The Loser’s Lounge collective walks a fine line. First off, calling your band a “loser” plays into a negative frame; adding in the cheesy moniker “lounge” makes the prospects even more suspect. To top it off, the repertoire comes from the chart-topping catalogs of pop stars from the 1960 to 1980s. In other words, it’s essentially a cover band joining the plethora of re-treaders copy-catting note-for-note groups like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Queen, all the while playing the nostalgia card.
Given all the potential risks of falling into the amusement-park circuit, The Loser’s Lounge has not only dredged up the classic-pop songbook with creative flair, but in doing so has become a grassroots New York City institution. Founded in 1993 by former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Joe McGinty, The Loser’s Lounge will celebrate its 25th anniversary at Joe’s Pub in New York Dec. 6-8 with a special tribute to the renowned pop songwriter Paul Williams. While his name is not as well-known as his songs, Williams penned such radio hits for the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”), Barbra Streisand (“Evergreen” ) and even Daft Punk (”Touch,” “Beyond”) as well as soundtrack songs from 1979’s The Muppet Movie (including “Rainbow Connection”).
This will be the second Williams celebration — at a tribute in June 2001, the composer performed some of his songs with the band — and McGinty promises that this stint at Joe’s Pub, the band’s home since 2005 after stretches at the now-shuttered The Fez and Westbeth Theater, will be fun, unexpected, rollicking and unhinged.
“We continue to do music from when we started out,” McGinty says of his band. “We were just a bunch of East Village artists admitting our love for guilty pleasures, like singing ABBA tunes and not being ashamed. The band and our audience love the music we grew up with, whether it was Neil Diamond or Elton John or the Kinks. The crowd comes to hear what was recorded by their favorite artists. We do the big hits as well as go deep into the catalog for obscure tunes. But what’s important is that we keep our own identity.”
It’s all about the business of music redemption, McGinty adds. The Loser’s Lounge not only honors the artists but also affirms the passion of the fans, many of whom take to singing along.
The group’s first concert in December 1993 was a tribute to Burt Bacharach, and it sold out The Fez on a Monday night. The subsequent revues created a buzz that led to stars sitting in to perform songs over the years, such as Debbie Harry doing “Baby It’s You” at another Bacharach celebration; They Might Be Giants performing the Zombies’ “Butcher’s Tale” at a tribute to the ’60s pop band; Moby playing guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at an event honoring George Harrison; and, at a Harry Nilsson tribute, guests such as Ronnie Spector (“Paradise”) and indie actress Parker Posey (“Coconut”) joined the band. Significant events came when The Loser’s Lounge took the stage at CBGB in 2006 in its final week and performed Talking Heads tunes to a sold-out house — with a line down the street trying to get in — and annual disco parties at Lincoln Center’s “Midsummer Night’s Swing” in Damrosch Park that attract 4,000-6,000 dancers.
In 1994, McGinty invited the local pop band The Kustard Kings (of which he was a member) to be The Loser’s Lounge house band, with multi-instrumentalist/vocalist David Terhune and drummer Clem Waldmann still in the saddle. Additional members in the backing band — depending on the song arrangements — can be strings players, additional keyboardists, horn blowers and an array of vocalists, ranging from guest appearances by stars Cyndi Lauper, Joey Ramone, Lee Hazelwood, Fred Schneider, Lana del Rey, Gotye and Martha Wainwright to such band regulars as Connie Petruk and Tricia Scotti. The band and vocalists have free reign over how they approach the music — whether straight on, campy, jocular or absurd.
“The regulars bring in new people all the time, so the shows are always different,” says McGinty, who occasionally enlists talented singers from his retro-style piano karaoke bar in Chelsea, Sid Gold’s Request Room, which he launched in 2015 with Beauty Bar owner Paul Devitt. “Every other month we divide up the workload on who we are going to pay tribute to. We come up with charts, narrow down the song list, rehearse and be diplomatic at the last minute when everyone wants to sing a certain song. It ends up being a big jigsaw puzzle to put these shows together, but they always seem to work out.”
The tributes eclectically celebrate the likes of Prince, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, Henry Mancini, the Monkees, Todd Rundgren, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and Randy Newman and even salutes full shows like the Band’s Last Waltz and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “If some of the artists we want to cover don’t have enough hit songs, we have a Battle of the Bands night,” says McGinty, who cites evenings of Carly Simon vs. Linda Ronstadt, Devo vs. the B-52’s and the Cars vs. Duran Duran. “Our Battle of the Bands with the Smiths vs. the Cure are a huge dare. The house is divided. Fans support the bands they love.”
On McGinty’s wish list of future revues includes an evening of Motown and Smokey Robinson, as well as a rock night of Tommy by the Who. “We also want to keep going into genres we haven’t covered well,” he says. “But we have done Dolly Parton as well as the Highwaymen. But there’s still much more that’s up for grabs.”
As for the star of the anniversary show, Williams says he loves The Loser’s Lounge’s support. “It’s a treat,” says Williams, who has served as president of ASCAP since 2009. “There’s so much playfulness. I’ll never forget the night in 2001 — my friend [actor] Richard Dreyfuss even sang ‘Rainy Days and Mondays.’ I went into it not knowing what to expect, but I discovered their mix of approaches. There was fair amount of dark humor, but it’s New York City after all. I love the humor and the edge, and it’s turbo-charged with kindness. I’m not going to say when, but I’ll probably show up and play some of my songs. I want to keep it a surprise. But it will be like family. I’ve been there before, and I felt that affection.”
“We‘ve never received negative responses from the artists we pay tribute to,” McGinty says. “Barbra Streisand even sent us a bouquet of white roses during one of our runs through her music and wrote, ‘You did me proud.’ She heard what we were doing with our spins through her songs and she approved. As for the audience, they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive. The only complaint we get is if we leave out their favorite song.”