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The Music of The Monroes
Popular music is riddled with stories of bands that never reached their full potential for one reason or another. Sometimes it is because of internal strife, creative block, or factors outside of the control of the band. When this happens, we are left with a lot of “what ifs” that can haunt listeners, be they old fans or casual listeners hearing that band for the first time.
In the early Eighties, a band called “The Monroes” came out of San Diego, CA with a sound and style that almost magically blended guitar rock with synth music and would perfectly encapsulate the new music that would dominate the early to mid-Eighties. It was perfectly constructed pop music in the New Wave style written and performed by veteran music professionals. The band was signed to a record label, released a brilliant, but abbreviated album, charted and then an unexpected business decision derailed their trajectory.
The Birth of the Monroes
The band that would become The Monroes started when keyboardist Eric Denton started his own recording studio and began working with bassist Bob Davis (Bob Monroe). Those two would be joined by guitarist Rusty Jones, drummer Jonnie Gilstrap, and singer Tony Ortiz.
The band went into Denton’s studio, Accusound, and began recording original songs. These songs included their hit song, What Do All the People Know. Davis already had a recording contract and a lot of connections. This opened doors when he and Denton began shopping this album around. It didn’t take long before they signed with the manager Jon Deverian, who got them a deal with the U.S. subsidiary of the small but enthusiastic label, Alfa Records.
About Alfa Records
Alfa Records was established in 1969 by composer and record producer Kunihiko Murai who created music for films like, Showdown at Night’s End (1964) and Zatoichi in Desperation (1972). The record label had a brief foray into American music from 1980 until 1982. During that time they worked with an impressive roster of bands like The Monroes, The Police, The Cure, and many more.
Recording and a hit Single
After signing, they went into Chateau Studios with Bruce Botnick, who produced the Doors, and Rolling Stones engineer Alex Vertikoff in 1981. These two were pros, but when the finished product was delivered to Alfa, they preferred the original demo versions of the songs. So the band went in and re-recorded vocals and added some extra sound. According to Denton though, “What you hear on the radio is 80 percent the original demo that we did in a cheap little 8-track studio.”
In late 1981, What Do All the People Know was selected from their five song self-titled EP, The Monroes, as a single. It would climb the charts, peaking at Number 59 on the Hot 100 in July of 1982. Unfortunately, because they had signed with a smaller label, that didn’t have connections to get the song played more widely, it never went higher, despite spending 8 weeks on the charts.
Moving into 1982, The Monroes appeared to be on a rocket ship to musical stardom. They started opening for bands like Toto, Greg Kihn, and Rick Springfield, everything seemed to be going great. Then things took an unexpected turn.
What Do All The People Know
According to an interview given by Bob Davis in Blurt Magazine, the title for the Monroes hit single was inspired by his New Yorker mother. She was generally concerned with what other people thought and would let her son know that. This always stuck for him and it inspired a hit song. Way to go, mom.
Goodbye Alfa Records
While Alfa Records had signed some talented artists and were treating The Monroes well. Things at their U.S. subsidiary were not going well. In 1982, Alfa decided to pull out of the American market. The Monroes were not left in the cold, though. Their contract was sold to the venerable CBS records.
In a weird twist, the band learned this news while storyboarding ideas for a music video for their hit single. A video, that had it been made in the age of MTV, could have propelled the band to new heights.
This seems to be the major turning point for the band. They had landed at a major record label, one that was had more resources and reach than Alfa, but during the transition, they lost anyone to champion the band.
From 1982 to 1984, CBS records did very little to nothing for the band. The representative assigned to them by CBS? According to Denton, “He told us I’m assigned to you, but I don’t like you.”
The Monroes only released an EP
During the Eighties, the Monroes were never able to release a full album. Instead, the band released an Extended Play or EP album with five songs in the United States and six songs in Japan. An EP is an album that generally has three to seven tracks. Sitting between the “Single” and the long play Full Album or LP.
Their US self-titled album had five songs:
A1 What Do All The People Know 4:03
A2 Somewhere In The Night 4:04
B1 Hungry Stranger 5:23
B2 Blind Faith 4:08
B3 Pay Pay Pay 4:28
The Japanse release, with a very cool artsy cover of Marilyn Monroe, had a sixth track, the excellent instrumental, Yamarock, which was also the B Side of the What Do All The People Know single.
