The Good Rats Find a New NJ Nest

Veteran rock frontman (and Long Island legend) Peppi Marchello leads his 21st century edition of The Good Rats back to the Jersey Shore, with a Saturday night gig at the Brighton Bar in Long Branch.

Far be it for us to wallow in nostalgia — and it’s not wallowing in nostalgia if the object of all those nostalgic warm-and-fuzzies is still out there doing strong work, and making new memories fresh daily.

That said, allow us to wallow in nostalgia for the first Jersey Shore rock bar to let our underage ass in the door just as soon’s we could raise a scraggly little ‘stache — the long-gone Giulio’s Rock and Roll South in Asbury Park — and the first band we ever saw in a club setting, The Good Rats.

We knew then and there that we’d be destined to favor the intimacy and quirkitude of the club environment, with few exceptions, over the slow, supervised slaughter of the arena/ festival experience. Good thing, too, since most of the bands we liked couldn’t draw flies to sherbert.

We also knew then and there that we’d established and cemented a bond with the LawnGuyland-based group that’s been called variously “the world’s most famous unknown band;” “everybody’s second-favorite band;” even “the greatest rock band in the world” by one top-selling rocker. We’d already glommed onto great (and often self-released) LPs like Ratcity in Blue and Tasty thanks to some true believers on the New York radio stations, and by the time the 80s got too 80ish we managed to catch the Rats (although, sadly never to catch one of the rubber rats tossed to the crowd) countless times, all up and down the Shore, at at such long-gone haunts as the Trade Winds, Fountain Casino, FastLane and The Chatterbox.

Fronted by singer-songwriter-producer family guy Peppi Marchello since the band’s inception in the late 60’s, this tristate-area institution from way outside the glitzier precincts of the Manhattan media mechanism has seemingly been around the block twenty times and back in its 40 year history — and for a golden-age slice of the 1970s, the band’s second, “original” lineup  (Peppi, his guitarist brother Mickey Marchello, drummer Joe Franco, lead guitarist John Gatto and bassist Lenny Kottke) was forever perched on the cusp of “making it;” building and maintaining a truly phenomenal (and truly regional) following, and riding a rock rollercoaster that took them from stadium-scale shows with the likes of Springsteen, Kiss and the Dead, to scores of one-nighters performing all-original music deep inside the often hostile territory of the tri-state cover-club circuit — a rough ‘n tumble frontier once reigned o’er by carnosaurs with names like Baby Blue and Bystander.

While that classic combo continues to reunite occasionally (most recently for a multi-night April stand at BB King’s in Manhattan), Peppi Marchello continues to craft the legacy of the band for which he’s served — off and on, and in various incarnations — as founding father, lead singer, sole songwriter and designated driver since the 1960s. Now chasing 70 and “still playing in front of 20 year olds,” grandpoppa Peppi made his first Upper Wet Side appearance in a decade last March with a typically marathon gig at The Brighton Bar, to which the 2011 edition of The Good Rats  (featuring son Stefan Marchello on bass, plus guitarist Dan Ratchford, keyboard guy Dan Smeraglia and recently acquired drummer Hugo Lopez) returns on Saturday, June 18.

There were detours into productions for other artists like Fiona and Thor; a project featuring Peppi and sons Stefan and Gene, with the corny-ass name of Popsarocka! (later morphed into the Gene-fronted metal band Marchello); even an alter-ego recording made under the name DUM. And, while the double-guitar attack of the 70s Rats has been replaced by new players, new arrangements (and some fine harmony work the likes of which you’ll encounter on few local stages), Peppi Marchello’s still front and center — stalking the stage with baseball bat in hand; inviting “ladies” of the audience onstage to shake their denim’d derrieres to “Yellow Flower;” skippering the show through ballads and blitzkriegs and bagatelles via his versatile rock-radio wail — delivering in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, til debt do us part.

But the songs! Classic rock songs in the best sense; the Rats songbook is a portfolio of rare intelligence and real insight; shot through with the character skills and observational powers of a genuine writer. It was as if your favorite knucklehead radio- rock band had gobbled a whole roll of Smarties and suddenly found a way to fill in the big gaping spaces between cut-and-dried cliches like “feel like makin’ love” and “movin’ on down the highway.”

