The Romantics: The 80s in Two Songs

the romantics

Has then ever been a better name for a band than The Romantics? The foursome is in the rare group of “two-hit” wonders; certainly better than one-fewer-hits, but shy of stringing a run of hits together. They had the look: four handsome guys regularly dressed in red or black leather outfits (Fun Fact: those outfits were made by a local Detroit seamstress who specialized in leather outfits…for a dominatrix clientele) and with the requisite early 80s short, coiffed hair. Their two largest commercial successes include “What I Like About You” (1978), a mainstay for all cover bands, and “Talking in Your Sleep”, which delivered a number one hit in 1984.

Related: “The One-Hit Wonder File: Keep Your Hands to Yourself”

The original lineup, Wally Palmar on rhythm guitar and vocals, Mike Skill on lead guitar and vocals, Rich Cole on bass and backup vocals, and Jimmy Marinos on drums and lead vocals launched from Detroit, Michigan on Valentine’s Day 1977. Major influences included musicians from the local scene including Bob Seger, the Stooges, SRC, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. According to guitarist Mike Skills, the group wanted a punk-like sound but minus the anger or unhappiness that often accompanied that genre, saying they just wanted to persist over the years while “still hav(ing) fun with three chords.” What they produced has since been labeled New Wave and is in good company with bands like The Cars, Duran Duran, New Order, The Police, and Joy Division.

Back in 1977, the band was eager to head out onto the road and released a single with “Little White Lies” on the A-side and “I Can’t Tell You Anything” on the reverse. Soon after, they headed to the East coast. By the way, “Little White Lies” is a popping little tune with a Green Day-lite feel, and “I Can’t Tell You Anything “ is a hard-driving, harmonica-howling ditty. Both are very good songs for debut singles. And yes, both are about three chords.

After finding success via touring, the band signed with Nemperor Records in 1979, releasing their self-titled debut album, which contains the classic “What I Like About You” and a cover of Ray Davies’ “She’s Got Everything.” If all you know about the Romantics is their two hits, do yourself a musical favor and listen to this album. If you’re of a certain age that lived through this time (motioning toward myself), it was an interesting era, as British punk was giving way to something far catchier and more notable. Songs like these were danceable, sing-able, and easily covered by garage bands – so everybody played them. The vocals are tight, with solid harmonies and the guitar work is really good. And it doesn’t hurt to have a harmonica at your disposal.

That was followed by the LP National Breakout in 1980 and a tour of Europe and Australia. The touring tightened their sound even more and led to two albums including Strictly Personal (1981) and In Heat (1984), the latter of which included “Talking in Your Sleep” and “One in a Million.” These helped drive the release to platinum. That was followed by Rhythm Romance (1985). During this time the band was co-headlining or opening acts for major groups such as The Cars and Cheap Trick. Then just like that, they had reached the peak of their commercial success – all within 6 years of their first release.

Also, during this short run, the band experienced lineup changes. In a switcheroo, lead guitarist Mike Skill left the band in 1981. He was replaced by Coz Canier, then returned on In Heat, but instead replaced bassist Rich Cole. In 1985, drummer Jimmy Marinos was replaced by Dave Petratos just before the release of Rhythm Romance. Keyboardist Barry Warner, a Detroit-native joined the band for the ensuing tour.

What followed for The Romantics was ten years in a cloud of lawsuits, feuding former managers, and issues with record labels. They learned “What I Like About You” had been licensed without their knowledge for use in a commercial and sued their manager. In 1990, Blondie drummer Clem Burke replaced Petratos long enough to release the five-song EP Made in Detroit. Eventually, by 1995 the group had settled all lawsuits, regained control of their material, and coaxed original drummer Marinos to return for some touring.

In 2003, they released the LP 61/49, named for lyrics from a Robert Johnson song, and brought back all former contributors to the band to participate, including Marinos, Badanjek, Black Crowes’ keyboardist Eddie Hawrysch, and Luis Resto.   The song garnered critical — though not commercial — success but reinforced their musical talent.  It was named “Most Outstanding National Small/Independent Label” album at the Detroit Music Awards, and in 2011 they were inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.

The legacy of The Romantics is in delivering timeless classics to 80s pop culture and influencing other musicians such as Tommy Tutone and Rick Springfield. Their dedication to keeping their music simple, melodic, and positive gave us two songs that are officially part of the 1980s lexicon. But don’t overlook their other releases; despite not being commercial successes, their albums are packed with great music.

-Will Wills



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Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

4 comments on “The Romantics: The 80s in Two Songs

  1. Great job with the correct spelling of the late, great Ed Hawrysch’s actual name. He shortened it to Harsch just to make it easier to pronounce and spell.

    As for the Romantics, agree totally on the tightness of that first record. It just rocks. National Breakout was a great follow-up with the hard-hitting 21 and Over and the poppy Take Me Out Of The Rain. It also contains the cover “Friday At The Hideout”, by a Detroit garage band called the Underdogs. Didn’t know that until just a few years ago, and the original is worth checking out too.

    Strictly Personal was the third record and some of the lyrics are kinda trite (C’mon Girl, Work Out With Me comes to mind) but Can’t Get Over You and Don’t You Put Me On Hold are melodic and powerful. They still have it.

    Go check out those 2nd and 3rd records…definite gems!

    • Will Wills

      Will definitely check it out. Before writing the article I queued up the first release while driving in the car and my daughter is like “who’s this great new band?” Thank you,

  2. Hey-ItsMike

    Thanks for giving The Romantics some love and respect. I was a Freshman at Michigan State when they played a local bar. The first album was out and the local DJs were hyping the band as the most exciting thing from the Detroit area since The Knack. So a pal and I decided to see them, based on the hype and the excitement that poured out of the radio when they played “What I Like About You.” I remember guys on my hall looking skeptical as we explained why we were going out into the Michigan winter cold on a Tuesday night.

    It was SO well worth it. The warm-up band was fine, trying to be punks in East Lansing. But The Romantics came out and blew us all away. The sound was so tight, so fast and clean, the aural equivalent of a streamlined, souped-up 57 Chevy. An amazing amount of controlled power, in matching black leather. And those songs! Not only the single but the others: “When I Look In Your Eyes,” “Tell It to Carrie,” “Keep in Touch” and the others. We really thought that this was something like what Liverpudlians must have felt in 1963.

    (Hey, we were young. I thought that this music and that of other power-pop groups like the Kingbees was going to set the direction for the 1980s and beyond. Needless to say, it didn’t. Doesn’t make these songs any less wonderful, though.)

    By Spring, most of the guys on my hall, like me, owned the album. I still play it to summon the feeling of being 18 on a green campus on a sunny day in May. Works every time.

    All that being said, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that when “Talking in Your Sleep” came out, it didn’t do as much for me. It seemed too MTV, too overproduced and poppy compared to the more muscular guitar sound of the first two albums. Now, however, unburdened of my early-20s purity tests, I can appreciate it more.

    Articles like this keep me coming back to CultureSonar.

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