Gary James' Interview With Mike Skill Of
In the early 1980s this band ruled the airwaves with hits like "What I Like About You" and "Talking In Your Sleep". They toured all over the world and appeared on the biggest TV shows of the time, including American Bandstand, Solid Gold and Soul Train. The Romantics are still touring and recording. Mike Skill, lead guitarist for the group, talked with us about the group's history.
Q - I saw The Romantics, I want to say in 1981, at a club called Uncle Sam's in Syracuse, New York. Were you with the band then?
A - Let's see. I was out in '80, late '80 after the Australia tour and then came back I think it was late '81 or '82. I think it might have been '81.
Q - I read you left the band in '81 and returned in 1982.
A - That sounds about right.
Q - You were playing lead guitar. Then you came back playing bass. Was that a hard transition?
A - No, not at all. From high school I, along with the drummer, we were always looking for someone to fill out the band. I was playing bass, but I learned guitar first. I learned Thirteenth Floor Elevators, British Stones. All that early, mid-'60s stuff and garage stuff. It became garage stuff anyway. Back then it was just what was on the radio. I was learning that on guitar. That's how I learned guitar, by listening to The Yarbirds. Eventually I discovered there was a thing called bass. (laughs) And just really played bass on guitar for a few years with my young, little neighborhood band. Into high school with the drummer from The Romantics, the early drummer from The Romantics, it was me and him trying to fill out a band for years, like late '68, '69, '70. Also, we're trying to find a lead singer and guitar player to fit what we wanted. It wasn't working out. I mean, we just kept at it. Out comes The New York Dolls and the whole New York scene happened. Ramones, Blondie. We started spreading out a little differently. I still played bass, but then the Punk scene happened and it made it like anyone can play and write. What happened stripped away all the uppity stuff in music. "You can't do this because you can't play this." That kind of thing.
Q - I always thought the Punk movement happened because of the hatred for commercial sounding bands like REO and Styx. But if you think about it, once you come out of the basement, you're commercial too!
A - Yeah. It went from snooty, to quote Ray Davies, "Snooty Blues players in England", to uppity Progressive Rock, right? Anyone who wanted to play basic stuff was pushed out. That's all you heard on the radio was Progressive Rock. In the early days it would've been Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin. It's still cool, but then when you're hearing a rotation of Led Zeppelin and Styx and Yes, and that's all you were hearing every forty minutes or forty-five minutes on FM radio, it was real tedious. It wasn't that you didn't respect those bands, it was just that nothing else was getting played. It was really commercialized. FM radio was being commercialized as AM radio. So, a natural rebellion took place I guess. Everyone wanted to get back to the New York bands. American bands were getting back to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Chocolate Watch Band, The Kingsmen. Early, raw Rock. The Kinks being influenced by "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen and the rawness of it. That's what started happening in New York as well as bands like Blondie trying to do the Phil Spector more simplified Pop songs with melodies and that kind of thing. We caught on to that. When we caught on to that, me and the drummer were still trying to find the right combination in Detroit. I called up a singer and the singer was into Steely Dan, which is fine but that's not what we're looking for. (laughs) You try to work with people and they were totally not in the same vibe. Finally, we got a couple of gigs together and went to New York and played some songs. We called it the Motor City Rockers. We rented a truck. Jimmy (Marinos - drummer) drove us to New York before we were The Romantics. I still played bass. We played CBGBs. We just got in and played, whatever night it was. I forget. We came on and it really influenced us, what was going on there. It was like '74 or '75 I guess. In '76 it was The Jam and The Flaming Groovies and we said this is what we want to do. I saw a shot of The Jam wearing skin tight suits and the white like shoes and heard The Flaming Groovies and wanted to do something like that. That was what I grew up doing. We were trying to get a guitar player from Detroit, but they were all doing Led Zeppelin and heavier stuff, which is cool but that's not what we wanted. It came down to I just started playing guitar. I completed six or eight songs on a cassette. I met Wally (Palmer), the singer, one of the singers. I met Wally previous to all of this. He was playing at a high school doing a kind of '50s Doo Wop group. He had a couple of girl singers. I went over to the school he was at. I jumped up and peeked through the window. Man, they looked pretty good. He was handling the crowd pretty good. So, I'd given him a call when I was thinking of switching over to guitar and it worked out. It kind of just happened. Me and the drummer had just been slamming away around Detroit. Finally he brought in the bass player, Rich (Cole) and took it from there and started writing originals. Rob Tyner and his guitar player was reforming the MC5 at that time in '77. They asked us to open for them. They came over and listened to us and we opened. A bunch of radio people were there for them. We kind of like just bashed it out. We were energetic. Running around on stage without attitude, good short songs. We had those matching orange neon iridescent suits. I kind of just went from there.
