New York City’s CBGB/Max’s scene in the mid/late ’70s spawned plenty of now-familiar names — Blondie, Ramones et al — but there were even more lesser-knowns well worth revisiting. Our resident New Wave archivist, Dr. Steinfeld, takes a look at the late, great Miamis, who just happen to have a must-hear retrospective recently released.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
As anyone who has more than a passing interest in rock and roll knows, the New York City music scene of the mid 1970s was one of the most exciting and influential of all time. The clubs Max’s Kansas City and, especially, CBGB became a spawning ground for an extremely diverse bunch of artists that loosely fell under the umbrella term “punk rock” (and later “New Wave”). Some of the bands who started out playing CBs to tiny audiences, such as Blondie, went on to achieve #1 hits and international stardom a few years later. Others, like The Ramones, never scored a big hit per se but still exerted massive influence on other musicians and built up a huge number of fans over the years. (These days, here in NYC, it seems like you can’t walk more than a few blocks on any given day without seeing someone wearing a Ramones t-shirt — often someone who wasn’t even alive when the band first played at CB’s!).
Be that as it may, for every Ramones and Blondie, there were two or three talented bands who came out of the same scene but never managed more than a brief record deal and/or cult following at best. Some of the other musicians who played Max’s and CBGB during that storied period include rockabilly revivalists like Eddy Dixon and Robert Gordon; Mink Deville, a band that was heavily influenced by R&B and Latin music and fronted by the late Willie DeVille; the dark electro-pop duo Suicide whose live performances were the stuff of legend; the witty, theatrical rocker Wayne (later Jayne) County; and a bunch of great pop groups like The Laughing Dogs, The Cryers, The Marbles, The Mumps, and The Miamis.
That latter band was led by brothers Tom and James Wynbrandt, both of whom wrote, sang and played guitar. The Miamis were rounded out by drummer Georgie Day; bassist Dale Powers; and keyboardist Tommy Mandel (who joined the band a bit later and has been a high profile session musician for decades). The Wynbrandts were born in Chicago but, true to their name, raised mainly in the Miami Beach area. They came of age in the 1950s and 60s — and you can hear it in their music. The majority of songs in the Miamis’ repertoire display early rock and roll influences as well as a good sense of humor. Unlike some of the bands from the CBGB scene — Suicide, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, even The Ramones — there was no darkness in their music. As Glenn Coe writes, “They weren’t interested in starting a revolution; they just wanted to provide the soundtrack.”
The Miamis were one of the most popular bands of their day among their peers. Hell summed it up when he described their sound as “Palm trees on the Bowery.” The late Tommy Ramone said, “A Miamis show was a guaranteed good time,” while none other than Debbie Harry quipped, “I tried never to miss a Miamis show… The [Wynbrandt] brothers in action was always a great night out.” Indeed, when I asked Carter Cathcart of The Laughing Dogs — a pretty great pop group in their own right — if there was one act from the 1970s New York scene that should have become bigger, he answered without missing a beat. “No doubt in my mind,” said Cathcart. “The Miamis. They never got signed, and they should have. I just loved those guys.”
Why The Miamis never got signed is a good question, and not one that has an easy answer. For decades, the few recordings they made were nearly impossible to hear. But that’s changed with the recent release of The Miamis: We Deliver — The Lost Band of the CBGB Era (Omnivore Recordings). It’s an impressive package, from the vintage photos and excellent liner notes by Coe to the music itself. The title track kicks things off and sets the tone for the rest of the album: short, high energy pop songs. There are 23 tunes in all, recorded between 1974 and 1979. Roughly half are studio recordings and the rest are mainly live cuts and demos. Aside from the title track, some of the standouts include the 50s-influenced “I Want A Girlfriend”; a terrific pop song called “Another Place, Another Time”; a cover of Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” which closes the CD; and my personal favorite, a mid-tempo tune called “She Works Hard (At Lovin’ Me)” which features a rare lead vocal from drummer Georgie Day.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Tom Wynbrandt who, by sheer coincidence, lives about 10 minutes from me in Manhattan! He shared his thoughts with me on the old days, the new CD and what he and the rest of The Miamis have been up to more recently.
First, tell me a little about the genesis for putting this compilation out 40 years after the fact.
Sure. My cousin, Jesse Lauter, graduated from NYU with a major in music production. And he’s produced, or assistant produced, a number of groups… He’s had some success. He urged me to digitize the old tapes of The Miamis because he loved the stuff when he heard it: “Let’s do something with it.” So we did have the tapes digitized — the 11 or 12 songs that we had tapes of. Then we put them on a CD and in 2009, we released it with no fanfare, no promotion. People who heard it liked it — but not many people heard it.
