The five members of Al's Not Well are no strangers to misfortune. The Hialeah-bred glitter-punk outfit has suffered the death of a beloved band member and numerous soured record deals. This past spring its luck seemed to have changed.
Having spent two years building a local following, the band released its debut disc, Glitter, on tiny Pembroke Pines-based Panacea Records. At a music conference in March, Panacea vice president Paul Trust slipped a copy to Randy Nicklaus. The vice president for A&R of the new national label Beyond Music, Nicklaus was duly impressed. Two weeks later he flew from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale to see the band in action.
In preparation for their showcase at Fort Lauderdale's Ridenour studios, the band members made orange and green glitter-covered stars at their rehearsal space, located above a liquor store in Hialeah. The band's all-male rhythm section -- Rick (bass), Eddy (drums), and Kala (congas and percussion) -- along with female back-up vocalist Bleu then donned orange and yellow outfits, piled into their 1986 Dodge van, and headed for Broward. Joce (pronounced Jo-see), Al's Not Well's songwriter, guitarist, and lead vocalist, was planning to meet the band at Ridenour, where Nicklaus was waiting with Beyond Music's then vice president, Bruce Tannenbaum. It was the sort of break the band had sought for years.
But Joce never arrived. On her way over, another car swerved into her lane, causing an accident that sent the diminutive singer through the windshield and landed her in the hospital with minor head injuries and a fractured wrist.
Trust paged the rest of the band and relayed the news of Joce's accident. Her bandmates arrived at the showcase dazed and unsure of what would happen next. "We met up with these people, and we were kind of heartbroken, because this is the thing bands wait to do -- showcase in front of a label," Kala recalls. "[Nicklaus] said, 'Well, since we're here and you guys are here, and your instruments are here, you want to go make some noise?'" Kala and the rest of the band agreed, but not without some trepidation: "It was terrifying. But what were we going to do? Just say, 'Oh, no, sorry, we can't do it,' and just be chickens about it?"
After hanging their stars around the stage, the four took their spots, leaving center stage empty. With Eddy crouching behind his kit and none of the others standing more than five and a half feet tall, the group looked like a company of Technicolor pixies. But that disarming impression ended when the band launched into its first number, a stampeding anthem called "Too Much." From a light machine perched atop the bass amp, a rainbow of colors spun out between Rick's arms and sliced through puffs of artificial smoke. Kala banged out a rolling beat on his silver-painted congas. Adorned by antennas blinking with small yellow lights, Bleu bounced on her tiptoes and smacked a tambourine.
The group ran through three songs in all, its sound tight and unrelenting. Within the band, however, was the gnawing sense that without Joce's riveting guitar lines and soaring vocals, the set revealed only a shadow of the catchy punk sound that defined Glitter. Fortunately, the audience responded with unbridled enthusiasm. Nicklaus and Tannenbaum had seen enough to want to hear the full lineup. And fast.
A week and a half later, Trust invited Nicklaus to see the band perform again, this time at Checkpoint Charlie's, a laundry room/pool hall/bar in the French Quarter, where Al's was gigging at the Louisiana Music New Orleans Pride conference. While regulars washed their clothes and guzzled beer, Al's Not Well prepared for its second chance.
Despite the band's bright costumes -- the musicians wore matching white outfits with rainbow car fresheners pasted over their hearts -- there was considerable concern about Joce's health. She had been out of the hospital only a little more than a week and was still healing from hand surgery. "Joce still hadn't fully recovered but she was willing to play," Kala says. "We were on this tight little tiny stage, and we have a lot of stuff. With the percussion and the drums and the congas, it was really crammed. Then Rick broke a string and Joce's guitar went out of tune."
Says Joce: "I think that was the shittiest show we've ever had. I was still injured. My hand was wrapped up in a bandage and I had stitches, so my hand was hurting. We played like fifteen minutes, but [Nicklaus] loved it. He was like, 'Oh, you guys are just so wonderful!' and 'I can't believe it!' and 'Your songs are beautiful!' He was being a record-label guy," she giggles.
Nicklaus says he had already recognized Joce's songwriting talent, and the band's expertise, from listening to Glitter. "When I first heard the CD, I really liked the songwriting, the playing, the fact that there was percussion in it," he says. "It's just a little bit different. The whole band is a little wacky. It's not the same old thing we hear and see over and over."
