By Cait Brennan
In the modern history of popular music, the “great lost album” is a mythology that looms large. Whether it was the brilliant lost fourth Verve/MGM Velvet Underground record (pieces of which surfaced in the mid ’80s on VU and Another VU), the Beach Boys’ Smile, Prince’s Black Album, Eno’s My Squelchy Life, or even Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, pop music is littered with tantalizing projects that were abandoned, lost, or suppressed by hostile label execs.
But all those artists, at least, got to release something, sometime. Sadly, one of the finest “lost” albums came from a band whose promising career, like their self-titled debut, got stopped in its tracks. Now, an extremely limited pressing of Elton Duck‘s long-thought-lost debut album has finally made its way through the wilderness, and it more than lives up to the legend. If you like power pop you need to own this record, period.
Your crabby uncle may tell you otherwise, but the tail end of the 1970s was one of the most vital times for rock music, with an explosion of new bands, new styles, and new attitudes from Britain and America, from punk and New Wave to pub rock and power pop. L.A. was the Mecca of the American scene, drawing safety-pin and skinny-tie-clad pilgrims from across the country looking to hear, see, or be the next big thing. And for a weird and wonderful moment, the next big thing was a highly improbable band with the highly improbable name Elton Duck. Needless to say they were not the usual suspects.
Mike McFadden started out in a Phoenix garage rock combo called the Mile Ends, penning that band’s excellent garage/R&B single “Bottle Up and Go,” definitely a contender for the most British-sounding record ever to come out of Phoenix in the mid-’60s. The Mile Ends were hot stuff in the Valley at the time, and even shared a bill with the Doors circa ’66. McFadden later became the leader of the folk-country-rock-jugband-psych outfit the Superfine Dandelion. Dandelion bassist Rick Anderson went on to join the Beans, and when the Beans moved to San Francisco, McFadden moved with them. The Beans later morphed into the Tubes, and McFadden often joined their anarchic stage shows with his spot on Elton John impression. Eventually, McFadden headed down the coast to Los Angeles to start his own combo, reconnecting with longtime friend and collaborator Mike Condello.
It’s not an overstatement to call Condello a musical genius. At 14, he picked up his first guitar, taking lessons via the US Mail. At 16, Condello had issued a single on a major label (“Ali Baba” on Liberty Records) and was the music director of KPHO-TV’s “Teen Beat”—and, after hours, was tearing it up (underage) with his combo at every club in town. Two years after that, he was signed to Capitol Records with the Wallace and Ladmo Show‘s teen idol send up band Hub Kapp and the Wheels, appearing on national TV on the Steve Allen show, greeted with screaming teenage crowds everywhere he went. Condello was signed to Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label for a time, and was the music director of the Wallace and Ladmo Show until the early 1970s, when he moved to L.A. to further his career. They’d collaborated before, and when Condello and McFadden reunited, the results were pretty powerful.
“When (the Mikes) sang together, it was sort of like the Everly Brothers, soulful and supercharged with energy,” Elton Duck drummer Andy Robinson said in the liner notes. “The songs were full of hooks; some of them were funny, real dark humor.”
Andy Robinson first made a name for himself in San Diego as the drummer for the prog rock quintet Horsefeathers. Robinson was adept at the band’s swirling, shifting time signatures and rocked imaginative bonus gear like the kalimba and the dulcimer. Buoyed by their San Diego success (which included stints opening for heavy hitters like Foghat, Mike Bloomfield, and the Kinks), Horsefeathers moved to L.A. in 1976 and soon ran face first into a brick wall called New Wave. “No one in the music business was interested in progressive rock,” Robinson later recalled.
Robinson was a fan of the new sound, though, and through connections found himself at the notorious Masque punk club on Cherokee Avenue, auditioning for two decidedly un-punk looking guys named Mike. “I absolutely loved the music,” Robinson said. “It was the most unlikely looking band, but it worked, mainly because McFadden’s songs were so damn good.”
Another fugitive Phoenician, Dave Birkett, played bass for the band at first. Birkett soon departed, though, and Robinson suggested the band hire an accomplished young bass player he knew named Micki Steele. Steele had been a founding member of the Runaways before she wisely put maximum distance between herself and the extremely hinky Kim Fowley, and had played in numerous other groups around town. Micki later found multi-platinum international fame as the rock-solid bass, vocalist, and songwriter in the Bangles. Andy and Micki’s tight rhythm section, along with Condello’s rockin’ 12-strings and McFadden’s soulful voice and shimmering pop songwriting, put the power in the Duck’s pop.
Contemporary press compared the group’s sound favorably to Elvis Costello, the Byrds, and Joe Jackson. Before long, the band’s unusual moniker was all over town, and Elton Duck had earned a devoted following, opening for bands like the Knack, the Motels, and Phil Seymour.
In early 1980, veteran A&R executive Bud Scoppa set up a showcase for the band with Arista Records head Clive Davis. Davis saw potential in the group, and offered them money to cut a proper set of demos. A few weeks later, he signed the band to the label—but Davis hated the name Elton Duck with a fiery passion. The band joined Arista under the decidedly less distinctive name The Decoys, and headed into Daryl “The Captain” Dragon’s Rumbo Recorders studio with Earle Mankey, ex-Sparks guitarist and a producer and engineer of amazing records by artists like the Paley Brothers, the Dickies, the Pop, 20/20, the Long Ryders, the Three O’Clock, Elton John, the Beach Boys, Concrete Blonde, and dozens of others.
