Cosmopolitans are back

'80s band reprises its new wave sound, frenetic dancing

Staff writerJuly 26, 2009 

  • Mitch Easter, Don Dixon

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St.,

    Carrboro

    Cost: $15

    Contact:

    catscradle.com

    or 967-9053

— At every band practice, tempo is a major concern. But getting everything happening at precisely the right speed is especially important at this particular practice in a cramped rehearsal space a few blocks from Madison Square Garden this month.

It's for the Cosmopolitans' first performance in 27 years.

In New York in the early '80s, the Cosmopolitans were part of a wave of transplanted Southerners taking the city by storm, alongside the B-52's and dB's.

The Cosmopolitans' origins go back to UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-'70s, where North Carolina natives Jamie Sims and Nel Moore Nichols pursued dancing and music of a rather offbeat bent.

Their reunion show Saturday in Carrboro after nearly three decades is an unlikely event, requiring an unusual alignment of various planets.

A lot of things have to happen with perfect timing for everything to work.

"Here's the thing," Sims tells her bandmates. "Just make sure you don't go too fast at the beginning there. That's hard on us, you know?"

Drummer Evan Davies and keyboardist Cathy Harrington murmur agreement. Nichols does warm-up stretches, checks lyrics in a notebook and runs through some dance moves, lips pursed in concentration.

The reasons for Sims' attention to timing become apparent as the band kicked off the opening number, "pH Factor." The only vocals that Nichols and Sims perform on this one are a few oohs and ahs, but that doesn't mean they don't put on a show.

As Harrington plays '60s-vintage garage-rock vamp on her keyboard, Sims and Nichols launch into a remarkably intricate choreography routine with go-go dancing, bird-flapping, swimming strokes, a cracking whip, ticking clock hands, pom-pom cheers, the frug and more -- all in a dizzying three-minute display. It's odd and hilarious, landing somewhere between earnest performance art and absurd parody.

Dance like a 20-something

The two twirl, shimmy, shake, jitter and gyrate, recreating choreography they originated 30 years ago in their early 20s. Sims and Nichols are both winded by the end.

A few songs later, Harrington offers Sims a seat between takes.

"Sit down?" Sims asks with mock incredulity. "We've got to get in shape for this; we got no time to sit down!"

So it's on to "Sophisticated Boom Boom," a crafty piece of trashy old-school psychedelia overlaid with wide-eyed girl-group charm. "Boom Boom" fits right in with a cover of "Wooly Bully," Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' 1965 hit, on which Nichols dons the lime-green fur vest she used to wear back in the day.

"The Cosmopolitans credo is to keep moving," Sims declares, "because it's harder to hit a moving target."

The Cosmopolitans rate somewhere between a footnote and a blip in the history of North Carolina rock, although they could have accomplished a lot more had they caught a break or two. What lingers in the memory is how much fun they were in their heyday, a clever pairing of girl-group sensibilities with punk-rock energy and irreverence.

"It was a great concept, a dance party without a doubt," says Peter Holsapple of the dB's. "There was an innocence and great hilarity to what they did, and the way they'd have the audience dancing. They were like an instructional video come to life. The whole thing was very lightheaded, which was nice. There was a lot of really dark, brooding stuff in New York around that time, and Cosmopolitans were a big blast of helium in the face of that."

It began in Chapel Hill

Although the Cosmopolitans were creatures of New York, they began coming together in Chapel Hill with Sims' alternative dance group, the North Carolina Progressive Dance Troop. In 1977, she renamed the group and took it north to New York.

"I had a choice between managing condos in Hilton Head or pursuing dance in New York," Sims says over a post-rehearsal drink at a nearby restaurant. "If I stayed in Hilton, that was going to be it for me, forever. So I decided to come up here.

"There were a lot of small companies doing avant-garde things, and I was appalled at some of the names -- three guys and a banana would be the International Dance Company. So I came up with Cosmopolitan Dance Troop as a joke. I always thought of it as a 'Saturday Night Live' version of a dance company."

Nichols wound up in New York about the same time and signed on. The group would do routines based on Picasso paintings, or the day's cultural effluvia. "A Chorus Line" was one subject, as was the "I Love New York" advertising campaign.

Sims and Nichols would also dance go-go routines as the dB's or Fleshtones played. And Sims was writing songs, goofy ones, often based on stories taken from the tabloid pages of the New York Post. She hit it out of the park with two diabolically catchy songs.

