Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Bruce Springsteen -- these three songwriters have influenced more up-and-coming '70s bands (particularly those wandering the hinterlands) than all the art-rock snobs (Suicide, Public Image, Ltd.) put together. But usually the rock artists pursuing the Costello-Parker-Springsteen legacy have seemed more like pods (Joe Jackson, 3-D, the Jags, the Sports) than actual people perplexed by the same monumental problems as their mentors.
Now, from Australia, comes a unique exception -- Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, a band whose silly name seems to be a combination of three divergent references: Jo Jo Gunne (Chuck Berry's famous monkey), Led Zeppelin (heavy metal's heaviest dirigible), and the Falcons (Wilson Pickett's early vocal group). Even more confusing, in terms of referential data, their American debut is titled "Screaming Targets" (Columbia NJC 36442), which also happens to be the title of a classic rave-up by a delirious deejay named Big Youth, a Jamaican maestro of dub.
This fact, however, may not be coincidental. The Falcons' music is predominantly rooted in the relaxed rhythms of reggae, albeit not as blatantly as that of the fashionable brood of ska mimics (the Selector, the Speeials). Their overall sound, though, comes from the experiences that can only be learned from the murky depths of dives -- leader/vocalist Jo Camilleri sings like he's dodged a million bottles of beer.
What makes "Screaming Targets" work is that it lacks the intense aloofness that has chiseled Costello's and Parker's latest works ("Get Happy!!" and "The Up Escalator," respectively" into such stone-cold example of megalomania run amok.
The main criticism that could be leveled at the Falcons is that they are too polished, overcompensating for their lack of lyrical punch by becoming a Doobie Brothers' version of the Rumour. Still, that's exactly why every song on the album could become an FM staple. "Katschara" may begin with the chic smugness of a Boz Scaggs tune, but it progresses into a bloodcurdling scream; the horn arrangements on "Thin Line" may seem too similar to Chicago's dry-blown ilk, yet the song does possess plenty of pressure drop.
Of course, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons' ability to straddle the fence does make their music -- although quite listenable -- very unimaginative. Like most bar bands wearing sunglasses after dark, they don't pretend to have a particular vision, which, in a sense, means they could never approach the artistry of the Costello-Parker-Springsteen axis.
In contrast, the Iron City Houserockers, a bar band from Pittsburgh, assume such a visionary stance on their second album, "Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive)" (MCA 5111), that their reputation is nearly clinched as the next addition to the hallowed hall of the rock immortals. The album certainly eclipses any recent work by Costello or Parker and definitely could be considered the equal of Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Many rock 'n' roll masterpieces are reflected in the Houserockers' work (Mott the Hoople's "Mott," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Street Survivors," Graham Parker's "Heat Treatment"), but what's primarily echoed is the brash enthusiasm of a band committed to a revolutionary act the puritanical belief that hard work provides its own reward.
The Houserockers are America's answer to the Clash. "Take it to the streets, give your senator a call," they sing on "We're Not Dead Yet." "Rip up all the subways, tear down the golden walls." And like any downtrodded soul clamoring for a struggle just to make ends meet, the band's intentions are to be taken seriously.
So rich, so desperately alive, so uncommonly intelligent is "Have a Good Time" that an entire review could be written on each song alone. "We're Not Dead Yet" shares the fatalism of Dion's "(I Was) Born To Cry" but still offers hope by defeating inertia with stamina. "Don't Let Them Push You Around" and "Pumpin' Iron" depict the daily plight of coping with the oppression of menial labor, particularly the sweat and grime of the steel mills.
"Price of Love" is a divinely inspired, dramatic act of self-denial, while, "Angela" is a paean to those poor pathetic souls roaming the aisles at Woolworth's. The Houserockers also demythologize Deborah Harry ("Blondie"), explore the scars of nostalgia ("Old Man Bar"), evoke the loneliness of their dimly lit domain ("Junior Bar") and present the harmonious peace and mind that occurs after a job well done ("Rock-Ola").
In short, the Iron City Houserockers play like the great lost bar band that never made it . . . and then finally did.