges’ first album was coming out and I put an order in, and this guy got it for me. That’s how cool it was to have a record store just up the street. Even out in the ‘burbs, it was just so neat to have a fuckin’ record store like that close by. I learned about a lot music through my next-door neighbor, Jonathan Richman. He would check things out and tell me about it first. I was getting Creem magazine and all those others that would give you an idea of what to be looking for in the record bins. You gotta remember the Kinks, the Beatles, the Troggs, and all those guys were releasing great records every six months or so. We were bombarded with that shit in the ’60s.

When I was fifteen, I left home and moved into Boston around Harvard Square, and there were tons of record stores in town. I was discovering all kinds of new music at the time, and it was still only 1970 then. There was so much to learn and find that there just weren’t enough hours in the day to take it all in. It drove me crazy because you wanted to be on top of everything but you just couldn’t. I did what I could though and hitting the record stores all the time was a big part of it. It’s sad now ‘cause we don’t have that whole idea of going to the record store and flipping through vinyl discs anymore. There was just something about the way they smelled, everything about it. I took it all for granted back then and I shouldn’t have.

There’s a special feeling to it. I’m still going to the few around these parts that are still in operation, but it’s nowhere close to as standard of a practice as it once was. On the topic of Boston’s rock ’n’ roll scene back in the ’60s, I’ve always dug the little name-checking, tribute section you threw in on “Better Be Good” from the first record. You gave some shout-outs to the Rockin’ Ramrods, the Pandas, the Remains. Did you actually get to see any of those guys do it back then?

No, but our producer Rick Harte saw all those bands live because they were all from the North Shore. It was name-checking [laughs], but those were our local heroes out here. If you were from Boston, they were the big deal.

The Remains are a favorite of mine. I tend to talk ad nauseam about the live album that was cut from the Capitol Records audition they did back in ’66.

They were such a great fuckin’ band. I have that album as well. It’s just incredible how good those guys were. They got such a good sound, and I was just so impressed with them. Like I said, they were local heroes. You looked up to them. I mean they got to open for the Beatles! Those were the guys who made it. Everybody knew who they were and rightly so. They weren’t a fly-by-night band, and for us around here, that was about as close to the real deal as you could possibly get.

How would you describe the gigs you guys were doing in the early days? Did it take very long for you to really click with Alpo, Billy, and Howie?

Those guys actually came around in February of ’76, but we did click instantly. They knew what they wanted to do. Billy and Allen had seen me play a gig with the New York Dolls, so they knew what we were about and what I was trying to do, and getting Howie to play drums was a big step forward in getting our sound together.

Did set lists mostly consist of old rock ‘n’ roll numbers from, y’know, the Chuck Berry’s and the Eddie Cochran’s at that point? I’m sure you guys were doing “Rave On” and “Roberta” long before the Red Star recording actually got going.

It was a different thing back then. You had to play four sets a night, so you needed a lot of material. It was kind of a prolific time for me, but I wasn’t that fucking good. I couldn’t come up with that many songs. We covered a bunch of our favorites like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the mid-’50s guys like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. You name it. What we tried to do was cover all kinds of shit. We were just doing everything we could. Covering those songs just helped inform us on how to get our own songs down. But we put our own stamp on the stuff that we did. We weren’t going to do a Fats Domino song and sound like Fats Domino. It was gonna sound like the Real Kids.

What kind of touring were you guys doing following that album’s release?

We didn’t do much. We toured around the States, up and down the East Coast and the Midwest. It took until about ’79 before we got out to California and the West Coast. Part of the reason why we left Red Star was because there was no backing behind us. We had no tour support in any way, and at that particular time, it was one of those things where if you were to take a gig, let’s say in a town like Cleveland or Columbus, the local radio stations wanted to know about label support.

Now, well, there is no radio anymore, but tour support was a real thing in the ’70s. It was an issue that came up all the time. We had no backing whatsoever. We knew it wasn’t going to be the same being on Red Star as if we had signed with Elektra or somebody like that, but we weren’t expecting nothing. We expected a little bit of support, so that’s why we just couldn’t stay with those guys and that’s a shame because we bought into that whole thing, y’know, Marty Thau’s vision for his label. We were really psyched to be a part of it and for us it just wasn’t meant to be.

Did you immediately cut ties with the label after the debut record?

