When news came through that Brooklyn label Manufactured Recordings was reissuing Tomorrow's Coming, the sole full-length LP by cult power-pop group The Modulators, we at Second Disc HQ knew we couldn't just do an ordinary news post.
It's not just the music--although the music, a sugary-sweet blend of Raspberries-esque dream pop and Marshall Crenshaw-ian jangle-crunch, is thoroughly worth your time. Ultimately, our interest is piqued by the original label that released Tomorrow's Coming: Vintage Vinyl Records, the boutique label of New Jersey's largest independent record store and the place both myself and Joe often find ourselves in pursuit of great reissues and box sets.
And with such a generous reissue as Manufactured's set (both on LP and CD, with some 19 bonus tracks added to the original album!), we had to get the scoop. Luckily, we went to someone who was there from the start: Modulators founder Joe Riccardello.
In the Beginning...
Riccardello's association with Vintage Vinyl goes back to the beginning--literally: he was the shop's first employee in 1979, when they were headquartered in Irvington, New Jersey (they now reside in Fords). A longtime music aficionado who'd played in local cover bands during the 1970s, Riccardello and owner Rob Roth soon bonded over their ability to craft catchy rock tunes, with Rob's lyrics quickly set to Joe's melodies.
"He would come in with a folder full of lyrics every day," Riccardello said in a phone interview. "I couldn't keep up with them! I bought a cheap guitar and left it in the store, and we started to write together."
Eventually, after recording a handful of four-track demos on a TEAC recorder, some of which are heard on the new reissue of Tomorrow's Coming, the duo (Riccardello singing and playing all instruments, and Roth producing) recorded and released The Modulators' first single, "Girl Trouble" b/w "Amplitude Modulation." Riccardello says the idea for a band only came together after the single was pressed.
"My goal was to be in a band, but at the time I was burnt out from playing, and when we wrote together...I wasn't hooked up with anybody," he said. "I played some bass and some drums, and that was how we started it. It was a great experience in arranging.
"Some time had gone by, and I'd said to Rob, 'Look, I'm not getting another band, we'll write and we'll record,'" Riccardello continued. "But when we put the record out, Rob [said], 'We have to support this.'" So a formal trio came together in 1981: Riccardello stuck to bass, Mark Higgins (who'd played with Riccardello in local cover bands and a duo called The Riff Brothers) played guitar and Mark "Cakes" Westlake rounded out the group on drums, with Joe and Mark Higgins trading vocal duties. That lineup began recording together, dropping tracks over the next year on local compilations ("Kristine" on a Vintage Vinyl sampler EP, and "Down At The Dirt" for a compilation put out by Bloomfield's Dirt Club, a frequent site for Modulators gigs) and another single, "She's So Cynical" b/w "Dream Girls."
Eventually, the trio (with Roth producing) began to lay down tracks for a full-length album. "[We] recorded in Homegrown Studios," Riccardello remembers, "a 16-track in Roselle, NJ. We were impressed because Southside Johnny had recorded there. It had great rates, because we recorded through the night from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.--otherwise, it was just unaffordable."
The eight original tracks on Tomorrow's Coming remain deliriously catchy. The title track is the perfect, sparkly intro to a record of this caliber, while songs like "Spin Me Around," "Jimmy Says" and "Own Little World" stand out as the platonic ideal of the power pop genre.
Riccardello calls "Spin Me Around" (which Higgins sang on the album) one of his favorites. "One day I said to Rob, 'Let's write a Raspberries song,'" he said. "Within 45 minutes, we had most of 'Spin Me Around.' I patterned it after 'I Wanna Be With You'--there's lots of chord changes and a couple of key changes."
He remembered "Own Little World" and the cover of the Bob Dylan-penned Byrds hit "My Back Pages" as the last songs recorded during the six-to-eight-month period in which Tomorrow's Coming was tracked. "If you listen to the sonics of those two songs, you can hear we were growing in the studio," he remembered, noting that earlier tracks overused the studio's then-new plate reverb.
Interestingly, "My Back Pages" was not the group's first choice for a cover. "I always felt, as an original band, that if you could do a cover that draws people in, they will pay more attention to your stuff," Riccardello said. "[But] the original cover was going to be The Jackson 5's 'The Love You Save.' We did put down a rhythm track, but I didn't like the way it was coming. It wasn't funky enough!"
Videos and More
Despite the limited local reach of Tomorrow's Coming--some 1,000 copies distributed by Vintage Vinyl--the album did find its own degree of success. A music video was recorded for "Spin Me Around" featuring the band's new fourth member, Jim Brennan, who took over bass duties to let Riccardello sing full-time. "Videos were hot on MTV, but local bands didn't do them," Riccardello recalled. A friend, Eric Anderson, worked in a New York City television studio and booked time for the group to record the primitive but enjoyable video. "It was kind of state-of-the-art [then], but looking at it [now] reminds me of The Monkees!" Joe recounted with a laugh. (And while airplay was modest, the video has amassed nearly 30,000 views on YouTube.)
