Concrete Blonde was an edgy rock trio whose talent and uncompromising artistic stance enabled them to achieve both moderate success and critical acclaim throughout most of their mid-eighties to early nineties career. Spawned from the same post-punk Los Angeles music scene as X and Wall of Voodoo, the group steadily acquired an audience through a handful of strong releases and consistent touring. Though the band hit its peak of popularity in 1990 and disbanded in 1994, it continues to remain a respected outfit among critics and fans alike.
The first Concrete Blonde’s incarnation came about in the early eighties. Vocalist Johnette Napolitano and guitarist Jim Mankey met while they were both working for eccentric musician Leon Russell. When Russell announced he was moving to Nashville, the two chose to stay rooted in Los Angeles and try their hand at writing together. “It wasn’t the road to anywhere, really, following Leon around,” Napolitano told Rolling Stones ’ Anthony DeCurtis. “Because it was just like working for a rock star, and who wants to do that?”
Johnette Napolitano was born in Hollywood, California, the oldest of five children. She taught herself to play guitar and was already writing songs by age twelve. Jim Mankey, a Pennsylvania native, was (along with his brother Earle) a former member of eclectic, seventies pop group Sparks. The two clicked and began writing music in Jim’s brother Earle Mankey’s studio. Working, then as The Dreamers, the pair was asked to contribute their song “Heart Attack” to the D.I.Y. fanzine’s compilation album, subsequently released in 1982. At this point, Napolitano assumed bass duties as well.
In 1986 the duo, along with a drummer, then using the moniker Dream 6, released an EP with an independent French label. The positive reaction to the album initiated major label interest but also brought about conflict for the band. While several major record labels courted Dream 6, their unusual demand for complete creative control prevented a quick deal. The group even went as far as to record a four-song demo with producer Michael Wagener for Elektra. However, they turned away from the label after Elektra requested them to cover a Creedence Clearwater Revival track. The label thought this would be an appropriate way to get a handle on what the band sounded like.
All prepared to stick with the independent route, the group was surprised to receive a call from I.R.S. chairman Miles Copeland. Copeland had heard the Elektra demo and at his first meeting with the band exclaimed, “Where the hell have you been? This is the best thing I’ve heard in years!” Napolitano explained to Rolling Stone, “We just hit it off right then and there.” Dream 6 signed with I.R.S. Shortly thereafter, Harry Rushakoff, a Chicago-born drummer, initially in L.A. to play with esteemed shock-rocker Alice Cooper, joined the trio. Although I.R.S. did allow the group the artistic freedom they were seeking, Copeland did make one suggestion. He wanted the group to change their name. There was a significant amount of bands at that time with the word “Dream” in their titles. Labelmate Michael Stipe of R.E.M., much to the band’s liking, suggested Concrete Blonde.
Described as an “alluring openhearted debut,” in the April 23, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone, the band’s self-titled first album went on to become one of most acclaimed releases of the year. The group toured extensively, opening for such acts as Cyndi Lauper. And while their future appeared bright to those around them, Concrete Blonde found themselves in the odd predicament of being penniless and collecting no money from their record or seemingly never-ending tour. Additionally, the group had no rights to their own merchandising, which is one of the most significant ways a new band is able to make money on tour. Concrete Blonde declared bankruptcy and tried to get out of their contract, which ignited a scandal in the music industry.
Feeling that their music was unjustly held back by legal tangles, the band took it upon themselves to head back into the studio. According to Cash Box Magazine, rumors abounded that Geffen was financing the project and that Geffen and I.R.S. were in a heated battle over Concrete Blonde. In December 1988, I.R.S. legally claimed the rights to the group’s then forthcoming sophomore album, Free. “I.R.S. has given us everything back that we wanted, and I feel really happy
Members include Alan Bloch (born in Seattle, WA; joined and left band, 1989), bass; Jim Mankey (born on May 23, 1955, in Pennsylvania), guitar; Johnette Napolitano (born on September 22, 1957, in Hollywood, CA), vocals, bass; Harry Rusha-kofff (born on November 17, 1959, in Chicago, IL; left group, 1989; rejoined, 1991), drums; Paul Thompson (born in Newcastle, England; joined band, 1989; left band, 1991), drums.
