Jim Fourniadis

Cab City Combo

“We’re a Novelty Band!”

The most offbeat and longest-running musical project of my career(!) was with the New York Novelty Rock band, Cab City Combo. Although we’ve never actually broken up, it’s been years since anything new has been recorded and released. The Combo was the brainchild of Paul Rubin and over the years many friends and acquaintances played sessions with the band. The project was strictly a recording affair; no gigs were ever played and for that reason I always looked at the group (especially in the early days) as if it were The Beatles during the Magical Mystery Tour period. Cab City didn’t have to concern itself with the limitations of the stage and was therefore able to use people, instruments, noises, and studio tricks that worked as a one-off in the studio, but would’ve been hard to reproduce live. Unlike many of my other musical projects I was restrained by a guy functioning as the producer of his own music so I had to come up with cool little parts and riffs (if they weren’t already part of the song) and function as part of an ensemble. It was a continuously fun and interesting challenge and I’m ALL about the challenge! It also afforded more trips to the recording studio and I’ve have always LOVED being in the studio. I can’t remember ever having a bad time recording back in those days. We were lucky because we worked with 3 very sympathetic engineers over the span of our career: Jim Fourniadis, Greg Talenfeld, and Gary Knox. They always went the extra mile to indulge Paul’s whims and offered invaluable assistance to get the production to really POP. It certainly helped that they are all boss musicians in addition to being studio wizards. Jim was actually a member of the Combo for the first couple of sessions.

Cab City Combo's Cabbie Road CD

When I was a kid,  The Dr. Demento show was on the radio every Sunday night and for 2-3 hours he would play a dazzling assortment of weird and funny stuff. (Kind of sounds like 1930s but we’re talking early 70s) I used to do homework while well-known, goofy gems like They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Transfusion, Lil Red Riding Hood and Shaving Cream, the song that won many of the top 10 countdowns on the show in those days, played in the background. I think the family bought 1 or 2 KTEL novelty compilations but I don’t remember them getting a lot of attention. Not only was I also discovering rock and roll and more interested in that, but there was something cool about hearing the funny stuff in the context of a radio format. The songs seemed to lose some of their zip on an LP because I knew what was coming. I didn’t think about the whole concept of Novelty again until the early 90s when I was asked by friends if I wanted to play guitar in the Cab City project. I didn’t know Paul at that point, but we did the first session and it was a whole lot of fun. Since Paul was doing Novelty Rock I didn’t think of it as a huge departure from what any of us were playing anyhow and historically this has always been true.  Sam the Sham and the Pharohs are considered by many to be a fine rock n’ roll band as are a host of other bands who recorded songs that are considered novelty-esque,  like The Champs with Tequila and The Kingsmen with Louie Louie. Cab City was kind of carrying on in the same tradition, but Paul’s influences included people like Martin Mull, The Bonzo Dog Band, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin and other twisted luminaries from the 1970s, while Cab City was always a Novelty Project, that definition could be pretty broad at times. Even though the line-up changed for the next session a year or two later, I stayed on and kept doing it…for eleven years. Paul and I had a pretty good working relationship and as time went on our approach to the project changed to something more like Tommy Tedesco or The Wrecking Crew because Rotgutter, the power trio band I was in at the time, became the core of Cab City. As a band we were already super-tight and that allowed all of the Combo recordings to proceed very quickly and smoothly. Dr. Demento actually played the Combo on his show a few times and Paul had a map going on how many people in how many of the US states bought the CDs. While Cab City was never a threat to Weird Al‘s popularity, it was a nice little project and over the years I was able to put down some really cool and varied guitar on a wide range of music. The sessions were totally fun and part of an era that is rapidly disappearing. Today musicians can avoid recording studios and put their music together on laptops and hardly anyone works with tape. Most of the studios we recorded in over the years are gone now, but it was always an education and a blast to be in that environment putting a project together with like-minded people and friends.

The Combo did get some love over the years, including a nice letter and encouragement from Jello Biafra, punk icon and leader of the Dead Kennedys. Because there was always a veneer of punk rock music and sensibilities in Cab City I was convinced that Paul had aspirations to be a punk rock star! Because most of the musicians in the Combo were capable and comfortable doing that and because punk rock is usually humorously irreverent, the combination worked and it appealed to fans of both styles of music. Even when the music didn’t sound like punk, there was usually a twisted, misanthropic attitude to the lyrics that sounded like PUNK ROCK or NEW YORK. The SUV Song is a good example — musically it’s such a pleasant-sounding song and I was going for a very Caribbean guitar thing. Lyrically it was a different story and that juxtaposition and the sing-a-long chorus made it one of the Combo’s more accessible numbers. Two kids in England liked it so much they made a video for the song.

