Thursday, March 26, 2015

Forgotten Bands Of The 70s-Crack The Sky

In today's world you have the internet and You Tube to find your way to obscure or music from bands you don't hear on the radio.  But before the net, life revolved around going to see what cheap albums that I could find for a dollar or less.  Back in those days Target or K Mart did managed to have a budget section of albums nobody wanted.  Even the old Kresge's store had a wide variety of albums from 44 to 88 cents, to which I thought of while playing The Silver Apples Cd the other day. Seeing 44 cent copies of Contact.  Getting back to subject K Mart had a box of dollar albums and as I was thumbing through, most of them didn't stand out, till I found an interesting album called Animal Notes from Crack The Sky, perhaps the most well-known band to ever come out of Steubenville Ohio, or from another website Wierton West Virginia, to which they are the best known band to come out of Wierton.

Basically Crack The Sky goes by the moniker "music that thinks" or something to that effect.  At times they have a progressive rock sound, other times power pop.  At times, they come across like Pink Floyd, other times 10CC.  The ring leader is John Palumbo, but with guitarist Rick Witkowski Crack The Sky are at their mad best.  But anyway, the 1.00 album I picked up that day was their second album Animal Notes, which came out in 1976 via Lifesong, the label started up by Cashman and West.  Animal Notes was a very quirky and progressively messy.  We Want Mine was a very minor hit on the FM dial (later covered by Eddie And The Hot Rods on the forgetful Fish And Chips album) perhaps the best song was Maybe I Could Fool Everybody Tonight.  Side 2, the 10cc inspired Rangers At Midnight wasn't something I'd play very often, and Virgin....No is like Yes via Queen.  However the last two songs Invaders From Mars and Play On get too bombastic and over the top.   Their first album from what I'm told is better, it does have the odd time Ice and the medley of Hold On/Surf City and the prog rocking She's A Dancer. But even their first album had a something that would try your patience.  Mind Baby comes to mind.

For reasons unknown, either Palumbo didn't want to tour or wanted to stay home and let the other guys go on, it's hard to tell but they got themselves a a capable vocalist in Gary Lee Chappell and Safety In Numbers came out in 1977.  The Pink Floyd influenced Nuclear Apathy  might be the highlight of that album and Palumbo did write a couple songs in the process (on side 1) but opted out in favor of a solo album Innocent Bystander which may have been a pop move. Listening to it this day and age he seems to channel more Harry Nilsson or a whacked out Randy Newman but nevertheless both albums didn't chart that much.  Lifesong didn't exactly have a promotions department but they did managed to strike up a distribution deal with CBS Records for the late part of the 70s.  With Palumbo out of the way, they ended up making a live album which shows that Crack The Sky would have been fun to watch live.  Improvising and joking on the spot, (Rick Witkowski cracks a joke on the break of Maybe I Can Fool Everybody Tonight) and even throwing in the William Tell Overture (or the Lone Ranger theme song) on Surf City.  However, extending Ice into an 11 minute keyboard solo wasn't a very good idea but rocking out to Lighten Up McGraw, leading into She's A Dancer (which takes a more progressive rock turn with it's 9 and half minutes of jamming at the end).  1978 was then golden era for live albums, and Live Sky is a worthy addition to anybody's collection.

To which something changed, Palumbo returned, the band broke up, and then got back together for a series of albums that I never heard.  CBS dropped Lifesong from distribution and the later albums Raw and White Music I never heard.  Then they broke up again.  Lifesong then picked Crack The Sky's best moments on Classic Crack.

