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The Shirts
vintage brooklyn sounds
by: Sara Nowak - March 6, 2007

A Brooklyn band that made their way into the CBGB's scene, The Shirts are still creating music with the same soul they started out with. The original six Shirts - Robert Racioppo, Artie Lamonica, Ronnie Ardito, Annie Golden, Johnny 'Zeeek' Criscione, and Johnny 'Doom' Piccolo, had an amazing run, playing the same scene that produced acts like The Talking Heads and Television.

However American record companies did not do many favors for The Shirts, essentially picking over them time and again. They did land a record deal stateside with EMI, but they met with much more success overseas - much more success, and much more support. In Europe The Shirts had several songs in the top of the charts, and opened for acts like Peter Gabriel.

Returning stateside the members became disenchanted after a dud of an album and fell to returning to day jobs. Most of the members still played music on the side, and maintained communication with each other. It really was no surprise that most of The Shirts found themselves playing together again in 2003. With a few changes in the group, they hit CBGB's again, realizing that the same magic that got them together and earned them success early on, still existed and yearned to be expressed.

Their new CD "Only The Dead Know Brooklyn" was released in June of 2006. The Shirts played CBGB's once more before it closed forever. They maintain a good attitude, taking it all in stride. It seems as long as these guys have their music, they'll be all right.

How The Shirts originally got together is made clear, but how have they managed to stay together? It must be difficult with such a big group.

Artie - We weren't together for a long time...but even when we weren't together we were still in contact and we still kinda played music with each other - not really as a whole band but in the same neighborhood. Bob actually started something that was kind of like most of The Shirts, and asked me to come in and we'd call it The Shirts again.

Bob - We were doing a thing called Thin G with five of the original Shirts. Artie came to a gig and basically joined in, so we said we're basically The Shirts so why don't we call it that? It made sense. Annie wasn't there, but it was a good amount of Shirts.

Where did the name come from?

Bob - Artie and I were in a lot of bands together. We started playing in bands in high school. We always spent days thinking of a name - Tangerine, Lackeys and Schemers.

Artie - The main thing was to have a cool name, so obviously we said 'hmm, what's not a cool name?'

B - The band broke up - Lackeys and Schemers

A - That was a very cool name.

B - We were out one night and said, 'Let's start a new band - we'll call it anything! The Shirts, I don't care!'

A - It was the anti-name. Then a lot of bands came out like The Cars, The Shoes.

B - Object names. But The Cars were in Boston and we didn't know them. Something was happening, it was like a reaction to all the flash.

A - Although now itís gone back to that, well now itís all over the place.

Being one of the bands to play CBGB's during it's heyday, how do you feel about what has happened with it?

A - Thank god! No no no. I was really trying to not be sentimental about it, and then I got very sentimental when it actually happened. I was in denial, trying to be like 'Ah things come and go.' But when it actually happened I sat there the last two nights streaming the CBGB website, seeing The Dictators and Debbie Harry, and Patti Smith. It was great. I felt very sad that I didn't go.

B - CB's was really an amazing thing, but it was time to go. If you think of it, it nurtured so many bands. A band like The Talking Heads, if there wasn't CB's they couldn't have played any normal clubs. It would've been like 'Who is this guy? He can't sing!' But CB's allowed so much to develop.

A - Although they pick on five or six bands there were a lot of bands -a lot of different types of things happening. Unfortunately back then, late 70s, this was pre-digital, so forget about CDs, it was still the vinyl age! The way of doing it was you made your demo tapes and played and hoped to get discovered. Which is so different then the way things are now with technology. It was great to have a central place for a scene to start. It seems like now, to me the new CBGB's was like Myspace. It was a very different scene, so open to everyone.

Are you still in touch with Hilly?

A -Yeah. He helped us with this record. We recorded the live tracks at CB's. We could always get a gig at CB's. Now it's hard.

Any communication with other musicians from CBGBs?

B - We know some of the bands that didn't get that famous, The Laughing Dogs, some of the people in The Tough Darts, we actually played a gig with, and they were on the CBGB compilation album.

A - Lisa Burns, other people that are still around that didn't get the notoriety.

What got the band back together for "Only The Dead Know Brooklyn"?

A - It was no plan. It was really just to play.

