Chemistry, to paraphrase Walter H. White, isn't about matter or compounds or the elements. It's about change. As it is in the lab, so it is in popular music. Rock & roll changes everything.
Or so we've been told. But the Del-Lords, one of the greatest of the '80s roots-rock dark horses, perhaps even the unacknowledged inventor of the whole genre, has changed without losing the ineffable chemistry that made its music essential to begin with.
Formed in the early '80s by Scott Kempner of influential New York punk group the Dictators, the Del-Lords emerged from the wreckage of a '70s new-wave scene, one the band never quite fit in with, but which still provided the essential elements — hard rock and speed — and a gritty urban undercurrent to the pre-punk, American music sounds the band hoped to unleash.
"In the '80s, New York was still like the Wild West," Kempner recalls. "In much of the East Village you were still pioneering. In Alphabet City, Avenue A, Avenue B and C, it was still being re-civilized. Tompkins Square Park, which was the heart of the East Village, was a crack vial, a broken-hypodermic-needle garden. It was one of the only parks where you really could not bring kids. That started to change under Giuliani; he went too far and destroyed a lot of the night life in New York. But in some ways it was still a no man's land. A snapshot of the '80s would have seen that coming, but it would have still had that old New York of the '70s. When we were playing something more country-inflected, it never sounded rural. In the '80s we played a little too fast, which is part of the New York thing. It was that harder edge, the more urban end of Americana, people like Lou Reed and Springsteen rather than Mellencamp."
Along with Kempner, the original lineup of the Del-Lords featured drummer Frank Funaro, bassist Manny Caiati and guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, who, at the time, was best known for his work with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. The guitar on "I Love Rock 'n' Roll"? That's Eric Ambel.
"When I came back to the city after leaving Joan Jett, I played with a few different people," Ambel explains. "One of the guys I was playing with called me up one day and said, 'You know those guys who were in the Dictators?' Yeah, I did. I'd seen them a couple of times when I was younger. The guy went on: 'I was playing with them, and I didn't really like it. It was like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and the Clash.' I said, 'Yeah, that sounds just awful.'"
Ambel was bluffing. He loved that sound.
"I hung up and immediately found someone who knew how to get ahold of Scott," he continues. "I showed up the very next day for an audition, and it was the same day that Frank Funaro showed up on drums. The first song that we ever played together was 'Folsom Prison Blues.' That was the start of the band."
Between 1984 and 1990, the Del-Lords released four albums and began to make a mark. The sound owed more to Creedence Clearwater Revival than to the Ramones, and the first track on its first album was a classic American folk song: "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" It was a declaration that set the group apart from their New York brethren.
"We were in our own world," Ambel says. "We were coming from heavier music, and we'd discovered rootsier sounds. We felt like what we were doing was different. There were people in different parts of the country who were playing more rootsy music. But in the '80s, you could go into a studio and they just didn't know how to capture it."
In the end it wasn't just a turn toward Americana that distinguished the Del-Lords. It was the chemistry of happenstance, a matter of the right musicians at the right place at the right time of their lives. Working with Ambel, Funaro and Caiati, the ex-Dictator Kempner finally tapped into the songs he had long wanted to write.
"I'd only cowritten about three songs in the entire history of the Dictators," Kempner says. "I was a frustrated songwriter, the type who would stay up all night trying to write songs until dawn. And then the band broke up, and the songs started to come here and there. What was inspirational about working with Eric and the Del-Lords was just the vehicle. The process became the inspiration. If you need more inspiration than having players as great as Eric and Frank, I don't know what to tell you. It was a shot of songwriting adrenaline."
By the '90s that adrenaline rush had worn off, and the Del-Lords dissolved. Kempner pursued a solo career; Ambel worked with a variety of bands and became one of rock's best producers; Funaro joined up with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; Caiati became a family lawyer. A reunion, some two decades on, was the last thing on their minds, and likely would never have happened were it not for a promoter in Spain who pitched the idea to Kempner. What began as a plan for a simple acoustic tour evolved into a full band reunion, including a full-length album called Elvis Club, finally released this year. To complete the recording Kempner traveled back and forth between Southern California (where he has been living since 2001) and Ambel's studio in New York.
"It wasn't like the old days when a label threw a bunch of money at you, and you could take a month or two off and just be in a band," Kempner says of the recording. "It took a couple of years, and here we are, much to my amazement. We hadn't even been in the same room for twenty years. Everyone had a stake in it, and everyone had gotten so much better. Instead of falling down the stairs, we would fall up the ladder. We would stumble and find ourselves in a better position than before we tripped."
With Elvis Club, the Del-Lords has proven that if mature rockers can't relive the past, they can at least continue making catchy, exciting, warm-blooded rock & roll.
"In the twenty years we took off everyone was working on their craft," Ambel says. "There's a craft to making music that was the only thing that was missing from punk rock. When we started the Del-Lords we were from punk rock, but that craft was always a part of it. Craft is good."
This week the Del-Lords return to St. Louis, the city where they played their first gig outside of New York at the long-gone Heartbreak Hotel. While in town the band will play a house concert, an in-store performance at Euclid Records and headline a show at Off Broadway. The touring band includes original members Kempner, Ambel and Funaro, plus bassist Steve Almaas of legendary Minneapolis punk outfit the Suicide Commandos. They are all clearly craftsmen, but their maturity, if you must call it that, is anything but a liability.
"Rock & roll was started by youth, but it wasn't just based on youth," Kempner states. "If the Beatles and Dylan had never happened, it would have just remained a juvenile concern. What makes it rock & roll is a certain edge, an emotional and intellectual truth. That's what kids recognized in the beginning. If you're aware, if you're awake, if you're thinking and feeling, I don't see why rock & roll can't go on. There's this fundamentalist idea, that rock & roll has to be R&B based or that the Rolling Stones need to retire. The real lesson of rock & roll is that there are no rules. If your music is truthful in that regard, it doesn't have to lose its edge."