20/20 were part of the late-’70s run of power pop/new wave outfits that filled the airwaves for a brief and glorious time. Critical consensus has placed Big Star on the throne as the be-all and end-all of this genre, but they were certainly not alone. They may have been first, releasing their debut in 1972, but there were many others who deserve respect as well. Certainly 20/20 are one such band.
Who knows what is “in the water” to spawn particular scenes, but something special was happening in Tulsa, OK in the mid-’70s. Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour left Tulsa for the center of the music-verse, Los Angeles, around that time. They were soon followed by Steve Allen and Ron Flynt, who founded 20/20, with the additions of Mike Gallo and Chris Silagyi.
Greg Shaw’s independent Bomp Records was the first to take notice of 20/20, and released their first single “Giving It All” b/w “Under The Freeway.” Shaw had a great love of power pop, and Bomp was a perfect fit for 20/20 in the beginning. But Bomp was a very small operation, and did not have the worldwide resources of a major label. After the single, a bidding war broke out, and the CBS subsidiary Portrait Records signed 20/20.
Their self-titled debut album was issued in late 1979, and was a pitch-perfect power pop album. That was the year of The Knack, not to mention great albums from Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Squeeze, just to name a few. For the faithful, 20/20 was manna from heaven. I must admit that I was one of those who came to the band much later though. There was just so much music one could absorb at a time I guess.
The problem is, when I finally did hear 20/20, the album was already commanding collector’s prices at the used record stores. Naturally enough, I missed out on the first (brief) CD reissue of it back in 1995 as well. It went out of print quickly, and has been trading hands at collector’s prices on online auction sites for years also. Until now, the only version of 20/20 I have had is a muddy cassette tape a friend made for me.
Real Gone Music has remedied this situation once and for all with the release of both 20/20 albums, plus a couple of non-LP tracks. With a total of 24 songs, and a running time of just under 80 minutes, the new 20/20 and Look Out! CD has basically everything the group ever recorded for Portrait.
20/20 begins with a sound effects-laden 1:13 introductory piece titled “The Sky is Falling.” We then jump in to the brilliant “Yellow Pills.” This is a dose of fun which reportedly received mucho airplay on KROQ, and is considered their finest moment by many. It is a reputation that is well deserved, for the tune is irresistible. When Big Star and the Raspberries first appeared in 1972, the music world was not ready for them. That was the era of side-long epics like Close to the Edge by Yes, after all. The prevailing notion was that these power poppers were hearkening back the hopelessly outdated British Invasion style of music.
Well yes, as a matter of fact they were, those pre-Revolver or Pet Sounds tunes were fantastic, as Alex Chilton and Eric Carmen knew. It is an appreciation that Flynt and Allen certainly shared. Some of the other highlights on this 12-song platter include “Cheri,” (the first single), “Tell Me Why (Can’t Understand You),” and “Obsession.” To be honest, there is not a bad cut among the bunch. This debut definitely merits all of the acclaim it has received over the years.
20/20’s second and final Portrait album was titled Look Out! (1981), which may or may not have been intended as a warning. I’m kidding of course, but there were some big changes going on in the band. The biggest was the replacement of drummer and songwriter Mike Gallo with Joel Turrisi. Gallo wrote one of the best songs on 20/20, “Jet Lag,” and co-wrote “Tell Me Why,” and his input is missed on Look Out!
This is not meant as a criticism of Turrisi by the way, he is a great drummer. The fact is, Look Out! is a much darker, and much heavier collection of songs than its predecessor. The band spent 15 months recording Look Out!, versus the three weeks they spent on 20/20. While the power pop element of the group has not been completely abandoned, it is not nearly as shimmering as it was on their first effort.
Look Out! opens with “Nuclear Boy,” which reflects the darker concerns of Flynt and Allen. Besides the upbeat “Beat City,” which was written by Silyagi, the remaining nine tunes were by the former Tulsa boys. Look Out! suffers in comparison to 20/20, which is unfortunate, but it does have its moments. Among the highlights are “A Girl Like You,” “Out of My Head,” and “Alien.”
There is no getting around the Reagan-era “Morning in America” business of the period either. 20/20 have not one but two “USA” tunes here, “Life in the USA,” and “American Dream.” The weirdest track has to be “Mobile Unit 245,” which is so unlike the power pop of 20/20 that it sounds as if it came from a completely different band.
Portrait chose “Strange Side of Love” as the lead single from the album, and offered two non-LP tunes as the “B” side, “Child’s Play,” and “People in Your Life.” Those latter two songs make their CD debut here as bonus tracks.
Much like their recent Sanford & Townsend release, Real Gone has put together a single-disc package that offers the curious an excellent opportunity to get to know the band. Making their classic debut available again is of course the main attraction, but hearing the second album is a nice touch as well. All in all, this 20/20 twofer is another excellent release from the label.