Crack the Sky: The Strange Survival Story of the Best U.S. Prog Band You’ve Never Heard
Crack the Sky have an impressive prog résumé. In their Seventies heyday, the group toured with everyone from Frank Zappa to ELO; they recently earned a spot on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums; and they’ve remained a staple of the Baltimore music scene for the past 40 years.
So why, as they prepare to issue their 17th album, Living in Reverse, is the band still a largely unsung obscurity, even among devotees of their genre?
Among other reasons, they were too arty and experimental for pop fans, too structured and funky for art-rockers; they signed a horrendous record deal that stalled their momentum; and their newly formed label lacked the proper promotional machinery to propel them onto the charts. Guitarist Rick Witkowski, a co-founder who’s still in the band after more than four decades, has another theory: “The critics did love us,” he says, pointing to Rolling Stone‘s glowing 1975 review of Crack the Sky’s self-titled debut LP. (“Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc and the Tubes, Crack the Sky’s debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-Seventies ennui is original, humorous and polished without seeming too arty,” critic Stephen Holden wrote.) But, he sighs, “we just didn’t have that obvious radio song.”
Crack the Sky were born in 1973, when a 20-year-old Witkowski, then working in a Weirton, West Virginia, music shop, approached a mysterious-looking stranger playing the bass line to Grand Funk Railroad’s 1970 epic “I’m Your Captain (Take Me Home).”
“I remember it almost like it was yesterday,” he recalls. “They had amps set up on the floor where you could try stuff out. He picked up a bass and started playing ‘I’m Your Captain,’ and it caught my ear. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ so I walked over. He didn’t look like he came from our area. He had a long trench coat on; he had this Afro kind of thing. He was a very interesting guy. He said he’d just got back into town, had been across the country and was interested in putting a band together. He said he wrote songs, and he showed me this black-and-white composition notebook filled with lyrics. I wasn’t a songwriter — everyone in my area played in cover bands. I never knew a guy who wrote songs. I was like, ‘Let’s absolutely try to do something.'”
That Afro-sporting, trench-coat–clad stranger was the prolific and idiosyncratic John Palumbo, who would become (barring a brief, yet notable, hiatus) Crack the Sky’s frontman and chief songwriter throughout its ongoing, decades-long run.
The two musicians instantly bonded on their shared affinity for both progressive rock and classic pop-rock. “The baseline started with the Beatles,” says Palumbo, who started writing songs after three years as a psychology major at Marshall University. “And then Yes and King Crimson and Genesis — we were just knocked out by those bands. That shows up in our music.”
“King Crimson was a big influence on us,” Witkowski concurs, recalling how they loved to design a snappy verse-chorus format and then subvert it with odd rhythmic and structural shifts. “I loved Robert Fripp, early Yes. Jethro Tull doing Thick as a Brick was the first arena concert I got to see, and my second was Pink Floyd doing The Dark Side of the Moon. They all had a major impact on me. We loved music that kept your attention — we had trouble playing stuff in straight 4/4. We always felt like, ‘We have to shift things up here. It’s too simple.’ Looking back, I think that kept us off of AM radio at the time. We just really gravitated toward making stuff more interesting. We also still loved straight-ahead, Beatles-y hooks. Also a big influence was James Brown soul/R&B/funk – I was in a cover band that did a lot of soul and funk stuff. All those influences kind of converged to create Crack the Sky.”
At the time, Witkowski’s cover band included drummer Joey D’Amico, and they decided to bring Palumbo onboard, playing mostly bars. But their new songwriter, anxious to unveil his own material, quickly grew fatigued with this arrangement. “I got really bored with that,” Palumbo says. “I remember we were paying a little club in Pennsylvania, and I turned to Rick and said, ‘We’ve gotta go to New York and try to break something through.'”
Banking on a personal favor from Palumbo’s college friend’s cousin, they loaded up their car and drove to New York. There, they performed a twin-acoustic-guitar live-in-the-office audition for Terry Minogue, a nephew of Terry Cashman, who (as one half of CashWest Productions) worked with folk-pop star Jim Croce. “When we got done playing, Minogue looked at us and said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before,'” Witkowski says.
The duo’s off-kilter prog-pop was Croce’s polar opposite, but CashWest agreed to fund a legitimate demo. Those songs generated outside interest from their recording studio — leading to a protracted legal battle over who owned the rights to Crack the Sky’s name — but the production company eventually wound up with the act, sending them to practice in an upstate New York house while the company shopped them to other labels. CashWest ultimately decided to save the band for their own newly launched label, Lifesong, and instructed them to, as Palumbo recalls, “‘Go home and put a band together because the songs are too complicated for just two people.'”
They initially stretched out into a 10-piece (including a keyboard player and a saxophonist), but most of the recruits grew frustrated with the extensive rehearsals and quit, leaving the quintet of Palumbo, Witkowski, D’Amico, bassist Joe Macre and guitarist Jim Griffiths.
