To start 2018 off the right way, it’s time to step into the Wayback Machine, circa the late ’70’s/early ’80’s in the New York/New Jersey area. My band was part of that scene; Two Minutes Hate began in August, 1983 and was a going concern until 1985 (soon morphing into The Punch Line). It was a wonderfully ripe time for local bands and a plethora of clubs in the area. Maxwell’s aside, there were places like The Court Tavern, The Jetty, The Dirt Club and so on, as well as the clubs in Manhattan; local bands were everywhere, a good portion of which were doing original music, the same as we were. A few of those bands made it to national/international prominence. But there were quite a few great bands who didn’t and have had the years neglect to give them their due. So I’d like to correct this oversight.
The Rockin’ Bricks, from New Brunswick were one such band (the name was conceived as a quasi-humorous perversion of Flamin’ Groovies, a band much-admired by guitarist Pete Tomlinson). The Bricks rose out of the ruins of Big Help in 1979 – Big Help being the late Fran Kowalski’s songwriting/group vehicle following his stint with Alex Chilton’s Cossacks. Chris Breetveld (bass, keyboards, vocals), Bill DiMartino (drums) and Pete Tomlinson (guitar, vocals) had played together for years in Central New Jersey, prior to their time with Big Help, so continuing on as a unit made sense.
In early 1980, the trio recruited Joe Vocino (guitar, vocals) and Tom Priester (keyboards). While failing to progress past rehearsal stage, the band provided a workable structure for Vocino and Breetveld’s original material. Unfortunately, Vocino left in late ’80 (sadly, he passed away in 2007, writing and playing to the end). Subsequently, the quartet began to play the occasional show at clubs that featured original music, like Trenton’s City Gardens. It was around this period that the Bricks began to feature, in addition to their own material, spontaneous versions of songs as far afield as Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky”, the Stones’ “All Sold Out”, and, on one beer-soaked occasion, “Light My Fire” – having fun and winging it onstage remained a Bricks’ hallmark.
In mid-1981, Priester left to attend Hunter College, and the “classic” Bricks lineup was born with the addition of Joe Hosey (guitar, vocals). High school pals with Mr. Tomlinson, Mr. Hosey had most recently been in Trenton’s Shades, at that time probably the most popular “original” band in that region. He brought with him songs like “Heartbeat” and “Can’t Say No”, both to feature on the band’s Having A Wild Weeknight EP.
Lineup finally solidified, the Bricks struck upon a bit of serendipity when several bars in New Brunswick (notably, the Court Tavern) decided to feature local combos for cheap entertainment. Combined with the then-drinking age of 18, and New Brunswick’s enormous student population (as the home of Rutgers University), the forces were aligned to generate a vibrant local scene, and The Rockin’ Bricks were on the proverbial ground floor. The Court Tavern and the numerous clubs that sprung up in its wake comprised the heart of the live circuit they thrived in for the remainder of their lifespan. (It should be noted that the most renowned band to emerge from this scene were The Smithereens, friends of the Bricks from early on. Drummer Dennis Diken would, in fact, substitute for DiMartino on more than one occasion.)
Recording was always an aim of the Bricks, mostly encouraged by Breetveld, an avid 4-track reel-to-reel devotee. The Bricks not only worked in professional 24-track studios (where they recorded the aforementioned …Wild Weeknight, engineered by Andy Wallace, who went on to great acclaim as a producer/engineer with an impossibly long list of credits – most notably as mixer of Nirvana’s Nevermind), but several smaller facilities. This has proven fortunate in hindsight, as they have plenty of examples of the breadth of their material, collected on this magnificent retrospective, Rockin’ Bricks Compleat. “Pop” (as in the questionable genre “power pop”) was always their primary thrust, but the far-flung influences of the group members (all of whom wrote) gave their sound an unidentifiable quality.
Of course, their eclectic nature did not lend itself to easy definition, which did them no favors when presented to “big time” record company A&R personnel, all of whom passed on the group. By this time (early 1983), entropy and the time-honored “personal differences” had overtaken the Bricks’ early optimism, and Breetveld was the first to leave. He was replaced by Peter Tutak, a stellar instrumentalist (seen in the group’s only “official” video, “Heartbeat”), but by this time, the Bricks’ days could be counted on one hand (well, maybe both hands: still, their time left was brief). By late 1983, the Rockin’ Bricks were no more.
And here we find this remarkable document of the Bricks’ recorded output which is a must. Starting with the percussive throttle of “Planning My Weekend”, it has all the best elements of the early ’80’s new wave: angular, jagged guitar lines, an incessantly catchy rumble, tongue in cheek lyrics and instantly makes you sit up and take notice. “That Ain’t Right” is a definitive power pop classic; harmonies galore and built around 7th chords, it should have been on F.M. radio; “I Won’t Give It Up” is a pure punk piece with 100 m.p.h. tempo (comparable with The Buzzcocks’ style but with a hint of The Stranglers’ organ punches); “Trial And Error” has a Cheap Trick vibe with a heavier sounding guitar and “tougher” sound but still with top form melodic structure and “Foreign Girl” definitely gives The dB’s a run for their money with the sound and texture of the guitars – another “lost” radio gem. “Someone To Love” would have fit so well on the playlists of WLIR or WHTG, sandwiched between R.E.M. and The Police as it embodies the era, but doesn’t sound dated and “T.V. Station” could easily have been their “crossover” hit!
Twenty-three tracks; not a “this is just okay” one in the bunch – all great; all varied and full of youth, excitement and life. As it was meant to be. This album definitely captured a band and a time beautifully and I’m so glad it’s available for all to hear.
Considering there was a vague feeling of unfinished business that hung in the consciousness of the various members for many, many years, in December 2017, The Rockin’ Bricks (including keyboardist Priester) re-formed for a single show. Slowed (perhaps) a step by age, but still brimming with the rock & roll spirit, the show was a complete success, and sent what once upon a time were one of New Jersey’s finest groups out on the high note they so richly deserved. But let us hope that there may be more to come from The Rockin’ Bricks; it would only be fair.
Rockin’ Bricks Compleat is currently available