Five Songs, Part 84 (The Reducers/Steve Kaika memorial edition)

The Reducers, eternally. From the 2010 Sailfest in New London. From left: Hugh Birdsall, Peter Detmold and Steve Kaika; Tom Trombley on drums. Photo from Wailingcity.com.

I started putting together this greatly extended Five Songs on Sunday (June 10), knowing what was coming.

I got a Facebook message that morning from my friend Jes Farnsworth, aka Jes Reckless, out here in Fresno. Jes is the frontman for an excellent trio called The Backstabbers, heavily influenced by early punk. Interspersed among their originals (they released their first CD in May) are a bunch of great covers: The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” 999′s “Homicide,” The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” …

and any of a number of songs by one of my favorite bands ever — one of the most underrated and overlooked bands America has had to offer, The Reducers. From back home, in Connecticut, in New London. Same four guys since 1978: Peter Detmold and Hugh Birdsall, the co-lead singers/co-lead guitarists/songwriters, Steve Kaika on bass, Tom Trombley on drums. Influenced equally by the ’70s English pub rock and the early punk Peter and Hughie love so much, they released three tremendous introductory albums in successive years (The Reducers, 1983; Let’s Go, 1984, Cruise to Nowhere, 1985), were labeled “America’s Best Unsigned Band” by CMJ in ’86 and included on an Epic Records Unsigned compilation LP. But they never signed with anyone and decided to just keep doing what they were doing, and to a man, they’ll tell you it’s why they stayed together all these years. (They explained it in Bill Dumas’ 2006 documentary, The Reducers: America’s Best Unsigned Band, in which I was happy to be one of the many talking heads.) And despite the imminent mortality we all face, there was something eternal about them, something that spoiled me — many of us — into thinking this would go on forever.

The Reducers canceled a show last December at New London’s Bank Street Cafe — their first cancellation in ages — owing to “a bug” Steve contracted. Then, in January, another cancellation. And the word slowly got out that Steve wasn’t doing well. In late winter, word got out that it was lung cancer.

Jes happens to be Steve’s nephew. I found that out by happy accident in 2005, a year after I moved to Fresno. I wore a Reducers Shinola T-shirt to a show at the Starline one night, and the kid at the ticket booth asked, “Are those The Reducers from Connecticut?” “Yessss,” I said with arched eyebrow. “My buddy’s uncle plays in The Reducers.” “Holy shit! Who?” A connection to home! A year later, I finally met Jes, who grew up in Waterford, Steve’s hometown, before moving west, and was heavily influenced by his uncle.and his band. And Jes (and his father, Robin) and I all happened to be back in Connecticut near summer’s end of 2008; the last time I saw The Reducers, that Labor Day Saturday at Ocean Beach Park in New London, Jes actually took Hugh’s place on guitar for one song. (It was kinda weird to be standing next to Hughie in the crowd while The Reducers played.)

With The Backstabbers, I’ve seen Jes play “Let’s Go,” “No Ambition,” “Bums I Used to Know” and, last Friday at Audie’s Olympic, on a bill with Peter Case, “Life in the Neighborhood.” It’s a song that they’ll be recording for a Reducers tribute album Jes is putting together to benefit Steve — who, as a self-employed contractor, had no health insurance. (As of now, there are at least 25 acts who have recorded, or are recording, songs for the disc. I’m supposed to be singing “Out of Step” with them.)

Anyway, he messaged me that he was flying back to Connecticut on Thursday because Steve might not make it through the week, and that he might even be too late by that point.

He got the call around 1 this morning Pacific Time.

Dammit. I was hoping, between Jes flying home and the benefit show that Steve’s friends are throwing Friday night at New London’s Hygienic Art Park, that he would’ve lasted the week.

*****

Rick Koster,  The Day of New London’s longtime music writer, did a great piece on the band for this morning — which he, sadly, had to amend after Steve’s death — talking about this musical band of brothers, together 34 years, and how they would all get together every Friday in their rehearsal space — partly to play music, partly to suck down Buds (except Hugh) and tell tales and have their own little rock’n’roll-guy version of a sewing circle/kaffeeklatch. As he wrote: “An extremely close-knit group, there were no members before these four, and there will be no members after.” In 20/20 hindsight, it did seem as if Rick was writing an obituary — not just for Steve, but the band.

Thirty-four years, the same four guys; probably in the same pairs of Converse Chucks they were wearing then, too. The only musical act I can think of that surpassed them in a track record like that was The Four Tops — same quartet for 43 years, from their formation in 1954 (yes, they worked their asses off for a decade before they became stars) until Lawrence Payton’s death in 1997.

