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Music Review: Velvet Monkeys – Everything Is Right

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With “Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richman pioneered a  Velvet Underground meets the Romper Room kids kind of sound. The VU influence of minimalism and drone was tempered with Richman’s sense of innocence – which provided an excellent contrast. This combination would lie dormant for many years before it become the basic K Records aesthetic – but before that we had Velvet Monkeys.

Everything Is Right was the 1981 debut of Velvet Monkeys, and was initially released on the bleeding-edge format of cassette tape only. The group was led by future indie-icon Don Fleming, who has remastered the 30-year-old tapes for this CD reissue. Besides Fleming’s guitar and vocals, the Monkeys consisted of Elaine Barnes (keyboards, vocals), and Stephen Soles (bass). In the tradition of all great rock bands, they had a succession of drummers – no less than three appear here.

The disc begins with “Everything Is Right,” a song that perfectly encapsulates what the group were all about. Fleming’s deadpan delivery of lines such as “Everything is right, everything is coming up roses” sounds irony-free. Of course this is highly unlikely, given the fact that they were a Washington D.C. band in the first-flush of Reaganism. What Velvet Monkeys pioneered was a way to have your cake (or jellybeans) and eat it too.

Their sense of fun is what comes through the most. With songs like “Drive In,” the foursome share their love of the simple pleasures of the drive-in double feature. In 1981, such things still existed. Other mood-lifters include a cover of “The Creeper” and “Velvet Monkey Theme Song.” As we all know, every band shoud have a theme song.

Velvet Monkeys were definitely not living in a vacuum. There is an experimental side to them that may have been obscured in the early days, but was clearly there. Whether intentional or not, “Any Day Now” has a great deal in common with the sound Martin Hannett produced on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album. Don Fleming may disagree with this, and it may have just been something in the air at the time. Still, there are remarkable similarities.

For the CD release of Everything Is Right, three live tracks are added for our listening pleasure. They are from a New Year’s Eve 1981 show at a club called The Chancery in D.C. The tunes are raw as hell, and it sounds like everyone was having a damn fine night. Of course the conservatives were well on their way to putting an end to the hedonistic good times, and D.C.‘s own Minor Threat would soon spawn Straight Edge. But Velvet Monkeys were pointing the way to a very different type of punk rock, albeit one that would come of age many years later.

What is most apparent in listening to Everything Is Right is the profound effect it had on Beat Happening (whose debut appeared in 1984). Beat Happening’s homegrown label K Records even specialized in cassette-only releases at first. As is fairly common knowledge, the only tattoo Kurt Cobain ever had was of the K Records logo. And Velvet Monkeys themselves would one day record for K, in 1989.

But in 1981, all of these developments were a long ways off. Everything Is Right was a pioneering recording, and one that proved to have a lasting impact. It has also been nearly impossible to find almost from the start.

Thirty years is a hell of a long time, especially in the fickle world of music, yet
there is nothing dated about this disc. The amateur exuberance and obvious joy at just playing make the whole thing sound as fresh as ever. Everything Is Right is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, even if it is usually as frown-frozen a mug as Margaret Thatcher’s.

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