Smile Politely

One of the Last Best Next Big Things: The Vertebrats

Cristy: Props to WPGU for getting me into the Vertebrats. Coming from a hick town with limited radio-station selection, I grew up fattened on three airwave formats: Gary Puckett-style oldies fluff, classic rock that played the same three Doobie Brothers songs, and glitzy Wal-Mart country music helmed by cowboy superstars like Garth Brooks. If you hadn’t put off your chemistry homework, Sunday night you could tune into WQLZ’s indie show for your underground rock fix. So when I moved to Champaign-Urbana, I was thrilled to tune into WPGU—they played “Living in Another Cuba” by XTC and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” back-to-back!

Recently I heard an unfamiliar band with the ultimate Son of Beatles pop sensibility. I mean, the song was so hooky and infectious I could anticipate each pleasing chord. I had to have heard it before. I combed my mental files of poppy “The” bands for possibilities: The Action? The Caesars? The Records? I let the dishwater overflow while I stood, frozen, waiting for the DJ to confirm my suspicions. He never did, but the song stayed with me all night: I dreamt it, I hummed it in the shower, I fought to remember the words as I walked into work. Desperate to hear the gem again, I fused the boombox to my body like a newly sprouted appendage (eerily reminiscent of the frantic three weeks I waited for WDBR to play “Eternal Flame” in 1990).

Then I found out it was “Diamonds in the Rough” by a now-defunct local band called the Vertebrats. A local band!

William: Matt Brandabur, Kenny Draznik, Roy Axford, Jimmy Wald. “They were going to be the next big thing.” So says Parasol Records’ Geoff Merritt about the Vertebrats (or was it the Rave?). And how many times have we heard that said about a Champaign-Urbana band? And how many other cities have we almost become, in our ever-failing musical quest to transcend our own humble awkwardly-named midwesternness? Wasn’t Champaign-Urbana once almost the next Athens, Ga.? The next Seattle, Wash.? The next Chicago? It seems at times this town has more music than we seem to deserve, music we can only justify by becoming someplace else. All the great bands who did us the favor of never moving to New York and L.A. should be measured by the music they gave us and not by their failure to do a Belew and ride that major label twister over the rainbow and out of Kansas. So, rock geeks, Cristy and I hereby rename “Honorary REO Speedwagon Way” Vertebrats Ave!

The Vertebrats are, by any standard that matters to us, a big thing, a real thing. They were a great band whose infectious songs tapped toes in New York and Australia, whose irresistible charm and chemistry catalyzed local music and, through their power and draw, transformed the club Mabel’s from a “nondescript jazz-folk venue” (according to Miles Harvey) into the righteous rock club where, a decade later, I would see fIREHOSE, Camper van Beethoven and Moxy Frăvous. The Vertebrats lived from 1979 through 1982, and unleashed a few dozen lovely songs, all captured to the best extent possible on two discs constructed by Parasol Records.

C: A Thousand Day Dream is a 22-track retrospective spanning their nearly four-year career. It’s an enormously fun, gratifying listen. Embellished with sublime harmonies, the songs are timeless. There’s the urgent melodicism of “Any Day Now” and “Turn on Your Face,” the rowdy “Gloria” revamp “Robbery,” the beach-blanket blast of “Put Your Toys Away,” the haunting “Jackie’s Gone.” Although the glory of their live shows will remain the stuff of legend, a friend informed me of several Vertebrats clips on YouTube, most notably a low-budget 1981 feature from a Champaign newsmagazine (see below), and several from past reunion shows. And I’m thrilled to say that the Vertebrats’ influence still reverberates: the Leonards’ recent cover of “Left in the Dark” was featured on Ugly Betty.

W: Parasol Records, premiere curator of the local music scene, has also put together a live CD (Continuous Shows) and a book of Vertebrats lyrics. Seen on the page, the lyrics are surprising, ranging from stupid-simple (the one-line “How Come You Don’t Like Me”) to epic songs as detailed and complex as you would expect from a Master’s student in fiction at the U of I (as Ken Draznik was). For example. note the absurdly detailed description of the stylish “Johnny Avante”—a song about a local character who, almost three decades later, surprisingly, is still around and can be found at Boltini’s.

The Vertebrats’ spit-polish songs are a perfect blend of flash and phlegm, crunch and technique, brains and stones, design and not-give-a-shit. They exhibit good pop songcraft with the innocent angst of the dB’s and the menacing imperfectionism of the Buzzcocks. These fuzzy gems would be equally at home on a 60’s Nuggets, a Pure 80’s, or a 90’s grunge compilation. The songs seem decade-free, their timeless quality only enhanced by the raw fidelity of the existing recordings (despite the laudable efforts by Parasol Records’ white-lab-coated engineers to scrub the old cassettes).

Will New York or London ever accumulate enough coolness to become “the next Champaign-Urbana”? This townie says, “No way, L.A.” The Vertebrats are one of the best old next big things. Get over to Parasol and get hooked up with the future of rock.

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