Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Blackjacks

The Blackjacks:

Johnny Angel - lead vocals, guitars
Whitey - bass, vocals
Jeffrey Erna - drums
Raphael Mabry - guitar, vocals, harmonica

Dirty Water: The Boston Rock & Roll Musuem Biography on The Blackjacks.

By 1983, hard rock in Boston was a dead issue. The metal scene that began making waves in LA early in the decade hadn't really reached New England yet, the punk scene was dead, and the hardcore movement had begun to devolve into art-metal and noise. The notion of aggressive yet sexy music was deceased, and for all intents and purposes, there were three distinct camps in Boston: The would-be Angloid synth-pop, foo-foo haired sons and daughters of Boy George, the pseudo roots types who sucked Buds and wore flannel and claimed Hank Williams as god (but were really just collegiate simps trying to glom onto Americana and trailer-park culture, but as such were scruffier beatnik-y versions of their true role models, Britain's Teddy Boys), and dull bar bands. 'Til Tuesday were the big hype, as were the Del Fuegos, both fine groups, but hardly the spiritual heirs of Chuck Berry, the Stones and all the nitty-gritty societal bilge that tends to make the angriest and most heartfelt noise.

In June of 1983, Johnny Angel had returned to Boston a broken and beaten dude. His prior group, Thrills, had relocated to Manhattan with wide-eyed dreams of a new life in the Apple, only to find New York even less receptive to the straight-ahead charge than Boston. Besides, in B-Town, he could chill in a cushy job in the family business. His last bit of employ in New York was hauling boxes in a stinking Broadway warehouse, where he'd had a vision that the only time he'd ever ride down the magic boulevard in a limo would be in his own coffin, so it was NYC toodaloo!

Horrified at the total de-evolution of rock and roll at home, he hooked up with Whitey, ex-bassist with the Outlets, who was similarly bored and angered by Boston's local music scene. Whitey knew a former Outlets fan named Jeffrey Erna who was reputed to be a great drummer, and the three hooked up, bashing out Outlets songs at their first rehearsal, August, 1983.
Combining Angel's love of primal 60's psych and 70's punk with White's basic approach and Erna's speedy, rushed rhythms, the Blackjacks begun gigging a month later. Angel's year and change in exile in New York had provided wads of inspiration for new songs. "Generic New York City Woman" was a hate screed aimed at art-gallery inhabiting Manhattanite know-it-alls. "Junk Train" was a thinly veiled swipe at former Thrills singer Barb Kitson, who'd become seriously strung out on dope in New York. "Dreaming Of Saturday Again," was written about the horror of warehouse life. The latter song had been written with the intent of being a new Thrills single before that band broke up in 1983, and was to be produced by Tommy Erdelyi, but Thrills called it quits first!

In Boston, no one really knew what to make of the trio at first. Unlike the synth-pop combos, the Blackjacks were totally raw and guitar based, unlike the roots bands. They refused to posture like bumpkins, and even dressed in a kind of glam mode that infuriated their peers. Still, they were sharp-dressed men in a time when that was out of style, and as a result, the kinds of folks who missed the days of lads in make-up began to flock around them.

With tapes of "Generic" and "Saturday" on college radio constantly, and a theme song entitled "The Blackjacks Manifesto" (AKA "Motherfucker", which they knew would never get printed on an album sleeve), the Blackjacks attracted the fledgling Homestead Records into signing them as their first ever act. They preceded Sonic Youth, Big Black and Nick Cave onto that label. They also landed an incredible plum of a gig in early 1984, opening for the Clash at the Worcester Centrum. Because of this, they were regarded by some as a new hype, and others as well-connected bullshit artists. (The latter is closer to the truth as per the Clash gig; Don Law's second in command was a client of Johnny Angel's when Angel was selling stocks, and if you remember history, you'll recall that 1984 was a boom year--the Clash gig was a thanks-for-all-the-bucks-you-made-me, quid pro quo. The Blackjacks didn't mind).

The behind the scenes machinations didn't matter to the fans that were jonesing for raunch, though, and the Blackjacks fan-base was growing quickly. Sensing that one more component was needed, the band hired its roadie Rafe Mabry to play guitar along side of Angel, partially to re-create its studio sound, but mostly to separate the Blackjacks completely from the flannel hordes. Mabry was a dead ringer for Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, with hair sprayed a foot straight up in the air, and bedecked in full glam regalia. The initial reaction was complete shock, the Blackjacks had become Spinal Tap in the eyes of many, but that hardly bothered them at all, for every snot-nosed intellectual they'd alienated, three beautiful girls from the suburbs took their place. Who'd you rather have in your crew?

With that, the band released "Basic Blackjacks" in June 1984 to much local fanfare. "Dreaming of Saturday Again" was a local hit, and the combo began headlining. Shortly afterwards, the band cut a song that had been in progress around the time of the "Basic" recording. (Mabry didn't play on the debut disc). The tune had morphed from an offbeat psych jam loosely based on the chord changes of the Stones "Paint It Black", into a driving anthem whose lyric reflected the group's mindset. The song was called ("That's Why I Always) Dress In Black."

Released as the lead track of the Throbbing Lobster compilation "Let's Breed", "Dressed In Black" was #1 on WBCN's local countdown for two months, and a top 20 college radio track in the rest of the nation. This, coupled with a video of "Dreaming of Saturday Again" which got moderate play on local music video channel V-66 (and cost a whopping $340.00 to make), made the Blackjacks a big deal in Boston by spring, 1985.

