The making of the Iron City Houserockers’ ‘Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive’ album, the followup to their acclaimed debut
In February 1980, the Iron City Houserockers booked a hotel and a studio in New York City to make the follow-up to their debut album “Love’s So Tough.”
Frontman Joe Grushecky has an easy way of remembering the timing. “The signpost,” he says, “is the Miracle on Ice,” when an upstart U.S. hockey team upset the powerhouse Russians in the 1980 Olympics.
With the new album titled “Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive!,” Pittsburgh’s premier rock band pulled off a little miracle of their own — with some help from the British team, and the Jersey team, and the Cleveland team.
When it came out in June 1980, the Rolling Stone magazine review ran with the headline “New American Classic.” Writing in The Village Voice, Greil Marcus, the dean of rock critics, called it “the strongest album an American band has made this year.”
And yet, that album — now getting a 40th-anniversary reissue — bore little resemblance to one that the Houserockers went there to make. And how they got the all-legend team of Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s bands) and Steve Van Zandt (E Street Band) to produce it remains something of a happy mystery.
City of Champions
The Houserockers’ April 1979 debut on MCA Records had set the stage for bigger things from the gritty Pittsburgh group — Grushecky, Art Nardini, Marc Reisman, Gil Snyder, Eddie Britt and Ned E. Rankin — that started in 1976 as the Brick Alley Band.
They became the Iron City Houserockers in 1977 after signing a management deal with Steve Popovich, a Nemacolin native at Epic Records who helped launch the musical careers of Boston, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent and many others, and was forming his own Cleveland International Records.
Despite becoming hometown heroes and the house band at The Decade in Oakland, the aftermath of that first album brought challenges for the IC Houserockers.
“We put out our first record in the midst of the huge gas shortage we had when Jimmy Carter was president, and we could only get gas every other day to travel, which made it very, very difficult,” Grushecky says.
“The record company in Cleveland saw what great reviews the first record was getting — and then in early fall I had a tumor in my throat near my voice box.”
The tumor was benign, but it left him unable to perform for a while. “It was just a combination of bad factors,” he says.
Grushecky wasn’t exactly a veteran songwriter. In the clubs, most bands were forced to play covers. But in the house he was renting on Southern Avenue in Mt. Washington, while also teaching at a mental institution, he turned his attention to writing songs for a second album.
The rousing title track, which would open the album and become one of the Houserockers’ signature songs, happened somewhat spontaneously as a reaction to their environment.
“The steel industry here was collapsing,” Grushecky recalls, “and we were at the tail end of this macho City of Champions feeling that, ‘We’re football champs of the world, college champs, baseball champs, and we’ll kick anybody’s ass.’ And it was still a hangover from that thinking.
“I mean, playing the bars in those days, especially for our fans, they were so blue collar. It was a rough-and-tumble town and the music reflected that.”
Of the song’s hook, Grushecky says, “I just blurted it out one night because our fans were so wild that we were practically having riots every night. People would come in and they would wreck the bars, and it was wall-to-wall people and fights every night. I said to a guy one night, ‘Hey, man, have a good time … but get out of here alive.’ ”
The city, in the midst of a painful transition out of its industrial era and struggling for a new identity, became a canvas for his work. What came out were songs like “Pumpin’ Iron,” which tapped that tough, blue-collar mindset.
“At some point I decided to write about the city,” Grushecky says. “It started happening on the first record, with ‘Dance With Me,’ because the city was just so vivid. I lived in Mt. Washington, so I could take the incline on a regular basis — just soaking up the local color and looking at the characters and wondering what their stories were. And then we were playing at the bars and, you know, there was a lot of local color there, too.”
Heading to New York to record, Grushecky was particularly proud of two songs that he’d written — “Struggle and Die” and “Don’t Let Them Push You Around.” Both were heavy, mid-tempo pieces with extended jams suitable for FM play. He saw those as centerpieces of the album.
At Media Sound Studios on 57th Street in New York, they would both be chopped up and reconstructed.
Slimmer Twins plus 3
The plan going up was that Popovich and his partner Marty Mooney would produce the album, as they had the first one.
“The first record we were playing our stage show,” Grushecky says. “Steve and Marty produced it, but they weren’t really music guys. They didn’t know how to dissect a song and arrange the parts and talk to musicians in musical terms that you can really translate into workable ideas. They were more feel guys: ‘This feels good,’ ‘that feels good,’ you know. So we had really no experience with people deconstructing our songs.”