It took a little while. We had a whole year of being on the label before we realized we were going nowhere. If we were going to do another record, we needed to find another label. It sucks because we had a bunch of new songs that were ready to come out, and those were the songs that we released three years ago on Ace of Hearts. That record is all songs that were supposed to be on our second Red Star record, for the most part. Thirty-odd years later, it was better late than never I suppose, but still a long time to wait.

And it kind of fucked everything up. That album became like a lost record and we were already onto a bunch of other new material that ended up being our second record, Outta Place. Again, things were changing. Independent labels were starting to get stuff played by college stations in the ’80s, and if you were going to a town you could get gigs in small clubs. And we did well in Europe when we went over there with nothing at all for support, and we continue to do pretty good over there.

And that’s where France comes in. Have you ever wondered why France of all places, is where your music got arguably its biggest following?

No idea. Spain and France really like rock ’n’ roll. I was really surprised when we went over there this past year. A ton of people came to see us back in ’83, and a lot of those same people turned up again thirty-three years later. I was surprised to see that many people from back in the old days.

Now you’ve got some more shows over there coming up in April. You’ve got some real diehard fans in those parts so any trip you guys can get in must be a real kick.

Yeah that seems to be what we’ve got. They love us over there so we should play over there as much as we can. It’s not as easy as it would’ve been thirty years ago. It’s really difficult to pack up a band and go on a European tour. When I was in my twenties and thirties, no problem. But now, being in my sixties, it’s a whole different thing. It’s a good thing that we have. We’ll still play as much as we can. We’ve got a new record that we just finished and we’ve already started putting together stuff for the next record that we’ll probably start recording when we get back from this tour. We’ll just keep going until we can’t. As long as Europe is where they want to see this, then that’s where we’ll have to concentrate on playing. In the States, it’s just a whole different animal. They don’t worry so much about labeling rock ’n’ roll in Europe if it’s good rock ’n’ roll. They understand it, and they don’t need to worry about labels and stuff.

As long as that keeps up, it seems we have a home over there. In the meantime, we’ll hope for the best in the states, maybe something will break but it’s been really difficult over here. You might know a lot more about what’s going on. I have yet to be able to decipher what the music scene is about in this country. I don’t know what people like anymore. We do what we do and as long as rock ‘n’ roll is popular over there, that’s where we’ll have to play.

You simply don’t hear, at least to a very noticeable extent, about as many up-and-coming bands making unadulterated, straight-up rock ‘n’ roll anymore, and as far as I can see, it appears almost out of some underlying fear of being derivative or simplistic that folks are usually aiming for a predominantly fusion-centric sound, never really committing to one form or another. When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, I think you’d agree that it’s that derivativeness and simplicity that led to such great music being made in the first place. The genre’s foundations, as in the Chuck Berry songbook, that’s what gave future musicians the perfect starting point.

Yeah it is derivative. Rock ’n’ roll, just by what it is, it’s derivative, and I can’t imagine it ever being anything but. That’s what you look for. Every band, every era, like the Beatles, they covered all the old girl groups, and both the Stones and the Beatles covered Chuck Berry songs. All those bands covered the guys that came before them and they just put their own little twist to it and left it for everyone down the road to decipher. You would have to be looking for trouble to call that bad, saying “Oh, well they’re not doing anything new.” Shit man, it’s rock ’n’ roll and you’re not supposed to think about it. You’re supposed to dance and move to it.

We’re still able to deliver, on our end, that kind of music to our fans. They want rock ’n’ roll played with that punk rock energy, even though it’s not punk rock. They want it played really in your face, and that’s what we do. That’s our little niche in the world and we’ve been able to do it for over forty-plus years. As long as we’re physically able to keep doing it, we’ll do it. If I had my choice, that’s all I would do is play rock ’n’ roll. It’s all I care about.

I’m grateful that there are still people out there who want to hear us. You always have that Spinal Tap kind of thing, looking over your shoulder. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to be a parody of yourself. When you’re in your sixties, I mean, rock ’n’ roll is a kids’ thing. The whole idea of working this shit out in your garage or basement when you’re in your teens, then getting signed to a crappy record contract, going out on the road and traveling the country in a van, sleeping on peoples’ couches. That’s what it’s all about, and it’s a young man’s game. We have to try to straddle the line. You gotta keep it real because people know when you’re not. They can see through a bullshit attempt at doing something, and that’s the last thing I want is to have our fans think we’re trying to pull something over them.

It’s amazing that it’s been forty years since that first record and yet here we all are, all the folks who still truly love rock ’n’ roll, still relying on you guys and bands like the Sonics, and all the original players from the ’60s and ’70s to keep it going.

