7/24: Playing the Nines, One More Time

BrittNinesLadies of the 80s, Call Home…Britt Savage reunites for one night only with her classic new-wave cover band The Nines, and returns to the Jersey Shore circuit for some saturday night sets at The Wonder Bar.

It was an era when titans ruled the land — mega-barbands with names like Bystander, NRG, The Passions, Prophet, and The Watch, to name but a few. Bands with truckloads of high-tech equipment, slick light shows and pre-internet mailing lists that boasted thousands of fervent followers. Giants who commanded the prime weekend slots at the most glittering of the “grittering” working-class dance clubs, even as the original music makers of the Jersey Shore skittered furtively like the first small mammals in the path of the mighty dinos.

To those who weren’t there, it’s almost impossible to describe that 1980s interlude when the drinking age was 18 and the closing time in many Shore towns was 3 a.m. — and when a huge generational clot of boomers escaped their houses and took to the dance floors nightly for 75 cent ‘kazis til midnight, Michelob specials and roses for the ladies, while supplies last. Even many of the fortress-like clubs that contained them — from Close Encounters, Royal Manor and Fountain Casino, to the Trade Winds, Club Xanadu and Baby-O’s — have since vanished like the towers of Atlantis.

The best of the big-shot cover bands drew together a broad-based audience, furnished the soundtrack for countless personal memories, and filled a need that couldn’t be met by paleozoic video games and local cable systems that were still left wanting for MTV. On Saturday night, July 27, one of the top-tier bands of the Reagan years returns for the first time in more than 25 years, when the classic lineup of The Nines reunites for a one-off “Back in the Day” gig at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park.

Nines-BrittIRSAdam, Mick, Britt, Bobby and John as they appeared in the 1980s heyday of The Nines…and Nashville’s own Britt Savage, modeling her made-from-tax-forms dress that got her featured in the pages of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

Promoted by Tony Pallagrosi’s UMT Productions and set to commence at 8 p.m., it’s something of a bittersweet occasion for the musicians who represented the first band of that circuit to specialize in “new wave” hits and near-misses — this at a time when Southern Rock, Stones and Jethro Tull tributes were still big business. Keyboardist Bobby Gordon will not be there to add his synth mastery to such tunes as “She Blinded me with Science,” having passed away last year of complications from Lyme disease. Bill Dellicato, a contemporary from such organizations as Prophet and Bystander, will be taking time out from his career as a practicing attorney to join guitarist Adam Roller, bassist John Rogers, drummer Mick Gormaley — and, fronting the lineup as she did for thousands of NJ and NY gigs, vocalist Britt Savage.

The various members of The Nines have certainly kept themselves busy in the years since they hung up their last can of Aqua-Net. Britt went on to win $100,000 from Ed McMahon as the 1992 Female Vocalist champion on TV’s Star Search — and for the past 15 years she’s been based in Nashville, where she’s backed up superstars like Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood; recorded commercial jingles (from L’Oreal to Lay’s Potato Chips), and collaborated on projects with her husband, drummer Wes Little (whose credits include Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mariah Carey, Shakira, and Beyonce, with whom he laid down the beat for Barack and Michele’s first dance at Obama’s Inaugural Ball).

Adam’s kept his hand in as a pro musician as well, appearing at the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival. John, who was a member of Blue Oyster Cult for a decade, is now an Emmy winning TV director — and Mick is a sought-after sound and music editor whose Hollywood credits include Black Swan, School of Rock and True Grit.

With longtime fans planning to travel in from all over the map for the July 27 occasion, The Nines plan to keynote their Saturday gig with a special “warm-up and meltdown” show in Dunellen this Thursday night. Your upperWETside correspondent — flashing back big-time to the years in which he published a Shore music paper called PIPELINE — spoke with Britt Savage about old friends, new wave, and timeless times.

upperWETside: Well, words can’t express what a strange thrill it is to be looking at a Nines reunion, about 25 years after I last saw the band, and just a couple of blocks from my house at that. I’ve looked in on some of the things you’ve been up to in recent years, and I understand you’re based out of Nashville, or just outside of Nashville these days… 

BRITT SAVAGE:  Right in the heart of Nashville! I came here about 15 years ago to sing on a song demo…I packed up my horse trailer and I never left. I love it here…I have a place to board my horse, I was able to buy a 100 year old Victorian house, and I don’t have to worry about getting fifty dollar tickets while I double park and run in for a bagel.

I’m guessing that the life of a working singer in Manhattan doesn’t leave much opportunity for a Sunday pleasure drive. 

I have always loved driving, and to be able to get around in your own car is the way I like to travel. New York was great in a lot of ways, but I’m a bit of a germaphobe when it comes to taking public transportation. And a car is such a great place to be able to warm up your voice.

Most of the people who came to see The Nines perform at places like the Trade Winds or Xanadu…which is now Porta, quite another experience altogether…probably took it for granted that you had a pretty cushy existence then; just singing some songs for a few sets each night, sitting some of the songs out while you did whatever rock stars do in those luxurious dressing rooms backstage. I remember looking around at the massive tech setup you’d have for a typical weekday night…you had a guy who worked the spotlight as a regular job…and thinking that this is a serious investment of time and cash. You’d work every weekend, and then every Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday(?) at one of the places in Monmouth or Ocean or Middlesex county. You’d put in way more than eight hours a day door-to-door; you had THE top booking agency taking their cut…and you probably spent your days off taking care of your mailing list and doing demos for songwriters and producers. 

