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The Best Band You’ve Never Heard

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Crack the Sky

Growing up in Baltimore in the 70s, I would tune in to WKTK or 98 Rock to hear my favorite performers. Bowie. Queen. Elton. Zeppelin. And Crack The Sky. When I left Maryland, I found my college buddies loved all the same music with one glaring exception — no one had heard of Crack The Sky. The story of Crack the Sky is one of potential success frustrated by missed opportunities. The band, founded by guitarist and songwriter John Palumbo, came together in the early 1970s in a small town in West Virginia, about 30 miles west of Pittsburgh. Palumbo had formed a cover band with guitarist Rick Witkowski after the two met at a local music store. Witkowski was amazed by Palumbo’s prolific songwriting (according to Witkowski, Palumbo had “notebooks full of songs”), and they soon decided to start performing Palumbo’s original compositions. By 1975, the band was a five-piece, and they released their first album.

Crack the Sky’s debut album, Crack The Sky, was magnificent. Their music was like a mixture of Steely Dan, Yes, and the Beatles. David Sanborn and the Brecker brothers added a jazz flavor to some of Palumbo’s songs. A string section turned “Ice” into a worthy successor to the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Crack’s lyrics ranged from sci-fi epics to twisted love songs to social commentary. Rolling Stone named Crack The Sky the “debut album of the year.” Even today, the magazine ranks it as one of the top fifty prog rock albums of all time.

So then, why has no one heard of Crack the Sky? The trouble began with Lifesong Records, the newly-formed record label that signed Crack the Sky and released their first album. The founders of Lifesong had no clue about how to promote and distribute an album. Despite the raves from critics, Crack the Sky’s album could not be found in record stores and received only limited airplay. To make matters worse, the band had signed a typically one-sided record contract that allowed Lifesong to keep all revenue until the label’s costs were paid off. The band didn’t receive a dime. (Witkowski claims he received a single royalty check of $2.43. He never cashed it.)

There was one place where Lifesong’s limited marketing effort paid off — Baltimore.   There was some airplay in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and a few other cities across the U.S. But only in Baltimore was the album played in constant rotation. Baltimoreans knew every word to “Ice” and “She’s A Dancer” — and they could play air guitar to “Hold On” and “Surf City.”

Crack The Sky tried to build an audience through live performances, which showcased the band’s high caliber musicianship. They opened for ELO, Kansas, Styx, Supertramp, and others, but these stints proved to be only temporary. (Palumbo claimed that they were kicked off tours for showing up the headliners.)   Still, they filled venues in Baltimore with enthusiastic audiences who sang along with every song.

Crack The Sky’s problems would continue despite releasing the highly praised albums Animal Notes (1976) and Safety In Numbers. (1978). The band members argued about their direction among themselves and with the record company. Friction between Palumbo and Witkowski increased as did their perilous financial situation. Finally, Palumbo quit the band to pursue a solo career.

In 1980, the label convinced Palumbo to reform Crack The Sky. Palumbo brought his demos to Witkowski and keyboardist Vince DePaul. The three-piece band’s resulting album, White Music, incorporated elements of new wave and punk and was more pop-oriented than their previous releases. Every song was a potential single, and every track was played on the radio — but only in Baltimore.

Crack the Sky has continued to release albums in different combinations, often with Palumbo as the only common thread. Their recent releases (including 2015’s The Beauty of Nothing) have reclaimed some of the feel of their earlier recordings, receiving great reviews from the few critics who have heard the recordings. And you can still see the band’s great live show with a sold out audience — but only in Baltimore!

10 Killer Crack The Sky Tracks

Ice (from 1975’s Crack The Sky)

The epic that started it all. A structurally complex musical journey made for headphones. Crack’s signature syncopated bass and drums. A great Palumbo vocal delivering a mysterious lyric (“are you afraid of the ice?). Dramatic strings (like Paul Buckmaster’s early work with Elton John) are the icing on the cake.

She’s A Dancer (from 1975’s Crack The Sky)

The story of a dancer. But, since this is a Crack the Sky song, the “she” is really a “he.”

We Want Mine (from 1976’s Animal Notes)

“We don’t want your money – We want MINE!” Let’s just say that Lifesong was not amused! A favorite on Sirius/XM’s Deep Tracks channel.

Long Nights (from 1978’s Safety In Numbers)

A beautiful number about an old man mourning his dead wife. Long nights, indeed.

Lighten Up McGraw (from 1978’s Safety In Numbers)

The first five notes of the intro are perfect Crack.  It starts and stops, drawing you right into the song.  One of a handful of songs not written by Palumbo after he left the band during the recording of Safety In Numbers.

Nuclear Apathy (from 1978’s Safety In Numbers)

Another epic song in multiple sections. “Something’s wrong from the moon.” Nuclear war as contemplated by Palumbo.

Hot Razors In My Heart (from 1980’s White Music)

Crack’s biggest hit, even though Palumbo thought it was a throwaway. Listen as the lush intro disappears, revealing Palumbo’s raw vocal sang to the woman who spurned him. And then the band kicks in. Should have been a hit outside Baltimore.

All American Boy (from 1980’s White Music)

Tell me this is not a hit single! An unusually “normal” pop song for the band with some nice Crack touches (including Beatlesque harmonies in a slowed-down outro).

Skin Deep (from 1980’s White Music)

Palumbo’s ode to excess. The funky horn section (especially in the instrumental break) made this song a highlight of their live shows.

Your House Is On Fire (from 2012’s Ostrich)

Crack the Sky updates their sound without losing their unique style. A horn-filled highlight from their 2012 release, Ostrich.

