With renewed interest in their music—in particular their ’82 hit “What Do All The People Know?”—the New Wave cult heroes just may turn out to be more than a one-hit wonder.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
You may not know the name The Monroes, but if you were around in the early ’80s, you know their music. The New Wave era produced a lot of so-called one-hit wonders on both sides of the Atlantic. But very few hits remain as popular as “What Do All the People Know”—revisit it, below—and very few stories from that period of time remain as intriguing and heartbreaking as that of The Monroes. They were truly one of the great lost bands of the New Wave.
The seeds of The Monroes were planted when Michigan-born keyboardist Eric Denton met singer-bassist Bob Monroe after relocating to San Diego. The two musicians were impressed enough with each other’s talents to form a band and The Monroes were rounded out in short order by guitarist Rusty Jones, drummer Jonnie Gilstrap and, most significantly, lead singer Jesus “Tony” Ortiz. After making a name for themselves on the Southern California club circuit, the band signed with Alfa Records — a Japanese label with American distribution.
The Monroes’ self-titled EP, produced by the esteemed Bruce Botnick of Doors fame, appeared in 1982 and contained five songs — three written by Monroe and the other two by Jones. “Somewhere in the Night” displayed a nice pop-dance vibe not unusual for the era while “Blind Faith” set a totally different mood in the form of a Beatlesque ballad. But without question, the standout was “What Do All the People Know,” which was also released as a single and backed with “Yamarock,” an instrumental composed by keyboardist Denton (I still have my 45!). While it is very much of its time, there’s also no question that “What Do All the People Know” is a great, timeless pop song. It featured simple but evocative lyrics, a catchy melody and — best of all — the Squeeze-like harmonies of Monroe and Ortiz. The public apparently agreed; the song began climbing the Billboard charts and receiving lots of radio airplay and, before long, The Monroes were opening for acts like Rick Springfield, Toto and Greg Kihn. They probably hit their apex in the spring of ’82 when they appeared on The Merv Griffin Show — quite a thrill for these five guys from San Diego.
But if it’s true that timing is everything, then timing was not on The Monroes’ side. Unfortunately, Alfa Records closed its doors — literally while “What Do All the People Know” was soaring up the charts. When that happened, the single stalled at number 59. With no promotion, its momentum was lost and it started to fall. The band’s one post-Alfa record deal led nowhere as they were caught in a change of regime, a full album was never released and The Monroes were never able to score another deal. One by one, members began leaving the band until it was back down to the core of Denton and Monroe. Tony Ortiz even relocated to Minnesota and spent years outside the music business completely. Meanwhile, because only a limited amount of copies of The Monroes’ vinyl EP were pressed, it has become something of a collectors’ item over the years.
Like a lot of bands of the era, The Monroes deserved better. In the three decades or so since its release, “What Do All the People Know” has popped up on various ’80s compilations and it still gets played on similarly themed radio stations. To say the least, it would have been interesting to see what the band could have done if they’d had the chance to release a full album. Though we’ll never know how that would have panned out, we do now have access to half a dozen Monroes songs that have never been heard before. Last week these tracks, including an alternate version of “What Do All the People Know,” were made available at iTunes for the first time. (Check them out at www.itunes.apple.com/us/album/what-do-all-the-people-know/id663972530 )
Last year, I tracked Ortiz down due to the wonders of the Internet and he in turn put me in touch with Monroe (who still makes his home in Southern California). For this piece, I interviewed both of them and it was a pleasure.
BLURT: Tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in music — any early musical memories you might have or artists that you listened to as a kid.
BOB MONROE: My father and uncle hailed from the great state of Louisiana and I remember listening to them playing the guitar and fiddle. They played Country Music. That music was sacred to my father and later to me. Artists like Hank Williams Sr., Hank Snow and Hank Thompson [and] songs written by Hank Cochran, one of the best country songwriters [who] ever lived. When I was about 10 years old, we were living in New York on Long Island, and my Dad played and sang in his own band called Tex Davis and the Rhythm Rangers. They were playing at a place called The Silver Dollar which may still be there, I’m not sure. On Sunday nights, he would let me sit in and play a few tunes with him onstage. Songs like “Together Again” by Buck Owens, “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb, and my mother’s favorite song of all time, “Make The World Go Away,” written by Hank Cochran and a big hit for Eddy Arnold. My father was in the Navy and when he was sent to Vietnam in 1968, we moved to San Diego.
