Looking back is often a necessity in moving forward. Mike Skill went back 41 years to rerecord his band The Romantics biggest hit “What I Like About You.” Originally written by Skill and Romantics singer and drummer Jimmy Marinos, the song was originally released in 1979 prior to the band’s self-titled debut the following year, and new lives throughout the 1980s and ’90s as a sports stadium anthem, the Budweiser theme song, and countless party chants.
“We always talked about doing a 30th-anniversary thing, a 35th and a 40th,” says Skill of returning to the band’s 1980 hit. “Then it got boring just talking about it after a while.”
Skill would go on to co-write many more of the band’s hits including “Talking in Your Sleep,” off their third album In Heat but never released his own music. When the pandemic hit in 2020, The Romantics were off the road for the first time in four decades and weren’t keen on recording new music.
Back home in Portland, Oregon, Skill began writing new songs and unearthing some he had shelved for some time, releasing a single every couple of months, making up the 12 tracks of his first solo album Skill… Mike Skill (Skillsongs). Along with redoing “What I Like About You”—even using the same amplifier used during the original recording—Skill continued to piece together more songs throughout the lockdown.
“I wrote ’67 Riot,’ which is about the Detroit Riots, and that was the first song,” says Skill. “Then other songs followed like ‘Dark Side of Your Love,’ ‘Carrie Got Married,’ ‘Not My Business,’ ‘My Bad Pretty.’
Produced by Chuck Alkazian and recorded at Pearl Sound Studios in Detroit and from Skill’s home in Portland, Skill… Mike Skill is a storyboard sketched around Skill’s musical life from “‘67 Riot,” a song about the Detroit Riots, featuring one of Skill’s guitar heroes, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, along with several songs co-written with Romantics drummer Brad Elvis. Singer Chloe F. Orwell, Elvis’ wife, also contributed to some tracks, singing and playing sax on the soulful “So Soul Alone” and writing the lyrics to “Carrie Got Married,” originally penned as a sequel to the 1980 Romantics track “Tell It to Carrie.”
Bursting open on “Not My Business,” and chunkier dips of “My Bad Pretty,” which Skill released on a 7″ (Third Man Records) along with “67 Riot,” there’s more grit to Skill… Mike Skill, which still retrieves the simplicity of the infectious pop-rock riffs and simple chords The Romantics naturally formulated in their earlier days.
“We grew up on Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, and those long songs, long drum solos, and it was just a reaction to getting back to a simpler form,” says Skill. “I grew up listening to 45s of Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly and it really stuck with me, all the simple, straight-edge songs. So that’s what everything was kicking back to, and The Ramones were the same thing, going back to the ‘girl’ groups like The Chiffons.”
Growing up in Detroit, Skill came up the city just as Motown was blossoming, from his youthful introduction to “Shop Around” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles to playing The Temptations in early junior high school. “They all lived three or four miles away from us,” says Skill. “It felt you were part of the club. Three of four producers would record a song and have a contest for what they would release next. They would take the song out on the street, and grab people off the street and ask ‘what do you think of that song.'” This friendly competition would decide what song they would release.”
“We were a part of this whole moment,” says Skill, who remembers the sight and sounds—pounding of auto bodies at nearby factories—growing up in a very working-class, interracial Detroit. “It was multiple nationalities working really hard together 24 hours a day for car companies.”
Later frequenting local clubs, catching artists like Bob Seger, the pre-Grand Funk Railroad Terry Knight and the Pack, Ted Nugent’s earlier band The Amboy Dukes, soul group The Rationals with Scott Morgan, Skill moved with the music when the Mc5 and The Stooges came along.
“Every week The Stooges and MC5 would play The Grande Ballroom,” says Skill. “We were kids and we’re like ‘what did Iggy do this week? How many clothes did he take off?’ Then MC5 came out with ‘Looking at You.’ That’s what I was influenced by, the ’50s music to Motown to these groups, so that’s where the high-energy and the attitude and the romance came out.”
Skill, who later relocated to New York City for some time, remembers when The Romantics toured with The Ramones in 1980. “I was on the side of the stage and Joey comes up, and goes ‘I love your band. I love pop music,'” said Skill. “I was like ‘what, pop music,’ but to hear him say it… he was so cool. They would go into a small town of 1,000 people and would go a retail shop and buy all the leather jackets they could. On stage, they had this big road case that would hold drums or something, and it was full of leather jackets.”
He adds, “Everybody rubbed off on one another. It was all simple songs, and that’s what I was trying to do with ‘What I Like About You.’ When you’re a writer it can be anything. It can be one little chord, or two chords that work with a harmony can influence something new. It’s more about taking ourselves out of the way.”
That sound was always intentional for Skill and still is. “I wanted to write songs with three or four chords that we could just jam away to,” he says of playing with The Romantics. “We used simple choruses with minor chords. We wanted choruses you could actually sing to. In the earlier days, if you went to a Led Zeppelin show, you wouldn’t walk out singing the chorus.”
Still connected to his roots, and The Romantics, who were inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2011, Skill is proud of his roots and where he’s going next. “The way we produced those songs, they last and last,” says Skill. “If you turn that first record up, it still sounds really good, because we were all about, noise and energy and attitude.”
Now more than 40 years after the band’s self-titled debut and follow-up National Breakout, both released in 1980, there’s a sense of continuation and a new beginning with Skill… Mike Skill.
“I never want to do the same thing on a record,” says Skill. “I still want to keep it more raw and high energy with some punk and pop attitude—a lot of pop attitude.”
Photo: Mick Hangland-Skill