Back in the mid-'70s, a New York band called KISS distinguished Michigan's largest metropolis from all the other cities in the country by dubbing what had formerly been known as the "Motor City"—the automobile capitol of the world at the time—then "Motown,"—the birthplace of modern soul—as something altogether different and infinitely more memorable: "Detroit: Rock City." And rock it did. From Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 to George Clinton, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper, Detroit in the '60s and '70s produced some of the most influential and enduring American rock 'n' roll music and personalities since Elvis first shook his ass on a Memphis stage. And on Valentine's Day, 1977, four more of those personalities making that kind of music formed, one must assume, in some suburban Detroit garage: the Romantics, among the finest power pop bands ever catapulted on the scene from either side of the Atlantic, were born.
Now that Detroit has become an adjective used to describe an inordinate number of bands-of-the-moment, it's easy for casual music listeners to view Detroit as a late-model, out-of-nowhere hotbed of rock 'n' roll rather than see its true identity as the birthplace of American garage rock (not to mention soul music). Long before Jack and Meg White were even a thought, four Detroit tuff kids—Wally Palmar, Mike Skill, Jimmy Marinos and Rich Cole—were busy molding the excitement and energy of the Detroit rock scene circa the '60s into a template that became a response to the nihilism of '70s British punk: power pop.
Clad in leather suits and skinny ties, and armed with short hair and even shorter songs, the Romantics quickly released a single stamped with the first two songs they had written together, then headed east to stir up a following. At a gig in Toronto, Bomp! Records' founder Greg Shaw immediately decided to fund an EP for the band. By 1979, the Romantics had a major label deal through Epic Records and released their self-titled debut, containing two larger-than-life singles: "She's Got Everything" and the song the band will always be associated with, "That's What I Like About You." The Romantics, it soon became clear, were capable of crossing the urgency of '70s punk with early rock 'n' roll and the British invasion to startling effect, creating what sounded like a hybrid of the Dave Clark Five and the Kinks. Girls loved them, boys wanted to be them, the punk and hard rock scenes scoffed at them, the music industry began to consume them.
A year later, in 1980, the Romantics released their follow-up, National Breakout (which it turned out not to be) and found themselves touring almost relentlessly across Europe and beyond. By 1981, Strictly Personal had been released and guitarist Mike Skill had shown himself the door.
"We weren't getting along," says Skill in a recent interview. "We were getting a lot of attention and I wasn't handling it well. ... I just wasn't playing well. The songs weren't sounding good."
Skill was replaced by current guitarist Coz Canler, who had befriended the Romantics in Florida during their early recording sessions. He recalls getting a phone call from drummer Jimmy Marinos saying, "Learn the shit. We'll fly you to Detroit and see if you can cut it." Also around this time, Marinos and guitarist/vocalist Wally Palmar realized something was missing from the Romantics' fold: former guitarist Mike Skill's songwriting. They promptly issued walking papers to bassist Rich Cole and begged Skill back into the band, this time on bass.
Canler's fresh blood and Skill's established and instant chemistry with the band proved instrumental in the creation of the Romantics' most commercially successful album, In Heat. Released in 1983, the album went platinum on the strength of two Top 10 singles: "Talking in Your Sleep" and "One in a Million." Then Marinos quit.
The following record, 1985's Rhythm Romance, didn't make much of a dent on the charts or in the record stores, and troubles with management began coming to the fore. By 1987, the troubles had blossomed into a full-blown lawsuit that would last better than seven years.
In 1996, lawsuit firmly behind them and decided in their favor, the Romantics welcomed original drummer Marinos back into the band for a tour and limited recording. Marinos left again a year later, to be replaced by former Blondie founder and drummer Clem Burke.
The Romantics continued to tour and record just under the radar until last year when they released the phenomenal 61/49, a reference to the state highway intersection dubbed "The Crossroads," where Robert Johnson (and possibly a few other Johnsons) made his deal with the Devil. E Street Band guitarist/"Soprano's" bad guy and Miami radio host "Little" Steven Van Zandt hailed the gritty new record "... a terrific new album [that] is very good news for all of us engaged in the righteous fight for rock 'n' roll." And critics across the nation, surprised as they all sound in their glowing reviews, have embraced 61/49 as the first truly great garage rock album in more than two decades, White Stripes be damned.
Although Clem Burke remains the Romantics' permanent touring drummer, original skin-beater Jimmy Marinos played most of the drum tracks on 61/49, with Skill and Palmar trading off bass and guitar duties throughout. The record is raw, supremely energetic and worthy of the same accolades spurted with reckless abandon all over the inflated faces of bands like the White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jet, The Darkness, Maroon 5, Kings of Leon, et. al. Those bands (along with our very own Dirty Novels and The Foxx to name but a few) simply wouldn't exist had the Romantics not been a part of the inaugural MTV generation.
61/49 doesn't represent a "comeback" or "return" for the Romantics as much as it does the ultimate testament to perseverance and test of artistic will. It's also proof of the old adage, "Good things come to those who wait." Where are they now? The Romantics are here, in the now, where they've always been.
The Romantics appear Saturday, April 24, at midnight on the Fifth Street Outdoor Stage as part of Alibi Spring Crawl 2004.