Shortly after it was finished, though, Davis inexplicably shelved the album. In the liner notes, Scoppa suggests Davis’s change of heart may have been motivated by the fresh commercial failures of albums by similarly poppy L.A. faves (and Arista labelmates) The Pop and The BusBoys. Regardless, it took nearly 32 years for the resulting album to see the light of day, and in that time Davis subjected the public to not one, not two, but four Ace of Base albums. J’accuse.
The result for us 21st century types, though, is a great time capsule of inventive, melodic, muscular rock, with an epic sense of drama and great vocal performances. The opener, “She Won’t Answer The Phone,” is an irresistible slice of guitar pop that shoulda been a hit. “I Want To Make It Up To You” is an epic rock ballad, sort of Orbison filtered through Bruce as performed by the Byrds. “All The Way To The Bank” is a witty rocker, and “Ordinary Guy” is a funny, New Wave-fueled tale of serious rock and roll excess worthy of the Tubes’ Quay Lewd. “Runaways” is a dramatic ’60s girl-group style ballad, and the lovely “Only A Few Days,” written by Bill Spooner, harks back to the band’s hometown roots.
Andy Robinson’s fine song “Flame” is a great change of pace, a moody but spirited acoustic lost love ballad with lively guitar and mandolin work. “Bad Things” rocks the turn-of-the-’80s anxiety, sounding (enjoyably) like something from This Year’s Model in the process. There’s a little of that ’79 Troubadour vibe in the air, but this is no dated artifact. The cool thing about Elton Duck is that it sounds like a timeless great record you forgot you loved. With Condello’s ringing 12-string guitars and McFadden’s thoughtful, introspective lyrics, Elton Duck anticipates the rise of college rock as much as it reflects the power pop and New Wave of its time.
The reissue also includes two exceedingly rare bonus tracks. Previously available only on a flexidisc, “Christmas” captures more of the edgy wit that Condello and McFadden were famous for, contrasting its cheery Christmas melody with darkly funny lyrics about holiday depression. There’s also a stripped-down Jackson Browne-style piano cover of the Tubes’ outré hip “White Punks On Dope.” When you do an ironic take on an already-ironic song, does it become sincere by default?
In retrospect, fine, maybe Clive Davis was right about the name. While McFadden and Condello’s comic sensibilities were legendary, Elton Duck is a record full of powerful, affecting tunes and amazing performances from four very talented musicians. It’s seriously good stuff, nowhere near as goofy and disposable as the name might suggest. (“The Decoys” was worse, though, Clive. Kudos for keeping it duck related.)
The disappointment of having the record shelved must have been huge, but the band bravely soldiered on for a time, trying out different lineups and permutations. Finally, though, the whole thing took its toll, and the band members moved on.
The album’s release is a tribute to Condello and, importantly, a fundraiser to support a new Mike Condello Music Scholarship Fund for the Phoenix Union Foundation for Education. Condello’s music brought tremendous joy to tens of thousands of kids and adults in Arizona and far beyond. But like Salinger’s Seymour Glass, Condello’s breathtaking precocious brilliance and early success seemed to cast a shadow over his later life.
In his time he was a TV star and teen idol (with Hub Kapp and Wallace and Ladmo). He recorded a tour de force pop-psych powerhouse (the prized Condello: Phase One); a solid singer-songwriter album (1984′s No Bathing In Pond, on John Fahey’s Takoma Records); a ton of music for the Wallace show; several singles for Lee Hazlewood; and a mostly still unreleased high-concept comedy album that contains some of his best work. Mike produced cult-fave albums (Bill Spooner’s pseudonymous Warren S. Richardson, Jr.; The Jetzons’ Made In America) and did some noteworthy session work for Jackson Browne, Keith Moon, and others. He was even a gifted photographer (notably shooting pictures for the Bangles’ major label debut All Over The Place). But Condello struggled for years with agonizing depression. He took his own life in August of 1995, on the eve of massively renewed interest in his work. He is still dearly missed.
Andy Robinson and Micki Steele continue to make great music; McFadden still lives in L.A. and needs to write us some more wonderful songs like these ASAP.
Ultimately, Elton Duck is much more than a footnote in rock and roll’s pantheon of “great lost” albums. It’s a vital, engaging record whose songs deserve to be heard. While one can’t help but wonder what might have been if McFadden, Condello, Robinson, and Steele had made more music together, the CD’s release is vindication for the band, and it rights at least one of a million major-label wrongs. And it’s a heartfelt, meaningful tribute to a musical spirit whose legacy continues to grow.
There’s word that another long-lost Condello project may see the light of day later in the near future; we’ll keep you posted. For now the great songs, musicianship, harmonies, and chemistry of Elton Duck can finally get their day in the sun.
Elton Duck‘s self-titled CD is available (for a limited time!) from the Phoenix Union Foundation For Education website. All proceeds go to support the Mike Condello Scholarship Fund at the Phoenix Union Foundation for Education.