The Painkillers

The Painkillers

21 tracks from St. Louis’ 80′s Pop greats The Painkillers. Includes deluxe packaging with an 8-page booklet filled with photos and an essay by Thomas Crone. This CD is limited to 200 copies.

The Painkillers, 1981-1986

The Painkillers formed not so many years after the landmark television broadcast “16 in Webster Groves,” a CBS News documentary that portrayed their hometown as a place of social and financial comfort, if lacking in awareness of the problems rocking the rest of the country in 1966. No matter how much locals may protest the portrayal, at the time the Painkillers took shape, Webster Groves, in many ways, still resembled the city portrayed 15 years earlier.

Depending on the season, the tree-lined streets really did take on the flavor of the wholesome, Midwestern stereotype. Kids and early teens would walk to the public pool every day through the summertime; or they’d ride their bikes to play baseball over at Hixson Junior High. They’d wander to Freddy’s Market to spend their lawn-mowing money on a Coke, or they’d call around and get together a team for a soccer kickaround at Eden Seminary. Fun might mean cutting through the campus of Webster College, to see what the bohemian students were up to there; for others, fun might consist of snow-sledding down the modest hills of Blackburn Park. Problems, of course, exist in every community, but Webster’s maintained more consistency than many towns, whether you’re charting progress in the relative terms of 1966, 1981 or 2011.

Webster Groves has also kicked out bands. Very, very good bands.

It was 1981 when the Painkillers started playing under that name, with drummer Scott Kemper and bassist Don Brown exiting the pre-existing band of Midnight. With their departures, Mike Martin learned bass and shifted over from his role on second guitar. A fine young drummer named Jack Petracek took over the kit and remaining members Carl Pandolfi (keys) and Jeff Barbush (vocals and guitar) suddenly had a new band to shape.

That group, officially christened the Painkillers, eventually moved from the Barbush’s basement to the Petracek’s living room, where a drum riser and a PA system replaced the normal, suburban accessories of a parlor. The music they made escaped the walls of that big East Jackson Road house and drifted down the street, enough to create curiosity about what was happening inside. In fact, all that was happening was a masterful pop group taking form, Barbush’s songs being first touched by Pandolfi’s classically-trained instincts, before adding on the talents of the rhythm section. Occasionally, the four would approximate an old-fashioned jam session, creating songs from that approach; more often, though, they’d run from Barbush’s guitar, through Pandolfi’s keys, with Barbush frequently arranging the rhythm parts, as well.

Eventually, that top-down approach caused some tensions, especially as Martin began to experiment with a harder rock sound, in a loose group of players that would, in time, become Three Foot Thick. Petracek would follow him into that project, creating a rhythm section would become one of the town’s best, with a decade of practice and gigs between them. But for their half-decade together in the Painkillers, those two provided the essential beats and rhythms for one of the finest pop groups to call St. Louis home.

Constantly playing around St. Louis, the Painkillers learned a host of covers, allowing them to play landmark rooms like Cicero’s Basement, but also giving them the option of gigging at Webster High School dances, private parties, even some weddings. Monies earned were quickly invested in recording sessions, which would stretch out over months, as much time as the band was able to afford. Interestingly, even as Barbush was the ringleader of these sessions, Martin and Petracek would both go on to long careers as recording engineers. Obviously, all four had opinions, though Barbush’s role as the writer, and (to an extent) Pandolfi’s status as his trusted arranger, allowed them an extra voice in any recording process.

By 1986, the group had recorded lots of original material, with multiple versions of each track put down and revised. The songs reflected a unique aesthetic, a nice melding of ‘60s-through-’80s pop sensibilties. Though the today’s Painkillers understandably sense that there’s something of a telltale, “‘80s sound” to the recordings, there’s also a kind of freshness, a liveliness that can’t be denied. The eight cuts that would wind up on “The Painkillers” cassette blended all the great elements of the group, from Pandolfi’s playful keyboard fills to Petracek’s rock-solid backbeat, from Martin’s sympathetic basslines to Barbush’s outstanding voice and clever guitar licks. Filled with clean sounds, but a somewhat cynical lyrical worldview, cuts like “The Oracle,” “Emerald City” and “What’s Inside” sound every bit as good today, while tracks like the “The Blast”  and “Stop the Music” can take a listener right back to the Webster house parties of a quarter-century ago.

Recorded to eight-track masters by Greg Trampe, the band’s music may’ve been intended for one audience – the record labels of the mid-’80s – but they wound up as something else as well. Namely, talismans for every Webster kid who laid their hands on one. To listen to “The Painkillers” tape is to understand that moment in music, and hat moment in a small town’s history, provided by a group not trying to emulate any one style. In doing so, they mixed-and-matched the best of all the genres they were taking in, from classic rock and new wave, to punk and the Beatles, to ska and psych.

For whatever odd reason, the community of Webster Groves has always had that ability to breed quality rock’n’roll groups, of all stripes, with Webster Groves High School serving as a sort of unofficial birthplace for many of them. The Rude Pets, the Oozkicks, A Perfect Fit, Corporate Humour, The Urge, Three Merry Widows… all these groups called Webster Groves home, in a fashion. But, somehow, the Painkillers will always represent a certain, authentic Webster Groves sound, poppy and delicate, but with just enough of an edge to keep those songs from floating away.

Looking back on the videos recorded by the band for local origination cable TV (tracks now viewable via YouTube), you can understand whey the band felt capable of bigger things. In a sense, the lack of national action caused some friction and after five years, cracks emerged in both musicianship and friendship. Martin’s talent was taking him in another direction, while Barbush’s desires to shape perfect pop songs clashed with his ambivalence about playing so many live shows. Like a lot of groups that form so young, the Painkillers took things, arguably, as far as they were going to go, at least at that moment.

Tragically, Barbush took his own life in 1999. The occasional talks of a reunion show, with even Kemper and Brown taking part, dissipated, for obvious reasons. All three surviving members would go on to interesting projects. Martin as a both a frontman and side player in groups like Tinhorn, Three Foot Thick, the Atomic Fossils and his new Deciders. Petracek with the all-over-the-map, Americana-into-noise group Grandpa’s Ghost; also as a producer and engineer for countless local bands. And the audaciously-talented Pandolfi landed with pop smarties The Lettuceheads, along with a variety of side projects and even cover groups.

Barbush himself went on to lend his talents to the Deadbeats, another St. Louis pop-rock band that created music sounding as good today as it did yesterday. He also left behind some home recordings and other snippets, which have been traded by friends-and-fans-turned-collectors ever since.

 

Brought to life by these four, the music of the Painkillers is special. The songs you hold in your hand today speak to that. It’s a document of a time in music, a sound that’s inescapable from the moment it was recorded. While the original tape still sounds just right on an aging car’s tape player, these retouched and remastered songs bring with them a new clarity and brightness. And hopefully, it’ll also gain them a new, appreciative audience, who’ll join a cult-like batch of fans who’ve long since spread out from the homebase of Webster Groves.

How many schoolkids have passed one another in the halls, not knowing that there could be a special, lifelong friendship between them? Impossible to say. Luckily, music brought the Painkillers together, as friends, as a live band and as recording musicians. This is the testament that their friendship has left us.

Thanks, each of you, for saying that first “hello” all those years ago…

– Thomas Crone, March 8, 2011