Rock critic Ed Ward tells a funny story in the liner notes to Early Spanic Boys, a recent Rounder reissue of the Milwaukee band's long-lost first album. Amongst the flood of product arriving through the mail in hopes of review, Ward noticed one album on a label called Permanent Records, which name Ward found clever, so he set it aside. Later, looking at the scanty press material accompanying the album, he learned that he had singled out something the press clippings identified as "the nation's premier Croatian-American rock and roll band." His reaction: big deal.
Later still, after actually listening to the music, Ward wrote a glowing review in Rolling Stone, got the band a last-minute showcase at South by Southwest and watched proudly as Rounder snapped up the band. But his initial reaction is telling, because it's likely to be anyone's. The "Croatian-American rock and roll" tag may not have been used since the short-lived days of Permanent Records, but if ever a band begged to be dismissed as gimmicky, Spanic Boys are it. You see, Tom and Ian Spanic, 48 and 26 years old respectively, are the only known father-son team in rock and roll. They play twin Fender Telecasters through vintage amps, which pegs them as a roots-rock outfit. And they harmonize like the Everly Brothers, which fences them firmly inside the retro ghetto.
None of which means diddly to Tom, who talked with me from his Milwaukee home prior to packing up the van for the latest leg of a constant on-again/off-again tour that deposits the Spanics in 150 venues a year. "Retro" hardly seems the appropriate label when you're talking to a man who began rock-and-roll life around 1962 at age 16, playing guitar in a Milwaukee bar band because, at ten dollars a night, it beat peddling newspapers. The elder Spanic learned his chops from the Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers and Chet Atkins and Merle Travis records that were still new when he slowed the turntable to decipher the latest licks, and if those glory days of stripped-down, bored-out rock and roll have taken on an aged sheen, they remain a vital reference point in the Spanic vocabulary.
"We don't try to sound or be like anybody else, we just write what we hear," says Tom. "We write fast. We record fast. We write what sounds like a good song to us and hope other people like it too."
And as for roots rock: "I don't even know what it means.Is it good rock and roll or isn't it ? That's what the question should be."
Spanic Boys" rock and roll is good rock and roll, in large part because of the elements that make it stand out -- in a modern musical climate that deifies noise and confrontation -- as rootsy and retro.
"The melody, that's a must. Just a good catchy tune, and some lyrics that people like to sing along. Keep it short, sweet and simple."
That, and harmonize with the almost telepathic grace that comes with the familial relationship Tom describes as "like brothers and fathers and sons put together." Call it roots rock if you want, but if you intend to demean with the description, go look for another band.
Tom and Ian launched the family business in late 1986, when dad grew weary of the stuffiness of the classical guitar he was teaching at the local music conservatory, and the band took off with the help of a series of breaks that borders on the miraculous. First there was that unlikely discovery by critic Ward. Then, last May, came the ultimate break. Scheduled musical guest and pissy ideologue Sinead O'Connor decided she didn't want to share air space with host Andrew Dice Clay and canceled her slot on Saturday Night Live at the last minute. SNL musical director G.E. Smith, a fan of the Spanics CD, called on a Wednesday night to see if the band was available to fill the bill. Tom, who had planned to take the week off after having foot surgery, accepted.
An unseasonable May blizzard delayed their New York-bound flight for two hours, and after the band finally made it into the city the SNL limo broke down, causing them to have to hail a taxi to get to the program on time. "It was real close. Our odds of winning the lottery were probably better than appearing on that show."
Appear they did, though. How did Tom's feet hold up? "Lousy." But pain was rewarded by gain when the Sinead controversy boosted that night's episode to the biggest ratings in the show's history. The publicity fallout has been a boon of the sort money can't buy.
With four albums, the duo-led quartet is finally starting to garner attention as a vibrant, prolific American rock and roll band, with or without gimmicks and lucky breaks. Their latest album, Dream Your Life Away, is Tom's -- and critics' -- fave so far, because of the unflagging song quality. "I've been hearing from a lot of people who like a big percentage of the songs, and even all of them. That's a good sign, because that's how I used to listen. I used to buy a Beatles record and I liked every song on there."
A new rhythm section of Tom Broeske on bass and Steve Davidson on drums completes what Tom calls "absolutely the best lineup to date," and the band is ready to go into the studio to cut album number five as soon as final details are worked out with Rounder. In the meantime, Tom and Ian have already finished recording a disk as an as-yet-unnamed side project that includes Tom's cousin Butch Westphal -- with whom Tom paired in The Monterreys way back in the early 1960s. He describes it as leaning toward the Buck Owens school of country, with a triple-guitar attack and three-part harmonies, and he's not bashful about its merits: "I was listening to the mixdown the other day. It's unbelievable."
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Of course, devotees of the twang-and-thrum school of rock and roll could describe most all of the Spanic Boys records in similar words, and if the music doesn't vary much from the classic rock-and-roll formula, neither does the sound of the live show vary from the crunch of the records.
"I like to give somebody who's buying my product what they're gonna see on stage," says Tom. "I've had that happen to me, where I like the band, and I go out and hear 'em live and they can't sound like they do on a CD because they overdub so much stuff."
Spanic Boys, regardless of novel familial relation, regardless of happenstance hype, regardless of roots rock and retro and Croatian-American typecasting, do it right.
Spanic Boys perform Friday, May 20 at the Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Ave., 869-COOL. Doors open at 8 p.m. David Gogo opens. $7.