I feel honored to be part of that crew. That’s a big part of it right there. I feel honored to be mentioned in the same sentence with a band like the Sonics, the people who are still fuckin’ doing it. They’re still going strong, and they’re just amazing. I want to just keep going as long as we can and keep making music that our fans will say, “This is what we want, and this is what we expect from the Real Kids.” You don’t want to do anything less. You don’t want to disappoint the kids that still dig it, and if you can pick up a bunch of new fans along the way…that’s the thing, when we came back to Europe, the people who saw us back in ’83, they were bringing their kids and grandkids to gigs. It’s a whole different thing over there. It was a real trip. I do feel honored that our fans are so loyal to us. They’re so diehard these guys. We’re really lucky.

I don’t suppose you’ve seen some of the online footage they have of the Real Kids doing the Bataclan in Paris way back when.

Yeah I’ve seen it. We were a lot younger back then but we still—look, I’d be the first person to tell you if we couldn’t do it the way we’ve done it all along, if we couldn’t rock out as good as we used to, then I’d say we gave it our best. You don’t want to do a watered-down version. Our fans, as much as they love us, they’ll tell us right away if they think we’re fucking off and not doing a good job. They tell us. In the same way that they’re loyal to us, they’re not going to let us pull any shit. They expect us to do the right thing, and that’s proper rock ’n’ roll.

It’s good to have that. Everybody needs to be kept honest in a sense.

They do keep us honest and I’m fortunate to have fans like that. When I look back on those shows from Paris and the TV show we played back around that time, I know we gotta keep doing it just like that. We played just a couple of nights ago here in town. I played to a bunch of kids that I hadn’t seen for ages, and they just keep coming out so that’s all that matters.

So when did the band start talking with the New Rose label? Was that not long after ’79? They put out most everything you did in the ’80s, even your record with the Lowdowns that came out around five years after Outta Place.

I would say that was probably late ’79 or early ’80 maybe. It took a little while before we could get in the studio. Willie Alexander, who was from Boston, had a deal with New Rose over in France, and he was a big fan and friend of ours. He was on tour over there and he kept running into people at every show they played that were asking questions about the Real Kids. He came back here saying, “Hey man, you got a lot of fans over there,” and he gave us the number for the guy at New Rose. They contacted us asking if we’d be interested in doing a record, and it took a little while to hammer out the details but we got ourselves into the studio and everything else fell into place.

That was a pretty fortuitous thing for us. We never thought in terms of Europe-only deals. We had to find someone to release it locally in Boston as well. But New Rose did really well for us. They kept us going at a time when we were really up against it because we didn’t know where else we could turn to at that point. No longer with Red Star, we were kind of just floating out there on our own. We had a ton of songs and nobody to record them with, then along came New Rose and everything sort of fell together.

On top of all this, you’ve got a new LP with the Boston label Ace of Hearts scheduled for release later in the summer?

The one that’s getting finished up now, yeah. We just finished mixing this past week and it’s going to be mastered down in New York in the next couple of weeks. That’ll be coming out sometime this summer, not sure of an exact date but that’s the plan.

Same personnel as Shake Outta Control?

Same lineup as the last record except for Randall Gibson, so it’s just Judd Williams playing drums. Y’know, everybody loved that LP and the first album we did, but you can’t just keep making the same record over and over again. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for our fans to hear the same stuff again and again. You want to hear something different and new. I don’t think of myself as an artist, but you gotta give the songwriter a chance to stretch out a little bit.

Everybody wanted to hear something more like the Real Kids’ first album. We’re never going to be able to duplicate the sound of that first record. That was just a bunch of people who had absolutely no idea what they were doing, left to their own devices, alone in the studio. There was no real producer. We had an engineer who didn’t know what he was doing. We had no idea how to make a record. It was just one of those things. We made a great record with some great songs, I think, and this new record is more in line with the sound of that first album. Just bass, drums, two guitars, and vocals. It’s really straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll. There aren’t even any keyboards on it, and there’s also very little in the way of overdubs. Basically, we went into the studio and recorded on a weekend last year, and that’s it. The songs are excellent, and I think it’s got a really good feel to it. The biggest complaint anybody will have is that it isn’t long enough.

When we first started to make this thing, we didn’t plan on making a whole record. We wanted to make an EP, release some singles afterwards, and then the next record would be more of going for a whole album. Not that we do concept albums, but you put the songs together a certain way and it’s supposed to have a feel to it. And this was originally an EP with short, to-the-point rock ’n’ roll songs, and that’s what we’ve got. I don’t think there is anything over three minutes long.

