Mitch Easter pays tribute to powerpop greats The Records with “Guitars in the Sky”
Back in 2007-2008 the North Carolina powerpop community was privvy to something very special. Something indigenous to the area yet born of something more…anglocentric.
Mitch Easter of Kernersville and the architect behind the sounds of classic bands of the 80’s and 90’s like REM and Velvet Crush would form a tribute band to cover the catalog of one of powerpop’s greatest – albeit one of those lesser known bands that fell through the cracks (from a commercial aspect, anyway). With his partner at the time, Shalini Chatterjee (as John Wicks), Holt Evans (as Phil Brown), and Eric Marshall (as Will Birch) the band would mini-tour the area as a Records coverband calling themselves “Guitars in the Sky” (after a song on The Records second LP). Easter played the part of Huw Gower, the band’s original lead guitarist.
For those not familiar with The Records, they were often referred to by the press as the British Big Star, hence an even more appropriate followup to my post of last week on Chris Stamey’s tribute to Big Star.
Back on January 4 of 2008, David Manconi of the Raleigh News & Observer interviewed lead singer Shalini Chaterjee. With David’s permission, here is the interview:
SHE’S STILL SPINNING FROM LONG-AGO ‘DISC’
By David Menconi/News & Observer
When someone cites a life-changing musical lightning bolt, it usually involves a song from the popular music canon something by the likes of the Beatles, Nirvana or Michael Jackson.
But Shalini Chatterjee, leader of the Triad-based band of the same name, says her life-changing song was “Girl in the Golden Disc,” a bouncy power-pop tune by the British new wave cult band The Records.
“I heard that for the first time when I was 11 years old, and it really changed my life,” she says. “Seriously. It was just so great. The way people talk about Led Zeppelin changing their life, Led Zeppelin did not change mine. But The Records did.”
True to her word, Chatterjee has spent much of the past year acknowledging The Records’ influence by fronting a tribute band, Guitars in the Sky (named after a song on The Records’ second album, 1980’s “Crashes”). Guitars in the Sky play tonight at Chapel Hill’s Local 506 on a new wave tribute band lineup with Television tributaries Amps Do Furnish a Room and the Blondie tribute act Heart of Glass.
Back in their heyday, The Records appeared to be on the brink of stardom after the single “Starry Eyes” reached No. 56 on the U.S. singles charts in 1979. That would be their lone U.S. hit, even though they worked with superproducer Robert “Mutt” Lange (whose credits include megaselling albums by AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain).
Despite their commercial obscurity, The Records’ jingle-jangle guitar pop made them almost as beloved in underground pop circles as the similarly styled Raspberries and Big Star. They had plenty of fans in cool places, including the North Carolina power-pop icons the dB’s (who opened a show for The Records in New York in 1980).
But even a confirmed fan like Chatterjee has to admit that The Records body of work has its weaknesses.
“The words are awful,” she says with a laugh. “I have to stop myself from laughing when I sing them. But they’re good-bad, and the music is superior. The fans they have are really die-hard. Those recordings they did with Mutt Lange, songs like ‘All Messed Up and Ready to Go’and ‘Affection Rejected’ — that one is probably the best-sounding song ever recorded, just amazing. But they just disappeared for various reasons.”
Chatterjee’s primary collaborator in Guitars in the Sky is her husband, Mitch Easter, who expertly replicates Records guitarist Huw Gower’s solos and leads. Easter also plays guitar behind Chatterjee in her all-original band Shalini, while Chatterjee plays bass in Easter’s band. They both put out albums in 2007, Shalini’s “The Surface and the Shine” and Easter’s “Dynamico” (both on Electric Devil Records).
The latter was Easter’s first album as a frontman in nearly 20 years, since the 1988 Let’s Active swan song “Every Dog Has Its Day.” Easter has spent much of the ensuing two decades doing behind-the-scenes studio work, and 2007 was his most active touring year in quite some time.
“We did a bunch of weekend-warrior strings of dates involving huge distances to drive,” Chatterjee says. “But the crowds have been good. We have a ‘Let’s Active Request Hotline’ on the Web site where people ask for Let’s Active songs and we play ’em. Between that and Mitch having new songs for the first time in so long, people turned out.
“Still, this wasn’t anything like touring six consecutive weeks, which you could do in the ’80s and make some money. This was making it work by busting ass to barely break even.”
I was backstage at the Arts Center when John Wicks called a friend who handed his phone to Mitch Easter, also backstage at teh time. I would have loved to have heard what they were talking about as I can tell you with certaintly tthat this was the first time they’d ever spoken. I wonder who Wicks wqould have preferred as an original Record, Easter or Huw Gower. Having seen both perform, it would surely be a difficult choice. But then one never knows.
What The Records are doing today?
Unfortunately, Phil Brown passed away in 2012. Will Birch wrote a fantastic biography of Ian Dury which I highly recommend, even if you don’t know who the Blockheads or Killburn & The Highroads were. John Wicks is still writing and performing new material and has been performing both with this version of The Records and as a solo acoustic act. He has recently opened for Peter Tork (Monkees) and is rumored to be writing with Debbi Peterson of The Bangles. And Huw Gower is living in NYC.