The Shirts

TrackAlbum
OpereticoLive At CBGB's
Teenage CrushThe Shirts
Tell Me Your PlansThe Shirts
The Story GoesThe Shirts
PoeThe Shirts
Laugh And Walk AwayStreet Light Shine
Milton At The SavoyStreet Light Shine
TriangulumStreet Light Shine
Outside The Cathedral DoorStreet Light Shine
Can't Get It Through My HeadInner Sleeve

The Shirts photo 1

The Shirts (clockwise from left): John Piccolo (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Robert Racioppo (bass, vocals), Arthur Lamonica (guitar, keyboards, vocals), John Criscione (drums, percussion, vocals), Ronald Ardito (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Annie Golden (vocals)

 

 

 

Contributor: Merric Davidson

“The Shirts were the quintessential Brooklyn band, best known for their punkish girl-boy harmonies, and original tunes. Popular in the seventies and often compared to The Ramones, The Shirts were a local borough band that didn’t quite fit the borough band mold. The Shirts hit their stride playing their own brand of music at CBGB during the glory days, but unlike some other bands of that era, The Shirts never really took off.” Bar Stories

*  *  *  *  *

Released in 1976, the double album Live At CBGB’s showcased a number of unsigned bands who played the venue during June that year including Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts, Laughing Dogs. Brooklyn-based the Shirts had three tracks on Live At CBGB’s – Operetico, Poe, A.V.M. – all excellent in a place which could showcase their experimental meets punk vibe.

In his album sleeve notes, Hilly Kristal, CBGB owner and briefly manager of the Shirts, writes that the live album is “an anthology of what I believe to be the most exciting ‘live performances’ captured, from a selection of the important bands who have been playing CBGB’s in 1975 and 1976.”

The Shirts were then signed to EMI’s Harvest label (Capitol in the US) the following year and were assigned Mike Thorne, an A&R man at EMI who had been instrumental in bringing the Sex Pistols to the label, who produced their first eponymous album at Wessex Studios in London in early 1977.

You can read much more about the early days of the Shirts, a “classic Brooklyn-Italian extended family”, the gigs, the studio sessions, the Bowery bars, in a tasty insider narrative from Mike Thorne at his website.

The Shirts photo 4

Sensing some chart action, Capitol were keen for the sophomore album to be recorded in New York. With Mike Thorne at the helm once again, Street Light Shine was produced at Mediasound Studios in NYC in the first half of 1979.

It’s a fantastic album and still holds up extremely well today with a strong selection of songs, superb musicianship and Annie Golden’s pure voice. However, in the words of Mike Thorne, “The album was delivered to enthusiastic British cheers and muted rumbles from Los Angeles. They didn’t hear singles.”

The production of Street Light Shine was also complicated by the main vocalist leading a double life. While still in the Shirts, Annie Golden was also in Hair on Broadway from 1977 and then in Miloš Forman’s film of the musical released in 1979. When the band split, she went on to have a long career on screen and stage and in recent years has played Norma Romano in Orange Is The New Black.

The Shirts photo 3

For the third album, Capitol Records made a deal with EMI in which the band would be signed solely to Capitol. Now under Capitol’s management rather than Thorne’s, recording went poorly and the resulting album, Inner Sleeve (1980), was not properly supported by the label, only 10,000 copies being pressed. It was a signal failure for the band, and although they continued playing for another two years, the large band (nine members at its height) had been reduced to four players, and essentially broke up in 1981 (source: Wikipedia).

Twenty-six years after the release of Inner Sleeve, the Shirts reformed (without Annie) and released two albums, Only The Dead Know Brooklyn (produced once again by Mike Thorne in 2006) and The Tiger Must Jump (2010) both of which are streamed on Spotify, unlike their earlier albums which are still not available on CD.

I bought all three of the early albums by Da Shoits in a single swoop on a second-hand record shop in southern England, the still-very-much-going and fabulous Second Spin, sometime in the 80s. The records have stayed with me ever since – from this fine group of musicians and songwriters who could have been contenders.

 

 

The Shirts photo 5

 

 

A tremendous live recording at CBGB’s. “It’s a joy to behold Annie Golden’s voice soaring over the giddy clash of instruments on Operetico, a minor masterpiece” says Gronk73 on Discogs – and he’s not wrong. Duelling guitars!

 

Teenage Crutch: this great 1978 footage from OGWT (courtesy 10thFloorClown – see also videos at the foot of this post) with the band killing it. A classy punk anthem that surely should have been a single!

 

Released as their first UK single in May 1978 with non-album track Cyrinda on the B-side, Tell Me Your Plans reached #4 in the Dutch Top 40 in November 1978. It failed to chart in the UK. Inexplicable.

