|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS JOEY ALKES AND CHRiS FRADKiN
MiSSiNG iN ACTiONIn the three-plus years that I’ve known singer-songwriter JOEY ALKES through his work with the alternative hip-hop group DJ MONKEY, I had never known the man to stay on topic for an interview. For instance, I could bring up his years as one half of the prolific New Wave songwriting team of ALKES/FRADKIN and like a crazy, old uncle with a buzz at a Thanksgiving dinner will start rambling about the state of country. “We’re in so much hell right now and I am really worried about the health of this nation!” laments ALKES who is not about to take back his endorsement of President OBAMA. “Our system is completely bankrupt and they are trying to blame him for this. He’s only been President for six months! If we really want things to change, we’re all going to have to work a lot harder. People gave him all of this god-like status and when he became President they found out that he was just a human. People need to be patient. We’re all in this together.”
JOEY ALKES AND CHRiS FRADKiN
TALK TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT THEiR YEARS AS A SONGWRiTiNG DUO
THE ONCE ViBRANT L.A. MUSiC SCENE
AND RE-ViTALiZiNG THEiR CATALOG
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
ALKES’ politics aren’t off-putting to me in the slightest. It was that very sense politics that made an act like DJ MONKEY stand out in a time when political stances had more to do with posturing than rallying the masses. DJ MONKEY hit all the right targets during the BUSH-CHENEY era with verbal and rhythmic indictments against oil companies, racism, war and the decidedly unhealthy relationship between God and man as evidenced on the group’s last “single” GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER.
In growing acquainted with DJ MONKEY over the years, I had always known of ALKES’ association with the eighties power pop band THE PLIMSOULS. It was he and songwriting partner CHRIS FRADKIN who co-wrote the band’s biggest single A MILLION MILES AWAY. There were other songs out of the songwriting duo’s extensive catalog as well (TALK TO ME – recorded by PHIL SEYMOUR), but the one that hit a little closer to home for me was an unused composition for many years until it was covered by ALKES’ DJ MONKEY. ‘HARD TIMES (NEW YORK CITY)’ – a manic, winding tale of surviving the streets and the pleasures of the Big Apple was the lone power pop gem in DJ MONKEY’s two album catalog riddled with a frenzied reading by ALKES and scratching to remind one that this was still a hip-hop act. That song ended up walking away with the 2007 ROCKWIRED READER’S POLL AWARD for BEST SONG.
At the moment, ALKES and his label SQUID MUSIC have come across the demo recordings of the ALKES/FRADKIN catalog and have found that the now twenty-five plus-year-old recordings require very little dusting. They will soon be seeing the light of day in an official release entitled ‘SOME SONGS…RESCUED FROM THE EIGHTIES –TUNES WRITTEN AND RECORDED BETWEEN 1980 – 1983’. " I'm excited! It is defintiely valid stuff!" says ALKES when asked about the looming release. "There is definitely an album here and it's good power pop. As good as there has ever been and the reaction we've getting on MYSPACE has been great."
In listening to an advanced copy of ‘SOME SONGS…’ I must concur with the popular consensus of the songwriting duo’s newfound following on the internet but this collection of demos (and I stress demos!) shows the groundwork for all that was (TALK TO ME was covered by PHIL SEYMOUR) and all that could’ve been (MISSING IN ACTION sounds like it could’ve been a natural selection for TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS while GIRLS IN THIS TOWN sounds like PAT DINIZIO at his moodiest). Despite the rough quality of these demos, ‘SOME SONGS…’ is an intriguing listen – a documentation of a then-thriving L.A. music scene and dare I say a piece of music history worthy of rediscovery.
In the days since the demise of their songwriting partnership, ALKES has worked as a freelance journalist. The current state of his latest musical project DJ MONKEY remains up in the air with assurances from ALKES himself that he is still very much involved. “I’m still carrying on as DJ MONKEY” states ALKES “I can’t speak for the other members, but I intend to keep doing this until it’s all over for me. I’ll die on stage doing this.”
But what of the other half of ALKES and FRADKIN?
