Live recording from 1980 displays early Reducers in fine form
There was a period in music history when the live album was the ultimate fan souvenir. Sometimes, to a star-struck young listener stranded in an anonymous hometown, just the geography or the venue implied by a live album seemed reach-for-the-(rock)-stars exotic.
"Cheap Trick Live at Budokan." Keith Jarrett's "The Köln Concert." "The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East." "The Who Live at Leeds." James Brown's "Live at the Apollo." Hell, the true stars could even make incarceration sound exotic: "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" or "B.B. King Live at the Cooke County Jail."
But maybe the most fun is when a sort of "lost relic" gig recording surfaces — one that documents a favorite local band playing in that most homey of hometowns. For example, how about "The Reducers Live in Montville," a newly released download of a 1980 show now available from the band's Rave On Records label on the Reducers Bandcamp page.
Sourced from a cassette tape spontaneously recorded on a fan's jam box — taped in the branch of a tree, no less — "Live in Montville" captures The Reducers at a backyard party on a muggy July Sunday afternoon behind the mobile home of a fan named John McDonald. It's an alchemical project for a multitude of reasons. First, despite the unlikely technological circumstances, the recording is of surprisingly fine quality and catches the Reducers just a few years into their existence — when they've already established a reputation as a confident, energized and tight bar band.
Though reliant mostly on cover material, they present a fine and, for many fans present that day, introductory history lesson in the music scene coming to popularity in the British punk and pub rock movements. Over 90 brisk minutes and 35 songs, the Reducers — once and forever guitarist/vocalists Hugh Birdsall and Peter Detmold, the late bassist/vocalist Steve Kaika and drummer Tom Trombley — presented killer versions of tunes by such acts as Generation X, The Clash, The Undertones, and The Ramones, Wreckless Eric, and Chris Spedding.
That material is a signpost indicating the direction the band would follow for the next three decades, when they recorded much-loved albums of their own songs and earned an international following for wry, concise, turn-it-up-and-dance slices of rock glory.
In that spirit, another of the fun aspects of "Live in Montville" is that, along with eight now-familiar Reducers originals, the album includes three never-before-released originals: "Chip On My Shoulder," "BMW" and "Big Time in the Small Town." They're tunes that absolutely and competitively stand up with the band's recorded catalog.
Historically, the cassette tape of the show that became "Live in Montville" was happily bootlegged and widely circulated in second-, third- and fourth-generation manner, and band members were perfectly happy with that, as there were no plans to formally release the recording.
Eventually, though, Richard Brukner, who over the years has not only produced Reducers albums but also remasters and handles the band's archives as well as those of other artists on Rave On Records, has tinkered with the Montville recording. Then, with an abundance of free time suddenly available during the coronavirus, he set out to properly work on "Montville." He corrected the speed of the original tape and, using technology not yet invented in 1980, brought out bottom-end nuances on the bass guitar and kick drum and added a bit of sonic polish that accentuates the analog fidelity without taking away from the raw energy of the show.
"Really, the magic was there all along because it sounds as though you ARE there," says Brukner, who met the Reducers when he enrolled at Connecticut College in 1983. He at once got involved at the campus radio station and, by extension, the local New London music scene. From there, he slowly became a trusted member of The Reducers' inner circle. He says, "'Live in Montville' has a time machine effect. There's no self-consciousness about the performances. They're throwing new originals in with these great covers, and it all sounds as one. To be honest, at first, I thought (the second generation) tape I was working from was maybe too beat up. Even now, it's not necessarily a great sounding tape, but the energy and spirit and potential? It's all right on. I like to say there's a lot of bad music in the world that's recorded really well, and nobody listens. But people will always listen to a bad recording of good music. 'Montville' is that."
Earlier this week, Detmold, Trombley and Birdsall each responded to a few questions about "Live in Montville." Here are excerpts from their comments.
Q: What do you remember about the original cassette tape?
Birdsall: It's always been my favorite live set, partly because the sound quality is better and truer than most board mixes you get in a club. But it was also recorded a little slow — the boombox batteries were low — so that when you put it in a regular deck, it sounded super-fast, just this side of chipmunks. I liked that illusion that we were actually playing that fast in real life.
Trombley: I remember that show like it was yesterday. It was outside John McDonald's trailer in the down-home, Appalachia section of Montville — not that there's anything wrong with Appalachia. There was a chance of rain and it was humid, and we had this cockeyed plastic tarp strung over the stage. I think the tarp was helpful as a sort of sound baffle.
This kid had this expensive boombox, and he tied it in the tree above us. His name was Harold Sperazza, a good guy, and I remember he was excited about it. I think Harold's in Schenectady, New York, and I hope he's well. And his tape survived.
Detmold: It was outdoors, and it was fun. You know, later on, we tried to record live properly in a lot of great rooms, and it never sounded as good. I always hesitated to release this because it seemed to be making a lot out of something that happened a long time ago. But time goes by and things change, and I get it now.
Q: When you listen to "Live in Montville," what does it suggest about the band you guys were and would become?
Trombley: My first impression is that all those rehearsals paid off. It was something we worked hard at and continued to work hard at. And one thing: At that gig, at that time, a lot of the people at that party were Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple fans. They weren't really hip to the coming punk thing, but they listened to us and they enjoyed it. Now, any time you have a live band in your backyard and there are plenty of libations, I think it probably works out. But it still showed us that this new music we were doing could work and would work. That wasn't a revelation by then because we'd been doing well in clubs, but it was cool and reassuring to see the reaction from the hard rock fans.
Detmold: I think the blueprint is all there. We played a lot of those songs for the next 35 years, though, interestingly, all the originals from back then got dropped and replaced with newer and better ones. One thing is, Steve sings a lot on this, and it was later his choice to backtrack and not sing so much. And I always missed his vocals in later years.
Birdsall: I'm struck by the consistency of our presentation between that time and our final shows. Our approach was minimal chatter and boom-boom-boom, one song after another. It was not quite the Ramones but inspired by their no-nonsense approach. And you have Peter's sense of humor and sardonic comments, which I think made him a great frontman, added to the mix. And later, we had more mid-tempo songs that added dynamics, and we added the one slow song we ever played, "Sleepwalk" by Santo and Johnny.
Q: If the "Live in Montville" version of yourself could time-travel to now, what would that younger person tell you about the joy of rock 'n' roll and what not to forget?
Detmold: I think what I realize now that I didn't then is that, unfortunately, there's an end point. And I would tell myself to be ready for that.
Birdsall: Young Hugh would undoubtedly say, "Keep moving onstage all the time. Fill up the stage by moving to every part of it and some point in the show — and then do it again." As you get older, you can get a bit complacent and maybe a bit lazy ... As a kid, I remember how constant movement onstage just made bands seem more explosive.
Trombley: Keep it simple, don't overplay, and lay back in the pocket. Dynamics are really important. Learn by listening. And, boy, enjoy the ride.
"Live in Montville" is available for download at reducers.bandcamp.com for $7. And listen to Brukner and Trombley talk about the new release on the latest edition of The Day's "Leave Work NOW!" podcast.