Iron City Houserockers, ‘Love’s So Tough’ (09/06/79)

The Iron City Houserockers come from Pittsburgh (surprise), and their debut album is strong, passionate and a little desperate. This is hard rock with force, but there’s no macho in it. Lead singer and guitarist Joe Grushecky pursues romance without pretending he doesn’t need or doesn’t want love as his reward; the Houserockers’ music is sexy but dispenses with the distancing bravado we’ve come to expect from guitar-based groups. It’s a yearning for male-female simpatico—a quality you can hear in the odd Southside Johnny track, the quality that in Peter Wolf’s voice always emerges from a context of defeat—that the Houserockers mean to put across.

They do, too. Fred Goodman’s “Hideaway” (“Forget about your husband/I’ll forget about my wife”) is so drenched in hopeless lust you’re half-convinced the singer and his lover will never get together, but it may not matter: the fantasy is so insistent it contains its own consummation. The musicians push a good hook—a high, ragged guitar line—that keeps the simple tune and the simple concept kicking. This is rough, bar-band stuff, and you wish you were in the bar.

The remaining eight numbers were written or cowritten (with other Houserockers ) by Gru­shecky, and though the titles pretty well sum up their themes—“I Can’t Take It,” “Turn It Up,” “Stay with Me Tonight”—the vulnerability of Grushecky’s singing and the piano-and-harp lyricism of the band is anything but ordinary. “Dance with Me” stands out. It begins with a snatch of harmonica tinny enough for an early-Sixties Dylan LP, and then moves into guitar and drums that actually call up memories of the Rolling Stones’ still-incredible “Tell Me.” Grushecky, pitching his voice to every boom and ringing chord, traces the story:

Frankie’s always hustling
To make Sheila his steady girl.
One day Frankie hit the numbers
Hundred dollars on nine-nine-­four.
Frankie called up Sheila
Pleadin’ for one last chance.
“Baby, let me take you down.
Do you wanna dance?

There’s something very corny, very rich and very mysterious about these lines. An enormous amount seems to ride on them: Grushecky sings as if Frankie and Sheila are going to die in a car crash before the next verse is out. You wonder: How old are Frankie and Sheila—eighteen? Thirty? Why is Frankie hooked on someone so cold, and why is Sheila so cold? Why is there such a sense of struggle in this story? Bruce Springsteen makes you ask such questions about the characters in his songs. Here, so do the Houserockers. Most bands have never thought of trying.

Besides Joe Grushecky, the Iron City Houserockers are Ned E. Rankin, drums; Gil Snyder, key­boards; Art Nardini, bass; Gary Scalese, guitar; and Marc Reis­man, harmonica. They’ve made one of the least polished first al­bums I’ve heard in the last year, and one of the best. With luck, they might fill part of the gap left by Lynyrd Skynyrd; they might even help bury the rotting corpse that outfits like Journey, the Doobie Brothers and the Knack have made of mainstream rock & roll. With­out luck, the Houserockers may not even get a chance to cut a second LP—they offer no frills. I hope they’re around for a long, long time.

Rolling Stone, September 6, 1979

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