Q - What did you do with yourself in the time you left the group and why did you decide you wanted to come back to the group?
A - The thing was, I didn't mind wearing the same thing, but I couldn't shut up about it. I said, "C'mon, let's try a few different things as far as the look." I didn't want to do the same thing over and over again. That's just me venting and trying to be more or a creative person. A creative person gets more bored with stuff than anyone else when it seems like it's getting mundane or repetitive. So I was voicing that. And all the attention we were getting and I was getting, I really wasn't handling that very well I guess, just speaking for myself. (I was) backstage, in the early show trying to decide who was being honest about if you sounded good that night or you didn't. Not knowing who you believe. I didn't really know how to separate the accolades.
Q - Was that really such a big deal? Who were you asking?
A - It might've been for me. It may not have been for everybody else. It was just my thing, venting. It created a vibe maybe. So we were in Australia and the show didn't sound good. At that time as a guitar player I was trying to move out of just playing the solos the way they were on the record. I should've stuck more to what I did in the studio. The first record got some notice on the charts and then the next record we went right in writing the next record. The first record was our life for the years before and the second record was the life of a few months, the songs.
Q - That's usually the way it works, Mike.
A - Exactly.
Q - The look of The Romantics was the look of a British band. I would have figured The Romantics were a Detroit band.
A - It wasn't that it was a British thing. All the Motown acts, and even Gene Vincent And The Bluecaps had a look. Then it was The Beatles, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five. In the early, early days we were going to re-sale shops and there was a lot of skinny ties and skinny lapels and straight leg pants. We weren't always wearing the same thing. It had a definite look about it. Stovepipe pants and jackets from the '60s wouldn't all exactly be the same. But what happened was, these things would not last sweating and running around on stage and dodging spits and cans. You know the way it was back then. If you didn't move around they were throwing things. If you didn't entertain, things were comin' flying at you. That's just what was. The crowd was involved in the whole environment of the show. The suits were wet and sweaty. They'd be falling apart after five or six shows. This is probably before the first record when we were putting out the records ourselves. We had a lady do vinyl pants. Burgundy red vinyl pants 'cause they would hold together and they would take the abuse. It was total sweat, energy and attitude on stage. As we went to the first album, we wanted to try something different. We knew The Beatles did that black leather thing. It wasn't a totally intentional thing, but with The Beatles and Gene Vincent with the leather we thought let's try some red leather. It'll be cool. It was kind of a more organic, but out of necessity the stuff would last longer. (laughs)
Q - Wearing leather under those hot lights, you had to be sweating like crazy.
A - (laughs) You're not kidding. Plus, we were doing shows in Yuma, Arizona in 95 degrees, 99 degrees. We opened for Ted Nugent. We had the same booking agent a long time ago, right when we got signed I think.
Q - D.M.A. Diversified Management Agency.
A - Yeah. That's who we had. Our managers were our buds, our friends. They were doing a lot of the calling up and getting shows. I'm sure they wanted someone that had the ties to the industry and that's what happened. We signed with D.M.A. out of Detroit. But that's how the clothes came together. Mostly out of necessity, but also the look and the attitude. It was a little shocking at that time to come out looking like that with hair, tight, skinny pants and go out amongst bands like UFO and Progressive Rock bands. Actually, come to look back at it, The New York Dolls had done red leather just a few years before that when The Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren managed them for a minute and then went on to manage The Sex Pistols. So there's a little bit of a Dolls thing in it.
Q - I never figured the Motown influence would have gone into the look and sound of The Romantics.
A - Well, of course. James Jamerson was the guy. I'm a kid, eight, ten, twelve years old, hearing The Supremes' "I Hear A Symphony" and all these bass parts. I'm listening to music with my brothers in the late '50s and early '60s. Music is already in my head. My family had moved from Buffalo to Florida. I get to Detroit when I'm ten years old or something and I'm hearing this music made in Detroit. There's a music community happening. Kids in your school had relatives that were playing on the records. In my junior high school the Black kids were wearing the same things The Temptations were wearing. They're wearing the thick and thin socks and shoes and sweaters. I'm seeing that in junior high. It was definitely a part of the recipe that I saw around me, that we saw around us in schools. That James Jamerson bass was ingrained back then, the guitar parts, the melodies, the harmonies. It was just like a Beatles thing, a local (thing) for us. It's in you. It just gets in you. It's not really something that we forced on ourselves. It's something that was in us. You had greasers walking around with tight, stove pipe yellow and green slacks and gold slacks and Italian knit shirts. You're a ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen year old and I'm hearing Kinks and Thirteenth Floor Elevators combing the whole thing. Then MC5 comes out. (laughs)
Q - How did The Romantics get discovered by Nemperor Records? Where did they see you?