Enter the Spider from Mars.
Cleveland International was working with Hunter, the former Mott the Hoople frontman who in 1979 had released “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic” (the one with “Cleveland Rocks”). That record had been co-produced by Ronson and featured members of the E Street Band.
“So either the first or second day of rehearsal, [Popovich] shows up with Mick Ronson, you know, a world-class musician. We would practice all morning and take a break for lunch. After lunch one day, Popovich shows up with Steve Van Zandt. He brought them both in, sort of unannounced, and they jumped right in and started working with us.”
Which raises the question: What exactly was the budget for this record?
Grushecky doesn’t even know.
“Steve Popovich was the ringmaster of the whole thing and how he even got them all to agree to do it, I haven’t the slightest idea,” Grushecky says. “I was still living in Mt. Washington, driving a 20-year-old car. I wasn’t going to the bank too often.”
By this point, Grushecky hadn’t met future friend and writing partner Bruce Springsteen, but he had met Van Zandt before. When Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were out touring with Boz Scaggs, Popovich had brought Van Zandt to the Gazebo on West Liberty Avenue to see the Houserockers.
“Steve had found Joe and thought he had something special, so I came in and helped out with the arrangements, helped out as a friend,” Van Zandt told the Post-Gazette last year. “Once we got to know Joe, he was such a joy, and the whole band were great guys. It became missionary work to kind of establish this bar band idea everywhere we could.”
To Grushecky, there were some aesthetic differences in their concepts of what bar rock was.
“We weren’t horn-driven here because the environment was way tougher than the Jersey Shore. They had the beach, the ocean, the boardwalk, the sand, girls in bikinis. Here, you had the steel mills, the rivers and [expletive] bubbas in babushkas, you know what I mean?”
As fans know, Van Zandt has a particular fondness for soulful and garage-y rock ’n’ roll as now heard on his Sirius channel Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
“He’s one of these guys that’s ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus,’ ” Grushecky says.
Van Zandt guy put a new stinging riff on “Don’t Let Them Push You Around” and turned it into the almost thrashy punk song it deserved to be.
Similarly, Ronson took “Struggle and Die,” which Grushecky saw as his epic “Free Bird”-type jam, and turned it into the churning rocker “We’re Not Dead Yet.”
“I was resistant to a lot of stuff,” Grushecky says, “but I kept my mouth shut. I was trying to be a team player and, plus, you know, I was low man on the totem pole as far as experience and knowledge about everything. I can remember being mortified when ‘Struggle and Die’ went down, like ‘Oh my God, they’re ruining my songs.’ ”
Part of him knew that wasn’t true and fans can now hear the transformation on the new “Have a Good Time” reissue, which features the 12 songs plus 16 tracks of demos, outtakes and bonus material.
Some of the 1980 album’s highlights were more or less created on the spot. Working with Grushecky’s lyrics based on an idea from pianist Gil Snyder about TV mind-control, Hunter would take charge of the funk workout “Hypnotized.”
Highlighting side two would be the future fan favorite combo of “Old Man’s Bar” and “Junior’s Bar.” Most fans would guess that “Junior” came first, but that wasn’t the case. During the three-week stay in New York, pianist Gil Snyder and soundman Bob Boyer brought in “Old Man’s Bar,” a grizzled paean to the Decade, into the studio and Ronson liked the way Snyder sang it in that rough voice.
“A little bit later, maybe even later on that day,” Grushecky recalls, “Steve Van Zandt came in and said, ‘We could rock that.’ So he came up with that signature guitar riff,” and the strange key modulation that Grushecky says “theoretically, shouldn’t work.”
The words didn’t fit the tempo, so Grushecky went off and wrote new lyrics about a younger man on the prowl. The night he did the vocals, Popovich brought in Ellen Folly, who sang on Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and with her was Mick Jones from The Clash.
“He was a big Mott the Hoople fan and Ellen was dating him at the time, so he came and hung out,” Grushecky says.
Now, they had two different similar songs — one slow, one fast — and there was debate about which one to use. “At first I wasn’t sold on ‘Junior’s Bar,’ to tell you the truth, but I had my head twisted because everything was coming at me quickly.”
The Houserockers showed up at the studio with “Charlena,” which turned into “Blondie,” a bitter rocker about the New York punk band that played off the track “Angela.” The making of that song led to a defining moment in Grushecky’s career as a songwriter.
