|Mad Habits cassette|
1. Monkey On His Back
2. No News
3.I Don't Like You
4. Too Selfish
5. When Will I Learn
6. Career Girl
Mad Habits was a Chuck Gross synthpop band from the 1980s that later changed its name to Laff Clinic. I don't know much about the band because Chuck keeps such a low profile that he's virtually subterranean. I assumed it was just Chuck playing everything until I learned just recently that journeyman local keyboardist Mark O'Connor was also in Mad Habits; apparently, they even played the Marble Bar back in the day. All I know is, Chuck gave me a six-song cassette tape many years ago that I never really listened to all the way through until quite recently, when his name came up in casual conversation at The Peanut Shoppe. I had just seen Chuck at Baltimore Soundstage for The Specials show and, in the course of gabbing about the concert, my Peanut Shoppe gal pal Stacey asked if I knew how to contact him. She was a fan of his days playing with Rupert Wondolowski in Little Gruntpack, whereas I knew Chuck mainly from his days playing with Mark O'Connor in The Toys and The Beaters. I went home after this conversation and dug out the Mad Habits tape and...it's great!
My wife Amy heard me playing it and said it reminded her of Henry Badowski's similarly light-hearted electronic pop. Or, I would add, like Patrick D. Martin (remember his hilarious 1981 single "Computer Datin'"; most people first heard it on the IRS Greatest Hits Vols 2 & 3 compilation). "No News" is her fave ditty ("No news is always good news to me...I don't want to know if it rains or snows/Or if Russia invades Tokyo" - and boy is it ever topical today, what with the 24/7 news - both real and "fake" - cycle), while my pick has to be the dating nightmare "Career Girl," about a Material Girl on the prowl for a guy with a fast car and lots of money ("She is counting, 1-2-3"). But all the tunes are throwback-to-the-80s synthpop classics.
Click here to listen to the "Mad Habits" tape in its entirety.
Amy was sold the minute she heard the zany electronic squonks and and squeals on the first track, "Monkey On His Back," that made her blurt "Wow, that's sooo DEVO!" So Devo and so like the best practitioners of '80s synthpop - but always with a sense of humor (more Devo and Silicone Teens than, say Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark); any of these songs would be at home on the 4AD or Mute Records labels. Now we can't stop singing along to this six-pack of unknown songs on an unknown tape by an unknown musical genius. The instrumentation is mostly synths and electronic drums, though I definitely hear snatches of real electric bass (especially that great bass line on "Monkey On His Back") and guitar (the Exacto knife-sharp Gang of Four riffs on "Career Girl"). According to Mark O'Connor, who provided the ARP Odyssey synthesizer sounds, Chuck wrote all the songs and played everything else: "That's him on bass, guitar and drum machine."
"Monkey On His Back" opens with an ominous-sounding undercurrent, as befitting the subject matter: a drug addict's best friend, the monkey hunched on his back. Monk keeps his BFF dressed in sunglasses and long-sleeve shirts even when it's 110 degrees in the shade. "He insists he'll never bother you, just as long as he gets what he needs/But then again he says he'll do most anything/He'll always keep the friend that he feeds." So true, dat.
"No News" describes the folly of following the world's foibles and failings, no doubt one reason Gross has dropped off the social media grid. He'd rather being making music than listening, reading or watching the world go by. "I could care less why they are on strike, or why workers need a fat payday hike/No news is good news that I am always looking for/And I don't need my paper all wet, left by my front door/Please don't you tell me that the end is drawing near/No news is good news, that's what I always want to hear - I don't like the...NEWS!"
The remaining four songs all deal with dating and relationships, with tones ranging from serious ("I Don't Like You") to self-reflective ("Too Selfish"), but mostly just humorous ("When Will I Learn," "Career Girls").
"I Don't Like You" peels away a failed romance to its core: "Sometimes we don't realize, that we just keep on living lies/We don't seem to realize the feelings in our hearts/We dance around and smile at each other, underneath the nightclub cover/We gave it all we had, it was a nice start." Chuck sings "It's hard to come to terms with the way we feel" but admits "I don't like you, you don't like me anymore, there's nothing left to do or say/Please don't teach me, try to reach me anymore/And then we'll both be on our way." Love isn't always meant to be and, once gone, is only legacy.
