As I type these words, I’m just a couple of miles away from the heart of Westfield, New Jersey, a bucolic suburb with a bustling and vibrant Main Street. Over the years, Westfield has boasted a number of illustrious residents, among them Charles Addams, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. But it should be no surprise to find that Westfield is also the birthplace of a beloved pop group. After all, New Jersey’s musical roots run deep, from Sinatra to Springsteen, the Four Seasons to Bon Jovi. There’s no doubt that some residents today still harbor fond memories of The Critters.
The band had its genesis when Don Ciccone auditioned for a successful local band called The Vibratones, then seeking a rhythm guitarist, in the nearby town of Plainfield. Don’s friend Bob Podstawski (who later played saxophone for The Critters) introduced Ciccone to the Vibratones’ leader, Jim Ryan. The newly christened Critters quintet – Ciccone on rhythm guitar and vocals, Chris Darway on piano, organ and vocals, Jack Decker on drums, Kenny Gorka on bass and vocals, and Jimmy Ryan on lead guitar and vocals – caused a local stir with the release of the 1964 single “Georgianna.” But if that Musicor single didn’t set the charts on fire, national acclaim arrived in due time, thanks to two 1966 Kama-Sutra/Kapp singles, “Younger Girl” and “Mr. Dieingly Sad.”
After recording an initial album for Kapp and enduring some personnel changes, The Critters signed to Enoch Light’s Project 3 Records, also home to The Free Design. Their two albums recorded for Project 3, Touch ’n Go with The Critters (1968) and the eponymous Critters (1969), form the heart of Awake in a Dream: The Project 3 Recordings, the latest excavation from the musical archaeologists at Now Sounds!
The road to these soft-psych classics wasn’t an easy one. Let’s go back to the beginning, after the jump!
After toiling around the New Jersey scene, recording for Musicor and scoring some regional hits on Kapp (including Jackie DeShannon’s song “Children and Flowers”), The Critters finally scored a signature song with John Sebastian’s “Younger Girl.” A competing version from The Hondells stopped The Critters’ version in its tracks at a respectable No. 42 on the Billboard chart in July 1966, but the song left listeners wanting more. Only two Critters, Don Ciccone and Kenny Gorka, actually appeared on “Younger Girl,” as producer Artie Ripp (Billy Joel, The Runaways) augmented the band with studio musicians. That August, The Critters regrouped to record their first LP (also titled Younger Girl after the single) and a follow-up 45, the Ciccone-penned “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” Unfortunately, Don Ciccone was drafted into the Air Force, and never got the chance to tour behind his beloved song with The Critters. “Mr. Dieingly Sad” eclipsed “Younger Girl,” though, with an impressive No. 12 placement. The band pressed on, working with producers like Bob Crewe and the team of Pete Anders and Vini Poncia before signing with Enoch Light’s Project 3 Records in fall 1967. Drummer Jack Decker soon was replaced by Jeff Pelosi. Chris Darway would follow Decker out of the band sometime during the recording of the first Project 3 album, and he was replaced by Bobby Spinella.
Classical violinist, bandleader and producer Enoch Light, founder of Command Records, was an early pioneer in stereo effects and audiophile engineering. He also brought the gatefold LP design to prominence, often including lengthy prose about the sounds you were about to hear when you played a Command LP. Light sold Command to ABC Records in 1965, and launched Project 3 where he attempted to retain a foothold in the commercial market by signing younger acts like The Critters and The Free Design.
Touch ‘n Go with the Critters was titled after a Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon (“Happy Together”) song, but the lion’s share of the album was written and produced by the band’s own Jimmy Ryan. The only other cover versions were Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” produced by the Charles Koppleman/Don Rubin team, and another John Sebastian song with a similar title to The Critters’ first hit. Sebastian’s “Younger Generation” was arranged by Jerry Yester, who had worked with Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful, The Turtles and his brother Jim’s group, The Association. Chris Darway also contributed a couple of his own compositions.
Despite the strong sunshine pop-leaning material on the first album, Project 3’s team had difficulty competing with major label promotion and so the album never took off. Producer Dan Armstrong was assigned to work with the band on its next LP, while Spinella was replaced with organist Paul Glanz as 1969 opened. Jimmy Ryan’s friend Thor Jensen joined him to write lyrics, and Jensen’s material often took on a darker hue with impressionistic lyrics. The heavier, even somewhat progressive album (though still rich with harmonies and hooks) was entirely self-written by Ryan, with and without Jensen. One instrumental track was credited to the entire band. However, the new approach didn’t cement The Critters’ place in the rapidly-changing marketplace, and The Critters disbanded shortly after the album’s summer 1969 release.
Now, these long-lost recordings can finally be savored and re-evaluated thanks to Awake in a Dream. The two-on-one, 23-track CD has been supplemented with the non-LP B-side “Lisa, But Not the Same,” produced by Wes Farrell of Partridge Family fame. The Critters’ Jim Ryan has supplied illuminating track-by-track liner notes, while reissue producer Steve Stanley provides detailed historical background in a new essay.
Although this rediscovery brings The Critters’ story to a happy ending, the individual band members continued to work in the music industry. Jimmy went on to join the cast of the musical Hair and toured with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, in addition to recording with talents like Carly Simon. Kenny Gorka ran The Bitter End club in New York’s Greenwich Village. Original Critter Don Ciccone further solidified his place in Jersey musical history when he was invited by Frankie Valli to join The Four Seasons; he and Gerry Polci even supplemented Valli on major vocal duty during the band’s seventies comeback heyday.
Are you excited to welcome these Critters into your home? Awake in a Dream: The Project 3 Recordings will be released on Now Sounds in the U.K. on September 26, and should be available stateside shortly thereafter. A pre-order link can be found below!
The Critters, Awake in a Dream: The Project 3 Recordings (Now Sounds, 2011)
- Touch ‘n Go (G. Bonner—A. Gordon)
- Reason to Believe (T. Hardin)
- Because You Came To See Me Today (J. Ryan)
- Younger Generation (J. Sebastian)
- A Moment of Being with You (J. Ryan)
- Let’s Love (J. Ryan)
- Awake in a Dream (J. Ryan)
- Margie Girl (J. Ryan)
- Cool Sunday Morning (J. Ryan)
- Good Morning Sunshine (C. Darway)
- Sweet Breezes (C. Darway)
- Forget It (J. Ryan)
- She Said She Loved Him (J. Ryan)
- Colleen (J. Ryan)
- The Teddy Bear Affair (J. Ryan – T. Jensen)
- I Just Want to Sit Right Here and Look at You (J. Ryan)
- Wooden Soldiers (J. Ryan—T. Jensen)
- Avon Iris (J. Ryan—T. Jensen)
- Maiden of the Sea (J. Ryan—T. Jensen)
- King Street Flying Circus (J. Ryan)
- Whistling a Rhyme (J. Ryan—T. Jensen)
- Harold (The Critters)
- Lisa But Not the Same (J. Ryan—T. Jensen)
Tracks 1-12 from Touch ‘n Go with the Critters, Project 3 LP PR4001 SD, 1968
Tracks 13-22 from Critters, Project 3 LP PR4002 SD, 1969
Track 23 from Project 3 single PR45-1349, 1968