On my own now, without my father’s musical influence and coming of age, I started listening to other music besides country and western. Bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, who mixed country and rock, were the perfect blend of styles to me. Of course, The Beatles were so important. I also owe a lot to The Monkees and I think that Boyce and Hart’s writing influenced me greatly, with their wonderful hooks. The first person I met in California was a classmate of mine, Jim Cochran, the son of the famous songwriter Hank Cochran. The first day we met, we formed a band. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my Mom that I met the son of her favorite songwriter! Jim and I remain close friends to this day.
TONY ORTIZ: My first intro to music was listening to The Beatles in about 1963 on the radio and then going to see A Hard Day’s Night [a year later] at age eight. I walked by myself to the theater, bought my own ticket and sat with a million girls, all screaming at the movie screen. That sold me on music and from there, I just grew to all the different influences I would have in my life: soul and rock and honky tonk and so on.
Tell me about the music scene in San Diego around the time The Monroes formed. I know that on an international level, the New Wave scene was happening and that it was a very exciting time. I’m wondering if this was the case in San Diego and perhaps how that city’s scene differed from the one in LA.
BM: 1981 was a vital time in San Diego. Yes, the New Wave scene was in full bloom and talented songwriters were springing up everywhere. There was no shortage of places to perform — places like The Spirit, run by Jerry Herrera. All of the bands owe a lot to Jerry. He gave us a venue to showcase our talents and songwriting skills when most other clubs were offering Top 40 dance bands [who were just] regurgitating what was on the pop charts at the time. There were other clubs as well that offered us a chance to showcase our talents — places like The Halcyon and My Rich Uncle’s were great places to play. Bands would come down from Los Angeles as well, and bands would also [go] North to play at clubs like Madame Wong’s and Club 88 in Hollywood and Los Angeles. It was an exciting time for music, for sure. Although Los Angeles was obviously a much larger scene, we found that record execs loved the chance to get out of the big city and make the trip to San Diego. I heard many times that they were just not interested in hearing another band from “The Valley” so perhaps we gained an advantage over those bands when searching for a record deal.
TO: Well, it seems that we in San Diego were a bit more open to [the] crossing of musical tastes but yes — New Wave had taken [over] a bit of the world and San Diego by then. The Monroes were never much for New Wave but we did have a sound that was all our own and the chemistry between us was fantastic. [Everyone] that heard us knew that.
Tony, were there any vocalists that influenced your singing style or that you especially liked early on?? Are there any that stand out for you today?
TO: I think the vocalists that stood out for me were ones like John and Paul, Phil and Don, Aretha, Marvin, Buddy Holly and so on. [As for] today’s vocalists and songwriters — oh man, that is hard to say. I have to go with people like Elvis Costello [but] I don’t really follow anyone else like I did as a kid.
Bob, tell me about the inspiration for your signature song, “What Do All the People Know.”
BM: Well, the song has been referred to by some as an anthem, from a pure songwriting perspective. I’m not sure it contains all the musical characteristics that constitute an anthem; I think they’re referring to the overall “feel” of the song, the open chording and strumming. However, I was influenced by some great anthem songwriters such as Rick Elias, Bruce Springsteen and Craig Bartock.
The [title] itself, “What Do All The People Know,” I owe to my dear ol’ Mum. She grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan and was always concerned with what other folks thought. Ya know, she’d say to me, “People don’t do that” or “Who does that?” when something I did wasn’t what she considered the norm. A funny example comes to mind: it’s a Woody Allen movie, perhaps Annie Hall. During this particular scene, he’s in the middle of an argument with Diane Keaton and he [suddenly] notices she’s putting mayonnaise on corned beef. He stops arguing and [says], “Mayonnaise on corned beef?” You might not have to be a New Yorker to grasp the subtlety of that brilliant piece of comedy — but if you are, you totally understand what I’m talking about. Thus it was with my Mom and so the inspiration for the line, “What Do All The People Know.”
I know that Alfa Records essentially went out of business while “What Do All the People Know” was on the charts. But if you would, tell me a bit about the specifics — how you found out and what your initial reaction was.
BM: Well yes, it was quite disappointing. Alfa was a large company in Japan with a lot of funding so when they opened an American office, it was exciting. I can only conjecture that the reason they closed their doors is that they didn’t have enough acts with chart records but who can guess the workings of large corporations or the reasons why some make it and some don’t? I just remember a telephone [call from] our beloved manager Jon Deverian informing me of the news they were closing their doors.
TO: I heard the story from the guys that some of our gal friends were in the lobby when we were in a meeting [about] doing our first video — [which] I am sure would have gotten us on MTV. In that meeting, the gals overheard the office folks talking about what they were going to do after this place was closed down…. Soon after that, it was a done deal.
I also read — and I’m not sure this is true — that after the Alfa fiasco, The Monroes signed a deal with CBS. Was this actually the case and, if so, what happened at the label?? (Aside: I’ve interviewed a number of musicians who have had negative experiences with CBS/Sony!)