“We were having this discussion,” Grushecky says, “and [Steve Van Zandt] said, ‘Why are these lyrics so good over there, and these lyrics are not so good here?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just the rock song,’ and he said, ‘Nah, nah, nah. Every lyric you put forth has to be good. You have to make every lyric count.’ ”
The next day they met for breakfast and spent nearly three hours at a restaurant poring over all the lyrics to the album with Van Zandt, who was in the midst of making “The River” album with the E Street Band four blocks away at The Power Station.
Says Grushecky, “I remember what he said: ‘What are you going to say? How are you going to say it? And, at the end of the day, is it worth saying?’ That was a moment in my becoming a writer.”
And then Grushecky went and left the lyric book at the restaurant.
“We get back to the hotel, and I don’t have the lyrics,” he says. “We’re in the lobby, and I’m like ‘Oh my God.’ You know, I felt like an a–hole. We spend all this time and I lose everything.
“So I’m heading back to the restaurant, walking through the streets of New York, and you know how they have those metal garbage receptacles attached to parking meters you can see through? About a block from the restaurant, I see the lyrics lying in a garbage can.
“It was a minor miracle, so Steve said this record is going to be something special because that was a miracle in itself.”
Get out alive
What we’ve always heard about the production of “Have a Good Time” is that the Van Zandt-Ronson-Hunter team ran into the proverbial “creative differences.” It’s even in the Wiki entry that Van Zandt produced five songs and then left the project.
Grushecky says there was indeed a sense of “too many chefs” but things never got chaotic or tense. “Not at all. For me, it was, occasionally, because you know they would take some of these songs and just totally just rip them to shreds.”
If that contributed to the ferocity of his vocal performance, the album was all the better for it. From the opening of “Have a Good Time” to the gentle closer of “Rock Ola,” there’s no point where the Houserockers and their ace session players sound disengaged.
When they wrapped up the three-week session, Grushecky says, “I thought it was [expletive] great. Sounded great. Forty years later, still sounds great. The reviews came out and it gave us instant credibility.”
And the Houserockers sold millions and everyone lived happily after. Or not.
This is the part of the story we hate to tell.
“I hate this part too,” Grushecky says, laughing. “I hate it more than you do, believe me.”
Despite having an album loaded with potential singles, The Houserockers never got national airplay, thanks in part to … Meat Loaf.
The singer was the flagship of Cleveland International, having sold millions (eventually 43 million) of his 1977 debut “Bat Out of Hell.” But the making of his second album had become a disaster — between drug problems, touring exhaustion and losing his voice — that was cresting in early 1980.
“We lost our creative genius, Steve Popovich, and the whole Cleveland International thing imploded over the follow-up Meat Loaf record,” Grushecky says.
Not that it was all bad.
“We got an agent and did better gigs,” he says. “We had guys from Pink Floyd come out to see us play, Patti LaBelle, Neil Young. They wanted to see what the fuss was all about.”
Short of being the next heartland superstars, the Iron City Houserockers lived on to make another fine album with that classic lineup — the “Blood on the Bricks” reissue in the works for next year — and they got out alive.
“To this day,” Grushecky says, “ ‘Have A Good Time’ is lumped in with ‘Night Moves’ and ‘Scarecrow’ as one of the best heartland records of all time.”
An All Music Guide review written in the ‘00s declares it “a masterpiece of hard-bitten Rust Belt rock.”
“If you’re a music fan and you want to hear Steve Van Zandt, Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter working together, it sells itself,” Grushecky says. “Take me out of the equation and it’s still interesting.”
The newly expanded and remastered reissue of “Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive” — which Grushecky produced with his son Johnny and soundman Brian Coleman — will be released Friday on CD, vinyl (bonus tracks available via a download card) and on all digital streaming outlets.
Grushecky will perform the title song during his regular 8 p.m. Wednesday stream on his Instagram. He will talk about the album on Little Steven’s Underground Garage Sirius channel at 2 p.m. Friday. At 1 p.m. he will do a live Q&A on his Facebook page.
Steve Popovich died in 2011 at 68. Mick Ronson died in 1993 at 46. Ian Hunter, who turns 81 in June, and Steve Van Zandt, 69, are still active.
The Iron City Houserockers who made the album are all still alive.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com.