The history of rock and roll – hell, the history of recorded music, be it country, pop, or otherwise – is replete with those groups, bands and singers who didn’t quite make it into the cultural mainstream. For every group like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith (or virtually any other member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), there are literally thousands of other bands who didn’t quite reach their level of popularity. Sure, some may have had that proverbial “cup of coffee” with the music industry – here’s a salute to you, One Hit Wonders! – but there are many more who never even achieved that level of success.
Arguably one of those who falls into one of the categories above – and which category is almost as difficult as categorizing their musical stylings – is the California group The BusBoys. Founded in Los Angeles in the late 1970s as disco was beginning its demise, The BusBoys featured singer/keyboardist Brian O’Neal and his brother, Kevin (bass), as the driving force behind the group. Joined by singer Gus Louderman, who handled most of the lead vocals for the band, Mike Jones (additional keyboards), Victor Johnson (guitars) and Steve Felix (drums), The BusBoys made inroads into the music world – and, in particular, the rock music world – although something wasn’t quite what some would expect…maybe you can identify it.
That’s right. The entirety of the band was black save for Felix, who was Hispanic, and the band played driving rock music with both a rhythm and blues feel as well as tidbits of new wave tossed in. Lyrically the band took on some rather touchy subjects – even more then than they might be now – such as working for less than what one deserves, nuclear annihilation, minorities moving into the suburbs, the Ku Klux Klan, where blacks “should be,” and a host of other charged issues. Just as you would think there were too serious, then The BusBoys would break out the party time tunes and just rock your ass off!
The BusBoys released their debut album, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll, to resounding critical acclaim. Feted for their efforts at combining diverse musical genres as surf rock, new wave, doo wop and rock and pop stylings, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll didn’t have a weak point on the entirety of the album. The first song off the record, “Dr. Doctor,” was a stomping rock and roll song sung with gusto by the bluesy Louderman while the O’Neal brothers and the rest of the ‘Boys jammed behind him. “Minimum Wage” brought a Clash-esque vibe into the mix while discussing what someone had to do to make a living.
The BusBoys weren’t done yet. The group hit its stride on the record with “There Goes the Neighborhood” (not the version done by Ice-T and Body Count, let me assure you), a tune about how “the white folks movin’ in/there gonna bring their next of kin” – or a juxtaposition of what many suburban communities say when minorities come into their previously sacrosanct areas. “Johnny Soul’d Out” could be The BusBoys’ autobiography and an ode to Chuck Berry’s “Go Johnny Go” – about a singer/musician who is “into rock and roll and giving up the rhythm and blues.” The first side is rounded out by the Ramones-blitz of “KKK,” a recital of how a black man is good enough to do such things as go to war, but not allowed to fully be a part of the “American” culture.
The second side featured some strong material also. “D-Day” focused on the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while “We Stand United” and “Respect” reflected on the desires of many just to be accepted for what they are. There’s even a bit of a R&B/new wave influenced “grinder” called “Anggie” (the first sexual experience) and a song about being an athlete and ready for their starring moment (“Tell the Coach”) to add to the excellence of the album.
What made Minimum Wage Rock & Roll such an essential album was the racial comportment of the band – blacks just didn’t DO rock music in this era (Bad Brains were about the only other black rock band of this era as it was a few more years before Living Colour would reach prominence) – and the myriad of musical stylings that were featured on the album. Trying to include such a mixture of musical stylings would have been a failure in the hands of a lesser group; The BusBoys made it sound like it was all in a typical Friday night of partying with the band.
The BusBoys, alas, were like the proverbial Roman candle, rocketing into the stratosphere in a blur of flashing colors only to flame out or crash rather quickly. The band was featured in the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte classic 48 Hrs. as the bar band playing in Murphy’s “black” bar, and they contributed the title track, “The Boys are Back in Town,” to the soundtrack of the movie. Just as it seemed that they were ready to take off, however, The BusBoys crashed to earth.
The second album, American Worker (1982), for some reason did not feature “Boys” on it (although it featured another song that The BusBoys performed in 48 Hrs. called “New Shoes”). It did feature, however, a version of “Heart and Soul” that would be more successful for Huey Lewis and the News a year later. Although it reached the charts in the U. S., it wasn’t nearly as successful as Minimum Wage Rock & Roll and would signal the end of the run for The BusBoys, although they have continued recording (two more albums, Money Don’t Make No Man and (Boys Are) Back in Town, which finally corrected the error of The BusBoys not being able to put “The Boys are Back in Town” on one of their albums earlier) and are still active today.
Part of the reason that we all love music is its abilities to be able to surprise you. When you’re not even able to drive and discover that there are rock bands that aren’t lily white (I knew about Hendrix but hadn’t discovered Phil Lynott at that point) that are just as good if not better than what you’re being told is “rock & roll,” it has a way of sticking with you. The BusBoys to this day are a band that remains one of my favorites and their opus was Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. If you’ve never heard it or the band, you’d be well advised to check them out.
Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All Time:
Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure
Metallica – …And Justice For All