Catholic Girls Persecuted Saints of Rock & Roll
New NYC Region CD Releases #5
Once again college radio proves itself to be an excellent source to find interesting music off the mainstream grid. A few months back I first heard the Catholic Girls on Bill Kelly’s Sunday Teenage Wasteland program on WFMU 91.1 FM, Upsala College’s freeform radio, and was impressed with them. Their cut “Don’t Cry” came on, which was a miracle in itself because it’s difficult to get reception in Brooklyn with my antiquated boom box and the first thing I realized that the lyrics were eloquent. “Don’t Cry” is the opening track on their album Somebody Better Get a Room. It has a heavy metal backbeat and Gail Petersen’s vocals remind me a little bit of Stevie Nicks on this in that her stylings are emotional and her voice is utilized like an instrument. The Catholic Girls peaked my interest and I was thinking of reviewing them when they reached out to me on social media. When I received the album in the mail I thoroughly enjoyed it. The first four tracks are rockers and the rest is an acoustic live performance of five songs that really hit the spot. One thing I like about the The Catholic Girls is that they strike a balance, they are a very light hearted band that can deliver a song with pathos and drama with equal intensity.
The title track “Somebody Better Get a Room” is a very melodic, almost something that Natalie Merchant would sing but with a bouncy and whimsical punk rhythm section featuring Doreen Holmes on drums/percussion and Steve Berger on bass. Guitarist Roxy Andersen does some nice versatile playing as well as backing vocals. Throughout the album The Catholic Girls really know how to get the full effect of their vocal harmonies, they know just where to place them in a song.
“Without a Country” could easily be a folk song but is a slow rocker. It is about being a vagabond without having a place to rest your head that can be interpreted on different levels. It is a bit of an anomaly, it has a 80s new wave sound mixed with a 1950s flavor. The thing about the Catholic Girls is that the songs are so well written you can find yourself humming them the next day. “Gone” has some great guitar work by Andersen. This song a hybrid sound, with classical and heavy metal ingredients and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.
The second part of the the album is filled with interesting anecdotes between songs. It is one of the heaviest acoustic sets I’ve heard and might be called folk garage if you had to pinpoint a genre. The Catholic Girls were on MTV back in the day but SNL cancelled their appearance last minute because they came across controversial. Around that time in the 80s they were banned by the archdiocese of Rhode Island as well. In the later case, the archdiocese misconstrued the song “God Made You,” that appears on Somebody Better Get a Room which is a beautiful ballad with an operatic touch. Come on! None these controversies makes sense to me because if you actually listen to the Catholic Girls you would find their music to pretty innocent. You can probably blame the punk band FEAR for making SNL so prudish. John Belushi recklessly invited FEAR to play SNL on Halloween in 1981 and after that cataclysmic episode SNL must have become very cautious when it came to booking punk bands for a while. FEAR did “New York is Alright if You Like Saxophones” which pokes fun at (insults if you may) New Yorkers on the Halloween show. The audience, which were a hard core crowd demolished the set at NBC. It’s a hilarious episode that caused a lot of trouble.
These controversies the Catholic Girls incited had come about from misunderstandings. I’m sure if Youtube was around then The Catholic Girls would have never been banned because someone would have made the effort to listen to the music.
There is on live track, “Where is the Logic,” an ode to the late Leonard Nimoy and his character Mr.Spock that is introspective and examines the dynamic between logic and emotion. It is another thoughtful musical cut (which I can say for every song on the album). “Kiss Me One More Time” is a nice ballad in waltz time. “Shame on You” is about the hurt of infidelity, is also well composed. Petersen does a great job with her energetic vocal stylings and “Shame on You” is a good example of her set of pipes. I’ve been likening Petersen’s vocals to Stevie Nicks and Natalie Merchant to frame things but Petersen really has her own style and the Catholic Girl have a nice musical palate. The ending cut,“Young Boys” sounds like a greaser rocker straight out of the 1950s with really great vocal harmonies. The song goes to the roots and is pretty kick ass.
