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They Love The '80s
NRG
The '80's resurgence doesn't surprise me at all. I think all generations love nostalgia, and this just happens to be ours. I do think though, that the '80's works so well, 'cause a lot of the music, the quirkiness and fashion of it, has been embraced by club-goers of today. - Lee Ottman
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] NRG
Lee Ottman performs during NRG's reunion show at Denim's (Freehold, NJ)
Lee Ottman performs during NRG's reunion show at Denim's (Freehold, NJ)

May 8th marked the return of one of the most popular bands on the New Jersey cover scene from the 1980s. In the scene's hey day, where cover bands could share bills with national original acts and became almost as famous as the headliners, NRG was among the best-known groups. From the early 1980s through to its break-up in 1986, thousands of fans made a regular pilgrimage to the Jersey Shore to see the band perform regular weekly gigs at The Stone Pony, and frequent stops at all of the popular shore clubs.

The scene at that time, both around Asbury Park and other popular shore towns, was thriving. The number of clubs and the size of the crowds supported live music enthusiastically, and the music of the day fit in perfectly with the style and party atmosphere of the scene. While the band was fortunate enough to survive the excesses of the era, the music didn't, and NRG stopped performing in 1986.

But the band members, Lee Ottman (vocals), Bill Silvain (guitar), Gary Vitale (bass), Ron Garcia (keyboards) and Mark Orlandini (drums) stayed in touch, and several of them remained involved with the music business. Over the past few years, led largely by VH1's "I Love the 80s" television series, along with 80s nights in clubs and on the radio, a retro nostalgia for the music of that time has become popular again, and sparked a renewed interest in those who danced away the "me" decade. Fans, it turns out, remember the music, and even the fashions, fondly, even if they don't remember most of those nights out too well at all.

So, after a wave of promotion, NRG returned to Denim's in Freehold, New Jersey, on May 8 for a reunion show that brought over 500 fans out to welcome back their favorites to the stage. NRG, with Andres Guanco taking over bass duties for Vitale, who now breeds horses in New York state, rocked through a set of 80s classics, and not-so-classics.

Chorus and Verse interviewed Ottman as the band prepared for a return to Denim's and discussed why the band was put back together, and where NRG goes from here, and what memories from those wild times he was willing to share.

Let’s start with your recent reunion concert, where 500 fans showed up to welcome the band back to the stage at Denim’s. What were your expectations going into the show, and how did the experience feel for you when you were finally on stage and performing?

My expectations going into the show were, honestly, very high. I had been in contact with magazines and papers that featured writers who knew us from "back in the day," and they were all very psyched and willing to help. Between the wonderful coverage they'd given us, a nice bunch of plugs from WNEW 102.7 and also 106.3 radio, I just felt like the word was out there. This, along with the word of mouth that encompassed both lots of new people and some of our old following, had me pretty confident going in of a nice crowd. Even though I expected a decent crowd, when it finally happened I was still a little speechless.

When we finally hit the stage, after a wonderful introduction from Lee Mrowicki, the legendary "voice of the Stone Pony," I was a little nervous. But, I guess more excited and concerned that it would all go well. After about half the set, I settled down a bit. In lots of ways, it didn't feel at all like nearly 20 years had passed since we all played together. Seeing lots of people out there, from that era, was a great feeling.

In an interview you did prior to the show, you said that you hoped your former audience would come back. Did you see a lot of familiar faces at the show and have you found that your audience from the 80s remembers you and is still supportive today?

Yes, I did see some faces from the 80's. Would I like to have seen more? Totally. But I understand that it's 20 years later, and most people, our age, have kids, families, responsibilities. It's not always easy to just drop everything and go out on a Saturday night. Those old friends I talked to were all supportive, and said they would do their best to come see us when they could.

Go back into the band’s history and describe what it was like for you in the early-to-mid-1980s when you were at your most popular. Where were some of the places where you performed regularly; and how many shows were you typically doing in a week?

