MRRL Hall of Fame
- Category: Inductees
Power Pop, New Wave, and Punk Rock were all popular rock and roll genre terms that were applied at one time or another to Detroit’s Romantics in various attempts by the music industry to categorize the band for mass consumption. The Romantics, however, with their British Invasion meets Motown meets Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels sound, were never a comfortable fit with any of these labels. Their hard-driving and hooked-filled recordings had more in common with Detroit’s garage rock explosion of the mid- 1960’s and the bands emanating from that era including the Underdogs, the Rationals, and the Unrelated Segments.
The Romantics formed in East Detroit in early 1977. The original line-up consisted of singer/guitarist Wally Palmar, singer/drummer Jimmy Marinos, guitarist Mike Skill, and bassist Rich Cole. Over the years it has been reported that the band formed on Valentine’s Day and took its name from the romantic spirit surrounding the yearly event.
In a recent interview with Ear Candy magazine, however, the band revealed that their name actually came from an article on Bryan Ferry in the late great Creem magazine. They were all big fans of Ferry’s band, Roxy Music, and the word “romantic” was used throughout the article to describe the band’s lyrical content and Ferry’s onstage image. The term inspired Jimmy Marinos to come up with the now-famous moniker for his band.
The band’s idea to wear matching suits onstage came from the attire commonly worn by the Motown groups back in the days when the label was headquartered in Detroit. They were also united in their desire to create a sound that mixed accessible pop with the energy of punk, and the power and drive that personified the Motor City.
After first building a following with their live show at small venues in the Detroit area, the Romantics served as the opening act at two prestigious local gigs, a reunion of the MC5 and a concert at the Pontiac Silverdome featuring Peter Frampton, the J. Geils Band, and Steve Miller. Capitalizing on those successes, the Romantics issued a single, “Little White Lies” b/w “I Can’t Tell You Anything”, on the tiny Spider Records label which was run by their management.
The single led to dates outside of Detroit; and while performing a show in Toronto, Canada, they were seen by Greg Shaw of Bomp Records. Shaw signed the band, and they recorded their second single, “Tell It To Carrie” b/w “First In Line” with Shaw serving as executive producer.
The single was a regional hit, and the band leveraged it into an East coast tour opening for the Ramones. This brought them to the attention of Nemporer Records, who signed the Romantics to a recording contract in 1979. The recorded their self-titled debut album in just three weeks.
The LP was produced by Peter Solley, who had been associated with several successful British acts including Procol Harum, Terry Reid, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and was recorded at the Coconuts studio in Miami Beach. There was a conscious attempt during the sessions to keep the songs concise. Inspired by the 45s of the Beatles, Yardbirds, and Kinks, there were no long solos that were all the rage in the bloated arena rock of the 70’s.
“The Romantics” arrived in stores in 1980 and was highlighted by the incredible single, “What I Like About You” featuring drummer Jimmy Marinos on lead vocal. “What I Like About You” has become the Romantics’ best-known hit, but surprisingly it only peaked at # 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The composition was a group effort. Mike Skill developed the guitar part while looking for a hook something along the lines of “Gloria” or “Louie, Louie”. Jimmy Marinos came up with some lyrics while the catchy “heys” were inspired by the Yardbirds’ “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” and the “Uh-huhs” were a nod towards Chuck Berry’s “Back In The U.S.A”.
The punk-influenced pop sound of the single caused the Romantics to be categorized as part of the popular New Wave genre, but this probably also helped the sales of their debut LP, which reached # 61 on Billboard’s Album chart. Asked to explain the group’s sound by a reporter, Mike Skill replied, “We want to have fun with three chords.”
The success of the single and album led to increased touring opportunities. This included an opening slot for Cheap Trick where they made quite an impression as a live act, decked out in the eye-catching red leather suits first displayed on the cover of their debut LP. The suits were inspired by the Motown bands that wore leather jackets of all different colors, and were designed especially for the Romantics by Irene DeCook, a Detroit fashion designer who specialized in leather clothing. DeCook would go on to design the leather outfits for the band’s next three album covers, as well as the wardrobe for the tours supporting them.
Striking while the iron was hot, the group went directly from their tour into the studio. The result was a rocking album titled “National Breakout”. Inexplicably, the LP was a disappointment sales-wise, reaching only # 176 on Billboard’s Album chart. “National Breakout” also failed to produce any hit singles despite containing eleven catchy, guitar-driven gems including “Stone Pony”, “Tomboy” and their cover of the Detroit garage rock classic, “Friday At The Hideout”. Both “Forever Yours” and “No One Like You” were released as singles, but neither clicked with the buying public.
The Romantics went right back on tour to support their new release, which included performances in both Europe and Australia, where “What I Like About You” had been a major hit. When they returned 1981, the band experienced their first personnel change when founding member Mike Skill left and was replaced on guitar by Coz Canler.
The first album with the new lineup was 1981’s “Strictly Personal”. It was the first Romantics release that got poor reviews. The band was accused of abandoning its roots and going “arena rock”, and as a result, the LP only reached # 182 on the album chart. “No One Like You”, the single released from “Strictly Personal”, failed to chart.
The Romantics also struggled with increased criticism of their appearance, which seemed to be a bigger focus for some writers and DJs than the music on the album. Wally Palmar recalled the situation in a Detroit Free Press interview with Gary Graff. “When the third album came out, it was the way we looked. Radio didn’t want to see four guys dressed alike. We wanted to have a together look. It was something we grew up with – the bands from Motown – I really admired the way they looked.”
