It was one of those extremely rare occasions when I was actually able to sleep in a moving vehicle. Under the circumstances, however, it wasn’t all that surprising, seeing as though I’d spent the previous two-and-a-half weeks in what we warmly referred to as “The Crankyville Trolley.”
The Crankyville Trolley belonged to Angry Johnny & The Killbillies, the first band we signed to Tar Hut back in 1995. It was old, it was orange and it didn’t smell very good inside. I’m still not sure if the latter was because of the van or its inhabitants, but one could safely assume the blame could rest with both.
The beauty of the van, which finally died just last year, was that when he first got it, Johnny gave a complete overhaul and made it very band-friendly. If there was ever a “Pimp My Ride” for indie-rock bands, Johnny invented it. By the time we slugs at Tar Hut came along, it was outiftted quite nicely, complete with a bed-like area in the back which could fit two, built directly over the storage area for all the equipment. It was set pretty high so it was close to the ceiling of the van (think MRI with cigarette smoke, the smell of stale beer and four musicians constantly making you laugh), but it was actually quite comfortable.
Furthermore, Johnny was a bit of a MacGyver – he actually cut in some windows to the side of the van and on the top, but did it so that nobody could ever see that there was music equipment inside. Simply another notch in his belt of bizarre genius.
Anyway, I had snuck back there during a late afternoon in March during the last long ride of a three-week tour – a trek from Philadelphia to Boston. When I drifted off, it was sunny and clear and I was looking forward to getting home, but worried my 1965 Ford Galaxie might not start since it had been sitting in Johnny’s parking lot in the cold for three weeks.
With drizzle starting to fall and the sun heading south, I awoke an hour or two later to hand-clapping and driving guitars on the radio. The guitar player, a 350-pound mountain of a kid whom Johnny called “PeeWee”, was the first person I heard talking, describing to me that his good friend Frank Padellaro was the ringleader of this new band and that they had many, many other songs that I should probably hear. This was my introduction to King Radio and I knew right away I needed to speak to the band as soon as possible about working together. Frank had been a member of the Scud Mountain Boys and since they had recently disbanded, I knew we might have something to talk about.
The song on the radio, I would learn later, was called “I-95,” a driving, catchy, insanely fun pop song about an irresponsible lad driving down the highway, sans any care in the world. As always, they had me at the hand claps.
It wasn’t more than a week later when I met Frank at one of my favorite Northampton, Mass. haunts – The Bay State (RIP) and I knew we’d be decent friends when PeeWee (real name: Ray) introduced me to Frank as one of the Tar Hut owners and the first thing Frank said to me was “you have great taste!” I wasn’t entirely sure if he was greasing me up, but he seemed very damn friendly and as time went by, that concern began fading.
Shortly thereafter, I had their debut album, “Mr. K is Dead, Go Home,” in my hands and it didn’t take long: this was just the direction we wanted to take the label – insanely catchy three-minute power-pop songs, backed with rich instrumentation and Frank’s unbelievably terrific singing voice, a voice which I believe was classically trained (my memory gets the best of me on that one) and to this day Frank ranks far and away as the best pure singer and talent we had on the label.
Angry Johnny was out of left-field and a mind-blowing creative genius (and the most FUN), The Ex-Husbands were the band all the girls liked, The Lonesome Brothers were solid veterans who had everyone’s respect and Martin’s Folly were the hip Brooklyn guys. But Frank Padellaro and King Radio were the most talented group of musicians we had on the roster, hands down.
Long story short, we had some minor successes with “Mr. K…” at college radio and I found myself happy because I had found a really good friend in Frank. He never asked us for anything we considered unfair, he was as smart as a whip, an extremly hard worker and very accomodating and friendly. As a CPA, he even did my taxes for a couple of years there. I truly enjoyed just about everything we did with King Radio on both a professional and personal level.
It kind of broke my heart when Tar Hut shut down, because we were about to release their second album, titled “Curse of the Bambino.” It is, in my eyes, a band at its very peak. The rich orchestration, the singing, the songwriting, just the whole package was even fuller, catchier and more beautiful than the first record by at least triple. “Curse…” was Frank really stepping on the gas, a creative mind zig-zagging deliciously around the recording studio.
We had a couple of other bands ready to go, also from Northampton and at that time, around mid-1999, I honestly and truly thought we had a firm grasp on “the next Seattle” moniker with Northampton. Not in the sense that we were going to be rich, but in the sense that there was so much great damn music coming out of that town during this period that it was overwhelming. We were ready to put it all out there, like a blackjack player on his last chips. All in. That’s a post for another time.
Fast forward to 2006: Frank is still around, producing great records by other bands. I haven’t heard from him in quite while now, but I really miss our conversations, talking and laughing about music, food, movies, whatever. King Radio released a third record that was a 180-degree turn from thier previous stuff – and still well-received, although “Curse of the Bambino” will never be topped. Actually, I hope he does top it someday. He probably will.
Two songs from “Curse of the Bambino,” never released on Tar Hut, but they still both hold a dear place in my heart (right click and “save as” to save them to your hard drive).
Hard not to like those.