Whole lotta Sweet’n’Sour shakin’ goin’ on – Baby Shakes talk transatlantic special relationships with The Undertones

Shakin’ Foundations: Baby Shakes, 2020 style. From NYC with plenty of glam-rock love (Photo: Alexander Thompson)

There was always a healthy relationship between the NYC and UK punk and new wave scenes, each movement inspiring the other, from the inspirational effect of the New York Dolls and Ramones on the Sex Pistols and The Clash onwards, back to Blondie and Talking Heads, and right through.

And it seems that this transatlantic influence continues, judging by the latest 45 from happening New York outfit Baby Shakes. But how did this young outfit end up recording with two members of Northern Irish legends The Undertones? Well, you’re about to find out.

Similarly, the Derry outfit always acknowledged their US influences, from the MC5 and Motown to the US psych and garage scene, and like Baby Shakes there was also a nod to the glam-rock era, both bands citing a love for treasured outfits like Slade, Sweet and T-Rex.

Baby Shakes, founded in 2005 by Mary Blount (lead vocals, guitar), Judy Lindsay (lead guitar, vocals) and Claudia Gonzalez (bass, vocals), and joined in 2015 by Ryan McHale (replacing original drummer Dave Rahn), covered The Undertones early doors, tackling 1979 single ‘Get Over You’ live, and their latest single includes their take on that great 45’s treasured B-side, drummer Billy Doherty’s ‘Really Really’ on the flip of a more recent happening number by Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill, a glam-tinged twist on 2018 solo LP stormer, ‘Sweet’n’Sour’.

It was during the gap between lockdowns that the girls made their Atlantic crossing to Northern Ireland to record vocals and breathe added life into those two numbers, Billy (drums/percussion), Damian (guitar, bass, organ) and Billy’s nephew Stephen Mailey (guitar) initially putting down backing tracks at Small Town America Studio, Derry.

Considering themselves a rock’n’roll/punk band and touring fairly relentlessly since February 2005, taking in the US, UK and Ireland, mainland Europe, China and Japan, attracting new fans wherever they play, Baby Shakes already a few LPs and several singles behind them, and recently sold out London’s legendary 100 Club as part of a set of dates sadly cancelled due to the pandemic.

Boasting ‘catchy melodic vocals over dirty guitars and a killer rhythm section’, they say their influences range from Chuck Berry to the afore-mentioned Slade, having shared stages with Buzzcocks, The Boys, Iggy Pop, and The Barracudas, among others, en route, including The Undertones.

They formed out of a series of encounters at legendary venues such as CBGBs and the Mars Bar, bonding over a love for the Ramones and The Go-Go’s, The Nerves, early Bangles and Motown girl groups, and were soon carving out their own sound, ‘riffing on sizzling guitars and melodic tunes, wrapped up in a Brooklyn sheen’.

According to the indie label behind their new release, the latest Baby Shakes single is the first of two for Dimple Discs. But let’s cut to the chase and ask them direct. And while regular readers know I’m not one for Q&A style interviews, preferring to get to the heart of things with a phone call or one-to-one (or in this case one-to-four) scribbler-to-artiste meetings, I succumbed to COVID-19 last week and was left with severely low energy levels, so – dreading lots of  transcription, post-NYC phone call, might finish me off – I fired off some questions their way, hence the answers being attributed to ‘Baby Shakes’ rather than any one individual band member. So here goes, and they did a cracking job, as I kind of expected.

As I’ve pointed out in my intro, there’s always been that healthy reciprocal relationship between NYC punk and new wave and the UK scene. But how did you chance upon The Undertones’ back-catalogue? You’re way too young, surely. Who introduced you to Derry’s finest?

“We like to think music is timeless, and so are great bands! No one’s too young to appreciate Mozart or punk. In all honesty though, our taste in music is pretty much influenced by people from different generations; a grandfather who loved Elvis, parents and siblings who were into ‘80s new wave, uncles that loved The Beatles or Black Sabbath, and older ‘cool kids’ at school that made us DIY punk mix-tapes. Can’t remember exactly how we came across The Undertones, but it was probably at the point we discovered Sex Pistols and the Ramones, in our ‘tween years. Those two bands changed everything for us, we got hooked and went digging through the used rock bins at the local record shops for ‘77 punk, and pretty much got our history lesson from there.”