New London sits halfway between New Haven and Providence on I-95 — the onetime Whaling City, home to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, with the Electric Boat shipyard building nuclear subs across the Thames River in Groton. Even though one of America’s foremost playwrights, Eugene O’Neill, grew up due west in Waterford, and cut his writing teeth as a reporter at The Day (and apparently drank in a great many bars there — including the Dutch Tavern, the shot-and-short-glass joint Peter bought with his life partner, Martha Conn, in the late ’90s), and even though the city has a healthy and steadily growing art scene, it’s definitely a blue-collar city.

And The Reducers always had a blue-collar ethic about them; Hugh, a schoolteacher, is the only one of the bunch with a white-collar job. And Steve was the physical embodiment of that — a self-employed contractor by trade, as mentioned, shaggy blonde haircut, kinda quiet unless you got to know him, a skinny, sinewy, work-toned body, a cigarette and a beer never far away. He looked like a typical blue-collar guy — just give him a hardhat. And he always wore sleeveless T-shirts on stage, or at least T’s with the sleeves torn off, the taut muscles of his arms and shoulders showing, with jeans and Chucks, and he usually looked as if he were heading to or coming from work.

It’s an attitude that infused their music from the start: their sneer at the white-collar world (“Company Man”); their disdain of pretense and keeping up with the Joneses (“Fashion of the Times”); the grind of seemingly no-escape everyday life (“Better Homes and Gardens,” “Life in the Neighborhood,” “No Ambition”); their fear of law enforcement gone amok (“Scared of Cops,” “Boys Will Be Boys”); and sheer escapism (“Cruise to Nowhere” and their anthem, “Let’s Go”). And their first recording, “Out of Step,” from 1980,  perfectly captured a sense of alienation that still rings loudly today; it was as if they said, “Let’s write a song about a genre they haven’t invented yet called Goth.”

Punk started out as a blue-collar musical form, and The Reducers never forgot that.

*****

I first saw them in the mid-to-late ’80s; I forget whether it was at the Grotto in New Haven or the El’N’Gee Club in New London. What I do know is that it was the first of many times I would see them after that.

The shows at the El’N’Gee — a block or so from the Dutch Tavern — were sort of a religious

The Reducers at the El-N-Gee a long time ago.

ritual. It was kind of “Assume the position”: Hugh at far stage right, Peter next to him; Steve a distance apart at stage left, Tom’s kit set up more on the stage-left side.

I would stand with the Planck brothers, Eric and Rodi, and most of the time Eric’s wife, Genia, and sometimes our late friend Lars Schulze, in front of the stage between Peter and Hughie. Sometimes Bill O’Grady would make the trip from New Haven, dancing furiously with us. Anne Castellano, now a New London musician in her own right, would be somewhere in our midst, and Annie MacGowan would be off dancing on her own a distance to our left. MeLinda Dalton would trek down from the Hartford area as well, and there were a lot of other faces I never met who would still be familiar to me today. The first notes — usually around 9:30, in a three-set gig — would be a battle cry, a klaxon call to arms, after which we’d all play our roles, sweating like fiends after the first set and in need of more ice-cold Rolling Rocks. And at show’s end, I, along with Rodi or O’Grady, would bang out bottles of Rock loudly on the stage to get them to come back for an encore. And then, for me, the near-hour drive back to New Haven.

The players in the audience would change over the years, and the venues would change as well. But the four guys on stage were constant. And consistent.

*****

Aside from my favorite band, The Fleshtones, seeing The Reducers on a Saturday night was the most fun one could have without a prescription. And I can’t tell you how much it killed me in the eight years since I moved West to miss the two bands playing together several times at my favorite music bar, Cafe Nine in New Haven. I understand Peter dedicated “Bums I Used to Know” to me a couple times as my friend Drew would call and hold up his cellphone for me to hear the show.

But they spoiled me over the years — they did give me some of my greatest musical thrills — so who am I to complain?

One was the one and only wedding they ever played, as far as I know — it’ll be 20 years ago in August, for my old pals John and Mary Lawler in their former backyard in East Haven. The band was reluctant when John first approached them to play,  probably having nightmares about having to play the Chicken Dance or “The Bride Cuts the Cake” or something. But no — John just wanted them to play what they always played. And the wedding turned out to be a better-dressed version of a night at the Grotto, not to mention a great reunion of friends and acquaintances who had started drifting away. And once the guys saw all those familiar faces, all was well, and they played two very fun sets.

The other was the night before my 33rd birthday in 1994, at Toad’s Place in New Haven.