CHRIS FRADKIN “didn’t stay a music professional” as stated by ALKES. Of the two songwriters, FRADKIN is most definitely the more concise. Perhaps his years away from the music business have kept his head screwed a little more tightly. In his absence from music, FRADKIN has in no way escaped sound. He was an EMMY award-winning sound editor for the X-FILES, but is currently working on his Doctorate in Psychology from Cal State in Merced. A tangible timeline spanning ALKES and FRADKIN first working together in Denver to their days on Sunset Boulevard sitting a cross from each other and writing songs was not going to be forthcoming from ALKES, but FRADKIN gave a more tempered narrative of their lives as one of the most influential songwriting teams of the decade of excess.
ROCKWIRED spoke with CHRIS FRADKIN over the phone. Here is how it went.
How often are you and JOEY in touch since you’ve last worked together?
We haven’t written anything together since 1984. It’s been a long, long time since the two of us sat down and actually hammered something out. As far as the two of us go – we are still very much in touch. There are some weeks where I speak to JOEY about four or five times and there are seasons that go by when we talk less frequently.
Do you think that the two you would want to write together again?
I think the two of us would, but the thing that had always motivated us would be a specific project rather than the two of us sitting down and looking at each other over a cup of coffee with a guitar. Back when were really prolific and productive was when there was a vibrant music scene in Los Angeles. There was this energy that propelled and motivated us.
Sine the two of you stopped writing together, JOEY has been involved with his project DJ MONKEY. What are your thoughts on that project?
I really love his stuff with DJ MONKEY
Before I delve any further, I must point out that a song you wrote with JOEY (HARD TIMES NEW YORK CITY) was done by DJ MONKEY and won a ROCKWIRED AWARD three years ago.
Yeah, JOEY had told me about that.
So I am sorry that a plaque was never issued to you. We were on a budget.
That song is an example of one thing that JOEY did where he took our song and between him, MICK McMAINS and DJ MONKEY they turned the song into something different. It was another evolution of the song. Back in the early eighties and late seventies, it was a different kind of thing. We had less responsibility and we were a lot younger. We didn’t talk about things like health insurance or things like that. It was very much a time where there was more freedom and that combined with being in a city that was extremely alive as far as local musicians creating something that was more than the sum of the parts. That was the L.A. music scene for you back then. It was an extremely motivating time.
Being songwriters in a really happening environment almost sounds like the BRILL BUILDING years. Describe the working environment?
It was around 1982 when A MILLION MILES AWAY was on the radio and we had had some others going as well such as TALK TO ME. The two of us lived in this room that was about ten feet by eighteen feet. It wasn’t even an apartment. It was originally a two- bedroom apartment that the landlord had gotten greedy about and had turned it into a one bedroom apartment. It had a sink, a shower and a toilet. It didn’t have a kitchen or bathtub or anything. It also had a sliding glass door that overlooked this pool. It was pretty wild back then. The two of us were basically confined. Before that, I would be living with my girlfriend and JOEY would be with his wife and whatever and we would have to plan out when we would get together to write. Eventually JOEY left his wife and he moved into this place and the rent was only one-hundred-twenty dollars a month. It was right next to he WHISKEY-A-GO-GO in Hollywood. I was with my girlfriend and then she got to be too much and I just needed a break. JOEY said that I could stay with him and I was in such a state that I jumped at it. It was amazing. There was a day bed and there was a sofa. It was basically the two of us being confined in this small space. I can’t remember if we had a TV or not. If we did, it was probably a four-inch screen. It’s not like there were TiVOs or computers back then. It was amenity-free for sure. We would wake up – not out of inspiration so much but out of boredom – and we would pick up the guitar and we’d start sketching out something. That had a lot to do with our productivity. It was extremely organic. Once we had gotten a couple of things that I felt were complete, then I would grab an armful of stuff, which included a double cassette deck and some guitar parafenalia and I would get two buses to go out to the beach to visit our friend GARR ROBERTSON out in Santa Monica. He had a four-track out there and he was very tolerant and supportive of JOEY and me. We started four tracking the ALKES-FRADKIN thing. When it got dark, I’d pack up my stuff, get on two busses and get back to the room. It was exciting. Most of the time we didn’t have cars.
