BY: MICHELLE PEREZ-VEGA
For the last four decades, musician extraordinaire Mike Skill was on the road in one way or another, performing with The Romantics and other musical ventures. When the pandemic hit, touring was pretty much not an option for the guitarist. Not one to sit idle, Skill decided it was time to release his debut solo album, appropriately named Skill…Mike Skill.
Writing for Skill…Mike Skill started during the “off-times” Skill wasn’t on stage when touring, even before the pandemic hit. The musician originally released a few tracks as singles before releasing a full 12-track album.
“I was writing all the time,” Skill said. “But the songs were never really complete, they weren’t quite right. Then I started slowly building on them at my home studio in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes I would have a really good guitar part and then the lyrics would just kind of fall into place. Sometimes the songs came together quickly; sometimes it took longer to pull things together. I knew a song was done when I felt the vibe and energy from the music and that made it authentic to me.”
The result is 11 songs with a remake of The Romantics 1979 classic hit, “What I Like About You,” which was co-written by Skill and then-bandmate, Drummer Jimmy Marinos.
“This is my first creation on my own,” Skill said in a statement upon the album’s release. “It’s me, starting from a whole different place…Inspired by and with contributions from some of the most talented artists, friends and family (that I know) in music. It wraps you up and kicks your ass, with bumps and bruises, cuts and gashes. It’s reflective and freeing with forward motion, like a wild ride with the top down!”
A HOMAGE TO A CITY SOUND
Produced by Chuck Alkazian, Skill…Mike Skill pays homage to Detroit, Michigan, where Skill was raised. The album, recorded at the city’s Pearl Sound Studios, also includes Brad Elvis (current member of The Romantics and Chicago-based band The Handcuffs), Kevin Rankin (A Flock of Seagulls), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Ricky Rat (Trash Brats), Chloe F. Orwell (The Handcuffs and wife of Brad Elvis), and Patrick Harwood (Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels).
“I wanted music that had the Detroit attitude and energy,” Skill said. “For me to do that, I had to include area musicians, people who shared my influences and who knew how to rock. They all really came through for me in a big way and helped me make what I wanted, which was a straight-ahead, rock ‘n’ roll album.”
Skill previously released a few songs before Skill…Mike Skill was finally issued, one being “’67 Riot.” Featuring Kramer, the song was inspired by the racial riots and unrest that rocked Detroit in the Summer of 1967.
“The National Guard was down from my house,” Skill recalled. “We were all watching the television, afraid that the riot would come to our neighborhood; that the rioters would come into our homes. People were killed and many were injured. Marshall Law was declared and the media instilled a lot of hate and fear that has lasted a long time. I wanted to put the words and feelings of that time in a song, and have it serve as a warning for us to learn from the past and not repeat our mistakes.”
“I originally recorded it in Portland,” Skill added. “But it got re-mixed at the studio in Detroit. I called Wayne and asked him if he wanted to play on it. He told me to send it to him, which I did. He got back to me told me that he thought it was a great song and said he would like to play on it. I was thrilled!”
Another song Skill previously released was “Carrie Got Married,” a power-pop anthem that was penned as a sequel to the 1980 Romantics song, “Tell It to Carrie,” with lyrics written by Orwell.
“The Romantics were playing at the Speedway out in Flat Rock,” Skill said. “Brad and Chloe, who is his wife, drove from Chicago, which is a good three hours. They started singing and writing lyrics to the song, and even though they didn’t have a guitar with them, they came up with a melody. It was this great little song and I added little hooks and my style to it, my own flavor, and it came out great!”
And then there is “What I Like About You.” With such a strong showcase of songs, why did Skill decide to re-make the classic melody?
“Well, as you know, I co-wrote the song,” Skill said. “It’s a part of me and it was such a big hit for The Romantics. We were always talking about doing a 30th anniversary thing to recognize it, and then it became an idea for a 40th one. Nothing ever happened. So as the 41st anniversary of the song came up, I just decided to do it!”
“I’m just really happy with the way this album came out,” Skill stated. “It came out really good, exactly with the sound and energy that I wanted. Pure, straight-ahead rock and roll.”
MUSIC IN THE MOTOR CITY
Music-wise, Detroit is rich in multiple genres, ranging from jazz to blues, rock to punk. You name it, Detroit’s got it. It’s a city that produced the Motown sound and artists like Wilson Pickett and Stevie Wonder, rock bands such as MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iggy Pop. And Skill was a willing participant of it all, breathing in a vast wealth of musical influences as he was growing up.
For Skill himself, his interest in music began at a young age.
“I was like, five-years-old and I was checking out my brothers’ 45s,” Skill remembered. “They would come home from school and be really mad at me, yelling that I better not be scratching the records! I listened to Elvis, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Eddie Cochran. Detroit has always been a music town and it was a great place to see bands,” Skill continued. “There were a lot of clubs available to go to featuring acts like Bob Seger, The Stooges, the MC5, George Clinton and Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone. It was a city filled with music that greatly influenced me and allowed me to hone my musical skills.”
Skill started out on the drums first before picking up the guitar when he was 13.