I was the New Haven Register’s music writer at the time. Katherine Blossom, who booked the club back then, made her weekly call to me one Tuesday and said, “I think you’re going to be happy with this one — I booked The Fleshtones for June 3rd.”  “Holy shit!” I told her. “That’s the night before my birthday!” So as an early gift, she added The Reducers to the show and asked if there was a a local band I wanted on the bill as well. I told her Gone Native, the rockabilly trio whose bass player, Paul “Nervus Chet” Mayer, now owns Cafe Nine. She booked the tripleheader, and Mike Spoerndle, the club’s late founder, bought a half-dozen pizzas from Sally’s to share with friends.

I had a shtick going with Gone Native at the time where I would come up on stage as their Cousin Loomis from Alabama and sing a couple songs with them. I did a handful of songs with them that night, and after that, Peter Detmold came up to me and asked if I wanted to sing “Let’s Go” with The Reducers. Which I did. And after that, Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones came to me and asked “So what are you gonna do with us?” We did “American Beat.” I have a VHS in storage of this somewhere, which I’ve only played once, as proof.

And for a couple years after that, The Reducers would occasionally ask me to come up and sing “Let’s Go” with them, including one New Year’s Eve at the El’N’Gee. Talk about thrills.

I tell you — I was spoiled rotten.

And that’s one of the things that’s softened the blow of knowing I’ll never see them again. I was one of the lucky ones who got to see them, and quite often, and got to know them on some level. The fans in Japan only got to see them the once, when they toured in 2004. And fans in the other parts of this country? Many not at all.

We saw them so much that, while death’s always imminent, and even though Steve had been ill since last fall, none of their fans and friends, I’m assuming, prepared for the absolute finality of it.

There’s now a finality. And the one regret was that they never got the recognition they deserve on a widespread scale. This is a Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame-worthy band, commerce be damned. Thirty-four years with the same four guys and nothing but excellence? That has to count for something.

You won’t be reading about Steve Kaika’s passing in the pages of Rolling Stone. But that’ll be just fine. The people who know and care and count will remember and perpetuate. Thanks, Steve, and Peter and Hugh and Tom, for all the enjoyment you gave us, be it on stage, on a turntable, or in a tape or CD deck in the car.

*****

Here’s the very extended Five Songs. Unfortunately, there are a great many songs yet to be YouTubed, hence a lot more gaps than I anticipated.

Their music is readily available in stores locally and online, so if you don’t know why I’ve devoted so much time and space to this band, take this as a start — and go exploring.

41 REDUCERS SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW:

Out of Step

Let’s Go

Fistfight at the Beach

No Ambition

Your Mother

Life in the Neighborhood

Better Homes and Gardens

Scared of Cops

Boys Will Be Boys

Cruise to Nowhere

Company Man

San Antone

Jackpot Fever

Little Punky Hood

Yeah Yeah

Rocks

Pub Rockin’

Black Plastic Shoes

Spaghetti Western No. 6

Fashion of the Times

Count on Me

Subject to Change

She’s Having a Meltdown

The Power of the Gun

Some Other Time

Small Talk From a Big Mouth

Avoidance Factor

Nothing Cool

So Civilized

Didn’t We Have a Time (w/Roger C. Reale)

Don’t You Wanna Rock

I Don’t Mind

(That’ll Be) Just Fine

Don’t Make Me Mad

Bums (I Used to Know)

Sound of Breaking Down

The Witness

Closing Time

Going Going Gone

Real Gone

Nothing for Christmas

20 OTHERS’ SONGS (OUT OF MANY) DONE BY THE REDUCERS

Baby Come BackThe Equals

Heart of the City — Nick Lowe

Tiger — Fabian

In the City — The Jam

Ready Steady Go — Generation X

Ninety-Nine-and-a-Half Just Won’t Do — Wilson Pickett

Mack the Knife — from Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera

Police Car — Larry Wallis

Three Bells in a Row –Tenpole Tudor

Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.) — Wreckless Eric

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and UnderstandingNick Lowe

Police on My Back — The Equals

Shake Some ActionFlamin’ Groovies

Heartbeat — The Inmates

Can’t Hardly Wait — The Replacements

Battleship Chains — The Woods (aka The Woodpeckers)

Hurt by LoveChris Spedding

Get out of Denver — Bob Seger

Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In ToniteEarl Vance & the Valiants (aka Fleetwood Mac)

That’s It, I QuitDr. Feelgood

Auld Lang SyneTraditional

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22 Responses to “Five Songs, Part 84 (The Reducers/Steve Kaika memorial edition)”

  1. mikejaz2 Says:

    Love ya, Fran.

