Pulling Mussels from a Shell
Pulling Mussels from a Shell
A Q&A with Pete Palladino
By Geoff Gehman
The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” was the first song I couldn’t forget, the first tune that soaked my soul. I was eight years old, roaming a summer fair in 1966 in East Hampton, N.Y., when I was baptized by George Harrison’s chiming, circling lead guitar, an electric singing bird. Two magical minutes and change later I couldn’t shake the ringing voices, the soaring verses, the roaring choruses—all of which flew from a radio in a ’65 Mustang convertible, my first favorite car.
Pete Palladino knows exactly how I felt; he’s sat in that bucket seat, too. His first unforgettable song was Squeeze’s “Pulling Mussels from a Shell,” which baptized him when he was a 10-year-old in Franklin Lakes, N.J. The elementary schooler was floored by the sprinting, spinning saga of Robin Hood-like mischief at a resort with a circus-like cast of surfers, topless women, muscle men and readers of Harold Robbins’ trashy novels. He was so captivated, in fact, he decided that one day he wanted to write a tune almost as captivating.
A dozen years later Palladino found his vehicle in the Badlees, a central Pennsylvania band that specialized in original roots rockers. For two on-and-off, seesawing decades he helped make the group a powerhouse with lusty vocals, dynamic harmonica playing, magnetic antics and power-pop songs both catchy and crafty. In 2015 he stretched his reach by playing a fictional version of himself in “All in Time,” a romantic comedy that tracks a man who ditches a New York job to manage a rock band in his Pennsylvania hometown. Palladino contributed three of the Badlees’ 10 songs in a movie co-written and co-directed by Chris Fetchko, who once managed the Badlees.
Palladino has the same goal whether he’s writing or singing. He aims to lock into the groove of riding in a convertible on a picture-perfect summer day, singing along with a blaring radio, senses tuned in, worries tuned out. He’ll shoot for this groove on March 17 when he plays the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where he once sang all the tracks on the Badlees’ privotal 1995 album “River Songs.” This time his menu will include Badlees standards (“Fear of Falling,” “Angeline Is Coming Home”) and numbers from “The Circa ’68,” a solo recording project that may end up as an album or a stream of singles, He’ll share the stage with three musicians who gigged with him in the Badlees: guitarist Jeff Feltenberger, a band co-founder; violinist Nyke Van Wyk, and guitarist Dustin Drevitch, who will be joined by the other two members of Dustin Douglas and the Electric Gentlemen, another Mauch Chunk regular.
Below, in a conversation from Tuckers Tavern, a Long Beach Island eatery he manages, Palladino discusses the joys of writing wrap-around melodies, leading a creative band, singing “Stormy Monday” with Gregg Allman, lending an emergency guitar to a Squeeze hero. and having a forgiving memory
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: I was always a huge fan of power-pop bands, especially Squeeze and Cheap Trick. I was probably 10 the first time I heard [Squeeze’s] “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” blaring from the radio and I thought: What is this melody? It just wraps around you. To be able to write a song that in the first two seconds grabs you with an undeniable hook—that’s when I went: That’s what I want to do.
It’s funny those associations you make as a kid. I was star struck by Squeeze and years later I got to open for Glenn Tilbrook [Squeeze co-founder, lead vocalist, lead guitarist and co-songwriter] at the Tin Angel [in Philadelphia] and he was the nicest guy. It just so happens he broke a bunch of strings and he asked me if he could borrow my guitar and I told him “You can have my guitar.” [laughs]
Q: Can you put your finger on three undeniably indelible events or episodes in your life as a Badlee?
A: When I look back at my time in the Badlees I see a lot of great achievements, a relationship that’s been successful and fruitful. The first thing that comes to mind is my pride in just being in the band for so long: that should definitely be celebrated. We started out as this little band from Pennsylvania playing original songs in an area of predominantly cover bands. We pursued our goal on a daily basis, getting heckled, having people walk out on us. Then getting a record deal and having people come from California to check out what we did– that was a big sign that, okay, we’re on the right road. We moved mountains we didn’t expect to move.
The second highlight would be singing ‘”Stormy Monday” with Gregg Allman [in 2006 in Atlanta]. I was so nervous; I felt like I didn’t belong with Gregg and all these other amazing musicians, including the guitar player from the Black Crowes. I remember feeling hot and my face being beet red. I just tried to sing the best I could, to enjoy being in the moment. The other guys in the band said I did alright, so I guess I did alright.
The third thing that jazzed me was writing songs and developing them with the band and sharing them with people who were jazzed. I love those moments when you’re proud of your work, when the music speaks loud. That’s the fuel that keeps you going, when you write a song and you sit back and you realize it didn’t exist until you grasped it from the ether and it’s something you can share with other people and they feel the craft is there and there’s value in what you did. Anybody can write a song; we tried to write well-crafted songs that said something.
Acceptance in the music business is so incremental, unless you’re an overnight sensation. You become successful slowly, by hard work and perseverance; it’s not like one day you’re playing songs in your basement and the next day you’re opening for U2. It’s like your child grows up and all of a sudden she’s 16 and you wonder: How did that happen?
Q: When was the last time you watched yourself as a fictional Badlee in the film “All in Time”?
A: Probably when it was released [in 2015] and we were doing screening shows. It’s a very surreal experience watching yourself onscreen and hearing your songs on a soundtrack. The role was a stretch for me; lead singer of a rock band is pretty easy to do [laughs].
I was very proud to be part of that project. Chris Fetchko did an awesome job. What he wrote about was not necessarily from his time managing the Badlees, although some of the experiences were similar. There’s a moment in the film where the club promoter spells the name of the band wrong and the manager character takes him to task and the promoter says, “Sorry, dude, I needed the ‘F’ for ‘French Fries’.”That was real but not unique: when you’re in a band, Spinal Tap-ey stuff happens all the time.
