Kurt Loder – “Marshall Crenshaw’s Modern Mastery” (1982)

December 27, 2008 at 9:17 am (Kurt Loder, Reviews & Articles)

From Rolling Stone, May 13, 1982, comes this article on MC…


Had Ozzie and Harriet been in the habit of having their groceries delivered, the kid who would have showed up at their back door with the bags might well have resembled Marshall Crenshaw. With his waxed-apple cheeks and wire-frame glasses, and shiny copper coins neatly positioned in his polished penny loafers, Crenshaw would have been perfect for the part. On the other hand, a delivery boy capable of outwriting, outsinging and outplaying little Ricky would have unbalanced the Nelsons’ show, so Crenshaw is probably better off in his own era – or is he?

Fronting a fine, no-frills trio, the twenty-eight-year-old Crenshaw has been whipping up word of mouth all over Manhattan for nearly two years now with his fresh-faced, attitude-free enthusiasm, incisive guitar work and non-stop hit parade of self-penned show stoppers. Four of his songs were covered by other singers before Crenshaw had finished recording his first album; and that debut LP, just released, is bristling with what sound like classic car cruising radio hits. But there’s no guarantee that commercial radio, even after reluctantly clutching the Go-Go’s to it’s corporate bosom, will make a place within its formula-ridden formats for Crenshaw’s more roots-concious rock & roll.

Crenshaw himself has no idea whether radio is ready for his album. “But they better do something, or everybody’s just gonna loose interest,” he says, nipping from a glass of milk in his tiny uptown apartment one warm April afternoon. “Everybody already is losing interest. The way I felt estranged from the rock music scene in 1969 or 1971, other people are starting to feel that way now.” But isn’t it possible that lots of people actually prefer the faceless spew of metal-pop that passes for rock radio these days? “Yeah,” Crenshaw allows, “but there are also kids out there who don’t. What about them, you know?”

Crenshaw used to be one of “them.” The eldest of four sons born to a Detroit city official and his wife, now a schoolteacher, Marshall grew up in the suburb of Berkley. He started getting heavily into radio around 1958 and became hooked on rock & roll – the real stuff. When he was six, he got a guitar – “a seventeen-dollar cheapo from Sears” – and by the time he was ten, he was “playing guitar around the house all the time, for anyone who came over, even for people who might not have wanted me to.” Marshall’s brother Robert, five years his junior, caught the bug as well and started banging along on whatever percussive devices were at hand around the household. It was the beginning , though none of them knew it then, of a band.

When Crenshaw began collecting rare records, it was the guitarists who really got to him: Les Paul, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Motown’s Marv Tarplin. “I listened to the things that drove me wild, and the guys were only playing like two notes. It wasn’t what they played, but the way it came across – the presence of the guitar.” He played throughout high school and pursued this precarious vocation after graduating in 1971, disdaining college without a second thought.

One day, Crenshaw and his bandmates of the moment discovered an ad in a local paper offering a small recording studio for sale. Somehow they managed to put together a couple thousand dollars to buy it. The studio was a primitive four-track facility, but to Crenshaw it seemed like heaven.” I was in and out of that place day and night. I even went on Christmas Eve once. I was just obsessed. I decided I was going to put something down on tape, and whatever it took to get the sound to go onto the tape, I was going to figure it out. That was my approach. One of my biggest hits there was ‘Sittin’ in the Balcony,’ by Eddie Cochran. I made a copy that was right on the money.”

Around this time, Marsahall’s brother Robert landed a drumming gig with a Fifties cover band called Danny and the Robots, and Marshall soon joined him in the group. “By about 1974,” he explains, “all I really could listen to was old rock & roll, Phil Spector stuff and Buddy Holly.”

Crenshaw tired of the rock circuit, of playing bars where beer-logged bodies flew through the air faster than requests and, as he recalls with a wince,” the bouncers would grab guys by the face, you know?” And soon he’d lost what little love he’d ever had for the Detroit-area music scene. “People there think of the music business as some lofty, unattainable thing, which it isn’t. It’s just a business where everyday people have their job to do, and it happens to be music. That’s what I wanted: to have a job to do and have it be music.”

