Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Mike Skill

Mike Skill initially started as the guitarist for the Romantics in 1976. He was also instrumental in the band’s songwriting. Mike played guitar on the Romantics’ first two albums, their self-titled debut and National Breakdown. The self-titled album  included the band’s most known song, “What I Like About You.” Shortly after the second album, Mike left the Romantics in 1981 and was replaced by guitarist Coz Canler, in which the band recorded Strictly Personal. In 1982, Mike rejoined the Romantics as the bass player for their most successful album In Heat. That album had their highest charting song, “Talking in Your Sleep,” and a hit single, “One in a Million.” Yet, despite the breakthrough of In Heat, the band experienced a great amount of difficulty. Jimmy Marinos, the drummer and vocalist on “What I Like About You,” left the band in 1984. Also, the song “What I Like About You” had been used in a Bud Light commercial and the band had not seen any money from it. In addition, the band’s management had been misapplying the profits from their records and live performances. As a result, they sued their management to get the copyrights to their music.

In 1987, the lawsuit with management would keep the Romantics from recording. The Romantics continued to tour while they weren’t recording. (They only recorded one album in the eighties after In Heat.) After they were successful in their lawsuit with their management, the Romantics recorded an EP in 1993 titled Made in Detroit, and they recorded an album titled 61/49 in 2003. In addition, their victory in the lawsuit enabled the band to receive future licensing revenue from their music.

Despite their time away from recordings, the Romantics have been able to capitalize on the eighties nostalgia wave. At the time of this writing, they are touring with other eighties artists, such as Rick Springfield and Night Ranger. The Romantics will also do a cruise featuring themselves and other artists from the eighties in 2017. The current lineup of the Romantics is comprised of Mike on guitar, with original players Wally Palmar (guitar/lead vocals), Rich Cole (bass), and new drummer Brad Elvis.

In this candid conversation with Mike Skill, we discuss the history of the Romantics from their beginning days to their peak in the eighties. We also discuss the Romantics’ disappearance in the mid-eighties and their comeback on the eighties nostalgia tour. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview. Most of all, I want to thank Mike for taking the time to tell me the story of the Romantics. 

Jeff Cramer:  You played guitar and bass with the Romantics. Which instrument did you initially learn to play?

Mike Skill:  I got a guitar when I was eleven or twelve, but I didn’t really learn until I was thirteen or so. I taught myself guitar one summer and played all through high school. Various bands needed bass players, so I learned how to play bass on the guitar, and then I finally got a bass guitar. One summer I learned all the new songs that were around at the time. I learned all the bass parts in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so that’s how I learned my craft.

Jack Bruce from Cream came out, and I liked Jack Bruce. Chris Squire [who played bass in Yes] was really good. He played actual bass lines and melodies instead of sixteenth notes through the whole thing. I still had a guitar, so that’s what I wrote the songs on. When the Romantics came around, I was mostly on bass. I was writing, and I submitted songs to the band. Even though I was on bass, I had written songs on guitar. The whole band wasn’t thinking about me as the guitar player. They were thinking about getting someone else to play guitar.

JC: How did the Romantics things come around?

MS: The New York scene started happening. The New York Dolls were around. Of course Lou Reed was around earlier, but Bowie, the Ramones, Blondie . . . everybody was filtering in to New York. It was a big scene in Max’s Kansas City. The groups had been written up in the magazine Hit Parader. I went to New York with the Motor City Rockers, a small group I played with before the Romantics. It was me, the drummer Jimmy, and two other guys. We actually played at CBGB in ’74 or ’75.  

I came back and just kind of regrouped with Jimmy when I heard the Flamin' Groovies and the Jam. So, I went over to Jimmy’s house. I played him the Flamin' Groovies’ record and showed him the Jam article on Melody Maker. I said, “This is a good thing—I can write this stuff and you can play this stuff.” We started thinking about it in terms of a more pop/hard-rock Kinks-y kind of thing but with a punk edge. I’d met Wally a few years back. I heard he was playing at a nearby high school, so I went over there, scrambled up the wall, and looked through the window. He was handling the crowd pretty good, so I went back and talked to the drummer, called them up, got a jam together, rehearsal together, and that’s how the Romantics started.

