❉ Paul Matts uncovers hidden Punk & Power Pop gems, including unreleased performances from Mick Ronson.
‘Stiff Records, The Jam, The Clash…we were getting all those singles and we wanted to be part of it.’ Roger C. Reale
Rue Morgue were primarily a studio group associated with Trod Nossel studios, Wallingford, and its label, Big Sound in the late 1970s. Reale was an active live performer across New England at the time, and the label ‘wanted in’ on the growing punk and new wave scene. In the Rhode Island-born Reale, they had an artist ready to sling into that very ring.
An album, Radioactive was released on Big Sound in the US in 1978. Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue at the time featured Reale himself as the principal songwriter, vocalist and bass player, Hilly Michaels on drums and vocals, and GE Smith on guitar. Michaels was the drummer with the Mick Ronson Band and Sparks at the time, whilst Smith played with Bob Dylan and Ian Hunter, amongst others. Jimmy McAllister, again from both the Mick Ronson Band and Sparks, also appeared on one track.
‘If you liked the Sex Pistols and can remember Chuck Berry, Roger has something for you in the way of rock n’ roll…Best cuts; side one.’ Billboard magazine review of Radioactive.
Despite receiving some level of critical acclaim, Radioactive failed to pick up an audience. One reason may well have been the fact the band only played live once, appearing at the Hurrah club in New York City. A sensational night, by all accounts. In longing for a CBGBs type crowd, it is frankly amazing they didn’t get out more, and play at the legendary venue itself on The Bowery or at Max’s Kansas City. Punk and new wave worked from the bottom upwards. It reached out to its grass roots and found an audience by playing to the masses.
Not vice-versa. Possibly this is down to the fact the band members of Rue Morgue had decent paid work with other, established touring outfits. A bigger earner, maybe?
Inspired by what he heard courtesy of some of his bandmates on Radioactive, Mick Ronson himself asked if he could play on the follow up. The sessions for what was to become Reptiles in Motion took place from January 1979 and twelve cuts were recorded. However, record company in-fighting had started at Big Sound. Time moved on and these tracks were never finished, and therefore, were never released.
Until now. They are to be released under the title The Collection. No prizes for the title originality-wise, however such is the energy throughout this twenty-four-song package that the is point is well and truly superfluous.
The first dozen cuts on The Collection are those on both the US and UK releases of Radioactive. The tracks are lightening quick at times, many coming in at sub-two minutes. Unsurprisingly, given it was recorded and released in 1978, it is the more ‘punk’ sounding out of the two albums. No fat on any of the tracks. Reptiles in Motion stretches out more. Musically. Not exactly into Prog Rock territory, but the subtle influence of Mick Ronson can be heard. Slightly more is packed into the tracks, as the band evolve into the world of developing world of new wave. The tracks are longer, too.
The quotation taken from Billboard magazine relating to Radioactive is accurate to a point. The Chuck Berry influence is clear throughout. Indeed, the band cover ‘Dear Dad’. However, the band are quite different to the Sex Pistols. The sound is nowhere near as dangerous and threatening as on Never Mind the Bollocks. A comparison with Richard Hell or The Ramones is more apt. Reale’s vocals are a mile apart from Rotten’s. The former has a strong, bluesy and well-rounded gravelly tone. The latter is the complete opposite, and more anarchic as a result.
It is therefore best, I feel, to consider the band’s efforts with an eye on the Stiff Records catalogue and recall what the label was up to in those early days. Somewhere between The Damned and Nick Lowe, as opposed to what the likes of The Pistols and the Clash were up to. Exactly what Roger C. Reale explained in his words at the time, remember.
The tracks on Radioactive are written by Roger Reale apart from the cover versions.
Radioactive kicks off with the teasing guitar opening of ‘High Society’. Reale’s strong and resonant vocal have immediate depth, articulating youthful desires. Something easy to relate to. The primal drumbeat is particularly effective, helping ’High Society’ jump in with both feet as a lead off track. To my ears, there is a hint of New York Dolls in this track.
If you’re gonna do a Chuck Berry cover for god sakes do it well. The version of ‘Dear Dad’ bristles with energy and has zero fat on it. So many covers of Chuck’s songs really do fall short and come over as an act taking the tune for granted. Not the case here. The essence of the song, its brevity and the sharp, decisive guitar work, plus the humour in the lyric come over (very) loud and clear. Great job.
