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Cover Story

Test of time

From MTV darlings to state-fair gigs to an epic legal battle and back.

Photo/ Robert Matheu
From left: Coz Canler, Wally Palmar, Jimmy Marinos and Mike Skill from the 1984 video shoot for "One In A Million."
Photo/ Robert Matheu
From left: Skill, Marinos, Dick Clark, Palmar and Rich Cole on "American Bandstand," 1980.
Photo Courtesy Norm Ankers.
Skill, Marinos, attorney Norm Ankers, Canler and Palmar celebrate the court victory restoring their copyrights in this 1996 photo.
Photo/ Robert Matheu
Romantics 2003: from left, Palmar, Skill, Canler and Clem Burke.
Photo/ Robert Matheu
Palmar at Detroit's Westside 6 in 1979.
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Published 9/10/2003

The Romantics finally became rock ’n’ roll stars in the winter of 1983. Bucking fantastic odds and playing thousands of clammy club gigs in every time zone had paid off for the raffish, suit-bedecked quartet from Detroit’s east side. For a band up from the edge of the late ’70s Detroit punk scene that had festered in dank quarters like Bookies and the Red Carpet, it was a stellar year.

But 1983 was not a good year for rock ’n’ roll in America. The pop charts were clogged with synth- and lipstick-wielding UK pop dross — Culture Club, Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls et al. The Romantics were out of tune with all of that. The Romantics were always out of tune with the times; everything about the band was juxtaposition.

During their commercial peak, they were the only Detroit band — the only American rock ’n’ roll band — on the charts. They were Rickenbacker riff retailers in an anti-guitar era, a time when MTV was beginning to define pop music consumption.

Their single “Talking In Your Sleep” was hovering in the upper reaches of the Billboard singles charts, topping out at No. 3 in January ’84. The Romantics’ faces flashed on screens at MTV speed. Their fourth album, In Heat, spent 14 weeks in the Top 40 and went platinum. The band was among the first white acts to play “Soul Train.” (On “American Bandstand” a few years before, they’d told Dick Clark proudly that they were a Detroit rock ’n’ roll band.) They toured with two buses and two semi rigs for gear. The shows were huge. The shows were expensive.

The Romantics linked the now mytho-maniacal MC5/Stooges milieu of the late ’60s/early ’70s to Sponge in national consciousness. The band was a vestige of the generation weaned on Brit-invasion with in-the-flesh exposure to the Detroit of Seger, the MC5, the Up, Mitch Ryder, the Rationals, the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes.

“The Romantics were instrumental in their influence on the White Stripes and their choices in meeting the trousseau challenge, i.e. the red suits,” says longtime photographer and new Creem magazine publisher Robert Matheu.

The Romantics were dismissed early on by critics as a cheesy pop group. Rock purists loathed the Small Faces coifs-on-steroids, the tailored leather suits, the Pop-Tarts-sweet choruses.

These dismissals were ill-informed. The Romantics bottlenecked Brit-invasion bands like the Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Move and the Who, sieved it through British pub and punk rock and Detroit garage, and blasted the controlled chaos forth in three-minute churns of sing-song authority. The lyrics winked at the Merseybeat era. In short, a sonic vocabulary disrespected by critics but adored by an underground of true believers.

And the Romantics did their share of suffering. Members quit and got fired. The professedly irreplaceable drummer/singer Jimmy Marinos walked at the zenith of the band’s popularity. The ensuing album, 1985’s ill-advised and murky Rhythm Romance, signaled a steep decline. The band members were broke. At one point, the IRS seized their bank accounts.

Then things got worse.

The Romantics endured a treacherously long, soul-sucking legal battle for ownership of their songs — hundreds of thousands of dollars in song publishing that had seemingly vaporized in the hands of their managers.

It was one of the most arduous legal disputes in rock ’n’ roll history — a seven-year melee that would have finished off a lesser band, a band lacking an assiduous Detroit work ethic.

Their yarn’s outline could be Homer’s — a comic-book Odysseus as shaggy-haired rockers coming full circle in the face of insuperable obstacles.

Two decades after they released “What I Like About You,” the song has become iconic, a pop culture hymn, a defining fragment of history that gets about 30,000 plays a year on TV and radio. The Yardbirds-y rave-up is one of the most active income earners in the history of music, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

And because of it, finally, principal band members Coz Canler, Wally Palmar and Mike Skill — and former drummer Jimmy Marinos — are living comfortably.

The Romantics newest record, 61/49, which hits bins this week, is timely in view of the current international gush-fest over Motor City rock ’n’ roll. The band can’t be accused of jumping aboard the Detroit “rock ’n’ roll capital” train. The record is testament to how Detroit has caught up with the Romantics.

Twenty-three years ago, the band’s self-titled debut revealed a quartet so backward-gazing they were years ahead of their time.

