The Pravda Records empire spreads far and wide throughout the northwest corner of Wrigleyville, from the label’s almost luxurious corporate offices on Southport to an almost spacious retail store on Clark Street beneath Cabaret Metro. Pravda’s most successful and longest running group is the Service, a hard-livin’, hard-rockin’ outfit whose members include front man and songwriter Rick Mosher, keyboardist (and Pravda capo) Kenn Goodman, and drummer John Smith. The band’s genesis goes back eight years, when all three attended Northern Illinois University in De Kalb. The first time Goodman laid eyes on Mosher, the latter was having some trouble with a dorm drinking fountain: intentionally or not, he was drooling water out of the side of his mouth. “I have a drinking problem,” he explained, and the two have been together ever since.

Recently there’s been talk that the Service was breaking up, and indeed their latest series of local club dates was originally billed as a farewell tour. But now the news is that bassist Gary-Elvis Schepers has left the group and Mosher, Goodman, and Smith will carry on with a fill-in bassist. So the farewell tour has turned into just another display of the Service’s trademark mix of blistering guitar attack and alcoholic revelry. Its next stop is this Wednesday, as they headline a Rock Against Depression Night at the Cabaret Metro.

While the band was in the process of not quite breaking up, Mosher, Goodman, and Smith embarked on a busman’s holiday in a new guise, that of a country-punk thrash band called the New Duncan Imperials, named respectfully after the yo-yo. At Phyllis’s two weeks ago, the Imperials debuted originals like Goodman’s “Hamhocks,” Smith’s “I Don’t Want to Be an Empty Bottle (In Your Six-Pack of Love),” and Mosher’s own “Joe Shanahan,” an apparently heartfelt ode to the manager and coowner of the Cabaret Metro.

But the Phyllis’s gig was among friends. The big test for the New Duncan Imperials was their first out-of-town show, a spot opening for Mamou at the Rock River Cafe in downtown Rockford. The tone of that evening was set shortly after the band’s van departed Chicago, when a big bottle of Smirnoff’s appeared, a birthday present from the band to Rick. The vodka’s rapid disappearance, combined with the severe nearsightedness of the roadie-driver, a woman named Kim whom the band calls “Crew,” turned the 90-minute drive to Rockford into a four-hour adventure.

Plastered, the band did its best to rip the club apart that evening. Smith, with just a bass drum, snare, and cymbal, drummed swimmingly and grinned broadly behind sunglasses and a straw hat. Goodman, with a nifty tartan plaid bass, tried to keep a straight face as Mosher went all out. Amid numerous cracks about Rockford (the band knows the town well from its De Kalb days), Mosher turned “Joe Shanahan” into “Robin Zander,” for the Rockford native and lead singer of Cheap Trick. During a searing cover of Hasil Adkins’s rockabilly classic “Chicken Walk,” Mosher failed miserably to provoke a chicken-walk contest in the audience, but saved the moment by doing his own version. And during a stirring anthem to “Jagermeister,” the syrupy liqueur favored by the band, Mosher made a valiant but vain attempt to throw up onstage. Undeterred, he swaggered to the front of the stage, pulling the brim of his Jagermeister cap down over his eyes. “I don’t just wear this hat,” he told the audience. “I live it.” The set ended with Mosher flat on his back, so disabled that Goodman had to operate his wah-wah pedal. The audience, awed, brought the band out for an encore, an unusual event for an unknown opening band playing its second gig.

For all this the band took home $75. After expenses, the remainder was split four ways, one share going to Crew. On such bounty is the rock ‘n’ roll dream nourished.

Suddenly back in the guise of the Service, the trio made a pit stop on the way home at Solid Sound Studios in Hoffman Estates, where their new ep, Head vs. Wall, is being completed. The Service’s essential sound combines Mosher’s heady, romantic lyrics and pockets full o’ hooks with an instrumental approach a few steps in from the reckless abandon of thrash. On In Nonsense Is Strength, their third full-length album, released late last year, Mosher’s formidable songwriting skills reach their peak in the slam-danceable hooks of “I Wanted Everything” and the ferocity of “Sundowning.” On Head vs. Wall two songs stand out: the first track is an irrepressible pop number, “Nothing Hurts,” which should generate some serious college radio airplay. The other is a new, almost eight-minute-long rerecording of a song called “El Amigo,” from the group’s second album, George’s Duty-Free Goulash. The group, along with producer Phil Bonnet, have at once tightened up the song’s arrangement and drawn out its drama: it’s now a thunderous epic with a haze of synthesizers laid over a wound-up guitar figure and a huge drum assault.

Truth be told, the Service live are not much different from the New Duncan Imperials. Wednesday, look for the key elements: inebriation, fun, that drumming, and Mosher himself, keeping things together and doing his best to make it all fall apart. The Rock Against Depression nights feature three bands: opening for the Service Wednesday will be the Social Club and Climbing Vines. The show starts at ten and costs four bucks. You have to be 21 to get in. Call 549-0203 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sheila Sachs.