MARBLES (by Michael Layne Heath 2002)
Marbles were the closest (or ‘nearest’?) contemporaries to that first blush of Max’s-and-CB’s-circuit crawlers (their “Red Lights” 45 came out in 1976). Brothers David and Howard Bowler, Jim Clifford and Eric Li sported identical, post-Fab Four pudding bowl haircuts and confirmation couture, which was, at a juncture of rock’s timeline that almost demanded jeans and beardy-weirdness of its practitioners, a most radical look.
Their musical forte was equally radical, yet – similar to the way the Ramones reconstructed Sixties pop with the newly acquired roar of Marshall technology – traditional. All four Marbles played; moreover, all four sang, at times in an orgasmic blend of harmony rarely heard since the heyday of the Beach Boys or pre-cynical Flo and Eddie. To add to the mix, Eric Li’s delicate keyboard filigrees acted as twinkling fairy lights, strewn across and within the virtual Christmas tree he and his companions created over each three-minute burst of pure, uncut Powerpop.
They were well liked among their peers of the time, even showing up in an early issue of John Holmstrom’s Punk Magazine, clowning around in wigs with the future rock diva then known only as “Debbie Blondie”. Which somehow made sense – both bands exhibited nothing of the artistic antagonism of the likes of Patti Smith and Television, their eyes and ears fixed on a vision of Top-10 triumph on a worldwide scale.
Eventually, the Marbles were taken under the wing of Alan Betrock, editor of Punk’s local rival, New York Rocker, and thrown into a studio or two. You can snag one side of their debut, “Red Lights”, on the essential ROIR compilation The Great New York Singles Scene. It is a stunning intro to what woulda-coulda-shoulda been a hit-bound future for the Marbles: ebullient, bright, catchy as all hell, with a characteristic and gorgeous four-part harmony bridge. The single even got them noticed by their punk brethren in London, eliciting a thumbs-up in one British magazine from that most commercially-minded member of the Clash, Mick Jones. The second and remaining Marbles release, “Forgive and Forget”/”Computer Cards”, ups the Powerpop ante, both songs being as tuneful as the debut, yet more sophisticatedly arranged, thus more challenging. “Computer Cards” in particular, is a vocal tour-de-force, all four Marbles taking the listener from robotic unison to wondrous, enveloping rushes of Bowery-barbershop bliss.
There were even more Marbles tunes – now relegated to the occasional, hard-to-find bootleg tape – that ideally would have propelled them into the charts and hearts of American music fans, songs like the Left Banke – stately “She’s In Movies”, and the near-flawless melodic splendor of “Closing Me Down” (the band’s contribution to A. Poe and I. Kral’s flawed but definitive cinematic document of the period, The Blank Generation).
Needless to say, though, it didn’t turn out that way, though they did manage to tour as far South as Washington D.C., playing at the turbulently ruled Atlantis (now 930) Club. In fact, therein lies a killer anecdote: the band was sightseeing earlier on their day in the Nation’s Capitol, at one point finding themselves waiting on line for the tour of the Washington Monument. A fellow tourist clocked them, all Beatle hair and pre-Knack skinny ties, and asked who they were. When told that they were an honest-to-God rock band, they were then asked in so many words to prove it. The four Marbles then proceeded to present to all and sundry in proximity a spot-on, four-part accapella version of “Computer Cards”. The reaction of the tourists is yet to be documented.
BACK PAGE – WOMEN’S WEAR DAILY – SEPTEMBER 1975
There has been a great deal of music press and industry rumblings lately about the rebirth of New York as a rock music metropolis. That surge will have its greatest impulses drawn from the as yet unrecorded groups currently filling the bill at C.B.G.B.’s, a backstreet birthplace to tomorrow’s phenomenons. Anyone wishing to get in on what should prove to be a historic rock event should stop down at C.B.G.B.’s, 315 Bowery at Bleecker, to hear Marbles on Sept. 26, 27, and 28.
That advance warning is pulsed by the experience of a casual visit to the practice loft of the four young men who call themselves Marbles -“with no ‘The’ in front of it please.” Though they’ve made random appearances at a number of low-paying gigs in the past two months, this practice session was part of a full scale drive to sharpen their already rich harmonies, tight instrumentation and engaging original songs. It is hard to imagine the sense of awe one feels on being able to remember the melodies and words of rock songs after a single listening. The titles: “She’s Pleased,” “Red Lights,” “Jealousy” and “Two Girls” would make records currently holding down top positions positions on the record charts sound stale and dated. One senses a difference even when comparing Marbles to most of the other New York groups now working the small club circuit. Resisting that arrogant urge to sound like bad-boy offshoots of the Velvet Underground and hybrid Rolling Stones, Marbles possess a close affinity to the pure sound and appeal of The Hollies, The Searchers and (dare it be said?) The Beatles.
That conscious effort to pare each song down to its polished essentials without sacrificing the enthusiasm so needed to energize four- part harmonies should put Marbles in a unique spotlight for pop fans and interested record companies. It is most rewarding to have felt the music and not the “mailed-out” hype that accompanies most groups struggling for press attention. If there is going to be a healthy New York rock scene you can be sure Marbles will be in the spearhead of that movement. Envision the intensity of stumbling upon The Beatles at a club in Hamburg circa 1962, or scouting out a pre-sanctification Bob Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City. Don’t take that to mean a nod to nostalgia. When Marbles start pulling big crowds and having hit records it will be because of a totally fresh and self-styled sound. – JAMES SPINA
MARBLES SET LIST
JAILBAIT LYRICS (Original draft by Eric Li and Jim Clifford)