40 Years of the Penetrators, a Garage & Punk Legacy
New NYC Region CD Releases #4
A friend of mine once said, “There are a lot of great musicians, but bands are rare. A band is something special, it’s so difficult to bring people together acting as one unit for an extended period of time, especially for years.” The Penetrators have been together since 1976, starting out during the punk era around Syracuse, New York and are still active today. Its two core members are Jack Lipton aka Jack Penetrator and Eliot Kagan aka Spike Penetrator, which are both vocalists. Spike plays guitar, drums, bass, keyboards and tenor sax on their most recent album.
Over the years the Penetrators have released several albums, their newest is Legacy. It has eleven tracks including two bonus tracks. The the album is raw; good music for a frat party. The first two cuts, “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “Take a Stand,” are fairly ruckus, driven by heavy riffs, more heavy than the Rolling Stone’s “Bitch” and songs with a similar feel, but not as heavy as Tool.
Then the mix on the album gets a little more subtle. I tend to like their more low key stuff like “You Lied To Me.” These tracks have laid back groove and gives the band a chance to show some nice musical ornamentation. There is a certain amount of ad lib and most of the cuts are almost extend jams. This adds a little spontaneity, after all from the beginning one of the things that made rock & roll exciting was improvisation. The Penetrators stick to the primal roots of rock & roll. I’ve often said that Johnny Cash was the first punk rocker, but I would list the Shields as unwitting proponents of putting rebuke to song in rock. As a short tangent I wonder if “ You Cheated” the 1958 doo wop recording by the Shield’s might be the one of the first instances in rock to introduce putting blame on a former flame in a break up song. This kind of railing was common in the blues but not in rock & roll yet.
The Penetrators are direct and straightforward. This album by the Penetrators is for all its angst is not at all misogynistic. Overall, their message seems to be telling the world “get off my back!”
The album really begins to develops on the more low key cuts that have interesting musical exchanges like on “Those Hard Times Are Through,” “What They Say They Would,” Young & Strong,” and “Lied to Me.” The vocal styles are a bit like Eric Burdon. I also hear similarities with David Johansen of the New York Dolls as well as Mojo Nixon as well. There is one track, “Them No Listen” which has a bit of ska and calypso feel, it has the spontaneity of those genres. Some caribbean music, like Jamaican dance hall is heavy on vocal ad lib, not much different than hip hop. “Them No Listen” brings festival flavor north of the Bronx.
Legacy includes one cover song. “Rockin & Rollin’” by the Stones. It seems like an impromptu jam session, it’s a raw recording and that’s why I really like it.
Legacy has a number of different musicians on various tracks such as guest artist Mark Doyle who plays almost everything including drums. Curtis Seals also plays drums and Fred Rapp does some backing vocals on the disc.
In addition to the release of Legacy the Penetrators recently have their own station on Pandora.
“The Penetrators have been designated their own station on the Pandora framework. Basically you have to be seen as a significant player within your genre. In the case of Pandora they place us in the punk category. Not a lot of indie bands can make this claim. Pandora is throwing us in with artists like Lou Reed, Jack White & The Goo Goo Doll. Pretty neat!! There you have It!” exclaimed Lipton, who answered most of my questions.
Q: The Penetrators have been around 40 years. How do you keep it going? That is an achievement. What works for the Penetrators?
A: The core members are myself and Eliot Kagan. We started the band in 1976. The original live unit of the band featured me on lead vocals, Eliot on guitar. Curtis Seals on Keyboards, Paul Bawol on Bass & Henry Brent on drums. In the studio and in concert we’ve been blessed with a great supporting cast that has evolved over 40 years. I guess the underlying notion is if Spike & Jack are there then it’s The Penetrators. This principle has helped to keep it going.
Q: How has your sound changed over the years?
A: I’d say we’ve shifted from punk to more of a garage sound even at times a straight up rock’n’roll sound.
Q: How often do you gig? Where and what venues do you play at?
A: We’ll we’ve been at this for 40 Years. Nowadays we play well selected/good opportunity gigs. Often were included on the bill of say a mini-fest.
Q: Ad libbing seems to be something that The Penetrators do well. How much of the music ad libbed?
A: In the studio we strive for an energetic, hot, and spontaneous sound. But the music and vocals are well prepared. We now play out only occasionally. Gigs and practices are relatively few and far between. Thusly, adlibbing on stage certainly does occur. The FEELING & SPIRIT are always there however!
Q: You are based in Syracuse, a bit of a trek from the city. How often do you do NYC? Is it a myth that people want to hear covers when they go out? What’s the music scene like north of the city?
A:. I can only speak for Syracuse NY. In the ‘punk Heyday’ (late 70’s/early 80’s), there were many places catering to that sound. Syracuse had a really great punk scene. That was a long time ago. Syracuse now is principally a Blues Town. I logged time in a well received blues rock band Mark Doyle & The Maniacs. As a solo artist I’ve also done some blues & straight up rock’n’roll. Regarding covers and playing live, generally it’s fine to sprinkle some in there but you should also have some good original material.
Q: You have been labeled punk; do you agree? Would you consider yourselves a garage band? I hear similarities to The NY Dolls, Mojo Nixon and Eric Burdon & the Animals. Am I off? Hybrids make the world interesting.
A: I’d say we are more garage than punk. Definitely. Thank for the comparison to the NY Dolls & Eric Burdon; he is my all time favorite singer. Chronologically, I’d say the albums evolved more to a garage sound as time went on.
Q: What shows do you have coming up soon?
A: These days the Penetrators are concentrating on the studio. If a really nice/primo live opportunity came up we’d certainly give it some serious consideration. I’ve been giving some thought to putting together a new version of the Jack Penetrator Band. I would do some Penetrator’s material as well as some solo material and some well chosen covers.
As we said earlier The Penetrators are based in Syracuse, NY in the middle of the cover and wilderness of pain. Most venues in the region outside of New York City favor the cover band. The logic is that “people want to hear something they know.” I say it is a myth that people do want to hear original material, but the rub is the original stuff has to be good.
The reality most musicians in NYC proper that do original music play for tips, a.k.a scraps. You really have to fill the house to make a profit. In general it is more lucrative for musicians to play north of the city if they give the house several hours of cover tunes. Many professional musicians travel to Upstate NY for paying gigs doing mostly covers. Tribute shows are huge in these areas. So this is why to it’s amazing that the Penetrators have been able to do what they do for so many years given this context. It must be tough at times, but they obviously have faith in themselves.
I would really like to see the Penetrators come out of their musical cave more and do some live shows. The should be playing Brooklyn and Manhattan where they can be more in their element with original bands.