The Del-Lords: Frontier Days / When Johnny Comes Marching Home / Based on a True Story

[16 July 2009]

By Rob Browning

Many bands have been described as being more of a gang than a band, but few bands come closer to actualizing that archetype than New York City’s Del-Lords. Founded by Scott Kempner after his departure from the Dictators, the Del-Lords were Kempner’s attempt at form a 1980s East Coast version of the Beach Boys, albeit with more of a rock and roll edge. Along with ex-Blackheart Roscoe Ambel, bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro, Kempner and company proved to be a formidable presence on the NYC rock scene. Each member of the band sang, making for awesome live shows, but proving equally difficult for the average label to market. Coupled with the band’s collective resistance to doing music that was anything but what they felt like making and the rise of MTV as a tastemaker, the Del-Lords never crossed over to the success many thought the band deserved.  Rumors have grown stronger in recent years about a Del-Lords reunion tour, conjecture lent credence by American Beat re-releasing the first three Del-Lords records, remastered and with Kempner liner notes and bonus tracks. Save for some glaring editorial errors on the jacket copy (Pat Benetar, Neil Gerardo, Trowser Press), it’s a pleasure to hear the material again twenty-five years after their debut.

Frontier Days was the Del-Lords recorded debut. Recorded on home turf in New York City by roots-rock maven Lou Whitney from the Skeletons and released on EMI/Enigma, the band displayed a confident swagger, putting a New York spin on the roots rock Los Lobos and Jason and the Scorchers were making popular in their own scenes. Ambel proved to be quite the gunslinger, playing Luther to Kempner’s Johnny while Caiati and Funaro held it down. The Del-Lords brought little in the way of pretense to the party; they were simply four normal guys who liked to rock and did it well.  Tracks like “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “I Play The Drums” established their populist leanings in the face of the Reagan era. The record was named after the last great American rodeo event, Frontier Days, held yearly in Ambel’s home state of Wyoming. The Del-Lords had made it to the big show, and now it was up to them to see how long they could stay on the bucking bronc that was the record industry.

Released only a year later, Johnny Comes Marching Home marked the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between the Del-Lords and Neil Giraldo.  Giraldo was a fellow New Yorker who had bridged the gap between NY attitude and crossover success with his wife, fellow Brooklyn-ite Pat Benatar. The band had found a kindred spirit who brought out the best in the band. The album was met with lukewarm response, but the band toured heavily behind it and continued to gain renown as one of America’s finest live rock bands. Finally, “Soldier’s Home” rode an enormous hook and Benatar backing vocals to a little bit of radio success, airplay that very probably saved them from being dropped after a change in label hierarchy. The band spent the remainder of the year touring with Benatar and Lou Reed, and seemed on the brink of being America’s Next Big Rock Band.

Based On a True Story was the last of the Del-Lords’ ‘80s studio releases. Giraldo returned to the producer’s chair, with his wife supplying backing vocals and pairing with an up-and-coming Syd Straw for the Eric Ambel tour de force “Judas Kiss”. The record had as many guest stars as it had should-have-been hits. Mojo Nixon guest rants his way through “River Of Justice”, while the ladies hold their own on “The Cool and the Crazy”, where a pre-Muffs Kim Shattuck and Karen Pandora tag-team the hell out of the track. Kempner was most pointed in his commentary here, rattling off “Ashes To Ashes” and “I’m Gonna Be Around” like those tunes wouldn’t be even more relevant two decades on.

Kempner penned liner notes for each of the reissues, each piece a great insight into the band’s personal and professional existence at the time. Through Kempner’s Bronx-tinged pen, the Del-Lords story sounds like it would make a fine book. The bonus tracks may appeal mostly to completists, but the myriad of alternate takes and arrangements speaks loudly about the versatility of the Del-Lords. Every song could have been sung by any band member, and depending on the night, might be. The Del-Lords were very much greater as a band than they were as a sum of their parts and as New York City rock bands go, few were finer. Decades past their initial release, the Del-Lords’ seminal ‘80s output holds its own nicely. The politics are just as relevant, and while some of the production may be a bit dated, the songs assert plainly that Del-Lords were really just a rock and roll band, and a damn good one at that.

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