They hit the stage playing tunes that, at first listen, seem to have been culled from old Pebbles samplers–but upon closer examination, the Sapphires’ set turns out to be made up almost entirely of originals. They’re Chicago’s freshest exponents of 60s-rooted guitar pop (or whatever in these label-happy days you want to call it). And their new record is–along with the recent Eleventh Dream Day EP and the imminent album from Bob Marsh–a Chicago release worthy of comparison with any American independent rock disc out this year. Abounding in the best kind of crappy, fuzzy, rock ‘n’ roll guitar, it’s what people used to call (in the days before beat boxes and MTV) a “great party record.”
Guitarist/vocalists Pete Nathan and Richard Taylor, who started the Sapphires, have known each other for about six years (“We used to get together in my folks’ basement in Hyde Park and collaborate on songs,” Nathan explains). The two eventually hooked up with drummer Bob Furem, who’d previously played with Strike Under, the Interceptors, and (for a gig or two) Naked Raygun. For a while the Sapphires played as a bassless trio; the search for a bassist ended when Robbie Becklund answered a classified ad.
I first caught the Sapphires at the West End sometime in the winter of 1984/85. They seemed extremely nervous: Nathan kept looking like he was going to drop his guitar. But the songs and the riffing sounded promising. Some months later, they opened for the Blasters at Cabaret Metro, and it was obvious they’d made a great leap forward. It was one of those inspiring sets in which an unknown band faces a skeptical crowd, suffers a heart-stopping disaster or two (Becklund busted a string on his bass and didn’t have a spare) but presses on, eventually winning the crowd over.
Since then–with the assistance of Timothy Powell, the band’s producer, motivator, spiritual adviser, and trusted outside ear–the Sapphires have produced a very good 12-song LP on the new local Swingin’ Door label. Appropriately enough, they cut their basic tracks live in an actual garage, right next door to Powell’s Metro Mobile facilities in Glenview.
Given their neoclassicist bent, it isn’t surprising to find that three of the four Sapphires are serious record collectors. And their sound reflects that fact. While the Chicago postpunk scene boasts groups that make interesting music, they often have little idea about anything that happened before (or, in some cases, after) the Sex Pistols. But Nathan and Taylor are the kind of guys who can chat knowledgeably about the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section, or about the relative merits of Louis Prima’s sidemen (“What’s funny about Sam Butera is he was able to play through jazz changes and still get a real good gritty sound as well as play real honkin’ R&B, and still sound like Sam Butera”). This not only makes the Sapphires a fun interview but also helps to give their music a rich, informed surefootedness.
What kind of records do the Sapphires like best? “Old ones, generally,” says Taylor, reciting a litany of independent-label R&B artists from the 40s and 50s and Stax/Volt cats from the 60s. Drummer Furem digs old jazz and swing and is a fanatical Frank Sinatra fan. Nathan and Taylor say mid-60s British beat and pop (early Stones, Pretty Things, Zombies, etc) were especially influential in the formation and early style of their band. “I started listening to all that stuff–even a lot of sugary pop and bubble gum–in mid-’78,” says Taylor. “I just got tired of the punk thing, all that angry music all the time. I started reaching out for something a little more bouncy.”
“It’s great to have great angry pop,” Nathan amends, “but if you can get all the many different feelings involved other than just anger, then I think you’re far above. Because life isn’t made up of just anger. You might argue the blues is based on that, but just as there’s sad and angry blues, there’s also happy blues. If you’re trying to be angry just to hit on a certain trend, then you’re fooling yourself.”
The most important ingredient of a good pop record is good songs, and The Sapphires has ’em (11 fine originals and a great cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Restless”). Tunes like “Green Umbrella,” “Temptation,” and “World of Confusion” are generally built around a series of catchy guitar riffs, with vocal melodies developed enough to be substantial but not singsongy. The lyrics aren’t profound but they often boast sharp, graphic imagery (“Black mascara running from her eye”) and acid wit (“Bending over backwards for the latest fad / It was hip in ’63–brother, you been had”). And while they aren’t the least bit contrived or derivative, the Sapphires do indeed sound rooted in the mid-60s–though they’re more reminiscent of the American garage-punk sound of that time than of the concurrent British scene (Nathan and Taylor’s claims notwithstanding). This may be due partly to the Sapphires’ insistence on singing with real Chicago accents, not fake Liverpudlian ones.
Not that the singing, while serviceable, is exactly great. Nathan and Taylor know as well as anyone that their lack of a really compelling lead singer remains their band’s Achilles’ heel. “We’ve been working on that lately, though–more harmonies and a bigger vocal approach,” offers Nathan hopefully. “We’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way to go, but it’s looking up.”
The Sapphires’ vocal limitations may pose less of a problem than the fact of being based in Chicago–a town that has produced somewhat less than its share of national rock acts in the 80s. Nathan thinks that may be changing. “It’s great to see people doing things that maybe we don’t even like, but can appreciate. And that’s fine. I get the feeling that there could be an actual Chicago scene, for once, developing. We’ve got a lot more people interested in doing what they wanna do and not really catering to a trend.”
The Sapphires will be performing Saturday night at Gaspars, 3159 N. Southport. Cover is $5. For starting time and other info, call 871-6680. They’ll play again Saturday, December 12, at Phyllis’ Musical Inn, 1800 W. Division; 486-9862.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Larz Cohen.