 

The Story Goes is the opener on Side Two of The Shirts and the B-side of the third single, Reduced To A Whisper. It’s yet another faultless showing from the guys in the band and a Broadway musical-style delivery from the singer, and it’s catchy as hell.

 

A touch of the Ramones but no more than that. “I’ll be here with my Poe.” High energy and a live staple. Come on all you lovely droogs, come on sing come on say come on throw your life away.

 

The opening track on Street Light Shine is a beaut. Released as a single in the UK (with Triangulum on the flip) and in the US (with Maybe, Maybe Not – a non-album track – as the B-side, Laugh And Walk Away sadly failed to trouble the charts in either market although it reached #12 in the Dutch Top 40 in December 1979. The Shirts were big in The Netherlands.

No room in the Ten for Maybe, Maybe Not though which is a pity. Written by band members Robert Racioppo and Ronald Ardito, and so sweetly sung by Annie, it seems incredible that it wasn’t included on an album.

 

Ridiculously infectious and a million miles away from punk, Mike Thorne reveals that Milton At The Savoy introduced the first outside instrumentalists to a Shirts recording, a full swing horn section arranged by trumpeter Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick. “The story is a poignant fantasy about an uptown jazz musician whose time has passed him by.”

 

What a song this is. I love it as much now as I did on first hearing it in the 80s. An epic track in every way, much more UFO Club than CBGBs. We are all still looking “for an answer”. On Triangulum. It’s a perfect production from the exquisite instrumentation to the soaring vocal and the enhanced last notes, enough to shatter glass and disturb dogs. It’s really hard to move on from this one. You play it, you play it again. It’s no hardship.

 

“In many ways, Outside The Cathedral Door is the Shirts’ grand masterpiece. It was always played in the expansive 5ˈ30″ format on stage and was considered too radical for the first album, but it could hold the raucous CBGB’s audience quietly spellbound.” Mike Thorne

This epic final track from Street Light Shine sort of segues into the ethereal Kensington Gardens which would be my bonus selection where it not for Out On The Ropes from the same outstanding album.

 

With no room left in this listing I’ve plumped for Can’t Get It Through My Head to represent Inner Sleeve. Another winner from Ronald Ardito, it’s a simple melodious love song but with a kicker in the lyric: I can’t get it through my head, can’t remember what I said. Or maybe I should have gone for One Last Chance which has a ring of the 60s about it even though most of the album is decidedly 80s moving inexorably towards MTV.

 

 

The Shirts photo 2

The Shirts play CBGBs

 

TopPop – first pop music TV show in the Dutch language (October 1978)

 

The Shirts play Teenage Crutch on the Old Grey Whistle Test

 

The Shirts on ‘Now!’ in August 1979, brief clips of Love Is A Fiction and Poe performed live at CBGB and an interview with Annie Golden

Thanks to 10thFloorClown for making two of the above clips and several others available on YT

 

Triangulum is a small northern constellation that is visible between the constellations of Andromeda and Aries

Studies on a laser
Found a star, Acamar
Feeling soft, my eyes distort
Scarred from afar
Pardon me I cannot see
Blinded by a mystery
Sleeping on the streets at night
People didn’t ask me why
And all the time you sighed, I cried
They took my mind to Menkar
Que cera cera

Beginning to believe in happy endings
Trying to conceive
Beyond burning body blendings
something more, something more
For an answer, for an answer

Living on uncharted asteroids
Looked around, there’s many like me
Maskless people faceless people
Here on triangulum
And no-one realised we’re not related
Energies in my direction
Such power
Spending honest affection
Saying yes
Refusing no

For an answer
On Triangulum

 

Ronald Ardito (1954-2008)

 

The Shirts: Then and Now (Mike Thorne’s website)

The Shirts Fan Page Facebook

The Shirts – Almost Complete Discography. 1976-2010 on YouTube

The Shirts on Discogs

Clips of The Shirts Show at CBGBs 29th April 1978

Annie Golden and Artie Lamonica on YouTube
talk about how the Shirts got started by making the trip across the Brooklyn Bridge

Annie Golden (Wikipedia)

Rome 56 (Arthur Lamonica) official website

Bob of the Shirts (Robert Racioppo) Facebook – solo album Townie (2014)

Joe Viglione’s review of Live At CBGB’s (AllMusic)

The Shirts biography (AllMusic)

Merric Davidson is a retired publisher who started this site eight years ago. He tweets toppermost @AgeingRaver.

TopperPost #983

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 14, 2021

    Intriguing band. To be honest I didn’t know them at all before reading this piece and expected a very different style of music when I saw CBGB’s mentioned. Very interesting musically – thanks again.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Sep 16, 2021

    They’re growing on me thanks to some persistence (and it takes quite a bit to drag me away from the 50’s/60’s). Many thanks for the intro.

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