Unknown Pleasures Chapter 8: [So Close to] The Good Life….

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Urban Verbs – S/T  – Warner Bros. [1980]


The term “Post Punk” became meaningless in the US faster than “New Wave,” surprising nobody. You couldn’t come up with a lamer term to label so much different music being made by so many different people in so many different places if you’d tried. East and west coast tasteophiles and a few college DJs managed to sneak a few acts into the mainstream [Talking Heads, REM, DEVO], but most of the music with the awkward, instantly obsolete label was destined to fall silently in the post-disco/pre MTV forest.

The Urban Verbs should have beaten the house odds. Formed in 1977, Roddy Frantz, Robert Goldstein, Linda France, Danny Frankel and Robin Rose were young enough to move comfortably through the DC scene, while their dense, arty music was uptown enough to rise above “punk rock” title yet unconventional enough to earn them a street reputation.  That rep was burnished by their role in converting the decrepit bar/restaurant where they rehearsed into the 9:30 club, which quickly became the hub for new bands playing in or coming to town.  An early foray to CBGB in New York resulted a Brian Eno offer to produce a handful of songs.  Whether or not Eno’s presence at the gig was because Frantz is younger brother of Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz is debateable, but it is what it is.  As they played up and down the coast, the Verbs collected praise from the New York Times, Washington Post and Village Voice.  Partly on the merits of the Eno demos, but mostly due to their strong live shows, the Urban Verbs signed with Warner Brothers Records in ‘79 and started working on their debut album with MIke Thorne, a high-profile producer with Wire, Soft Cell, Nina Hagen and Laurie Anderson among his credits.

So far the Urban Verbs were playing with house money, and their self-titled debut sounds like they knew it.  With a four count,  the band surges into the new wave hum of “Subways” – three pulsing minutes carried by Frankel’s steady drumming and France’s rumbling, bass.  Goldstein casts spidery droplets of guitar on the surface of Rose’s buzzing, droning synthesizer, setting the stage for Franz and his Camel-soaked poet’s rasp.  His tale of subterranean transit “escape” isn’t all that new, but it’s obvious he believes in his character [who we encounter more than once on this record] and his bandmates totally make the case with the dark, propulsive music they surround him with.

From there the record roars into “The Angry Young Men” the kind of self-important posturing only someone too young and enthusiastic to consider how silly it all sounds would try.  Goldstein veers back and forth from collegiate riffing on the verses and shooting sparks all over the refrains.  Rosen’s ARP come from a time when synthesizers were expensive, exotic beasts almost incapable of making any kind of actual music…so he doesn’t bother.  Most of the time he makes himself an angular, artificial reflection of Franz.  Down at the bottom of their aural dust storm the rhythm section keeps the whole thing from evaporating into a puff of theory.  France in particular anchors the band in the real world, with her melodic, muscular basswork.  She even swings in spots, which is hard to do in music this willfully cerebral.

Thorne’s production wraps the busy music in a translucent envelope with such tight segues between tracks that each side feels like a 20-minute operetta with Franz’ Outsider looking in without ever totally grasping what he’s looking in at.  The band tries to turn up the pretty on love songs “The Next Question” and “The Only One of You” – but they really find themselves when Franz gets close to the edge like in “Luca Brasi” and “Frenzy” – both insular, sophist rants that should sound ridiculous and puerile, but manage to make sense because Franz is so committed to the role and the band always gives him interesting rooms to shout in.

“Tina Grey” may be the strongest song on the record; It’s a small-story-told-big that inspires the band’s lyrical side in a way the love songs couldn’t.  Ernest and tender, Franz almost caresses his story of Tina’s struggle with an unwanted pregnancy, a subject new wave/post punk bands seemed adept at handling. The closer “The Good Life” almost feels like the band wanted to go out reminding us of how “unsentimental” they are, with a shopping list indictment of “middle class values” that feels peculiar now, as we watch the gap between “haves and have nots” widen every day.  “The Good Life” is probably the life the band is all living now…if they’re lucky.  The only thing that saves the song is the strong rhythm work of France and Frankel, who manage to give it a “Talking Heads” feel that probably should have resulted in a hit single, if only….

The Urban Verbs seemed to run out of luck the moment this album hit the streets.  A rift had developed between the band and the 9:30 Club scene they’d helped start.  Signing with a major label made them as “sell out” to some, at a time when it was still considered a bad thing to do.  Rolling Stone, then one of the few US magazines that gave new bands any space printed a single paragraph, one-star takedown of the album, allegedly written by a 9:30 scene member embittered by the band’s “selling out.”  The Verbs still had high hopes that a tour opening for a hot new English band called Joy Division would give them a national profile…Until Joy Division’s  vocalist Ian Curtis hanged himself the night before they were to depart for the States.  Still undeterred, the band went back into the studio with yet another high profile producer, Steve Lillywhite [XTC, U2, Simple Minds].  The resulting album, Early Damage was even noisier and more abstract than the first record.  The Verbs soldiered on through ‘80 and ‘81, weathering the departure of Rose and France.  With no press to help them and college radio ignoring them for hotter bands from other places, the Urban Verbs finally hit the wall and split up after touring Europe.  They would re-unite in 1995 to celebrate the closing of the 9:30 Club’s original location and again in 2008 for an NPR All Songs Considered event, but for the Urban Verbs exist mostly in the memories of people who were There.  And anyone lucky enough to have stumbled onto this album.  It’s a victory of sorts, I suppose.

NEXT:  Chuck E’s Lost Love…


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