Well, we usually played five-six nights a week, every week. Steady weeknights at four different places, like the Tradewinds [and the] Stone Pony, then Fridays and Saturdays would change every weekend on a six-to-eight-week rotation in most cases. Besides the two clubs I just mentioned, we had strong followings at Club Xanadu in Asbury Park, The Arrow Lounge in Scotch Plains, and Motionz and Cryan's in West Orange.

The scene then was very fashion and dance crazed, everybody caught up in the new wave thing, as featured on VH1's I Love the 80's. Lots of hair spray, ripped shirts and bandanas and capezios, and lots of bands that were very "of that time." Bands like Flock of Seagulls, INXS, Tears for Fears, Adam Ant, Billy Idol and we did 'em all.

When we were at our most popular was when you had to fight your way through the people in the dressing room to be able to go on; when sometimes we'd open for national acts who hadn't quite broken yet, and not be let off the stage so easy. It would be commonplace to walk into a club and see lots of people wearing our t-shirts or buttons. Oh yeah, and the money was very good, though half the time we wasted it on things we shouldn't have.

NRG Performs at Denim's
NRG Performs at Denim's

NRG was a regular performer at the legendary Stone Pony on Monday nights. How long did you have that slot, and what are some of your memories of that time period? Who were some of the other bands you performed and hung out with during those days?

I think we did Monday nights at the Pony for a couple years, and then would bounce in there on a weekend every once in a while. My greatest memory was the history there, and the fact that you never know who you might bump into. Making friends with Lee Mrowicki was also a highlight of our years there.

The Monday night dance contests were great, and if you ever see Lee around, have him tell you the story about how a certain Mr. Springsteen entered the contest, and lost! We opened for acts like Cyndi Lauper, Leslie West, Robert Gordon, Huey Lewis and Blotto, just to name a few. The other cover bands we were friends with included the Nines, Touchables, Bystander, the Passions and Strutter. We did double bills with lots of these bands and it was great. We'd always go over each other's sets before we'd go on, to make sure we didn't do the same songs.

Have you been following goings on with the Pony since its reopening a few years ago? Any thoughts on the club nowadays compared to the times when you were a regular? Do you have any expectations for getting an opportunity to perform there again?

I regularly check the Pony's schedule, 'cause they always have a great roster of acts. I've heard a million stories over the years about the Pony staying, being sold, torn down, etc. My hope is that it's there forever, and I wish that Asbury Park itself could have a rebirth of sorts to be what it once was, and the Pony was a huge part of that. Hey, we'd love to play there, and after these couple "reunion" gigs, I'd love to make that happen.

The band broke up in 1986. Had you and the other band members kept in touch and stayed involved with the music business during the intervening years? Did you always regret that NRG wasn’t performing anymore, or did you only start thinking about doing a reunion recently?

For the most part, we all kept in touch to some degree. Our drummer, Mark, has played in various bands over the years, and Ron, our keyboardist, was in the studio, as well as playing with bands like the Swinging Johnsons. Our original bass player, Gary, years ago relocated to upstate New York, and breeds horses. Bill Silvain, our guitarist, has done some studio work over the years, and actually he, Ron, Mark and our new bass player, Andres, did some work together on a project called Push 13, which is a CD of Ron's songs. I've been working for a DJ/Band company for the last 13 years, called Jeffrey Craig Entertainment. So, we've all been somewhat involved with music since our breakup. Back to Andres for a moment, he had been in our band off and on, over the years after Gary left, and he now juggles us and a couple other bands he's involved with.

I've never stopped wanting to perform, but with life staring you in the face, you make your priorities and choices. It was always in the back of my mind, and knew it could happen when the time was right. There's been such a resurgence of interest in the '80's music, that the time seemed right, and we're all at places in our lives where we can enjoy it, and not worry about the excesses and craziness of our former lifestyles.