“All we would do is rehearse — we just lived in the rehearsal space,” Palumbo says. “Somebody gave us access to the basement of a kindergarten or daycare center and said, ‘When we close, you can come in at night and play.’ That was in the old days, and you don’t find that stuff anymore. That’s when we rehearsed, and that’s when the arrangements came together. The other guys in the band said they couldn’t do that anymore. We signed a pre-deal until they could hear us and see us as a full band. That’s when they signed us.”
But that deal, Witkowski says, was a “classic bad record contract.” “The label owned our recording rights, our publishing rights, our managerial rights, our first-born children,” the guitarist jokes. “It was just one of those all-encompassing deals.”
In the meantime, though, Crack the Sky were satisfied with the chance to record a professional-caliber album, which became 1975’s Crack the Sky. The LP is a miniature masterpiece that weaves together power-pop hooks, hard-rock guitar riffs, harmonized guitar solos, funk interludes and quirky lyrics into a package that, as Rolling Stone observed, nodded to the irreverence of 10cc and the Tubes. But the sum of those parts was unlike any band of their (or any other) era. Highlights include the lurching “Ice,” which recalls a tuneful cousin to Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans, and the supremely funky “She’s a Dancer,” which features a horn section made up of three now-legendary session players, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker and David Sanborn.
“They were the upper echelon of horn guys,” Witkowski says of the trio, looking back with awe. “They had a band called Dreams, and we were big fans. When the session came, our producer had charts for two songs. They were heavy union guys, and it was at CBS Studios. There were some issues with the charts for ‘Mind Baby,’ and the session was almost finished, and we had like five minutes left for the session. We really wanted to get them on ‘She’s a Dancer.’ We said, ‘At the end of this song, there’s a funk break. We really love what you guys do in Dreams — it’s like Dixieland funk. Can you do that?’ The song was turned on, they put the headphones on, and we said, ‘Play now.’ It was literally one take. I can’t believe they were on our first album.”
Crack the Sky slowly built their fan base on the road, opening for some of prog rock’s most popular bands: Zappa, ELO, Rush, Kansas and Supertramp, among others. And, according to Palumbo, they were so sharp onstage that certain cranky headliners booted them off tours. “We got kicked off a lot,” he says. “Not to sound egotistical, but we were just better than a lot of bands that really broke through.” But they experienced nothing but civility and sweetness from Canada’s finest: “The people who treated us the best were Rush,” he adds. “They refused to go on when promoters would say, ‘We don’t have room for your piano’ or some nonsense. They wouldn’t go on until we got our full complement of us. I’ll remember them for that.”
One of the singer’s favorite stories took place in Erie, Pennsylvania, where they opened for Zappa. “There was a snowstorm, and we were playing a hockey rink,” he says. “It was Zappa’s show, but they got hung up at the border, and their gear wasn’t there. They asked if they could use our gear to play our show, and we said, ‘Of course. It’s Zappa!’ They came out and played a whole show before us. Then we played, and then they played again. There wasn’t much to do since it was a snowstorm in Erie, and we were in a hockey rink, so after the gig, we went to the hotel, one of those nonsense bars like the Lion’s Den or something, and Zappa didn’t come. We were down there drinking, and all of the sudden he appears. He grabbed the waitress by the hand and started to sing ‘Dinah-Moe Humm’ to her. All the rest of the band were humming their parts; they did the whole song. She was embarrassed and turned brown and red and purple. Then he just left. That was it.”
“He was in the same hotel we were staying in, and we were trying to get his attention to get him to notice us,” Witkowski adds. “We were acting silly, instead of just going over and talking to him. Me and our guitar player used to do goofy dances together. There was a lounge band playing, and we started dancing with each other, thinking he was going to think it was funny. He wasn’t very impressed.”
Crack the Sky converted some of their early audiences, but it remained an uphill climb for a somewhat obscure prog-pop band on a small label. Witkowski insists that several scenes from Rob Reiner’s classic rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, were based on actual awkward moments the band experienced on the road.
“Our first manager was delegated to us from our record company,” he says of Derek Sutton, who inspired the character Ian Faith. “I was watching Spinal Tap for the first tap and seeing some of these things, like the band getting lost going onstage, and thinking, ‘That’s Crack the Sky!’ I can distinctly remember being out on the road in this old hotel, and we were circling around trying to find our way to get onstage. It was like a labyrinth, and we couldn’t find our way on. Finally, we get upstairs, and I open the door, and we’re in the middle of the theater with people waiting for us to come onstage.” He also claims the scene where Spinal Tap host an awkward in-tour promotional scene came from Crack the Sky. “You’ve got this big display, and no one knew who the hell we were and were just looking at us,” he says. “It was kind of embarrassing.”
Building their fan base was difficult, but for reasons that remain slightly puzzling, Crack the Sky made an instant — and seemingly permanent — impression on Baltimore.