Fast forward a few years and Jesse took that CD to Omnivore Recordings, where he had an in with some of the executives. He played it for them, they loved it and they said, “Do you have any more of these tracks? We’d like to do something with it.” Jesse came back to me and we found an old live tape from CBGB’s. And we found a few others in the archives that we digitized and remixed, got rid of the pops and hisses that accumulate over X number of decades in the can, and made it sound really good. Omnivore loved it and that’s how we got to where we are now.
The live stuff I hadn’t heard in forever… It was a good show at CBGB’s. We had some very good musicians backing us up that [night].
Tell me how you [and Jim] first got into music. Did you turn each other onto music or did it happen independently? How did that work?
The first of us to pick up a guitar was my brother, at age six, just sort of banging on it. We had seen Elvis in his first national television appearance, and we were smitten immediately . Then nothing happened. Cut to my teenage years, when friends of mine played guitar; this is just before The Beatles. They taught me some chords [and] I started to play. Then when The Beatles came out, the next year, I was completely besotted, hooked — you name it! I thought these guys were the coolest ever.
My brother took [guitar] up after I graduated from high school. This is in the ’60s — but I think our tastes were formed earlier. I’ve always loved the rock and roll of the 1950s. The excitement, the rawness — all of that. Att the same time, I’ve always been a melodic fan too. I love Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, obviously The Beatles. When my brother came to New York to go to NYU, he had a guitar with him [and] he could play it. But we never really played together until we traveled around Europe together. He was 19 and I was a couple of years older. You know, we learned a few tunes that we could perform — stuff that we thought people would know. We did Everly Brothers, we did Paul Anka’s “Diana,” we did some Beatles songs… And while we were there, we [said], “When we get home, we gotta start a band.”
So when we got back, we did start the band. I stayed in Europe longer than he [did] because I didn’t go to school and he had to get back to NYU. I had also been involved in this underground theater stuff. Before we went to Europe, I had met all these people from the Andy Warhol universe. I met Jackie Curtis and Wayne County and all those people. I had been in the show Femme Fatale with Patti Smith and Penny Arcade and Jackie, who wrote it. Tony Ingrassia directed it. And one of my songs was used in the show. Jimmy had been in another play with these people, called Island.
Wayne wanted to do country music in drag. He wanted to sing old Hank Williams songs, and he wanted Jimmy to back him up. But they decided after seeing the New York Dolls, they wanted to have a rock band. At this point, I arrived back in the States and joined in, and the band became Queen Elizabeth. Wayne County Featuring Queen Elizabeth. We played The Mercer Arts Center and we were very close friends with the Dolls. They were our best friends, in fact.
Wayne fired us when he signed with Mainman, David Bowie’s company. They wanted to hire him and put us on salary and Jimmy and I didn’t like that. You know, we started this together, we should all be in — a third, a third, a third. So Wayne got rid of us.
And then he went on, I guess, to The Backstreet Boys.
Exactly… You know, my brother and me were so not Wayne! We looked like nice kids despite our best efforts not to. And I think the contrast between us and Wayne was sort of charming, or at least intriguing, whereas The Backstreet Boys was all one color. But that was his choice.
I’ve read quite a bit about — I should say “her” these days.
Her, yeah. Jayne these days. Quite a performer. No voice but a great performer with a great attitude.
So at that point, my brother and I decided to start our own band, The Miamis. The name seemed good to us. Yes, we came from Miami Beach — but we wouldn’t have been the Des Moines had we come from Iowa! It was a just a name that seemed to have the right kind of vibe attached to it. You know — sort of upbeat [and] a little tongue in cheek.
In the liner notes, it talks about how at one of your first gigs you guys came onstage in the middle of winter wearing these bright pastel suits.
Yes! Barbara Troiani made those for us. She was a very talented seamstress. And those were some suits!
Tell me a little more about the scene from the mid ’70s at CBGB. Just you thoughts about the club and the city and the music scene in general.
[In] downtown New York City, CBGB was the dive du jour. It was one of the few places that bands could play original music and have a shot at getting paid for it…. It was our clubhouse. All of us who played music — along with the attendant roadies, sound people, girlfriends and fans — had a home there. Hilly Kristal was just as sloppy and disheveled as the rest of us, and maybe even less organized. His daughter and his employees really kept the place together. Beer was cheap and nights were long. The bathrooms, as everyone knows, were disgusting. But it was a place we could play our own music. That made it kind of wonderful.