We were going to get someone on guitar, but there was no one who was really interested in playing Chuck Berry. The guitarists we auditioned didn’t want to play simple three chords. Most guys wanted to do the long jams and whatever, which was fine, but we wanted to do a straight-ahead thing like the New York scene, so I just ended up on guitar. I always played straight-ahead and played more like the Groovies and the Jam. It worked out because we had a bass player who was a friend of Wally’s. We just wanted to write songs and put out a single and put out a record.  

JC: How did the Romantics get a record deal?

MS: As we wrote songs, the guys from MC5 [a rock band that hailed from Michigan] were putting something together. The MC5 guys came over and asked us to play a show that they wanted to do in February. In ’77, we got a gig with them at a place called My Fair Lady in downtown Detroit. It was pretty much a showcase. Record companies would come in and radio people were going to be there. We were just rearing to go. The Romantics were jamming and playing and having fun. We picked up these orange iridescent suits and we were all over the stage. The Romantics played short pop songs . . . good jams. We had a lot of energy.

We were asked to come back. Our record came out, and two weeks later we were opening for Mink DeVille. We sold some of the records. There was one woman there, Gail Parenteau, who was married to Mark Parenteau, a DJ in Detroit at the same station who put on the show.

Our manager talked to Gail about playing a show that was coming up at the Pontiac Silverdome, which is a huge eighty-thousand-seat arena. It was Peter Frampton, J. Giles, Steve Miller, and the Romantics opening. We got the gig. We were on early, at 6: 30 or 7: 00. There were probably seven thousand people there, which looked like nothing in that arena, but it was really cool to us. It gave us another goal to keep moving forward. I’m sure we went to the studio right after that to record some demos. We did sixteen originals in one afternoon. We just started shooting out to places that were six or so hours away, like New York, Boston, Philly, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, etc. We would get there and find a cheap hotel or whatever, and play a show. Then we would come back and play Detroit.  We created a vibe in Detroit, so our fans were growing in Detroit as we went back and forth. The same thing was happening in those other cities, so it just kind of grew. We played in Boston, as well as a few other clubs. We played at a hot club in Philly with the Heartbreakers and with the guy from the Stray Cats . . . what’s his name?

JC: Oh, Brian Setzer.

MS: Brian Setzer was in a band called the Bloodless Pharaohs. They all wore these Egyptian robes and it was an arty kind of rock band. The next thing you know, a few months later, the Stray Cats came out.

It was still fun. In New York, we finally got some response. CBS Records took a little bit of an interest. A friend of ours was a photographer from Detroit. The photographer sent Bun E. Carlos [Cheap Trick’s drummer] tapes. Bun E. was a real supporter and forwarded those to CBS. Capitol Records took an interest and we did demos for Capitol. John Carter, who produced Rick Springfield, produced us.

Bomp! started coming around, and our second single came out on Bomp! Records. Then we got in a bigger booking agency in Detroit. We were doing shows with Ted Nugent and other groups on the roster. Ted just played guitar. He did speak crap, but he spoke other crap. It wasn’t political at the time. The crowds were growing, and we met people from Nemperor Records with Nat Weiss, who worked with Brian Epstein and the Beatles. They liked what they saw and we signed with Nemperor Records in 1980. It took almost four years of traveling back and forth playing music to get signed.

The Romantics’ first album (self-titled) on Nemperor Records(Mike second to left)

Each time we didn’t get signed, we were not happy about it, but after the fact, my realization was, “Well, wait a minute, I was really ready.” Each time it was like a step up. We would say, “I’m glad we didn’t get signed because look at the good songs we have now.” It was really cool that it took time, because it gave us the time to build the whole thing instead of it all happening really quick.