Mankey and Napolitano formed group in Los Angeles, CA, 1981; released EP on independent French label under the name Dream 6, 1984; signed with I.R.S., changed name to Concrete Blonde, released debut album Concrete Blonde, 1987; released Free, I.R.S., 1989; released Bloodletting, I.R.S., 1990; released Walking in London, I.R.S., 1992; signed to Capitol, released Mexican Moon, 1993; group disbanded, 1994.
about that,” Napolitano told Tom De Savia of Cash Box. “This album is a timely representation of where we are right now, and I don’t want it held up legally for years.”
Concrete Blonde restructured their contract with I.R.S. to include merchandising, got a new manager, Frank Volpe, and added a fourth member, Alan Bloch, on bass. Free placed Concrete Blonde in the public eye with an emotional record full of strong songs and a moderately successful college rock single “God Is a Bullet.” As writer Chris Willman explained in the Los Angeles Times, “If anything, there’s a touching vulnerability in virtually all of Concrete Blonde’s songs even the most musically ferocious ones.”
Before the recording of the band’s third album, bassist Alan Bloch and long-time drummer Harry Rushakoff left the group. Fortunately, while Concrete Blonde was in England, ex-Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson had seen the band’s show and was impressed. When he found out there was an opening in the group, the veteran drummer came by their studio, ran through their material, and signed on. After Alan Bloch’s departure, Napolitano returned to playing bass.
Bloodletting, released in 1990, was deemed by my many critics, a dark album, though as with most of the group’s work, it was marked with integrity. “It’s not a happy little disc,” Napolitano told writer Amy Linden in Spin. ”We had a string of bad luck and [Bloodletting] was the tail end of it. A particularly bad relationship. It had never happened to me until I was 29 years old. I had a hard time getting over it. So it’s not a happy record, but I could do two things. I could make a self-indulgent record, which is what this is, or I could lock up all these songs in a closet and do something that wasn’t sincere.” The album, however, did give the eclectic outfit a claim to mainstream visibility with the surprise success of their single “Joey,” a song about an alcoholic.
After the success of Bloodletting, the band reunited with original drummer Rushakoff and Thompson left the group. Described by Karen Shoemer in Mademoiselle, as “a sharp uncompromising look at personal politics,” the band’s fourth record, Walking in London, won critical accolades but did not mange to match the commercial success of its predecessor.
In 1993, Concrete Blonde put out their final original recording and first for Capitol Records, Mexican Moon. Rushakoff and Thompson were both involved in the making of the band’s record. The group, aware that it was ending, embarked on a farewell tour, thereafter disbanding in March of 1994. When asked about the reason for Concrete Blonde’s breakup, Napolitano told Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times, “Because it’s done…. We’ve done what we set out to do. It’s been such a long time and I want to see who I am.”
Concrete Blonde, I.R.S., 1987.
Free, I.R.S., 1989.
Bloodletting (includes “Joey”), I.R.S., 1990.
Walking in London, I.R.S., 1992.
Mexican Moon, Capitol, 1993.
Still in Hollywood (Compilation), Capitol, 1994.
Recollection: The Best of Concrete Blonde (Compilation), Capitol, 1996.
Concrete Blonde y Los Lllegals, UNI/Ark 21, 1998.
Cash Box, April 22, 1989, p. 7.
Creem, August 1987.
Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1994.
Mademoiselle, April 1992.
Melody Maker, February 28, 1987, p.36; April 23, 1988.
Musician, June 1987, p.11.
Network, April/May 1992.
New York Times, May 7, 1992.
Rolling Stone, April 23, 1987, p. 151; June 4, 1987, p.27; March 24, 1994, p. 22.
Spin, July 1987; September 1990; April 1992; December 1993.
Rolling Stone.com , http://www.rollingstone.com/ConcreteBlonde (January 15, 2001).
Unofficial Concrete Blonde Website, http://blonde.vox.org (January 15, 2001).
Additional information was provided by Capitol Records publicity materials.