While we’re at it, you might enjoy other CultureSonar articles about great musicians: These Guys Were REALLY Behind the Music profiles some of the greatest-ever studio players; When a Beatle Wrote with Elvis should be relatively self-explanatory; as are Why Doesn’t Anyone Record Squeeze’s Songs? and That’s My Jam. If you’re looking for an awesome new band, check out our piece on Lake Street Dive.

Scott Freiman

Illustration by Greg Houston

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28 thoughts on “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard”

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  5. Mike says:

    I was introduced to them by a good friend while in the Navy stationed at NTCC Hampton Roads in Norfolk. Lucky enough for this country boy from Indiana to see them at the Bayou in D. C, in ’82. If they mange to remain relatively unknown outside a few regions, that’s ok by me. They are virtually unknown in Indiana (aside from the fortunate few I personally turned them on to). I like to think they are “my” group, and am reticent to share them with too many people. Most simply aren’t worthy.

  6. Steve Butkovich says:

    No love for “Robots For Ronnie”? Not sure where I was living when that came out, but it got some airplay. I always loved that song.

  7. Craig Lawson says:

    Nice! Any press is good press.
    I found this band the day “Live Sky” was released. to me, that was the “magic” album.
    “This band has come all the way down from an acid trip, just to play for you. Would you please welcome…Crack The Sky.” 🙂
    My friends heard this at my house A LOT. Of course, it then prompted me to buy the studio albums.

  8. Paul Youngman says:

    Been a huge fan since day one. Consider myself so fortunate to see them at Club 66, Pier Six, Rams head and others. I don’t miss many shows.

  9. Chuck Schilling says:

    There are precious few non-killer tracks on the Classic CTS records (through Photoflamingo, though I know some don’t like Photoflamingo all that much), so it’s not shameful for one of your favorites not to appear on that list. I would have liked to see Good Child Gone Wild or Too Nice For That make the list, but I’ll not lose sleep over it.

    One thing is for sure – they could outplay basically any band around and pretty much always embarassed the headliners they opened shows for.

  10. John says:

    No Surf City on the 10 best?

  11. Mitch Koulouris says:

    Safety In Numbers by Crack The Sky is one of the great albums ever… Totally under appreciated band. Being signed to Lifesong Records didn’t help….
    Mitch Koulouris
    Los Angeles, CA

  12. Glen Morlas says:

    I have been listening to Crack The Sky since 1976

  13. Terry Murray says:

    Sea Epic is a great song

  14. Rick Witkowski says:

    Five or six years ago, I had a guy on Facebook confuse me with Rick Witkowski from Crack the Sky, because my Facebook profile picture was of me playing a guitar during my bluegrass phase with a local ensemble. I did a little research, and Viola!, that’s how I discovered Crack the Sky. Been listening ever since!

  15. Lightning Baltimore says:

    “We Want Mine” was a minor hit where I grew up, in northwest Louisiana, which is nowhere near Baltimore.

  16. jackquigley52 says:

    When I was a DJ in York,PA at Starview 92 I used to play Surf City all of the time…..

  17. Kris Lyons says:

    Nothing from “From the Greenhouse” or “Machine”? Two excellent albums – CTS is awesome!

    1. Chris Powell says:

      Agreed. I’m fairly sure somebody like Trent Reznor or Perry Farrell thanked CTS in the liner notes of one of their early cassettes. That’s how I used to find other bands pre-internet. I took a chance on FTG, & dug every track.

  18. Big Giant Head says:

    Your House Is On Fire is amazing. Wow, thanks!

  19. Fred Green says:

    Regional fame, a non-entity everywhere. A similar thing happened to Benny Mardones in the Syracuse, New York area. Huge radio play and concert appearances. Funny enough, he was from Maryland.

  20. JACK BOTTS says:

    My hometown is “30 miles west of Pgh.”; Weirton, WVa. “Palumbo” a Weirton name. Anyone know anyone in this band from “30 miles west of pittsburgh”?

  21. Christopher Gebbia says:

    Somehow discovered them while living in Tucson, Az in the late 70’s. Saw them warmup Heart on the Safety in Numbers tour and covered Lighten Up McGraw and Nuclear Apathy in a local cover band. Easily the best band no one knows about.

  22. David Colburn says:

    I was turned onto Crack the Sky thanks to KAAY’s Midnight Album Hour. I would start my tape deck and let it go while I slept. One morning I woke up, rewound the tape and heard Safety In Numbers. I was hooked. I still have that tape. The fidelity is terrible due to how far I lived from Kansas City, where the station was based. But, for me, that was part of the charm and appeal. This incredible music was finding its way to me despite the physical and cultural distance it was crossing.

  23. Don Diego says:

    Check out the band Pink Cream 69.

  24. Steve Bartrum says:

    Been a fan since ’76. I was a young man back then.I had the opportunity to work with them doing media from 01-08
    While Lifesong screwed them up,the in-fighting and disagreements between members of the band led to them not being more popular.
    Yet,after 40 years,they are still together making music and doing shows.

  25. c. e. owens says:

    One simply MUST hear “From The Greenhouse”

  26. James McNeill says:

    Been a fan since picking up their debut in a delete bin (remember those?) in the late 70s. To this day I have never met anyone else who has heard of them. Unless it was through me.

  27. Roger Weisman says:

    Thank you for posting this. I never heard of these guys, but going through their catalog, they have retroactively become one of my childhood favorite bands, if that makes sense.

  28. Rob Allen says:

    I was turned onto them by my manager (also a local musician) at McDonalds when I was 17 (1978). This was my first foray away from top 40 bands and I have never looked back (either from CTS or bands radio has never heard of).

  29. Jeff G says:

    They were popular in San Antonio. Kiss/Kmac had them on the radio

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