The cautionary tale of Artful Dodger

By  Peter Lindblad

 Artwork of the entire band, circa 1980, that features all Artful Dodger members, from Gary Cox, Peter Bonta, Bill Paliselli, Steve Brigada, Steve Cooper and Gary Herrewig. Courtesy: Ryan Jones.

Artwork of the entire band, circa 1980, that features all Artful Dodger members, from Gary Cox, Peter Bonta, Bill Paliselli, Steve Brigada, Steve Cooper and Gary Herrewig. Courtesy: Ryan Jones.
A case study in how not to break a band, hard-driving, ’70s power-pop practitioners Artful Dodger couldn’t overcome a combination of bad luck, unfortunate timing and wrongheaded decision-making.

Backed by the high-powered management team of Steve Leber and David Krebs, who at the time were guiding the careers of The New York Dolls and Aerosmith, Artful Dodger seemed to have the world by the throat.

A cross between the larynx-shredding, go-for-broke blues-rock of The Faces and the sweet power-pop of The Raspberries, the Fairfax, Va., quintet had put the finishing touches on its nearly flawless 1975 self-titled debut — produced by none other than Jack Douglas, of Toys In The Attic fame — and it was time to choose the first single.

Surprising nearly everyone, the record label, Columbia, selected “Silver and Gold,”
neglecting the advice of one of the label’s representatives — working on commission, of course — in the field.

“The one guy in Detroit, in the Midwest, his name was John Kostic, and right out of the bag, we were getting fairly heavy rotation on three songs in Detroit and Cleveland,” recalls guitarist Gary Herrewig. “And he called CBS, and he said, ‘OK, we’ve got to pick a single. Let’s pick one of these three. It can be any of them, because they’re all getting played.’”

Had “Thank Thank,” “Wayside” or “It’s Over” been the one, who knows what could have happened for Artful Dodger. When “Silver & Gold,” a ballad, died on the vine, the band’s fate was sealed.

“The guy who was working the album, who was getting it played, said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to work with me here. I’m getting it played. Why are you picking this other song?’” says Herrewig. “They don’t want to play that song, and so, he gets disillusioned. And then, the guy at Columbia in New York, when it wasn’t a hit, he said, ‘Well, this band can’t write hit songs, can’t write singles.’ So, that’s sort of what goes on behind the scenes, and that’s what happened with us.”

What’s worse is “Silver & Gold” was not written by the band’s main songwriting team of Herrewig and lead singer, Billy Paliselli. Nor was it sung by Paliselli. Instead, it was guitarist Gary Cox who penned it. For his part, though inside he was pleased “Silver and Gold” was the chosen one, Cox also thinks the label made a mistake.

“I remember the moment I heard ‘Silver and Gold’ had been selected as the first single to be released,” says Cox. “I was at The Record Plant, and Jack Douglas walked up to me in Studio A and whispered the news. He said, ‘I’m really glad for you. I don’t know how the other guys are going to take this.’”

Krebs fought the decision, but in the end, the label sent orders that Cox should sing the track. “I was beaming inside with happiness, just screaming to celebrate this news but had to contain my excitement,” says Cox. “Here was a song I’d written on an old flat-top Martin guitar sitting in my car on an old back road in Virginia at about 2 a.m. And now the top guy at CBS Records thinks it is a classic song.”

Herrewig liked the song as well but thought of it more as an album song, and “… when we originally recorded it, Bill didn’t even sing on it. Gary Cox’s vocal was on it, and when they picked it for the single, Bill flipped out. He was, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What am I gonna do when we play [it]? I’m the singer.’”

To rectify the situation, Paliselli was rushed to New York to record vocals for the song. “He’d never sung that song before. He wasn’t even familiar with it,” says Herrewig. “He put a vocal on it, and they put background girl singers on it, and they changed a bunch of stuff, and the whole thing was just disillusioning.”

To put such emphasis on the impact of one song may seem excessive, but for Artful Dodger, it set off a series of disappointments that, ultimately, resulted in the band’s breakup in 1982. Formed in 1973, when members of two local bands, Homestead and Badge, changed allegiances, Artful Dodger was originally named Brat. Comprised of Herrewig, Cox, Paliselli, bassist Steve Cooper and drummer Steve Brigada, Artful Dodger recorded four albums over a span of nine years.

It was Cox who convinced Leber and Krebs to take on the band.

Herrewig and Cox created a list of possible producers by looking at the credits on the backs of albums. They, being big New York Dolls fans, found Leber & Krebs Management on one such recording.

Cox went to New York, and after being rebuffed by the office secretary, Cox says, “After spending a pocketful of change bugging her, I decided to walk to the office and confront her. I walked forever in the snow to save taxi fare money and up to the office I went.”

Upon arrival, Krebs noticed Cox in the lobby and asked what he was doing there. Invited back to Krebs’ office, Cox played “Long Time Away,” and after a couple listens, Krebs was hooked and tried to sell Cox on what his company could do for Artful Dodger. An agreement was struck.

“I never did get a chance to meet the Dolls,” says Cox. “Little do they know how they changed our lives that day.”

Despite Leber and Krebs’ backing and recordings hailed as power-pop classics by scores of critics, Artful Dodger never had a hit record, and outside of a devoted cult following, the band has been largely forgotten by the public.

Once banished to the dust bins of history, Artful Dodger, however, is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the American Beat label’s recent reissue of the band’s gutsy, hook-filled second album, Honor Among Thieves. And more reissues could be on their way.

