The Kids in America
It's a Friday night at the Continental Club, and an elbow-to-elbow crowd is partying like Nirvana and Bill Clinton never happened. The band on stage rips through an all-the-hits sonic travelogue of the '80s: "Whip It," "Centerfold," "Jessie's Girl" and "Hungry Like the Wolf."
The nominal home of roots music and rockabilly has become the end-of-the-week's hippest happy hour under the auspices of Molly & the Ringwalds, who serve as a de facto live nostalgic jukebox for the decade that brought us Alf, Mr. T, Pac-Man and leg warmers.
"Our band is all about having a good time, and that's what we try to provide," says bandleader/keyboardist Carrie Carter, stirring her tortilla soup at La Mexicana in the Montrose. "Eighties music is a lot of fun, and there's not much serious stuff. How much message is there in a song called 'The Safety Dance'?"
"Everyone is in this band to entertain. We're not trying to make a statement," adds guitarist Jim Dekan. "We're just trying to have some fun."
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Many twenty- and thirtysomethings have found the band's repertoire of more than 70 songs -- which includes everything from the decade's massive hits such as "We Got the Beat," "Sweet Child o' Mine" to more obscure bits such as "Cool Rider" from Grease 2 and "Johnny Are You Queer?" -- an irresistible invitation to relive their youth. The fact that Molly & the Ringwalds also are Houston's only '80s cover band also gives them something of a monopoly on memories.
And with nostalgia for the decade on the rise -- VH1's "I Love the '80s" series was one of the channel's biggest successes -- this band has picked the right time to thrill the masses with "Mexican Radio," "Blister in the Sun" and "We're Not Gonna Take It."
The impetus began -- appropriately enough for an '80s cover band -- with greed. Which, as Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko reminded us in Wall Street, "is good." In 1999, Carter, who also played keyboards for Chad Thomas and the Crazy Kings, was working as a waitress at a cocktail bar, er excuse us, was working at a country club that booked some out-of-town cover bands. "I was shocked at how much money they were getting to play," she says. "I knew I had to start a group."
Carter recruited bassist Christopher Daniello and singers Henry Davis and Jennifer Lowry and the first of a succession of guitar slingers and skin thumpers. Lowry and Carter had attended La Porte High School together but didn't really know each other. Years after graduation, Carter remembered her performance in a school musical, called her up out of the blue and asked if she wanted to be in a band.
Taking their name from the '80s teen queen, their first stab at a song was a ragged version of "And She Was." And it didn't get much better from there. "Our first gig was in July 2000, opening for the Allen Oldies Band at the Ale House," remembers Davis, who resembles '80s icon James Spader. "We sucked." Carter recalls that everyone was playing in a different key during "Walking on Sunshine" and that Allen Oldies guitarist Jim Henkel wryly pronounced their debut "interesting."
Many rehearsals and band members later, guitarists Dekan and Sam Cannariato and drummer Gene Wright were added to the lineup. Cannariato is another La Porte alum. "Sam and Jennifer will go on for days and days with that high school crap," Davis says, rolling his eyes at the table. Dekan, who claims his only friend at Huffman High School was Casey Kasem, joined for more pragmatic reasons. "I started playing guitar so I could get a girl. I'm still waiting for the payoff."
The band members also adopted the same last name of "Ringwald" while finding more gigs and adding new songs. As endless as the quest for new oldies is the drive to add to their stage wear, a retro-perfect combination of new and used Reagan Age clothing including Atari T-shirts, skinny ties and even silver parachute pants.
But for their audience, often the show's highlight is the segment of "Ringwald Karaoke" where budding Billy Idols and Joan Jetts can pick from a list of songs to perform backed by the live band.
Inevitably, one can't help but have a mental flash of each song's accompanying MTV video during the show, and that's fine with the group. "Something I learned from the Allen Oldies Band is that no one really cares about my singing perfectly, they care more about having a good time," Lowry offers. "MTV changed everything, the attractiveness of the performers became much more important, which is unfortunate for us," Cannariato says, grinning. "However, I do feel my rap skills coming out on our version of 'Bust a Move.' "
Describing the appeal of '80s music, the band members point to their often mindless (but excruciatingly catchy) choruses and melodies, along with the heavy doses of synth. In fact, many of their fans today are people in their early twenties who have discovered the music via radio stations like the Point.
But while the life of this band so far has been almost paradise, more recently the Ringwald Family members have not been such shiny, happy people. A few weeks ago, in the culmination of long-standing disagreements about band policies and direction, mixed with intertwining past personal and family histories, original bassist Daniello was told "Goodbye to You." His dismissal didn't come as a shock to anyone.
"No, it wasn't a total surprise, but I was so angry I could barely express it. And I was sad," Daniello says via e-mail. "Most of them wouldn't even look at me, and Carrie had Sam do her dirty work she's really rather spineless."
The ax fell just before a lucrative gig at AstroWorld. "We were having personal differences and there was an element of professionalism on his part, and we let him go," Carter says bluntly. Davis adds, "It was something that was building over time, it wasn't just one thing you just reach a point where it's no more."
By his own admission, Daniello was not the easiest person to get along with, but felt it was a "slimy move" to do it just before the gig at AstroWorld, of all places. (Daniello is an amusement park junkie.) Carter and Davis counter that Daniello's bizarre playing and stage antics at recent shows had disgusted the group, and that they didn't want to run the risk of a repeat performance at such a high-profile venue.
The aggro spilled over into cyberspace on Daniello's blog (www.fiercepancake.com) and the bulletin board on the band's site ( www.mollyandtheringwalds.com), where Daniello posted and has since removed a bitter and scathing account of the band's history.
"That shows the world how he really is," Davis says. "We're not going to play those games."
Since Daniello owns the Ringwalds site, the band has been forced to create a new one (www.theringwalds.com), wherein for a while, the band ran an old group photo with Daniello airbrushed out in Stalinist enemy-of-the-people style. Daniello has offered to sell his domain at a price the band turned down, and he declined their counteroffer. The band has said they would take legal action to get it back, a murky and likely expensive legal proposition. There are even accusations of hacking.
Meanwhile, on stage, Dekan and Cannariato are switching off on bass while the band seeks Daniello's replacement. For his part, Daniello is forming a pop group with KPFT DJ Jeffrey "The King of Grief" Thames. (And the rock and roll life goes on for Carter and Cannariato, who want to get their kiss on a few lists. They plan to throw down a "Makeout Challenge" at some future gig, to prove once and for all which of them is the better snogger.)
And what of the real Ms. Ringwald? Her people could render all these cybersquabbles moot, one supposes, by slapping a cease-and-desist on the lot of them. A little modestly or disingenuously, Davis says that he doesn't think she knows about the band, but that she is aware that others including the New Orleans-based Molly Ringwalds are using her name. But just in case the red-headed Belle of John Hughes's Ball ever does show up at Ringwald Karaoke, the band already knows "Pretty in Pink."
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