The music business is a quagmire: for every victory there are a hundred defeats. I remember when the “Angeline [Is Coming Home]” video was finally hitting MTV and VHI and we rushed down to a bar to watch it. It should have been one of those moments that should have been a milestone. Instead, the video comes on and it looks like shit What can you do but go forward and say, “Oh well, what’s next?”
Q: Speaking of what’s next, what do want to accomplish with your current band, recording project and show? Why did you stack the deck with three ex-Badlees?
A: I wanted to put together a lineup of people I love creating with, musicians I’m very, very in tune with. I love singing with Jeff [Feltenberger]. Dusty [Dustin Drevitch] is one of the kindest souls I know, as well as one of the most talented people I know. He speaks music; he exudes music; that guitar is an extension of his body. It’s so wonderful to create music with people who can learn a new song at the drop of a hat, who are 100 percent there.
The impetus behind these new shows is to road test these new songs, to have that sort of exchange you have when you’re sitting around playing in your living room. I want people to see and hear something they haven’t seen and heard; At the end of the day we want everyone to feel positive. I love that feeling when you’re onstage and you look around and everyone is tuned in, no one is staring at their feet or stuck in a corner. At the end of the day it’s all about melody and choruses that are big and just the feeling that you get when it’s a beautiful summer day and the windows are down on your car and a song comes on the radio and it just hits you.
I never really wanted to be a solo artist. When I was touring with my first solo record [“Sweet Siren of the Reconnected,” 2001], I would have an amazing show in Boston and I’d walk offstage and I’d be by myself. It was lonely and I don’t like to be lonely. The great thing about being in a band is having someone to share the victories, the defeats, the hard nights, the easy nights. I don’t need a posse; I just like to be surrounded by musicians I admire and like. It’s just good to look left onstage and see somebody.
I think that camaraderie goes back to growing up in Franklin Lakes and riding bikes with my friends, exploring the woods, being out from 10 to 5, experimenting and discovering. I think that’s where my creative process began; that’s when you’re forced to make your brain work hard. Today I can go to the beach and remember being out there as a kid and finding something new with my gang. It’s addictive no matter what your age.
Q: Can you put your finger on one trait or habit as a restaurant manager that’s improved your life as a musician and one habit or trait as a musician that’s improved your life as a restaurant manager?
A: I would say being a good communicator has helped me in both jobs. In all the restaurants I run there’s a large group of people I’m responsible for; in my songs I’m speaking to a large group of listeners. In both cases I’m trying to make everyone understand right away. I try to be super-organized even in my song writing. When I get an idea I can sit down and get the whole thing out, unedited, in seven minutes; then I go back and try to look at it objectively. What I try to tell my restaurant people is: Don’t edit yourself on the way out; edit yourself before the product is out, before you’re interacting with the guests.
It’s funny, there are so many people I work with on a daily basis in the restaurant business who don’t know about my musical life. Then one day they’ll look at me and say “Nice hair” and they’ll be referring to a picture of me when I was 22 in the Badlees that they saw on social media. I’ll say: “What did you look like when you were 22?” [laughs] My wife loves to show the first video the Badlees made in, like, 1991, when I had hair out to here. I’ve got to tell you, it was so embarrassing. Nobody has their shit together at 22, but I wouldn’t have changed anything because it led me to where I am. The nice thing about memory is that it’s so forgiving.
Q: Is your daughter [Bodhi, 7] interested in seeing a video of her 22-year-old dad with the huge hair?
A: She’s more interested in seeing Dusty [Dustin Drevitch] than seeing the video [laughs]. She has such a crush on him.
Q: So, Pete, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d love to write a song as melodic, as instantly engaging, as “Pulling Mussels from a Shell,” or Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” That’s what probably keeps me going, that elusive goal of creating something timeless, something that you put on 25 years later and it still stands the test of time.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: I would love to live in a world where people are just accepting of each other, in any way, shape or form. We never really know what people are feeling or thinking, so I think we should be a little bit more accepting. I’m pretty sensitive to the need of being accepted, being in the restaurant business, interacting with all sorts of people all the time. It’s the same in the music business: I’m interacting with people from all walks of life and I’m the common denominator. When we start to identify what makes us different we start to find common denominators. That’s when we discover, oh, we’re not so different after all
That was the great thing about being in a band, that we could accomplish things together that we couldn’t accomplish individually, that the sum was greater than the parts. There are amazing things we can do when we’re all running in the same direction at the same time.
Pete Palladino: The Scoop
He is director of restaurant operations for a chain of 10 eateries in New Jersey, his native state.
He sang his songs “Hindsightseeing,” “Long Goodnight” and “Dirty Neon Times” on the soundtrack of the 2015 film “All in Time.”
In 2016, at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, he and other members of the Badlees performed tracks from their 2013 album “Epiphones and Empty Rooms,” on which Palladino sings lead on one disc and Bret Alexander sings lead on the other disc.
He envisions his solo recording project “The Circa ’68” as a sort of musical satellite. “It may not be an album per se; I may just release a bunch of singles. If I have a song that I love and we get a recording that jazzes me, I‘m going to just put it out on Instagram and Facebook, as a snapshot to share.”
He would love to record his new songs with multi-instrumentalist Butch Walker, who has produced and written hits for the likes of Weezer, Katy Perry and Pink.
His craziest act as a Badlee was riding to a post-gig breakfast on top of a band van on Route 78. He exited without injury.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Pete Palladino, he digs Squeeze’s “Pulling Mussels from a Shell.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.