Sussman Lawrence, the legendary Minneapolis group that evolved into The Peter Himmelman Band, lives again with the reissue of its two distinguished and long out of print indie albumsHail To The Modern Hero! (1980) and Pop City (1984)in a strictly limited edition two-disc set entitled "The Complete Sussman Lawrence (1979 - 1985) which includes four rare bonus tracks.
Both albums were recorded at the height of Sussman Lawrences creative genius in sculpting a sound that veteran Billboard writer Jim Bessman, who covered the group for Variety, aptly called a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello.
Led by a young and confidently brilliant Himmelman on lead vocals and guitar, Sussman Lawrence also featured on keyboards and backup vocals his equally gifted cousin Jeff Victor. Both had previously performed as the only white members in Minneapolis soul singer Alexander ONeals band. Saxophonist Eric Moen, bass guitarist Al Wolovitch, and drummer Andrew Kamman rounded out the group, which formed in the late 70s and took its name from a character on Steamroller, a local cable TV comedy show that Himmelman hosted.
The members of Sussman Lawrence had all gone to junior high school together in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. Heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, Himmelman brought a pronounced reggae/ska flavor to their debut album Hail To The Modern Hero! and then embellished it on the more polished and ambitiously pop-oriented follow up, the double-LP masterpiece Pop City. Both albums fueled Sussman Lawrences incendiary live shows with such richly varied fan favorites as House on Fire, Baby Let Me Be Your Cigarette, Closer, Closer, and The Fifth of Augusta gorgeous love song that would resurface on Himmelmans 1994 album Skin.
Searching for greater glory, Sussman Lawrence left the Midwest in 1984 for the East Coast. Settling in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the band gained a foothold in the thriving Manhattan concert scene with their way-over-the-top live shows that were as raucous as they were revelatory. Himmelmans writing, however, was beginning to take a turn inward, as evidenced on his first solo album This Fathers Day, which was independently released in 1985 and then re-released by Island Records the following year. Recorded with the same band hed been with since 1979, Sussman Lawrence then became The Peter Himmelman Band.
The ever intense yet uproariously funny Peter Himmelman would go on to continued critical acclaim as a solo recording artist. Now based in Los Angeles, he has branched out, composing popular childrens records and award-wining music for film and televisionmost notably the hit CBS drama "Judging Amy". Also in L.A. are Andy Kamman, who moved on to play drums for Vonda Shepard and the recording group Uma, and Al Wolovitch, who is a successful scorer of TV shows and commercials in his own right. Eric Moen is back in Minneapolis, as is the inimitable Jeff Victor, who has found new fame performing live at Timberwolves home games and touring with The Honeydogs, in addition to winning Emmy and Cleo awards while producing CDs for Target Corp's Lifescape label.
Those seven years were so dense, Himmelman comments. They were so full of lifeso much joy, rage, and endless creative possibility. They loom so large nowmore so than the chronological seven years. Its an experience a lot of people never had. We were 17, with no adult supervisionvery young people working together in a very intimate and volatile relationship, expressing our creativity.
Sussman Lawrence paved the way for more renowned, perhaps, but no more deserving Minneapolis post-punk bands as Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and Soul Asylum. Now, thankfully, we can hear the band in all its youthful energy, creativity, and yes, glory.
THE COMPLETE SUSSMAN
LAWRENCE (1979 - 1985)
1. Shelly's Dog
2. Rock Slow
3. Ode To Another Egg
4. Where Are The Leaders
5. Another Song About Erections
6. The Way You Touch
7. So Hard And Shiny
9. Cast Away For Merchandise
10. Modern Saint*
12. Hard Rock Tambourine*
13. Tough Suction (live)*
1. Torture Me
2. She's The Living End
3. (I Really Don't Love You But)
I Sure Do Like You A Lot
4. The Fifth Of August
5. House On Fire
7. Naturally (You're Artificial)
8. Closer, Closer
9. 1.5 BMMPH
10. Made To Order
12. Listen Up
13. Pajama Party
14. The Strangest Emotion
15. Bitter World
16. The Sperm Song
17. Baby Let Me Be Your Cigarette
19. Call Me On Monday
20. Love Is A Fight
* unreleased bonus track
Peter Talks About The Songs Of
Looking back on all this old stuff makes me think about the camaraderie we shared in those days together during the all-day practice sessions, the horrible beer-soaked dressing rooms, sleeping in cheap motels jammed with as many as nine guys to a room and the endless car rides through the Midwest in oppressive summer heat and mind-numbing Minnesotan winters. Nevertheless, it was an amazing and somewhat frightening thing to be blazing a trail in rock & roll while the other kids we knew were going off to college.