But Nicklaus didn't make his final decision until after he noticed the spell Al's Not Well cast on the often indifferent Checkpoint Charlie's audience. "When they were setting up and bands before them were playing, people were just talking among themselves," Nicklaus notes. "The club was very noisy, but by two or three songs into Al's Not Well's set all eyes were forward, and most people were at the front of the club. I see a lot of bands play, and I know when the audience is paying attention. They won the audience over, and that's what it's all about."
Rick says crowd reaction is the key to the band's high-energy approach. "That response is the best high you can get," he says. "My main thing is the kids. The kids love it. Those are the ones that buy the CDs. Those are the ones that go out there and dance to the band."
Though Rick and his mates have implicit faith in their fans, they are leery about the monetary side of the business. Understandably. Most of the members of Al's are veterans of various botched record-label deals.
For instance, Eddy originally drummed for the electronic dance band Erotic Exotic under his full given name, Eddie De La Cruz. (The members of Al's go by first names only because they value the coincidence of sharing first names with four letters). Erotic Exotic signed with Atlantic in 1984 and produced two radio-friendly hits, "Take Me as I Am" and "L-O-V-E." While the band was wildly popular in South America, its stateside popularity quickly faded, a circumstance Eddy blames on Atlantic's passive promoting. "Dance music wasn't as big as it is nowadays," Eddy says. "The label had no dance department, and they didn't really do anything for us."
After severing its relationship with Atlantic, the band suffered through two more disastrous record deals. Five years ago the band recruited three new members -- Rick, Kala, and Bleu -- who would later form the core of Al's Not Well. The band also changed its name from Erotic Exotic to Liquid Sun. In 1994, just as Liquid Sun was preparing to release its debut CD, Eric Tallman, their 34-year-old frontman and founder, died of a heart attack.
Though stunned by Tallman's death, the rest of the band eventually decided to hold auditions for a new lead singer. "Our keyboardist, Al, goes out one night and sees Joce singing at Churchill's, and as soon as she gets off-stage he tells her the story and asks her to audition," Eddy remembers. "After we saw her and heard her songs we never auditioned anyone else." (Besides the multitude of songs she had to offer, Joce sported a tattoo of the sun, an accessory shared by all former Liquid Sun members.)
Though Al was a founding member of Erotic Exotic and discovered Joce, he was soon canned because of his antics. In departing, however, he left the band with its new moniker, Al's Not Well, a tribute to his general delinquency when it came to matters such as rehearsals.
Given the band members' history of disappointing deals, they approached Beyond Music cautiously. After listening to Nicklaus's pitch and consulting their lawyer, noted entertainment attorney Richard Wolfe, they signed a contract in August that has Beyond Music investing a six-digit figure for their first album, with the label reserving the option for six additional albums.
Nicklaus is ecstatic about the signing. "They're fantastic performers. They have great songs, and our job is to expose them to the world through touring, video, radio, all that," he says. "Al's Not Well is something we see as a big part of our future; developing them, turning them into a very high point of our stable."
Nicklaus has already begun promoting the track "Disease" as a single off Glitter. "I think 'Disease' is a huge song," he notes. "We have a very powerful radio staff, and we'll be spending the next two months playing the song for radio programmers and making sure they know what's coming up."
With a bouncy bass line and an ambling beat painted over with layers of brooding guitar chords, "Disease" is a perky little tune that manages to cloak its dark side in a juicy jook. Backed up by Bleu's breathy harmonies, Joce reflects on a relationship that's stuck in the past. Nicklaus sees "Disease" as the perfect pop song for spring, when a remastered version of Glitter is slated for national release.
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Al's Not Well is among Beyond Music's first signees, joining the hardcore hip-hop act Chronic Future and progressive-rock legend Yes. The label was established as a subsidiary of Tommy Boy Records earlier this year by the Left Bank Organization, a management company whose clients include the Cranberries, Duran Duran, and the Bee Gees. "We already dealt directly with radio and sales, but we wanted to work with people who we really felt had a great insight on how to get the records into the store," Nicklaus explains. "And that's basically what Tommy Boy does for us. What you want to do is be able to get shelf space at the store."
Though Joce was the most skeptical one of all -- she teased Nicklaus that she'd blow up Beyond Music's building if the company let her band down -- the singer has grown more excited as promotion efforts gear up.
When she heard the news that the label had selected Al's Not Well to open for Duran Duran on its North American tour this month,she let out a whoop. "I can't believe it. My heart is beating so fast. It's like things are actually happening."
Al's Not Well will open for Duran Duran on Wednesday, November 26, at 8:00 p.m. at Sunrise Musical Theater, 5555 NW 95th Ave, 741-7300. Tickets are $25.75 and $32.75.