In "Too Selfish," Chuck laments that "you want me all to yourself, but I'm afraid that's impossible my dear," confessing that he's "too selfish to love only you." Amy and I refer to this as the "Skynth" song because it lays a guitar-driven Ska beat over a synthesizer base; the playful rhythm takes the edge off the "It's not you, it's me" romantic drama.
Being stood up is only one of Chuck's complaints in "When Will I Learn." "When will I learn/I'm really getting tired of being burned by you - yeah you!" He's "really glad that I met you, but I soon found out I'd rather forget you/I didn't know what I was getting into." Now he's looking for an escape clause...
"Career Girl" chronicles the plight of a single man fighting off women with their eyes on the prize: a sugar daddy who brings home the bacon."This girl pursues a man, she'll never take a rest/Don't care what they look like, his money makes him best/ Avoiding these girls seems to be the only key/Or you could wind up losing all your best friends, most of your hair and your sanity." I like the interlude where Chuck has two "Career Girls" talking shop about their prey: "What's his name, how's he dress?" "Name is Dion, Barclay James...a rising exec, I gave him the test."
And while Chuck documents his romantic setbacks, it's never dire. "Mad Habits" is consistently entertaining and enjoyable and full of infectious hooks and memorable lines that Amy and I can't stop singing!
But as far as contacting Chuck Gross, Stacey...well, he is totally off the grid and n'exist pas as far as the Internets are concerned. You can't find one picture of him: nada. So, for the purposes of this review, I'm going to substitute this picture of Peanuts character Pigpen playing bass to represent him (the real Chuck Gross would be wearing a hat, of course, and he'd be very clean):
|Portrait of the Artist as a Young Peanut: Chuck Gross|
Yet he has a storied musical history, especially with "GOHOG Revue"-related bands - that collection of performing and recording musical pseudonyms whose ranks included members of OHO, Food For Worms, Dark Side, Trixy & the Testones, Razor, The Toys, Unyflow, BLAMMO and the Beaters. And Chuck Gross references abound throughout Joe Vaccarino's local music tome Baltimore Sounds (2nd Edition, 2012), where you can find listings for Chuck's former bands Laff Clinic (circa 1984-1985; they released one single, "Pariah" b/w "Action Figure Knickknacks"), Little Gruntpack, the Toys, and (my personal fave) the Beaters.
|Mark O'Connor of The Beaters (and countless GOHOG bands)|
The Beaters were a short-lived local New Wave supergroup, a 1980 "Marble Bar All-Stars" ensemble comprised of O'Connor (keyboards, guitar & vocals) and Gross (bass) from the Toys, drummer Joe Manfre and guitarist Mikel Gehl from Neige, and Cindy "Bobby Sox" Borchardt (later of The Monuments) on vocals. The Beaters billed themselves as "the fastest band in town," and they mixed clever originals ("I Wanna Be Like a Woman," "Fun In Nicaragua" - the latter an O'Connor song from his days in Dark Side with a great shout-out to Orioles pitcher "Dennis Martinez, your home is where the heat is!") with a diverse selection of covers (Beatles, Blondie, The Fugs/Holy Modal Rounders' "Boobs A Lot," The Vibrators' "I Need a Slave," The Eyes' "TAQN" (Take A Quaalude Now), and The Curse's "Killer Bees," the latter a showcase for the insouciant vocal stylings of Cindy Borchardt).
|The Killer B: Cindy Borchardt|
Of course, any band with O'Connor and Gross in it is also going to be funny, and the Beaters were no exception. I recall them being heckled at one Marble Bar gig by Thee Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski and O'Connor responded by dedicating a song about unwanted pregnancies with the bon mots, "This one's for you Adolf!"
Before that, Chuck and Mark O'Connor were in the Parkville-based Toys, whose original name was Concert (allegedly in response to hearing there was a local band called Audience). Concert/Toys were a Top 40 rock band that played at high school dances and area clubs from 1974-1980. According to Baltimore Sounds, they were the weekend house band at the Red Balloon on Belair Road and would also don Sgt. Pepper's costumes to double as a Beatles cover band. Their highest profile gig was headlining a New Year's Eve show at (the now long-gone) Painter's Mill Concert Hall. O'Connor replaced original keyboardist Tim Kilgore and was himself later replaced by Ed Weber (ex-Seed, Shane); the other members were Gross (bass), Randy Hammond (vocals), and Bruce Crawford (guitar).