HAIL TO THE MODERN HERO!
Shelly's Dog was one of the earliest things I'd written for the band. It was based on Andy Kamman's first girlfriend's dogI think it was a Schnauzer or some other small breed.
Rock Slow was an Elvis Costello inspired song like so many of the early numbers. When I first heard Elvis Costello, it was exactly the sound I'd been looking for. The guitars were really raw, but not this distorted, processed stuff like Boston. It was so much smarter and hipper. I'd been playing reggae, so there were snatches of that as well.
Ode To Another Egg
This was the first song I wrote while on a Minneapolis TV program called Steamroller. I had just gotten out of high school and had this cool job writing comedy for the show. Once, I weaseled our band on a show and one of my skits ended with the song Ode To Another Egg. It was the second song Sussman Lawrence recorded (the first being an instrumental called, Leg Arm by Jeff Victor). Jeff and I marveled at the sound of our harmony voices multi-tracked for the first time.
Where Are The Leaders
This one was kind of weird and hard to arrange. It just didn't sound that good until Jeff and Eric came up with the sax melody line. That's what put it all together. I remember working this out in Andy Kamman's parent's basement. They had a very thick shag carpet down there.
Another Song About Erections
This was one of the few songs that Jeff wrote the music for. I think it was a really great melody and he sings his butt off on this as well.
The Way You Touch
I remember this one being very difficult to record. We must have done twenty takes and still there were problems with the feel. At a point there were one or more of us playing in our underwear to break up the tension.
Hard And Shiny
The lyrics pretty much say it all: "I melt Crayola shavings in the corners of his eyes". Impressionistic.
This has somewhat of a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out sound. We often used Eric's sax and Jeff's mini-moog to create a sort of horn section that graced several Sussman songs. Al Wolovitch and Andy were a very highly regarded rhythm section in Minneapolis due to grooves like this one.
Cast Away For Merchandise
This was an epic number and Steamroller made a video for it way before MTV was around. For a first video, it turned out really great. It talked about the ills of materialism many years before my song, Impermanent Things.
We were so sure that the band was going to get a record deal after Hail To The Modern Hero, but we never did and it was very frustrating. I was writing so many songs each week that we'd go through them once and never record or even play again, like Mysteries, Walkertown, or A Place Where The Robots Change Their Batteries. On one car ride back to Minneapolis after a disastrous gig in Duluth, I said, "We're making a double album and we're starting tomorrow. We are going to do it." I used to just make a plan and stick to it tenaciously like a dog. Even though we didn't sleep, we went immediately into the studio. The band decided on the songs and Pop City was a name that encapsulated all these sounds we had come up with. My Dad had just died of lymphoma and though everything was very depressing at that point, we just persisted.
I showed it to the band for the first time in Mankato (Minnesota) and we worked up the arrangement. It was kind of a reggae song, but never sounded quite right. It came out a little funnier than I wanted, not as tough, but so be it. It won some Miller Beer contest and was on an Epic Records "Best Of The Unsigned". It was a song that someone thought could be a hit.
She's The Living End
It has somewhat of a Turtles chorus and a nice play on words.
(I Really Don't Love You But) I Sure Do Like You A Lot
A great rock song that I still play once in a while. I noticed from old live tapes that the band was way more raw and aggressive than it came off on record. Sometimes the studio allows you too much room to clean and polish things. Live recordings are like photographs whereas studio recordings can be like paintings that create musical moments that never were.
The Fifth Of August
I revisited this one on Skin. I like some of the chord changes. It was the first time that I did a demo all by myself, and the first time I broke away from the band to work alone. On the demo, there was a drumbeat I played using a hairbrush on the snare drum.
House On Fire
I still play this one quite often. It's a good song that really rocks well in the Bo Diddley tradition. Listen to Andy's drumming!