The UK scene took a nod from earlier disreputable acts like the MC5 too, and The Undertones often cite the importance of the late ‘60s US psych/garage scene, not least Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era compilation. Was that something you were aware of?

“Absolutely, we’re big fans of MC5 and the whole Detroit rock scene … especially Suzi Quatro and her first band the Pleasure Seekers! We know Damian is a big Stooges fan as well, and have that in common with him.

“As for US psych/garage, we like The Music Machine, The Seeds, Love, 13th Floor Elevators (R.I.P. Roky) The Merry-Go-Round (R.I.P. Emitt), ? and the Mysterians (we actually got to play with them once), the Sonics, and of course The Byrds, the album Pet Sounds (but all Beach Boys as well), and Flamin’ Groovies are like our Rolling Stones. We actually first discovered The Chocolate Watchband because of The Undertones’ version of ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’. Great band, and The Undertones do a fantastic cover.

“And here’s a fun fact – the Japanese sleeve for the new single was in homage to The Choir’s ‘It’s Cold Outside’ original Japanese 45. The artist, Von Sentimental, was inspired by this cover art and decided to put a modern punky twist on it.”

It’s not just about punk and new wave, early rock’n’roll and ‘60s Motown either. Like The Undertones, I see you have a penchant for glam-rock and treasured UK outfits like Slade, T-Rex and Sweet.

“Yep, we’re glam-rock fanatics! The plan was to do a record with that crunchy boot-stompin’ ‘70s glitter sound. Billy and Damian played the part of Chinn and Chapman! Think we made something together that would’ve been a great fit on RAK Records in the day.”

Still Shooting: Baby Shakes shoot the video for the new 45, a first with Undertones’ Billy Doherty and Damian O’Neill

How did you get to know each other in the band? Were you school or college friends, or edgy neighbours?

“Judy and Claudia met at a punk show at CBGB’s when they were teenagers. They both had studded jackets, pink/blue hair and collected UK ‘82 and ‘77 punk singles, so it made sense they’d become good friends. They used to jam out to Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers songs together in their living rooms. A friend of ours, the artist Avi Spivak, knew we were looking for bandmates, so when Mary moved to New York from Seattle, he introduced us at his DJ night. We all got along so well, and when we heard Mary sing, we knew it was the perfect style for the kind of music we all wanted to play. And she played guitar too! As for Ryan … we’ve had many drummers in the past, but he was definitely the missing puzzle piece. We met him through mutual friends when we needed a drummer for a show.”

What did the first set include? And were you already Baby Shakes by then?

“That first set included our rendition of ‘Get Over You’, along with a couple of our own original tracks we’d been working on for a few weeks before we booked our first gig. We also did a cover by the British all-girl band The Gymslips, The Boys, and would always jam out on a couple of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers tunes at practice, so sometimes those made it into our sets.”

How important was the NYC club scene for honing your skills – was that your apprenticeship of sorts?

“It was incredibly important, because the NYC punk/rock’n’roll scene is all about showing your chops. We needed to prove we could stand up there with everyone else and give it all we’ve got. If you’re just a cover band you automatically get dismissed, but being a DIY-band that writes your own music and plays well earns respect on the scene. Think we managed to surprise a few people that didn’t know what to expect from us, and to inspire some girls to start their own bands along the way, which is a pretty rewarding feeling for us.”

Tell us more about how you ended up meeting then getting to know The Undertones.

“The year we started Baby Shakes we recorded a cover of ‘Get Over You’ on our demo. It was the first cover we ever recorded and somehow the promoter of the show heard it and asked us to support them in Brooklyn. It was a dream come true. We were just starting to play out live, so we were nervous about playing in front of them. Judy recalls her fingers turning into spaghetti when she saw Damian O’Neill watch us during the soundcheck!

