John Liccardello (aka John Speck) is a great rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, an even better singer and an absolutely ace songwriter. So far, though, his reputation (at least outside Detroit) rests at least as much on his monumentally rotten luck as on his music. The same goes for his former bandmate Jim Paluzzi.
After Paluzzi left the drummer’s throne in Sponge in 1995, he joined Speck and bassist Robby Graham in Hoarse, a trio Speck had formed two years earlier. The band signed to RCA a year after Paluzzi’s arrival, and the group recorded an album at The Loft, with studio owner Tim Patalan in the producer’s chair. (Located just outside Detroit, The Loft can count Sponge, Cheap Trick, Fretblanket, Speedball, Brenda Kahn and ex-Squirrel Bait vocalist Peter Searcy among its clients. Patalan’s brother, Andy, would later take over the lead guitar slot in Sponge.) Happens Twice is distinguished by dense guitar riffs, with enticing hints of jazz in the chord progressions (especially on “Diamond,” “72” and the title track), that keep moving briskly over a tight, nimble rhythm section. Speck’s voice has a raw edge, although not so raw that it ever really lives up to the band’s name; his singing is always melodic and compelling. (Paluzzi acquits himself quite well, too, as lead vocalist on “Crown” and “On Deck.”) “Tuesday Morning,” “Long Gone,” “Issue” and especially “Paint the Town Red” evince the pop sensibility that would come to full fruition in Speck and Paluzzi’s next band. Happens Twice is a viscerally satisfying, memorable rock ‘n’ roll album; had Hoarse stuck around, its sound would have fit in well with the incipient emo movement. But the album spent a year and a half in RCA’s vault while the band battled label and management over tour plans. Hoarse played its final show a few months after the disc’s release; its title would turn out to be prophetic.
Shortly after Hoarse’s dissolution, Speck formed the Skeemin’ NoGoods with drummer Chuck Burns (ex-Speedball) and bassist Ron Sakowski (who had played in the Necros and Laughing Hyenas). Produced by Speck at The Loft, the band’s self-titled album showcases a much rougher style of punk than Hoarse…and a songwriter wound up tight with a lot of frustration to release. Barreling through eleven songs in under 28 minutes, the trio echoes the classic Michigan proto-punk of the Stooges and MC5. In song after song, Speck vents his spleen, whether at “Politicians” (“Left wing, right wing / It’s all the same”), work (“Punch the Clock”), women (in “State of Grace” he observes, “The only way she’ll fuck him / Is if he keeps paying the bills”), people who overstay their welcome (“Little Alex,” which features the chorus, “Bollocks, bollocks / Get the bollocks out”) or life in general (“I Want Something,” “Lot to Answer To,” “No Ties”). Skeemin’ NoGoods is an intense disc full of raw Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, but much less melodic and memorable than Speck’s previous (or future) work.
Following Hoarse, Speck and Paluzzi started a new group with Tim Patalan on bass. When the unnamed band booked its first gig, Paluzzi came up with the joke handle Smokin’ Fags at the last minute. The trio’s premiere generated enough buzz in the Detroit area to make the name stick, much to Speck’s irritation. They recorded a five-song EP at Patalan’s studio and released it on Dallas-based Idol Records. The Fags shows the trio focusing on the most pop-wise elements of Hoarse, without ever losing its rock edge. Speck assumes an anxiety-ridden but hopeful persona in his songs — young, insecure, prone to drinking too much and messing things up, but still swimming against the current of his own weaknesses and fears. (Imagine Paul Westerberg fronting Cheap Trick.) In the joyous opener “Truly, Truly,” he tells the object of his crush, “I can bounce back from a heartbreak / But I’m headed towards the wall / Do I hit the gas or brakes, babe? It’s your call.” In the love-gone-wrong number “Mistake,” he pleads his case with, “I try to do what’s right / But what’s left keeps egging me on / It may end up on my face / But that’s a risk that I take.” A very promising start.
Two years after the EP’s release, the Fags signed to Sire, a label with a long history of supporting artists who combined edgy personality with pop appeal. Unfortunately, Sire was in a state of corporate reorganization at the time. The Fags recorded their first full-length at The Loft, delivered the tapes and then spent two years fighting over advances, bookkeeping, tour support, release dates and every other potential artist-label conflict in the book. The album languished, unreleased.
Sire ended up dropping the Fags, the news of which reached the band only after seeing their name absent from the artist roster on Sire’s website. Eventually, the Fags regained their master tape and contracted with Idol to release the album. Over the course of eleven songs (three of them re-recorded from the EP, with tighter performances but otherwise minimal changes), Light ‘Em Up is the sound of a band thoroughly fulfilling its promise. Speck works his beautiful loser persona in winners like “Siren Song (“I drank too much, what else is new? / I passed out wishing I was next to you”) and “Here’s Looking at You” (“You know where the door is / Don’t let it hit you from behind / I know where the floor is / And I’ll lower that bar in record time”). But the band also shows a lot more humor than it had on the EP, balancing the love-found and love-lost songs with infectious rockers such as “Snap,” “The Back of the Line” “Rockstar” and the day-in-my-band’s-life number “Tonight” (“The phone is ringing, man, it never stops / Just seems like no one wants to pay to get in / I hear the horn and Jim’s on time for once / He’s standing curbside with a shit-eating grin”). Despite a couple of minor infractions, such as the lyrical quote from Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” in “Siren Song” (Speck’s own lyrics are too good for him to resort to such feints), the songs on Light ‘Em Up would’ve been standouts on any of Cheap Trick’s first three albums.
The Fags may have won their battle with Sire — ask any band that’s ever tried to regain its master tapes from a major label — but the war was as good as lost. After Light ‘Em Up was finally released, the Fags managed to play just a handful of shows before calling it quits. Patalan decided to focus on his work at The Loft. Paluzzi settled down to domestic life; later, he began gigging around Detroit with the country-rock band Orbit Suns, a side project of Sponge vocalist Vinnie Dombroski.
Tour includes four songs from Light ‘Em Up — two in their studio versions, two recorded before a very enthusiastic Dallas audience — plus the non-LP tune “Firecracker.” One last memento of a talented band that deserved far better than it got.
Three months after the Fags’ final show, Speck formed HiFi Handgrenades with former Grande National guitarist Tony Vegas (who shares lead vocals on a few tracks) and the former Suicide Machines rhythm section of Ryan Vandeberghe and Rich Tschirhart. This time, Speck wasn’t even able to secure an American album release. Carry On is a 20-minute slice of punk rock in the NOFX/Bad Religion mode — short songs with fast polka-like rhythms, brief melodic guitar riffs over power chords. The nine originals (plus a cover of Superchunk’s “Detroit Has a Skyline”) are tight, lean and enjoyable enough, but this style of rock seems awfully limited for a songwriter of Speck’s range and acumen.
Still, the Handgrenades did generate enough buzz to nail an opening slot on Foo Fighters’ 2008 tour. This exposure led to bookings on the Warped Tour and at a couple of the UK’s major rock festivals that year. But the band abruptly cancelled a European tour and hightailed it home, where a breakup soon followed. Most recently, Tschirhart and Vegas have been performing in The A-Gang.
Following the Handgrenades debacle, John Speck relocated to Austin. As of late 2009, he is not active in the music business. Curiously, though, several of his songs from Skeemin’ Nogoods have been used in television shows (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Griffin), so there’s still hope that Speck himself may find a wider audience for his considerable talent.