 

The genesis of the Romantics can be traced to 1969, when guitarist/bassist Mike Skill, son of a bookkeeper, met Jimmy Marinos at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side. They would go see J. Geils, Iggy, the New York Dolls and the MC5, who started it all for Skill.

“They [MC5] were my favorite group,” Skill says. “I used to go see them at the Colonial Hotel in Mount Clemens. I saw them there and at Tiger Field in the early ’70s.”

Skill, Marinos and guitarist Robert Gillespie had a band called Albatross, later dubbed Rock On (after the Humble Pie album). They consumed life without adult supervision.

“We used to rehearse in Jimmy’s mom’s basement,” recalls Gillespie. “By ’71, when we were 17, the band fell apart. Even then, as a songwriter, Skill had that spark that would be a big part of the Romantics songwriting. The Romantics needed Skill for that. And Marinos too.” Gillespie pauses and adds with a laugh, “Marinos was already working on his rock-star skills.”

A few years later, Marinos and Skill started a gig-worthy band with guitarist Bobby East called the Bullits. By 1976, Skill and Marinos were keen to put together something inspired by the Flamin’ Groovies and the Jam, who had just hit in the UK, and the MC5. Simple, Skill says, and straight-ahead.

“Then we found Wally,” he says. “He was playing a show at a school in Hamtramck.”

Wally Palmar had a group with girl backup singers, a ’50s thing styled after Eddie Cochran. Skill and Marinos liked the songs and dug Palmar as a front man.

“It was right up our alley,” says Skill. “We liked the way Wally held himself on stage. We talked to him and we got together.”

Palmar was born in Hamtramck, the son of an auto plant worker, and graduated from Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic High School. Growing up in the ’60s, Palmar says, he “was fortunate. We had AM radio partial to Motown. And watching TV, girls screaming at the Beatles and Stones.”

One of the first rock shows Palmar saw was Bob Seger on the 12th floor of the old Hudson’s building. His dad bought him his first guitar and amp in ’67. He experimented with guitar lessons but “got burned out. I went home and started playing to Yardbirds records instead.”

Palmar learned to play harmonica by listening to the Yardbirds’ Keith Relf and Scott Morgan of the Rationals. “The Rationals’ ‘Respect,’ fuck — that’s where I really learned the harp,” he says.

One version of the Romantics featured a girl singer. “That was in ’76,” Palmar says with a laugh. He left the band for a time, then rejoined. “To me at that time a band was four guys — like the Kinks or the Beatles.”

Palmar brought bassist Rich Cole into the fold. The band’s first-ever show was supporting Rob Tyner’s MC5 (a band featuring only one original MC5 member, singer Rob Tyner). The gig was in April ’77 at My Fair Lady on Jefferson in Detroit.

“I took Rob over there to see the Romantics rehearse,” remembers Gillespie, who was in Tyner’s band then. “They were all nervous. I said, ‘Man, it’s time. You guys should start playing.’ They did it and it was a smashing success.”

The band’s third gig supported Tyner, Mink DeVille and Seger at the Silverdome. They sported ghastly orange suits purchased from a thrift store.

“We were just passing the window when we found the suits. We wanted to make an impression,” Palmar says. “We played the show when cars were just pulling into the parking lot.”

Matching outfits earned the Romantics much disdain over the years.

“The suits were perfect for us — it was Motown,” defends Palmar. “If you think about it, the Kinks and the Beatles got it from the Motown groups.”

“Before they got signed they didn’t have leather, they actually had clothes made out of tablecloth material,” says the band’s former seamstress and current Web mistress, Irene DeCook. She created the leather suits that adorned the band later, throughout their gravy years. “This vinyl gave them horrible rashes.”

If the garb was conceivable, few could decide where to file the sound.

“They didn’t really fit in anywhere,” says Gillespie.

The Romantics featured elements of punk rock but were too pop for the punks. They had essential elements of traditional rock ’n’ roll but were too pop for the elder rock ’n’ roll guard. The Romantics played places like Bookies not because they were cool but because they could draw. Their crowd was chiefly girls.

“Girls loved the band,” says photographer Robert Matheu. “A lot of that was based on aesthetics, which I think was mainly Jimmy’s idea; he’s the one that had the vision.”

Live, drummer Marinos was consummate Keith Moon showbiz — lithesome, with arms as cudgel props, surging up and down, hair perfect. His influence on rock ’n’ roll drummers is irrefutable. He kept his kit low and flat — simple, clean lines. This almost obsessive setup wittingly afforded viewers more of the man himself, a man ready for his close-up. His southpaw mien made the visual even more alluring. He played hard and purposely slightly behind the beat — that rare drummer feat of groove. (Marinos, who lives in Royal Oak, is no longer with the Romantics, though he is on some cuts on the new album. He declined to be interviewed for this story.)

“Marinos was never the most approachable. He was the most rock ’n’ roll of all ’em — a total rock star,” says perennial scenester Stirling Silver. “Marinos was rarely out with the other guys. There was a sense of untouchability with him and the band.