Wow! L.A. must have been completely different then!
It was. Back then if you were a musician, a clothes designer, a sculptor or any sort of artist in Los Angeles back in the late seventies early eighties – if you had a car it actually worked against you.
People saw you as not fitting into the “starving artist” stereotype. For me and JOEY it was pretty much our dysfunction and our dread of automobiles. It ended up that we were in a very central location. We could walk to the WHISKEY and to the THE CENTRAL which was a club on Sunset which turned into the VIPER ROOM where RIVER PHOENIX overdosed. When we would have meetings with people in Hollywood, we would just take the Sunset bus. Our life was very simple. If people weren’t on our routes we didn’t go to any of those places. In the beginning, it was something that I self-conscious about. JOEY had a beat up guitar because you didn’t want a valuable one in that room we lived in. Everyone that lived in that building was all runaways and drug addicts and call girls and all we had was a sliding glass door that we would try to lock up. There wasn’t even a case for the guitar. We would just get on the Sunset bus with a guitar and get off at SUNSET at CAHUENGA and go to the meeting.
Tell me how you and JOEY became acquainted.
That’s interesting. I was heading out to Los Angeles and I had this girlfriend that I met in Cape Cod who was moving to Denver and wanted me to stop by and see her on my way out. That gave me an excuse to head west. At least I had one address. I stayed with her for a couple of nights and then I got out on my own. This was Denver back in 1975 and I walked around and got to know the city a little bit - specifically the Capitol Hill area. I went into this music store and there was an event posted on this index card saying that some band was looking for a keyboardist/arranger. So I checked it out and it was this act that JOEY was managing at the time. The act had real estate money behind it. Within a month or so I was actually being supported. They put me into my own apartment and they were paying for everything. It was like a staff deal in Denver of all places. The group came out to LA and then went back to Denver where it had fizzled. At that time, JOEY and I were in between things. I was like twenty-three or twenty-two at the time and the two of us started hanging out. I learned that he had an ear for three corner type melodies. He wasn’t a schooled musician by any means but he had a great sense of hooks and choruses and an exuberance when it came to music. The thing was, he could never sing the same thing twice in a row because he never really knew what he was singing. It was just spontaneous but I found that I could grab pieces out of what he was doing and I had the ability to do things and put them into some sort of form. We started hanging out and writing and in working together, we sort of came to this place where we could sit down and come up with something, talk about what the song would be about and refine it then we headed back to L.A. JOEY had just gotten married for a his second or third time and he was set up in a place with his wife that was just a block away from that room on Clark Street that I had described earlier. They invited me to come out and sleep on the living room floor. For several months I slept on the floor and JOEY’s wife would go to work as a manicurist and JOEY and I would indulge in all sorts of things and write songs. After a couple of months of that I was looking through THE RECYCLER magazine where there was an ad for a band seeking a guitar player with influences that included THE KINKS and THE WHO. It appealed to me and I checked it out. It was the first time I had met PETER CASE and the bass player and drummer of THE PLIMSOULS. It was too loud for me. They were rehearsing in the bass player’s parent’s living room. It was too loud and I told PETER ‘I don’t know if I want to do this but I like you. Let’s get together and do something!’ So I brought him over to JOEY’s and we starting hanging out and playing some music. That was what started the ALKES-FRADKIN songwriting partnership which produced the songs that got THE PLIMSOULS on the radio.
Talk about what drew you to music?
I remember this distinctly. It goes back to when I was like eight, nine or ten. I would fall asleep at night and someone had given me this gift of a 10-4 Crystal radio set with headphones where you could sample the different components. It had a tuner so you could go from station to station. It had a dial. I used to fall asleep with the earphones on and I would hear the hits back then. It was all radio. There was no AM or FM and there was certainly no SIRIUS. It was the music of the time. It was the PET CLARK songs, it was THE BEATLES (it seemed like there was a new song from them every two weeks) and it was THE STONES. A big part of this time for me was the MOTOWN stuff like THE FOUR TOPS and THE SUPREMES. Later on I would find out that those songs were written by the HOLLAND/DOZIER songwriting team. That was what I grew up with. I was also schooled in piano lessons but I didn’t have enormous talent with that. I wasn’t drawn to classical music or opera. I listened to jazz but for the most part it just made me feel nervous and confused. It didn’t touch me. It didn’t created pictures and images in my head like this music from the early sixties did. That was my first exposure. It was falling asleep at night and listening to this music through the earphones.