Chuck Gross is probably most associated with Little Gruntpack, the Captain Beefhearty Blues-Boogie Art-rock band whose other members included leader Rupert Wondolowski (guitar & vocals), his Normals Books & Music cohort Alfred "Angus" Merchlinsky (guitar), Chuck (bass), Chris "Batworth" Ciattei (drums), Scott "Swede" Larson (accordion), and Ralph Stewart (harmonica), with contributions from journeyman horn player John Dierker (sax). The band reflected the literary and avant-garde influence of the Normals-Shattered Wig-Red Room "poets-'n-painters-with-guitars" mindset, as many members and contributors were published authors and artists. Gruntpack released a single and two albums: 1997's Slipping Off the Map and 1999's Lurking.
|Little Gruntpack 45 - "Slipping Off the Map" b/w "New year's With Guns"|
|Little Gruntpack 45 back cover|
|Little Gruntpack - Slipping Off the Map (1997)|
|Little Gruntpack - Lurking (1999)|
Lurking was the only Gruntpack album I ever owned (curiously, I picked it up from a "Free Music" pile at a Govans yoga studio on Bellona Avenue that I suspect was left there by nearby resident Batworth or his wife Jenny Keith!), and it's pretty good. My fave songs are "B-Side Shenanigans" and the two instros, "Caution Your Head Samba" and "My New Pants," which are guitar-bass-drums workouts highlighting the technical skills of Rupert, Angus, Gross and Batworth. And the closing "Lonely Motel 6" lets John Dierker release his inner Ornette Coleman, as he honks, squonks, squeals and blows with wild abandon over a steady Gruntpack groove that would not be out of place at a Red Room jam. At times, Dierker's sax even sounds like Chris Wood flavoring an extended Traffic tune. After about 30 seconds, this final song is followed by a gem of a "hidden track," as Rupert turns into Choo Choo Charlie, singing a folk paen to a "freight train, freight train" rolling down the tracks. Propelled by Batworth's locomotive beat and "Swede" Larson's accordion, Rupert pleads "Don't tell them what car I'm on, so no one will know where I've gone."
In 1997, "Chuckie" teamed up with Little Gruntpack mates "Batworth" (drums) and Ralph "Stoo" Stewart (guitar) to form the surf instrumental trio The Soul Gamblers; they disbanded to go back to Gruntpack before reforming in 2000 to record their lone album, Souled Out. The Reverb That Wouldn't Die web site described them thusly: "Inspired by the traditional surf music of the 60's, B-movie schlock, and the garage/neo-surf sounds coming out of the Pacific Northwest via Estrus Records, The Soul Gamblers put together a sound that has been described by noted film/music critic Rudolph Carresso as 'the aural by-product of a three-way collision between a Woody Wagon, a '65 Pontiac Hearse, and Dracula's record collection.'"
The Soul Gamblers album features a 50/50 split between classic surf covers and Ralph Stewart originals. They were a worthy addition to Baltimore's resurgent garage/instro-surf-rock scene, which at high tide included Garage Sale, The Diamondheads, The Tridents (another Batworth band!), the Delmarvas, and countless others.
As you can see, Chuck Gross has a varied - and very interesting - musical C.V. Let's hope he revisits his electronic phase sometime in the future because his "Mad Habits" are habit forming!
Coda: The last time I saw Mark O'Connor (sometime around October 2017), I asked him if he knew how to contact Chuck Gross. "Of course - we're actually playing in a band together," he said. Some things never change!
Update (December 2017): Chuck Gross apparently saw this blog post and contacted me via email - hooray! This is what he had to say:
"Wow you have an old tape there. MAD HABITS was a recording project that consisted of Mark O'Connor and me. I wrote the songs. We recorded at Bill Pratt's 8-track recording studio.
"Career Girls" was awarded first prize from the MID-ATLANTIC song contest. The winners performed a show at the HOLLYWOOD PALACE. The line-up included me, Rose Wampler [of Spitshine, Elements of Design, Harlan County Kings, etc.] on guitar and Mark O'Connor on keyboards, along with the drum machine.
The project went from studio to live. The band name was changed from MAD HABITS to LAFF CLINIC. We played with OH BOY, OHO, etc., etc. I think Rod Misey [former WCVT, Towson University radio DJ] may have an interview or two archived somewhere."