    Never saw the Reducers, but recorded them when I lived in Boston for a summer and WFNX played “Let’s Go” in CHR…loved the song…and now their moment’s passed. Too sad…I honor your grief and honor the Reducers by listening to Let’s Go as I type this…MIkejaz.

  2. mikejaz2 Says:

    Check out the Backstabbers’ cover of Going Going Gone:

  3. Amy Ronczka Says:

    Well, you had me in years Fran. You always were an excellent writer. I remember seeing them at El N Gee, drinking Rolling Rock and playing pinball. I might have been pregnant at the time (unknown to me hence the beer) but one of the best band’s I’d ever seen. Sigh.

  4. Rob DeRosa Says:

    You are eloquent here;as always. Write a fucking book. I’ll buy it.

  5. Eric Says:

    Thank You Fran for this moving piece. Steve was a cool, funny guy I am glad we got to know him. So many good times and good friends, Going Going Gone indeed. RIP Steve

    Eric

  6. Malcolm Doak / aka Benny Saucer Says:

    Fran,
    Bless you and thank you for finding the words – all of them – that I have been struggling to put together all day. I will say no more; you’ve said it all. Godspeed, Steve.

  7. Bill Dumas Says:

    Beautiful tribute, Fran. Thank you.

  8. Drew Cucuzza Says:

    As, always, absolutely perfect. Like Rob said, write a book. I’d not only buy it, I’d give to anyone who loves music.

  9. mark mcdonald Says:

    Spedding’s Get Out of My Pagoda was a gem they’d knock the dust off back in the day.

    The world is diminished in Steve’s absence, a little less bright.

  10. - coverbandslondon.com Says:

    [...] See on franoramaworld.wordpress.com [...]

  11. bob Says:

    Wonderful, heartfelt essay. I can’t fathom a Reducer-less world. They’ve been such a constant, I’d just as soon expect the Thames to dry up. Suggestion: Guitars, Bass, Drums from a few years ago is definitely one of the best recordings they ever made, and “My Problem,” with Mark Mulcahy guesting on vocals, and a tasty melodic bassline by Steve, is one of the most beautiful songs they ever recorded and should be added to your list.

  12. Steve Kaika loses battle with cancer | The Reducers Says:

    [...] Five Songs, Part 84 (The Reducers/Steve Kaika memorial edition) – Fran Fried/Franorama World (June 12, 2012) [...]

  13. Ellie Says:

    Awesome, Fran. Thank you.

    Ellie

  14. Mike Lake Says:

    Thank you for the tribute Fran. I grew up with Steve and lived right next door. We were the best of friends as kids and always hung out together. He introduced me to rock and roll when I was eleven or so and I was hook ever since. I still remember the day he got his first bass guitar, a black Gisbon Les Paul, he was so proud. I would bring over my Fender guitar and Steve and I would jam in the basement of his parents home. I wasn’t very good, but Steve, without one music lesson, was a natural.
    The Reducers rehearsed at Steve’s parents house very early on in their career, I guess it is only fitting that they come to a end in that very same house. We are all blessed to have had Steve in our lives in one way or another. He has touch alot of people and his memory will live on.

    Godspeed Steve, I will always miss you.

  15. Mark Odyniec Says:

    I still hang out with a couple of grade schools friends. Nearly everytime we get together, our conversation includes “Remember when…” Along with our usual stories which bore the heck out of our wives, we always include the “Remember when” Reducer stories. If you don’t mind, I would like to share a few of my favorites with you.

    Rember when, by chance, we checked out the Reducers @ Moby Dicks in Waterford in probably 1978 or 1979? Remember the cool flyers we used to snag on the way out of the shows? Remember when we chatted with Hugh’s mother (my UCONN college English Professor) proudly watching her son perform at Moby Dicks? Remember when Peter refused my request @ the Shaboo to play Sheena is a Punk Rocker? Remember when Hugh did play my request of Ca plane pour moir (Plastic Bertrand) somewhere in Montville? Remember the 1st time The Reducers changed the lyrics to The Modern Lover’s Road Runner? (they added “Super” in front of Stop & Shop as a nod to the newly renamed Super Stop & Shop in Waterford). Remember Baba’s? Remember how, for awhile, the old timers at the El ‘n’ Gee would still hang out at the bar while the Reducers, Lou Miami, the Whales or the New Johnny Five blasted out the sound track of our youth? Remember taking a break between sets at the Dutch Tavern? Rember the dent that misteriously appeared on the orange 2002′s chrome bumper after a late night in Downtown New London? Remember how my wife fell asleep during a Reducer’s show @ GPSCY in New Haven? Remember how excited the Reducers were to open for Wreckless Eric @ Cafe Nine?

