New Jersey punk legends, The Shock Mommies, are re-reuniting to play one last show at Long Branch’s Brighton Bar on Saturday, July 27th. In anticipation of the occasion, Speak Into My Good Eye approached the reclusive band’s “people” with some questions about the upcoming show. We weren’t really sure whether or not The Shock Mommies would even give us the time of day, so imagine our delight when we finally received a response that included answers to all of our questions from singer / guitarist, Jim Norton (No, not one of the members of the band who later went on to rock stardom with Monster Magnet, but still…).
Continue reading our exclusive interview to find out what Norton had to say about how the re-reunion came together, the New Jersey music scene of the mid 1980s, and his bandmates.
From the band:
Hollywood has made millions on the hackneyed plot device of a child and parent ‘switching bodies’ for a short period of time. The comedy comes from watching as the dad, whose personality and experiences have been transplanted into his son’s body, struggles to deal with dim-witted authority figures; or the daughter-in-the-mom’s-body has to pull off a client presentation about traffic engineering. Eventually all parties learn that the others’ lives aren’t so easy, and the viewer is supposed to gain an appreciation for the day-to-day difficulties we each face.
But what if those movies didn’t play out that way? What if, instead of the 16 year old punk rocker son stuck in his 44 year old dad’s body flailing about on the golf course to try to woo a new client from Consolidated Ball Bearings, he just decided to go about his normal life, play his adolescent songs about junk food and antisocial behavior, and work through some Reagan-era Cold War paranoia with his band? Well, it would probably look something like The Shock Mommies ‘re-reunion show’ at The Brighton Bar on Saturday, July 27th.
Chances are slim that you’ve ever heard of The Shock Mommies. A mostly forgotten footnote in the history of New Jersey underground rock, they were a band back before you knew there was such a thing as bands that weren’t on the radio. However, if you have a cool uncle or older sister who’s told you about all the later-to-become-famous bands they saw in any of New Jersey’s dozens of smoky dives back in the 80’s, there’s a halfway decent chance that they might have a story about some crazy band they once saw that stole the show from some of the biggest names in what was then called College Rock.
Did that chubby 18 year old singer – who looked like a third string center on his high school football team – really go onstage in front of 1500 Neanderthal Ramones fans in Trenton wearing his sister’s prom dress held together with duct tape? Did that guitarist really break every string on his guitar, but then finish the last minute of the set by playing the squealing feedback of his stringless guitar – in tune!? Was the first thing Thurston Moore said as he took the stage at Rutgers in front of 2300 people really, “I don’t know how we’re supposed to follow that?” The answer to all three questions is of course, yes.
During a brief few years of operation, from 1985 until early 1988, The Shock Mommies earned a reputation across Central New Jersey as consummate showmen, probably more noticed for stage antics and between-song humor than for the songs that got them in the door. If facile comparisons make things easier for you, The Shock Mommies were a punk version of the Smothers Brothers, (who were the 60’s version of The Flight of The Conchords.)
After various drummers and bassists passed through the band, the last lineup consisted of Marc Saxton on guitar and vocals, Jim Norton on vocals and guitar, Joe Calandra on bass, and Jon Kleiman on drums.
Jim Appio over at Speak Into My Good Eye sent the band a bunch of questions and we passed them to Norton.
What prompted the reunion? Whose idea was it? Did you have any difficulty “getting the band back together?”
Let’s start off with what didn’t prompt the reunion: This was not the cliché situation of four middle aged guys who had acquiesced to a life of pleated pants and over-the-counter heartburn medications, and suddenly need to break free of their suburban shackles and rediscover their wild youths. The decision was made at an Angry Samoans show at the Brighton a few months back; since all four of us were together for the first time in the place where we actually did a reunion show 9 years ago, it wasn’t much of a mental stretch. I was a little shocked that the three of them agreed, because they all secretly hate me. But in fairness, I earn every bit of that hatred. I guess mostly it’s the secretiveness that I find hurtful.
What is it like to revisit songs, and a whole project really, that you created as teens?
I don’t know if it would be easier or harder if we had written really earnest, Save-The-Whales-kind of stuff, but I can tell you that I feel my main job is to get myself to a place where reciting the lyrics to songs with titles like “You May Be Dead” and “I’m More Macho Than You” doesn’t involve any self-awareness whatsoever. I mean, this is material written by 16 year olds, for 16 year olds. Blah blah, juxtaposition of immature material being performed by a guy who looks like your company’s tax attorney, blah blah, subverting the youth paradigm in the rock aesthetic, blah blah blah.
I should point out that a large portion of our oeuvre, (Yes, I did just use that word. Perhaps even the slightest bit of press attention is affecting me negatively. Now I know how all my heroes turned into such jerks.), was written by the first bassist of the band, Jordy Ash. He left the band in 1986, and we were in the process of replacing all of his songs when we broke up. But frankly, all of my songs were embarrassing and terrible. Sure, Marc Saxton is a comedic genius, and he’s thrown away more amazing songs than most bands have ever written, but the people came for “Colonel Sanders is Dead” and “Teenage Lima Bean,” so dammit, that’s what the people are gonna get.
