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Dr. Frankenstein had a decent idea, at least in theory: Take the best pieces of dead bodies, sew them together, and you've made the perfect man. Record companies, on the other hand, are a little less choosy when it comes to building bands, preferring this formula: Find four white guys with long hair who have at least one song that sounds like Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." Which one's the monster here?
A sonic example of Frankenstein's theory is Lucy Brown. The New York-based (by way of Washington, D.C.) band is a stubborn amalgam of funk, punk, rock, and a distinct lack of posing that doesn't fit any real category (thank God) other than One of Those Bands You Can't Describe. To facilitate the pigeon-holing process, folks have said that Lucy Brown sounds like Living Colour. This assessment has all the accuracy and value of statements like, "Snake meat? Tastes like chicken."
The multi-racial group doesn't fit a specific niche either. The members - Gene Hawkins up front, Chris Neuberg behind the drums, Luis Peraza on guitar, and Scott Llewellyn as the bass player - are not the adorable flaxen-haired hunks usually found in MTV's heavy-rotation slot. Will you utter "Que surprise!" when you hear that this is one of the many things that kept Lucy Brown from getting signed to a major label?
Hawkins has to laugh when he thinks of the days when Lucy Brown played the Dating Game with the record companies. "There was a time in New York when quite a few of them were interested in us, and we were interested back, until we heard some of the rules that went along with the deal. There were suggestions that we do cover songs like `Drift Away,' which didn't exactly fit us. One time I was managing the band as well as singing. I contacted this woman at a major label, and she came out to see us. She [phoned and] said to me, as the band's manager, `I think the guitarist is great, the bass and drums are good, and I like the songs. The only problem I have is with the singer - I don't think his voice goes with this music. If you can find another singer, call me.'" Hawkins snorts. "I said, `Yeah, as soon as we find another singer, we'll be in touch.'"
I'm no record company Svengali, but it's hard to say what kind of voice would go with Lucy Brown's ratatouille of musical styles. Hawkins's full, muscular Everyman vocals have no hint of sweetness, but much strength. Though the members are fans of the Bad Brains/Minor Threat era, the music's not so much angry as it just has a chip on its shoulder. It's loud, but the funkish base keeps it melodic and interesting. Peraza's guitar goes anywhere from manic on "Nobody Home" to Sly Stone-y on "Thoughts (Working Class)." This fearlessly open-minded slant keeps Lucy Brown from being written off as Footnote 183 in the Hard-core Encyclopedia.
The diversity becomes easier to understand when looking back about three years at Lucy Brown's beginnings. Though dipped in the aforementioned punk/hard-core scene, Hawkins was singing in a ska band when he met Peraza. "The bass player from the ska band said, `Hey, there's this guy who plays that hard shit you like,'" Hawkins explains. After inviting himself over to Peraza's, the singer and guitarist "jammed, partied, felt good, and we've been playing together ever since."
Well, not all together. Lucy Brown was, at first, a side project attended to in between Neuberg's business start-up and Llewellyn's classes at Yale. "We couldn't practice with him, so we practiced while we were on-stage, and he would try to remember the songs," says Hawkins.
Things grew a little more serious when Llewellyn and Peraza graduated from their respective colleges, and Hawkins got the band's logo (four stick figures in a circle) tattooed on his arm to show his commitment. A move to label-ridden New York was decided upon, and soon afterward the band signed a publishing deal that afforded them a house with a basement to practice in. "Getting relatively proficient on your instruments is very important to getting signed," notes Hawkins.
Lucy Brown practiced, handed out fliers at local New York dives, argued over who ate whose food in the fridge, and refused to change themselves for the sake of a label deal. The band did not have to change its tune, however, when Megaforce Records (distributed by the larger Atlantic) made an offer. The way Hawkins tells it, "they said, `We like you the way you are. Basically, you can do whatever you want.'"
Stories of how bands celebrate signing a major deal usually don't make good dinner conversation, but once again Lucy Brown titters in the face of the ordinary. "We were sitting in the house, watching TV as we very often did, and the weatherman said there was a big snowstorm about to hit New York," Hawkins remembers. "We said if we could be packed in five minutes, we'd go to Florida. Five minutes later we were driving towards Key West." After the trip, Lucy Brown's self-titled album was recorded in Woodstock, where Robbie Robertson would pop in from the neighboring studio to say hi as the band went through first-album anxiety.