B - Everyone was doing their solo projects, but somehow The Shirts together had a certain chemistry, a certain energy. I was listening to the CD today, and there's a lot of energy on it, and I don't know if it's the drummer, or the combination of people. It's really pretty fast, almost like the older albums - it's really hyped up, I canít explain it. There's something there. Ronnie Ardito, the guitarist in the band, the guy could have a solo career. He has a certain way of playing guitar - a certain edge. Our drummer is the hardest playing drummer - he can't play a light song. He has a certain way of playing. When we all get together it's interesting. It's not thought about.

A - It's cerebral.

B - We were considered a sort of artsy cerebral rock band back then. The reality is we're not cerebral when we play; it's instinctive. We started very young together. In 1972 when we started you had to be a cover band. But somehow we were either bad at covers or our heart wasn't in it. We couldn't do covers. So we said let's do originals. We never played anywhere, all we could play were block parties. We auditioned in Long Island and this guy said 'you guys are crazy, what kind of music is that?' It was our own music.

B - Then Artie's friend Novick took us down to CBGB's to see Patti Smith, where you had to play originals. So we said this is it!

A - So Novick called up to get us an audition, pretending to be our manager. Hilly saw us and really liked us, and we got in. It was great to play original music. We had no idea that there were a lot of bands that felt that way. We felt like aliens in our own neighborhood, but really there were a lot of bands that really just wanted to play their own music.

How was the CD release show on June 28th at CBGBS?

A - Great, a lot of old fans showed up. It was almost perfect actually. We played well it was a nice buzz. A great way to send off CBGB's.

Why do you think The Shirts met more popularity overseas?

A - They were more open at that time. The Top 40 had more variety to it. In the late Ď70s mainstream American music was still very heavily disco. I remember Rod Stewart was doing "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" Even back then, even though a lot of bands wouldn't play outside of the New York scene, they would still make a big dent. It was more of like a social dent than a musical dent.

B - Plus it's funny, the way it could happen, because some of the people at the record companies there... if a record person got into it, in their company, they really pushed it - they gave us a good shot. In America, it was like they didn't really understand - it was very corporate.

A - Yeah New York could love you, but L.A. wouldn't want to hear it. I think for a record company back then to dedicate itself to breaking a band, they really had to be all on board.

B - We played Philadelphia once, and a corporate guy came down and said, "You know the way we do it? We throw stuff on the wall, and take whatever sticks". In Europe one or two people would get into us and work with us. They were more concerned with us; it was really nice.

Who do you think The Shirts would appeal to today?

A - It's a little deep, maybe, it's got a lot of layers of things going on. It's not as raw, but it's definitely thriving. If you listen to it three times, you know, the fourth time you'll still find something new. It's not a minimalist record. Which is good. And it relates. It's all part of this giant thing... like a stew.

B - There's little different things now, niches. The thing is to get people to stop and listen to it.

A - I remember listening to Sticky Fingers with my head between the speakers and feeling like I felt something that was very spiritual, that I would give my life away for. That was a turning point, I decided I wasn't going to go away to college, I was going to play rock 'n' roll. It was a very powerful thing. There are a lot of powerful things in music. You've got to find your own way of hearing music. I'd love for millions of people to hear this and love it.

What about new music, what do you like lately?

A - It's great; it's all over the place.

B - I love this one song, Death Cab for Cutie's "I'll Follow You Into the Dark".

A - I love Neko Case, New Pornographers... this M. Ward I like. A lot of the Oregon stuff is really nice. The new Cat Power is terrific. I'm really impressed by different production ideas... Beck! I love Beck! There's only like three people in my lifetime that have put a smile on my face, those are John Lennon, Ray Davies, and Beck. Every time I see their stuff I smile.

Any particular anecdotes that stand out of The Shirts history?

B - When we were on tour down south once. We played a great gig and after, we met a few people and had a party at the hotel. These girls came back, these like Southern belles, in these crinoline dresses, it was so weird. Our roadies went out and got fast food. One of the guys squeezed ketchup and it landed on one of the girls' dresses and she was just hysterical crying, "My dress! My dress!"

A - They called the cops. Then later that night, at dawn actually, when the sun was coming up, Bob and I see a cow, and all of a sudden we hear this sound ... it was our other guitar player vomiting... it was the loudest sound I'd ever heard.

B - We had a top ten single in Amsterdam. We wanted to go to this after hours club there and they wouldn't let us in. Ronnie was drunk so he picks up a brick and he was gonna throw it at the doorman. We threw him down to the ground. Stupid stuff like that, real rock 'n' roll excess.

Who does most of the lyrical writing? Has his inspirations changed and how?

