Throughout the history of rock music, there have been numerous stories of bands that were on the cusp, but for some reason or another, didn’t achieve the stardom they deserved. During the late-‘70s and early ‘80s in the Northeast, there are many bands that are able to lay stake to the claim that they were the band that should have made it. Think about all the greatness that emanated (not just from the Northeast) from that period: Talking Heads, The Ramones, U2, Blondie, New York Dolls, Television and the list goes on and on. There’s one man who despite not achieving the commercial success he deserved at the time of the post-punk, new wave movement, has managed to live a full, never dull life is Boston native, Los Angeles-based Johnny Angel.
Born John Wendell, Angel had always been a huge music fan, dating back to his love of early ‘60s pop outfits. After trying his hand in the family brokerage business, and it should be noted he was one of the youngest people in the history of Massachusetts to get his Series 7 certification, Angel realized that the grind of that type of business wasn’t for him. “I was not cut out to sell shares of stock or debt instruments, although it does fascinate me from a healthy distance,” the musician says with a pique of curiosity. Once he realized the traditional business world wasn’t for him, music took over his life and thus began playing in bands in the greater Boston area, in particular his post-punk outfit, Thrills (eventually City Thrills).
“The punk scene was perfect for someone who had a streak of anti-socialness and a steak of antipathy,” Angel said. “I don’t get how a song like “Hotel California” could be so popular when it was such a lousy piece of music and things like that got me going.”
Debuting in 1977, things didn’t go well initially (the band only drew 36 people) but eventually The Thrills became Boston staples who were fixtures on the concert circuit and local radio. “Our sound was always weird,” Angel recalled. “We had this Broadway-type singer, music that was influenced by rockabilly and country, which sort of made us swing combined with a New York-y attitude, which was really odd for a punk band. But that’s what we did and what we were.”
They opened up for several of the aforementioned bands across the Northeast and had the respect of many of these legendary artists. After having a measure of success, the band felt they had done all they could do and moved to the big city: New York City.
The Trills – Hey (Not Another Face In The Crowd)
Unfortunately, like it has to many others, the Big Apple broke some of the band members’ spirit and the City Thrills met their demise. Angel attributed part of the blame to the uniqueness of the band’s sound along with his bandmates readiness to leave New York due to the dire state of the economy, which broke their spirit. Another roadblock to success was the band’s appetite for drugs and alcohol, which led them to be not so cooperative at industry showcases.
As disappointing as the breakup was, it didn’t stop Angel though, in fact, it strengthened his resolve. Along with the lead singer, they reemerged as the Blackjacks. The band was a departure from the City Thrills. Their sound was old fashioned; think early Rolling Stones or the New York Dolls. The band’s tempo was very fast and the band’s appearance was glam, which Angel says was “very Motley Crue-looking.” They added a second guitar player and had a fuller sound, which made them more successful.
Blackjacks – Tattoo
Similarly to the City Thrills, the Blackjacks ran into the same pigeonholes that plagued Angel’s earlier outfit. They weren’t quite rough enough, were dismissed by intellectuals and weren’t commercial enough to have widespread success. After they broke up, Angel became a standup comic with a guitar, which he says, “shot his credibility to pieces” and after some thought, left the northeast and moved to California in 1989.
After some initial success after moving to Los Angeles (a demo deal with Atlantic Records being an example), Angel drifted away from music, met his wife and started a family. Despite this lifestyle change, he never got away from his core values.
Having not recorded music for years, Angel recently motivated himself to get back into the studio. Granted, the topics and sound aren’t the same as his youth, but even so, he remains true to himself while channeling the early ‘60s artists (like Moby Grape) he grew up enjoying. “As I told one of my friends, they can’t stop us anymore,” Angel said. “They can’t say no and we can put out whatever we want and if people want it, they’ll support it.” The multi-talented artist started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the album, which he set at $5,000. Not so surprisingly, he eclipsed that number and raised over $8,000. But being the self-proclaimed leftist he is, instead of pocketing the money, he decided to record more songs to give people what they want.
Johnny Angel is living proof that you don’t need to make it to actually make it. In the coming weeks, you will be learning more about this man over the course of several stories where Bestnewbands.com chatted with Johnny about topics ranging from Johnny Ramone, his radio show, hanging out with Bono and why music means so much to him. Part two of this series will run in two weeks.