Albums from the Lost and Found: Minimum Wage Rock & Roll

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

One of the greatest unsung live bands of the early ‘80s, the Bus Boys had amazing stage presence and charisma, and their appearances as musical guests on Saturday Night Live and its short-lived rival Fridays are truly electrifying. (Eddie Murphy was such an avid fan that he would even join them as backing vocalist for their SNL appearance and invite them to open for him on his stand-up-comedy tour that resulted in the film Eddie Murphy: Delirious.) And yet, in spite of the band’s cult following and their many television appearances at the height of their fame, the band sadly was never able to translate any of that into a Top 40 single. 

Mind you, the band wasn’t exactly your average Top 40 rock band. Much like the similarly short-lived Chambers Brothers before them, the Bus Boys were a rock-and-roll-oriented outfit consisting almost entirely of black musicians. (Coincidentally enough, the only non-black member in either band was the drummer, Brian Keenan keeping the beat for the equally underrated late ‘60s band, while Steve Felix would serve as the man behind the kit for the Bus Boys.)

However, whereas the Chambers Brothers managed to have some mainstream success and reach the Top 40 on more than one occasion (even coming within one spot shy of a Top Ten hit with the anthemic “Time Has Come Today”), the Bus Boys unfortunately courted controversy right from the get-go with songs like the hilarious, race-themed “There Goes the Neighborhood” and the notorious “KKK,” both of which can be found on this album, their 1980 debut Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. Like the equally-misunderstood Randy Newman, however, the band’s most controversial material was actually meant to be ironic and satirical, and was received poorly by those unable to read between the lines and see the humor in their playful brand of music.

And playful, it is, too! Much like the Stray Cats, the Bus Boys were clearly less influenced by the modern-rock and new-wave of the ‘80s than they were by the early rock-and-roll of the late ’50 and early ‘60s; however, whereas the Brian Setzer-led trio were inspired by rockabilly artists like Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent, the Bus Boys took their cues more from the likes of The Coasters, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. Yet they injected their love of early rock-and-roll with just enough of a modern sensibility to keep their music from sounding entirely like a novelty band or exercise in nostalgia a la Sha Na Na, who similarly had a sizable following as a concert draw but always had trouble getting its music onto the radio. The album’s first-rate opening cut, “Dr.Doctor,” one of two cuts here sung by Gus Loundermon, is one of the more modern-sounding cuts here and succeeds wonderfully, in no small part due to Vic Johnson’s infectious guitar work and Steve Felix’s driving drum work.

The band even uses the scarcity of black musicians who play rock and roll as subject matter for both “KKK” and the equally satirical “Johnny Soul’d Out,” while the band also explore equally unusual pop-song subject matter in songs like the workplace-frustration anthem “Minimum Wage,” the sports-themed “Tell the Coach,” the apocalyptic “D-Day,” and the self-pride-themed “Respect.” The only track here even remotely resembling a love song is the tongue-in-cheek, eyebrow-raising “Anggie,” which, like the Tubes’ “Don’t Touch Me There” from four years earlier, plays like a mildly-dirty send-up of the innocence of love song lyrics from the earliest years of rock and roll. Between the band’s lighthearted and often quite humorous lyrics and the slight ‘50s throwback stylings of the music that accompanies it, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the sheer fun of the band’s brand of pop, and the album, even in its less catchy moments, never ceases to be amusing and intriguing.

The band’s profile would steadily increase over the next few years, the band famously appearing in the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film 48 Hrs., performing “The Boys Are Back in Town,” which was destined to become a cult classic, and the band’s label, Arista Records, would draft them to provide a track for the label’s Grammy-nominated soundtrack for the film Ghostbusters, which would result in the band’s biggest chart hit, the #68-peaking “Cleanin’ Up the Town.” The band would part ways with Arista after that, however, and it would take them four years to produce a follow-up album, the indie release Money Don’t Make No Man, which would fare poorly and prove to be the original band’s last disc together. Its members would later find success in other projects, however, Reggie Leon – who has sadly since passed away - going on to serve as a member of Sha Na Na for over twenty years, while Vic Johnson would go on to play guitar in Sammy Hagar’s band. After “The Boys Are Back in Town” started to pop back up on television again around the turn of the century, particularly as bumper music for MLB and NBA broadcasts, the original band’s primary vocalist and songwriter Brian O’Neal would reform the band with a new lineup, and they remain an active touring band.