Beloved long-running New York City-based show Loser’s Lounge is releasing a six-show series, The Battle of the One-Hit Wonders, with the next episode streaming on January 21 here. (Once the final show comes out on March 18, all six shows will remain available online through April 18.) Keyboard player/composer/producer Joe McGinty, who founded Loser’s Lounge in 1993 and has since served as its leader, describes it as “a variety show honoring classic musicians and artists and songwriters of the 20th century, with a fun and entertaining spin.”
Pre-pandemic shows tended to focus on one particular legendary artist’s work, with “at least twenty songs with twenty different singers—some Broadway people, some comedians, some rock and roll singers—a real representation of the kind of talent you can find in New York City,” McGinty says, calling from his New Jersey home. These online shows will still feature various musical performers, but in a shortened format of two songs for each “One Hit Wonder” artist being honored (and McGinty introducing each song with a little musical history).
In a “battle of the bands” arrangement, audience members can “vote” in the Comments section for the artist whose songs they feel should “win” the episode. Then, McGinty says, “I’ll just look through the comments, and it’s usually pretty easy to tally them up at the end of the show and make a little announcement in the Comments section.” Still, he admits that he personally declines to play favorites: “I like all of them for different reasons,” he says.
In each episode, McGinty links the songs thematically. For instance, the first show, which streamed on December 17, focused on songs of hope and positivity. McGinty declines to say what future shows’ themes will be, in order to retain the element of surprise for audiences.
McGinty—whose career has also encompassed playing keyboard for bands such as The Psychedelic Furs, as well as composing for films like 2015’s One More Time (starring Christopher Walken, who sings one of McGinty’s songs)—sees much value in covering other people’s songs.
“I do feel like learning all these songs is an educational thing,” McGinty says. “I could recommend to American Songwriter readers that pulling apart songs, seeing what makes them work, definitely influences your own writing. Maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from learning Brian Wilson songs or Burt Bacharach songs, people like that.
“I think somebody like Burt Bacharach, his songs are very complicated but also very catchy and memorable,” McGinty continues. “The same with Brian Wilson. There’s a lot going on. I think those are both good examples of how you can push the boundaries and still have a great song without falling into formulas. ABBA is another great example of [a group with] very interesting and creative songs that are maybe a little bit left of center in some ways, but still obviously very commercial and catchy.”
When it comes time to choose which New York City musicians for a Loser’s Lounge show, McGinty admits that it can be difficult because there are far more people clamoring to participate than he can include. In the end, he tries to strike the right balance between seasoned performers and up-and-comers. “We have a fair amount of regulars that have been doing the show for a long time, but at the same time, I like to bring new people in. The age range of performers is early 20s to 60 [years old],” he says. “It’s a crazy jigsaw puzzle to try to put together, for sure.”
Once McGinty has selected the songs and the performers, “the band will start learning the songs and it’s a real team effort. We divide up writing the charts. We might adopt the arrangement in rehearsal a little bit. Sometimes people need to change the key. It’s a little frantic with so many singers and so many songs, but we’ve got it down to a pretty good system right now.”
As for why Loser’s Lounge has lasted so long, especially in a city like New York that has so many competing entertainment options, McGinty says he thinks it’s “a combination of iconic songwriters and performers, but with this unique slant on it.” He adds that during normal times, when the show is held at the elegant East Village venue Joe’s Pub, “It’s also a very nice New York night out because it’s like a supper club atmosphere.”
It wasn’t clear that Loser’s Lounge would become such an institution when McGinty first founded it in 1993, though. The idea to do it, he says, came when “My friends and I would sit around and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a night of Burt Bacharach songs?’ This was when grunge was popular, so it was surprising that it took off. We thought it would just be our small group of friends.”
Since then, Loser’s Lounge has become so well-respected that it has featured high-profile guest performers across many genres, including Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Richard Barone, and Cyndi Lauper.
Besides leading the Loser’s Lounge, McGinty also has his own piano bar, Sid Gold’s Request Room, in Manhattan’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, which has also frequently streamed shows during this pandemic. “I’ve always been a fan of piano bars,” McGinty says. “To me, that’s a great community experience, people gathering around the piano singing. It’s a long-standing tradition that goes back to the days before records were available and songwriters made money by selling sheet music and people playing the songs on their piano. Also, that’s another great way to meet great singers and network with musicians in this sort of fun, informal way.”
As for why McGinty chose to play the piano in the first place, “That actually is kind of fate,” he says. When he was growing up in New Jersey, “My family moved and the people selling the house were like, ‘Well, we can leave the piano if you want,” and I was like, ‘Yes, that’s perfect.’ One friend was playing drums, one was playing bass and we knew a guitar player, but nobody was playing the keyboard yet. So it was serendipity.” He formed his first band with friends when he was in the eighth grade.
McGinty started off his professional music career as a member of a touring band that played the casino/lounge circuit across the country (which he says also helped inspire the Loser’s Lounge concept) before becoming an in-demand session musician, playing for The Ramones, Moby, Devendra Banhart, Conor Oberst, and many more. He also releases his own work (available via his Bandcamp page).
“With my own projects, songs come from a more personal place,” McGinty says, “but working with somebody else, I value just as much. I just love meeting other musicians and interacting with them and being inspired by them.”
Looking at all of his projects, from Loser’s Lounge to his solo work, McGinty says he feels grateful for it all: “I basically feel like I get the best of both worlds: being a sideman sometimes, and being a bandleader sometimes. And being a songwriter sometimes. I feel pretty lucky. In the day-to-day of figuring out what’s going on in the world, it’s important to remember that.”