Just an absurd song. "I'm your fireman, show me where you're burning. I'll be there to hose you down"a classic lyric. You must understand that my Dad was dying of cancer this whole time, so I was writing all these songs to try and go the other way.
Naturally (You're Artificial)
This one started with a different arrangement than what appears on Pop City. We used a Linn drum machine, which we really hadn't done before.
I've always really liked this song although I'm sure Jeff could have sung it much better than me. It was the first song we laid down that night after the epiphany in the car about making a double album.
Some weird thing that Jeff came up with. It was written for an ex manager that was suing us for defamation of character for $1.5 million. We wanted to increase the amount to at least $2 million.
Made To Order
This is a song I really like. I remember playing it for my Dad on acoustic guitar. Jeff and Eric came up with this really funny Calypso breakdown in the middle and it just got funnier and more absurd, but was really tight.
This one's more serious and is closer to the stuff I would write later. I really liked it until someone told me that it sounded like a Hallmark card. I got very sensitive about it and never played it again. Eric plays a lovely nylon string guitar solo on this track.
I still play this one all the timea classic rock song. Listen Up was originally going to be the name of the Pop City album.
This one is like a reggae song. I remember that Eric didn't like the opening line because it said something about my being out of work and hard up. He wondered how I could write that as a rich kid from the suburbs. Hey, I wasn't a rich kid from the suburbs; maybe we were middle-class from the suburbs. Anyway, I felt I could suspend reality for the sake of a good song.
The Strangest Emotion
This song is very meaningful to me. It's more on the level of how I actually felt at that time than many of the other songs I was writing.
This one is like an English pop song. There's a good line in there I like that goes, "My love is like Formica...it shines like new". We used to start our shows with this.
The Sperm Song
The Sperm Song, in some ways, is the most meaningful song of all. It's the song that's most closely related to my solo work. It talks about the miraculousness of existence, but in a funny way because those things are so hard to express. It's very similar to ideas I point out in my other songs, but in a very youthful fashion and with a lot of funny couplets. It's memorable in a way, but not just for shock value.
Baby Let Me Be Your Cigarette
I think this is a good song, but I never meant it to sound like it does on the album. It was originally written as a rock-a-billy tune, but I never heard it how I wanted it to be played. There was band in Minneapolis called Rue Nuevo with a female singer that once covered it in a far more provocative and suggestive style.
Jeff sang this one and really wailed on it. We used to love watching him belt out all the high notes. Jeff is the funniest guy I know and he's among the most talented musicians around.
Call Me On Monday
This was a song a lot of record producers thought had a chance of being a hit because it sounded really fresh. It almost worked for me. I think I might rework the chorus just a little some day (or maybe not).
Love Is A Fight
I wrote this one for my brother's wedding. It has a certain poignancy to it and was a nice ending to the record.
I really like this song, but must say that I hate the recording. I find it interesting that we used all the best gear and it still sounds like crap; whereas, Pop City was recorded on 8-track in some garage and sounds far better.
I'm really proud of this song even though it was a demo that never blossomed in the way I wanted it to. It has a really interesting chord progression. I would find it very difficult to learn some of the chords or even the verse again. It's cool and very worked out with a meticulous arrangement. All of our things were very tight and meticuloussomething I hardly do now. These days, I play a song differently every night and don't rehearse. "I got you and you got me and we are fortunate"a most important declaration.
Hard Rock Tambourine
Yet another song that didn't make it to Pop City. We just stopped playing it because there were so many new songs coming in. In our first two years, this one was often played live... mostly at places by lakes with neon beer signs.
Tough Suction (live)
Another reggae song from around 1979 that was one of the first we started playing live. Later on, we stopped doing it and I don't know why. I like the title. Even though this board tape is really rough, you get some idea of the energy of the band live. I was very interested in ska music at the time, as I'd been playing with a bunch of Caribbean guys for two years just before we started Sussman.
For more information on Peter Himmelman and Sussman Lawrence, please visit
The Official Peter Himmelman website at www.peterhimmelman.com
Hopefully this is not the end of the story. While "The Complete Sussman Lawrence" has everything that was released, there are dozens of unreleased Sussman Lawrence songs sitting in the vault. Another collection of Sussman Lawrence material may be released in the future. Stay informed and join the Deep Shag Email List.
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