“There was this radio station in Canada that had this huge, powerful wattage,” Skill said. “I got introduced to bands like The Kingsmen, then Eric Burdon and The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, just to name a few. It just blew my mind! The guitar just talked to me. It was such a natural thing to do when I picked it up.”
In his teens, Skill started his first band with friends, playing at countless school dances. As well as becoming a proficient guitarist, Skill taught himself how to play bass when he was 16.
“I was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from The Beatles and I just wanted to play like Paul McCartney,” Skill said. “I sat myself down one afternoon, determined to learn all the bass parts. And then I wanted to play bass like James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, both who played for Motown. All three just further influenced my playing. I was learning a lot from them.”
Days were spent playing and listening to others.
“Every neighborhood had a band,” Skill said. “You would go five blocks one way, there was a band; five blocks the other way, there was another. You would go to these areas and learn new songs, learning how to play parts by going to different areas in Detroit. You would just hang out on neighborhood porches, playing and listening.”
After graduating high school, he formed a different band with future bandmate Marinos and another classmate. Various other musical configurations followed before Skill and Marinos formed “Motor City Rockers” in the 1970s.
“Someone called Hilly (Kristal) at CBGB,” Skill remembered. “He told us to come out and play at the club. The scene in New York was starting to happen. It was time to just go back to the basics. You had The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Blondie, and Max’s Kansas City. This was around 1974, I think. So we drove 660 miles in a truck so we could bring Jimmy’s drums and platform, because you had to have your own instruments to play at CBGB. And we played with artists like Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls in the audience. It was wild!”
Unfortunately, Motor City Rockers dissolved soon after. Skill and Marinos decided to head back to Detroit.
ENTER THE ROMANTICS
“I remember I bought the latest Flamin’ Groovies record,” Skill said. “I brought it over to Jimmy’s house and we listened to it. I said, ‘We can do this, I can write and play this, and you can play this.’ I had met Wally Palmer a while back and asked him to come over. I still have my calendar book where I have ‘Wally – Audition’ marked! Wally then brought Rich (Cole) in. We had a female singer for about three or four months. She had the look and the attitude, but we finally realized it wasn’t going to work because she couldn’t keep it in key. We eventually became a four-piece.”
Admittedly, the history of The Romantics is long and complex, a storied one that could fill a book. Like many a band’s tales, it evolved around signing to a label, releasing a career-promising album, members coming and going, more hit songs, and lawsuits. But music-wise, the band hit a chord with its quick-tempered sound, complete with memorable choruses that are still prevalent today.
Skill agreed that simplicity was the core and intention when The Romantics were in early formation.
“It’s amazing how you can jam to three or four chords and make great music,” Skill said. “Simple and catchy choruses that you could sing to. Songs that have lasted through time. Put on our first album and you will still rock to it! Noise, energy, and attitude are what The Romantics were about.”
So what went wrong?
“Ugh, where do I begin?” Skill laughed. “I remember when we released The Romantics in 1980. When we released ‘What I Like About You,’ we knew it would eventually drop off the charts after a while. But we were surprised when they came to us and said they wanted a second record right away. We were like, ‘What are you talking about? We should be touring over in Europe now!’ So against our better judgment, we went into the studio and recorded National Breakout that same year. I was a mess!”
Skill left the band after National Breakout was released.
“There was so much turmoil with that second album that I had to leave,” Skill explained. “Just the fact that there was the pressure to write new songs within eight months after the release of our first album was just too much. I was worn out, I was beat from recording.”
Skill was out of the band for about a year-and-a-half before joining again. This time around he was playing bass for The Romantic’s In Heat album which produced “Talking In Your Sleep” and “One In A Million.” More albums and singles would come from the band, a rise and fall that would take up several pages. But it’s a history that Skill is mostly proud of.
“There were a lot of great times as well as a lot of bad times,” Skill summed it up. “Some regrets, and yeah, I would have done this or that differently. It wasn’t fun when I was only making $275 a week, and seeing your music and royalties being misappropriated by people you trusted. I’m always asked for advice from young musicians,” he continued. “I always say, learn to do things yourself! And get your own attorney and accountant. You can’t always count on the right people to do the right things for you and your career. Only you! But in the end, we made great music; our songs stood the test of time, and I’m proud of that.”
But getting back to Skill…Mike Skill. Skill wants to tour for the album, but with the pandemic comes uncertainty.
“I really don’t know at this point in time,” Skill admitted. “I really don’t want to play in a real crowded club right now. I not only have to worry about keeping myself safe, but the other musicians and audience as well. Things are starting to slowly open up, so we’ll see what happens in the new year. It’s a lot to think about.”
What Skill has been thinking about is music for another album.
“I’m already thinking about the next one,” he enthused. “I’m always writing – it’s like this continuous, ongoing thing with me. And I want to use Detroit-area musicians again. I want to help these musicians as much as I possibly can and expose their talents to a wider audience.”
TRACK LIST FOR SKILL…MIKE SKILL
- Not My Business
- Dark Side of Your Love
- My Bad Pretty
- Carrie Got Married
- ‘67 Riot Feat. Wayne Kramer
- We Got Your Rock’n Roll
- Sinners Song
- So Soul Alone
- I Want What You Got
- What I Like About You
- One More Time