One of the real standouts is ‘Stop and Go.’ Had it got radio airplay at the time it would surely have been a hit and would have graced many a punk and new wave compilation by now. A strong chorus, big bass sound and good use of background chants add to Reale’s vibrant vocal. The song has a cool, strutting feel which grabs the listener from the beginning. The formula is taken into ‘Painkiller’. Another tune with plenty of rock n’ roll swagger, straight off a sweaty NYC rock club dance floor.
‘Rescue Me’ wasn’t included on the original US release of Radioactive. It is the Fontella Bass classic given a punky do-over and builds nicely towards a chaotic finale. It was included on the subsequent UK release of Radioactive, incidentally.
‘Kill Me’ comes over very much as a product of the NYC arena circa 1978. High tempo, aggressive, with a chant of a chorus that is impossible not to raise your fist to. Clocking in at one minute twelve seconds, including time for a guitar solo. If it weren’t for this latter point, it would have been a song Johnny Ramone would have been proud of. Mosh pits were made for such frantic material. More’s the pity the band never got to experience many.
The pace drops a little for ‘Reach for the Sky’. The blueprint is repeated; a short verse wasting no time getting to the chorus, and the recording benefits from the re-mastering process. The bass-free intro of ‘Madonna’s Last Stand’ is effective. It’s techniques such as this that make a strong impact in punk rock, which is a rudimentary musical style. It gives a different dynamic to this fast-paced garage rocker. Clocks in at 2.04.
‘Please Believe Me’ is a melodic, steady number, and is a gem of a track. A radio friendly and melodic slice of new wave, it is a style Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue do particularly well. Strong vocal delivery, immediate chorus and an unfussy backing track. Again, the re-mastering treatment give it a nice full sound.
At under two minutes in length ‘Close Inspection’ features more ‘riff’ style guitar than some of the other tracks, and the introduction of a cowbell and tambourine give it a Rolling Stones flavour. Jimmy McAllister plays guitar on this number, and it is the second track not included on the original US (but was on the UK) release.
Many punk rock dance floors could have reverberated to ‘Inside Outside’ had things been different. Another sub two-minute song with a great sing-a-long chorus –
‘Inside Outside you never really quite decide
You’re getting on everyone’s nerves.
From the bottom to the top I just wish you would stop
It’s the only way that you’ll ever learn.’
A cover of the Troggs ‘I Can’t control myself’ brings Radioactive to an end. The tempo is a little slower, but this allows for a bit more space in proceedings. Chords ring out longer, leaving room for Reale’s vocal delivery. His strong voice doesn’t necessarily require this – he can compete easily enough with loud, frantic backings. The final, sharp, slashed guitar chord at the end of the chorus rings especially to good effect. It is a good taster of what would follow on Reptiles in Motion.
Radioactive is a strong album, make no mistake. It combines efficient playing with strong tunes. Had Roger C. Reale and Rue got a grass roots following on the gigging circuit at the time, it may well have gone on to obtain new wave classic status.
The Collection allows the listener to sample what they did next. It wasn’t a huge leap forward. Or backwards or sideways. More a subtle evolution. It also coincided with the arrival of Mick Ronson to the gang and Reptiles in Motion is therefore a fascinating listen.
At the time, Ronson had just finishing producing an album for The Rich Kids. The story goes he heard Radioactive at his house when his drummer Hilly Michaels brought it over.
‘He (Ronson) just put his hands up and was hypnotized by the first record. ‘Fuckin’ hell Hilly, this is amazing! Can I play on the next one?’ – Hilly Michaels.
With Ronno and two of his band members involved, Reale appeared on a winner when the sessions started in early 1979. Jimmy McAllister had replaced GE Smith on guitar and vocals, assisted by Ronson himself. Michaels remained on drums, as did Reale on bass and vocal duties.
A bona fide new wave banger kicks the album off. A real, genuine but hidden classic. It’s a crime against popular culture that it hasn’t been heard until 2019. Still, better late than never.
‘She’s Older Now’ is one of two songs written in conjunction with Reale by Jon and Sally Tiven. Jon Tiven produced records for the likes of Wilson Pickett and Curtis Mayfield and enjoyed chart success with songs written for Huey Lewis and the News. The Topper Headon-esq drumbeat gives an already strong tune a real kick, and the potential to be a real floor-filler. Having two guitar players at work gives an extra dimension, and more scope over-dub wise. There is more jangle, and more single string touches going on in the background. Vocals and chorus strike with impact. Classy.