The familiar themes of busted-up relationships and the Power of Rock were addressed in grand style (“Fireball Express,” “Taking It To Detroit”), and the singer with the melodically raspy voice was secure enough in his own skin to inhabit a whole gallery of fully fleshed characters — from a violent stalker (“Reason to Kill”) to a lonely math professor (“Advertisement in the Voice”), and from a remorseful wayward son (“Poppa Poppa”) to Hitler in his final moments (“Writing the Pages”).

None of which is to suggest that it’s all “thinking man’s metal” around here. As befits a man who’s acquired a singular expertise in the business of bars (and the people who frequent them), the Marchello songbook is chock full of fun songs celebrating the awkwardness of the dating scene, favorite old movies, football, and — in “Let’s Have Another Beer” — a rousing ode to the healing powers of the hoisted mug, that may yet take its rightful place as a self-proclaimed “world anthem.”

Perhaps Marchello’s most succinct self-salute was delivered when the Good Rats were inducted into the prestigious Long Island Music Hall of Fame — an honor that placed them in the company of everyone from Blue Öyster Cult and Beverly Sills, to Public Enemy and Perry Como.

“You guys may have sold a lot more records than us,” said the good-natured Rat to his platinum-plated peers. “But we sold a lot more beers!”

We talked to Peppi Marchello in front of his previous Long Branch gig (and hung out with the band at length following that satisfying three-hour show); here’s a few snippets from that conversation…

Classic Good Rats, from 1978: Lenny Kottke, John Gatto,, Peppi Marchello, Mickey Marchello, Joe Franco.

So Peppi, it’s been a long time and it’s great to see you back Shoreside. Last time you were down this way was a weird little gig you played at a VFW hall in Long Branch in 2000; there were like ten people there and you just played this great living room style show where you ran through all these classic albums start to finish…

My attitude is that whoever came walkin’ in to one of our shows deserved the best show we could give them. We’re here because they’re here. And I love being able to stretch out, do a three hour show if I can.

One of the reasons that we neglected the Jersey Shore in recent years is that we weren’t able to connect with a club that would let us do what we do, play all night, and take a chance that we can get enough of our old fans out to see us. From what I know of the Brighton Bar it looks like a good fit; there’s a sense of history there and a mix of old and new bands.

Another reason I kept a lower profile was that I had my share of health scares. I had open heart surgery nine years ago — and I had a bleeding polyp in my stomach; they went down my throat twice with a tube. It saved my life, but it fucked me up because my vocal cords were seriously inflamed. Every week I’m getting better, but I’m not where I should be vocally just yet. It’ll come back, though.

I know you never really went away, but it seems that you’ve been stepping things up lately; getting the band positioned for some new things.

Well, in many ways we just do what we do and every couple of years or so a new audience finds us. But there’s been a little more focus on connecting with people through the internet — and I am not an internet guy; we just got a computer at the house.

Yeah, but you’ve always been the king of the Do It Yourself guys; you were ahead of the curve before all the punk bands picked up on that ethic. Things like starting your own label, doing distribution, merch, the constant gigging…that has all proven to be the way to go in the post-collapse era of the music biz. And you were there from the get-go.

We had to be, considering all the shit we went through with the major labels. Remember, we had a couple of big record deals — Warner Brothers dropped us without warning even though we had great reviews for the Tasty album. Distributors went out of business, talks fell through, and between the Good Rats and later with Marchello you could see how it becomes necessary to know the business that you’re in, from the ground up.

One of the advantages that the Good Rats always had, one of the real keys to to our survival and success, was the geography of where we were based, where our fanbase was located. Just think, within a few hours drive each way, we could play all of New York City and Long Island; upstate New York; all of Jersey down to Seaside Heights — and these were all driving gigs, without hotels and airplanes — and we could potentially play to millions of different people. No other band in our position would have been able to cover that amount of ground and play to as many people.

So yeah, we watched some of the acts who opened for us go on to be superstars, and to a lot of people it looked as if we just couldn’t ever get a break. But you know what, I have a wonderful house and family; great friends — my friends are all working class, blue collar people — and I enjoy staying involved with music while getting to do grandparent things. I have my daughter’s son Tuesdays through Thursdays. The house, all that stuff, all of it came from the band thing.

