in SEARCH of . . .
by Chris Nadler
The Cowsills sent three songs to Number One in the late '60s and early '70s, then watched from obscurity as their real-life family act was regurgitated on television as The Partridge Family. Two years ago, they were voted "Best Unsigned Local Band" in Los Angeles. Even Disney wouldn't expect audiences to buy that fantasy.
A lot of people joke that even though they lived through the '60s, they can't remember much about them. The Cowsills, however, remember the '60s all too well. As a band of five siblings and one mini-skirted mother, they made a brief sprint to the top of the success ladder beginning in 1968, but were pretty much finito before 1971 was over. Still, that sprint included eight albums and three #1 hits — "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," "Indian Lake," and a version of the theme from "Hair" that exploded with vocals and hellacious harmonies. Sadly, while those hits were good for American Bandstand bookings, the story taking place behind the scenes played more like a season of Oprah episodes. The Cowsill kids were being pushed at a furious pace by a military dad and equally prodded, no doubt, by an industry that viewed them more like a disposable get-rich-quick scheme than a living and breathing long-term investment. When they hit the skids in 71, they were broke. And breaking up. The family that plays
together, stays together? Yeah, right, and the check's in the mail (actually, one of our favorite lines here at Creem). It's a little hard to return to bunk beds, hot dogs, and hand-me-downs after you've played Vegas, recorded national commercials, and seen your face plastered on every teen magazine. Especially when you're just a kid. Let's put this picture in some proper perspective — fame hasn't exactly proved therapeutic for Eddie Vedder, right? Imagine the havoc it could wreak on a seven-year-old kid, which is how old Susie Cowsill was when she joined the band. Everything collapsed. Some of the Cowsills eventually turned to drugs and alcohol, others just turned away. The dream was over.
The Cowsills then ...
But in late 1990, two separate mentions of the Cowsills appeared in an issue of LA's Music Connection magazine. One raved about a new Cowsills demo. The other was a full-fledged, "8 on a scale of 10" performance review. Bob, Susan, Paul, and John were back together (their mother passed away in 1985, brother Bill is making waves with his own band, The Blue Shadows, in Canada) and making an apparently very serious bid as a '90s pop band, complete with a set of original tunes strong enough to erase any misleading memories of their earlier dash through the national spotlight. Forget about what you know (or think you remember) about the Cowsills, both pieces strongly suggested, and listen to what they're doing now.
After hearing a recent tape — which features easy-going, heavy-on-the-harmonies pop songs that recall Lindsay Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac — we realized that Music Connection scored a major scoop three years ago. We asked group leader Bob Cowsill (who, admittedly, wasn't so hard to find) to fill in some missing pieces.
CREEM: The Cowsills sort of disappeared back in '71 and I've read that many of you didn't even talk to each other after things fell apart. What prompted this family reunion?
Bob Cowsill: We were actually in negotiation to join one of those oldies tours. But at the 11th hour, we backed out because we had a meeting and sang some new songs. Now remember, Susan was seven years old in the old days, and I was like 16 or 17. The other guys were younger than me. So it wasn't like we were men that became old men and had an attitude like, "Look we better go out and make some money, because this is the only thing that will ever happen for us." We still had a youthful attitude. We all decided to go into the studio because we hadn't seen each other for awhile and wanted to work together again, just to see what would happen. These guys at Studio 56, in Hollywood, heard about what we wanted to do, supported the idea, and invited us to record there on spec — if we got signed, we'd pay them back. So we went in, did these three songs we had, and came out with a whole different attitude. We realized we were taking a big chance, but it was either that or sing oldies every night. So we decided to go with the riskier thing and pursue it seriously.
Did you immediately start shopping the three-song demo?
No. We decided to put the band together and hit the road a little. We picked the Midwest and East Coast 'cause that's where we're from. We felt it was good testing ground.
... And now, Back together, back in business, and back with a serious batch of original songs and a live show that give pop music a good name.
"Who do you market the Cowsills to? You mark them to the 55 million people out there who aren't buying grunge, who are not buying hip-hop, and who are still pining away that Fleetwood Mac broke up."
What was the audience reaction like?