What led to your finally making the decision to return to the stage, and how receptive were the members of the band to getting back together?

What led me to getting the band back together was a combination of the '80's being big again, along with the feeling that, as happy and content as I am with my life, that was the one thing that was missing.

For the most part, except for Gary not being able to do it, everybody was responsive. We all had to make it clear, though, that it would be just a once-in-a-while thing. I think that makes sense not only because we have families and other things in our lives, but, playing once in a while, makes it more of an event, therefore more people come. Also, a lot of people our age that would remember us, just can't get out that often!

Lee Ottman
Lee Ottman

When you started rehearsing together again, did you find that the songs clicked right away or did it take a while for everyone to find their old chops again? Were there any songs that were the most difficult to return to form?

I went through a video of us playing at the Tradewinds from 1983, that had been shown on a cable TV show called Rockline. I took nearly all those songs, along with another 10 or so, and put them on CDs and sent them to everybody. I basically said which ones do you guys want to do, then we narrowed it down to two sets. Most of the songs clicked, and if one didn't, we moved on. There was no pressure, like we had to learn it, no matter what.

The only difficulty we had was sometimes re-creating that 80's sound, especially keyboard stuff, but Ron was always the master of that, so that wasn't too much of an issue. There were one or two songs that we used to love, but then when we tried them 20 years later, they sounded ok, but they just didn't feel right anymore. An example was Prince's "1999," the parts were there, but for some reason we weren't feeling it.

What were some of the songs that were the biggest crowd-pleasers during your reunion show? Are there any new songs that you plan to add to the set for the next performance?

I think the biggest crowd pleasers on May 8th were "What Do All The People Know," by the Monroes, "Der Kommisar," "Tainted Love," "Girls On Film" by Duran Duran, the Billy Idol stuff we did, and probably "867-5309."

We're going to do one or two we didn't do on the 8th next time, on June 19th, like "Talking In Your Sleep" by the Romantics and "Modern Love" by David Bowie.

Does it surprise you that the music of the 80s has had a retro resurgence twenty years later? Are there any songs that you did perform back then that you don’t think have stayed interesting and won’t be returning to?

The '80's resurgence doesn't surprise me at all. I think all generations love nostalgia, and this just happens to be ours. I do think though, that the '80's works so well, 'cause a lot of the music, the quirkiness and fashion of it, has been embraced by club-goers of today. There's '80's nights at clubs and on the radio all the time. Most every song on our old list is fair game. We're trying to keep it popular, but also be a little different in some of our choices, like "Lawn Chairs by Our Daughter's Wedding." Most people would scratch their heads when we'd play that; yet, the next gig, that was the one they asked for.

How you do think the cover scene has changed over the past 20 years? Are there certain elements of that scene that you’ve found seem to stay the same regardless of the era?

I've been out of the cover scene for a long time, so I can't really say. But, from what I've heard, most bands aren't making a living out of it anymore. DJs have been the big players in most clubs for years now, and that was starting when we bowed out in the late '80s. It was a lot cheaper for clubs to bring in a DJ instead of a band, so the market dried up a bit.

The things that have stayed the same seem to be "theme nights," drink specials, beautiful girls. They're so young these days. Wait. No, it's that I'm older!

Where are you hoping to take NRG in the month ahead? Do you hope to develop a consistent touring schedule and pursue new opportunities for the band? Is there anything in the works that fans should watch out for?

We're taking it slow. We're hoping for lots of people on June 19th at Denim's. Then we're just looking to play every six-eight weeks, advertise the hell out of it, invite some special guests, and have fun. We've talked about recording some of Ron and Bill's songs, which are all great, and I feel would fit in today's market. We may work them into our sets once in a while, or do an originals night, who knows.

We'd like all our fans and friends to visit our website at www.nrgnj.com. As the months go by, we're going to be doing some things we'd like your help and support with.

[ Website: www.nrgnj.com ]

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [publisher@chorusandverse.com], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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