Unsung heroes of power pop
It’s baffling how some bands make it, and some don’t. Artful Dodger is one of rock’s biggest head-scratchers. They had a treasure trove of radio-ready songs, a killer frontman, a producer with a proven track record, and the backing of a major label. Despite all this going for them, the band never had a hit single or even an entry on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart. Real Gone Music has just collected the first three albums of this under-appreciated group on a two-CD set, Artful Dodger – The Complete Columbia Recordings.
If the band had only recorded one song, they’d still be remembered for “Wayside.” This jangly masterpiece with a harmony-laden chorus led off their debut album, which was helmed by Jack Douglas. He’d already had success with Aerosmith, and would go on to produce Cheap Trick and John Lennon, and it’s his clever use of layered guitars and vocals that really elevates these sessions.
Their entire debut album is very good, including the darker “It’s Over,” which was a showcase for vocalist Billy Paliselli – he’s a lot closer to Steve Marriott than Eric Carmen. “You Know It’s Alright” is powered by a nice guitar riff and hook in the chorus (which reminds me of more modern bands like Sloan). “Follow Me” was another excellent rocker, while “Silver and Gold” was a gorgeous ballad that should’ve been a hit, and was so intricate, that it almost sounds like ELO.
But, keep in mind, this record came out in 1975, when the rock world was dominated by heavy groups like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, or the shock rock of Kiss and Alice Cooper. Timing is everything – Cheap Trick and Billy Squier were still a few years off, while the Raspberries and Badfinger had both run their course. So, in a sense, Artful Dodger fell through the cracks. And, there’s one theory that Columbia Records was too busy grooming fellow labelmate Bruce Springsteen for stardom, to concentrate on Artful Dodger’s career.
Any hopes of building on their work from the first album were thwarted when Douglas was unavailable to produce their followup, Honor Among Thieves. Instead, the band turned to Ed Leonetti, whose track record wasn’t as storied as his predecessor (he’d helmed albums by Rex Smith and Moxy). While Leonetti gave them a more stripped-down sound, he also took away the appeal of the multi-layered harmonies and guitars. Without the production magic, the tracks end up sounding more like demos.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t good songs here – the churning “Keep Me Happy” was probably the closest the guys got to Cleveland’s native sons, the Raspberries. The mid-tempo, jangly “Remember” was another highlight. The psychedelic-tinged “Dandelion” featured guitarist Gary Cox on vocals. “Hey Boys” had a killer twin guitar solo, while the slide guitar on “Good Fun” recalled Badfinger.
Despite their lack of success, Leonetti was brought back for Babes on Broadway. This time around, he smoothes out the rough edges. Yet, for some reason, Cox does a lot more singing. While he was a decent vocalist, Paliselli was key to the band’s signature sound. “Wave Bye-Bye” was a nice midtempo rocker, while “Mistake” is one of their best ballads. But, tracks like “Loretta” and “Alright” are okay, but would’ve never made the cut for the first album. And, a cover of the Eddie Cochran classic “C’mon Everybody” signaled that they had run out of ideas.
The set comes with an 18-page booklet, featuring an in-depth essay on the band’s history, including quotes from band members, and some nice archival photos.
Fans of Cheap Trick, the Raspberries or Big Star will find plenty to love here. And, since it’s unlikely you’ve heard these tracks before, it’s like finding a great lost power pop classic. –Tony Peters