An Overview by Kristian Hoffman
The Swinging Madisons began in a heady musical era. I was still in the Mumps, while concurrently playing with and writing songs for Klaus Nomi, playing slide guitar (!) with James Chance’s Contortions, doing the odd Euro Tour as Lydia Lunch’s drummer, and beginning my long lasting collaborative relationship with Ann Magnuson. Everywhere you looked, down any block in the East Village, there was a band member or filmmaker or artist wandering by, with a venue for their vision and a willing and appreciative audience ready to lap it up.
So it was that I was listening to Bobby Rydell one day, and I decided that it was time for me to test my mettle on an updated version of “Volare”. I had never sung lead before, but this 45 seemed like a perfect marriage of questionable material and marginal vocal prowess - with this as a template, how could I fail?
Emboldened by one of the free Black Russians that Laurie Reese (of the Student Teachers) fed us at a Cramps Concert at CBGBs, I spied a rooster thatch of hennaed hair in a white 50’s tuxedo jacket - surely this was destiny! So without any further knowledge beyond her “look”, I asked Alison East to be in my new band. I didn’t even know if she played an instrument. And “Yes!” was the fatefully monosyllabic answer.
It was that easy! With Mumps cohorts Kevin Kiely and Paul Rutner as a rhythm section, I quickly discovered that Alison had a “Runaways” style guitar genius far beyond the demands of my new “joke band” material. Suddenly the raft of simple riff based compositions that filled out our early sets: “Cooties in Your Brain”, “I’m Really With It (But What Is It?)”, and the immortal confessional “Grown Out of Fun” sounded like...well...REAL ROCK!
From our first shows at Tier 3 in Soho (where I, for some obscure reason, insisted everyone but me wear white turbans) a receptive audience followed us with screams, applause and actual real live dancing! The Cramps gave it their seal of approval, even donating then Cramps roadie Robert Mache to guest on saxophone as an honorary “Cootie”, and we were off.
After the endless struggle to place the Mumps with a supportive record company, it came as a surprise that the Swinging Madisons were greeted with immediate critical acceptance, press raves, and a record contract within the first three months of our existence.
Bobby Rydell must have been on to something! We were rapidly ushered into a real live recording studio to do our first demo, which consisted of "Miss Bum", "Tar Pits", and Janis Ian's immortal "Society's Child" rearranged on a template of the Yardbirds' "Im A Man". My painfully bovine yell-singing somehow didn’t prevent us from getting signed. It was surely the skills of my rock solid cohorts that saved us.
“Miss Bum” is actually not a joke song. Every verse in it is based on a true experience that Kid Congo and I observed while watching the societal cast-offs on my block of Grand Street go about their lives. Miss Bum was a very proper drag queen bum, who would never be seen with less than a pinky-raised demeanor, no matter how untoward the circumstances. “Diana Ross is h-a-p-p-y” is a direct quote from Miss Bum herself, when she received some welcome mail and thought no Supreme could possibly be happier than she/he.
Most of the early SM material was equally direct. But it was “Volare” that made our name and cemented our fate. It took about 2.5 weeks for me to walk down any street in lower Manhattan and be greeted by yells of “Hey! It’s Volare man!” And our rockabilly treatment of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” did little to dispel this perception.
I said in all my interviews at the time that there were enough lousy songs in the world already, and serious songwriting should be halted altogether in favor of covering earlier more craftsmanlike material. How those flippant words would come back to sting me!
So even though if “Tar Pits” (Sample lyric: "I could really get into it. Now I can't get out!") had been afforded more than twenty minutes in the studio, it might have been a neu rock classic, it was outre songs like “Society’s Child” that connected with our first most ravenous audience.
As we neared the recording of what was to become our first and only E.P., Alison suddenly quit! She did so in the most lovely caring fashion of course, but she told me, “I never thought this would actually take off! This is getting too serious for me!”
Being too successful was never a problem for me before. But God smiled when, with incredibly apt synchronicity, the modest Robert Mache revealed that he was (and is) the world’s greatest rock guitar player. That he was already in the band was pretty convenient.
So in the two and a half hours we were allowed to record that first record,(“Appearing Nightly”), though my vocals may be stiff and sour, Robert revealed a prowess that would wow us forever more. And the crowds just couldn’t stop dancing.
Usually a first independent E.P. by unknowns doesn’t get rave reviews in Cashbox, Billboard, and Stereo Review. But even my originals like “Put Your Bra Back On” were singled out for outlandish praise.