In the early eighties, how do you feel your work stood out amid other songwriting partnerships such as STEINBERG and KELLY or MIKE CHAPMAN and HOLLY KNIGHT?
One of the things that distinguished ALKES and FRADKIN back then was that we had the values of the traditional, legitimate tunesmiths. There had to be a title, there had to be a reason for people to want to listen to it. We demanded that the song had to say something lyrically. It didn’t have to be academic or complicated. But it had to say something. The rock community wanted our contributions because of that but they also felt like we didn’t completely fit in because of that. We didn’t have the grittiness and the bluesiness and ultimately, the self-indulgence that they had. When we were in the traditional songwriting environment with the publishers, they had trouble embracing us completely because we didn’t write as predictably as some of the other staff writers who drawing weekly checks. We were in a very interesting position.
What songs of your repertoire stand out for you the most and why?
There is one song that we wrote in 1979. It was a CASE-ALKES-FRADKIN song. The song was called NOW which I thought the song was going to be big. I remember thinking ‘even if the THE PLIMSOULS don’t make the song happen, it’s only going to be a matter of months or maybe years before the song gets a proper cover’. I’ve been waiting twenty-eight years for that proper cover. For me it’s the perfect tune as far as having that HOLLAND – DOZIER quality as far as simply being verse-chorus-verse. There is no bridge. I very much believe in that one.
Because the song HARD TIMES has special significance for me, talk about how that one came about.
It was written by JOEY and myself and there was no act in mind for it. It was totally self-indulgent. If I remember correctly, the song was supposed to be a caricature of some sort of urban character that I had visualized. It was very quick and it was very indulgent. I think at one time it was actually called PART TIME IN NEW YORK. The song works for me. It’s very straight ahead. I don’t even think that it had a proper demo because it was the kind of song where we had no idea who would do it.
It almost sounds like it could’ve been a BILLY IDOL song.
Yeah it could’ve. Especially with a KEITH FORSEY- styled production.
Out of the catalog, were there any songs that you felt were missed opportunities?
There are a lot of missed opportunities. It’s too many to go through to be honest with you. One time, I was watching TV with my girlfriend and JOEY said that ‘KATHY wants to come over and write a tune before she goes to New York.’ And I was like ‘Oh, JOEY! Can’t we do it tomorrow?’ But KATHY was leaving tomorrow morning and I kept insisting that I didn’t want to do it. It turned out that his friend was KATHY VALENTINE from THE GO-GO’S a couple months before she was onboard with them. KATHY was the one we were the closest to. In hindsight, I should’ve said ‘Oh, let’s do this!’ At that time, CHARLOTTE CAFFEY (lead guitarist for THE GO-GO’S) was living with PETER CASE and there was this joke amongst myself, JOEY and PETER that if THE PLIMSOULS don’t work out PETER could always fall back on CHARLOTTE. Of course it ended being somewhat true. That was an obvious missed opportunity but I don’t like to think about missed opportunities. Another one was when we had an opportunity to write with SIOUXSIE SIOUX but that fell through. It would’ve been interesting but that was a couple of years before MILLION MILES AWAY was written so who know about that.
The SQUID MUSIC label is going to be issuing the catalog on CD. How do you feel about that?
I like what JOEY has done with MYSPACE and getting the word out and posting pictures of me when I was twenty-four. In the beginning, I was self-conscious because I’m in the Ph.D. program and it’s the academic community and they have different levels of appreciation. Initially I was torn but now I dig it. As far as the catalog being a cohesive whole that can be listened to for beginning to end – I don’t understand that at this point, but I don’t have to understand it. It’s cool. The songs work. Right now I’m getting to the point where I prefer to say that what I think and what I believe really has no bearing on what is going to be. I should just sit back and enjoy it.