It was only a couple of years ago, but it seems like a different era altogether. We're sitting at a computer in World Headquarters when a phone call comes in from a guy at Universal Records. He wants to know what we think of the Fort Wayne band Abraham who he's thinking about signing.
Are they a good band? Ah, sure. Do they have a loyal following? Seem to. Do they draw good crowds and get "em revved up? I'd just seen them at Piere's, and I'd have to say yes. But all through the Q&A, I find myself thinking of some of the other local bands that the guy ought to be looking at - bands like Strut Train and Jackie Fly, whose influences you could hear throughout Abraham's music, and others like The Chronics and Rosemary Gates, who were pretty much at the top of the heap that was Fort Wayne's super-charged local music scene at the time.
True, their song "Cheating," from their locally produced CD Neato had made it onto Extreme Essentials Volume 4 (it was the lead track, in fact) and was tearing up the airwaves, but the song, catchy as it was, drove me nuts. Sure, it was poppy as all get out, but, come on, it had lyrics like "Did you really sleep with that chick, man / yes, yes, yes / yes, yes, yes" and "If I'm leaving with a broken heart / you're leaving with a bleeding nose." Okay, they were, what, 20 years old at the time, but if I'm going to carry lyrics around in my head for a month, I want them to be about something besides bloodied noses.
Neato was a good CD by Fort Wayne standards at the time, but it was noteworthy more for its promise than its merits. The band could certainly come up with amazingly catchy hooks and memorable lyrics, the rhythm section consisting of drummer Jason Berry and bassist Ryan (Beav) Wilkinson and Dave Schmoekel's vocals were impressive. And the band was great on stage.
Things took their course. They got signed by Republic/Universal. They changed their name to Jettingham. They were shipped out to Seattle to record under the helm of Barrett Jones (Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Bush). "Cheating" found its way onto the American Pie 2 soundtrack, which, given that franchise's audience and Gabe Berry's hormonally charged lyrics, was a pretty brilliant marketing strategy. Their self-titled national debut was mixed at the legendary Sound on Sound Studios in New York City, where they happened to be when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11. They got Hootie & The Blowfish's manager. Pretty heady stuff.
There was every reason to expect that rock n' roll stardom lay just over the horizon. Most of the songs on Neato were re-recorded and given a much fuller sound, and the new material on Jettingham showed a real progression in the band's abilities. With a little support and a lot of touring, Jettingham could have found a national audience. But when "Cheating" didn't make the lead from movie soundtrack to radio play, the band just sort of faded from view. Touring was limited, in part because Schmoekel had two small children at home and couldn't be on the road for six or eight weeks at a time. The band and Republic/Universal parted company, amicably, halfway through their two-record deal.
Schmoekel, the Beav and the Berry brothers weren't exactly shattered. Talking to Gabe Berry, you get the sense that these guys weren't going to live or die by whether or not they achieved rock n' roll stardom. Rather, they're four guys who pretty much grew up together, love to play music, got their shot at the big time and had a lot of fun doing it. When it was over, they blended back into the Fort Wayne music scene (more often as members of the audience than on stage) and quietly picked up where they left off.
Which brings us to their just-released second independent release, Stop, Rock & Roll, which may well be the best rock n' roll album ever to come out of Fort Wayne.
Stop, Rock & Roll is a departure for Jettingham. Gabe Berry's lyrics still drip with testosterone, and there is still something of a pop feel to it, but the overall sound of the album tends toward punk, and the studio sheen so evident on Jettingham has been dispensed with. Play the two albums back to back, and it's striking how much more mature the band sounds than they did a couple of years ago.
The one thing that hasn't changed is the band's ability to come up with great hooks, the kind that grab your brain and don't let loose for days. Stop, Rock & Roll is filled with them, from beginning to end, and none of them have anything to do with bloody noses.
The first three songs - "What Would Angus Do," the title track and "Good Guy" - are the ones that grabbed me, but that's probably because my brain can only hold so much at any given time. All three songs contain unforgettable choruses and nods to rockers from AC/DC to the Ramones to Slayer (especially Slayer). And Berry's lyrics are catchy and clever, particularly on "Good Guy," a song about a song that includes the drop dead-funny lyric "thanks for asking anyway / wanna see my bed."
There's some similar and nearly as good stuff in the middle of the album, including a rock n' roll cover of John Denver's "Country Roads," but it's the three-song progression that closes out the album - with the adrenaline-charged "On Like This" and "All That There Is" leading into the upbeat "Better Off" - that's most likely to stick with you. Berry wrote "On Like This" and once again comes up with a clever, funny chorus "why can't I just come once / instead of pretend / then as soon as it's over / I want it to end." With it's Ramones-like pacing and memorable guitar intro and riffs, it leads perfectly into the similarly paced "All That There Is," written by Schmoekel (whose lyrics tend to be about, um, shall we say, larger themes than do Berry's). On this song, though, it's Jason Berry's percussion that drives the music forward. Schmoekel also wrote the anthem-like "Better Off" which brings the proceedings to a near perfect ending and nicely sums up what it must be like to be Jettingham ("even when your walls are crashing down / take a chance and don't ever be afraid / you've got to find the strength to believe we could be better off this way").
Recorded at T-Bush Record Plant in Kosciusko County by former Channel Surfer Tim Bushong, Stop, Rock & Roll is straight-ahead, guitar-driven rock n' roll with a big, but not overproduced sound. It's an album that, unlike Neato, couldn't be improved by a few additions and subtractions and lots of studio gimmicks. It's also an album that ought to have the people at Republic/Universal kicking themselves, if and when they hear it.