Part of this may have been the result of “Strictly Personal’s” poorly designed cover. Irene DeCook put together some funky pink leather suits for the band, but the art director for the LP set them against a pink background that not only failed to compliment the suits, but made the band members look tired and washed-out. It might easily be the decade’s worst album cover photograph of a band.
In 1982, the band went through another personnel change when Rich Cole left, and Mike Skill returned to take his place on bass. The following year, the Romantics returned to the music scene with a new album called “In Heat”. Buoyed by videos that were in heavy rotation on MTV, including 1980’s “What I Like About You”, “In Heat” would become the Romantics’ breakthrough album, peaking at # 14 on Billboard’s Album chart.
“Talking In Your Sleep” was issued as the first single, and it raced into the Top Ten, peaking at # 3 on the Hot 100. The driving “Rock You Up” failed to chart; but the third single off the album, “One In A Million”, put the Romantics back in Billboard’s Top 40 for what would prove to be the final time when it reached # 37.
The “In Heat” album also displayed a new look for the Romantics courtesy once again of Irene DeCook. Sadly, her designs were almost impossible to see because head shots of the band were used for the cover. DeCook had fashioned snakeskin suits made from the hides of black pythons that were between 16 and 22 feet long. She describes how difficult it was to work with the hides on her web site at www.leatherweather.com. It must have been disappointing to see that only the shoulders of the jackets were visible on the cover of “In Heat” after all her hard work. The Romantics made up for it, however, by making sure DeCook got a gold record for her contributions to the band’s most successful recording.
Music critic Gary Graff interviewed the band for the Detroit Free Press after they had achieved their commercial breakthrough with “In Heat” and its hit single, “Talking In Your Sleep”. Jimmy Marinos was quoted as telling Graff: “I’m not so much obsessed with expressing myself as an artist as to be accepted and respected by coming up with something that’s useful, that people can relate to. Just hearing the sales figures, the radio reports, that’s what’s telling me everything I’ve wanted to do is working.”
But problems seemed to come with success, and disagreements with the band’s management and also between band members resulted in Jimmy Marinos leaving the band in 1984. He was replaced on drums by Dave Petratos.
The new lineup tried to put their difficulties behind them, and the Romantics recorded their fifth album, “Rhythm Romance”, in 1985. Despite getting a good review in Rolling Stone magazine, the new album did not come close to matching the success of its predecessor. “Rhythm Romance” peaked at # 77, and the first single, “Test Of Time”, only reached # 71 on the Hot 100. A second single, “Mystified”, failed to chart at all.
To make matters worse, the band discovered that their management had been misappropriating the profits from their recordings and live performances. In addition, the Romantics best-known song, “What I Like About You”, had been licensed for commercials without the band’s prior knowledge or approval. The lawsuits filed against their managers resulted in hardships for the band. Royalty payments were delayed, and the legal wrangling effectively torpedoed the Romantics’ career, making it difficult to perform and almost impossible to record for nearly seven years.
By 1990, Dave Petratos had left the band and was replaced by Clem Burke of Blondie for live performances. When Burke was unavailable, the Romantics brought in Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, formerly of the Detroit Wheels and the Rockets, to fill the drum chair. The only Romantics recordings that were issued during this time were greatest hits collections like “What I Like About You (And Other Romantic Hits)”.
In 1995, the Romantics successfully settled the lawsuit against their management which freed them to record again. Their first new release was an EP titled “Made In Detroit”, and featured George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic. The band was also honored at the Motor City Music Awards as Outstanding Pop/Rock Recording Artists.
In 1996, Jimmy Marinos returned to the band to record and tour. That same year, the King Biscuit Flower Hour released a live CD of a red hot Romantics show from 1983. Marinos left the band again in 1997, and Clem Burke again returned as his replacement on drums.
In 2003, the Romantics released their first new album in eighteen years. “61/49” was more roots rock and blues oriented than any of their previous records, and it included contributions from all three drummers; Marinos, Burke, and Badanjek. The album reflected the band’s interest in Detroit’s musical history, especially the city’s blues scene which was anchored by the great John Lee Hooker. Although “61/49” was not a great commercial success, it garnered the band good reviews and some long overdue critical respect.
With Blondie recording and touring again, Clem Burke was replaced by drummer Brad Elvis in 2004. The Romantics made the national news in 2007 when they sued the makers of Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80’s over the cover version of “What I Like About You” used in the game. Although the company secured the appropriate rights to use the song, the Romantics’ position was that the cover version was “virtually indistinguishable from the authentic version”, and would therefore lead consumers to believe that the band had actually recorded the track for the game. The case was dismissed in 20008.
In 2009, the band’s best-loved song, “What I Like About You”, was voted a Legendary Michigan Song. Two years later in 2011, the Romantics were voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. In 2014, both "Talking In Your Sleep" and "One In A Million" were also voted Legendary Michigan Songs. The band continues to tour and is reportedly working on a new album. https://www.michiganrockandrolllegends.com/mrrl-hall-of-fame
Watch the video for "One In A Million", The Romantics' Top 40 hit from 1984 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGAV8wvYdVI
Dr. J. Recommends:
"In Heat" CD Sony BMG. No Romantics collection is complete without the band's biggest hit album. This contains the hit singles, "Talking In Your Sleep" and "One In A Million".
"The Romantics: The Romantics/National Breakout" CD American Beat Records. You get both of the Romantics' first two albums in this cool package. This also represents the first appearance of the underappreciated "National Breakout" on CD. The CD has all 22 tunes from the original LPs, including the Legendary Michigan Song, "What I Like About You".