Some of my other favorite Cab City tracks in the above player illustrate the range of different styles involved in the band and what I did guitar-wise. Paul wasn’t a taskmaster by any stretch of the imagination; he actually let the band have quite a bit of room to come up with their own stuff. But he did have certain ideas about what he wanted and didn’t like. This kind of relationship was good for me as it always forced me to focus and try to see outside my own musical parameters. All of the musicians involved had played with each other in some capacity or knew each other so that made it easy to get the music together and record it quickly. Songs like Monkey King, High Entropy and Insulin were pretty close to being POP numbers. Monkey King always felt like a Broadway show tune meets the aforementioned Beatles Magical Mystery Tour-era to me, I don’t know why. Insulin has a phased kind of George Harrison/Eric Clapton “Badge” era thing going on and I do remember Paul having a lot of input into how that solo sounded. What’s funny is that although I was playing through an MXR Phase 90, I didn’t have it turned on, but it sounds like it was. I’m also playing a Rickenbacker 6-string for the strumming part, which is the only time I’ve ever used a Rickenbacker guitar in my life. I’ve never owned one and the one I used (which was really boss!) belonged to the guy who owned the studio. After You Alphonse, which is the comedy gag of more than 1 person trying to get through the door simultaneously, is probably Cab City’s most obvious punk number. Less than a minute long, the guitar approach is: Just PLAY FAST. High Entropy reminds me of Chris Spedding and the couple of years of hanging out with him certainly influenced the cool, laid back riffing on this song, which was sung by Marti J. Cooney, a lady who contributed many fine vocalizations to the Combo over the years. So did Laurie Kilmartin and Maddie Horstman, who does the lead vocals on the next song, Santa Klutz, which was typical of the goofy fun we had making these songs. 4 of us huffed helium out of balloons to make the elf voices and I can still remember us standing around the mic trying to get it right without making each other crack up. Same was true of Lake Pennsylvania, which was a real biatch to record, especially THE SINGING NIXONS vocal parts. The music was real easy and there was also a steel drum added by Jamila Cowie. Cab City usually had special guests come in and contribute and they always performed well. Banned by the Man was surely one of the finest guitar moments of my Novelty career. I took Jimmy Page’s DADGAD tuning and used it on an acoustic and couple of electrics to create an Indo/Persian feel for Paul’s rant on copyright laws. Since The Beatles figure heavily in the rant, I felt that the almost sitar-esque quality of the music worked well. I forget if we planned that or not. I also played bass on the track and used an Echoplex to get the delay/echo effect. Later on I developed this piece further and I think it will show up in it’s entirety on this blog someday. If you wish you can download other CAB CITY stuff HERE.

Cab City Combo released two full-length CDs; compilations of all of the sessions we did over the years and they are STILL FOR SALE! It’s interesting how during the band’s career and since it was shelved, so much of the music business and New York City has changed. In that way listening to these songs for me is a snapshot of a special time in my life. I’m not a fan of any modern novelty music and probably never will be and the fact that I wasn’t a fan even when we were recording allowed me the freedom to just come up with ideas that would fit the songs and vision Paul was trying to put across. All of the other people involved in the core band over the years were total pros, and many are still involved in the music business in some capacity. My first attempt at a jazz song occurred with the Combo and it’s kind of funny that is where I am now — playing music that I originally did as a parody for a Novelty band. The Combo’s parody stuff was really brilliant and someday maybe it will find it’s way on here. If you want to know why it isn’t, listen to Banned By the Man. Perhaps the Combo will do another session in the future, but even if it doesn’t, there is a bunch of great stuff I was happy to be a part of and am pleasantly surprised when I hear it now. I’m not one of those people who dwells on the past or listens to all the music I’ve done on a regular basis, but every once it awhile it’s a nice trip down memory lane and a way of measuring where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

Booker (Bukka) White and the Blues — Part 2

Part 1 is HERE

While many guitar players have taken the humble beginnings of blues guitar styling into the realm of blues guitar virtuoso over the years and have done it very well: Johnny Winter, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, and Buddy Guy, to name but a few, there have always been those more concerned with the most basic elements; feel, nuance, and (here comes my favorite word again) atmosphere. Two of my favorite superstar bands, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both did very faithful or very perverted takes on the blues idiom and the blues sound. Both were obsessed with using technology or limited technology to get a sound that was either faithful to the original or a hyper-realistic redefinition. Jimmy Page was a master at recording and production and always stressed the importance of distance miking and microphone placement as two very overlooked ways to achieve an interesting sound of the blues or whatever the vibe of the song required. “Distance equals depth”, he has said many times in interviews. Led Zeppelin did many versions of blues influenced material and always created an interesting sonic approach that built upon what one could hear on the original song — When the Levee Breaks is a very good example. Someday I’d like to write about stuff I learned from listening to and reading about Jimmy Page, but in the meantime this is fascinating reading for anyone who is interested. A guy by the name of Bill O’Neil explores Led Zep’s studio wizardry with articles on Ten Years Gone and In My Time of Dying.