A - We were just pounding it. We were going to New York. We were going to Boston, going to Chicago, going to Toronto, going to Cleveland. Once we got the idea, the music, the attitude, the whole thing together, we were just off and running. We weren't making much money. We were just driving in a van, going to all these places. We sent tapes out to Capitol (Records). We did six or eight songs for Capitol, a demo.
Q - To have a demo tape produced properly you guys must've had some money then.
A - They sent us some money. Back then to go into the studio, not like today, you had to go into the studio and you're thinking I want to record. You couldn't go into the studio 'cause it's $300 and hour. Your thing was I want to record like The Everly Brothers. I want to give the studio the right song. Your motivation was to get into the studio to get the record label. Or, you had someone who would shell out $3,000 for you to do four or six songs or whatever you could do in a day. Record. Mix. All in one day. I picked up guitar out of necessity. A lot of guitar players didn't want to play Chuck Berry licks and I just loved Chuck Berry licks. Just simple, straight ahead stuff.
Q - So, where did the record company come into play? Where did they see you?
A - Oh, I'm sorry. We kept going to New York. We met Patrick Clifford from Nemperor Records which was owned by Nat Weiss who was with The Beatles' publishing or merchandising or both. He was in charge of the American side of that. He was friends with Brian Epstein. He started a label. He was managing The Cyrkle, "Red Bubber Ball". He managed Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and he had this label. We didn't know it was an independent label, distributed by Epic Records. They came and saw us a few times. Patrick Clifford loved it. We played Tracks in New York three or four times. Some labels came down. He (Patrick Clifford) just kept coming back. We talked about doing a record. They liked the idea and got ourselves a record deal and we were off and running.
Q - Critics called The Romantics a "Power Pop" and "New Wave" group. Did you like those terms?
A - It's not for me to be positive or negative. It's just something that they're always going to have some kind of hook or box to put you in. Usually you don't fit completely in that box. I don't think we did. We were just Rock 'n' Roll, but probably in the category of New Wave because of the new crop of musicians coming up. Power Pop doesn't bother me. To me, that means it's a high energy back beat with melodic vocals and simple choruses with an attitude to it, with power, energy. That's my take on it. Our attitude came out a little less aggressive, less attitude. That was the producers and managers directing it that way. We weren't that thrilled about it. It didn't have the attitude we have on stage. But you couldn't argue with the somewhat success that we got. People didn't hate it. I don't think they completely understood what it was; people that weren't hearing the new stuff that was coming out. But it wasn't too bad. We weren't angered by whatever tag they put on us. We had a Punk attitude and a New Wave attitude we thought and we had catchy melodies. We made sure that 'live' we had the goods.
Q - How long did it take you and Wally to write "Talking In Your Sleep"?
A - That's later on. I came back, I was working on some original stuff with a guy from The Rhythm Core, Mike Persh. I was doing something on the side. Then they started calling me. They had put out a record and it didn't do anything. Pretty much I was coming up with a lot of the basic ideas for the songs on those two records and then the band would expound on it and add their two cents on what I came up with. Wally would come up with a song here and there. And then Jimmy started writing. We had separated ways because we just weren't seeing eye to eye creatively. It was just conflict that was happening. I think things were happening really fast with the second record coming out. Them doing a tour with the second album. No one knew about the first album in my opinion. So I was asked to come back in 'cause the records didn't happen that they did without me. They felt they needed new writing I think. It just comes easy for me to come up with something.
Q - Did it take ten minutes?
A - I don't know about ten minutes. You're talking about "Talking In Your Sleep"?
Q - Yeah.
