Long Island Legends: My Tribute to the Good
The Good Rats in their heyday! (L-R Lenny Kotke, John Gatto, Peppi Marcello, Mickey Marcello, Joe Franco)
Did anybody catch The Zoo on MTV last week? They were in “Battle of the Cover Bands.” I have to say right here that there were some outstanding bands on the show and all were deserving of a record deal. I have seen a lot of the bands playing around Long Island these days and while there are certainly some very good bands out there, I don’t really see any that rise to “Legendary” status.
Maybe my point of view has been jaundiced by time, but were been some great bands playing back in the Seventies. Everybody remembers the acts that broke out nationally like the Vanilla Fudge and the Rascals. But there were some other wonderful bands that deserved to make it and never did. Bands like Alessi (imagine if they hadn’t gotten busted?) and Zebra; a great band that has never gotten the national success it deserves. April Lawton is another act who comes to mind offhand. What a killer guitarist she (he) was! The Stanton Anderson Band played Southern Rock as well as anyone, except (maybe) the originals. …And let’s not forget Rat Race Choir! …Or Bonnie Parker, who also was on her way before Rum Bottom’s burned down during one of her gigs. Some are still around and some aren’t but as a fan from those days I salute you all, wherever you are!
But IMHO the best band of that period - hands down - was the Good Rats.
My friends and I were total Rats maniacs back in the days of "Tasty." During my freshman year of college (’74-’75 school year), I had my own radio show on the campus station. I would always make it a point to play a cut or two from that album and rave to my listeners (all 10 or 15 of them), "If you're on Long Island you GOTTA SEE THIS BAND!"
Later, I wound up bailing out of that school and going to C.W. Post. Since I was local again, I could go catch the Rats and did so often. For a long time they had a steady gig every Wednesday at Ubie's OTJ in West Islip. (Local legend had it that the initials “OTJ” in the club name referred to Ubie, the owner, being "Off to Jail." This supposedly happened pretty often.) They had a steady gig at My Father's Place in Roslyn on Thursdays. On weekends they would move around from club to club up and down the East Coast. Sometimes they were local, sometimes not. We caught the Rats at other places, but we saw every Wednesday show at Ubie's without fail for almost two years. Sometimes the place was packed and sometimes we were the only people in the place other than the bartenders.
Actually, the nights when no one was there were sometimes better because they used to loosen up and jam. During the last set on one such night they broke into "Kleish-Ka-Bob," and Joe Franco took his first drum solo. He blew everybody's mind - even the band members were standing there with their mouths open! From then on "Joe Bragiola's" (as Peppi used to always call him for some reason) drum solo was always a highlight of any Good Rats show.
In the early days they would also do some pretty good covers. They did an amazing "Free Ride," and Billy Cobham's "Stratus" was often in the set as well. Long Island was in those days (and still is) “The Land of Cover Bands,” and audiences were often resistant to original songs. Earlier on, Peppi would resort to camouflaging his original tunes by saying, “This is the new one from Santana,” or whoever. The real fans knew he was lying through his teeth… but then they were there to hear Good Rats music.
The Good Rats were a fantastic live band but sadly, most of the records they made didn’t do them justice. 1974’s "Tasty" (originally on Warner Bros. and surprisingly hard to get now) was the only one that did, IMHO. For some reason, none of their subsequent albums were as good. I mean, "Beat up Rambler" and "Takin’ It to Detroit" were such highlights in the live show and they were just so-so on vinyl.
Maybe in retrospect, “Tasty” was the best album because it had all the best songs. It had classic Good Rats tunes from start to finish; from the first notes of “Back to My Music” to “Injun Joe” to “Fireball Express” to “Fred Upstairs and Ginger Snappers” to the last fadeout in “Songwriter.” It was a killer LP that has aged surprisingly well. Alas, it’s now a forgotten Rock and Roll classic.
Their second LP “Rat City in Blue” also had good songs like “Does it Make You Feel Good?” and the title cut. Other classic songs included “Boardwalk Slasher,” “Writing the Pages/The Room” and “Tough Guys.” Unfortunately, it was on that LP that wimpy MOR ballads like “Advertisement in the Voice” and “Yellow Flower” started creeping in. Even though Peppi’s writing always had an element of “Tin Pan Alley Schmaltz” to it, these songs were just too “easy listening” for what their fans wanted to hear. We would head to the bar for a beer when they played those songs live. After that, the records were spotty at best.
Back then I thought that of all the bands on Long Island, the Good Rats and Zebra would be the ones to make it big. Zebra would later make a great debut album that went nowhere. I don’t know why the Good Rats never did. I remember Twisted Sister from those days and they were the LAST band I thought would ever get signed! Circa ‘76 Jay Jay French was the main man, not Dee Snyder. We used to laugh at his preening and “Struttin’ around like he was freakin’ Elton John,” as my friend Johnny G. used to say. I was in a Glam band that used to warm up for them back then at Max’s on Railroad Ave. in Wantagh. You could get into both Max’s and Renaissance, two clubs down the block from each other, for the same $2 cover charge. Cocky kid that I was, I predicted that, “Twisted Sister will be warming up for us in six months!” Shows you how much I knew!
But I digress. Lead singer Peppi Marcello’s trademark was that he would hold a baseball bat like a guitar and pretend to play it during solos. Once Peppi showed up with two baseball bats nailed together with a piece of wood between them, which he referred to as "My double-neck!" He could be an obnoxious brat onstage, which was why we liked him so much. He got away with things we would never DARE try at a gig! For instance, at Ubie's Peppi didn't like people sitting on the stage and when one interloper insisted on staying there after repeated warnings, he got a pitcher of beer dumped over his head. And no Good Rats show was ever complete without Peppi throwing rubber rats out into the audience, usually during "Local Zero." I still have a couple of them to this day!
One Friday Ubie’s had a “WLIR night” with the Good Rats, with free admission to anyone wearing a WLIR t-shirt. We didn't have the official T-shirts so we took plain ones and wrote "WLIR" on them in magic marker. When we got to Ubie's, the bouncers laughed at us and made us pay the $2 admission.
Later, when the Rats came on, Peppi heard about this and was highly amused. In his subtle way he went to the mic and said, "Hey, I heard some of you motherf**kers wrote’ WLIR’ on a t-shirt and got in free!" We yelled to Peppi that they made us pay to which he replied, "HEY! Bouncers! Give these guys a dollar back! Nice try, guys!" So we all went back to the bar with another buck and had a beer on Peppi.
I lost interest in the Rats when they did that God-awful "Birth Come to Us All" LP. Ugh, what a piece of crap! It was one of those ill-advised albums that artists get talked into by the record company, in hopes of a "breakout" or a “crossover.” Instead, they failed to win new fans and alienated the old ones.
Fast forward to today. Peppi still does local gigs, playing as the Good Rats with his sons. It makes me sad to see him playing every slimy little dive from Maspeth to Montauk; the band a shadow of its former greatness. Gene Marcello is a good metal guitarist but he’s no John Gatto or even his Uncle Mickey. He just doesn’t have the Jazz/Fusion influence they had. Someone should make him memorize the lines:
We had a flying guitar man,
- From "Tasty"
I have missed the reunions of the old band but someday I hope to catch one. Maybe for one night I can relive younger, more carefree days.
Originally Published 1998
Last Updated 12.4.04