At which point the band began to unravel. Blackjacks gigs were debauched, fucked-up affairs with constant brawls amongst audience members, and occasionally, among the band itself. At one Allston show, Mabry did a flying leap and landed directly on Angel's foot, and without missing a beat, the lead singer knocked the guitarist down with a right cross to the jaw. After the gig, Angel was out-of-control enraged, and his bandmates dosed his beer with Valium to try and sedate him, not knowing he'd already downed a handful of the benzo's. Out for three days.
And that was typical. Drunk, coked-up, stoned, wrecked on pills and heroin, the band got loonier and loonier as it got more popular, and its already wack fashion-sense went out the window.

Their gigs at the late, lamented Jumpin' Jack Flash were as close to the magic of the Dolls or Aerosmith as they got, one night an appreciative Steven Tyler gave the group a thumbs up from the club's gallery. The Blackjacks were a notch away from full-on drag at most shows, and were hard to take seriously, except that the new songs they'd cut for their second disc, "Dress In Black," were much more introspective and sad. Unlike the debut, where every tune was a "fuck you'' to something, "Dress In Black" was more like "I'm fucked," even closing with a melancholic acoustic solo balled called "If I'd a Been Your Daddy," written about Angel's suicidal, alcoholic girlfriend in New York.

Figuring that they were likely to burn out if they stayed in New England much longer, and having had some success on the road in New York and New Jersey (where they'd opened for Run DMC!), Angel recruited Husker Du's agent to book a national tour in October, 1985. By then, the Blackjacks leader had been drunk for three straight years, was sick of being sick, and quit drinking -cold turkey, three weeks before the tour began. Underestimating the seriousness of his habit, Angel was still in withdrawal as the tour commenced in Ohio, and had a nervous breakdown a week later. The tour was cancelled after six dates.

Back in Boston, the Blackjacks were more popular than ever, Angel recovered, and the band began to play bigger venues, co-headlining a Rock Expo show in '86 that drew 3,000 fans. But the band was getting sillier and sillier, inviting female singers onstage to sing their parts for them, and their new songs were becoming bad metal rip-offs of classic 70's acts like Aerosmith. Fed up, Angel dismissed Mabry. Erna then quit and Whitey resigned. Prompted by new manager Charlie McKenzie to adopt a more mainstream approach, Angel hired two former members of the New Hampshire bar-band Aces and Eights, Tom Hostage and Bill Mello as well as Hidden Secret's drummer Steve Lytel. The new Blackjacks debuted at TT the Bears Place in October, 1986.

The reaction was completely negative, shocking Angel. The band's fans loved the dirty, sloppy original band and hated the professional tight version with a gusto. With no club draw left, the Blackjacks were on their last legs when Angel's side project, the novelty, jokey Swinging Erudites, unexpectedly hit massively with their single, "Walk With an Erection." Thus the Blackjacks, per se, simply ceased to be.

But Angel still felt compelled to rock occasionally, and so he rehired Erna and bassist Glencoe, and the new Blackjacks played New Years Day 1988 to a full house at the Rat. But the Swinging E's were still a full-time concern until Autumn of that year, at which point Erna left and was replaced by Mike Collins (Thrills, Band 19, Outlets), and the group added a second guitar, Jimmy Cambio, from Expose.

"You can't come back and think you are still nazz," sang Mick Jagger on "Out of Time," and right he was with the Blackjacks. The new band never really took off. A single "Work Sucks" was a total departure of style, with heavy slide and Zep beats, and the band's old fans didn't come back in droves as hoped. On July 1, 1989, the band played its last gig, at the Rat. Johnny Angel put his guitar and amp in his car, and drove to Chicago the next day, and LA three days later, to become a writer. The Blackjacks were done. A little indie, a little garage, a little glam, a little country, the Blackjacks were a melange of styles that came together best on "Dress In Black" (the single) and on their debut Homestead disc. Johnny Angel writes feature stories about crime and drugs (figures, eh?) for LA papers, and is working on his first book, Whitey is happily married in Boston's suburbs, Erna is in the new Nervous Eaters, Mabry, Gaudin and the others, God only knows. Had the band remained intact into '87, they might have coat-tailed themselves via Guns N' Roses into a deal as a hard-rock glam combo. We'll never know, will we?

Unreleased BLACKJACKS songs recorded LIVE in various places.

1. A Psycho Heart
2. Even a Shark Gets Lonely
3. I'd Rather Be Out With the Boys
4. Who Said the Truth Don't Hurt
5. We Are Really Nice Guys Afterall
6. It's All for the Love of Rock and Roll
7. Talking Loud and Saying Nothing
8. Lie To Me
9. Love is a Kick in the Head
10. Home is Where the Hurt Is
11. That Damn Motherfucking Tattoo
12. Nobody Knows You When You're Down
13. Pourin' it All Out
14. Sewer King
15. Second-Rate City
16. Aint it Strange
17. Dreams Fade Away
18. Small Town Cop
19. When Push Comes to Shove
20. Big in Boston
21. Modern Day Martyr

Recorded at:
The Rat 6/8/85
Celebrations 11/12/85
Bunratty's 8/6/86


  1. Super great info...thanks....always remember the Blackjacks...thanks guys...and remembering Rafe always in our hearts.

    Boston Michael

  2. This history is AMAZING - thank you so much. Got a copy (M/M) of "Dress In Black" at an Estate Sale and am floored I never heard of these guys. They got more than a little bit of Replacements in them - Killer album. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.