The Romantics lead singer Wally Palmar on ‘What I Like About You’ and a new album
Clad in leather, Rickenbacker guitars in hand, Detroit’s The Romantics looked more like a gang than a band when they burst on the music scene in the early 1980s a gang with guitars. They unleashed a slew of memorable hits on the accepting public via MTV that included “Talking in Your Sleep,” “One in a Million” and the megasmash “What I Like About You.” Lead singer/guitarist Wally Palmar was there, as he has been the whole time, steering the band through almost four decades.
Alongside original guitarist Mike Skill and bass man Rich Cole (drummer Brad Elvis joined in 2004) The Romantics continue to rock with sold-out shows and a new album in the works. Backstage during The Romantics tour with Loverboy and Rick Springfield, I caught up with Mr. Palmar to discuss their new album, how he feels about 5 Seconds of Summer covering his song and what keeps the band going (and living in Detroit).
Question: Why do you still call Detroit home?
Answer: This is where I was born and raised. I have family here. It’s still the base of operation for The Romantics. I consider this home, and if I need to go anywhere, I can just jump on a plane and go like I always do.
Q: What was the music scene there like when the band started?
A: We formed the band in 1977. All the guys were from the East Side of Detroit. We had our ear to the ground as to what was going on around the country, as well as around the world.
We were very familiar with the scene in Europe and England with the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The established bands were still around Detroit: Bob Seger, [Ted] Nugent, Mitch Rider, Iggy The Stooges. MC5 were sort of finishing their run. The scene was more bar band-ish. Covers.
For us to go and play our own material, we had to branch out. You could play certain small clubs. But when The Romantics formed, we had to take it elsewhere. There weren’t that many clubs that would let you go in and play your own music. We did all we could here. We would go to the other markets in the Midwest. Each city has clubs that would cater to people looking for new music. We went to Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, which was just across the border here. Then we went out to the East Coast. There was more bang for your buck there in New York, Washington, Boston, Philly. We hit the East Coast pretty hard in 1978 and ’79 until we got signed.
Q:What changed once you got a record deal?
A: I like to say that getting signed was the difference between wearing red vinyl pants and red leather pants. [laughs] Because we had funding then, we were able to get an advance to do what we wanted. We made sure we put out something good with the first album in 1980.
Q: Where did the matching leather suits come from?
A: Being from Detroit, we would see that all the Motown bands like The Temptations and Four Tops, and they were dressed the same. The Beatles were in matching suits too. It seemed like a comfortable thing for us to do. And it established an identity for us visually. Then we let the music speak for itself.
Q: You’re the Romantics lead singer, but why did former drummer Jimmy Marinos sing lead on “What I like About You”?
A: All four of us were singers. During our live sets we would alternate singing leads on songs. And our drummer Jimmy sang on a handful too. The way that song came about was Jimmy needed something to sing that was simple enough with a straight-ahead beat.
Q: Did you know it was going to be a hit?
A: You never know. You record the song, and it just happened. I remember the first time we heard that song come through the speakers in the control room, we said, “I don’t think we better mess with this too much.” It sounded too damn good.
Q: You guys have recorded so many great songs “One in a Million,” “Talking in Your Sleep” but why do you think that “What I Like About You” became so huge?
A:There is really good energy in that song [and it’s] a really good performance by everyone in that recording. Simplicity.
Internationally, when “Talking in Your Sleep” came out, it was a bigger hit around the world. But it’s a different kind of song. To this day, every time you think you’ve heard the last of “What I Like About You,” it pops up again. If it’s not our version, it’s these guys 5 Seconds of Summer.
Q: How do you feel about their cover?
A: It works for them, and they do a great job of it. [For] four young guys from Australia, it’s their take on the song. It’s nice to see the song crosses over from generation to generation. It’s a piece of history now. Last year someone asked me, “Do you realize you guys have written the ‘Louie Louie’ of this generation?”
Q: Is it true you have a new album in the works?
A: It’s called “Up From the Rubble.” Because of our schedules during the summer, we do a lot of shows. Plus everyone lives in different places: Two guys live in Detroit, one guy lives on the West Coast, and one in Chicago. To get us all together to write and record is not always the easiest thing. But we did manage to do it in multiple sessions and put songs together. We hope to have it out before the end of the summer.
Q: What are your favorite songs to perform live?
A: Rule No. 1 is give the people what they want. As long as people want us, we want them. On our recent tour with Loverboy and Rick Springfield, we only have a half-hour. That’s six songs. Our job on that tour was to make as much noise as possible so people that are still outside rush in and see what the racket is about.