You could blame The Eagles.
Way back in 1978, when six guys from Groton and Salem were forming a band that would be called New Johnny 5, the initial idea was to just to have fun and play Top 40 rock covers. But there was a small problem.
“I couldn’t play ‘Hotel California’ to save my life,” says NJ5 lead vocalist/guitarist/composer Ken Atkins. The truth is, Atkins is just throwing out a random example of a popular song at the time, rather than specifically alluding to the classic Eagles hit.
But the point was made.
“So Ken said, ‘The hell with this, we’ll write our own,'” laughs Preston Frantz, the New Johnny 5 keyboardist/vocalist.
“We’d gone to see The Reducers, playing original songs and having a lot of success, and it was like, ‘Oh, my god, look at what they’re doing!'” Atkins says.
It’s a rainy evening in late August, and all six original members of New Johnny 5 are in the basement at percussionist Chris McKay’s home in Uncasville. Though the spot serves as the regular rehearsal space for McKay’s roots band the ToneShifters, it’s providing practice room as New Johnny 5 readies for an upcoming gig — the band’s first in 28 years.
The occasion is tonight’s “Towers of New London — Music of the El ‘n’ Gee” concert in New London’s Hygienic Art Park. The multi-band bill reunites local acts popular in the strong, mid-’80s new wave/punk scene that was centered in the iconic, now-defunct El ‘n’ Gee Club. New Johnny 5 are headlining, and they’ll be joined by The Whales, Live Nude Girls, DOT and Vacant Lot.
As they rehearse, hearing the joyous, precise way New Johnny 5 ably blasts through songs that were once anthems in southeastern Connecticut, it’s hard to imagine it’s been almost three decades since they played together. Theirs was a driving blend of influences that drew from liberal politics and musical sources like Talking Heads, The Clash, XTC, Bowie and Depeche Mode. Live, the sound is reliant on layered percussion, prototypical synthesizer sounds, fluent instrumental interplay, and a strong sense of performance dynamics. They released a variety of independent recordings, including full-length albums “Enough is Enough is Enough” and “Alternative Tactics,” and also provided singles that were included on the nationally popular “Towers of New London” compilations that serve as the thematic centerpiece for tonight’s Hygienic event.
As for the describing their sound, Atkins says, “We had our own definitions. It was definitely alternative music, which was an easy thing to say. We called it ‘digi-funk’ because of the early digitial stuff with sequencers. (We also called it) ‘jam-tech rhythm’ because of the layered percussion world-beat-type stuff. Y’know, it was an open frontier back then.”
On break, band members — also including bassist Scott Alexander and drummer Tim Zeppieri — discuss their wild and fruitful decade as a band, as well as the circumstances that resulted in this reunion. (Lead guitarist Ken Nash was unable to take part in the interview.) The conversation is peppered with laughter, much of it in amazement over the idea it’s really been 28 years since NJ5 last walked off a performance stage. Appropriately, that show was at the El ‘n’ Gee — and it’s similarly astonishing that, at the time, the band had no idea its run was over.
“It was just coincidence that it was our last (show),” Atkins says. “It was not even planned. We just got done with that gig and, you know, we didn’t book another one.”
If that seems odd or even lackadaisical, it’s good to remember that New Johnny 5 was hundreds of shows and a decade into their existence — one that saw the group come about as close to national stardom as it was possible to get. They had A&R personnel showing up at gigs; they took meetings with Manhattan entertainment lawyers; they were opening shows for stars like INXS, Tears for Fears, Marshall Crenshaw and Culture Club. They even had their own management-supplied Silver Eagle tour bus. But it could be argued that some of those accomplishments came in the ol’ one-step-forward, two-steps-backward fashion. Or at least in a dog-paddling sense.
“Well, we made every mistake you could make along the way, and we probably left some people by the wayside we shouldn’t have,” Atkins says. “We’d been beaten up pretty badly (by the machinations of the industry) … But each time we learned a lot and shook it off and tried to move on. Ultimately, we did have people courting us.”
Early on, it was all grassroots. New Johnny 5 played and got better; people liked it; Frantz worked the phones and the gigs got more frequent and prestigious and expanded beyond the area throughout New England and into Manhattan and New Jersey; fans dug it; labels such as Sire and Geffen and Atlantic were courting the band; it was happening.
It was even surreal.
The Silver Eagle tour bus, for example. Despite their slog through the corporate aspects of the business, all the members still worked day jobs.
“We’d have a gig, and I was living in Uncasville at the time,” Atkins says, “and here would come that big bus driving up the road …”
“And there were times we’d play in upstate New York or wherever and drive straight back and the bus would drop me off at my job at EB,” McKay says. “It was 24-hour days all the time.”
Zeppieri adds, “I worked at the Park Department for the City of Groton, and the bus would drop me off at the shop, and I’d change into my work clothes, and all these older career park guys would look at me and go, ‘What the (expletive)?!'”
Frantz laughs: “Yeah, (we were) showing up at work with eyeliner and mascara, because we went through that stage, too.”
Time being a crafty thief, there came a point when — as happens — music, culture, art and style began to shift.
“The ’90s were coming and the grunge thing,” Atkins says.
“And rap,” Frantz adds.
“Yeah, grunge and rap,” Atkins says. “I could tell things were changing. I remember grunge coming on, and you know what?” He smiles wistfully. “And I thought, ‘I’m not feeling that.’ Time to move on … (In the end) it wasn’t a hardcore breakup or anything …”
McKay says, “The fire was pretty big, and it wasn’t like there was water being thrown on it. The fire just kept getting smaller and smaller.”
Each of the NJ5 members are still musically active. Atkins and Frantz share musicians in their respective country bands The Honky Tonk Kind and Hellbent & Hearbreakin’. Zeppieri is the drummer in McCay’s ToneShifters. Alexander was the longtime bassist for the Rock ‘n’ Soul Revue, and Nash owns his own guitar shop and records solo projects. Those will continue.
But when Whales member Bill Dumas, who also produced the “Towers of New London” albums, came up with the idea of the Hygienic reunion concert, New Johnny 5 was the big target, and the band signed on. The offer, they say, seemed almost like a sign. New Johnny 5 had always had a political element to their material, and the Trump election proved jarring. An old friend now living in Colorado called Atkins after the election suggested the band needed to reunite from an activist standpoint.
“To be honest, everything had been pretty peachy in this country,” Atkins says, “and we’ve all had our own musical projects going on. But that call gave me a twinge.”
It also seems that, independently, Nash, Alexander and Zeppieri had been jamming on some of the old NJ5 material and contacted McKay — who in turn called Atkins. Maybe it was time.
“We talked about it for an hour or so, and I felt really good about it,” Atkins says. “I could feel the energy. It suddenly felt right. I’m not pointing fingers in any particular direction, but maybe the general public needs to wake up a bit.”
There was a more personal aspect as well.
“The question was, ‘When are we going to be able to do this any other time?'” McKay asks. “We’re probably one of the only bands from back then that still has all the members left and are still alive.”
Atkins nods and says, “Most of us are 60 years old. And when I say that, it blows my mind. But here we are. How lucky are we, man? We’re literally six childhood friends who had a fantastic journey. We really did. And now, 28 years later after walking off that stage, we’re gonna do it again.”
If you go
What: Towers of New London — Bands of the El ‘n’ Gee
Who: New Johnny 5, The Whales, DOT, Live Nude Girls, The Cartoons, Vacant Lot
When: 6 p.m. tonight
Where: Hygienic Art Park, 79 Bank St., New London
How much: $20
For more information: hygienic.org