    Fran spoke of his love of the Fleshtones and of his singing on stage with Perter Zaremba… Believe it or not, I was there too… But unlike the Fleshtones, who I also enjoyed, The Reducers were more real to me. They were locals who we would see around town, read about in the newspaper and they had enough broad appeal that even my mother knew a little about each of the band members. The Reducers are like the comfortable pair of Chuck Taylors hanging out in the back of your closet. Always there, always accessible, always cool…. They just never let you down.

    Steve, we will miss you and all that you brought to the New London Music Scene . Your music and your passion will live forever in our memories…

    • Bill Dumas Says:

      Wow, thanks for those great memories, Mark!

    • Mike Lake Says:

      Mark, I recall the first time the Reducers tried to get a gig in town.Mark Gentinella’s talent agency had most of the clubs in the area tied to contracts that only allowed bands that went thru him to play in these venues. The Reducers would have no part of that scene. After being turned down by a few clubs, they did land that first gig at the Bay Cafe next to the old Niantic river bridge. The guys and I went out for three nights covering everything we could with posters about the show.We even hit the parking lots of the clubs that had turned them down, which drew some heat from those club owners. That first gig drew about 15- 20 people, but the Reducers poured everything the had in to it, as if they were playing at the KBGB. After that, the crowd steadily grew as the word got out.

      A few months later they landed a gig at the Ocean Beach Arts Festival which was hosted by a very proper British lady. She agreed to let them play under one condition only, that they would not play God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, they agreed. I positioned myself upstairs in the Gam with the mixer awaiting a great show. The first three songs started to draw a crowd and all was going well. Then I hear the openning cords for God Save the Queen and out of nowhere comes this very proper British lady yelling at them to shut it down. Of coarse, in rebel fashion, they kept playing. She next got on stage and was fighting with Peter over the mic. I don’t recall if they ever finished that song because I was laughing so hard. That moment was priceless and it embodies the spirt of the Reducers.

      The Reducers were a once in a life time experience and we will never see another band as commited to one another as they were to they fans. Simply, the Best of the Best.

  16. Matthew Jansky Says:

    Mike, that’s a great rif, and Bill, yeah, I really wish we’d had some of these stories for the documentary. I had forgotten about the flyers… and it’s good for me to be reminded at how hard the Reducers worked to get into the Bay Cafe, while The Clothespins could just kind of coast in on their coat tails, play a short opening set, and then get drunk and dance for the rest of the show. We had it so easy. And they explained everything to us. from our first show at the El ‘n Gee: 1) Make sure the guitar is plugged in. Very important. 2) Leave the amp in standby, do not let the tubes cool off. 3) Use strings that are at least close to the correct gauge. Do not use a .017 for an E, this will make Peter very unhappy if he has to use your guitar for a backup… and so on. The other thing it’s easy to forget about the very early days is that there really were very few other punk bands. It was weird out there sometimes– sometimes there weren’t a lot of people around, not only in the club, but on the street, in town, anywhere. At some point, when the dust has settled, I’m going to ask Hugh and Pete and Tom why they put up with us– The ‘Pins could certainly be a pain in the ass sometimes, and NJ5, The Throats, The Cartoons, and all the rest of us probably had some bad moments, too. Sure, it helped being able to bring an opening act to the El ‘n Gee or The Bay Cafe or Picardis, because you could fill up the whole night, but maybe what they wanted was… well, something like what happened: To inspire a sprawling network of vaguely allied bands from L.A. to Tokyo who– not without exception, but for the most part– didn’t give a fuck about the things that were desperately important to most bands. I’m not saying they consciously set out to create anything like that, but that’s what happened, and I think it was somewhere in the back of their minds.

    And what I remember about Steve, specifically, is that it did not make any difference to him where I came from, which happened to be the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but could have just as easily been Detroit or Tampa. He never asked me what I was doing there, it wasn’t necessary that I have a detailed knowledge of punk iconography, or wear the same shoes that he did. That’s the way it was with the rest of the guys, of course, but with Steve, it really stood out for some reason.

  17. Johnny Flattop Says:

    Fran, I can hear your voice as I read this. Fantastic. You forgot one fact. Although I had seen and heard them years before you, You my Friend are the one who made the connection that made it possible for them to play at our wedding.Thank You. If my back holds out we are so looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.
    Flattor & Mary

  18. Going home, the prequel: Loose ends « Franorama World Says:

    [...] was “Out of Step,” for a tribute album to one of my favorite bands, The Reducers. From back home, four guys from New London — judged “America’s After recording [...]

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