“There were all pretty girls at their shows, all these from the east side and from Harper Woods. The Romantics were nice guys; they didn’t have a punk attitude.”

Former MC5 bassist Mike Davis, who was in Destroy All Monsters in 1978, remembers doing Detroit and Ann Arbor shows with the Romantics.

“I just remember being really kind of shocked at what they were,” he says on the phone from his home near Tucson, Ariz. “What they were doing was quasi-Beatle-y, really pop, and it was incongruous with the scene that I was associated with, which was rock ’n’ roll and punk. The Romantics were so clean and they had these little suits on. But I liked it. We were about getting trashed and being artists.”

Davis describes the scene then as a big party where everyone knew each other, musicians would attend each other’s shows, scam drinks at the bar.

“I remember them opening for us once in, I think, a VFW hall. … They had a party at somebody’s apartment later that night. I remember being out on the balcony with the manager and he was just totally excited about the prospects of the band. I think they were on the verge of being signed. He was just pumping it up … you know, ‘We’re gonna be big, this is a hot band.’

“I thought they were kind of kind of gimmicky, but they had as good a shot at it as anyone. What I thought was that nobody was gonna be a big Detroit band because the kind of music we were playing wasn’t stuff you would hear on the radio. Radio was pathetic.”

The Detroit oeuvre was in some ways similar to “underground” scenes in other cities. Rock bands couldn’t really expect to get a record deal, much less sell records. Major record companies were more concerned with finding the next Fleetwood Mac, the next Boston. Indie releases were novelties, and hard to find, which made them all the more exclusive.

“I don’t think anyone felt like the mainstream was accessible or were thinking that we were gonna be successful in the business,” Davis says. “And we didn’t care. We didn’t care because we were creating our own culture. Nobody wanted to be a part of the mainstream culture. But that’s kind of what the Romantics or their managers were thinking about.”

In the band’s nascence, managers Joel Zuckerman and Arnie Tencer were cunning and determined, just two Detroit friends of the band who were looking to escape fast-food jobs. They drilled the band in early rehearsals, fronted money for band needs and looked after them. Minus Zuckerman and Tencer, the Romantics probably wouldn’t have been known beyond Detroit.

The Romantics etched their niche on the strength of songwriting. They recorded a single of their first two songs (“Little White Lies” and “I Can’t Tell You Anything”) on their own Spider label at the Artie Fields studio on Gratiot. Joel Martin, who co-engineered the single, would later become a key player. He now manages the
band and co-owns Web Entertainment, the Romantics’ current label.

After releasing the single locally, the quartet began hitting clubs in the Midwest and Northeast. They were loading in for a show at CBGB’s when the gray-out hit New York City in 1977. They played Manhattan’s storied Max’s Kansas City and Toronto’s El Mocambo.

Pop sage Greg Shaw of Bomp Records — which then was the boutique indie for garage, punk and pop — was smitten with the Romantics, and did a one-off single with the band. The “Tell It To Carrie” record helped establish a national audience.

“I saw them at the Horseshoe Tavern (I think) in Toronto while I was there arranging to record the B-Girls,” writes Shaw in an e-mail interview from his home in Los Angeles. “[The B-Girls] dragged me down to see this great band and I was bowled over. I saw the Romantics as a classic Merseybeat band, like perhaps the Beatles, pre-Epstein. I met them and their managers and everyone agreed it would be fun to do an indie 45 that might get further than their first limited effort.”

Shaw came to Detroit with producer Bob Segarini (often called the “Nick Lowe of Canada”) and recorded the EP.

“We did the record and I don’t recall much about it except that it was fun,” continues Shaw. “What was not so fun was that after the boys got famous their managers turned around and threatened me with lawsuits unless I gave up rights to the records I’d made. (He did.) Forever after that, the Romantics stuck in my mind as the symbol of the kind of band that stabs their early believers in the back on the way up. Not the band, of course — Arnie Tencer, to be precise. But I really don’t care any more and I’m certainly happy for the impact they made with their music.”

Local shows were packed. By 1979 major-label representatives were flying to Detroit to see the band. Seymour Stein from Sire was interested. John Carter, a producer at Capitol (who co-wrote the ’60s garage hit “Incense And Peppermints”) gave the band money to record demos.

“I remember at one show there had to be at least seven or eight A&R people from all over the country checking the group out,” says Martin.

Enter Nemperor A&R man Patrick Clifford. He and Nemperor head Nat Weiss — a music-biz vet who was an attorney for the Beatles and associate of their manager, Brian Epstein — signed the band in 1979 after a show at Hurrah’s in Manhattan. Clifford and Weiss had found the pop band they were looking for.

By then the power-pop “explosion” had major labels in a skinny-tie frenzy that ultimately exploded with the Knack, the Beat, 20/20 and the Shoes, and, unwittingly, the Romantics.