Getting the group’s eponymous debut out again could further reassessments of Artful Dodger’s star-crossed career. Before that LP saw the light of day, however, Artful Dodger released the self-produced single, “Not Quite Right.” It didn’t make any Artful Dodger album.

The B-side, “Long Time Ago,” did, although it was altered, with a sped-up tempo. “In retrospect, I wish we’d kept it closer to the orginal 45… dirtier sounding,” says Cox. “Jack Douglas had a lot of influence on that song and us that first go around as we were learning on the job how to see an album put together piece by piece in no understandable order, like a motion picture… then one day you hear it all together. That song was really fun to do in the studio.”

On the group’s initial LP, though, it was just another face in a crowd of great songs — from the rambunctious “Thank Thank” to the Beatle-inspired pop of “Wayside” — that displayed a preternatural understanding of classic songwriting elements.

A year later, Honor Among Thieves would prove Artful Dodger wasn’t about to rest on its laurels. Containing a rumbling, punishing version of “Keep a Knockin’” and the double-barreled blast of the title track and “Not Enough,” plus the yearning classic “Scream,” Honor Among Thieves had a harder edge to it, while also displaying advanced musicianship and refined pop sensibilities.

Interestingly enough, even though Douglas is credited as the album’s producer, it was Eddie Leonetti who actually helmed the project. And perhaps that’s why it didn’t sell.

At the time, Artful Dodger, through its connections, had been invited to open for KISS on its 1976 tour.

“Imagine, at that time, we were a garage band playing for our wives and girlfriends… in a garage,” says Cox. “Then, suddenly, we’re on stage in front of 25,000 people, every night looking across the stage at each other in total disbelief — four-star hotels, limos to shows, and driven from underground garages back to the hotel when it was over. What was it like you ask? Returning from the moon for an astronaut? I understand their unique depression when it ends. I yawn at the thought of roller coasters.”

Unfortunately, Artful Dodger was faced with a choice: Either go out on tour with KISS and do the second album just prior to it, or wait for Douglas’ schedule to clear and then, go out with someone else. They chose KISS. It wasn’t a good fit.

“That came about because our management, Leber and Krebs, they broke Aerosmith — at least they told us this — by playing with Mott The Hoople,” relates Herrewig. “And they thought we would do that with KISS, and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the same comparison. We were just too drastically different.”

According to Herrewig, Douglas had told everyone that he had the month of August to help with the second album. “And David said, ‘Well, I’ve got this tour, and we’re going to do this tour instead.’ So, that’s what happened. Jack couldn’t do the album, except when we had to be on tour with KISS, so, in hindsight, we should have had Jack do the album and bagged the tour, but we didn’t, and that’s how that came about.”

Though Artful Dodger got on great with the guys from KISS, the tour wasn’t the springboard to massive stardom the band or its management thought it’d be. And when Artful Dodger went back into the studio to record Babes On Broadway, frustrations were beginning to mount.

“We had some tough moments during that album, especially my ego getting in the way,” says Cox. “I’d been targeted by Leber/Krebs, Jack Douglas and CBS as a potential solo act and told so in private. Tensions grew as I did one stupid thing after another.”

The list includes letting Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner into the studio to play
the lead break on “Who In The World” and inviting Derek St. Holmes from Ted Nugent’s band to play lead on “Idi Amin Stomp.” Later, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and “… Bill spent a few hours together at the mic facing each other, putting vocals on ‘Alright.’ It got out of control.”

Cox thought having some big names on the credits would generate good publicity. Instead, it alienated other band members.

“One afternoon, Eddie (producer) comes in and says he just got a call from David’s office that Gary [Herrewig] and Bill were not coming to the studio,” says Cox. “They were threatening to fly home. I think Dick Wagner playing lead was the final straw. Gary had said to me, ‘Cox, you can play the lead. Why do you need this guy?’ I don’t remember my response but … well, today, I kick myself over and over.”

Babes On Broadway mirrored the wear and tear the band was experiencing.

“I think we were just emotionally out of gas, and we really probably shouldn’t have made an album then. We just didn’t have enough good songs.”

Such was not the case for 1980’s Rave On, considered by many to be the band’s high-water mark. Lured by the promise of a solo career, Cox had left the group by then, only to see it crumble when Douglas had a falling out with Leber/Krebs.

With Peter Bonta as Cox’s replacement, playing piano and guitar, the band released Rave On on Ariola Records after losing its managment and its record deal.

From top to bottom, Rave On was an absolute crown of pop jewels, headed up by the gem “She’s Just My Baby.” But, the band’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Punk simply ran over power-pop, and Artful Dodger’s masterpiece got lost in a maelstrom of mohawks, safety pins and righteous intensity.

“We were poised at that point in time to break nationally,” remembers Cooper. “When Rave On was released in 1980, it was one of the top radio station ‘adds’ around the country. The Record World Album Airplay chart from Aug. 9, 1980, shows Rave On, Voices by Hall & Oates, Back in Black by AC/DC and albums by Atlanta Rhythm Section, Whitesnake and a Paul Simon single as the ‘most added’ for the week.”

And yet, nothing happened. Today, the band is back playing gigs and having a ball. Still, there is always that nagging question: “Why not us?”

“At the time we called it quits in the early ’80s, we felt like the guys in the old Wolrd War II movies that would throw themselves on the rolls of barbed wire to flatten themselves so their comrades could run over the wire on top of their bodies and carry on the fight,” says Cooper. “In the end, all we could do was raise our heads up out of the dirt and watch as other bands went forward to reap the power-pop rewards that we were denied.”

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