The Rolling Stones Beggars BanquetThe Rolling Stones, when recording Parachute Woman, a no-frills chugger on the Beggars Banquet album, all gathered around an early Phillips cassette recorder and “overloaded” the levels so it came out greasy and slightly distorted. This was fed into the main board later. The (acoustic) guitar on Street Fighting Man, was recorded the same way, and while I don’t know that Keith has ever said one way or another, the studio release of Jumping Jack Flash sounds very similar to me. The Exile on Main Street sessions are legendary for the very DIY locations and methods of recording of what turned out to be probably one of the most lo-fi blues-authentic major releases ever. As I mentioned already, Mick Jagger copped his whole vocal style from the blues and it’s very apparent on the Beggars Banquet through Exile recordings. Both Keith Richards and Jimmy Page adopted the “open tunings” of many blues players — Booker White, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, and later Muddy Waters — to achieve the same kind of guitar sound that their heroes were getting on these early records. Tuning to an “open” basically means tuning the strings so that the guitar is playing a chord without any fingers fretting the strings. This allows the player to play a chord, bass line or shuffle rhythm on the lower register, while simultaneously playing licks or melody lines on the higher strings. It also allows for interesting drone effects and when combined with a capo, allows a player to play the same patterns all over the neck in different keys, allowing the player to adjust for sound effect or to complement the vocal key he or she wants to play in. Keith Richards began using these tunings on the studio version of Jumping Jack Flash and the Beggars Banquet album and it signaled a new era for the Stones sound. I also think that Jumping Jack Flash might be the first open-tuned top 10 hit ever, but I’m not sure about that. Jimmy Page not only used the traditional open tunings, but also made up his own and I’ll explore all of this in more detail in a future post. There are literally endless possibilities and it’s something anyone should fool around with just to see how it might change the sound of the musical style or even song one is trying to play.

The Jam Messengers at Booker White's grave

A groovy great band that has come on the Cave Radar lately is The Jam Messengers, a righteous duo who understand the essence of the blues, dangerous living, analog dreams and bourbon washed down with Furry Lewis. I’ve known singer Rob K. for a long time. He and his partner for many years, Scott Jarvis, were NYC’s premier downtown bluesy rhythm section, the furious and notorious Workdogs. They had a lengthy, glamorous career on the once rough streets of the Lower East Side and had many a fine side-man and woman sit in with them. I was lucky enough to catch quite a few of their shows including one with Blues Explosion founder Jon Spencer, another on the same bill with modern-day blues twister, Poppy Chubby, and quite a few with the late, great Jerry “Dublee” Williams. They made quite a few recordings and I believe some of them are still available if you check out their website.

The Workdogs "Roberta" album

Rob K is still a blues entertainer-philosopher supremo front-man extraordinaire, now with a new partner, “Uncle” Marco Butcher, a guy who wakes up and drinks the blues for breakfast. Marco lays out successive fiery riffs and swinging grooves on the guitar…while playing traps and shouting along on the choruses simultaneously! Holy cow is that super impressive! His open-tuned, slide-induced riffing and chooglin’ through a dirty Fender Champ would please Booker White, of that I am sure. So would his great sense of time and keeping the beat right up the big old butt of the audience. Rob K. is a master of the church-brought-low — a modern-day Testifier with a capital “T” — and he preaches his life gospel to all of the faithful and the faithful leave redeemed and relieved of all burdens. Politics, sexual roles, the profane and the mundane have all changed quite a bit since the days of Booker White and Rob K is a man with his finger on the pulse and his foot on the gas. Real blues singers throughout the years have always prided themselves on pushing boundaries, musically and lyrically, and the trouble with the majority of mainstream blues is that many an artist has retreated to the safe confines of the cliché. Not so with the Rob and Marco and this is an important common thread to the blues legacy and it resonates with people all over the world. Taking it to the people like you are supposed to and hitting them with music and a message that the people need.

Because of artists like the Jam Messengers, Workdogs and many others that I will profile in the future, somewhere men like Booker White and Howlin’ Wolf, and women like Sister Rosetta and Memphis Minnie are pleased and maybe a little surprised that their artistic efforts and life stories have not only left a deep impression on the skin of this world, but continue to inspire lost souls who struggle through the muck and the fog of the jagged night in search of that sound, that feel and deliverance from all that is common and predictable. Through their recordings, films, stories, and performances these greats of yesteryear have left behind a legacy that can inspire and lead any musician with interest and an ear to the Promise Land.