On their first album in 1980, the Bus Boys made some pointed comments on their status as black musicians playing rock 'n' roll instead of soul or rhythm and blues.
On one song, "Johnny Soul'd Out," they sang: "His mother says she doesn't know where she went wrong/He was raised in the church singing all week long . . . Johnny soul'd out/He's into rock and roll and he's given up the rhythm and blues."
The stage act of this feisty quintet from Los Angeles was another commentary. Dressed as busboys and motivating to the motto of "minimum-wage rock 'n' roll," they so freely and unself-consciously utilized racial stereotypes--bug-eyes, finger-shakin', dancin' feet--that they sometimes came off as modern minstrels out of the Stepin Fetchit School of Exaggeration. On occasion, they'd crawl out in the audience and shine the shoes of their mostly white audiences.
Yet the humor went full circle. On "There Goes the Neighborhood," the catalogue of concerns was familiar but the twist was new: "Too many faces/that are not just like mine/But I ain't movin' out for no Carol or Bob/The inner city is too close to my job/ . . . The whites are movin' in/ They'll bring their next of kin/Oh oh, it doesn't look too good to me."
The Bus Boys quickly became the darlings of the press, but they had a harder time breaking across radio's color lines, even though they came out of the New Wave scene. So there's an irony to the success they're currently enjoying as a result of their appearance in "48 Hrs.," one of the surprise movie hits of the year.
"They put us in a black club, a black environment, with all these black extras totally involved in the music," says Brian O'Neal, the group's keyboard player and principal songwriter, in his hotel room before a show at the 9:30 club. "It was such a fantasy, but it had such big bucks behind it and it had such appeal that it was kind of irresistible. And it did open us up to a lot of black audiences, as well as more white audiences. It's not really that important how many records we sell, or how much airplay we get--it's the diversity of the audience."
If the Bus Boys are the premiere black rock 'n' roll band, they are also one of the very few black bands to play their kind of straight-ahead rock 'n' roll.
"One of our primary themes or goals was the actual meeting of blacks and whites through rock 'n' roll--and not just through hit records, but by having a group that musically as well as image-wise appealed to both sides of American popular culture without pandering to either. I'm starting to see that happen," O'Neal says.
The group's original concept was both myth-shattering and myth-making. In opting for music that was more rock than soul or rhythm and blues, O'Neal realized that eventually audiences would have to decide whether the Bus Boys were "novelty or novel. The challenge, the test of credibility for any band, is if it transcends its genre and ends up appealing to a lot of people on the strength and quality of its own achievements."
At the same time, many bands that have started well conceptually have ended up trapped in a creative cage whose walls, once supportive, enshroud instead.
"I think we've already transcended that aspect of the band," O'Neal insists. "On the first album, we exploited the black/white relationship from our viewpoint, blacks playing rock 'n' roll. It was a real good 'in' at the door. On the second album we took on a lot more challenging musical concepts, so that it was less the themes than the music."
That album, "American Worker," dealt with class more seriously than the group's debut album dealt with race; a video of the title song also helped break down the color line on MTV, the all-music cable service.
Through it all, the Bus Boys have worked like minimum-wage rockers, crisscrossing the country on a wide variety of bills. They opened for Linda Ronstadt on her fall tour and are about to go out with the rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats.
"It's just a continuation of our efforts to expose the Bus Boys in as many different areas as we can. We knew in the begining that we'd have a lot of trouble marketing our trip from a radio perspective. It was revolutionary and unique on so many levels that we had to develop as many opportunities on our own to get people to see us."
The minstrel-show aspects of the Bus Boys' performance are still unsettling to some viewers, which pleases O'Neal, though he points out that "we try to accentuate the songs with the visuals, not vice versa. We dramatize with our stage presentation."
Lead singer Gus Loudermen's elastic gyrations serve as one focus for the band (several members used to be in a dance group called Those Who Possess the Magic Shoes) but it's the openly Tom-ish facial expressions and gestures that get on some people's nerves.
"It bugs a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons," O'Neal says, giving in to a pleased smile. "Some because they're guilty or there's a point of identification there that they don't like--it's something that has a negative connotation to them. If it's white guilt, it's like 'I wish I hadn't participated in that,' a guilt that relates to prejudice and wrongdoing.
"Blacks, on the other hand, have a whole other thing. They don't want to be reminded that some segments of our society do have a strong penchant for that 'pink Cadillac' mentality or grinnin', shuckin' and jivin', or duckin' the work. And the ones who feel that all their problems are from years of oppression by the white man-they're the ones I probably get the most joy out of doing it to."