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Mistery Men

By Sylvie Simmons, taken from Kerrang! magazine, December 1985.

            The black-and-white cab, smelling like a Vietnam vet, all sweat and marijuana, circles the Barton Coliseum (Fine name for a Coliseum, don’t you think?—Ed.) and spills us out at the backstage door in the tail-end of Hurricane Juan.

               

A gang of men in dark suits mills around the dressing rooms; Tina Turner’s minders. While over in the arena cops with cowboy belts to put their guns in strut between the seats, looking for trouble.

               

Figuring they’ve found a near equivalent in my RCA chaperone, Dave Lewis, a big burly Public Servant waves a flashlight like a machete and tells him to put his cigarette out.

               

All around me are what the American music magazines would call fine demographic: the various age-groups and type-groups who’ve come for Tina. A pretty perfect audience too for the opening act, a group who cross one or two categorical boundaries themselves. Mr. Mister. A band “without faults”, according to Derek Oliver’s eulogy a handful of Kerrang!’s ago, “a marvelous mixture of some of the most pompous and rare AOR bands that are known only to Paul Suter and the musicians playing therein”.

               

Live, there’s a great deal of power, with melodic songs which might on the album lack (if you’ll excuse the scientific term) balls being propelled along by powerful drums and searing guitar—‘Broken Wings’, in the Top Ten in the US charts and on MTV every time I turned the TV on, being chillingly evocative in the way that ‘Boys of Summer’ was, and ‘Kyrie’ reminding me of the best elements of the Police…

               

By ‘Into My Own Hands’, half the arena’s on their feet for the few seconds it takes before the cops make them sit down again—standing, like smoking, is obviously banned here; it’s not hard to be an outlaw in Arkansas.

               

The response overall, I’d say, was as good if not better than last tour’s Tina Turner opener Bryan Adams got; 75% of it for talent, 25% for Little Rock, Arkansas being desperate for entertainment, judging by the time I spent there. Mutant City, ‘Deliverance’ without the leather and canoes, a huge half-empty bowel spurting out the odd Top 40 bar, bank and church. I used to think Middle of Nowhere was a cliché until I went to Little Rock…

 

* * * * *

 

Back at the Holiday Inn bar, the penguin piano player prods at the keys, the patrons slouch over plastic tables, living testament to the claim that alcohol’s a depressant, and the band pick at (take these) chicken wings with ketchup and Coors beer.

               

There’s drummer Pat Mastelotto, onetime member of the excellent-but-defunct Dreamland stable (former record label of inflated pop and matching ego producer Mike Champlin) who tells me tales of working with Michael Des Barres and Nick Gilder and who’s now played with just about all of Autograph in one L.A. band or another.

               

There’s guitarist Steve Farris, ex-Eddie Money band, talking about meeting the legendary local groupie and horizontal Terry Wogan of Arkansas—a couple of minutes’ entertainment with anyone passing through—Little Rock Connie; Steve also happens to be the world’s leading rock n’ roll expert on turtles!

               

And there’s Richard Page and Steve George, the Hall & Oats of Mr. Mister (except Richard plays bass in addition to lead vocals, and backing vocalist Steve plays keyboards), who stick around for the interview.

               

“I’ve read a lot of interviews with bands like Toto,” Richard is saying—we’ve been talking about session players, which they both were once, and I’ve been shooting my mouth off about how session players usually make for lousy bands, all slick, clever-clever calculation—“and there seems to be a general hatred for the idea that these guys can actually play their instruments real well. I think that the press has traditionally glorified the street bands, bands who have a certain image or a jagged edge to them, not necessarily bands who can play.”

               

True enough—especially, I find, with American bands. When you’re dealing with a country of junk food, junk media, junk religion, and junk junk, the older, more careful craftsman just doesn’t cut it.

 

* * * * *

 

Mr. Mister’s embryo was nestled in the warm womb of Phoenix, Arizona, dusty hometown of Alice Cooper, the Tubes and Stevie Nicks. Richard and Steve played in a bunch of Top 40 club bands together, separating only after a particularly murderous stint in Las Vegas.

               

“Seven or eight sets a night, we started at ten and worked till five in the morning. My voice lasted about two days,” says Richard. “And I said, “I can’t do this”, I left and went to L.A.”