By now the Mumps had rather peevishly called it quits, and Joe Katz was enlisted to be the REAL fourth Madison. Thus began the Madison’s solid few years of wildly successful nightclub apperances, from the Ritz and Hurrah’s to sold out week-ends at CBGBs. In California we regularly packed the Whisky, the Roxy, the On Club and Madam Wong’s.
Joe Katz perfected a Paul Revere fuzz bass assault that was immortalised when the 700 Club showed us playing “Hey Little Jesus (Get Out of that Hole)” twice! We were proudly dubbed the actual “devil’s music” by that eminent tastemaking organization.
Robert Mache commanded the eyes and ears with true Rock God panache, from his tremelo-fuzz slide on our swamp blues version of “Abraham Martin and John”, through his equal mastery of rockabilly and pop jangle.
Paul Rutner made the Madisons style switch by marrying Louis Prima swing to the occasionally psychotic rumble of the Cramps, and laid down the big beat underbelly that allowed the rest of us to test the limits of taste, form, and genre until our glitter tuxedos disintegrated.
And I was given the ultimate accolade when a fan stuffed a bloody doll up her dress and proceeded to squeal in agonies of mock labor as she gave birth on the Whiskey dance floor, while I sang our speedy version of “Having My Baby.” (Plunger in hand, of course.)
We were the pick to click, and with former Mumps manager Joseph Fleury at the helm, we moved to California to record with Earle Mankey, eat at El Coyote, and plant our pointy-toed shoe print firmly in the sidewalk of rock history. We were now opening major concerts for Sparks, the Cramps, the Go-Gos, and Madness, in addition to our bicoastal headlining club tours.
Then something happened. Despite the fact that Belinda Carlisle was clinging to my ankles at every SM show screaming in a raw drunken fever that “Kristian is a 10!” - despite the fact that hordes of good time ravers attended our every appearance and danced their asses off - despite the fact that the L.A. Weekly regularly called me “The Cole Porter of the 80’s” (hmmm, if you could get all us Cole Porter doppelgangers in a room and had a grenade.....) - somehow the bloom was off the Volare rose.
We did fabulous session work, and I wrote pretty darn swell rock songs, limited only by my still under-evolved vocal stylings, and my band was one of the glittering overdressed and overqualified supernovas in an era of stripped down bier stein waving punk-alongs.
But our upstart label never released our promised “album”, and larger corporate labels, geared toward the somnambulant whining of “Faith” era Cure records, couldn’t feature the Monkees-inspired bubble rock of “Young Adult Teenage Type Thing”. My ventures into the world of psych blues like our live staple “You Should Wear A Head Upon Your Head” didn’t make things any easier.
Even when I fell in love with the more questionable fads of the time and tried to be the lost meeting ground between U2 and the Thompson Twins in “Last Word”, no corporate honcho heard the ring of the cash register.
And worst of all crimes - we ceased to be campy! Our covers of “Helter Skelter” and Lou Rawl’s”Natural Man” (done as a gay lib anthem!) were more exercises in skillful recontextualising than B52s styled good timey boogie - so even that last vestige of our formative candy floss was worn off.
I had tired of being “Volare Man”. I disavowed my anti-songwriting stance, because in truth I’d always longed to attempt writing songs that could stand by those of my idols. But returning to our Kinks/Dolls/Byrds/Cramps roots only seemed to dilute the affections of those for whom I would always be Rydell redux.
So though I was writing some of my best songs ever - “Valentine” and “Postman” come to mind - and a hardy audience of committed followers still held us dear, the indifference of the pre- indie record industry finally felled us, along with impending adulthood and the fact that some (heterosexual) musicians actually became fathers!
We held semi-legendary annual Halloween events at the famed Lhasa Club (where I once go go danced with porn star Leo Ford and NYC performance provocateur John Sex, backing up Angelyne!). These were overproduced haunted house experiences with John Fleck in full vampire regalia and members of Billy Wisdom and the Hee Shees making elaborate glow in the dark sets, with special videos by Rocky Schenck.
But somehow as with many bands, the Swinging Madisons limped into the fog of history, making what we thought were helpful concessions to popular taste by banishing the "Swinging" and slogging on for a last year or so as the "Madisons". That's the sort of logic that keeps your living in a house with no heat or plumbing.