When the first record came out [The Romantics, 1980], three singles were released. “What I Like About You” was the third one, I think. The first was “When I Look in Your Eyes,” which was a twelve-string kind of Who song. Then “Tell it to Carrie” was a straight-ahead pop song, and “What I Like About You” came out and they all charted. I think “What I Like About You” went up to forty-nine or so.

Our manager signed us to go to Europe. Before Europe, we were playing on the West Coast, and we got a call from the promoters in Holland and they wanted a video. We were in LA playing the Whisky a Go Go for a couple nights, and a guy came in during the sound check. He just had one camera to film the band live, and then he filmed each guy far away and close up. We wanted kind of a “Hard Day’s Night” look, with close-ups on our faces and all of that, and they put it out in Holland. The record went off the charts in Australia and climbed to number one. Things were happening. [To watch the video for “What I Like About You,” click here.]

JC: You talked about the video. Can you go into the recording of “What I Like About You”?

MS: We were probably in our second or third year. I think it was ’77 or ’78 and we were still playing in little clubs in Detroit. We had a rehearsal studio. I came to rehearsal one night and I was usually late. I don’t think I had a car at the time; my mom dropped me off. I got there early and the drummer was there. Funny enough, I had the idea of a three-chord basic idea, something like Buddy Holly. The drummer and I were just messing around for a minute. I had these three chords, his beat fit my style of playing, so it worked.

Then the other two Romantics members showed up and we started playing it. It was still a loose jam. It wasn’t there. I suggested “uh-huh”—that little part that kind of comes from a Chuck Berry song. “Uh-huh, oh yeah.”

JC: Okay.

MS: It was kind of a little impulse there, but then came the vocal parts and then the backups. The “heys” in the song came from something like Mitch Ryder or the Yardbirds in “Over Under Sideways Down.”

JC: Yeah, I know.

MS: So, the little bits and pieces came along at different times and we were doing it for a couple years. We needed a third verse, so the drummer, who was singing it, wrote the third verse. Sometimes, it takes time for a song. You' either get it all at once or it’s bits and pieces, or you might have a verse or two and then you are making up stuff on the third verse or whatever. However, it finally came together. We never thought it was much more than a good dance chord or just good fun rock ’n’ roll.

JC:  Did you ever guess the song would have this popularity?

MS: We didn’t think the song was any different as far as acceptance of any other song. You capture lightning in a bottle but you don’t realize it. Somewhere around that time MTV came about and “What I Like About You” was playing on it, so the song got its own life. It’s an organic thing. No one is hyping. We didn’t have the big money hype that a lot of bands were getting, but it turned out good for us because everything was more organic.

“What I Like About You” has been in twenty to thirty movies, commercials, TV shows, etc. It just has a life of its own and each generation of kids picks up on it. That’s the really cool thing.

At the time when “What I Like About You” was written, all the disco stuff was coming out, which was fine music for dancing, but it wasn’t raw rock ’n’ roll. So, with all the disco stuff coming out, “What I Like About You” came out at the right time. It had the attitude and energy. It just kind of grabs people. It’s rock n’ roll, that kind of thing.

JC: Okay, let’s go back to where the Romantics were in 1980. Both the first album and the single “What I Like About You” is out.

MS: “What I Like About You” fell off the charts. The record had only been out roughly a year when Bud Light came calling to do a commercial. We didn’t even get a chance to negotiate anything for the band. It was a red flag without us realizing it was a red flag at the time. The money went to a bank account that wasn’t ours.

We may have gone into the studio for our second record. We had been writing for three or four years, the first songs for the first record. Out of all the songs we wrote, we picked the best songs for the first album. Now, in three and a half months I had to come up with songs, which was an unusually short time to come up with a second album. Since we recently opened for the Ramones and Cheap Trick, the songs on the second record were a little faster and more live.