"Wild Moose Party" was written in honor of her 22-pound cat, Moose, fitting an overdrive backbeat and party chants to a hypnotic keyboard riff that was perfect for jumping up and down. And she based "(How To Keep Your) Husband Happy" on an old exercise record by Debbie Drake, the late-'50s queen of televised fitness, right down to the chanted chorus: "Shape up, firm up, tone up, with Debbie!"

As they started to get more attention for their music, the Cosmopolitan Dance Troop became simply the Cosmopolitans, a band rather than a dance group. Sims and Nichols fronted the group, backed by a revolving cast that included various dB's.

Dancing remained a major part of the Cosmopolitan universe, however.

"They had a really good grasp of who they were and what they wanted to be," says Lew Musser, now lives in Wilmington now but saw many of their performances when he was in New York. "What they wanted to be was a lot of fun onstage, and it was infectious."

For all the had-to-be-there comedic trappings, the Cosmopolitans' music was more than valid on its own. Sims and Nichols went to Winston-Salem and committed "Wild Moose Party" and "Husband" to tape at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio in 1980. The tracks were issued on an independent-label single that fall, and darned if "Moose" didn't crack the playlist at New York's big rock station WNEW.

"It was so strange to hear that between George Thorogood and Yes," Sims says. "I was working at a squash club back then, and these two guys who worked in advertising came running in one day: 'We heard you on the radio!' We were so excited, we jumped out of the car.'"

In retro-kitschy sound as well as spirit, the Cosmopolitans were very much of a piece with the B-52's -- who began in Athens, Ga., with a similar aesthetic of making art from cheese.

"I don't think it's an accident, this synchronicity between the B-52's and Cosmopolitans both coming from Southern college towns at about the same time," says Parke Puterbaugh, who was a critic for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1980s. "That was a part of what was happening in the New York club genre of the broader new-wave scene, and Cosmopolitans were also part of that North Carolina-New York connection with the dB's."

When fame fades

Where the similarities end is in career trajectory. The B-52's also emerged with an independent-label single, 1978's "Rock Lobster," which they parlayed into a major-label deal and a career that has lasted decades.

But the Cosmopolitans couldn't capitalize on the radio success of "Wild Moose Party." When Sims came down with Epstein-Barr virus in 1982, that effectively ended the group.

Nichols moved back to Wilmington and began playing harmonica with a blues band. Sims eventually moved to Richmond, Va., where she still lives. She now puts most of her musical energy into composing classical music that is worlds away from the Cosmopolitans.

Even though Cosmopolitans were long gone, their music never went away. The Trouser Press Record Guide describes "Wild Moose Party" as "one of the most unhinged party singles of the new wave era," an entry that concludes: "This combo lived fast, died young and left a great-sounding corpse."

It took until 2006 for the first Cosmopolitans compact disc to be released, on Dionysus Records, based in California. "Wild Moose Party" compiles the songs from the Cosmopolitans' single with demos and live tracks, plus the delightfully cheesy 1980 video they made for "Husband." Pulling that together was a major technical challenge.

"We were going through boxes of cassettes, because we never had master tapes of anything," Nichols says. "As they were being transferred to digital for the CD, the tapes just disintegrated. So the recordings were saved just in time. They would not have lasted much longer."

That got Sims and Nichols talking about a reunion, which has taken three years. There's only one show scheduled for now, at Cat's Cradle. But if that goes well, there might be a New York show, too.

Of course, performing is a challenge because of the physical nature of the Cosmopolitans' performances. Performing was difficult enough when Sims and Nichols were in their 20s, and it's a true challenge now that they're in their 50s. Sims has been rehearsing with a leg brace after breaking an ankle a few months ago. Still, it's been a good way to reconnect.

"For a lot of reasons, I felt like we did not get to do things in the way they could have been done," Sims says. "Cosmopolitans were all about fun, but there was also a lot of struggle and drama -- personal, medical, you name it. So I was just never satisfied, knowing we could do better."

So maybe this time, the Cosmopolitans can do justice to their quirky legacy.

"Musical groups always seem to want to revisit their earlier sensibilities as the people they eventually become. To touch that base again," Nichols says. "We're no different, I guess. It's like the Blues Brothers -- on a mission from God to put the band back together.

"Now," she concludes with a laugh, "who do we need to bust out of prison?"

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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