A - I came up with "What I Like About You" quick. "What I Like About You" is three or four simple chords we could bash out and put melodies to. The trick is to get a good melody to it and a good chorus with a good beat behind it. "What I Like About You" is just three chords. So, the three chords stuck. Whenever Jimmy played a certain beat I could come up with something in my head. I had this thing that I came up with in my backyard, the three chords, the verse, and then I got to the studio, a rehearsal studio which was just me and Jimmy there. Usually I would come late and everyone would be there. It was the first time I got there early. (laughs) I didn't have a car at the time. My mom was driving me to my band rehearsal. I got there early and I told him I got this thing. I got these chords. Check it out. He played it, got a beat to it and was already coming up with some kind of little melody, like the verse. The other guys came in and we started formulating a little bit. It was still raw, and over time, probably the next few weeks, I came up with the hook. I'm gonna need a hook to start the song. Just based it around the chords. I think we needed a middle part and Wally came back. We kind of put those middle chords together and we had a complete song, but it still wasn't (ready). He had the verse, singing on the opposite chord. I can explain it to you, but it takes some time. He was singing it a little bit the opposite and over time, when we got into the studio, we rounded it all out by the first album. That was "What I Like About You". "Talking In Your Sleep" I had the bass part for when I came back into the band on bass and I still did some guitar in the studio. I was okay with doing some bass. I was ready to get back on the road and work. I just went with the flow and that's the direction I was going at the time. We came into pre-production for the record. We had some songs. We went on the road, came back into the studio and had this thing that kept sticking in my mind. By this time a lot the English bands were doing really more Pop(py) dance kind of thing. We liked The Rolling Stones. They had "Miss You" and all that kind of stuff. We figured we could do a dance beat kind of thing. I had this thing that reminded me of a Motown type of bass. It wasn't really finished. We sat down after recording all the back tracks for "In The Heat", which is the record it was on and we went to that idea. I think we had kind of worked out a verse. The producer came in and helped us with the arrangement. That was formulated by the band sitting down with the producer with a keyboard and throwing ideas back and forth. What about this? What about that? Take that out. Put this in. All that kind of thing. We actually came up with a verse. We sat and jammed with it. I'm sure I came up with something. "How about this and this?" and they would go, "Well how about this and this?" It's just kind of a jam session and you pull the best of it. By the end of the session we had the arrangement. It was one of the last songs we did. The guy that cleaned up around the studio in Florida, Criteria Studios, said, "Man, I've heard everybody, James Brown, Aretha record here. Man, that song's a hit!" We all go, "Yeah. Thank you. Oh yeah? Alright." Next thing you know, that song took off.
Q - That song is a classic. It will probably be played a hundred years from now.
A - Thank you.
Q - It's like hearing "Can't Buy Me Love" while you're walking in the mall. It sounds like it was recorded yesterday. It always seems to sound so fresh, like your song.
A - Yeah. You can't manufacture that. That's got to happen with the mix of what's in the air. It's just something that happens. It's a chemistry. It's just a thing. You can write hits and come up with stuff, but when there's a magic, it's not un-explainable, but it's just magic. (laughs) We didn't think anything about "What I Like About You". We thought "When I Look In Your Eyes", which was on the first single, was a Pop hit. That was The Who meets The Kinks meets classic Romantics. Twelve string harmonies. Alright. It came out and it did pretty good. It went on the charts, up to 74 I think it was. It didn't hit the Top 25. It was picked up because they were still doing videos. Guys from Holland came over and wanted to do a video. We were in California playing The Whiskey. They came over at sound check with one camera and filmed us there. They took it back and had it in Holland. It spread to Germany. Next thing you know, out comes MTV and it just started getting air play. Our managers did a deal unbeknownst to us. They told us, "We just got a deal with Budweiser. They're going to use 'What I Like About You' for Bud Light." We go, "Oh, okay." They said, "You make this much money," and we don't even know what the amount was in the end. (laughs) That commercial and MTV with what was going on at the time with "Stayin' Alive", the movie with The Bee Gees, Disco music. When our song came out, "What I Like About You", people grabbed onto it. It was like, alright, now we're back into the right thing, as far as MTV and Rock 'n' Roll bands were concerned. I think it's happening like that now with "What I Like About You" and Five Seconds Of Summer releasing it, the young band that's put it out. It's kind of the same thing. A lot of Hip Hop. A lot of Taylor Swift. Then you have a band rockin' "What I Like About You" again. It's kind of the same thing happening again.
Q - You're saying there's a band that's covered that song of yours?