JC: Yes.

National Breakout, the second album in 1980 (Mike second to left)

MS: We wanted to have that energy and just the whole punk attitude thing. More attack. However, if we slowed them down, they would have been a little more, I don’t know what to say . . . they could have been better.

JC: Some of the songs, like “Tomboy . . .” [To hear “Tomboy,” click here.]

MS: It’s really fast.

JC: Yeah, that’s probably your fastest song.

MS: Right, there’s “New Cover Story” and “Girl Next Door . . .”

JC: “Girl Next Door” is from the first album. The second album National Breakout contains “Tomboy,” and “21 and Over.”

MS: Yeah, the songs on National Breakout are a little faster and they are done with less attention than we wanted at the time. After that second record, I think there were creative difficulties. I left the band for one year and they put out Strictly Personal [1981], but it didn’t do much.

JC: Yes, but you came back a few years later to do what would be the Romantics’ biggest record, In Heat [1983].

MS: I think they had talked about getting me back for writing, because the last record, Strictly Personal, didn’t do much. I came back. I had an idea for something like the basis for “Talking in Your Sleep.” At the time, all these bands were coming out of London, like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. They had all these great looks. It wasn’t really rock ’n’ roll, but it was a new thing coming out. That’s where “Talking in Your Sleep” kind of fits in. It fit in with the stuff that was on the radio at the time and video even though it had Detroit attitude or a Stones’ thing, or whatever you want to call it. It’s just a dance number, so it went number one on the dance charts. [To hear “Talking in your Sleep,” click here.] We had a couple of other songs come after that.

The Romantics’ In Heat album (1983) (Mike top left)

“One in a Million” was in the top 40, I think.

JC: I notice Peter Solley produced the Nemperor albums you had played on with the Romantics. How did you come across him?

MS: We had a list of producers. At the time, Peter was living in Australia; he’d just finished recording bands in Australia and had some success there. He was also doing commercials. We wanted to have someone who was musical, like a George Martin kind of thing, and could say, “Oh, you might want to sing that note instead of that note. And you might want to end that bridge on that chord instead of that chord.”

That’s kind of the way it worked, and he was the guy who could do that. He did the last tour with Terry Reid and the last tour with Procol Harum. He played keyboards with—

JC: Whitesnake and Eric Clapton.

MS: Yeah, he probably played on their first couple of albums. He played keyboard with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown as well. He’s been around. He’s from the sixties. If you couldn’t get Steve Winwood, you would call him.

I think it was a mistake to keep Pete on as producer, though. I think we should have probably bowed out after the second record. You can’t complain about the fourth record; it was top notch for the radio and the charts. But it would have been nice to call up Dave Edmunds and say, “Dave Edmunds, come over to the Romantics,” or Jack Douglas. We even sent Bryan Adams’s producer some music.

JC: Oh, I think that’s Jim Vallance, who later produced Aerosmith.

MS: We liked the guy who produced early U2. Steve Lillywhite was good. We liked him too. But it was still up in the air whether those guys could work or not. You didn’t know if it was going to fit even though you liked it. You didn’t know if a certain producer was going to get the vibe. When I was briefly out of the band, they worked with the guy who was an engineer for Roy Thomas Baker [producer of Queen, the Cars, and Journey] and he recorded early Fleetwood Mac . . .

JC: Right, Mike Stone was who they got.

MS: Yes, Mike Stone. Let me put it this way:  it didn’t work out.

JC: Getting back to In Heat, the Romantics had hit their peak. “Talking in Your Sleep” was the highest charting of all the Romantics’ songs, but during that time, the band was coming to an end. First, the drummer, Jimmy Marinos, who is the vocalist on “What I Like About You,” left. And then you only did one more album after In Heat.