In pursuit of this goal, he moved to Los Angeles with $400 in his pocket, figuring, “I’d end up as Helen Reddy’s bass player or working in a record store.” Soon broke, he signed on with a country & western band for a six-month tour of the West. Passing through Colorado, he spotted an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting Beatle lookalikes for roles in the various Beatlemania companies then infesting the nation. On a whim, he submitted a tape: a note for note rendition of “I Should Have Known Better.” Then he promptly forgot about it.

Following his C&W trek, Crenshaw went back to Detroit, married his high-school girlfriend – and suddenly got word from Beatlemania’s producers that he was to be auditioned. He passed the test in New York and, following a stint as a “Beatle in training,” found himself impersonating John Lennon in various Beatlemania productions throughout the U.S.

“It had no effect on me musically at all,” Crenshaw says, “because I’d already absorbed the Beatles’ music before then, firsthand. Beatlemania was theater. It had very little relation to rock & roll. But the money was good, especially considering the amount of work you had to do, which was almost nothing.”

After two years, he’d had it. He quit the show during a four-week stay in Boston. “I said to myself, ‘Okay I gotta go and I gotta go now.’ So I sat in my hotel room and started writing songs.” It was his first serious stab at songwriting. A few of those tunes – “Someday, Someway,” “Not For Me,” “The Usual Thing” – would later turn up on his album.

Crenshaw returned to the apartment he and his wife, Ione, had maintained in Westchester, New York, and hooked up with his brother Robert, who had earlier decamped for Manhattan to attend electronics school. Together, they began cutting the songs Marshall had written on the road. “I had a Teac four-track tape deck, a dbx compressor and two thirty-dollar mikes. No mixer, no equalizer. We did the drums in a rehearsal studio then I’d bring the tapes home and work on them.” It may sound tacky by today’s inflated studio standards, but Crenshaw was undaunted.

“That’s how you make rock & roll records,” he insists. “There has to be the element of chance and a lot of risk involved. That’s how the very best ones were made. I’m talking about stuff like Motown and Sun and Chess. They were all made under circumstances where, in order to get what you wanted from the equipment, you had to use your guts and imagination more than anything else. People say, ‘The Sgt. Pepper album – wow, it was only recorded on a four track.’ But take a look at Spike Jones, who made his records on lacquers, with no dubbing at all. How did he do that?”

Crenshaw took to this orgy of overdubbing quite happily. “I was always a big fan of Les Paul, who overdubbed everything on his records himself. To me, when you do that, there’s kind of an intimacy to it. I like that atmosphere on a record.”

Marshall and Robert put together about thirty songs they considered to be good, recruited bassist Chris Donato and began gigging around Manhattan in August 1980. Eventually, Crenshaw submitted a homemade demo tape to Alan Betrock of Shake Records, a local independent label, and last year, Shake released a twelve-inch single featuring “Something’s Gonna Happen” backed with “She Can’t Dance.”

Marshall‘s irresistible hooks and harmonies, coupled with an increasingly sharp stage act, drew lots of attention. Producer Richard Gottehrer, noted for his early work with the Go-Go’s, heard a demo and tipped off singer Robert Gordon, whom he was then managing; Gordon recorded three Crenshaw tunes on his fifth album, Are You Gonna Be The One. SInger Lou Ann Barton was also alerted and included Marshall’s “Brand New Lover” on her recently released debut LP.

Marshall Crenshaw was suddenly perceived as a hot item, and the record companies came calling. When he finally signed with Warner Bros., he says, “It was just great. As soon as the pen hit the paper, I just felt like a tremendous burden was lifted off me.”

Crenshaw originally wanted to produce his own album, but found himself a bit at sea in the twenty-four track environs of the Record Plant. When Richard Gottehrer joined in as coproducer, the two of them wrapped up the LP in five weeks.

On the exhilarating evidence of his first album, Marshall Crenshaw gives every promise of being a rock & roll song master on the level of such illustrious forerunners as Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, and Barry and Greenwich. If he’s consistent, that is. But he’s not worried about the crucial second album yet. “Our next record can be The Best of Marshall Crenshaw – the same songs in a different sequence. And after that,” he says, “we’ll put out our live album.”

Kurt Loder

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