T. S. Eliot once observed that men of talent borrow, geniuses steal. Neither Sylvain Sylvain nor Robert Gordon qualify as geniuses in the rock hierarchy, but both are expert, unabashed pilferers. Each has made a career of adopting classic R&B and pop stylings, molding them into a sound that, if not altogether original, is enthusiastic and sincere -- two qualities crucial to convincing rock 'n' roll. Neither of these artists would mind being accused of theft just so long as they're given credit for stealing from the right sources and doing it in the right spirit.
The good-timey rock 'n' roll of Sylvain Sylvain ("the first and last name of rock," say the ads for his self-titled debut LP) goes back to his radio-oriented youth in Brooklyn. While he goes to the '50s for his two cover tunes, Clarence "Frogman" Henry's rousing "Ain't Got No Home" and Chuck Willis' "What's That Got to Do With Rock 'n' Roll?" (to which he adds a nifty arrangement and some new lyrics), most of the material suggests the pre-British Invasion American pop of the '60s.
Foremost is "Teen-Age News," an irresistible rocker that perfectly captures Sylvain's street-wise exuberance. If there is any justice in radioland, it will be a hit. On "I'm So Sorry," an unwieldy story-song recalling the high drama of the Shangri-Las, Sylvain clowns around too much for his apology to be taken seriously; but he is so incorrigibly charming that one could not help but forgive him anyway. Similarly, the rockin' "14th Street Beat" is an '80s update of the Orlons' "South Street," translated to the less innocent, in-hock miasma of New York.
Unlike most guitarists who step out of a band into a solo career, Sylvain was a charter member of the often brilliant, continually controversial New York Dolls -- he was always more of a personality than a musician, communicating his rock-'n'-romance philosophy in the mugging manner of a Dead End Kid with a pawned guitar for a prop. Sylvain may lack the chops and vocal power to pay off on every gamble he takes, but isn't that what being a street urchin rock-'n'-roller is all about -- bluster, bravado and the heart to pull it off? Sylvain's got plenty of all three.
Robert Gordon's "Bad Boy" could be a sleeper. When Gordon first exited Tuff Darts, an early band on the CBGB's/Max's Kansas City circuit, the legitimacy of his new persona as a '50s rockabilly rebel was suspect. But now, four albums later, Gordon is still plugging away within this underappreciated genre, having strayed from the path once briefly with Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," only to have the Pointer Sisters come up with a more commercial version. And on "Bad Boy," produced with tasteful restraint by Gordon and Richard Gottehrer, the gap between the artist and the material seems finally to have closed completely.
The choice of songs is impeccable (Gordon's "Born to Lose" is the lone original), from Warner Mack's '57 honky-tonk hit "Is It Wrong (For Loving You)" and the Eddie Cochran-styled "The Worrying Kind" to Wayne Walker's boppin' "Sweet Love on My Mind" and John Looudermilk's heart-throbbing "Torture." The precise staccato guitar picking on the latter song, as well as appropriate riffs and rhythms throughout, is provided by Chris Spedding who, although he has had an uneven solo career, proves once again to be a brilliant player in someone else's context. He seems to hold this music in as high esteem as Gordon does . . . and Gordon has made it his life. m
Famous bank robber Willie Sutton might have been talking about some rock-'n'-roll bands when, during a rash of robberies in New York last summer, he lamented over the declining calibre of the thieves. He'd have to be encouraged by these new releases. Sylvain Sylvain and Robert Gordon are two artists who knew what to steal and got away clean. The goods are hot.