It went over great. It was a positive experience again. Then we came back to L.A. and decided to go on television. This was still '91. We decided to use our name and go on TV and radio and let people know what we were up to. We did Good Morning America three years ago, we did Joan Rivers' show three years ago. We did Howard Stern's show before he got big. He called us out of the blue and said, "Hey, I want you guys to get back together and be on my radio show." This was when he was just in New York, before he was syndicated, and I didn't know who the heck this guy was. We ended up doing his radio show and TV show.
The press was really supportive. They acted kind of happy to see us. I'm still amazed that people remember, you know?
You were still trading on your
past, though. When did you
decide to stop playing the old
hits and come out swinging
like a new band?
Right after we stopped doing all
that press. We went back to L.A.
determined to be perceived as a
local band. I mean, we included the
hits in the set at first, then they became encores. But then we thought, "It's been a year, let's drop
the hits and just go out. We don't have to make a big deal about who we are, it's just our name. If
people remember, great...." We played the club scene in L.A. for over a year. We got great
reviews, we got a great reaction from our audiences, and it had nothing to do with "The Rain, the
Park, and Other Things." It had to do with the new material.
Buoyed by your success in the LA. clubs, you came to New York in '92.
Yes. We did the Bitter End. It was in the winter time. We had a big turnout, which always amazes us, because, believe me, you never assume anything. To make a long story short, one A&R rep from a major label told us we were as good as signed before we left for L.A. We're not rookies, so it's not like we got back to L.A. and went out for dinners we couldn't afford. But we were convinced by the guy's positive reaction. The way it went down in the end was that his boss basically killed the deal when he heard this great tape the guy was excited about was by the Cowsills. He was given the music before he was told who it was and loved it. I mean, he went the whole nine yards. So that was a real bummer.
You should've come up with a fake name and written a bogus bio. Just think where you'd be today if you said you were from Seattle and that one of the guys in Pearl Jam never missed one of your shows.
[laughs] Hey, I was out sweeping my driveway earlier and was thinking, "I'm going to write a biography about some group with a cool name and I'm going to send our tape out with it with no picture." You do get all these crazy thoughts.
So you get great reviews in every publication that counts, get voted "Best Unsigned Band in LA.," yet still the phones do not ring. Don't these A&R guys read, don't they check the polls, don't they sign anything that isn't part of a trend?
We definitely decided to stop trying to move a three-song tape to record companies. My wife, Mary, and I had written a ton of tunes. We didn't think that there was anyone around the corner
who was going to help us. We also felt that if and when a record company surfaced that understood our music could be marketed correctly to the milliof of fans out there — not Cowsills fans, but pop music fans — then having the record 90% done would be in our favor. We recorded the record in three or four months. That's a serious effort,
Of course, you can't Always blame it on the record label. There are some A&R reps who have followed their gut instincts, pursued something they genuinely believed in, and got burned. These days, you've got Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey, grunge acts, and rap and hip-hop groups dominating the charts. Where do the Cowsills and other pop acts fit in?
We fit into middle America. Pop music fits into the people who are buying cars. Demographically, we've proven live that we can appeal to anyone. So who do you market Cowsills to? You market them to the 55 million people out there who aren't buying grunge, who are not buying hip-hop, and who are still pining away that Fleetwood Mac broke up. They listen to these new radio stations that are surfacing and play current hits by old bands, as well as their old hits. So there is a market out there. People like me want to go out there and buy pop music that they miss. Some of us go to country & western to get it. You also get bands like th Rembrandts, who hinted at opening the door for others. There is a movement, but it has to be marketed to a group who are not 13- and 14-year-old teenage girls.
We're like the silent majority. But listen to the music they play on car commercials. They play songs like "Good Vibrations," 'cause they know we have the money. They're using music to lure the people with spending money into buying their automobiles. If a record company could take a marketing position that is analogous to that attitude, they could sell millions of records.
You've had the sort of life that movies are made about. What is one of the most important lessons you've learned through the years?
That not everybody gets a second shot. You can probably count the people who've gotten one on two hands. If we do get a second chance, that's something I'll definitely remember.
I'm sure I often took a lot of our early success for granted because I was so young. And if I hadn't taken it for granted, maybe it wouldn't have ended the way it did.
Also, although I was growing biologically, I didn't grow artistically for a long time because of the way our business was handled and the way the band was handled.
I just don't think we were grateful enough for what we did, because we let it die so easily. My only advice to any band out there is, "Come on, you could lose your life in an earthquake you know, enjoy your success and don't get weird about it."