 

English record producer Peter Solley had worked with the Stiff label, producing Rachel Sweet and cult fave Wreckless Eric, among others. Prior to that he manned keyboards in the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Procol Harum and the Terry Reid Band. Nemperor head Weiss told Solley the Romantics were seeking a producer, so Solley flew to New Jersey from the UK on his own dime to see the band live. He loved what he saw and spent an hour backstage after the show with the band. Three days later, he got the gig. Solley would produce four of the Romantics’ five major-label albums.

The band was ready. They spent several weeks in an east-side rehearsal space in pre-production. Solley did extensive arranging — to the point where he might have earned a songwriting credit or two.

“Solley helped us learn how to structure songs,” says Skill. “He was a good arranger. And he never really asked for any credit.”

Solley says the band worked as hard as anybody he’d seen.

“They were just like angels,” he says. “They wanted it. They were living the rock ’n’ roll dream, you know? We’d work four, five, six hours and then I’d leave them and say, ‘Stay for another two hours and keep working.’ And they would.”

Everyone flew to Florida and recorded the eponymously titled album in three weeks on a tiny budget in a sketchy studio. The sound of the record was an amalgamation.

“We were going for that bright, brassy, trashy all-American but based-in-British sound,” says Solley.

The wall erected by Skill’s Rickenbacker and Palmar’s Country Gentleman guitar defined the sound of the Romantics and its same-year follow-up album, National Breakout. Tone and stance were rooted in a driving, melodic hullabaloo that fused R&B, early American rock ’n’ roll and Hollies pop. It’s remarkable how now it sounds.

Solley played The Romantics for his pal, U2 producer Steve Lillywhite.

“He hated it,” laughs Solley. “In fact, when I played the record for people back in England, no one liked the record.”

The album moved roughly 200,000 copies. The single “What I Like About You” gave no indication it would become a retro classic — it stalled at No. 49 on the charts.

“I don’t recall that I thought ‘What I Like …’ was anything amazing,” Solley says. “None of us did. We thought ‘When I Look In Your Eyes’ was it. Who would have thought what would happen to that song?”

A Dutch film crew flew to LA for a makeshift performance of the Romantics at the Whiskey, shooting lip-synced performances of “What I Like About You” and “When I Look In Your Eyes.” The clips wound up on MTV, which was then rotating endless loops of Pat Benatar and sellout-era Rod Stewart.

Detroit radio respected the band and gave airtime accordingly, particularly on WRIF, WLLZ and WWWW.

The band was healthy, cohesive. An emotional chemistry with attendant tension is evident on the first two records, a celebratory sense of band-vs.-world that’s inherent in any great record. It’s rock ’n’ roll as an impassioned, transcendental and revolutionary force.

When the band headlined at Pine Knob at the end of the extensive tour for The Romantics, the members tossed their crusty red leather suits into the crowd.

The hastily cut follow-up, National Breakout, was recorded in New York City. It peaked at No. 172 on the album charts and was anchored by “Tomboy,” “Forever Yours,” and the ironic, Detroit call-to-arms anthem title track.

The band toured Australia in late 1980, but the chemistry was souring. Ascendant popularity brought inevitable conflicts. Skill wasn’t holding up his end of the sky, so he got fired.

“We weren’t getting along,” says Skill. “We were getting a lot of attention and I wasn’t handling it well. We were partying and that, but I think that goes with the territory, but we weren’t way out of control. It wasn’t that dangerous. I just wasn’t playing well. The songs weren’t sounding good. I think I got a little big-headed. I thought I could do anything and I was doing too many guitar licks, going places I shouldn’t go … doing stuff that I shouldn’t have been doing. But management should’ve stepped in and said, ‘Look, you’re not doing yourself any good … You gotta get back to basics.’”

Guitarist Coz Canler, who once played in a band with Johnny Depp called the Kids, had befriended the Romantics during the first recording session in Florida. Marinos phoned him from Australia.

“Jimmy said, ‘Learn the shit. We’ll fly you to Detroit and see if you can cut it,’” says Canler. “I went and stayed at Jimmy’s — he was still living at his ma’s in Detroit. … I was thinking, ‘You blow this you ain’t gonna get another chance.’ I remember when I first joined the band, on the tour bus and lying in my bunk going, ‘Man, this is just surreal.’ It was all new, the touring, the tour bus, the big shows.

“Skill was a big favorite in Detroit. There was a lot of jealousy and resentment when I joined the band.”

The band nixed Solley and went with Mike Stone, who made his mark producing Queen, to produce the third album, 1981’s Strictly Personal.

“Mike Stone fucked up that record,” Canler says, “as did the management, rushing us to get it done.”

The record is arguably the most disposable of the band’s catalog; rampant sell-out riffs and arena posturing outshone the songwriting. Everybody knew it.

Skill was giving guitar lessons in Detroit to make ends meet when the Romantics realized they needed his songwriting. Bassist Cole got the boot and Skill was back in, this time on bass. Problem solved. Palmar says he still feels badly about letting Cole go.