The Shock Mommies relied pretty heavily on humor to make their point. Do you feel like you’ve been able to hold onto that sense of humor? Do you think the intervening years have sharpened or dulled your wit?
If the rehearsals are any indication, neither Marc nor I have had our scalding thirst for attention quenched even a little. So our continued emotional stuntedness is the audience’s gain! The japes, quips, and spoofs have been coming from all sides. Except from Jon Kleiman, that guy’s a humorless turd. Luckily, he’s a drummer, which pretty much means he can’t read. Whatever, I’m not concerned about him seeing this as long as the local bars still have any stock on the shelves and there’s baseball being broadcast on radio. Seriously, it’s 2013 – who the hell still listens to baseball on the radio? Mutants and malcontents. Kleiman could run for mayor of either group.
What was “the scene” like in New Jersey in the mid-80s? How do you think it compares to what came later? How does it compare, as far as you know, to what’s going on now?
Oh, the puffy sleeves. And arm garters – LOTS of arm garters. MTV had sort of marked the parameters of what a rock band should look and sound like, and there were plenty of bands with videos in heavy rotation that clearly weren’t very good at what they were doing. So there was a bit of a Gold Rush mentality with bands in the area, knowing that record labels were signing bands based on their ability to act like cartoon versions of rock bands.
And then there were bands off on the side, kind of doing their own thing, and that was where we were. It was like the musical version of an isolated natural habitat; sure, there were some cute, cuddly lemurs and 4 foot tall exotic birds, and those are the bands everyone remembers because they were amazing and pure. But there were also bands that were kind of like bizarre half-cuttlefish / half-groundhog things hiding under rotting logs, and some kind of grunting cro magnon tribe just beyond the clearing. That was the part of “the scene” we were associated with: three guys with broken guitars playing along to homemade 4 track cassettes of drums and kazoos, the suburban surfer boy beat poet and the teenage girl who accompanied on faux-free jazz alto sax, the band that wanted to sound like a cross between Black Sabbath and ABBA. Just a parade of lousy ideas that probably sounded groundbreaking over a cup of Dutch coffee and a shared order of fries at The Inkwell, but should have been forgotten when the check arrived.
Can you talk a bit about what came after The Shock Mommies for everyone in the band? Kind of like one of those sequences that play as the credits roll at the end of a teen comedy.
Well, most notably after The Shock Mommies, Joe Calandra and Jon Kleiman went on to perform as bassist and drummer, respectively, of Monster Magnet. They were with the band for over a decade, doing all the things that members of rock bands do, (or don’t do), and then regret later. Money was spent, opportunities were squandered, amazing stories were experienced, and friendships were made and lost. Much like it’s said in This Is Spinal Tap, they “toured the world and elsewhere.” They truly lived a version of the Rock and Roll lifestyle that tens of thousands of bands fantasize about. Nowadays, Jon is one half of the ruling junta that controls the Ribeye Brothers organization, and Joe plays bass with them. They are my favorite band in New Jersey, and have been for 15 years.
After The Shock Mommies broke up, I went to work for bands on tour for about 10 years. I worked as a tour manager, stage tech, monitor mixer – pretty much anything but selling t-shirts. At a certain point, I had had enough, came to New Jersey, met my current wife, and settled into a suburban life of insurance sales and being a dad. When the economy tanked, I left insurance and began doing sound locally at various venues, and basically became That Weird Old Guy that you see at rock shows. I think it suits me; others may say differently.
Little is known of Marc Saxton’s activities between 1988 and today. When we need to communicate with him, we have two ways of contact. The first is to call a number that no phone company has a record of, leave a message, and then wait. The second method, (which is even less reliable), is to write a note, tape it to a hubcap, and leave it along southbound Route 9 near the Howell/Lakewood/Jackson border. Apparently he wanders that stretch every week or so and collects stray auto parts that litter the roadside. There were reports of a project known as The Watch Children, and rumors of records released in Scandinavia, but later it was discovered that this was mostly radio interference in the Ionosphere bouncing around and causing US Army weather balloons to transmit garbled misinformation having to do with neo-psychedelic garage bands and international manipulation of fiat currencies.
I know this is being billed as a one-time re-reunion, but is there a chance that The Shock Mommies could do more? Say, put together a reunion tour? What is next for The Shock Mommies?
I really don’t think this is a going concern. We played a show in April, 2004, which was by all accounts a success. Immediately following our set, the four of us were in the parking lot of the Brighton, congratulating each other and saying how fun it was. At that point – pretty much the lifetime high point of our mutual esteem – I suggested that perhaps we could make this an annual event. I’ll never forget Joe, Jon, and Marc all quickly replying in unison, “NO.” It was so satisfying in its unanimity.
The Shock Mommies play The Brighton Bar on Saturday, July 27th, at 9pm with The Blackout Shoppers. $10.