It was a real job, and a long day that started in the afternoon and ended around the time that everybody else was getting up to go to work. You’d still be there at the club while all the equipment was being broken down; by the time you got paid by the club manager and got back to Manhattan you’d probably be hungry enough to head straight for an all-night Chinese food place. And when we heard a new song that we liked, we had to find the time to learn it fast. So you can see how those years can feel like one big blur to me…people who came out to see us tell me that they were such great times but, no, I don’t remember! (laughs) In a way, I feel like I missed the entire 1980s.

It’s an experience that you shared closely with a handful of other people, who have all gone their separate ways. And I can understand how you’d all want to just close that chapter in your lives; how there might not be any great rush to revisit a thing in which the audience has matured, and most of the places where you played have disappeared from the landscape…  

I haven’t seen some of these people in years…and I used to see them every day, we drove to gigs and rehearsed together. We’ve talked through the years, and whenever somebody got the idea to get back together, we would think about what it would take for all of us to take time off from our lives…it was going to be a bit of an undertaking, and when we did a budget it just seemed crazy.

I get the sense that it all really started to coalesce when you got a presence going on Facebook…by this point, you’ve even got a dedicated Nines page. I can think of at least a few mutual friends who have surely egged you on to do this little endeavor. 

With Facebook, people just started finding me…I’d get a couple of them each week, asking if I was Britt from The Nines, and we started to look at a reunion a little more seriously than we did before; we got the sense that there were all these people out there who would really love to see it happen. Losing Bobby put everything into shocking reality for us…we realized that the time was now, and this would never happen unless we made it happen.

We knew that if we did anything at all it would have to be on the Jersey Shore, and the original plan was to do it at the Stone Pony, where we played a lot of weekend shows during the 1980s. But, the Pony couldn’t give us a summer weekend date six months in advance, so we moved it to the Wonder Bar, which looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. I like that they’re doing the Doggy Yappy Hour there!

So, while it’s not going to be exactly like the days when we traveled with the four regular crew members and the big trucks, I think that anyone who comes out for this is going to have a great time. I know a lot of people who are flying in or driving in from all over to be there…I’d like to get Glinda (this correspondent’s ex-wife, aka “Klutch” or “Endometria Jones” of Albuquerque, NM) up on stage to help sing ’52 Girls!’ And I’m hoping to be able to hang out after the Saturday gig to catch up with people…maybe hook up for breakfast at The Inkwell!

The Inkwell’s still there, as opposed to a lot of what you might remember down the Shore from 30 years ago. Now, can we expect to be seeing some of the old clothes and hair on stage? And what about those hexagonal synth drums?

Micky, who’s worked on a million movies, hasn’t been behind his drum kit in 20 years, and I’m sorry to say that his old Simmons Electronic drums…he was one of the first drummers around to play them; they were like serial number 002 when he got them…melted in his mother’s basement. But Mick’s custom-built a new drum kit, and now he’s talking about playing again! Every time I look at his iMDB page I see another great film credit…and John, who’s a great career of his own, has been keeping active, playing out with Bob Burger’s band. Adam never stopped being a musician; he put us in touch with Bill Dellicato, who’s not there to replace Bobby of course, but who’s very familiar with the coverband scene from that time. Somewhere along the line, he wised up and became an attorney!

Now Facebook, which you all probably could have really used way back in the day, was something that you also put to work when it came time to hammer out a set list for this gig. You were opening up the suggestion box several months back, as I recall… 

We did, and we wrote down anything that anyone suggested. I was open to whatever they wanted us to do…hopefully songs that we’re not sick of after all these years! There were always some songs, like Scandal’s ‘Goodbye to You,’ that I thought just didn’t fit, that were just a little too pop. Just listening again to some of those songs…ay-yi-yi, it’s one big giant glob of lyrics to me. And it never dawned on me that I might have to sing Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’ in 2013. But even if it’s weird to be singing ‘we’re the kids in America’ — we’re not kids, you know — I can still sing, and in some ways I feel as wacky as ever.

One song that The Nines performed for years was “Damaged Goods” by the Gang of Four…a total non-hit as far as most people were concerned, but I always got a kick out of the fact that Adam and the guys wouldn’t let it go. It was still in your set long after the last Gang of Four fan died of old age in a nursing home…  

That was probably one of the songs that people would be thinking of when they’d tell me, ‘you guys are really good, but you play too many originals!’

People would also come up to me and insist that they knew for a FACT your entire show was pre-recorded.  

Well, I definitely take that as a compliment. We were together about ten years, and everybody in the band was always nudging each other to play at that level every night of the week. Because of that experience, I learned how to harmonize, I learned how to work with musicians. Being in The Nines served me so well in my career as a musician…and I was blessed to be making music for people in New Jersey then. Every night of the week, people would have a choice of over a hundred bands playing music from Long Island down to Seaside Heights, and to have had so many people turn out to see US all of the time meant a lot to me.

Tickets for the 8 p.m. event are $12 in advance through Ticketmaster or thewonderbarasburypark.com, and $15 at the door.