A - Oh, yeah, yeah. This group out of New Zealand. They're like twenty years old or younger. Been together since they were kids. They put together an unplugged EP and then on the next EP they put "What I Like About You". Both EPs, I don't know if they were huge in Australia, New Zealand and that part of the world. They're called Five Seconds Of Summer. They've recorded "What I Like About You" in the studio and 'live' and now they've got a 'live' video version. They played it on the Grammys. They played it on the MTV Music Video Awards.
Q - In July of 2008, U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds ruled that The Romantics no longer held the copyright on "What I Like About You". How did that happen?
A - Oh, oh. The lawyers we had, when they did a press release, a press interview in Detroit, it sounded like we were going after it because of the money. There was no money. We felt that someone was mimicking our Rock band. I found videos of them recording "What I Like About You" and other songs by other bands. They would record the song and then the producer, and this is actually on the video that they erased, but we saw it, they said, "No. It doesn't sound like that band." We were actually doing what Tom Petty sued for. His was the melody and our sound was our shtick. They released it and on the packaging it says "What I Like About You" as performed by The Romantics. So, anybody that was young and didn't know The Romantics and saw that, they would think that was The Romantics in my eyes. They tried to mimic the sound exactly. I thought that was a theft of property in a way 'cause of our sound. Our sound is our sound. Now it seems like a lot of people are getting rewarded for that. The words, I couldn't believe from the judge is when she said, "I've been on vacation because they've been remodeling my office and I haven't had a chance to look over this." This is when we were having our first meetings with the opposition to us. She was claiming we weren't The Beatles and we weren't Frank Sinatra, so we shouldn't be able to cry about this. (laughs) That's life.
Q - Did you lose the copyright to that song?
A - No. It wasn't about the copyright. We didn't lose the copyright.
Q - So it was someone copying your sound and trying to pass it off as The Romantics?
A - That's what we felt. You had lawyers from L.A. coming in, big wigs. It was just a lop-sided thing. It didn't happen for us, oh well. I'm not crying tears over it. We tried to stand up for ourselves, that's all.
Q - I don't feel The Romantics ever received the recognition that you deserved. Yes, you had the hits, but whose fault was it that you didn't get to the next level, your record company or management?
A - I think it was not so much the record company as management maybe because they didn't want to spend the money. I think you have to be in places like Britain and Europe. The break-up, me leaving and coming back, stalled some things. It stalled a good two years. The other thing is management wanted to reap the wealth of the U.S. and tour all around the U.S. instead of touring England, which gives you another credibilitiy and we've never gotten that festival circuit that other bands get because of that. We get really good play in Ireland, Australia, but I think it has a lot to do with spreading the band out and not being afraid musically to stretch a bit. I left the band because the same look on every record doesn't help you either, in my opinion. The reality is, the band still sounds fresh because of the songs. The songs are fresh and straight ahead. Simple melodies with an attitude and an energy. So, it's still like that. It still feels like that.
Q - As we talk, there is still a Romantics, correct?
A - Oh, yeah, yeah. It's three original front guys, Wally Palmer, Rich Coke on bass, the original bass player, me playing guitar and we've got Brad Elvis playing drums. He's been with us ten years or so, longer than the original drummer. He was in a band called The Elvis Brothers on Epic / Portrait or the Portrait label. He sticks in there the hard groove. It's a little bit of the British Who kind of vibe. Real good American drummer. Really good. He's been around.
Q - Are The Romantics recording these days?
A - Yeah. We just recorded some songs we grew up hearing and some originals. Some covers and some originals. We're hoping to get an EP out. It'll be an independent record. We'll probably put it out ourselves and have somebody distribute it. There's a couple of good originals we worked up on there. We do a new version of The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place". It's an up-tempo version. And a couple of other songs. I don't want to give it away yet. (laughs)
Q - How often does the band work?
A - We work all through the year. Usually January, February and March are slow. Everything starts kickin' in in April, May. We go to about September, October. Then it slows down again after the holidays come up. So we're working mostly in the States, Canada. We're hitting Mexico City coming up. We played Chile in the last few years. So, we're getting around, spreading our wings, coming up with new stuff. I want to get a new record out, hopefully in the next... it's tricky now. You put out a CD of ten, twelve songs, I really think it's better to spread that stuff out, maybe do like EPs, a four song EP and a couple of singles and then put out a full-length record with those songs on it and extra songs. The key to it is, a little bit more diversity. Say you put out an EP, a four song EP, two singles and then you put maybe alternate versions on a CD and we want to aim for vinyl as well. Spread that stuff out a little longer instead of trying to put out twelve songs and you don't have any backing as far as radio anymore. You gotta be creative.