In the late 1970s, the flourishing punk and new wave scenes were riddled with talented female artists who were taking the DIY attitudes of these movements to heart and carving out distinct, innovative identities for themselves, amid a society that, in spite of the growing feminist moment, still largely dismissed them.
While some of these artists, like the Go-Gos and Blondie’s Debbie Harry achieved significant success, the majority never reached the mainstream, though many went on to garner varying amounts of cult fame.
One of the groups that fell into the latter category was the Heaters — fronted by lead singer Mercy Bermudez (aka Theresa Robertson) alongside sisters Maggie (keyboards and vocals) and Missy Connell (bass and vocals), and backed by guitarist James Demeter and drummer Phil Cohen.
At the time, it seemed that the band was on its way straight to the top, generating buzz as a dynamic live act in the musical hotbed of Los Angeles, opening for heavy hitters like Cheap Trick and Talking Heads, and by some accounts, actually overshadowing them.
Unfortunately, the Heaters’ rise to stardom was stifled by a slew of all-too-common issues, particularly poor promotion. After turning down a management offer from Mike Chapman — who along with Nicky Chinn had kickstarted the careers of Blondie, the Sweet, and Suzi Quatro — the group released their debut record to very little critical or commercial fanfare. Their second album, Energy Transfer, featured a new guitarist and drummer but did no better than the first, and in 1981, the Heaters finally dissolved altogether.
While the Heaters incorporated a wide variety of influences throughout their run, like many of their contemporaries, they took great inspiration from 1960s pop and rock, which manifested in the distinctly girl group sound heard on their Portastudio recordings. They could not have picked a more fitting genre, as Mercy Bermudez’s raw, powerful voice is strongly reminiscent of the great Ronnie Spector, and even further enhanced by the Connells’ heavenly harmonies.
Yet what kept the Heaters from being just another ’60s cover band was how they took the tried-and-true hallmarks of classic pop and used them to create completely new material with a fresh, modern edge. While the Ramones were covering the Beach Boys and the B-52’s were sporting mid-century kitsch, nobody was revitalizing the girl group sound quite like the Heaters.
However, when it came to making their big breakthrough, a large part of why the Heaters flopped was that their studio work was not a true representation of what the group could really do. While recording their first album, the producers allegedly refused to let the band members have a say in much of anything, and so, Bermudez and the Connells turned to a Portastudio to record their music the way they wanted it.
But in the pre-Internet era, there was no real way to distribute a homemade album, and the tapes remained on the shelf for decades, achieving Holy Grail status among dedicated fans. American Dream: The Portastudio Recordings is the first official release of these desperately sought-after tracks, and for those who did not have the chance to experience the band’s live shows back in the day, they provide a glimpse into why the Heaters were so promising.
Upon listening to the first few seconds of the Portastudio Recordings, you are immediately pulled into the teenage dream that the Heaters could convey so effortlessly. It’s amazing how they capture the intense, myriad emotions of young love as expertly as the legendary pop performers of the early ’60s.
The 10-song selection on American Dream ranges from forlorn ballads to uptempo tales of exciting new romance. Tunes like “All I Want To Do” and “I’ll Meet You There” are filled with heartfelt longing, belted out by Bermudez and carried along by soft electric guitar, while “Love Will Be Hurrying To You” and my personal favorite “Just Around the Corner” possess youthful idealism and hope that make you feel as if love really can solve all problems.
Of course, the music itself is only one half of the Heaters’ captivating formula. They deserve just as much credit for their wonderful lyrics. Taking another cue from the ’60s pop masters, they borrow the lovesick teenage girl perspective and make it their own via interesting images and clever analogies. Every song on American Dream was composed by either Maggie or Missy Connell, and both display the sort of songwriting talent that a Brill Building executive would’ve killed to have in his stable.
The collection’s title track “American Dream” utilizes a favorite image of early rock ‘n roll–cars — to describe the singer’s beloved beau, while “10,000 Roses” takes the popular trope of rain and replaces it with flowers. However, the song that really takes the cake in terms of the lyrics is “Sandy,” which even in the early ’80s might have been considered a bit risque for top 40 radio, as it sends a strongly implied warning to poor Sandy that her lover is secretly gay. The song also opens and closes with a charming nod to the novelty bits often thrown into yesteryear’s pop hits, opening and closing with a simulated telephone call to Sandy that ends the otherwise serious song on an unexpectedly humorous note.
It goes without saying that the Heaters knew their stuff when it came to classic girl groups. You can hear nods to just about every big name female act of the Wall-of-Sound era, from the Shangri-Las-inspired bridge of “don’t go/don’t leave” in “Every Living Day,” to the hints of Darlene Love in the incredibly catchy “I Want to Love Again.” There’s even a little good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll thrown in with “Rock This Place,” which you can easily imagine being a great addition to their explosive live sets.
Although it’s impossible to know for sure how the public would have responded to the Heaters if they’d been given proper exposure, it’s not hard to picture them doing well in the ’80s, what with the many artists who earned hits by covering ’60s tunes, not to mention the clear influence of girl groups on popular singers like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.
But whether or not the Heaters were capable of mainstream fame, they were certainly more than capable musicians who thoroughly understood what made a good pop song tick and who were able to craft their own unique sound that was at once retro and cutting-edge. American Dream is a long overdue testament to the Heaters’ talent and is sure to make more than a few new fans of this exceptional, underrated band.
The Heaters’ The American Dream: The Portastudio Recordings is out August 19 on Omnivore Recordings. Pre-order it now.