It might seem easy to those who don’t know, but crafting a great song that manages to be really compact in its length is by no means a simple thing.

Y’know, songwriting is what I’ve been able to do. I don’t have a great voice and I’m not a great guitar player, but what I can do is write some songs. I take pride in putting together a good song, with the beginning, end, and intro—just putting all those different parts together to make something complete and memorable. You don’t want it too long because it can get awkward with drum solos and extra long guitar leads.

That’s part of why I’ve always considered your writing to be so effective. You’re able to be concise and to the point and that conveys something more universal, something that can hit a lot of people really hard. I look at a song like “My Baby’s Book,” that second verse in particular with the line, “Sometimes I wish I was back in school.” Now that seems like a fairly straightforward lyric, but when you consider just how hopeful that song is, how hopeful that entire album is, that one line can tap into a kind of longing in a way that not many songs can and bring out pieces within people that they might’ve forgotten were there in the first place.

And that’s a feeling that some people might not even pay attention to when they’re feeling it. When I wrote that, I was about twenty years old, and there were times around that point when I really did wish I was back in school. Things were easier. You didn’t have to worry about rents and feeding yourself since your parents had your back on all that stuff. I think it’s not uncommon for people to feel that way a lot, and they probably don’t realize they’re feeling it. I think everybody, if they took the time to recognize, would go “oh yeah, I remember feeling that way.”

Are there going to be any more finalized versions of older songs on here, kinda like what you guys did with “Who Needs You” and “Common at Noon” on the last record?

Yeah we got two songs, “Hot Dog” and “Bad to Worse.” We did a live version of the first one on Grown Up Wrong, but it’s just the two. There’s a kickass version of “Bad to Worse,” better than the Taxi Boys version which we did when Billy Cole first started playing with us. It really blasts.

Regarding the Grown Up Wrong compilation released on Norton back in ’93, your main problem with the versions presented on it had to do with the sheer aggression of them?

It wasn’t the aggression. They were just not meant to be played that fast. I don’t know why we had such a difficult time back in those days. We let the energy of the night carry us a lot of times. We knew what the right speeds were for those songs because we put in the time to rehearse and get them down with the right tempo. Then we’d go out and get carried away with the energy in the room, and next thing you know, you’re playing in almost double-time. We don’t have that problem so much anymore. You can be extremely powerful without having it run away speed-wise and tempo-wise. Like I said, those songs on Grown Up Wrong that ended up on the last record were all supposed to be on our second Red Star record, and I think the feel that we got for them on Shake Outta Control was the right feel.

Speaking of the Taxi Boys, I know that was your project between the first and second Real Kids’ records. That came out around ’81 or ’82, correct?

We did the Taxi Boys in ’80 and ’81. I think the last thing that we put out was in ’82, but I don’t think we were actually playing as the Taxi Boys. By then, we had gone back to the Real Kids. It was kind of weird because all those songs were written to be Real Kids songs. We were having personnel changes, so it was just a temporary thing, but we kept with it anyway.

We didn’t want to slow down. We didn’t want to stop taking gigs, and we didn’t want to stop recording when we had the chance to record, which we did. So we stuck with it. We put out an EP, and parts of it were really good. I’m proud of the songs, but the sound of the record itself could have been better. The way it was recorded wasn’t what we had in mind. When you let other people handle the production, you don’t really get the final say, and I don’t let that happen anymore. I was young and that was just the way things were back then.

Too much on the pop side of things?

I thought it was a little too clean and poppy. When we played live, the stuff didn’t sound like that. It sounded real fuckin’ loud and aggressive, and all those songs kicked ass, so it’s kind of hard to get an idea of what they were supposed to sound like when you hear that record. A good project would be to take it and just do all those songs over again and play them the way they’re supposed to be played. I’ve never understood how they got to be so thin-sounding. It took all the bite out of the guitars. “Bad to Worse” is a great song, and it’s recorded now the way it was supposed to be recorded.

The Real Kids will kick off their latest European spring tour on March 31st at the Fun House in Madrid, before heading across the border for gigs at Le Poste à Galène in Marseille, Le Secret Place in Montpellier, and Le Batofar in Paris. The release date for the new LP is to be announced soon.

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • blrghh

    Great stuff. The Real Kids are the best.

    • jl

      You said it.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text