It was 1975, and the British music scene was in thrall to pub rock, the movement that would ultimately make superstars of Graham Parker, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, but which was then still seeking its own defining talent.
Bands were bubbling up gloriously all the time, and some of them were terrific – Dury’s Kilburn & The High Roads, Lowe’s Brinsley Schwarz, Sean Tyla’s Ducks Deluxe and so forth. But there was something about Roogalator that dwarfed them all.
“They don’t look deadly at all,” mused the music paper Sounds. “But the moment [Danny Adler] opens his mouth, all doubts are instantly incinerated. He has a strong, emotive, all-American voice and the songs he sings are tough strings of street talk with melodies that fuse all the major idioms in a way you only take for granted when it’s signed Robbie Robertson or Lowell George.”
Cincinnati-born Danny Adler had been living in London since 1971, following a brief stint in New York City with Elephant’s Memory (he appears on one single, 1971’s Skyscraper Commando).
His first British band was Smooth Loser, formed with Chris Gibbons and fellow expatriate Jeff Pasternak, to accompany Pasternak’s brother DJ Emperor Rosco at roadshow events.
The first incarnation of Roogalator formed following Smooth Loser’s break-up in 1972 but broke up itself when Adler relocated to Paris to study jazz theory.
He returned to London in 1974, where he formed a new Roogalator with keyboard player Nick Plytas. Several line-up changes followed in the months before the band played its first live shows in September 1975 – the membership finally settled to include Adler, Plytas, drummer Dave Solomon and former Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers‘ bassist Paul Riley.
Within months, the press was beating a path to the band’s door. Drawing deep from Adler’s own experience on the Cincinnati club circuit of the late ’60s, where he gigged alongside – and frequently jammed with members of – R&B legends Dyke & The Blazers and Bootsy Collins’ Pacesetters, Roogalator offered an angular, minimalist funk sound which was utterly at odds with the country, blues, and early rock sounds normally heard on the pub rock scene.
Even Kokomo, up to that point the most authentic attempt at a home-grown funk sound yet unveiled, trailed in Roogalator’s slipstream. They, after all, simply followed the lead of the American masters.
Roogalator prided themselves in escaping from it and, in so doing, created the wholly distinctive blueprint for what would become the Britfunk explosion of the early ’80s.
The United Artists’ label was sniffing around, and in November, Roogalator recorded their first demos, including the stunning Get Ready For The Get Ready, and, the following month, their miraculous rise continued with a rapturous review in the NME. “My first impression of Roogalator was one of total disbelief. If such a band really does exist, they aren’t just the most important thing to come out of Britain in years, but out of anywhere at all.”
The band’s initial progress came to a shuddering halt with an ill-starred appearance opening for Dr Feelgood at the Hammersmith Odeon in early 1976. The show, Adler admits, was a disaster, and it marked the end of the classic Roogalator line-up.
No matter that the band’s next recording session would see them cutting a single for Stiff Records, Solomon departed, to be replaced by drummer Bobby Irwin.
Cincinnati Fatback was the inevitable choice for the band’s vinyl debut, and it remains one of the finest 45s in Stiff’s early canon – a compulsive piece of sliding funk that was quite possibly the last thing you expected to fall out of a sleeve designed slavishly around the appearance of an old Beatles album.
Indeed, so close was the resemblance that EMI waded in to demand Stiff remove a scene-setting advertisement for the old Emitex record cleaner from the artwork – at which point Stiff, in a somewhat self-defeating (but certainly characteristic) move, withdrew the record altogether.
Roogalator and Stiff parted company soon after, although their continuing influence on the label’s own roster was swiftly made apparent with the emergence of Elvis Costello, visually a dead ringer for Adler and no slouch when it came to fractured funk himself.
Bassist Paul Riley departed shortly before the band made their BBC radio debut, with a John Peel session in May. His place was taken by Julian Scott, the brother of the band’s manager (and future pop star) Robin Scott, and Roogalator continued gigging to wide applause.
But the British scene was changing – at one show, the band found themselves being supported by the then still-nascent Sex Pistols; at another, the infant Clash were on the bill and, though Adler would never claim some prescient insight into those bands futures, still he was aware that there were now musical forces in the air, and that these ramshackle noise-makers might well be a part of it.
It was spring 1977 before Roogalator were finally able to follow-up Cincinnati Fatback, when they signed a one-off deal with Virgin and released Nick Plytas’ Love and the Single Girl.
The group then shifted to manager Scott’s own newly formed Do It label for their debut album, Play It By Ear, in mid-1977.
Essentially little more than an opportunity to preserve the band’s repertoire on vinyl before unleashing a crop of new material, the album was well received but sold poorly.
The departure of Plytas towards the end of the year only added to the group’s woes. Opting not to replace him, Roogalator continued gigging through early 1978 as a trio, cutting one more single, Zero Hero, and demoing a second album.
But when further line-up changes shook the group that summer, Adler realised the band had reached the end of the line.
Roogalator officially disbanded in July 1978, with many of the songs scheduled for their second album promptly being reworked for Adler’s solo debut, The Danny Adler Story.
By the end of the decade, Adler was working alongside Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce in the legendary Rocket 88, while continuing to explore Roogalator’s funk-blues heritage through an exquisite series of solo albums, many of which appeared on the German Line label, a period that possibly climaxed when Adler shrugged off his own musical identity and reinvented himself as Otis “Elevator” Gilmore.