Q: “You are from New Jersey and started out in the 80s. Was there a lot of opportunity at the time to do original music there in Jersey? We’re you doing the cover band thing for awhile?”
A: “First of all, we did start out as a cover band and threw some originals in. We found our originals were getting a lot of attention and we hated playing covers. So after 3 to 4 months we stopped, worked it out without any copy songs and came back playing only originals. Also at this time we gradually changed the name of the band to The Catholic Girls and began wearing school uniforms (which made perfect sense given that we all went to Catholic School for years). We did twist some conventions, however, including wearing rosary beads for earrings, jet black school uniforms with shorter skirts and more. Of course there were a lot of original clubs in NYC which we played but there also was a great original scene in our part of NJ. One club in particular, The Dirt Club, was very good to the band and booked us on a regular basis allowing us to develop a following. Before long we had a line around the block to get in to see The Catholic Girls. There were many other NJ original clubs like The Meadowbrook, Hitsville, The Showplace and others where we played. And then there were publications such as The Aquarian (still active), a NJ music/arts paper that reported on us quite a bit and other publications such as Jersey Beat. We were also covered by the Star-Ledger, The NY Post, Daily news, and The Village Voice. Many bands emerged from the NJ scene in the early eighties and went on to more national stages. NJ has a lot of talent.”
I spent a lot of time in New Jersey with family as a kid in the 80s and I didn’t know there was so much going on there. And in Brooklyn and Manhattan a that time we really didn’t hear a lot about what was going on across the river.
Q: “I heard you played Max’s Kansas city, you probably played CBGB’s as well. Any interesting stories about those venues?”
A: “We played Max’s, CBGB’s, The Mudd Club, Bonds, Private’s, The Peppermint Lounge, The Ritz, The Starland Ballroom, Roseland and many others and we did get to open for many well known bands. A few stories: CBGB’s was happening and popular, but we knew to always bring toilet paper, soap and paper towels with us because they had none and the bathrooms always flooded by about 11PM. The Ritz had a great dressing room where one night, after our performance, a crowd tried to break down the door to get to us. It didn’t work. As for opening for bigger acts: a great range of experiences including openings for The Clash, REM, Tom Petty and others. Some, like The Ramones ignored us and wouldn’t say hi and also turned off our house sound when we got an encore; while The Kinks were really professional, personable and super-nice . In fact, Ray Davies came back after our show to tell us how much he loved it. We were so stunned we almost couldn’t answer.”
Q: “The Catholic Girls have an interesting history. Banned by the archdiocese of Rhode Island and SNL. To me your music is innocent, is innocents a running theme for you over the years? Am I off?”
A: “Well, we weren’t “banned” by SNL, but cancelled at the last minute. From what I understand, SNL cancelled us because of our name (including the word “Catholic” and “Girls” rather controversial at the time and even late-night TV was nervous) and our uniforms (including the crucifixes and rosary beads). Nothing about the music was controversial. It was ridiculous because a few years later they had Sinead O’Connor was on and she ripped up a photo of the Pope on SNL I think SNL owes us a chance to be on the show now as a payback for an historical mistake. Rhode Island DID ban us due to one song “God Made You” because the Archdiocese of Providence interpreted the lyrics incorrectly. When I wrote (the lyric) “God made you for me so how can she take you away,” they decided I was proclaiming God was a women. I wasn’t but it shouldn’t have mattered. What I meant is God made you for me so how could another woman take you away. And yes, the songs did have a somewhat innocent theme running through them, but if you look deeply there’s some hidden meaning behind a lot of them, and that wasn’t so innocent at all. The innocence came through in the lighter music and love songs; but even those had some real lyrical darkness and heartbreak. My preference generally goes to darker, minor-tone sound. For example, “God made You” is really orchestral (I love orchestral strains), which few at the time really did with the exception of Elton John and Foreigner. We performed that live (nine minutes long) and people were usually stunned that we could carry that off.”
I’m glad Petersen, who answered my questions clarified my misunderstandings as well as the Archdiocese of Providence’s.