That hands-on approach to the band extends to you actually driving the van…I’ve seen you out there parking after loading out your equipment, when other lead singers would be enjoying a little something for their throat back in the dressing room…

I do all my driving. It’s my van! I don’t trust those guys. I’ll drive eight hours up to Rochester, do the set up and the breakdown, drive nine and a half hours back, get home at 11am and crash for 24 hours. I insist that we’re the world’s hardest working band. I have to build a new generation of fans if I want to be doing this for another bunch of years.

Just the whole saga of the Good Rats, and you in particular, is a real Bizarro-world, BEHIND THE MUSIC epic, and one with a happy ending that’s approved for all audiences.

Every year someone wants to write a play about us; I think I’ve had five or six guys send me the first act, but you never see another page after that. The problem with human beings is there’s no follow-through sometime.

One of the most intriguing things about Good Rats 2011 is that in addition to the gigging lineup you’re appearing with here, you’ve also reunited pretty regularly with the classic lineup from the 70s…is it my imagination or are you stepping up that project a lot more these days?

We try to do three shows a year with the classic lineup…hopefully we’ll get one going in Jersey. We always get a great reaction when we get together. But the guys all have their lives, families, you know; a couple of them have stayed involved with music and some of them have done very well for themselves in other business ventures.

Since the last time I saw you, your son Gene has left the band, and you added a full time keyboard player for the first time.

Gene is also doing very well. He’s now the lead singer of a show band, the kind that plays casinos and big events — some nights he’ll make ten to fifteen grand a night, and without playing his guitar.

Our keyboard guy, Dan Smeraglia, started coming to our shows from Stamford. His dad was a big band guitarist, by the way — Sal Salvador.  We don’t have the keyboards on every song, but it allows us to do things like “Man on a Fish,” “City Liners,” “Writing the Pages.” Things we didn’t feature in our sets back when they were new.

And you’re also doing covers? You were always the guys who went into all the cover clubs and did all original music.

Our fans got used to us doing covers; “Rebel Yell,” “She Effin’ Hates Me,” things like that. Girls get lit up and hit the dance floor when you play a song they know, tits and ass flyin’ around, so it makes sense for us to do that. But we won’t do “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Spoken like a man who truly understands the universe of bars and bands.

One thing I want to get across, and I hope there are some bar owners out there reading this, is that your expertise, as an experienced band, helps the bar owners — and helps you get more gigs when the bar owners know that you’re on their side. You’re here to help them have a successful night, sell some beers.

The song “Let’s Have Another Beer” almost hit for us — but in typical Good Rats fashion, Danny Goldberg, who used to manage us, picked up on it and started talking with Sony about a contract. Then 9/11 happened, and, well….

Regrets, you’ve had a few. But you also made yourself some fans along the way.

It’s amazing, looking at how we’ve touched so many people…it never quite dawned on me, the effect we’ve had on people. ‘You’re my second favorite band.’ We always get that. But I’m like a kid, whenever something exciting happens like getting one of our songs in a movie; when Rosie O’Donnell mentioned us, or when Ed Burns was seen wearing a Rats t-shirt.

I’m so amazed that I’ve made a living out of writing. I was such a shy kid; I didn’t go to parties, didn’t do drugs. At one point, my mother thought I was gay! I was 30 years old when the first album came out.

I still have my dream — where guys like Bruce and Billy Joel already achieved it a long time ago. It’s over for them that way. But I still believe. I still love performing, still love doing long shows. I’m gonna be 67, and I’m still playin’ in front of 20 year olds. My wife yells at me for driving all night, for playing three hours straight, but I do it because I love it…and I do it because they came to see us play.

Okay, lightning round! Favorite New York area discount store?

Korvette‘s!

Greatest New York area kiddie show host?

I’ll go with Soupy Sales. But I should put in a mention of Winky Dink. It was the first interactive viewing experience.

All time greatest New York radio deejay?

Vin Scelsa, Scott Muni, everyody at the old WNEW-FM.

Who called the best ballgame?

Mel Allen!

And on those few times when you guys traveled to other parts of the planet, what did you miss most about home?

The food, all of it, because the portions are so big!

One more. What’s your favorite Italian dish?

I’m gonna get in trouble here, but I’ve never been crazy about Italian food! At Christmas time, I like sauerbraten.

Tickets for the June 18 show at the Brighton are $15 and available right here — and look here for the best article ever written on the subject of the Good Rats.

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