ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
US singer songwriter Willy DeVille once explained the music of his youth. "I still remember listening to groups like the Drifters. It was like magic, there was drama, and it would hypnotise me," he recalled.
In 1974, Billy Borsay was singing in a group called Billy de Sade & The Marquis, but they changed their name to Mink DeVille in 1975. Borsay simultaneously changed his name to Willy DeVille.
With various line up changes the band finally settled on a sound and embarked on gigging at CBGB nightclub in New York which was the very club that spawned the New York punk scene and hosted shows by The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Misfits, Patti Smith Group, The Dead Boys, The Dictators, The Cramps and Richard Hell & The Voidoids amongst others. Mink DeVille played CBGB between 1975 and 1977.
In late 1976, Mink DeVille was signed to Capitol Records after the label saw them at CBGB. A recording deal led to the band settling on Jack Nitzsche as producer for their debut album. Nitzsche worked under the tutelage of renowned producer, Phil Spector who invented the "Wall Of Sound" production technique. The band's debut album, 'Cabretta' (titled 'Mink DeVille' in the U.S.) was recorded and it produced many a sound throughout including soul, R&B, rock, and blues.
Esteemed US Hall Of Fame songwriter, Doc Pomus, once remarked that "Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow - timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute."
From the opening chords of "Venus Of Avenue D" we already hear a 50s and 60s musical leaning with a tight rhythm and finger clicking going on like it was a scene from West Side Story, but with an edgier mid 1970s roots rock twist.
He sings like a disgruntled Van Morrison and oftentimes like Lou Reed, particularly in the uber cool song, 'Spanish Stroll.' The track was actually a Top 20 hit in the UK and it is in my mind, the perfect fusion of Americana and Latino rhythms. The lyrics are street smart about a "Mr Jim" doing the 'Spanish Stroll.'
Hey Mr. Jim I can see the shape you're in
Finger on your eyebrow
And left hand on your hip
Thinking that you're such a lady killer
Think you're so slick!
One minute you are thinking that Willy DeVille is dangerous and then the next minute he could be serenading you. It's a theme that characterised much of DeVille's work. He is the guy who is tough on the outside but soft underneath and who was just looking for love. Almost as if he was a street kid on the nickel himself. He grew up in working-class Connecticut. His background was a mixture of Pequot, Basque and Irish. He once said of his background that he was "a little of this and a little of that; a real street dog."
Back to the songs. "Little Girl" was recorded originally by The Crystals in 1964 under the title "Little Boy." A wonderful adaption by DeVille with Nitzsche producing is a somewhat tipping of the hat to Nitzsche's mentor, Phil Spector. It's in the ballads that we get a feel for the romanticism of DeVille; an innocence and simplicity that was really at odds with the evolving punk movement of the time.
New York was really affected by this style of song, for we even heard it in the music of The Ramones, as hard as fearless as they were.
DeVille could really rock in tracks like 'One Way Street' and 'Gunslinger', whilst we hear the Muddy Waters influence on Cadillac Walk. But then we get the Sam Cooke sounding soul vocal on "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" which is rumoured to be one of Mick Jagger's favourite songs. Rod Stewart could have easily covered this.
Tragically, Willy DeVille left this mortal coil in 2009 but Trouser Press remembers the Mink DeVille of this era as follows:
"On a good night in the New York underground around 1976 or 1977, the band led by Willy DeVille... could be the coolest cats on the scene. Willy dressed like a pimp and played a guitar covered in leopard skin; swagger and soulful strut was a brisk rejoinder to the sloppy punk and wimpy power pop bands they preceded and followed on stages. After the band was discovered, producer Jack Nitzsche got them on the lean, tough R&B beam for a first LP that sweats and smokes through and through as a classic of such fully and lovingly assimilated music should."