Hidden in every bloated American metropolis, tucked silently within each dead-end greaseball BFE hamlet, on every suburban street lined with bland tract houses, lonely rock & roll bands work hard to clang out pieces of aural beauty solely for the love of it—sculptures of joyous riffage that will ultimately grace only the eardrums of a few friends, relatives, neighbors and the cops who will show up, yelling for them to turn that shit down now.
Bands like these aren't supposed to break out of the underground; the money side of the music biz usually sees to that. But sometimes, those elegant garage bands (and the people who love them) find word-of-mouth ways to get the word out, the word spreads organically around the globe, and the band becomes a cherished, life-changing little institution for those who value the pleasure of discovering great, unknown, unheard-of music.
Such is the tale of the Real Kids, who formed in Boston in 1976. It wouldn't be too big a stretch to call them the first new-wave band, a group that, like their angry punk brethren of the era, formed out of disgust for the bloated, dispensable, mainstream music of the time. But instead of random rage, out-of-tune guitars and spittle-soaked chins, the Real Kids preferred to vent their anguish by pounding out superb pop, with a pissed-off edge to keep things interesting.
The New York Dolls they were not, though the two camps were friends—the Dolls even gave the Real Kids their name. And for a while, they were one of Boston's most revered bands. Guitarist/singer John Felice exuded a sweet, Modern Lovers-esque innocence in his singing (only fitting, since he was a onetime member of that more influential band), and his backing players executed giddy, ecstatic music punctuated by wondrous moments of rapture and release. Their lyrics weren't much—mostly of the "I wanna go out and find a girl" variety —but their simple existence was important enough back then, and their working-class, do-it-your-own-bad-self ethic is what really mattered. The medium was the message.
Some considered the Real Kids a punk band, but it wasn't. Listen to the 1999 compilation CDs Better Be Good (mostly a collection of demo versions of songs from their 1977 debut) and No Place Fast (the band's previously unreleased second album, with six tunes from the Taxi Boys, a Real Kids offshoot), and you'll hear amped-up, hardened, Raspberries-style power-pop.
Now the Real Kids have reunited for a tour. A new album, their first since 1980, is expected later this year. As a preview, they've put out Down to You, a four-song EP on San Francisco's TKO Records, and—true to the cliché—it's as if they never went away. It's an invigorating blast of brightness, energy and freedom that lets you know rock & roll can still be a target-market-absent, bullshit-free zone.
In the liner notes to Better Be Good, Felice mentions how hard it is for him to believe that the Real Kids came to life more than 20 years ago, how there's no greater compliment than hearing bands cover Real Kids tunes and having real kids who weren't even born in 1976 tell him that the Real Kids changed their lives. Good word-of-mouth spread out across a quarter of a century does that. In their own way, the Real Kids have become the greatest rock & roll band there ever was.
The Real Kids play with the Forty Fives at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-6634. Thurs., March 23, 9 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.
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