“The first time we came into town, we were booked at this small club called the Four Corners,” Witkowski says. “We were the headliners, and this band called Sky King featuring Dave Brubeck’s two sons, were opening for us. They were a killer band. We’d been through all these cities, and no one knew who we were. We came to the States, and we made some noise in Buffalo. But when we got to Baltimore, we had four shows sold out in this place. We get there, and our crew had the stuff set up. Outside the club I could hear this band playing. I said, ‘They’re opening for us? We should be opening for these guys!’ I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. We get to the club and walk onstage, and we had a standing ovation before we even played one note. Somebody yelled out, ‘Witkowski!’ Somebody knew my name! It was just word of mouth. We had four great shows, and the next time we came to town, we played a bigger venue. That usually happens in a lot of cities across the country, but for us it only happened in Baltimore. It continues to this day.”
Palumbo admits he “doesn’t get” their “quirky” success in the city. “We were shocked when we got to Baltimore,” he says. “The radio gave us airplay. Two stations started it, and the other ones picked it up. They were deep in it — they would play like four cuts off of it. We got to this small club, and it knocked us out because people knew the songs already.”
For their second album, Palumbo knew he had to outdo one of 1975’s sleeper critical favorites. The game plan he devised was a bit unorthodox. “I was fascinated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” he says. “I didn’t know that they still existed. We got up to Canada, and I saw them riding around. I thought, ‘Oh, my God — they’re active!’ I remember walking around Toronto and just taking pictures of them. I don’t know why, but I was just fascinated by them. I actually wrote a whole [concept album about them], and it was almost a finished piece. But the record company got ahold of it and said, ‘No, you can’t do a concept album about the Mounted Police. We need a hit record!’ I just couldn’t understand it. I was sold on the idea.”
While one song, “Rangers at Midnight,” survived and made it onto 1976’s Animal Notes, the label wisely “put the kibosh” on the full-blown Mounties LP. That friction between artist and commerce, between writer and label, began to increase, and Palumbo eventually quit Crack the Sky. Witkowski & Co. (along with new vocalist Gary Lee Chappell) carried on with 1978’s surprisingly sturdy Safety in Numbers, while Palumbo switched to a more stripped-back sound for his debut solo LP, Innocent Bystander — which he very nearly recorded with Beatles producer George Martin. (“He was in the middle of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s musical thing,” the singer recalls. “He said, ‘I’d like to produce you, but it’s gonna be a while.’ Me being an idiot, I said, ‘Nevermind.’ But he said, ‘My partner Peter Sullivan would like to do it,’ so I said, ‘Great, we’ll do it with him.’ But I did have breakfast at the Beverly Hilton with George.”)
Crack the Sky eventually re-formed for their fourth LP, 1980’s White Music, which began life as a Palumbo solo project produced by Witkowski. And they never really stopped, with Palumbo reconfiguring the lineup numerous times over the decades — despite progressive rock falling out of fashion and that elusive hit remaining out of reach. “We charted a few times, but we just couldn’t follow up [the debut album],” the frontman says. “There are all kinds of theories about why it didn’t happen — from the record company to my stuff being too bizarre. Then the radio went into that corporate thing where they played like 20 songs, so getting on the radio for us started to become really difficult.”
Witkowski kept busy during his years away from the band, joining the B.E. Taylor Group (co-writing the 1983 hit “Vitamin L”) and composing theme music for Nickelodeon shows like Guts and Figure It Out. During the band’s unofficial hiatus in the early to mid-Nineties, Palumbo received his doctorate and began practicing psychology. But, ironically, the radio drew them all back together.
Around 1985 or 1986, Baltimore station 98 Rock hosted their Super Bowl of Rock, pitting famous bands against each other in a playoff format. Crack the Sky made the semi-finals. “The DJ said, ‘It would be great to get that band back together again,'” Witkowski says. “‘I wonder what they’re doing.’ They called John Palumbo, and he said, ‘I’d like to do it, but I’d only do it if Rick wanted to do it.’ It was like, ‘OK, let’s put the band back together.’ I’ve been back in ever since then.”
Crack the Sky have continued to record at a steady clip throughout the 2000s, booking regular gigs in their adopted hometown. “I have to give Baltimore a lot of credit for helping keep Crack the Sky together as a band,” Palumbo says. “We have a good rep. My wife calls us ‘The Beatles of Baltimore.’ We play a handful of dates almost every year. We get a lot of regular people coming back, but we also have people who haven’t seen us in years and don’t realize we’re still a band. And we’re getting the kids of people who were into our band. And their grandkids!”
They’re still experimenting too. Palumbo points to the left-field banjo and drum machine on “Talk Talk,” the tuneful opener from Crack the Sky’s new LP, Living in Reverse, out August 24th. (In addition to that record, the band is releasing an album of re-recorded classic material — bassist Joe Macre even joins the lineup for several tracks, joining fellow original members Palumbo, Witkowski and D’Amico on the album.)
While the collaborators do express some remorse at their lack of commercial success, they’re thrilled — and a bit surprised — at their own longevity. “I just turned 65,” Witkowski says. “I just signed up for social security and signed a record deal. It’s perseverance, I guess. I have to say that John Palumbo is such an incredible, prolific writer. It just pours out of him. He has to write and create. That’s his sense of purpose. That is the driving force.”
“We’re still around,” Palumbo adds confidently. “If we’d have been that one-hit-wonder thing, we would be gone.”
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