'Skill ... Mike Skill': The Romantics co-founder makes debut album
Forty years ago Mike Skill was part of something really special, and he never shies away from talking about it.
He created The Romantics' song "What I Like About You," among many others, and performed far and wide with the punk rock band from its beloved Detroit. A bass player and guitarist, Skill, now a longtime Portland resident, co-founded the band and still remains playing with lead singer Wally Palmar and others.
The band had other hits, famously including "Talking in Your Sleep" from the MTV days, but Skill can happily call "What I Like About You" his best creation — he wrote it in 1979 in the backyard of his family's Detroit home, and had some songwriting help with then-drummer Jimmy Marinos, who sang the song. It's quite a legacy, although as what happens in the music industry, Skill has not necessarily seen all the riches that come with such an iconic song, because of mismanagements and royalty arguments.
"It is a lifetime ago," said Skill, 65, who owns copyright and publishing rights to the song. "If it was something that lost attitude and energy, I wouldn't still be connected to it or play it with my band. It's, like, above the fray.
"I know it can get annoying hearing the song over and over again. But you record an album, and have so much dedication to it, it still seems fresh. It has a vibe to it. It was organic. It stayed alive."
As much as Skill enjoys still being a part of The Romantics and playing the old songs — it's 35 years and counting — he has ventured out for the first time with his debut solo album, "Skill … Mike Skill."
He wrote the songs at home in Portland and recorded some tracks at a little studio in Carver on the Clackamas River near his son's charter school. He built a control room/recording studio in a part of a trailer; during the day, kids would use drums and guitars, "at night I'd be pounding out songs till 2 o'clock in the morning." It's been 10 years in the making, he said.
With the help of producer Chuck Alkazian (who worked with Eminem and Chris Cornell) and others, "Skill … Mike Skill" came out digitally. When it makes sense to make a vinyl record, Skill said it'll happen.
The album includes a remix of "What I Like About You." Skill and drummer Brad Elvis did a raw version of the song, and it was produced with more of a "live energy" feel. "Chuck took it, had the same attitude as with the original version, and tightened it up," Skill said.
The album also features "67 Riot," a song about Detroit's 1967 race riot, and Skill had the pleasure of working with MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer. Detroit band MC5 was one of his favorite bands growing up.
The song "We Got Your Rock 'n' Roll" is Skill's homage to his early years as a rebellious rocker in his hometown. Released singles include "My Bad Pretty," "Not My Business" and "So Soul Alone."
Along with Skill and Kramer, Elvis and fellow drummer Kevin Rankin (A Flock of Seagulls, Animotion) and guitarist Ricky Rat (co-founder of Trash Brats), vocalist Chloe F. Orwell and harmonica player Patrick Harwood performed on the album.
Once he can tour, Skill will be thrilled to play his own songs as well as Romantics favorites. The Romantics haven't planned another tour, yet.
"I'm really hyped to do new records and play new songs," Skill said.
Skill performed at a Kingsmen reunion during the late Mike Mitchell's memorial. He has shared the stage with local stars such as LaRhonda Steele, Rae Gordon, Curtis Salgado and Norman Sylvester in the past. He knows John Smith and Valerie Day of Nu Shooz and Jennifer Batten, the former Michael Jackson guitarist, as well as Tommy Tutone ("867-5309/Jenny") and Rankin — people with 1980s music connections who live in the Portland area. (Animotion co-singer Bill Wadhams also lives in the Portland area; remember "Obsession" from Animotion?).
Adding to that, Skill said his wife, Cheryl Hangland-Skill, was a dancer for the band The Tubes, and they met on tour.
Skill considers Portland "not much different in attitude and energy" from Detroit, which he talks about fondly. He started spending time in Portland in 1983, in the middle of Romantics fame with "Talking in Your Sleep" and album "In Heat," and bought a house here in 1997.
"I'd go on the road with The Romantics and come back, be secluded into our surroundings and house and just go to old clubs," he said, including Key Largo and The Starry Night. "Outside of playing shows, I never hyped it," meaning living in Portland. His wife started a dance studio at Portland State University. Their son, Mick Hangland-Skill, was born in Portland and is a local photojournalist, artist and designer.
The Romantics started in 1976, and just weeks into their existence, the teenagers played clubs in Detroit. Skill was influenced by The Beatles and The Kinks, as well as Smoky Robinson and Motown stars and British bands. MC5 and the likes of Iggy Pop also made an impact on him; a couple of The Romantics' first gigs were as support for MC5, including at the Pontiac Silverdome.
The Romantics were raw with "high energy, short hair, skinny slacks, matching suits" and became "the new thing in town." The band put out singles.
"What I Like About You" was on the band's self-titled first album, and at the time wasn't released as a single. A video was recorded at the Whisky a Go Go on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip with one camera, close-ups and wide shots and the drummer Marinos banging on drums and belting out the lyrics. (The song was big in Europe at the time, not so much the U.S.).
The song and album kind of got lost in the shuffle, as the band's management quickly wanted another album done and then another. Before "In Heat," the fourth album, Skill had left the band as the guitarist and then rejoined the band as the bass player — "my punk rebel attitude got me fired," he said. "I returned for the fourth record, and I came up with the bass line for 'Talking in Your Sleep.'"
Their physical appearance in the "Talking in Your Sleep" video took on a distinctive 1980s flair (if you haven't seen it, check it out on YouTube).
The band has lived on, consistently playing shows in the past three decades. Marinos left the band, but he has played some shows. Elvis has been drummer for 17 years, the longest stint among drummers. Skill, Palmar and bassist Rich Cole have been mainstays from Day One.
"I've done some '80s tours, Wally does some. I'll pick and choose," Skill said. "I don't want to get caught up in that. It's nice to have my own music come out. I like to play choice Romantics songs, I'm not bothered by original songs. It's what I came up on. As long as they still have life, as long as they still have energy."
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