There’s a great paradox in looking back at the original Fashion Jungle.
The band was founded in 1981 by four young men in Portland, Maine, who were hastening to stake a claim in the local punk-New Wave scene — a scene whose complex and moralistic aesthetics frowned on nostalgia, along with other soggy sentiments.
So how, after three decades, do I review a year that was one of the best of my life? If there’s even a whiff of nostalgia’s room-freshener scent in this post, have I betrayed everything we stood for?
On a day when I’m feeling my age, 1981 holds plenty of golden memories. There was more musical excitement in our band than we had ever felt. The scene was poised to welcome us with open arms. My personal life was in ecstatic tumult. I was insane from lack of sleep and too much Ballantine XXX ale. I loved my car. The sun shone everyday. And I had just become a published writer, covering music for the local newspaper. (Read the article that began my journalistic career.)
But I disgust myself. Nostalgia really is kind of gross, almost prurient in its quest for easy gratification. So I will try to choose my path through these memories carefully.
The Mirrors were victims of our own success. As I’ve noted previously in this space, we worked a lot in 1980, and the result was a musical momentum that brought out the divergent interests in the band, like an airplane flying faster than its structure can bear. We became more electric, more heavily rhythmic, more lyrically edgy, all qualities that made us harder to book in Slim Andrews’ country bars, and qualities that increasingly made Chris less a part of the band.
At the same time, Ken Reynolds, Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan — drummer, multi-instrumentalist, multi-instrumentalist, in that order — were following the local punk–New Wave scene and saw more creative gratification, if less paying work, in that direction. I saw the light, as also previously mentioned, at the first Corner Night. It took place in August 1980 at the Downtown Lounge, a bar at the Plaza Hotel that for one shining year was like the Cavern Club of Portland’s hip&cool scene. We shared the bill with the Pathetix, featuring Mike’s brother Gary and making their debut, and the Foreign Students, led by my former bandmate John Rolfe, who wore a hard hat and screamed John Cale songs until his voice was raw.
The Mirrors, closing the night, were fine. But the other bands were wild. They were electric and kinetic. In front of Portland’s newly emergent hipsters, a crowd that cut a sharp contrast in so many ways with the cozy mainstream bar scene whence we came, we ended up looking like chumps with our smooth all-things-to-all-people (read: nothing to nobody) approach.
And while the Mirrors (aka Karl Rossmann Band, in our final months) hung on till March 1981, the writing was on the wall, as we recorded demos of songs by Elvis Costello, the Specials, the English Beat and others that gave Chris little to do.
The Mirrors’ last date was on a snowy March night at the Cracked Platter in Harrison. (Owner, after many of the songs: “That wasn’t too good.”) Then we let Chris go.
I saw a listing for a movie called The Garment Jungle, and somehow we twisted it around to Fashion Jungle. I remember the four of us agreeing on that name at a party in Cape Elizabeth, grinning like idiots and shaking hands. (Piscopo got us into great parties.)
Our friend Kathren Torraca, who would later play keys for the Pathetix and, yes, the FJ, designed our first logo, a female leg in camouflage hose with the band name in scarlet.
What we also shook hands on, figuratively if not literally, was that the FJ would focus on original material. This was part of that punk-New Wave aesthetic that we were signing onto; and frankly, at that point, ceasing to be a covers band was like shedding a too-tight skin. Writing songs became the order of the day. It was a good, if too-brief, introduction to the stimulating effect that the demand for material has on your musical mind.
And, while I had collaborated on songs before, with the Fashion Jungle I first discovered how pleasurable it is to learn a brand-new song, or write one, with other musicians — adding, subtracting, shaping, refining and learning how to exist together inside it, like lovers learning to inhabit their first apartment together.
These four songs come from the sainted Reel 96, a collection of demos of our original material recorded during the glorious (ack! nostalgia’s getting to me!) summer of 1981. KR, drums on all selections.
- Dumb Models (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) A short-lived Fashion Jungle rule was that everyone had to bring in at least a fragment of original music each week. Here’s a result of that discipline: the lyrics are by KR, edited by me; the opening guitar riff was Piscopo’s; and we collectively put the whole thing together. It was one of our smash hits during that ecstatic summer of 1981, which is when it was recorded at Hubleys’. DH, 12-string guitar, lead vocal; MP, rhythm guitar, backing vocal; KR, backing vocal; JS, bass, backing vocal. Ba-bah-bah-bah!
- Peacetime Hero (Sullivan) Jim’s distinctive contributions to the FJ catalog were sophisticated musical structures and politically attuned lyrics. Here he puts himself into the mind of a killer who can find no other way to have a place in society. For years after Jim’s departure, this remained in the FJ repertoire. JS, rhythm guitar, vocal; MP, bass; DH, lead guitar.
- Little Cries (Hubley) Where Ken’s lyrics went in search of upstanding women and Jim’s took on the political right wing, I was negotiating the tangled politics of the bedroom (not to mention tangled contortions in guitar chording). This was the first song I wrote for the FJ. DH, 12-string guitar, vocal; JS, sax and backing vocal; MP, bass and backing vocal.
- Fashion Jungle Theme (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) See “Dumb Models.” Untangling the roots of this song is no mean feat, but I will say that (a) KR and I liked the conga-line rhythm because Curly Howard of the Three Stooges was so funny dancing to it (b) we all liked to make fun of disco and (c) we thought that high-speed ska was the coolest beat ever. Why we felt we needed a theme song is a whole other question. DH, guitar; JS, sax; MP, bass.
“Dumb Models” and “Fashion Jungle Theme” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds, James Sullivan. “Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. “Little Cries” copyright 1981 © by Douglas Hubley. All rights reserved.
*Marketing slogan for the Downtown Lounge.
Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.