BM: Yes, we were signed briefly by CBS, who also distributed our record while with Alfa. There was a fellow there by the name of Al Teller that was very supportive of the group. [But] shortly after [we got signed], he left the company. We were left with a rep that was honest in saying he was given the project and that our sound was not his “cup of tea” and [that he] didn’t know what to do with us. I appreciated his honesty at the time. However, upon reflection, I believe The Monroes had a great sound and music that was very marketable. At Alfa, we had the good fortune of being with only a handful of acts such as Burton Cummings from the Guess Who [and] Billy Vera from Billy and the Beaters, to name a couple. So we got Alfa’s full attention. We owe our success to the support of gents like Bob Fead and Lorne Safer, both music industry icons. Being a new group with only one hit at a company as large as CBS, we were “lost in the shuffle,” as they used to say.
TO: Our manager, Jon Deverian, got us signed to CBS records but nothing was happening [there] so we all lost our sense of direction and I left for Minnesota. I am only going to say that it was not a happy ending. We lost the momentum to keep going — and I lost hope.
Tell me some of your most exciting memories from back in the day, during the brief window of Monroe-mania — whether it was performing on the Merv Griffin Show, opening for Rick Springfield or something totally different.
BM: I loved every minute of it. Performing on The Merv Griffin Show was definitely one of the highlights and one of my greatest memories. It came with conflicted feelings, however. My mother was so excited about us being on the show. She was very old-fashioned and didn’t quite understand the rock and roll business — but being on television was a big deal to her. Maybe all the years she had to put up with my loud band rehearsals and all the times she sacrificed to buy me a guitar or amp [were finally] going to be worth it. [Maybe] her son would make it after all. I think we taped the show in March [but it] aired in May. She was so looking forward to seeing that show. However, unfortunately, my Mom passed away in April of a severe heart attack. I like to think that somehow, in some way, she saw that show anyway.
I can’t say enough about the acts that we opened for and what it meant to me to meet these famous, talented artists. They treated us with class and friendliness, which meant a lot to a burgeoning young band like The Monroes. Rick Springfield and every member of his band treated us as if we were family. I can’t think of anyone as supportive as [Rick] was to us at the time. He was a huge, huge star and yet so very down to earth and approachable. So here we were performing our songs for a couple of hundred fans in all these local clubs, the record hits the charts and we find ourselves opening for Rick in front of 20,000 fans in sports arenas across the country, screaming not only for Rick but for The Monroes as well. As you can imagine, it’s not something you’re likely to forget.
TO: I think for me, it was the times that we played for our own crowds. [It] makes me feel very happy to know that something I did 30 years ago was part of people’s lives and [that] we as a band are woven into their fabric of life!
One thing I always loved about “What Do All the People Know” was the vocal interplay between the two of you. It was not unlike the high/low harmonies of one of my favorite bands, Squeeze. Was that a conscious thing?
BM: Very definitely. I had always been a vocal guy and nothing stirred me more than the sound of harmonies in songs. For years, I had the good fortune of working with Craig Bartock, a brilliant producer and songwriter. We would sit for hours and track vocal after vocal in the studio, creating choirs with our two voices. Listening to bands like The Beatles taught me that having just two voices was not a weakness but could be an enormous strength. When Tony Ortiz and I sang together there was a certain blend, a certain magic which was unmistakable. A third harmony might have even gotten in the way. Not too long ago, Tony and I got together and sang a bit [and] it was if we had never stopped singing together. Still had that great sound when we harmonized. He’s an awesome talent.
TO: We hit on that early on and we both liked the feel and sound of that and so did the [rest of the] band. People always thought we were Squeeze but then they would try to find the record and find out it was us!
Tell me a bit about what you’ve been up to recently — both musically and on a day to day basis.
BM: I’m still writing songs, producing and performing with various artists. Lately, there has been a resurgence [of] interest in The Monroes and our songs. Thanks go out to all our fans for that. We dug down into the archives and discovered a number of songs recorded by The Monroes but never released, [and] we plan to make these songs available in the near future. Folks should stay tuned to www.themonroes.com or our Facebook page for updates on that. I also wrote and recorded a number of songs after The Monroes had split, some with the brilliant keyboardist and co-founder of The Monroes, Eric Denton, as well as other talented musicians such as Ron Steta and Laurie Beebe Lewis. These songs will also be made available in the near future.
TO: I have been writing new songs and doing a lot more gigs and trying to make my way with my music, but I would like nothing better than to do some gigs as The Monroes. [It] would be so great to do some shows around the States this year!