This column is dedicated to featuring those bands that arenâ€™t household names but, to my ears, should be.
Growing up in a small town in southern Michigan, the closest major city was Chicago. We were still a good two hours away, though, so it was with great inconsistency that my little bedside transistor radio picked up Chicago rock powerhouse WLS (home of legendary rock DJ Larry Lujack). During the fateful summer of ’79, while Cheap Trick enjoyed their first taste of national and international success, another Chicago band was also ruling the Windy City airwaves.
That band was Off Broadway, and the song was “Stay in Time,” the first single from their Atlantic Records debut, On. Comprised of simple elements â€” as is the case with all great rock songs â€” there was something about “Stay in Time” that was nevertheless unlike anything else.
Off Broadway, 1978
It was with some difficulty that I finally tracked down a copy of On in late 1980 or early ’81, and from the moment it landed on my turntable, it would be months before I listened to anything else.
Since this was waaaaay before the Internet, and since little attention was being paid to Off Broadway in the major rock magazines, the only thing I really knew about them was they freakin’ rocked. By the time I discovered On, they had already issued a second album, Quick Turns, which had fared poorly and led to their dismissal from the Atlantic roster.
A year or so later, without knowing Off Broadway had broken up, I read a rundown of the local Chicago scene in an issue of Trouser Press and learned that the band’s singer, Cliff Johnson, was in a new band called U.S.S.A. with bassist Pete Comita, whose recent tenure in Cheap Trick had been short-lived. (Comita replaced original bassist Tom Petersson in 1980. He cowrote the song “Reach Out,” a highlight of the successful Heavy Metal soundtrack.) The idea of members of my two favorite bands joining forces was almost too much for me to process.
And it would get better.
When my brother and I went to see Cheap Trick at the intimate Morris Civic Auditorium in South Bend, Indiana, in the fall of ’82, we had no idea what was in store for us. As was often the case back then, the opening act wasn’t announced ahead of time. A band that didn’t look anything like Cheap Trick meandered onstage and, within seconds, started performing a riveting version of “Stay in Time.” My brother and I quickly put two and two together and damn near shat our pants.
For the next 45 minutes we were in absolute awe. Cliff Johnson sang every song as if his life depended on it, careening wildly about the stage, half clown, half rock star.
And then it was over. U.S.S.A. and Cliff Johnson dropped off the face of the earth.
Fast-forward to 1993: I’m living in Chicago and playing the local club circuit. I get a phone call from a booking agent asking if my band wants to open for Off Broadway.
Come again? Did you just say “Off Broadway”?
Off Broadway, 1996
Needless to say, after years of admiring them from afar, I couldn’t wait to get through my own band’s set to catch Off Broadway. Knowing that it had been a good decade and change since the band last played a gig, I wasn’t expecting miracles, but what I heard and saw that night was a band that sounded just as good as they did on the albums I knew by heart, if not better. I watched with tears in my fucking eyes, it was that good.
And you know what? Almost 15 years after that fateful night, Off Broadway is still rocking the Chicago scene as convincingly as any band you’ll ever see.