John Palumbo and Crack the Sky never really gone away.  In 1989 they signed to Grudge Records for the concept album From The Greenhouse.  Basically it's John and Rick Witkowski playing most of everything but overlook the dated electric drums and it's a decent listen although Palumbo never sounded more Pink Floydish or Roger Waters.  However, I have not heard the other two Grudge albums Dogs or Raw City.  Fast forward to 2012 and I did find Ostrich and for latter day Crack The Sky, the reviews were mixed but Palumbo adds elements of Steely Dan and a bit of Zappa like fun on King Of The Rodeo or the silly Pole Dancing At The Hollywood.  Side 1, Palumbo doesn't add much to the chorus but you can sing along to them (Your House Is On Fire, Happy Happy Happy), but the sillyness does wear thin toward the end, especially on Don't Ask.  While fans tend to think not much of Ostrich, I give Palumbo and company some slack and think it's worth a listen or two, and even the album closer Ali's Song, Palumbo sings about his daughter all grown up and ready for the outside world.

In the CD era, Crack The Sky albums are somewhat not that hard to find if you look in the right spots.  Best overview remains the smugly titled Crack Attic (The Best Of Crack The Sky) that Renaissance Records issued in the late 90s and has just about everything you could want to hear from CTS but this compilation would like you to believe that they went from progressive rock funny guys to a more pop sounding band on  the last two songs Poptown and Too Nice For That.  They kinda clash with the earlier material like Ice or Surf City but it is a decent sampler. A later comp, The Best And The Rest actually focuses more on the lesser known albums of the 80s and even throws in two tracks from Innocent Bystander, Palumbo's solo album.  However, the caveat is that the two songs selected from the CTS 70s albums are the subpar Mind Baby and somewhat better We Want Mine.  For a best of, it's as uneven as they come.

But in the end Crack Attic or Classic Crack are the ones to get if you're interested and that works out for you, the Lifesong albums of the 70s leading up to Live are the ones to check out.  And despite what people tell you, Ostrich and From The Greenhouse do hold their own.  Palumbo and company have been quiet since Ostrich, but Rick Witkowski has been busy in production, he has worked on Joe Gueshesky's most recent album. 

Crack The Sky remains to have a very loyal fan following.  Being on Lifesong didn't help them at all and did played a role and keeping the band as unknowns that couldn't get their records to the store in time.  We Want Mine is basically Palumbo showing his ire at Lifesong for withholding royalties, or lack of promotion. Classic rock radio doesn't even recognize them at all, I have yet to hear a Crack The Sky song on radio or satellite radio.  So they are a well kept secret, but to share the secret of this band is to find their albums and seek out what you may have missed all these years.

For myself it started with an album that I found for a dollar at K Mart in 1979.

Albums of note (the ones that I heard)

Crack The Sky (Lifesong 1975) B+
Animal Notes  (Lifesong 1976) B
Safety In Numbers (Lifesong 1977) B-
Live Sky (Lifesong 1978) A-
Innocent Bystander (Lifesong 1978 by John Palumbo) B
White Music (Lifesong 1980) B
Classic Crack (Lifesong 1981) B+
From The Greenhouse (Grudge 1989) B
Crack Attic (Renaissance 1997) A-
The Best Of The Rest (Winthrop/Lifesong 1999) B-
Ostrich (Aluminum Cat 2012) B+ 


TAD said...

Hey Crabby -- I've never found their albums cheap, but I've got the live single of "Lighten Up McGraw" backed with "I Am the Walrus," and it's great! "McGraw" should have been a hit -- and their version of "Walrus" is at least OK, though it doesn't make me forget John Lennon. I'd probably grab the live album if I ever stumbled over it....

R S Crabb said...

Hi Tad,

Animal Notes when I revisited it, the first side still remains classic with We Want Mine, Wet Teenager and Maybe I can Fool Everybody Tonight the highlights, but side 2 there's too much of an 10cc tomfoolery that made me knocked a couple points off. If you can find Live Sky, get it. My copy was a Cutout from Canada years ago and I Am The Walrus won't make you forget The Beatles. But they were a pretty tight band and can improvise on the spot. I used to think Ice was the most self indulgent track (probably is) due to it being 12 minutes long but I found myself jamming to it quite nicely. There's a prog rock sound on the extended She's A Dancer live version. The record as a whole is kinda muddy sounding but the band was at their best.