The discography of Big Sound Records proves that great things often come in small packages. While the label didn’t release many LPs, those that were released by the likes of The Scratch Band and Van Duren have become favorites of crate-diggers. Big Sound patterned itself on the U.K.’s Stiff Records, and its answer to Stiff’s Elvis Costello may well have been Roger C. Reale. The 1978 album Radio Active, credited to Reale and Rue Morgue, was packed with compact rock-and-roll nuggets – ten on the U.S. edition, and twelve on the U.K. version. Despite strong songwriting and sharp playing from some heavy hitters, the album disappeared without a trace. That, however, has been rectified thanks to Rave On Records’ new Collection, pairing both Radio Active and its never-released follow-up Reptiles in Motion featuring the legendary Mick Ronson on one CD.
The liner notes of The Collection quote producer-songwriter-journalist and onetime Big Sound A&R man Jon Tiven: “I thought that Big Sound was going to be anything other than mainstream that qualified as rock. Roger is the closest thing that we had to an artist that I thought would be appealing to Ramones fans, Richard Hell fans, somebody who had that kind of adrenaline rush.” The label, formed under the aegis of Connecticut recording studio owner and producer Thomas “Doc” Cavalier, enlisted guitarist G.E. Smith of The Scratch Band (and later with Saturday Night Live and Daryl Hall and John Oates’ band) and drummer Hilly Michaels, then recently touring with Sparks, to round out Reale’s power trio.
The combination clicked. Singer-songwriter-bassist Reale tapped into power pop, new wave, punk, and old-fashioned rock-and-roll for his debut. The crunchy “High Society” indeed reminds one a bit of the young Costello (and not just because the title scans the same as Elvis’ “High Fidelity”), while he’s more in a streamlined power pop vein for “Pain Killer.” The muscular “Reach for the Sky” is a stripped-down arena rock anthem that never was. Three choice covers showed some of Reale’s influences from Chuck Berry going punk on “Dear Dad” to The Troggs’ lusty, jagged “I Can’t Control Myself” and the Chicago R&B of Fontella Bass’ hit “Rescue Me.” Their melodic inspirations almost certainly affected Reale’s own songwriting: raw rock, yes, but with hooks.
Radio Active was released in spring 1978. With G.E. Smith unavailable for a follow-up, Tiven and Michaels brought in Jimmy McAllister on guitar. The trio of Reale, Michaels, and McAllister even played live late in the year, and in January 1979, sessions began for a follow-up album with a bona fide rock hero on board. Michaels had brought Radio Active over to Mick Ronson’s house, and the Spider from Mars dug what he heard. As Reale recalls in the liner notes, “My intent for the second LP was to move forward with songs that would sound less spontaneous, and more produced. Mick was a real gentle soul, down to earth, very receptive, adding to the songs immediately. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here I am showing my songs to Mick Ronson and we record them right on the spot!”
With Ronson on board supplementing McAllister (Michaels recalled Ronson “hedging a bit…not overdoing it and maybe underplaying it just a bit, as to not take away from Jimmy”), the album that would become Reptiles in Motion was indeed subtly different: perhaps a little tougher, slightly slicker but with the same hallmarks of songwriting and musicianship. Jon and Sally Tiven joined Reale to pen a couple of tracks including the opening salvo “She’s Older Now,” with its almost-danceable rhythm and Beatles callback of “I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…”
If Ronson’s presence didn’t add flashiness, it did add heft and confidence to the LP. The rapid-fire punk sensibility was still in evidence on the likes of “Pros and Cons” and “Back It Up” while a more radio-friendly rock sheen was present on “Radioactive” (ironically not on the LP of that name). Reale again recalls Costello (never a bad thing!) in the pub rock-esque “No Secrets” and slows down the tempo for the compelling “Make It Be Over.” With its ragged harmonies, impressive licks, and catchy melody, “Point Blank” is one of the tracks here that would have made a fine candidate for single release. “Living in Anger” offers a spin on the familiar “Stand by Me” riff, and the closing “Rock It to the Kremlin” channels the “Back in the U.S.A.”-era Chuck Berry.
Sadly, behind-the-scenes tensions at Big Sound led to Reptiles in Motion being consigned to the vault, where it remained until Reale gained the rights back in 2018. He continued to write and play in the ensuing years; artists ranging from B.B. King to Johnny Winter have recorded his songs. Today, he performs with his band The Manchurians.
The colorful six-panel digipak of The Collection has new liner notes on three of those panels, and features quotes from key personnel recounting the story of how these albums were lost – and became found. Scott Anthony has nicely mastered all of the tracks. For those interested, Reptiles in Motion is also available on vinyl as a standalone release. Both titles stand as a fine testament to Reale’s work (as well as Messrs. Smith, Michaels, McAllister, and Ronson) and true gems for collectors of punk, new wave, power pop, and pub rock.