Friday, December 29, 2006
Ragged Thots Retro Record Review
Praising the Minimum Wage
Most people remember the Bus Boys as the bar band that performed "Boys Are Back in Town," (the post-Thin Lizzy song) from Eddie Murphy’s first film, 48 Hours. However, their greatest musical moment was the earlier release of their first album, Minimum Wage Rock and Rock.
In 1980, the local pop radio stations in my stuffy, whitebread, Midwestern city had become increasingly segmented by race and genre. The days of hearing on a single station a range of new, multi-racial music ranging from country to soul and rock were fast disappearing. In the wake of Disco and Funk, the black roots of rock and roll were practically forgotten and R&B was often nothing more than, as Bus Boys leader Brian O'Neal expressed it, "mindless music to mindless people." Hendrix was revered as a guitar hero, but surely he was an anomaly. Rock was "white folks' music." Alternative groups, of any background, that couldn't break into America's Top 40 would have to wait another year for MTV to arrive.
In the post-disco/pre-Second British Invasion pop music stupor, along came a straight-forward roots rock-and-roll band---and they were African-American to boot! The Bus Boys generally shared the no-nonsense three to five-minute work ethic of all great pop artists. No prog-rock endless, keyboard wanking. No monotonous Donna Summer club beat. No Alien-Creatures-at-Studio-54 costumes like Earth, Wind & Fire.
Of course, the "novelty" of being an all-black rock-and-roll band in the waning days of the Carter Administration made for the inspiration behind much of the group's material. "There Goes the Neighborhood," deals with race and gentrification ("I ain’t moving out for no Carol or Bob/The inner city is too close to my job!"). "KKK" is not an ode to a certain ethnic hate group, but the frustration of what it takes to achieve mainstream success in an atypical musical sphere ("Do you still call me a mother/just because of my skin color?/Am I classified as 'C'/because of inferiority). "Did You See Me?" is a hilarious B-52s-type new wave rocker that crystallizes the culture clashes that the black alternative bands like the Bus Boys, Fishbone, and Living Colour experienced in predominantly white venues ("I went there to see what I could see/I had no idea they’d be dancing on me!!"). The band also wasn't shy in addressing the cultural narrow-mindedness of black record buyers whose brains were stuck-on-stupid in the disco era ("Johnny Soul’d Out").
The disc, however, is not all social commentary and race-relations snark. The album starts off with a great rocker that, 26 years later, I’m still trying to figure out whether or not it’s about unsafe sex and VD ("Doctor Doctor"). It then segues into a nice, bouncy paean to Ragged Thots regular commenter Rob's favorite subject, the working man ("Minimum Wage"). Closing out the first side of the album (middle of the CD nowadays) is the teen-boy-begging-for-booty mock ballad "Angie," not to be confused with a certain much-slower ballad by the The Glimmer Twins. And speaking of Angies, the Bus Boys’ cover of "Brown Sugar" was probably one of the best versions of the song I’ve heard outside of the Rolling Stones themselves. I saw the Bus Boys on a local cable access program when they came through Ohio in 1981 to support Minimum Wage, and they rocked "Brown Sugar" like they owned it.
The album starts to drag after the beginning of the second side, with the anti-nuke song "D-Day," (has there ever been a GOOD anti-nuke song other than Fishbone's "Party At Ground Zero"?), "Tell The Coach" and "We Stand United." It ends, however, with the rollicking "Respect," which not only conjures up the spirit of Otis Redding, but also manages to tie in elements of the Beach Boys, along with both major versions of "Satisfaction."
Unfortunately, the Bus Boys didn’t share in the great popularity surge that Murphy enjoyed from 48 Hours. To add insult to injury, the Bus Boys recorded and released their version of "Heart and Soul" on their second album American Worker, only to see Huey Lewis and the News’ rendition become the monster hit version a year later. The Bus Boys are still soldiering on. Among other gigs, they provide music for sports activities (nod to EdMcGon). Check out their NFL Replay commercial (a parody of their song "Did You See Me?") here. A nice TIME Magazine article on the Bus Boys, from 1980 here.
Minimum Wage Rock and Roll is available on I-Tunes.