“When we started rehearsing with Skill on bass, boom, the chemistry was there,” says Canler. “It was huge.”

Throughout these years, the Romantics’ nonstop tours got bigger as the albums got slicker. At their apex they commanded $35,000 a show. Yet the band members subsisted on paltry salaries, in the neighborhood of $300 a week.

They toured with their spiritual forefathers, the Kinks.

“It was unbelievable. I’m sure they [the Kinks] were sick of seeing us standing at the side of the stage,” laughs Palmar.

They did arenas with, among others, the Cars and Cheap Trick.

“Cheap Trick taught us the ropes,” laughs Palmar. He pauses, then adds, winking, “All of the ropes.”

By the time recording sessions for the band’s fourth record started, the breakthrough In Heat, some of the band members fluttered between a buzz and a bender. Marinos was bullheaded in his quest for perfection, and chronic detachment set in. He suffered what could be called the Phil Collins Syndrome — the drummer wanting to be a front man.

Managers Tencer and Zuckerman stood firm, hush conquered communication, expectations became resentments.

The band rehired Solley and returned to Florida in 1983 to record at Criteria Studios.

“A lot of time was spent in the studio,” says Solley. “We spent a lot of time on the mix on that particular song [“Talking In Your Sleep”], more than any other. We intentionally were trying to do a hit song.”

Solley received a songwriting credit on the song.

“We got the right tempo, the right groove. Mike sounds great. It was a great evolvement from an idea. In pre-production, they had the riff and that was it. They had nothing else. And I still to this day don’t know if Mike knows that I doubled his bass. I never told him. But the song really woke us up. It just had magic.”

Canler: “‘Talking In Your Sleep’ was the last song we put on the album. I remember the old black guy sweeping up the place at Criteria Studio was saying, ‘I’ve been here since James Brown, and that’s song’s gonna hit big.’ I promised my folks I’d have a gold record by 30, and I got it just under the wire.”

Constant touring ensued.

“Jimmy and Mike cracked heads and that’s one of the reasons Jimmy left the band,” Solley says. “Mike played great, did some great things, so original … very original kind of lines. And Wally never complained about anything. He was just very focused. Jimmy was just a little rock star. But I had no problem working with him. He was terrific — a perfectionist too. He’d stay in and work on lyrics when the rest of the band would be out partying. He worked really hard to get this right.”

The record hit, radio and MTV embraced, and the band was on its way. The singles “Talking In Your Sleep” and “One In A Million” both went Top 40.

As with any band worth its weight in hype and heroics, hostility and resentment burbled beneath the glossy surface. And Marinos’ departure after the tour for In Heat in 1984 was a tipping point.

“Marinos was killer, man,” Solley says. “The best drummer I ever worked with in rock ’n’ roll. And a great sound, just an enormous sound out of his drums.”

Skill attributes Marinos’ departure to mismanagement and the breakdown of communication.

“It’s just as much our fault too,” he says. “We didn’t talk. Jimmy went home, got off the road, stayed home. Then we didn’t know what to do. We tried to bring a guy in to replace him. … But Marinos is such a strong individual that you can’t replace a guy like that in that way. We were so set in our ways that we thought we could. We should have taken some time off, thought about it. What we should have done is just communicated with Jimmy better.”

The replacement drummer, Floridian David Petratos, like Marinos, played left-handed. At gigs, he sang Marinos’ vocal parts, including lead on “What I Like About You.”

Rhythm Romance saw a band coming off a career-making record suddenly struggling to find its voice. They had plunged into the business of selling records, and the album sounds like it.

“That’s the worst album I’ve ever done,” says Solley. “It doesn’t hold up. There’s nothing I like about it.”

Skill is more diplomatic: “Maybe he [Solley] wasn’t the right guy for the record because he had too much of the Jimmy personality in his head. Maybe it would’ve been better with someone else, to get the most out of the songs …”

Solley says the whole process was a mess. The band was unfocused, the management shaky, and the new drummer was out of sorts. He called label owner Nat Weiss and told him to get Marinos back in the band. But for management, Marinos had become persona non grata.

Emotions got so raw that Solley says Arnie Tencer tried to run him down with a car.

“I had already committed to do Peter Frampton’s album [Premonition] right after, and Frampton was waiting for me in New York,” Solley says. “And we’d already mixed the record [Rhythm Romance], like, twice. I told Arnie, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I’ve got to go to New York and start Frampton’s record.’ He was so irate … that he got in his car and drove at me. I had to jump into the bushes so he wouldn’t hit me. That’s a true story. He was screaming at me, ‘You’ll never work again and blah, blah, blah.’”

Rhythm Romance spent 11 weeks on the charts in late 1985, peaking at a disappointing No. 72. It yielded one low-charting single, “Test Of Time.”

The band started that album’s tour with high hopes. It was their first headlining tour, playing arenas and theaters. They rented the Royal Oak Theatre for a week of full rehearsals. They added a keyboard player, Barry Warner. There were two buses — one for the band, one for the crew. All told, 19 people on the road. Cash was blown right and left. Band members each had their own rooms at the best hotels. If there was a long drive between shows, the band flew, sometimes first class.

