Back in 1976 or '77, Mike Skill was hanging out in his dad's backyard in Detroit, playing an acoustic guitar. He played three chords, and he liked the rhythm. He went to a band rehearsal -- one of the rare times he was punctual, Skill says -- and the drummer was there, so they jammed a little bit, with Skill presenting the chords to the drummer instead of the whole band.
"We went across the street to a McDonald's, and we came back and the other guys were there, and we showed 'em this song, and that was it -- the song was off and running," Skill says.
Those chords -- turned electric and slightly sratchy-sounding -- became one of the most recognizable in pop music when they introduced What I Like About You, the Romantics' most famous song. It has been used in countless commercials, showed up in its original form and in covers in various movies, and even inspired the title of a 2002-2006 sitcom starring Amanda Bynes and Jennie Garth.
You can bet that the Romantics will play the song when they perform at the Solar-Powered Music Fest (presented by DFW.com) on June 16 at Panther Pavilion, on the banks of the Trinity River. But Skill says there's a lot more to the current Romantics than What I Like About You and their even bigger hit, Talking in Your Sleep.
The Romantics will be the second-billed act in the fest, which will also feature headliners English Beat, as well as Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, Ishi, That 1 Guy and Whiskey Folk Ramblers on the main "Solar Stage." Rahr & Sons Brewery, one of the sponsors, will have a "Rahr Bier Garten" that will feature an acoustic stage with performances from Telegraph Canyon's Chris Johnson, Brenna Manzare, Sam Anderson and Michael Donner.
Jimmy Marinos, the drummer who sang the original What I Like About You, is not currently with the Romantics. But the other three original members -- Skill, Wally Palmar and Rich Cole -- are all aboard, along with drummer Brad Elvis. But here's a look at the original, followed by a Q&A with Skill about the fest and What I Like About You and how, despite numerous personnel changes, there's always been at least one original Romantic and the group has never broken up in its 35 years of existence.
Before the Q&A, here's Skill on how the video came about: "The song was in the Top 100, like the top 74 or 54, I can't remember. And then it started dropping off the charts. Then what happened is, these guys from Holland called us up and said they wanted to do a video. We were playing Whisky A-Go-Go, so that video was recorded at the Whisky with one camera. The guys from Holland took it back over there, and there was no MTV yet. But in Europe they showed video clips, and then it went from Holland to early MTV, and that's when it kicked back in. It kicked back in like a year or two after its release."
Skill goes into a little more detail about the song's history below.
I was just watching some YouTube clips of some of the Romantics' more recent live shows. The guitar sound seems to be even more raw and 'garage-y' than it did in the late '70s and early '80s.
It's always had its attitude. We'd been playing clubs for two years [after forming in '77], trying to get signed and everything, and it was raw. Then we went in with a producer and did two records, and things got cleaned up a bit. You go and do live, and I was the main guitar player back then, and you tighten sutff up. But I think we've gotten back to a rawer sound, even rawer than we were back then. It's very crisp and clean and clear but raunchy rock at the same time.
Have you ever done a solar-powered concert? Is there anything you approach differently, or do you just plug in the amps and go?
I don't think we have. We did something up in Washington state along these lines, but I don't think it was solar-powered, which is great. I think you have to have some kind of backup power generator that's full-on in case you lose something. Jack Johnson has a solar-powered studio, and that's pretty cool, so I don't foresee any problem. In Germany, they get like a third of the sun we get in the States, I think it is, and they've thrown themselves totally to solar, which I'm totally all for.
What can we expect from your set? Obviously the hits, but any surprises?
I'm the original guitar player, but we've gone through some changes over time. I was playing bass, but about two or three years ago, I got back into more guitar with the band, and we brought back the original bass player [Rich Cole] because we wanted to get back to more harmonies. We were just kinda rockin' out, without as many harmonies. It's just easier. Rich is a good singer, and we're paying more attention to our harmonies and pulling out a lot of songs we haven't done in a while, a few more songs off the first and second records. It's a lot of stuff we haven't played since 1980-something. And we have an MC5 cover, Tonight, and in this is the first in a group of upcoming shows where we'll be adding a few more things.
There have been personnel changes over the years, but the band has never completely broken up. What accounts for that longevity?
There's always been one original guy, more often two, and now three. I think we have our own style, and we just fit together well. We like the type of songs that we like and the attitude. We've gone through a lot of rough periods with lawsuits and managers, and we're still coming out of all that. But I just went into the studio and did some demos, and we've started working on a new record. Hopefully it will be out by the end of the year. There's still stuff to be done with the music. We've grown -- we aren't trying to change it, make it more mature or anything -- but there are still small things that we've gotten better at.
When you recorded What I Like About You, did you have any idea you had something special on your hands? Or did its later popularity surprise you?
You always hope for that, but it's not upfront in your mind. I always tried to right simple, straight ahead, because at that time, there were a lot of progressive, art-rock groups and stretched out songs. Which was cool, but I think that after a time, it got kind of weak. It just got to be a bit much, and there was a whole crop of musicians coming out of New York, London, L.A., they all had their scene. And Detroit had its scene, and they were all about shorter songs. It was like '50s and '60s pop radio -- the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Kings and all that. That's where our heads were. It was songs without guitar solos, songs with guitar solos, fast, hard, pumping, rocking songs for like two minutes, 45 seconds. That was just one of those songs.
A few years ago, What I Like About You underwent a renaissance. It seemed to be everywhere in commercials and movies. When something like that happens more than 20 years after the song was recorded, what do you think?
It's got a life of its own. It's almost like it's not our song now, it's everybody's song. The band does it, and the crowd still goes nuts. It was [written] at a time when straight-ahead rock 'n' roll wasn't really at the forefront. You were hearing a lot of disco and Fleetwood Mac. We were still playing with Ted Nugent. We grew up with Ted Nugent, but here we come out with out short hair and our skinny, tight red suits, running around the stage doing three-minute songs, and it was really a battle! We were fighting the fight and trying to get through.
So when the song happened, we were waiting for it to happen. But now it's everybody's song. Kids know it. People know it from Sesame Street to American Idol. They put out a Barbie doll singing What I Like About You. It's just like its own thing. When it was first used, Bud Light asked to use it, and they didn't really get to us. That's one of the reasons we had to sue, because they came to our managers and said, "We want to use What I Like About You, here, we'll give you this much money," and we didn't hear about the deal till later. We weren't businessmen, we were musicians, and we kind of got screwed, but we kept going.
Here's a look at a more recent version of What I Like About You, from 2009:
Doors at 2 p.m. for the Solar-Powered Music Fest, June 16 at Panther Pavilion. Music begins at 3:15 p.m. Tickets are free, but festgoers are encouraged to bring a donation for DFW Pug Rescue (dog toys, medication and leashes will be accepted, as well as cash donations). A limited number of $35 Pug Passes will buy you access to the backstage Rahr Lounge, two drink tickets and a Rahr T-shirts. Food trucks (albeit not solar-powered) will be on site. For more info, go here.