Between 1987 and 1992, hotshot Philly guitarist Tommy Conwell and his steamrolling Young Rumblers were as unavoidable as fast bikes in rush-hour traffic. We’re talking an endless array of gigs and gold album radio play for “I’m Not Your Man” and “I’m Seventeen.”
It’s not as if Conwell — an active blues cat who hosted several WYSP shifts before the station went talk — or Rumblers Chris Day, Jim Hannum, Rob Miller and Paul Slivka went away. Like any good band, they busted up but still get together like a family for holidays.
“Our live shows were so full of raw energy, our fans were so connected to our music, we lit up any place we played,” says rhythm guitarist Day about the early days. “We rehearsed constantly, became a super-tight band, completely comfortable with each other onstage. At that time, it was rare to be a stripped-down, no effects, straight-ahead blues-rock band. All muscle and rhythm. Denim and leather, not spandex and big hair. We were tight.”
Between 1981 and 1984, Conwell ripped through hardcore with the Zippers and stormy-weather blues with Rockett 88. He and the Rumblers then started up with a racing rockabilly sound and an abiding love of Link Wray and Freddie King.
“I threw together a trio for an event at University of Delaware, the Skid Row Beach Party, where we opened for the Maytags and Catherine the Great, whose lead singer made his entrance with a backflip,” says Conwell of the band’s first gig as a five-piece, in ’86. “We didn’t embarrass ourselves, and my picture was on the cover of the school newspaper, the kind of luck we seemed to receive for a while there.”
Between then and ’88, they got the Hooters’ management (Steve Mountain) behind them, released their own indie-label Walking on the Water, followed by Rumble, their first album for Columbia. Things happened fast. Maybe too fast, in retrospect.
“A slow boil would’ve been better, absolutely, but I didn’t have a choice, or at least it didn’t seem so at the time,” says Conwell. “You don’t decide when you will get a shot. If you get it before you’re ready, those are the breaks.”
Conwell enthuses about his mates and that initial rush of rock as if they were kids in a candy store. To him, Day was handsome and cool, bassist Hannum and drummer Slivka had “this weird punk/hillbilly/jazz open-mindedness” and the entire proceedings were vividly quirky. “I kept pushing until we got a reaction: hotdogging, climbing on things; stuff that takes no talent. But my songs were pretty sweet, and I could play lead guitar pretty well.”
Conwell’s Young Rumblers were still selling well when they made Guitar Trouble in 1990 and Neuroticus Maximus for MCA in 1992, but MCA shelved Maximus due to new management constraints. Then Conwell screwed up the Rumblers formula. “I’d made changes in the band that I thought would freshen things up but it was never as good after that.”
Day is franker. “I became a pain in the ass and got canned,” he laughs. “We pulled in different directions musically, squabbled over money, had egos and ids. We were making the second record, there was a ton of pressure to top it and we freaked out in different ways.”
Freakouts behind them, Day and Co. are please to be rumbling again. “Time heals all,” he says.
Conwell has made his lost Neuroticus Maximus chapter available on his website. “I didn’t do anything the right way, I’m sure. I just put it out there. I think I own it. Is MCA still a company? And if they are, what are they gonna do, come after me for the $600 I made selling downloads? Bring it on.”
And Conwell digs seeing the family, holidays or not. “People asked for it and I saw dollar signs. I love to see the guys; we’re like brothers. I’d like to make a new album with them but I don’t know if it’s financially realistic. But it all seems worthwhile to do something if you’re the only group on the face of the earth who can do it.”
Fri., Nov. 23, 8:30 p.m., $25-$33.15, with Bricklin, Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St., 215-627-1332, electricfactory.info.