But the six-month tour foundered. Slow ticket sales meant canceled shows, or a downsized venue too small for the gear.

“Arnie showered the band with amenities,” says Warner. “He was pulling out all the stops. The band at that point still really respected the guy.”

Those close to the Romantics in the band’s heavy earning years say that managers Joel Zuckerman and Arnie Tencer turned perfidious, their conversations and actions larded with subterfuge.

Neither manager could be located to comment for this story.

By Rhythm Romance, Tencer’s coke inhalation was, by multiple accounts, out of hand. The rest of the band partook in the proverbial party favors. These were, after all, the “Miami Vice” years — cocaine and booze mixed swimmingly with all things rock.

After the Rhythm Romance tour, the Romantics hit rock bottom. And they lost their record deal with Sony.

 

From Elvis to Hendrix to Badfinger, managers pilfering from songwriters is a well-worn truth. Badfinger singer/songwriter Pete Ham hung himself in 1975 when it became clear he would never see a dime of the cash owed him. Badfinger guitarist Tom Evans hung himself three years later for basically the same reason. Had the money generated from Badfinger songs and sales been handled equitably, Ham and Evans would have been set for life.

The same applies to the Romantics, once In Heat brought the dollars cascading in.

The Romantics’ music publishing debacle is as sordid as it is sad. Management — Tencer, Zuckerman and the band’s former lawyer — failed to enlighten the musicians on the picayune particulars of publishing.

The band’s contract with Zuckerman and Tencer expired in 1987. But the managers controlled the band’s cash flow because they controlled the Romantics’ song copyrights. The musicians alleged that Zuckerman and Tencer essentially kept earnings from the band. The musicians saw very little of the publishing money their songs earned through the years.

They fought to regain control of their work, their livelihood. For them, rock ’n’ roll was it; life had nothing else for them.

Joel Martin was the first outsider to take notice of the dubious finances. Martin was running 54 Sound recording studio and had gotten involved with the band peripherally, as a kind of adviser. Martin’s interest in the Romantics was by all accounts purely human.

Skill: “He [Martin] took it upon himself to work this lawsuit. He was the guy who said, ‘Do you have any idea of how much money the band has made?’ At that point I didn’t even want to know.”

The legal battle that followed would tire accountants and lawyers for years.

What’s shocking is that the musicians lived in penury. Some still bunked with their parents and drove beaters despite years of lucrative touring and hit songs. They’d given up hope of any financial reward,

Martin and an attorney demanded an accounting from Zuckerman and Tencer. After months of investigation, Martin says, they pried open a veritable Pandora’s Box of deceit and shady bookkeeping.

The Romantics sued their former managers in 1988. The seven-year legal dispute merits a book.

The mess started years before, when Tencer and Zuckerman convinced the musicians to part with half of the ownership interest in their songs. They set up a publishing company for the band, ironically titled ForeverEndeavor Music. The arrangement said Tencer and Zuckerman were to split profits 50-50 with Palmar, Marinos, Canler and Skill. Zuckerman and Tencer had “administrative rights” to the band’s catalog. In short, Tencer and Zuckerman could assign use of the songs to whomever they wanted and collect the checks. But band members say none of it was passed on to them.

When “What I Like About You” surfaced in 1990 on Budweiser and Molson ad campaigns and showed up on HBO, Skill and Palmar say they had no idea the song had even been licensed for commercial use, and they certainly weren’t getting paid for it.

In the meantime, Frank Copeland, an accountant for Bob Seger, tried to straighten out the Romantics’ tax mess, which Martin describes as “a bottomless pit. An $85,000 IRS bill became $150,000 with penalties and interest.”

A series of lawyers muddied the proceedings on both sides. According to Martin, one lawyer for the Romantics “just totally fucked everything up. I mean, he had the wrong defendant’s name, the wrong filings, the wrong this and that. After that I went lawyer shopping. We had to refile the whole thing. In 1992, before the first things were refiled, the guys had been spinning their wheels for three or four years.”

By 1992, the exasperated Romantics and Martin found Norm Ankers, a heavy-hitting Detroit lawyer who’d never worked a music biz case. Turns out the Harvard-educated Ankers was a fan of the band. He took the case, making his fee contingent. But the band was responsible for the legal expenses.

“Ankers didn’t have to do that,” Martin says. “His is the biggest law firm in the city. They are like the gorilla on the block. And I think it was the last thing in the world that they [Tencer and Zuckerman] expected.”

Ankers became the Romantics’ avenging angel.

The case can’t be grasped without a fundamental understanding of music publishing. Publishing was created before recorded music so songwriters could earn money from sales of sheet music. It has since grown into a complicated tab-keeping system.