MS: Yeah, we were in the stride, but sometimes other things could change your mind. We were together all the time, being on the bus for a year. We were on the road for eleven months for the In Heat record, which was crazy. We didn’t make Europe, which we should have. Our managers kept deciding to go against Europe because it was a little bit more expensive to play in Europe. You had to pay a little more for the hotels and more for equipment and gear.

Jimmy just wasn’t happy at that point in time and felt he could do better on his own, so he was going to become a vocalist instead of a drummer. We just kind of barreled through, going forward, and then fired our managers.

JC: Right, because this is what you were talking about earlier when your managers used “What I Like About You” in the Bud Light commercial.

MS: Exactly. Our managers weren’t totally upfront, and if I could say anything to any band it’s to get your own accountant and have everything go to your accountant first. And then, everyone else is paid. That’s what we should have done. We should have had our own accountant instead of those guys handling the money. The money went to a band account, which they handled. The checks went to our managers and into a band account that we didn’t see. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing. It was down and dirty and ugly. You trusted your friends. You trusted people that you worked with who helped you get up there and you helped them get up there, you know?

You fought through the same stuff. We got through that and retained our copyrights eventually, got our song, and that’s that. It took a good seven years to get through that whole thing.

JC: That’s why you weren’t able to record any music during that time.

MS: Yeah, as we were fighting for our copyrights, the record labels didn’t really want to get involved with our band if we were in the middle of a lawsuit. Plus, we didn’t really want to put anything out that someone might get their hands on. That happened then, and now we have another business manager . . . well, I shouldn’t probably go into it all right now. I won’t get into the specifics. We are kind of going through a lawsuit stuff now and we’re halfway through it. That’s all I’m going to say about that.  

We just keep on going. Not too long ago, the other guitar player, Coz Canler [the guitarist who replaced Mike when he first left] left, and I took over at guitar.

JC: Right, so you are back to your original position.

MS: I have to get the whole guitar-music vibe back together and have the same guitar sound that was there when the band started. We had three guys up front now who sang, so there were the harmonies and the vocals, and the  guitars bashing together. I’ve had some time off, and I am more confident to be up front on guitar again. I’m much better and much more in it. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to come back, and it’s a good experience. The band sounds great. We’ve got clean, raw guitars. We found Brad Elvis to be our drummer. We had Clem Burke drumming with us in the nineties. We also had a humungous drummer, Johnny B. Badanjek out of Detroit, playing with us in the 90s and 2000s. He’s a great guy with great credibility and a great player. He’d been with Mitch Ryder in the sixties.

Brad Elvis came out by recommendation of Clem Burke.  He has the same kind of kick-and-snare thing going on that Jimmy, our original drummer, had. Brad also has that Keith-Moon thing and English-pop thing going on, so it works really well. It fills in the gaps and it’s got a lot of attitude. It’s a really good band right now.

JC: What is this band doing right now?

MS: We just finished mastering the latest album. I think we’re on our last song. It’s six or eight covers and a few originals. We’ve got three originals, but I think we are putting two on there. The daughter of the guys who founded K-Tel Records came to us and begged us to do a record with her. She said she had some songs she thought we could do. We picked them up and threw them on the floor to see which ones we liked. We picked a few out, and then she brought back more, and we just kept going at each other. We came across a couple songs that she could use in commercials and TV and whatever she could sell. That even made us happier, so we recorded those songs and hopefully it’s coming out in the next few weeks. We’ve released a few covers, “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” by the Animals and “Daydream Believer.” It’s all guitars on “Daydream Believer.” I worked out a whole thing. The original is all orchestrated with an orchestra.

I had to do something more like the Yardbirds to do it with all guitars. There was another song earlier this year, “Coming Back Home,” which came out during Christmas with the song “Deck the Halls.” I don’t think we are going to do another single. I think we will probably just release the whole shebang and put the record out. I suggested the title for the record, Up from the Rubble, because of all the crap we have been through. I also got the title from when you were a kid and you sat in your bedroom and had a pile of records. We figure it’s like the rubble, the pile of songs. We’re getting a really good response on “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” It’s like kicking up some dust.

