Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Musiquarium: David Werner, part 2

Hi again, and welcome to part II of me guest posting about a music artist who not only didn’t become famous...but also who created music that remains unavailable in any sort of digital format.

When we left off, David Werner had released his first album to much label hype, yet saw it go fairly quickly to the cutout bins. Having said that, it should be noted that Whizz Kid, that debut record, did enjoy some successes. Influential Cleveland DJ Kid Leo played songs from the record in regular rotation on WMMS. In Werner’s native Pittsburgh it was also a radio hit. It got airplay in other markets around the country. It didn’t make anyone a star, but there was some recognition--if fleeting--of its quality.

For Werner and his musical cohorts, he at least had a contract that required RCA to allow him to make a second record. At this juncture, Werner and his chief creative foil, guitarist Mark Doyle, seemed relatively clear-eyed on the idea that their attempt to grab the brass ring had fallen well short. If there were thoughts that Whizz Kid had been made with commercial success in mind, the follow-up was going to be made under no such illusions. Instead that second record--called Imagination Quota--seemed to be Werner making a record that was far more personal to him and much more of an airplay-and-sales-be-damned artistic statement. He and Doyle were making the record they wanted to make.

As such, there are a parts of Imagination Quota that feel too trapped in their 1970’s era to work quite as well for my personal tastes. For instance, the fake reggae of “In And Around You” is a real miss, and the sax on a song like “Talk” has too much of a smooth jazz feel for my personal tastes. (Although having said that, it slots perfectly into the kind of post-glam soulful musics that Bowie and Lou Reed were making concurrently.)

As with those contemporaries, Imagination Quota leaves behind a lot of the glammy trappings of 1974.  Its a record that seems well aware of the kind of music that a fellow like Bruce Springsteen was making. The title track that kicks things off is absolutely terrific...although it does rather obviously nick the chorus melody of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The album’s two closing tracks, “Aggravation Non Stop” and “Body And Soul” are also fantastic.

For me, the centerpiece of Imagination Quota is a monster of a song called “Cold Shivers”, a track I’d like to build a case on being one of the great lost rock and roll songs of the 1970’s.  The lyrics to “Cold Shivers” make it clear that this is a very personal song; it clearly sounds like a fan letter to someone influential on Werner’s life and artistic inspiration (if you’re thinking he wrote it as a paean to Bowie, you’re on the right track, but wrong on the object of affection--it’s actually about Mick Jagger.)

To me the magic of “Cold Shivers” is the way it captures and encapsulates a key moment of artistic inspiration in any musician’s life. I’d hazard to say that at some point every creative, out-of-the-mainstream music artist (or even fan of music fitting that “underground” description)  has felt--sitting in their bedroom or car listening to music--alien to their peers.  That realization of feeling alone  in a crowd...and then yet discovering and being inspired to action by a kindred spirit heard in some vinyl grooves (or on computer headphones I guess, nowadays) seems like a universal thing.  I think it’s an experience incredibly integral to interesting, cutting-edge rock and roll, under-represented in the rock and roll canon. Perhaps Paul Westerberg of the Replacements built a lot of his early career writing about that moment and those feelings (“Sixteen Blue” and “Left Of The Dial” for instance), but few others have really ever tried to capture that experience, or done it well.

“Cold Shivers” does hit that target of teenage angst perfectly. The lyrics are so vivid, you can almost put yourself in Werner’s shoes, realizing that he can’t really fit in with any of his peers...but this Mick Jagger fellow--that guy he connects with and understands and realizes “He’s saying what I feel, and he’s doing what I want to do.”  Even the way Werner sings the song is like a tribute to the Stones frontman. Eschewing his normally airy vocals, Werner instead spits them out in a sort of loutish Jagger impression that comes off almost like a young Tom Petty.

The excellence of “Cold Shivers” notwithstanding, Imagination Quota was essentially DOA in the marketplace. RCA chose not to promote it heavily, and it followed its predecessor to the cutout bins (although in much fewer numbers, as there weren’t nearly as many copies pressed.) Werner was quietly cut loose from the label.

He and Doyle would get one more stab at success. After hearing some new songs on a demo, Epic signed Werner a few years later. Clearly influenced by the punk and power pop new wave going on, Werner made a self-titled record for Epic in 1979 that is much louder and more direct than any of his earlier stuff.  Produced by Bob Clearmountain at the Power Station studio, it was given a heavy promotional push by CBS, and even resulted in some decent radio airplay for a few songs like “What’s Right”, “Every New Romance”, and “Melanie Cries”...but in general the album was too rock-ish for the new wave crowd, and too pop for the FM-radio rock crowd.  

For Werner, that was it, at least as a recording artist. He ended up as a key in-house songwriter and producer at EMI, getting co-writing credits on enough songs in in the next two decades to carve out a tidy living. His collaborator, Mark Doyle, would end up as a touring guitarist with Hall & Oates and Meat Loaf (among others) through the 1980’s (hey, I’m betting it paid well) as well as the go-to string arrangements guy for Maurice Starr’s stable of bands which included (yikes) New Kids On The Block, among others. That final David Werner album went out of print at some point in 1982, just months before CBS began the initial releasing new music in digital format on compact disc.

For whatever reason--I suspect it has to do with no one knowing where or having access to the original masters--none of David Werner’s three studio albums were ever reissued on CD. They’ve never been put out digitally.  A Russian download site will happily sell you fan-created vinyl rips to mp3, but anyone with the remotest of Google skills will be able to find those same mp3’s available free hosted around the internet on various blogs (for his part, Werner seems tolerant, if not openly supportive of such “bootleg” copies of his music).  The music is well worth seeking out, a slab of 1970’s rock history that should’ve been huge and never should’ve become lost in the first place.

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