In addition to touring, merchandise sales, album sales, etc., band songwriters earn money through writing royalties and publishing royalties. Writer’s royalties for public performances go to the writers of the song itself. The writer earns money from the song’s live performances, radio broadcasts, use on TV shows and from jukebox and nightclub spins.

Publisher’s royalties are more complex. For example, a “mechanical” royalty is earned from the sale of each record — the sound recording of the song — which in 1985 averaged about 5 cents per tune per album. The Romantics’ In Heat sold more than 1 million copies stateside, and each song was worth at least $50,000 per million albums sold. Ten songs, that’s $500,000 owed to the songwriters and publishers in mechanical royalties. And that’s just in the United States. Royalty rates vary abroad, and the musicians weren’t getting those either.

Publishing and administrative rights are primary cash conduits for a songwriter. The rule of thumb is that publishing and writer’s royalties should remain separate from band affairs. Publishing deals and record deals are church and state for a band in the record business.

But the Romantics alleged they weren’t receiving their 50 percent share of the publishing from Tencer and Zuckerman, who should have been collecting it from the record company and distributing it to the writers. Those numbers added up. The managers’ bookkeeping made it nearly impossible to decipher where the money went, the plaintiffs said.

“Synchronization license” is earned when a song is used on a movie sound track in synchronicity with visual images. A synchronization fee for an entire song in a film or TV commercial might be worth $100,000 or more, depending on the artist.

The band naively figured that their writer’s royalties — distributed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) — were all they were due.

“What I Like About You,” “Talking In Your Sleep,” and “One In A Million” all got substantial radio airplay. Checks ASCAP cut annually for Canler, Palmar, Skill and Marinos were sizable, but in no way matched the mechanicals they should have received.

“I really thought that the ASCAP checks were it,” says Skill. “I didn’t know.”

“We weren’t getting dick,” recalls Canler. He then adds quickly, “Well, we were getting dick … up the ass.”

“We were just happy to be on all these TV shows,” Palmar says. “Every time they [Tencer and Zuckerman] heard a peep from one of us, they’d throw us all a bone.”

“We never saw a single [financial] statement from them,” says Palmar. “Our main objective with the lawsuit was to get control of our songs. In the long run, justice was served.”

“We were buried in a paper trail,” says Skill. “They [the managers] thought they could lose us that way.”

Ankers painstakingly traversed that paper trial. In January 1995, Tencer and Zuckerman avoided going to trial by signing a settlement agreement. They agreed to give up their 50 percent interest in the copyrights of the songs to Marinos, Skill, Palmar and Canler.

But Tencer and Zuckerman then hired a new lawyer who tried to get the settlement set aside. The judge balked. Arbitration was set up. Neither Tencer nor Zuckerman went to the arbitration hearing.

“We ended up getting judgments in varying amounts,” says Ankers. “If you added them up, it was probably a million dollars worth of judgment.”

The band never collected anything on those judgments. The money was gone. Zuckerman and Tencer, who would eventually declare bankruptcy, had no visible assets. Martin says attempting to collect would’ve been futile.

What the Romantics did recover were their lucrative copyrights.

“They’re good, average guys,” Ankers says of the Romantics. “They’re kids from East Detroit. But they weren’t sophisticated and, like a lot of bands, when they start off in this business, they befriend people who have, or purport to have, more of a business head than they do. This all happened so long ago, who knows who’ll ever be able to sort out what happened …”

The band signed a deal with EMI publishing in 1996 and the advance provided financial autonomy. EMI in turn works the band’s catalog, including the now-ubiquitous “What I Like About You,” for placement in TV and film.

How did the band survive the lean years?

“They were drinking; they were probably getting high,” says Martin. “They were probably doing a variety of things to kind of numb whatever was going on. I mean, you want to hear a call in the middle of the night of someone just fucking screaming? That’s the kind of shit that was going on back then.

“I mean, Wally was the only one that had $20,000,” says Martin. “And the IRS goes after his account. They took every penny out of his fucking bank account.”

Touring kept them afloat, and they toured constantly — reductive and demoralizing gigs on flatbeds at state fairs and clubs, sometimes in front of 30 people. They toured not only to survive but to pay the IRS tab and legal expenses, which escalated into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The years were agonizing. Relationships curdled, and the initial spirit of writing and playing music, the band’s lifeblood, had vaporized.

Worse, they were tagged as an ’80s nostalgia act, a label the band has been bucking ever since.

“It was horrendous. I can’t tell you how bad,” says Martin. “They were being licensed by Budweiser every year and they never saw any fucking money! I think I forget about it now because everyone’s life changed when we ended up getting the copyrights back and making a deal with EMI. For the first time in their lives, everybody had money. They could buy a house. They could buy a car. They could actually have hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was like a joke.”

Skill: “I don’t know how we kept it together. We did the state fairs and all those little funky shows, whatever came our way. I think if we didn’t have each other, we wouldn’t have made it. Once the lawsuit came into the picture, we had light at the end of the tunnel.”