JC: I understand you are back on tour again. Right now, you are about to do a date with other eighties artists, such as Rick Springfield and Night Ranger.

MS: We did shows with Squeeze and we might have been there with Berlin or the Smithereens. But this is 2016, and things are working out. We are with Rick Springfield in Brooklyn, and we have to travel right after the show to Belgium—the Vostertfeesten Festival. Yep, and then there is Raleigh. We have Ashville, North Carolina, which is very cool. Raleigh, Charlotte, and then a show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In the coming week, we’re playing outside of Detroit and Molin, Illinois, and then Council Bluffs, Iowa. So yeah, it’s working out.

JC: Who is singing now on “What I Like About You” since Jimmy was the vocalist?

MS: Actually, the whole crowd sings it. Because of the situation with the song growing and growing beyond any one of us now, and it’s like any one of us would have to be singing it. It’s everybody’s song now. Five Seconds of Summer just did it.

After the Bud Light commercial, then TV shows and movies, it’s like anybody can be singing it. I mean, Wally starts it off and then I sing it, Wally sings verse, I sing a verse, etc. We were going to have Rich sing a verse but he didn’t want to sing a verse. It still kicks ass. [To hear “What I Like About You” by the current lineup of the Romantics, click here.]

JC: Yes.

MS: This whole thing has been really organic. I mean, the Romantics have been bounced around like a pinball game—bounced around, bounced around, and we just keep bouncing back. We have our side projects—Brad has a little thing he does on the side, Wally has a little thing on the side, and I have stuff happening. But with the Romantics, this is the main deal, the real deal. It’s just something you can’t recreate. There’s some kind of energy, the attitude, some kind of lightning that comes across to the crowd live. This is the Romantics.

Mike Skill today


ruben210 said...

The Romantics are an awesome band.

ruben210 said...

The Romantics are an awesome band.

senormedia said...

"Myrtle Beach, Virginia." - well, I hope that at least the bus driver knows that Myrtle Beach is in South Carolina.

That's close enough that I would show up.

Unknown said...

The Romantics have been underappreciated all these years. They're a Great band, with excellent songs, a fantastic drummer and a fun live show. Not to be missed!

Unknown said...

The Romantics have been underappreciated all these years. They're a Great band, with excellent songs, a fantastic drummer and a fun live show. Not to be missed!

Unknown said...

The Romantics have been underappreciated all these years. They're a Great band, with excellent songs, a fantastic drummer and a fun live show. Not to be missed!

christopher said...

Hey, Mike. I was happy to read all this. I don't get out much to anywhere these days. I miss seeing you around the neighborhood. All this professional stuff is a different world than the one I've seen you in so I enjoyed myself reading through this thing. I'm thinking it's remarkable that you are still working with guys you have known as partners professionally for so long. I don't see how you could have a better groove going on so long as you guys keep the interest up. I'm still doing as I do, basically the same guy you know, hair longer. I don't set up my keyboard or get the guitars out and I don't know why but it doesn't trouble me much. Also I write plenty but not the poetry. Whatever. I still have close to two hundred I have not yet posted on my blog.

Unknown said...

I grew up with the boys and their music in Detroit and it can't be understated the amount of work and perseverance that it takes to be a great rock n roll band. Cheers!

Jim C. said...

The Romantics hit like a bolt of lightning in 1978. Their gigs at Bookies Club 870 in Detroit were the stuff of legend. Still have the flyers. They'd rip through their set with no breaks between songs. A total assault. You felt like you'd been transported to the Casbah or Crawdaddy clubs of the early 60s. Masterful songwriting and impeccable harmonies. Skill was the best and most inventive guitarist of the new music scene - got me to stat playing again. Hard to overestimate their impact.