"Off The Wall"
HACKAMORE BRICK’s 1970 album One Kiss Leads to Another was the first of a number of neglected outings from this perennially out-of-time NYC aggregation.
JOHNNIE JOHNSTONE gets to the heart of the mystery with the group’s founders, still flying their flag high.
In 1971 rumours began to circulate that Tommy Moonlight, one half of Brooklyn duo Hackamore Brick, was in fact, Lou Reed. Listening to the ﬁrst30 seconds or so of ‘Oh! Those Sweet Bananas’, a superb track from legendary lost HB album, One Kiss Leads To Another, one might be forgiven for considering the suggestion entirely plausible. Perhaps the banana in the song title was a cryptic clue? It was said too that the band – a foursome at the time of the album’s release in ’70 – were all members of The Velvet Underground Appreciation Society.
Not so, as Tommy explains. “At that time,’69-70, The Beatles were finishing. Of the British bands you had Led Zeppelin–heavy, louder – and the American bands– Iron Butterﬂy’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – and we wanted to stay with the three-minute song, and not play these longer things. We kind of resisted what was happening, then six or seven years later, in ’76-77, all of a sudden people were playing shorter songs, so that’s the only way we had any connection. ”Besieged by a quagmire of difficulties from the very beginning, and with few if any musical allies, Tommy and Chick Newman faced an uphill struggle to build an audience for their music, and are on the line today from New York to explain how the strange story of Hackamore Brick unfolded. It all began with a truly charming ﬁrst encounter, as Chick recalls. “We were at music school, but we didn’t know one another. I started playing a piano for some girls – probably a Rolling Stones intro (‘She’s A Rainbow’) – and was scoring some points. Then suddenly I hear a bass line being played on the same piano but it wasn’t my hand. And that was Tom. Tommy had visions of starting a “Tim Hardin type thing” but kept an eye on Chick’s band. “I heard them play and I was interested in the songs Chick had written… but we both played organ and I didn’t think it would work out. Immediately the pair struck up a close friendship and gradually other players were drafted in. The band – called Ice at this point – made such a positive early impression that Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer even considered signing them for their fledgling Sire label.
An offer didn’t materialise, but by the time the line-up was settled (Bob Roman on bass and Robbie Biegel on drums) the band had renamed themselves Hackamore Brick and were signed to Buddah off shoot Kama Sutra, for whom they recorded a solitary album – one which became so obscure that it exchanged hands on eBay for extravagant amounts of money, before finally seeing a re-release in 2013. One Kiss Leads To Another is a lost gem of the period and, while some copies no doubt ended up in the bargain bins, others became treasured cornerstones of prized record collections. On the LP sleeve, photographed on the ﬁre escape outside Joel Brodsky’s studio, the band’s appearance is of quintessentially cool ’70s hippie beat kids. The sound is leavened with a youthful optimism. There are some terrific songs. “Reachin’’ and ‘Someone You Know’ are delicately tangled ballads – Tommy has noted that structurally, HB songs tend to “veer off”, so that like a form of musical Marmite, they become sufficiently odd to caress the palate of the more discerning listener, while simultaneously repelling any
popular appeal. ‘Peace Has Come’ features their trademark fluid keyboard sound while the organ-driven ‘Zip Gun Woman’, laced with their impish humour, is one of their few written collaborations. ‘And I Wonder’ does briefly trespass into that West-Coast improvisational style, its epic eight-minute duration a little incongruous on first listen. The vocals on the album have an understated naturalistic quality, but perhaps this naïve enthusiasm contributed in part to it being largely ignored by the record buying public. Despite some critical appreciation, sales were poor. The market for the band’s music seemed to be in very short supply.
The truth was, One Kiss Leads To Another simply didn’t belong. In the post-Woodstock musical zeitgeist, off kilter three minute pop songs were not de rigeur. “I always liked Moby Grape, The Byrds, Janis – but the other bands just played on. It wasn’t what we were doing,” says Tommy. Trying to pin Hackamore Brick on a wall chart of popular music history is akin to suddenly locating the last part of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and finding it’s the wrong shape. Chick recalls that the band didn’t fit with the NYC scene either. “We were pretty isolated – we practised in an amusement park in Brooklyn and we didn’t hang out with other bands. ”Even more crucially, their vision didn’t conform to the record company’s plans. Tommy recalls: “We didn’t think the label understood what we wanted to do. The President of the company [Neil Bogart] didn’t understand the humour – I mean some of the songs were just funny. We had a falling out right away. We recorded ‘Searchin’’ as the 45 – and we were going to record a second album but because they didn’t promote the single we kinda rebelled against the idea of going back into the studio.