Palmar: “We were still professional about it. We had to be. The crowds got smaller and smaller. No matter how hard it became, we still managed to support ourselves.”

A bright spot came in 1988 when Canler met Blondie drummer Clem Burke at a wedding.

“I just went up to him and asked him if he wanted to join the Romantics, and that was it,” Canler says.

The three say Burke’s energy helped rekindle band spirit.

“We were all drinking buddies,” laughs Burke. “A lot of people don’t realize the roots of the band. It really is a music that kind of went away for a long time. Coincidentally, it’s kind of re-emerging in the last couple years, and re-emerging in a big way in Detroit. But the Romantics championed that kind of music all along. That’s what I like about ’em. But when you have a couple of hit records, people look at you in a different way too.”

By 1990, they were touring with Burke. In 1993 they released a well-received Europe-only EP, Made In Detroit, on the Westbound label, which was anchored by two George Clinton tunes (“You And Your Folks,” “I Wanna Know”). The EP provided some badly needed cash; the one-off deal set up by Martin — the only recording that they’d done since losing their Sony deal — netted them $40,000, which helped with legal and IRS costs.

“Here’s an example of how mercenary I thought those managers were,” says Martin. “For 10 years, they were renting a rehearsal studio for close to $1,000 a month. They spent close to $100,000 on this space. The first thing I did was get them a building with the money that they got, in Ferndale, for 50 grand and turned it into their own rehearsal space. Now it’s worth 145 grand, and it’s theirs. No one’s gonna throw them out.”

Once the lawsuit dust cleared, the band solidified again and decided to try to record. Marinos rejoined the fold in 1996 and stayed for a year.

Now, Detroit trapsman Johnny “Bee” Badanjek fills in when Burke has other obligations (The Romantics with Badanjek played Rob Tyner’s memorial service in 1992).

It was during Marinos’ return that the group began the new record 61/49. Since then, a 1990 Romantics best-of has gone gold. The Romantics toured Spain last year and the response was, according to Canler, “Beatlemania-like.” The tour unexpectedly sold out.

 

Wally Palmar’s three-bedroom house is situated a few blocks from the Birmingham Country Club in a well-kept neighborhood. It’s so quiet at night that crickets create a deafening roar. His house is full of elegant, earth-toned ’50s furnishings with a smattering of Modernism and Art Deco. A stereo dominates the living room. The record collection reveals plenty of Yardbirds, Walker Brothers, Small Faces and Kinks. Coffee-table books run the Stones/Beatles gamut.

Palmar expresses few resentments or opinions. He is loath to offer up gutter-smack about anyone. There’s no apparent bitterness over the fact that, for the most part, the Romantics never got the respect they merited as an incendiary live rock ’n’ roll band.

“I’m just happy with the way everything turned out,” he says. “Who would’ve thought? ...”

Palmar slips the Romantics’ version of the Dirtbombs’ “Can’t Stop Thinkin’ About It” into his stereo. The tune is forthcoming on a split single with the Dirtbombs. The original song is fitted with two basses and two drummers. The Romantics audaciously eschew bass on the Jim Diamond-recorded tune in favor of bristly, acoustic slide-guitar. Burke’s groove brings the back-alley drum sound to the front; the whole thing becomes a bluesy, power-pop ditty propped up by Palmar’s Lennon-ready vocal.

Listening, Palmar shakes his head and says, “I guess everything we do winds up sounding pop.”

61/49 — the title is a cheeky reference to the storied Mississippi crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly made a pact with the devil — is, frankly, one of the best rock ’n’ roll records to come out of Detroit in years. It was recorded in fits and starts with the band’s roundelay of drummers (Burke, Badanjek and Marinos) on various songs. It’s rife with riffs that recall the band’s heady R&B power-pop days, and in a perfect world would earn the band warranted respect, locally and internationally.

Steven Van Zandt, whose hugely popular radio show “Underground Garage” is now syndicated in 115 cities, is championing the Romantics, a band he’s liked since the beginning. The DJ, a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band, has been spinning the songs “Out Of My Mind” and “Devil In Me” weekly since July. (The show can be heard on WCSX-FM 94.7 Sunday, 7-9 p.m.)

61/49 is the best record they’ve ever done,” Van Zandt says. “It’s one of the best albums of the year, no question.”

Van Zandt hopes the attention he’s giving the record will open some tightly shut radio doors. It might be working; WRIF has already added “Out of My Mind” to medium rotation.

“Radio is in such a sad state of affairs,” says Van Zandt. “Unless you fit into specific formats, you don’t have a chance. I’m hoping we can make enough noise for the band that it can get picked up at radio around the country.”

The album’s closing track, “Still We Remain” — driven by 3/4 time acoustic guitars and accordion — is a graceful and poignant confessional, all things considered. The Palmar-crooned song is a genuine attestation of a band coming full circle: “I have nothing at all/How much of me do I own … Here we are/Here we remain.”

 

See a review of the Romantics’ new recording here.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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