               

That wasn’t much better. He called Steve up and asked him if he wanted to try moving west and writing some songs, “and he said, ‘sure’, and we started writing with John Lang, who collaborates on our songs—not a playing member of the band, he’s strictly a lyricist, a conceptual-type guy, sort of visionary in a way.”

               

Kind of what Jim Vallance is to Bryan Adams, only Lang is living in Paris now, “working on a novel, going to school at the Sorbonne. It’s something he’s always wanted to do and now after ten years we finally have a hit record and he’s in Paris…”

               

But we digress. They put together a band, called it Pages, and released three albums from ’75 on.

               

“It was in that kind of gray area on the late 70’s,” says Richard, “when there was disco music and there was heavy rock, corporate rock, and there wasn’t really anything in between. They said that we were sophisticated—too musical for the average person…”

               

They didn’t sell many records. But they did get a gig opening for (what ever happened to?) teen idol Andy Gibb on his great big tour—“Believe me, $500 a week sounded great to all of us coming from nothing! And it was a great experience; we were immediately zapped into the big arena thing, so it was a good training ground for us” –and a lot of offers of session work.

               

“It’s a kind of safe existence, being a studio musician,” says Richard, “and a great way to earn a living. But we came into this always knowing that we wanted to be in front. We just got sidetracked. We didn’t have the immediate success of a band like Tears for Fears, say—22 years old, major hits in a year—that didn’t happen for us. We kind of took the long way ‘round.

               

“But we’re older and wiser—older, anyway!—and I think our time is now. It seems to be that way. It’s sort of coming around again and the melodies are back—more sensitive music may be the word for it—and a lot of bands are doing that kind of thing, and we sort of fit into that groove.”

               

So when did they decide to give up the safety of session work and commit themselves to a real rock band?

               

“We haven’t really given it up entirely!” smiles Steve. “On the Pages albums we were using a lot of different studio musicians for different songs and guitar players and everything, and we just decided we wanted to have a self-contained band who could perform together, write together, record together, so that’s really how Mr. Mister came about.”

               

“There’s also a writing transition that we went through,” says Richard. “We felt that we’d just exhausted the Pages thing, it wasn’t successful with the public—although it was certainly successful within the musical community—and we just felt that we wanted to broaden out scope a bit, try and get better. And we spend a year and a half just writing, trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and that’s how we ended up with this band.”

               

* * * * *

 

“One of the big things about Mr. Mister,” says Richard, “was when we found Steve Farris. He came in with a real, tough, raw, immediate edge to his guitar playing, which we like. He’s a sophisticated, learned player, but he also had that real tough edge to offset the lilting kind of keyboard things that Steve does so well. That contrast established a precedent for the band, I think. And of course Pat is dynamo on the drums, so there’s a lot of dynamics going on in the band.”

               

Richard originally planned to just sing, but stood in for the bass player who was at the dentist during rehearsals and the job sort of stuck. Steve doesn’t fight him over who gets to sing lead because “I’ve got too much stuff to do playing the keyboards to worry.” So far, says Richard, “we all get along real well.”

               

So they showcased at SIR studios in L.A., with Supertramp’s borrowed sound and light system, got a recording deal, came up with the name shortly afterwards (“Just a name; the record company’s going, ‘If you’re going to make a record you have to have a name…’”) and put out their debut album, I Wear The Face, in ’84. It did pretty well; number 55 in the US charts. Though not as well as this summer’s Welcome to the Real World, co-produced by the band and Yes house mixing man, Paul De Villiers (met at a Yes gig, of all places!).

               

“We’re not going to do another album until the songs are right,” Richard goes on. “We’re not going to put any pressure on ourselves.

               

“When I was a kid I used to like music such as the Beatles’ White Album. I used to go into my room when I was 14, 15, put on the headphones and listen to those lyrics on White Album and Stevie Wonder’s Inner Visions and I’d feel like I had a great relationship with the music, that it was saying something to me, something that I had thought of and I was relieved to know someone else had the same thought and it was on vinyl, a real piece of art, you know. And I hope there’s some kid sitting there with their headphones on with out music playing thinking the same thing.

 

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"That's really what it's all about. If it's real to the person who's doing it, chances are it'll be real to someone else. It's gotten to the point where some performers think the listeners are just like robots being told what to do. We give the public more credit than that."