Turning Japanese: The alternative cover of the new 45

“But they were all such nice guys! They complimented us on the show, signed our records and took photos with us. We got to chatting backstage and it was such an inspiring experience for us, and to this day they’re still one of our biggest influences. We still cover their songs live and we paid homage to them on our second album, Starry Eyes. Our insert is a replica of the inner sleeve of Hypnotised and has photos of us meeting them. So, I guess you can say we really look up to them!”

Was getting to work with Billy and Damian a logical next career step, bearing in mind their influence on you? And what were your first impressions on meeting The Undertones when you toured together early on? 

“Since day one, the ‘Tones have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. They’re all super-sweet, really funny and very down to earth. Although we’ve been nervous about supporting them and recording together at first, we all get along so well, and it’s always been such a good time in their company. When we got to chatting, we realised we had a lot in common as far as taste in music and a similar sense of humour. We were literally in tears laughing at their jokes some nights in the studio and on the phone! Billy’s nephew Stephen is rad too, he played second guitar on the tracks and we had a blast with him out in Derry. It was just such a fun experience, like no other recording session we’ve ever had.”

You clearly knew their back-catalogue. But how about Damian’s solo record? And what did you think when you were offered the wonderful ‘Sweet’n’Sour’, a song you somehow made your own (as is the case with the wondrous ‘Really Really’)?

“Yes! We thought the songs were so catchy, and absolutely love them! Damian and Billy are brilliant songwriters and producers. This was our first time doing anything like this and we thought the tunes were a perfect fit for our band.

“When we heard the demos of the songs Damian wrote, we instantly loved them! They’re so catchy and fun, and we had the tunes stuck in our heads for days. He’s a brilliant songwriter. Damian and Stephen both did a great job at writing some catchy guitar licks to match it. We were honoured that they trusted us to put our own Baby Shakes spin on them vocally. The music matches our sound so well.

“And Billy’s tune ‘Really Really’ has always been one of our favourite Undertones songs, so it made sense as a cover since it was originally the B-side to ‘Get Over You’, the song we covered at the start of our band that initially linked us up and wound up bringing us all back together years later. It’s almost like things came full circle. We had fun reimaging this song as a modern take on a 60’s girl group tune, Billy being the Phil Spector-esque force behind it.”

It sounds like you were well looked after on your visit to Derry.

“They gave us the grand tour, which was amazing. Being able to see where it all started and getting a history lesson from our muses on the streets where it all began was incredible. We really nerded out, and of course people kept recognising them on the street. Everyone is so nice in Derry!”

“When Billy asked if we wanted to make a record together, of course we said, ‘YES!’ We were thrilled they’d want to work on music with us. It sounded unreal, but the next thing we knew we were on a plane to Derry to record vocals for four explosive tracks that Billy, Damian and Billy’s nephew Stephen played music for. They gave us that personal tour of Derry and we really got to understand how The Undertones grew up and what things were like when they were starting the band.

“It was such an incredible experience for us, we learned so much from them and it was really encouraging to have their guidance in the studio. We’ve never had a producer on any of our previously recorded material, so this was a new challenge, but they really pushed us and we had so much fun with them. We felt so comfortable being ourselves around them. They really got us, we were totally on the same page as far as the sound we wanted and it’s as though we had all known each other and had been working together for years. Overall, it was such a magical experience.”

How would you describe Baby Shakes 2020, as opposed to the initial 2005 version? What have you learned these past 15 years that you wished you’d known at the beginning?

“That anything you want to achieve takes a lot of persistence and hard work. Sometimes people call us lucky, but luck has nothing to do with it. From the day we started we’ve sacrificed a lot and worked really hard for many years just to be in a touring band. Also, you have to be thick-skinned and know how to take criticism and rejection well. Not everyone is going to agree with you or like what you’re doing, but that doesn’t matter as long as you’re passionate about your work and have fun in the process. We’ve gotten really good at working together and learning how to compromise with each other. It’s how we’ve been a band for so long. There are no egos, no laziness and we all do our part, so it’s been an amazingly fun journey as a band family.”