Q: “Your writing is good and a little deep. You use irony and other interesting devices, it has the kind of complexity that folk music is known for. Would you consider some of your songs, especially the acoustic ones to be folk punk or folk garage rock? Perhaps anti folk?”
A: “I’m not sure you can classify that my music was any single genre, but I like your thoughts here. I like to combine genres also so you’ll find punk, rock, pop, orchestral, hard rock, folk, anti-folk, and even some punk country or punk country western! There is complexity in all kinds of music and there have always been messages in any kind of song. I’ve always been influenced by everything I hear and see. A song like “Without a Country” is a big statement about the world today and a slower tempo, minimal guitar and drums seem to drive it the right way. It’s a mix of folk, anti-folk, pop and blues. While other songs on the new CD call for exploding drums and dramatic guitar leads because that’s how the song first appeared in my mind. I may write a lot about boy/girl relationships but there’s a lot more going on than that underneath the surface, some, with much darker messages or musical strains.”
Q: “Did you use a 12 string on the acoustic set? It’s a pretty full sound.”
A: “No, both Roxy and I used Ovation 6 string guitars. It was something different for us because we are used to playing electric. But we were opening for Melanie who is acoustic so we played all acoustic as well. We weren’t used to that but really enjoyed the sound and the pleasant change.”
Q: “You have some themes that seem to be inspired by Catholicism and the Church. “God Made You” has a spiritual tilt so it looks like the church has influenced your writing to some degree. I’m I off? Did you ever sing in a choir or do sacred music? What are other themes you would say run through your music? I’m asking because many artists started in choirs especially in the country western genre?”
A:“ I went through 12 years of Catholic school so there’s no way that the teachings, bible and the music could not have affected me. Actually, the music was my favorite part of going to church and really the only part I liked. I never sang in a choir nor did I have any vocal or guitars lessons. My family didn’t have the money for that so I taught myself and I listened to the radio. As for other themes in my music, some are: loss, betrayal, infatuation, sex, obsession,revenge, remorse, darkness, light, and there are also many references to a number of movies, because I’ve always loved film and still do.”
Q: “Shame on You” and “God Made You” are on earlier albums I gather? Which ones?
A: “ “Shame On You” is from the CD just before this one, Kiss Me One More Time, along with “God Made You” (the slow version). The fast version of “God Made You” is from our debut album on MCA. If you can believe it, our first album actually had this nine minute song on it (which became very popular in Australia and in dance clubs. Reviewers called it a variety of things from, “epic” to “apocalyptic” to “massive” and people loved it when we performed it live, and in fact very few believed that we could actually perform this song live (until they saw it live). It wasn’t a “girl-sound” melody, but rather a big, orchestral (yes, with keyboards) opus! There were many groups that didn’t play all the instruments on their debut albums; well, we did, and we performed everything live. It gave us a reputation for being a very powerful and musically formidable live band.”
The Catholic Girls certainly are a formidable live band.
Q: “I also see you’re a published writer. Tell a little about your books.”
A: “In between bands, I decided to write a book. I’ve always loved vampires so that was my subject: a female vampire in LA who ends up becoming a musician. By the way, she has a Catholic background as well. The book deals with her journey to first hating, then learning to live with, then acceptance of her new state of being. It’s called The Making of a Monster and was published by Dell/Abyss in the 90s. Personally, I think it would make a great HBO or Showtime series right now. I’ve written two other books that didn’t get published (my editor left right after my book came out) and I’m working on a third and more. All of them have female lead characters. Hopefully, all will get published.”
Q: “Do you have any shows coming up? Any more albums on the horizon? Where can we purchase Somebody Better Get a Room?”
A:“Right now, The Catholic Girls are on hiatus due to family issues of two band members (not me). We’ll have to see about when we can play and record next. But if Saturday Night Live called, there would be no second thoughts and we’d be thrilled to appear on the show. I’m working on new songs, however, as always!”
Well I hope those family issues get resolved, best wishes to the band. It would be great to hear more from the Catholic Girls soon.