There were a couple of fantabulous reunions, notably at long time friend and fan Sid Monroe's glamourous Manhattan wedding, and also at the benefit for Joseph Fleury. That was one of those AIDS-related events that happened with alarming regularity in those pre-pharmaceutical cocktail days. And unfortunately, though it apparently raised a goodly sum, it did little to delay the inevitable. But it DID prove to us at least that the Swinging Madisons had something - something that continued to raise a smile and inspire people to liberate themselves to dance like idiots - Rock that indeed takes "time out for fun".
The Joseph Fleury Benefit, besides also seeing a reunion of the Mumps, Bleaker Street Incident, and a set by Phranc backed up by Redd Kross, also introduced me to Kid Congo and Sally Norvell's then fledgling duo - Congo Norvell. And it was with THAT outfit I was destined to spend the next four or five years, while my solo aspirations fermented.
I still include Madisons' era compositions in my current set - "Mediocre Dream" and "Madison Avenue". And there's a few more I plan on reviving! So the story isn't over yet!
|-Kristian Hoffman, September 2004|
Our first bass player was Kevin Kiely from the Mumps, when Alison East was still in the band (and everyone but me had to wear turbans - I can't remember why I thought that was such a good idea!). Then Robert Mache, sometime Cramps roadie, who had been guesting with us on sax (!) for the not-quite-immortal early Mads chestnut "Cooties in Your Brain" revealed that HE could play bass. Then Alison quit, and the ever surprising Mr. Mache said he could play guitar as well (which, obviously, he could!)! So we got his friend Simian Galloo (I'm NOT KIDDING - although the spelling is surely wrong) to enter on bass, and Robert took over on guitar. Simian is whom we recorded the E.P. with.
On the day we were shooting the cover, upstairs at the one time Polish meeting Hall Irving Plaza, which at that point was being used as the "bigger better" Club 57, Simian didn't show up, and indeed I don't think I ever saw him again! It turns out he'd been uncomfortable with the fact that this perceived "joke" band was doing so well, and couldn't bring himself to make the commitment. Neither could he bring himself to tell us - so he lost out on being on the cover of what may be the only record he ever made. I'm not sure - it's hard to do a google search when you don't know how to spell the guy's name.
ANYWAY - Tom Scully, the guy who produced the Notorious "New Wave Vaudeville" show at which I met Ann Magnuson and Klaus Nomi, just happened to be wandering through the hallway right behind Joseph Astor, the photographer, and he also just happened to fit into the cheap tuxedo we'd brought for Simian. So that who is "playing" Thomas LaGree on the front cover of the E.P.
But Tom had to leave before we did the back cover, so those are Joseph Fleury's feet standing in for the imaginary Mr. LaGree's feet on the back cover.
Soon afterward, we recruited Joe Katz, who had been the last bass player to play with the Mumps, as our new bass player - and not only was he delightful and talented, but he actually enjoyed playing with us enough to stay with us for years and years, til our dwindling fortunes and his impending fatherhood caused him to leave. That is when the equally talented Ron Gomez stepped in for the last year or so of Swinging Madisons dates. And I have to say, they were all so good, we never gave a bad show except when my poor weak voice gave out. I remember each variant of that band with great fondness - and it was a lot of fun playing in a band that everybody liked to dance to.
Now as a slightly more pompous grand-pere songwriter, that doesn't happen with the same frequency - I mean it doesn't happen at all!
Another fact of little importance. Stephen Kramer (wonderful artist and leader of a Minnesota band called the Wallets, from whom Talking Heads had to borrow the phrase "Totally Naked" with a credit to Stephen) lived in a room at the back of my loft for some time in NYC. He was also in the version of the Contortions that I toured with. I told him I wanted to start a joke band as a relief from all the drama in the Mumps - and I wanted it definitely to be Swinging - meaning fun - as in the Swinging Medallion's "Double Shot of my Baby's Love." But I couldn't decide between "Madisons" with its dual meaning as a loping '60s dance craze and the seat of all mind control in America, Madison Avenue, or the decidedly more new wave tomfoolery sounding "Swinging Leftovers," as in members of other bands, and the cheap pop reference to Tupperware (the name "The Tupperwares" had already been taken - that is that band the Screamers had morphed out of). Stephen said, "Omigod - 'leftovers' is a TERRIBLE name! Call it the Madisons for sure!" So for better or worse - you decide - that's how the name came about.
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