B - Basically me, Artie, and Ronnie.

A - I don't know where inspiration comes from... perspiration. Some things come very easy, some things you walk around with ideas for a long time. You get concepts.... my new concept is a 'blue screen world'... in my blue screen world I see a perfect sky... you can create your own perfect sky now. I've been kicking that around, I haven't really got around to finishing it, but that's a thing that's taking a while. You always have so many things going on. At least that's how I do it.

B - When I was growing up, it was like 'what are you gonna do with your life?' and most of my friends just got jobs at the gas company, the electric company. With The Shirts, somehow we just wanted to play music. We started writing, and wrote A LOT. When we were signed we would work on music for at least 12 hours. We just loved to do it. You get so used to doing it that, in the years when I wasn't playing music, like with The Shirts, I just kept writing. It was just there, I couldn't help it.

A - It became like a second nature to just do it.

B - Plus we had a good taste of the rock 'n' roll world when we toured for about three years in Europe. It was hard to go back to normal life. I was working in a coffee shop when we got back from Europe and it was strange, trying to just adjust to a job.

What would you tell a band just starting out today?

A - Find a gimmick! Or just play. It depends on what you want to do. Our dream was to get a record deal, and we got it. You can make your dream come true. Do you want to make great music, do you want to have groupies, do you want to be U2, do you want all of the material things? You really have to know what you want. That's my advice.

How about a band that seems to be unjustly overshadowed by other acts in its scene?

A - What are you gonna do? Hopefully the Ďgatekeepersí will say you can come in. I think it's getting better now, because it's more open with things like Myspace. Just create your universe.

B - One of our mottos was just go; and we just kept going, we didn't stop. There were points were someone would come in, we'd have a demo with a certain label, and they'd say maybe, maybe, NO. But we just said keep going.

A - There's always going to be somebody that says no, this is wrong. They've said that to every band - even The Beatles! They passed on everybody! Every band that did great was passed on by ten different companies.

B - You only need one yes. Twenty people that say no and one person that says yes, then you're in. That's what happened to us.

A - Mind your own thing, figure it out. But like you said, we used to call it the 'just go' theory. Like when we would get lost driving to a gig or something I would always say 'Just go!' I was like the world's worst navigator.

How do you feel about downloading music?

A - Did you ever hear the song by Gillian Welch called "Everything is Free"? That's the way it is now. With all the technology they've figured out how to make music free. It's unfortunate. I don't get the guy from Metallica getting all bent out of shape about downloading - he's a millionaire seven times over. For the bands that can use it, it's important. I think it's unfortunate that it happens because it cheapens the idea of music being worth money. Other things you have to pay for, but music has become a thing where like people say, "Oh I'll just burn you a copy." It costs just as much to write a song and to record it and to put it out then to do anything else. People don't want to spend money on music and that's kind of sad. They'll go out and see a band, pay $400 to see the Stones, but they won't buy a record. But how can you stop it? The technology has made it easier to record. It's a dilemma, especially if you're an artist that wants to make money out of it.

Best/Worst shows?

B - We played with Siouxie and the Banshees at the Roundhouse in London and we got booed off the stage. We left because they were gobbing at us. After three songs we left the stage and the record companies begged us to go back on. We said no. Now looking back I think it was a very brave thing to do. It was like saying fuck you, don't spit at me.

A - We didn't know about gobbing. That was like the lowest point. Then a couple of days later we played at the Marquee and that was great.

B - We played the Paradiso, this old church [ in Europe ], opening for Peter Gabriel to about 2,000 people. Somehow our music clicked and we got an encore as openers! Peter was a saint, he even introduced us himself.

Any regrets?

B - We were offered a Lois Jeans ad. We didn't do it - we didn't want to sell out. Hilly thought we were crazy, 'Why don't you do it!'

A - Selling out doesn't exist anymore.

B - Now we'll sell out for anything - we'll tattoo our faces.

A - There was also the time when we could've played at Studio 54 on New Years Eve. Instead we opened for Bobby and the Midnights.



 
 

"CB's was really an amazing thing, but it was time to go. If you think of it, it nurtured so many bands. A band like The Talking Heads, if there wasn't CB's they couldn't have played any normal clubs. It would've been like 'Who is this guy? He can't sing!' But CB's allowed so much to develop."


The Shirts
"Only The Dead Know Brooklyn"


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what it is

Tenacious, introspective elder statesmen of the CBGB's scene.