The music scene has always been competitive and representatives, who didn’t sign or discover an act, often didn’t feel any loyalty. It was just something they had to manage, and doing so meant taking time away from musical acts that they were passionate about. Because of this, The Monroes languished.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t trying, though. They were out there performing. A great performance of theirs from 1984 has been posted online by the amazing BetaGems. Until this was posted, the one live performance of the band was a clip of their dubbed performance on The Merv Griffin Show.
In this almost 14-minute video pulled from a San Diego public access TV show called Club 33, we see the band perform multiple songs in front of a live crowd. Songs include, Stones Against the Rain, Life has a Way, and What Do All the People Know.
The video demonstrates that the band was a solid live act and of course captures an exciting time in Eighties pop culture. I especially enjoy watching the people in the crowd dancing and Tony Ortiz’ total look.
A band in decline
As the band struggled to make a go of it without support, they desperately wanted to sign with a new label and manager. When Rick Springfield’s manager Joe Godfrey seemed to take a liking to them, they moved quickly to dissolve their relationship with CBS records.
Unfortunately, while the band thought this was great, their existing manager, Jon Deverian, didn’t. Naturally, this caused drama that ultimately left them with no manager.
Meanwhile, members of the band were struggling with the all too common issues related to substance abuse. Things got unpredictable and the creative capabilities of the band started to diminish. So much so that they started bringing in external songwriters to work with them. Things were looking grim and as 1984 came to a close, the band appeared to be fading away.
It was a slow fade, though. They kept trying, but the struggles started to drive a wedge between members of the band. Eventually, they started to quit, starting with Rusty Jones and followed soon thereafter by Tony Ortiz. In 1988, the band was official “broken up.”
After The Monroes
Each member of the band went their separate ways, but all of them kept their interest in music, and they all also seemed to remember some of the good times they had together.
In 2009 Jonnie Gilstrap, Tony Ortiz, and Eric Denton got together for the first time in decades and discussed the possibility of The Monroes getting back together. Sadly, nothing ever came of this.
The original EP was never released on CD, and while their single was on several music compilations, it was difficult for anyone to discover or even hear deeper cuts from the band. Even to this day, to get the music, you need to either stream from a service that carries the original tracks or purchase an original physical copy of the album. In a digital age, that is a hurdle that holds the band back from discovery.
Thankfully in 2013, a CD was released called, What Do All the People Know? While it’s not the original EP, it does have an alternate version of What Do All the People Know? and several other previously unreleased songs from their early recording sessions.
What Do All the People Know? the Music Video
As I mentioned, when the band learned that they were being dropped by Alfa Records, they had been story boarding ideas for a music video. Well, 35 years later, the band was finally able to make those ideas a reality. In August of 2020 The Monroes released their official music video for What Do All the People Know? on YouTube. The song crosscuts between modern footage and classic archive footage of the band performing. It works well to demonstrate the thoroughly timeless nature of this wonderful song.
The Monroes Today
With only one hit, that should have gone higher in the charts and very little to point to online by The Monroes, it might be difficult for them to connect with modern audiences. But effort is being made by the band.
In addition to the CD released in 2013 and this new music video, many members of the band continue to perform independently of one another and give interviews about the band.
Tony Ortiz gave an outstanding interview to Ron “Boogiemonster” Gerber on the radio program, Crap from the Past in 2011. Ron asked great questions and Tony is very candid. They also play a wonderful early demo from 1981, Still In Love with You. Give it a listen.
Why the Monroes Now?
New music continues to be made at an astonishing rate and consuming it is easier than ever. Often the act of discovery is about what is next, but it can also go backward. Gems from the past are lurking in CD and LP bins at record stores and in videos and streaming services. They are just waiting for you.
The Monroes are often lumped into the “One Hit Wonder” category. Yes, they had only one hit, but if you listen to their full body of work, you can see that label was granted to them because of circumstances beyond what the band could control. Each of the five-song on their EP is filled with potential. With the right management and at the right studio, their full-length album could have been a timeless triumph that is still being played today.
That is all a big “what-if,” from a fan The Monroes who likes to dream. But I think if you give them a chance, you will feel the same way. The world never properly embraced this talented band, but in the words of that very talented band, What Do All the People Know?