Was it a thrill to first get over here and play the UK?  

“We’ve been wanting to play the UK for so long, so we were thrilled when we first got offered shows there a few years ago. Playing a headline show at the legendary 100 Club in London was a dream come true! We had another gig booked there right before the lockdown, and we can’t wait to be able to go back as soon as it’s safe.”

It’s Billy on drums on this single, but Ryan’s still involved, right? And has social distancing and the pandemic disrupted your rehearsals?

“Oh yeah, Ryan is still stuck with us – ha ha! He hasn’t gotten rid of us yet! We all chat every day, but after the first two months of the pandemic we had to give up our rehearsal studio, unfortunately. We’re trying to get a rehearsal in soon at an hourly space, because they’ve just reopened recently, and we really miss playing together and seeing each other.”

First Footing: The debut LP, 2008’s The First One

These have clearly been testing times with Covid-19 and the orange bigot in charge amidst this crisis. Have there been day-jobs to help you get by?

“Well… it’s been difficult. Since New York is such an expensive city and we were used to having such a busy tour schedule, we were pretty much all working as much as we could, pre-pandemic. We worked overtime in between tours and took extra jobs to afford the rent, because we were taking off weeks at a time for touring every couple of months. During the pandemic some of us have been going to work full-time and the other half have been unemployed or under-employed. Some of our places of business have closed indefinitely and freelance work is skimpy. It’s kind of a huge mess and we’re really hoping things can progress, and we can start recovering … with better leadership by 2021. Besides our trip to Derry and recording the EP, this year has been a huge disappointment. But we’ve still got our chins held high, and we’re doing what we can. It’s so exciting to have a release in 2020, so at least there’s that!”

And while I’m on (bear in mind I asked these questions more than a week ago), have you all voted yet?

“Definitely! We all turned in our ballots early this year. The big day is coming up soon and we’re hoping for the best, it just has to be better!”

Quite right too, and I’m putting finishing touches to this interview the day after it was finally offically declared that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were on their way to the White House, for what promises to be a happy ending to what until now has been a frankly awful year. Meanwhile, from homegrown tours and UK and European jaunts to trips to South-East Asia, it’s been a hell of a blast since 2005 for Baby Shakes, hasn’t it?

“It’s been a dream come true, and we’re very fortunate to be rewarded for all our hard work! Can’t wait to continue travelling, playing and doing what we love again, one day soon!”

So what happens next? Are there plans for another ‘Babytones’ collaboration? And is there a new Baby Shakes LP on the horizon (even if touring it might not be so easy in the circumstances)?

“We’ve been writing some new tunes while we’ve been cooped up inside during the lockdown, and our goal is to have a new Baby Shakes LP written and hopefully recorded when we come out of this pandemic. We also have the second single of the EP that we recorded with the ‘Babytones’ on the way to be released by the lovely folks at Dimple Discs. And you can bet that it’s just as fantastic and catchy as the first one!”

So, there you have it … but I couldn’t just end it there. The following answers came via good friend of this website, Brian ‘No Relation’ O’Neill, on behalf of the Dimple Discs label, grilling Undertones legends Billy Doherty and Damian O’Neill on the BabyTones project, first asking what they make of their NYC buddies.

Billy: “What do I think of Baby Shakes? They are sensationally glam-tastic; my pop rockin’ chums who make you feel good all over.”

Classic Single: The Undertones’ Get Over You, c/w Really Really, a huge influence on Baby Shakes

Damian: “It’s obvious that Baby Shakes live can shake any joint to its very core. They have a pop sensibility and general enthusiasm that could win over the most hardened critics. But it wasn’t until working with them that we discovered a steely determination that they were gonna nail these songs, no matter what. They really worked hard to get it right, and their humour and enthusiasm made it one of the most fun sessions we’ve ever done.”