And local buzz, at a time when bands like The Smithereens were building something of a Jersey alt-rock scene, even got a major label to call. Radio airplay on WLIR-FM and WNEW-FM's Prisoners of Rock and Roll show was strong enough for Vintage Vinyl to receive a letter from A&M Records.
"Rob got a letter to the store saying--I'll never forget it--'Your single ['She's So Cynical'] is the buzz of our office. Please send more material ASAP,'" Riccardello said, still proud to this day. While the group did send in more material, no deal materialized. And, as sometimes happens with local bands, life gets in the way.
End of An Era...Start of a New One
"The scene started to die down, clubs started to dry up," Riccardello said. "We basically morphed into a cover band. Instead of doing 45-minute, mostly original sets in New York City or The Dirt Club, we were now doing four hour nights." The group members also began to get married and have families, and The Modulators started to move toward the back burner--but never really broke up...and, as the Internet made it easier for music to be discovered, interest in the group started to expand.
Fittingly, the next chapter of The Modulators began with a Vintage Vinyl shopper: David Bash, a fan and music writer who founded the International Pop Overthrow Festival in 1998. In 2009, The Modulators took the stage at Kenny's Castaways in New York as part of the IPO lineup; the following year, they joined the festival at the legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool--a momentous occassion for Riccardello, a lifelong Beatles fan. Since then, they've been consistently found on the IPO bill in New York, Boston and elsewhere.
It was that first IPO gig that the group realized how far their music had come: Atsushi "PoPn" Kasai of the Japanese power-pop band Gorilla flew to New York to see the group and meet them afterward. "He and his friend were right in front of the stage, jumping up and down, singing along," Riccardello marveled. "He became a friend of ours--they did a mini-tour in September, and we did a show with them! Him coming to the United States was unbelievable--and now he's trying to get us out there!"
In 2010, Tomorrow's Coming finally bowed on CD, pressed by an indie label called Koolkat Musik and featuring three of the band's early single sides as bonus tracks. Riccardello is effusive in his praise of label head Ray Gianchetti, who also distributed the band's second album, Try Try Try, in 2015--but it's clear that Manufactured's new version of Tomorrow's Coming is like no other.
"Manufactured came looking for us, once again, through Vintage Vinyl--[project manager] Chris Pappas has been really, really great in getting this together," Riccardello said. "Their original impetus was they looked on the internet and saw original copies of the album going for $50-$75! So they wanted to do it right."
For Manufactured, doing it right meant remastering the album for the first time ever, from the original two-track mixdown, painstakingly baked and digitized. (Riccardello notes with local pride that the same studio that handled the baking of Tomorrow's Coming also worked on the tapes for Bruce Springsteen's The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story box set.) The result is a sonic clarity that even elevates the group's primitive four-track demos. Informative liner notes by Steve Borchardt round out the package, concisely telling fans old and new The Modulators' story.
Take a Chance
Now, more than 35 years after writing songs in the back of a record store, Riccardello is proud of The Modulators' place in power pop history.
"It's all about melody and harmony," he said, asked to describe the draw of power pop. "A good melody will grab you the first time you hear it, the second time you hear it. That's what power pop is--really good melodies and harmonies, with a little bit of crunch in the chords of the guitars.
"I always said there's a million guitar players that are great you've never heard of," he added. "But there's not a million great songwriters. It really boils down to the songs."
The Modulators, Tomorrow's Coming: Expanded Edition (Manufactured Recordings MFG-045, 2017)
- Tomorrow's Coming
- Jimmy Says
- Spin Me Around
- My Back Pages
- Rainy Day Girl
- If You Let Her Go
- Own Little World
- Lost Without a Sound
- Girl Trouble
- Amplitude Modulation
- Down At The Dirt
- She's So Cynical
- Dream Girls
- Hearts Breakin' (Demo)
- Someday (Demo)
- New Kind of Line (Demo)
- Like Falling in Love (Demo)
- Take a Chance (Demo)
- It's Your Fire (Demo)
- Summer Girls (Demo)
- Girl Trouble (Demo)
- No Sale (Demo)
- Be My Baby (Demo)
- She's So Cynical (Demo)
- Kristine (Sunnyside Studio Demo)
- Amplitude Modulation (Guitar Demo)
Tracks 1-9 released as Tomorrow's Coming - Vintage Vinyl Records HIT4-LP2, 1984
Tracks 10-11 released as Vintage Vinyl Records single HIT-1, 1980
Track 12 released on Vintage Vinyl's Original Cast - Vintage Vinyl Records HIT2-EP1, 1981
Track 13 released on Dirt Compilation Volume 1 - Dirt Records DR-001, 1982
Tracks 14-15 released as Vintage Vinyl single Records HIT-3, 1982
Tracks 16-28 previously unreleased
The Second Disc sincerely thanks Joe Riccardello, Chris Pappas and Dylan Roth for their invaluable assistance in making this feature possible.