Friday, May 1, 2009

Still A Thrill...

Thrills from Strutter Magazine

Thrills began in 1974, made up of players Tony Monaco (keyboards, vocals), Rob Owens (drums, vocals), Dave Fullerton (guitars, vocals) and Bill Gilbert (bass, vocals).

The core members of the band were Monaco and Fullerton of Penn Hills, who had started out playing in a seven-piece group called Menagerie that was horn-driven, doing some Chicago and BS&T stuff, along with a few Fullerton compositions.

They decided to put out a leaner and meaner sound, and formed Bad Company (no, not that one), with bass player Al Opsitnick after adding Owens to the roster, who had a lights out audition. They put together a playlist of some 20 cover songs, and were good to go.

Bad Company began playing high school dances, and became a mainstay of the frat party circuit, a pretty steady source of gigs back in the day. When they were all of age, they rocked the regional club and bar venues.

They dropped the Bad Company name - it seems some Brits were playing under that banner, too - in mid-1974 when Gilbert signed on, and became Thrills.

Gilbert replaced Opsitnick, who split because of the dreaded artistic differences. He was a pal of Fullerton's - they both belonged to the chess club, apparently a primo rock 'n' roll hangout in Penn Hills. Thrills continued on as popular act in the Tri-State area.

They picked up a manager, Tom Ingegno, originally from Long Island (he and Mike Frenchik served as writers, producers, and agents for the band). He was looking ahead towards the group's future, and was afraid that like so many area bands before them, Thrills would never become more than a big fish in a small pond if they got into a Pittsburgh comfort zone and didn't grow their fan base.

So using his homeboy connections, he booked some NY dates for the band. The rock music scene there during the late 70’s was thriving and Thrills were a good fit. After a few months of travelling back and forth, they made NY their home base in 1977. Playing the club circuit in New York City, Jersey, and Long Island, their career took off.

In virtually no time, Thrills were voted the #1 band on Long Island by Good Times Magazine in 1978. They started to put together more original material, and released a single "Not Gonna Run" on their own label, First Step Records. Then they inked a deal with indie G&P Records.

They spent the next year playing and recording in New York and Los Angeles, where the band laid down their initial album, "First Thrills," in 1979. It was original stuff, with a couple of cuts from an earlier 10-song demo they had made, but decided not to release. The vinyl hit the racks in February of 1980.

And hey, it did pretty good. Thrills expected some New York area love, but the LP nudged into Billboard's Top 200, featuring the single "Breaking My Heart." They toured heavily in support of it, backing bands like John Kay & Steppenwolf, Foreigner, Quarterflash, Nick Lowe, and Donnie Iris.

Thrills took some time of from the road and went back to L.A. in September of 1981 to record "Front Page News," their second G&P release.

Monaco said "I think it was our best album. It was by far our biggest commercial success, especially in the tri-state area near Pittsburgh. There was a radio station in Pittsburgh known as 96KX. They got behind one of the songs that Dave had written called 'Tonight' and placed it into heavy rotation. It held a top 10 status for over 10 weeks! We really felt that we on the brink of making it."

Yah, the band can leave Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh never leaves the band. 96 Kicks and DVE pushed the singles "Tonight" and to a lesser degree, "High Side of 55." The group returned to the road, hoping to hit the rock 'n' roll jackpot of fame and fortune.

Owens left the band after that, and Pittsburgh drummer Linda Mackley (she played for local acts Harombee & Axys) took his place.

In 1983, they went back to the studio to cut "Thrills 3." The ten tracks showcased power keyboards with slick harmonies and choruses. Though tilted a bit towards ballads, Thrills rocked hard with cuts like "The Feeling’s Gone" and "Too Many First Times."

It was supposed to be the band's breakout disk. But G&P ran out of money and steam, and folded after the taping. The label's demise left Thrills without a record company, and their latest master collected dust in the vaults.

That bad hand led to the end of Thrills. As Monaco said of the album that wasn't: "I really believe that it could have broken the band on a national level. That was what upset us so much. We were so close! The stress of over ten years of hard work ending so abruptly is really what broke the band up."

Fate, though, is a funny beast. G&P and Thrills (to be replaced in name by another Thrills band in 2001, an Irish indy group. Must be karma left over from the Bad Company days) may have faded from existence, but that tape was still sitting on its shelf, waiting for an ear. And it finally found a friendly one.

A Thrills' fan, Steve Allen, knew about the unissued album, and he introduced the bands' suits to Dane Spencer of Rewind Records (and Sojourn), a division of Song Haus music and classic rock reissuer. He liked what he heard on the buried T3 tape, and Rewind remastered and released "Thrills 3" in 2000, almost two decades after it was cut.

It was well received by the public, and the reviewers dug it, too. Rewind followed by issuing "Live from My Fathers Place" in 2002, which was recorded at the Roslyn NY club My Fathers Place and broadcast live over Hempstead's WLIR Radio, on March 17, 1981.

"Front Page News" was reissued last year by AOR-fm, and is being distributed through CD Baby. The band hopes that a double CD of "First Thrills" and "From Kingdom Come" (taped in 1979 at Kingdom Sound Studios in Syosset, NY. It was going to be their first album, but didn't quite make the cut) will join the list. Not a bad discography for a group that disbanded in 1983, hey?

And the music still holds up. It's great AOR work from the early eighties, in the pomprock vein of Asia, Styx, Yes, Kansas, and REO Speedwagon. Their stuff was that good and well-produced.

Who knows where Thrills would be now if they signed with a national label that had the muscle to place them on some more radio playlists, or if G&P could have hung on financially until the MTV era and its monster PR potential? It's an old story for Pittsburgh bands, even those that head to the bright lights.

What's the band up to now? Monaco says "We all went our separate ways although we remained close friends. Dave, Linda, and I went to work with various local bands. Bill wasn’t interested in doing a local circuit. We all got day jobs and went about our lives."

"Linda Mackley still lives in New York and she is always doing something new musically. Rob Owens, our original drummer, lives in Pittsburgh. Bill lives here in Florida near Dave and I. We are just normal guys with normal jobs, families, and nice homes."

"As far as a formal re-grouping, we are all in different places in our lives so while it is unlikely, it is not impossible. Hopefully, we will get second chance to make our mark, leave a legacy, if even a small one. Like my hero Billy Joel once said, 'Don’t forget your second wind.'”

Fullerton explains Thrills more simply. "We were all Pittsburgh boys living a dream and trying to achieve it," he says. And hey, 25 years later, the dream lives on.

Thrills - "Tonight"

(To keep up with the band, visit the Thrills My Space page. And Old Mon would like to thank Tony Monaco - who is quoted from a Strutter magazine interview - Dave Fullerton, Sonny Derdock and Audrey Monaco Danovich for their generous and invaluable help.)

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