We thought we could do better someplace else. ”An unfortunate series of circumstances then played out. “Our producer Richard Robinson had gone to RCA [somewhat ironically producing Lou Reed’s debut for the label], but by the time we’d got out of our contract, he wasn’t with RCA any more, so things didn’t work in our favour. ” When asked if leaving KamaSutra was an impulsive decision, Chick is somewhat ambiguous with his response. We were at that age – we were not that compromising with establishment people. We saw the record company as… well, not as our friend. They wanted to change the 45 to make it more palatable to radio stations and we wouldn’t do that.”
Around the same time the band played The Bitter End and, after ‘Searchin’ was recorded, enjoyed a seven-week residency at Duffy’s Place (the club The Mamas & The Papas sang about in ‘Creeque Alley’) on St Thomas in The Virgin Islands. After returning to New York to play some Manhattan dates, relations began to unravel with KamaSutra and Hackamore Brick remained camouflaged from any media exposure. Times were tough, as Tommy recalls. “We ended up working in the middle of the night, counting cans, inventory work, driving cars...” The bills still needed paying. A succession of name changes followed throughout the ’70s – at various times they were known as Moonlight, Stars and Blue Yonder. But when they were championed by Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGBs, new possibilities opened up. Tommy remembers playing there around the same time as Television, The Ramones and Blondie were making great waves, but “we were not quite playing the kind of music they were playing.” It seemed that even with the seismic shift that the new wave had brought, the Brick still wouldn’t fasten on to any scene. The old problem was becoming a perennial one.
After a temporary relocation to Austin Texas in the ’80s, there followed a lengthier separation until the pair reunited in the early 2000s. It was only when they started to perform again around 2006 that they realised somewhere along the line an audience had begun to grow for their music. “We thought the first 17 people bought the record, that was it. All of a sudden we found people who knew who we were and would come out when we were playing. “The duo have released a few CDs independently since then, the six-track Long Way Home in 2009 followed by From There To Almost Here (a collection of songs recorded between 1972-84) in 2012.The latest release, Snails In Astoria, has brought some overdue recognition and the boys are due to go out on tour later this year. It’s been 46 years since they were first in the recording studio, so how does recording now compare with back then? “The speed at which we made it [the ﬁrst album]– we thought there were things we could have done differently, but it was out of our hands.
With this one, we’ve got it just the way we wanted it,” admits Tommy. Chick adds, “The ability to ﬁx things now changes the spontaneity of what things were like in the ’60s. We had difficulty adjusting to that. After two takes, people start getting nervous and want to do everything electronically rather than give you another crack. With any new technology there are always huge positives and negatives. ”Tommy and Chick are delighted with how the album has turned out. Its crisp sparkling production furbishes a typically varied – and unsurprisingly, impossible to pigeonhole – selection of Brick picks including Tommy’s carefully constructed ‘I Got Off The Train’ and Chick’s gentle ballad ‘Montgomery Street’. The focus for the album’s promotion at the beginning has been the reggae-flavoured ‘She Was Sex Run Riot’, which showcases the pair’s musical versatility, alongside that tongue in cheek sense of humor. The group’s name itself remains a puzzle, a riddle unsolved. Tommy explains: “It didn’t really mean anything. It was the days of Savoy Brown and Jethro Tull. We’d say the name of the band and people would say, ‘What!? ”Today, that response is increasingly unusual. And the title of the new album? “It took us a very long time to get it together at this stage of our lives,” says Chick. “It’s not been easy, hence the name of the album.” That droll sense of humour has no doubt been cultivated in response to the undeniably cruel hand lent them by providence, but with any luck, fortunes are beginning to change for the Brick that wouldn’t fit.