With apologies to John Lennon, Joe Grushecky is a working-class hero. A special education teacher by day and musician by night, Grushecky has worked for decades in inner-city Pittsburgh to help children battling severe developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities. Determination, grit, and authenticity have long been among his trademarks as an artist. Now, Cleveland International Records has reissued his sophomore album, recorded with his band The Iron City Houserockers, in a 2-CD or 2-LP expanded edition. 1980's Have a Good Time...But Get Out Alive! is packed with aggressive yet joyful melodies blurring the lines between the bar-band (or Jersey Shore) sound, punk, new wave, and gutsy Pittsburgh rock-and-roll.
The Iron City Houserockers' 1979 MCA debut Love's So Tough earned the Pittsburgh-based band plaudits from Rolling Stone and The New York Times as well as slots onstage with artists including Meat Loaf, The J. Geils Band (with whom they shared some influences), Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop. For their next album, the band sought a more expansive sound. Lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Grushecky, bassist Art Nardini, keyboardist Gil Snyder, drummer Ned E. Rankin, harmonica player Marc Reisman, and new guitarist Eddie Britt (replacing Gary Scalese, who had injured his hand following the first album) were joined for sessions by co-producers The Slimmer Twins (a.k.a. Popovich and Marty Mooney) as well as key contributors and heavy hitters Mick Ronson, Steven Van Zandt, and Ian Hunter.
The album's opening salvo, "Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive)," was aptly named; the Houserockers played the fast and furious tune as if their lives depended on it while Grushecky, his voice redolent of the young Elvis Costello, seethed and snarled his way through every down-to-earth lyric with passion and conviction. It set the tone for an album that throbs with passion and intensity, perhaps never more so than on "Pumping Iron." In the ensuing years, the anthem has becoming one of Grushecky's signature songs, and he's played it in concert more than 25 times over the years with his friend Bruce Springsteen.
Steven Van Zandt, fresh off production work for Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes and then co-producing and recording with Springsteen for The River, collaborated with the band as an uncredited producer and arranger on five tracks ("Junior's Bar," "Angela," "Running Scared," "Blondie," and "Don't Let Them Push You Around") in addition to playing lead guitar on "Junior's Bar." Without the mighty Miami Horns or the Big Man's wailing saxophone, Little Steven brought out the nuances in the Houserockers' lean, stripped-down sound.
"Don't Let Them Push You Around" is all swagger and attitude but is also damn catchy. Its frenetic punk edge set Grushecky and the Houserockers apart from many of their bar band/heartland rock contemporaries, as did the relative lack of romanticism in their lyrics and arrangements. Despite the breakneck trappings, "Angela" evokes the spirit of classic rock-and-roll, throwing in some Beatle-esque harmonica (think "There's a Place") for good measure. Van Zandt also captured a Rolling Stones feel on "Runnin' Scared" and oversaw the crisp, urgent ode to "Blondie."
Van Zandt's most notable contribution might be "Junior's Bar." Its origin is rooted in another track on the LP, "Old Man Bar." Written by bandmates Eddie Britt and Gil Snyder with Bob Boyer, and sung by Snyder, it's a touchingly observational song and a breather from all of the full-force rock. Van Zandt saw in "Old Man Bar" the kernel of something different, though, and worked with the band to give it an energetic spin. The result was the scorching "Junior's Bar" about a rather more youth-oriented watering hole, featuring background vocals by another artist on the Cleveland International roster, the talented Ellen Foley.
Mick Ronson, who had played mandolin on "Old Man Bar," also tickled the ivories on the ballad "Rock Ola," anchoring the Grushecky composition. Another high-profile guest and Ronson pal, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter (with whom The Houserockers toured), was responsible for the evocative production and arrangement (as well as background vocals, piano, and guitar) of "Hypnotized," a sardonic and stinging look at commercialism on television. Hunter also arranged the straight-ahead rocker "We're Not Dead Yet." Ironically, there's more of a soaring Mott/"All the Young Dudes" feel on "Price of Love," one of the slower songs on this high-octane album.
The bonus material ensures that this isn't a run-of-the-mill reissue. A second disc features 65 minutes' worth of previously unreleased music, all derived from Grushecky's own tape archive of cassettes and reels. (That's roughly 25 minutes longer than the original album.) The sixteen bonus tracks include demos of virtually all of the songs on Have a Good Time. Even with skeletal arrangements and songs in progress, there's a potent immediacy to these demo performances in both the rootsy rasp of Grushecky's voice and the no-frills power of the band.
The epic early take of "Don't Let Them Push You Around" is four minutes longer than the version on the disc. Grushecky defiantly growls and shreds his voice as he stretches and bends the melody to its breaking point, accompanied by scorching guitars and furious drums. He's credited Van Zandt with helping to shape it to its tight, final form. "Hypnotized," subtitled "A Work in Progress," presents eight minutes of a work tape as Grushecky noodles and develops the final form of the song, complete with fly-on-the-wall chatter.
The infectious "Pumping Iron" was a clear standout from the first demo, with Gil Snyder's boogie-woogie piano a standout. Even at the demo stage, the wistful remembrance "Price of Love" stood alone for its slower tempo and smoother sound. "Rock-Ola" is offered in two versions: the first is an uptempo stomper in sharp contrast to the version eventually included on the LP, while the second anticipates that final take.
A few outtakes also premiere on this disc. "Don't Stop the Music" is a barroom punk nugget celebrating the primal spirit of rock and roll. (Its bright chorus is a bit similar to that of Jim Steinman's "Dead Ringer for Love," written in 1979 and recorded in 1981 by Meat Loaf and Cher. Singer-songwriter Steinman was another Cleveland International artist.) "Hold Out," featuring prominent organ, is a youthful story of forbidden love. "Struggle and Die," penned by Grushecky and Dan Beck, is a dark rocker with a Latin-meets-Wall-of-Sound feel that cries out for a full production. Two loose covers round out the offerings, J.D. Miller's "Rooster Blues" and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry's sing-along "Do Wah Diddy."
The 40th anniversary reissue of the raucous Have a Good Time But...Get Out Alive! is a testament to the staying power of the Iron City Houserockers sound. Joe Grushecky is so often associated today with Springsteen, and it's clear that while the two men share some of the same musical DNA, he's also very much his own artist. George Marino at Sterling Sound has remastered the album on the loud side; John Naclerio at Nada Recording has mastered the bonus disc. The packaging is a simple four-panel, gatefold-style digipak with credits and information as well as a brief remembrance from the Houserockers' leader. One wishes a full booklet with photographs, memorabilia, and longer commentary from Grushecky and the band members would have been included, however, to make the visual component as strong as the audio one.
Joe Grushecky and The Iron City Houserockers didn't just get out alive, but they flourished...and this album is still here for one hell of a good time.
Have a Good Time But...Get Out Alive! is available now at: