Begin At The Beginning
(inner sleeve photo from my first solo record, “Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend”)
The year was 1986. I was high on life and playing in a little rock band that was going places. We’d landed a demo deal with A&M, which naturally meant (to us) that we were on our way to being famous. We were kings on the Michigan-Indiana club scene (which then was a barren wasteland of cover bars, probably still is), despite playing mostly original material.
We were known then as Montserrat (named after the West Indies home of Air Studios, where the likes of The Police and Cheap Trick had recorded). We hadn’t foreseen how potentially problematic such a name could be. Upon showing up at our very first gig, we looked up in amazement to see “Monster Rat” on the venue’s marquee.
When A&M came calling, our manager at the time and the execs urged us to brighten up our look and, while we were at it, change our name. As we had prided ourselves as being a band along the same lines as U2, the Alarm, and the Police, we cringed when a designer came to our photo shoot and presented us with a wide array of some of the loudest neon and plaid outfits we’d ever seen.
We shook our heads, but nevertheless dove in with our usual aplomb, flash bulbs popping as we primped and posed. We jokingly referred to ourselves as “The Plaids” and, wouldn’t you know it, our manager became immediately convinced it was the greatest name ever. Next thing we know, there are club posters bearing the name and the 2” master tapes at the recording studio have “The Plaids” scribbled on them.
Hmm, I guess we’re “The Plaids” then.
Our bass player, Mark went along with it begrudgingly. He came from a prog rock background so anything overly pop or blatantly commercial tended to not sit well with him. The guitarist, Jim and I, however, were into the new wave bands of the time so we weren’t at all alarmed by the sudden integration of styling mousse and snazzy suits into our look. Mark threw his arms up and gave it his best go, donning one of the loudest orange plaid suits ever known to man and playing a few gigs as “The Plaids”.
Then, one day – completely out of the blue – he drove up to Jim’s place, where we had our rehearsal studio, and picked up all of his equipment. The look on Jim’s face when Mark delivered the news that he was out was still evident when Jim relayed the event to me minutes later. We were floored. As a trio, each member of the band is damn important and, while he didn’t sing or write, he was often the voice of reason that kept us from doing anything too ridiculous. He went from being a guy I saw almost every day to someone I didn’t talk to for ten years. In hindsight, that’s pretty damn sad.
I can’t help thinking that if we’d just stuck to our guns, kept our name, gone with the look we had, it wouldn’t have had to come to that.
So, I retreated to a local summer camp as a counselor and rocketry instructor(!), determined to keep the band together. We placed an ad in the local paper and got a guy to play bass for us. He didn’t fit in with Jim and I at all, but we had to have a bass player. There were gigs to be played.
By the fall, I had begun attending DePaul University (which was simply a cover for moving to Chicago in order to immerse myself in the local music scene). Before long, we were playing gigs with the likes of Material Issue, Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, and a band called The Elvis Brothers that was regarded as one of the best live bands going. I had seen them in ’85 and I took to emulating them in every way possible. Their drummer, the amazing Brad Elvis (who now plays for The Romantics) had played drums standing up so, naturally, I started doing the same.
By ’87, we were recording demos with the Graham Walker from the Elvis Brothers producing. Sure, it was now just Jim and I, but we were convinced we were going places. Or, rather, I thought we were going places. In another one of those out-of-the-blue moments that stops your heart cold, Jim told me he was quitting the band because, well, his new wife didn’t approve of it.
Dented, but undaunted, I took the demos we had, talked a local Chicago indie label called Like Records into funding the recording of another half dozen songs with the Elvis Brothers as my backing band, and released the results as my first solo record, Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend.
Near the end of the sessions, my new manager pulled some strings and the next thing I knew, I was recording a cover of Herman’s Hermits “I’m Into Something Good” for inclusion in the movie “Naked Gun”. The producers wanted an updated version and who better than me (a complete unknown) to pump new life into the song? With the song finished and delivered to the film’s producers, we were excited because we knew having a song in a major film would make for an interesting tie-in with my upcoming album.
Months later, we get the call from the producers of the film, informing us that Peter Noone had found out about the use of the track and had then cut his own updated version. Point blank, the filmmakers had chosen to use his version.
I remember the news hit me pretty hard, but, truth be told, things would soon be looking up for me…
TO BE CONTINUED
“I’m Into Something Good” (my version)
“Try For A Miracle” (one of my favorite tracks from “Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend”)
“Travel Long My Wanderin’ Heart” (a Montserrat/Plaids demo that ended up on “Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend”)