But let’s be real here. There was a lot of drugs. And there were a lot of people of…. (pauses) less than stellar character. Let’s put it that way. You know, many of the women were involved in the personal services industry. There were a lot of lazy people. There were great musicians and there were less good musicians. And the whole idea of punk was [that] you didn’t have to be able to play, you just needed attitude — which I guess took many of them very far. But it’s still a mystery to me how some of the bands made it as big as they did. You know, there were a lot of really great bands that just didn’t catch on.
Who else from that era should have gotten [bigger]?
Mink Deville. The [Laughing] Dogs. You know, The Shirts probably should have been bigger than they were. Hilly [Kristal] really liked them. Annie Golden, who’s now on Orange is the New Black, was their lead singer. She was an adorable girl with a wonderful voice. The Revelons should have been bigger. Great group! Greg Pickard, their leader, wonderful writer and a compelling stage presence.
Can I ask you about a couple of the actual songs? Tell me about the title track. You sing lead on that — one of the better known Miamis songs.
Yes, if there are such things! I was in Barbara Troiani’s apartment, without electricity. I shared [an] apartment with Dale and my brother. Dale and I had had one of our many disagreements and I couldn’t stand to be around him. So I went to Barbara’s apartment — and Barbara was dating Dale and was at our apartment! (laughs) She gave me the keys and I went over there, and she had heat. So I was lying in bed and the whole song basically came into my head. The only thing I didn’t have was the ending.
So the next day, I go back to my own apartment [with] Dale and my brother, and I was playing it for them. My brother suggested the ending and the line “make your stars shine bright.” Then we had it! We were a brand new band at that point. So by the second or third gig, we could open or close with that one. And people liked it a lot.
This is kind of weird because I think it’s a demo but “She Sure Works Hard At Lovin’ Me” is a great little song. I wasn’t expecting it [because] it’s after the first 10 and the drummer sings it, right?
Yeah! Thanks very much! I wrote that [when] I had an apartment for the summer on 6th Street just off Second Avenue. I was sitting around with the guitar one day and something about the idea of state employment, you know, finding a rhyme for that, struck me as something I wanted to do…So I wrote it. It took an afternoon.
Blondie did it once. It had a bridge too — like a B section that subsequently got dropped because it didn’t work that well. But when Blondie did it — and there may even be a recording of it somewhere — you can see why [the bridge] wasn’t a good idea (laughs). But you know, we wrote a few things for Debbie and Blondie that they performed before they got big. But they never put them in the right keys! We’d play it for them and there was never any thought on their part of, “Let’s make sure it works with Debbie’s voice. Maybe we should raise it or lower it.” So they did that one and they did one that my brother wrote, a charming song called “A Girl Should Know Better.” That one exists somewhere.
The version [on the CD] is the first time it was ever played — with all of us! We were in Tommy Mandel’s apartment and I was showing them how it went. You can even hear us say, “Lead break!” [Below: a live recording of the band performing at CBGB]
To bring me up to date, tell me what you’ve been up to in recent years and maybe what the other Miamis have been [doing].
Sure. I’ve had an advertising and marketing agency with my wife. We’ve worked mostly in the financial services sector, doing projects for Deutschebank, American Express, Citi, Barclay’s Capital — [companies] like that.
Recently, I’ve been doing less of that and more writing and editing. I worked on a couple of books with Ali Velshi. He was formerly the chief business correspondent for CNN, and then he went to al-Jazeera. We wrote two financial self-help books together. And I edited one, last year, by a fellow named Maury Harris who is the chief economist at UBS. That one is called Inside the Crystal Ball: How to Make and Use Forecasts.
My brother has a pilot’s license and he’s a very successful aviation journalist. He writes for a number of magazines and papers including Executive Jet Travel — things like that. He flies himself to these assignments around the country — and everything is tax deductible!
Georgie Day lives in Puerto Rico now. He went back to being George Diaz. And he’s the manager of a ranch that trains horses for dressage — you know, jumping and all sorts of things. He’s the manager of that ranch.
I have no idea what Dale is doing [but] he’s somewhere in the East Village.
Tommy Mandel, you know what he’s doing. He’s always in the studio or at a gig… It’s all music, all the time. [He’s played with] Bryan Adams, Dire Straits. I’m sure there are others I can’t think of right now. He’s played with them all. He did an audition for Steve Winwood [and] didn’t get picked for that. But I mean, it’s that caliber. He’s good!
Above photo courtesy Tom Wynbrandt / Top Photo Credit: Bob Gruen. (L-R) Tom Wynbrandt, James (or Jim) Wynbrandt, Tommy Mandel, Georgie Day, Dale Powers.