In Praise of Good Rats

tastyIn a just universe, Good Rats would have been to Long Island as Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were to New Jersey: local heroes who turned vivid depictions of their hometown, gritty, blue-collar world into a universal musical and lyrical language, that resonated with listeners coast to coast, regardless of whether they knew where Asbury Park (or Hempstead, or Huntington) were. From where I sit, that would have been not only a just universe, but a better one, as I’d much rather listen to the Rats than the Boss any old day, for sure.

My first exposure to Good Rats came in the mid-1970s, when my family moved from deep Dixie to Mitchel Field, smack dab in the middle of Nassau County, Long Island. I was a little dislocated country cracker at that point, with an odd musical penchant for Steely Dan, Jethro Tull and Steppenwolf. I can remember going to the base exchange soon after we moved there, poring through its large record collection, and seeing an absolutely horrifying album regularly on the display racks, with a giant cartoon rat sitting on a pile of fetid garbage, upon which it happily feasted. Later, another album appeared near it, bearing the same band name (Good Rats), but this time with a picture of five impossibly hairy dudes on the cover, some with facial hair of a variety that just didn’t grow in rural South Carolina. rats to riches

I got bold enough eventually to shell out some of my newspaper delivery route earnings to score both of these albums, and was thrilled to discover the truly outstanding rock and roll music contained on each of them. Good Rats singer-songwriter Peppi Marchello was cut from the same cloth as Family‘s Roger Chapman, a braying, brash, belting frontman with a vibrato that could castrate small mammals at 100 paces. (Like Family, the Rats are known more for what their alumni did than what they themselves achieved; Family sent ex-members into Blind Faith and King Crimson, while Good Rats alums served with KISS and Twisted Sister). The band’s vintage line up also featured the exceptional guitar work of Mickey Marchello and John Gatto, who could easily noodle their way into Wishbone Ash twin-guitar wonderlands on the weirdly structured songs that Peppi gave them to romp and stomp upon. I saw them play live half a dozen times in the ’70s, at large arenas (blowing Rush off the stage at Nassau Coliseum) and small venues (a summer party at Eisenhower Park) alike, and they rocked their audiences like nobody’s business, no matter how many people they were playing for. Their play-anywhere-for-anyone ethos was truly inspirational, then and now.

I’ve had Tasty (the album with the giant rat on the cover, and home to the band’s most famous songs, the jazzy title track and the stomping union ode “Injun Joe”) in digital format for at least a decade now, listening to it regularly, and over the past few months have also found copies of the band’s other seminal ’70s and early ’80s albums: From Rats to Riches (produced by Flo and Eddie!), Ratcity in Blue, Birth Comes to Us All and Great American Music. They are thrillingly delicious rock records, with some truly inspired writing and playing spread among them. Good Rats evoke the aforementioned Family (weird bloozy music with prog tendencies spattered throughout) as well as the bombastic pomp of Queen, with powerful three part harmonies providing sweet support to brutal rock stompers and pretty piano ballads alike. I can’t speak highly enough of Peppi Marchello’s songwriting skills, either, as he is a master of the moving non sequitur melded to the potent riff, and does a divine job of capturing the feel of his home Island, with its labor unions, and ordinary men (with ordinary wives and children), and local zeros, and bass players who get a kick in the pants because their fingers move like Vitus dance. It’s smart writing about regular workaday stuff, and I highly value people who can deliver that balance. Does it make you feel good? Yes, it does.

Peppi Marchello still leads latter-day versions of Good Rats [update: Alas, Peppi flew away to his great reward in 2013], which have in recent times featured his sons where his brother once stood. A couple of weeks ago, I saw on their website that there was a reunion show of the original crew scheduled at a popular Suffolk County bar and grill. Unfortunately, it was the same night as parents weekend at my daughter’s college, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I seriously considered driving straight from Geneseo to Farmingdale to catch the band in concert again, all these years later. They were a brilliant rock and roll band, and folks from the Island still proudly embrace them for bringing the good times and good tunes to an entire generation’s worth of concert goers and record buyers. I’m glad I had the chance to experience them. I only rue the fact that everyone else in this great Nation of ours didn’t have the same opportunity.

Get out there and track you down some Good Rats. You’ll be glad you did, I guarantee.

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