So how long has this transatlantic ‘special relationship’ and hands across the water affair been going on?

Billy: “I first met Baby Shakes when they supported The Undertones in 2005 at the Southpaw in Brooklyn, and was instantly drawn to them when they made their entrance at our soundcheck. After those initial awkward acquaintance protocol procedures, I was surprised how much we seemed to have in common, especially as it takes ages for me to get to know someone. I instinctively knew they were very special and refreshingly different.

“Actually, one of my all-time favourite memories was playing drums for them that night, when they covered ‘Get Over You’, which they played at a blistering speed … and boy, can they play! I watched their show and was captivated by their energy and genuine commitment. After the show we all met backstage and talked songs and bands, and especially how we all loved the glam-rock era. My administration was going by the second and I just couldn’t stop myself, so I popped the question, ‘Do you fancy making a record?’ ‘Yes!’ they shouted, jumping about in excitement and delight. What a precious moment that was. So we made plans to get a blockbusting tune for them, and thanks to young Damian O’Neill, he penned a golden nugget with ‘Sweet’n’Sour’. Damian, myself and Stephen Mailey, my nephew, recorded the backing tracks in Derry early in 2020. We then arranged to bring them over from New York to record the vocals.”

Damian: “We’ve been fans of the Baby Shakes ever since that Southpaw show. They then supported us again in New York at Le Poisson Rouge in May 2019. What made it extra special was Billy joining them on drums for ‘Get Over You’. Watching them nail the song together was the closest I’ve ever got to hearing what The Undertones would sound like from afar, only with youth and beauty added to the mix! In short, it was wonderful. This prompted Billy to suggest we explore a ‘Baby Tones’ collaboration that would incorporate our mutual musical influences, like ‘70’s glam and pop. We would provide the backing tracks and Baby Shakes the vocals.”

And what did you think of the new versions of your tunes?

Billy: “I really, really love the new Baby Shakes version of ‘Really Really’. Working with them, Damian and Stephen was such a tonic. It was so wonderful, enjoyable and refreshing to be intoxicated with everyone’s enthusiasm. Yes, for me it was truly magical, and I can’t wait to do it again.”

Damian: “I’d like to think ‘Sweet’n’Sour’ and ‘Really Really’ neatly merge Derry poptones with New York sassy attitude. There’s an infectious new freshness and enthusiasm oozing from the grooves.  The entire recording process was a total delight, and that’s obvious when you put the needle on the record for the first time. Billy and Stephen improve ‘Sweet’n’Sour’ by making it more immediate and snappy, especially in the chorus. Stephen’s guitar lifts the song to new heights, backed with Billy’s glam-a-lam floor-tom tribal beat. And not forgetting the girls’ wonderful vocals, which add a toughness that was missing from the original.

“A firm favourite among Undertones fans, ‘Really Really’ finally gets the pop stardust treatment it’s always deserved. It was as if Billy had written the song back in ‘78 with Baby Shakes in mind. Just a pity it’s taken 42 years to finally do it justice! And The Shangri-Las-esque talk over at the end of the song kills me every time I hear it, especially when the girls sing in the closing bars.”

Baby Love: New York City punk-rock’n’rollers Baby Shakes made it over to Derry in 2020 (Photo: Nathan Frohnhoefer)

‘Sweet‘n’Sour’/‘Really Really’ is available on limited-edition 7” vinyl and via various music streaming platforms as a digital download, with details from the Baby Shakes website or at https://dimpledisc.bandcamp.com/music. And to keep a handle on Baby Shakes, you can follow the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, including links to the new single’s promo video.

For this site’s most recent interviews with Damian O’Neill (May 2019) and Billy Doherty (October 2016), follow the links. And if you’ve yet to track down Damian O’Neill and the Monotones’ 2018 LP, Refit, Revise, Reprise (with a WriteWyattUK review here), check out his official website and Facebook page. You can also see what else is on offer via Dimple Discs, their roster including fellow WriteWyattUK favourite Eileen Gogan, via Facebook and Instagram.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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