The album’s second track, ‘Pros and Cons’, is a trashy tale of a band trying to get off the ground. Full of swipes at what’s real and genuine (‘The label called last night…..they haven’t heard the tunes but like the way we comb our hair’) and bad luck stories (‘Someone broke into the van and made off with Jimmy’s guitar’). The recording is snappy, with nothing wasted, and is a little more in keeping with the tracks on Radioactive.
Unlike ‘Radioactive’. Despite its title the song appears on Reptiles in Motion. Like the album’s opener, it is more layered, and with a running time of over five minutes, is twice the length as most on the album of the same name. It’s triumphantly discordant, with a vibrant riff and longer verses. The guitar interplay between McAllister and Ronson is at its most effective here, particularly in the middle section. Lyrically it seems to take a swipe at the power radio corporations wield. A good example of the evolution of the band.
‘One More Try’ comes across as the kind of record Stiff Records may have released had they had an American office. A new wave gem, containing one of the band’s best choruses. Reale’s vocals are again dynamic, with a hint of Elvis Costello here and there. There is a nice build into the chorus also.
A little darker, ‘No Secrets’ has an arpeggio guitar riff with a Tom Verlaine/ Richard Lloyd influence, and indeed to the track does remind me of Television. Which is no bad thing.
Indeed, there are a wider range of influences on show on Reptiles in Motion than on Radioactive. The bluesy bite of ‘Debutante Ball’ has a clear Bo Diddley feel. The razor-sharp attack of the solo guitars and wailing harmonica is effective, sending the album into new territory.
The second collaboration with Jon and Sally Tiven (yes, they are a husband and wife team) gives the album another classic moment. Like ‘She’s Older Now’, the fact that ‘Make It Over’ has been hidden away so long is once more a crime against popular culture. There is no coincidence it’s written by the same partnership. The guitars of McAllister and Ronson work together to produce a sharp, yet jangly guitar riff immersed with deliciously muffled distortion. This enables the listener not only to sing along with the chanted chorus, but to sing along with the with the guitar riff as well.
‘I’m in Distress’ has a NYC swagger in its slowed down verse and chorus tempo injection. ‘Point Blank’ represents another stylistic switch. Think updated sixties and seventies pop swagger this time, somewhere between the ‘The Last Train to Clarksville’ and the gleam of a Marc Bolan chorus.
Another skip in musical character and we have the bubble-gum pop punk of ‘Back It Up’. Again, the two guitars work well and fatten the track sonically with Ronson’s single string work behind Reale’s vocal injecting a savvy touch. The chorus, as ever, gives the song a catchy hook. The same is true with the album’s penultimate track, ‘Living in Anger’. A more laid-back affair, it has a slab of a guitar riff which gives the song structure.
Reptiles in Motion closes with ‘Rock It To The Kremlin’. Was it obligatory for bands to have a Soviet reference in the 1970s? A Chuck Berry style number, and one cannot be help mentioning ‘Back in the USSR’ at this point. The freedom of the youth of the west, especially when compared to that of the Soviet Union in 1979, is alluded to and this dictates the track is not just a rock n roll throwaway.
Reptiles in Motion contains more complexity, in terms of musicianship and arrangement. The songs are lengthier, and there is a greater variety of styles than on Radioactive. The latter keeps its feet planted in the punk, new wave and garage rock genre. But sonically, the strong vocal, the loud mid-range distortion on the guitars, and the tight song structures meant Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue were establishing a ‘sound’ that runs over these two albums.
The Collection is an intriguing release. Intriguing because it showcases a band whose name should really have been on the lips and in the record collections of many music fans by now. However, given that Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue fell flat before they got anywhere at all, we should be grateful to have the opportunity to discover this band retrospectively, courtesy of Rave On Records.
❉ Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue — The Collection CD/DL (Rave On TGP-1015, distributed by Burger Records) will be released October 18. Compilation produced in 2019 by Richard Brukner. Lead singles “Stop and Go” and “Radioactive” available now digitally.
❉ Pre-order on Amazon | Pre-order on Bandcamp
❉ Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue — Reptiles In Motion LP (Rave On TGP-1014, distributed by Burger Records) will be released October 18. For a limited time, orders placed for the Reptiles In Motion vinyl LP on Bandcamp will include an original, sealed 1978 copy of the U.S. pressing of the Radioactive LP.
❉ Pre-order on Amazon | Pre-order on Bandcamp
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.