Charlie Chesterman – High octane revisited
The paint wasn’t even close to being dry on Studebakersfield, Charlie Chesterman’s winsome 1996 collection of meditations on love both lost and found, when he began thinking of what to do next. But not in the context of where to tour, or when to meet the press, or even how long before the record actually would be released. Nah — eager to jump right back in the studio, the main concern was which dynamic to pursue for the next album: amp it up, or strip it down?
“There were two distinct things that were being worked on at the time,” Chesterman recalls. “One was a straight set of solo recordings that was just going to be voice and guitar, and the other was more band recordings. So there were two things I could pursue, and the band recording just seemed so much more fun.
“At the time, I thought I could really do the voice and guitar thing after having done a little bit of that on Studebakersfield; I was feeling pretty confident about that. But at the same time, man, we were playing really good together and sounding good as a band. We were really tight at that point. It was like, shit, let’s actually do this instead because it’s just gonna be…well, not necessarily better, but really entertaining.”
The resulting Dynamite Music Machine, released in September on Slow River/Rykodisc, is indeed really entertaining, not to mention really rocking. It’s as close to an old-school party record as you’re liable to find in an age defined by Internet browser wars and cellular digital phone service. It may be a cop-out, but I can’t give you a better feel for this record than Chesterman does in the liner notes, tossing out dedications to the Flamin’ Groovies, Daddy Cool, Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, and, as he puts it, “The Holy Trilogy: Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and the Ramones.”
Dynamite Music Machine was pieced together over a year or so of “four hours here, four hours there” sessions (“So, what’s everybody doin’ after work on Tuesday night?” he laughs), then lay in waiting for several months while Slow River ironed out its deal with Rykodisc. Despite that drawn-out process, the record’s vibe is more akin to if Chesterman called the boys over to the garage after picking up a case of beer for a late-night-into-early-morning jam. Dynamite is the best example yet of Chesterman’s knack for creating a seamless blend of original material and choice covers.
Opening with the rollicking, horn-driven blaster “Goodbye To You”, Chesterman and his band — dubbed the Legendary Motorbikes — spend the next 35 minutes firing off riffy salvos of old-fashioned hot-rod-flick rock ‘n’ roll, most of the 12 tunes clocking in at under three minutes. A revved-up greaser instrumental (“Go Go Li’l Fairlane”) bumps up against a timeless but contemporary gem titled “Everybody’s Baby” from a little-known band called Brent’s TV — “a bunch of crazy kids from Eureka, California, just playing on campus or something, but that’s just a beautiful song, so totally perfect in the way that good songs are,” Chesterman says.
Elsewhere, the slow burn of “Wants To Be Bob Dylan Singing Electric Guitar Blooze” is sandwiched between the old Freddie Cannon hit “Tallahassee Lassie” and the perfect pop of “Bread & Butter”, a song Chesterman heard while producing a record for Pittsburgh’s Frampton Brothers. It’s obvious that, for Chesterman, it’s all about the song, regardless of the source.
“We ended up recording 17, maybe 20 songs, and when it came time to figure out which ones made sense as an album, those covers fit just as good as any of the original stuff,” he says. “It’s kind of a little bit of everything; it sums up a lot about what I’ve been doing, or what I can do.”
And he’s been doing this for quite awhile now. It was 1981 when Chesterman and his band The Law — which included bassist MacPaul Stanfield and future Young Fresh Fellows drummer Tad Hutchison — moved from Iowa to Boston. The band didn’t last a year, but soon afterward, Chesterman hooked up with guitarist Stephen Fredette. Stanfield was eventually brought into the fold, and before long, Scruffy The Cat was born.
Scruffy had several things going for them. For one thing, all its members actually wrote to some degree or another, giving the group a wealth of material. Second, there weren’t many (in Boston, perhaps not any) pop bands incorporating elements of country, rockabilly and R&B into their songwriting, which made Scruffy fairly distinctive at the time. Third, they worked their asses off, playing up to five nights a week on the Beantown club circuit. The payoff came when the band landed a record deal with Relativity in 1985.
What followed was a two-year whirlwind that saw the band release a pair of EPs and a pair of full-length records that received considerable critical acclaim. The downfall began shortly after the recording of the Jim Dickinson-produced Moons Of Jupiter; whatever momentum the band had managed to ride up until that point crumbled in the promotional wake of the record’s release.
“I think ultimately the thing that was Scruffy’s demise, at least as far as I’m concerned, was everything we had done from the time we started until a little after Moons Of Jupiter, we never had to think about,” reflects Chesterman. “It was almost like it was all predestined. We never had to worry about gigs, about record contracts, about making connections in clubs, about good songs, about people liking us…because it all just happened. If somebody rolled out the red carpet, we just walked.
“But about the time that Moons had come out and Relativity didn’t care for it so much, then things got to be kind of hard. And we didn’t know what to do because we never really had to make any plans or figure out what our next step was gonna be. Probably the only thing we were guilty of when we broke up was in not being able to get it together enough to make some decisions, ’cause we never had to.”