Brewtown has always had a healthy pop music scene, a tradition that continues today with bands such as The Sugar Stems, Jaill, Kings Go Forth and numerous others making waves with well-regarded releases on national labels. In fact, there's a brand new Sugar Stems release out on Dirtnap Records, so go get it! The last few months have seen some big pieces of Milwaukee's musical past getting the deluxe treatment on vinyl -- all three of these LPs are well worth checking out by anyone interested in Wisconsin's often locally-undervalued band scene.
Vic Pitts & The Cheaters: The Lost Tapes
This album's existence was a completely-out-of-left-field surprise when I ran across it in the bins. The Cheaters were a long-running and very popular Milwaukee R&B group, initially formed by Pitts after he left the Harvey Scales-fronted Seven Sounds. The Cheaters were one of the few integrated bands in Milwaukee in the 1960s, initially including scene veterans such as Brand Shank of The Noblemen, and even hosted a weekly television variety show called The Grapevine for several years.
Somewhat surprisingly considering their success, the group only released one 45 during their time together, 1972's "Modern Crucifixion"/"Loose Boodie." (There is also one single on which The Cheaters are credited with backing up vocal group The Creators.) A 1973 tour in Europe resulted in the band never really returning to Milwaukee; Pitts still lives in Europe to this day. However, it turns out there was more to their story: The Cheaters recorded an LP's worth of tracks in 1969-'70 at Chicago's Ter-Mar Studios, which provide the source for the new release The Lost Tapes.
The liner notes relate that the recording project was initiated when producer Andre Williams, then working for Chess Records, was looking for a group to cut "River Deep, Mountain High." That song had become a belated smash for Ike & Tina Turner in the U.K. a few years after foundering on the pop charts in the U.S. Before anything came of their work with Williams, A&M released Ike & Tina's LP stateside, and Williams/Chess lost interest in releasing the remake of "River Deep."
That ill-fated track was specifically not included on The Lost Tapes, with Pitts explaining the reason in a press release about the album. "I never wanted to cover that song, I always felt it was bad luck," he says. This listener would sure like to hear their take on it, though, judging by top-notch covers here such as a psych-guitar spiked version of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You" and a mellowed-out take of Neil Young's "Down By the River."
Better yet, The Lost Tapes includes a clutch of solid original tunes to boot, from instrumental funk workout "The Trip" to the sweet groover "You Made Me Love You." Considering the extensive reissues over the years of Williams' '60s production work, these tapes must have indeed been lost to not have appeared before now. This is a major addition to the recorded evidence of Milwaukee's golden-era soul music scene. (Secret Stash SSR-LP-34, 2014)
The Shivvers: The Shivvers
"Teenline," the lone single by these Brewtown power pop/new wave heroes, was a grail for local collectors long before the Hyped to Death folks raised their profile with a CD collection some years back.
For 2014, Sing Sing Records has come through with a vinyl collection of 12 tracks selected by the group, remixed and remastered as their debut LP release. Considering the proliferation of "skinny tie" bands signed by major labels during the late 1970s and '80s when the Shivvers were active, it's somewhat shocking hearing this album and realizing they never made a deal -- because this album is as good as any of the best of the power pop/new wave LPs that did come out at the time.
Most of the songs on The Shivvers were written by lead singer Jill Kossoris, and were perfectly translated by the band into a distillation of the influences of '60s pop and '70s Midwestern heroes such as Raspberries. Bassist Scott Krueger's song "Hold On" even goes as far as nearly duplicating the shimmering intro to Raspberries hit "I Wanna Be With You," but that's one of the only such cop-tastic moments here. As with the best power pop bands, this music is ultimately inseparable from the genre's conventions but also only sounds like The Shivvers. It may have taken a few extra decades to arrive, but The Shivvers LP is an instant Wisconsin classic. (Sing Sing SING 059, 2014)
Radio Ready Wisconsin: Lost Power Pop Hits, 1979-82
You know Wisconsin's rep as a power pop hotbed is gaining traction when an indie label in Austin picks the state as one of the debut releases in a new compilation LP series. Radio Ready Wisconsin collects singles sides and some tracks making a vinyl debut by now-legendary Badger state groups like The Haskels, The Sidewalks, The Wigs and (again) The Shivvers. This one's not exclusively Milwaukee bands, as it includes a track by Madison's own Spooner ("You're the Lucky One," from their second 7-inch) and a couple Green Bay bands. And my favorite track here is from Kenosha: "Let's Get Dumb" by Muscle Beach, which sounds like an alternate universe no wave Dictators.
Most of these singles are incredibly hard to find even here in Wisconsin, so having a legitimate reissue of these sides is a boon for the local music collector. It's worth noting the well-done mastering and lacquer plating for this album was done at Middleton's own Lucky Lacquers. (Cheap Rewards CRR-012, 2014)