To tell the story of The Contractions, let's begin in the spring of 1994, at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Economics. It was approaching Penn's annual Skit Nite, that venerable tradition in which grad students have the opportunity to make fun of the professors, followed by a rather large and rather fun party. Two promising first year graduate students, Peter Norman and Morris Davis, decided to do a parody of the Lou Reed classic "Sweet Jane," entitled "Sweet Dave," in honor of their microeconomics professor, the great economist David Cass. The choice seemed appropriate, Cass being to economics what Reed is to rock and roll. (Note: Dave Cass has on several occasions in recent years got up and sang his own version of "Sweet Jane" with The Contractions, to nothing if not rave reviews.)
Anyway, as both Morris and Peter had been in a variety of bands prior to graduate school, they knew what they were doing, so they very much surprised and impressed the crowd that was used to typically much goofier performances at Skit Nite. One guy they impressed was Randall Wright, who before taking up economics and becoming a professor at Penn, for better or worse, had himself been a guitarist in Winnipeg, Canada, home of The Guess Who. (Note: Eric Smith is fond of pointing out that Randy is one of the few guitarists from Winnipeg who in fact never played in The Guess Who for any real length of time). Later that night, Randy and Morris went up to jam with the band that was playing at the post-skit party, doing a little blues and a crude version of "Honky Tonk Woman," which to this day is one of The Contractions' real crowd pleasers. That night was an embryotic glimpse of what was eventually to become The Contractions.
Not much happened after that until the fateful spring of 1997, when it became clear that Peter Norman would graduate and leave Penn by the following fall. He and Morris took up the idea that had been bouncing around for a while, that of getting people together to make some more music, and began pushing hard to pursue things. As it turns out, Penn Economics was fortunate to have the world class scholars Boyan Jovanovic and Ken Burdett visiting for the academic year, the former an accomplished jazz musician in his own right who regularly gigs in New York, often with the Bleeker Street Trio and often under the stage name Brian Jay; the latter having no real talent at all, except for buying his round at the pub, plus whatever it took to marry Larraine, a veteran (for her age) rock and roller, most recently at that time with the Mean Woman Blues Band from England.
With Boyan on keys, Larraine on drums, Randy on guitar, Morris on bass and guitar, and Peter on vocals, they got together at Randy's joint on Lombard Street in Philadelphia to jam. The first night, as is often the case, wasn't so good. In fact, they sort of sucked. But despite the lack of decent equipment and the fact that at least some of the lads had pretty rusty chops, the attitude seemed good and the spirit willing. They bought a new bass guitar, borrowed colleague Ruilin Zhou's electric piano (she was visiting the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota that year, so it seemed as though it wouldn't be missed), rustled up some drums, decent microphones etc., and got down to work. At the second practice, they invited Andrei Schevshenko, another econ grad student, to sit in. Andrei is a classically trained singer who had dazzled the crowd at the Economics Department's 1996 Skit Nite with his acoustic guitar work and sonorous voice. This filled out the line up of the original Contractions.
The band put together a dozen or so classic rock tunes in a few short weeks, including numbers by the Beatles, Doors, Santana, and of course The Guess Who (from Winnipeg). It was starting to actually sound tight and alright; the musical interplay and the mutual teaching/learning was very exciting. Kind of like starting a band back in high school all over again, except, as one of the lads put it, "It's really nice to play with people who are good musicians, but not complete idiots." In April they felt confident enough to offer to play their first gig together, appropriately, at the 1997 Econ Dept Skit Nite. After the usual good-natured tomfoolery by the grad students, The Contractions took the stage, pumped but more than a little nervous. The very first number was an ironic little medley, beginning with the soft and beautiful ballad "Moscow Nights," which of course Andrei crooned in his native Russian, segueing incongruously into a red hot version of "Back in the USSR" with Peter and Andrei screaming the co-lead vocals. People were more than a bit surprised. Moreover, they really seemed to like it, as far as one could tell from the reaction on the dance floor.
What next? It was too good and too fun to be a one night stand, so the group managed to get another gig in Philly a few weeks later at the now defunct (coincidently!) "Sunset Grill." Having already put together a whole mess of new tunes, including such challenging classics as "Jessica," it was another success! Perhaps the best part was Peter jumping off the stage monitors (only about three feet high in total that night) into the crowd and landing on, rolling in, and destroying the light show that Morris and Randy had put together earlier that day from scraps of wood and Radio Shack sale items; but there were many highlights.
Despite this, it looked like it was going to be tough to keep the band together, as shortly thereafter Peter would take up his new job at University of Wisconsin, Boyan would return to his position at NYU, and Larraine and Ken Burdett would go back to England. But Larraine had ideas. Since Randy went over to the UK every year around Thanksgiving to work with Ken, check out a few of the locals (pubs, that is) and participate in an annual conference at the University of Essex, she figured, "Why not bring the rest of the lads over too, and take The Contractions on a UK mini-tour?" Venues were arranged; notably, "The Greyhound," where Larraine had frequently played with Mean Woman Blues Band, and "The Kings Arms," a favorite pub of The Contractions to this day.
It was about then, by the way, that a critical artistic decision was. One Sunday lunch at the Burdett's, while discussing posters, publicity, and the other stereotypical band junk with the kids Ewan and Ashley Burdett, Ewan came up with the idea that The Contractions should change their name to "Four Dimwits and Mom," especially good for a sextet. The idea was vetoed in the interest of higher mathematics; however, the first trip to England was dubbed "Four Dimwits and Mom Tour," winning out over Morris' idea of "The Norman Invasion." The stuff of genius? In any event, as it turned out, England and The Contractions were about to enter into a wonderful and warm ongoing relationship. The gigs were a blast, the beer was bountiful, ... why, even the weather and food seemed okay.
Post-U.K. the lads returned to their separate haunts, and in the next months the group got together only sparingly for a few private parties with partial lineups. It was a dark time, but what could they do, with talent spread so thin (around the globe)? In particular, with Larraine in England, they were desperately short a key element of The Contractions' sound. Then, lo and behold, another Penn Econ grad student Martin Schindler sent an email saying "I can play drums." Hell, who can't? But, as it turns out, he's actually quite good! So he's in the band. And now he and Larraine share percussion duties. Still, the guys were missing Larraine's cool back up vocals. Then, lo and behold, it turns out that Gwen Eudey, at the time in the Economics Department at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is spending the year at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Not only does she sing, Gwen also plays flute like an angel and does a bit of keyboards and percussion, to boot. So she's in. With the lineup of Andrei, Boyan, Morris, Randy, Martin, and Gwen, The Contractions agree to play the 1998 Econ Skit Nite. Of course, without Peter, all knew the vocals suffer somewhat, as well as the antics to be sure; so Bonnie Williams was asked to sit in on few tunes at Skit Nite. Bonnie does Boffo as a Peter substitute, if not look-a-like. Overall, another successful nite. The Contractions, it would seem, were not dead yet.
At this point things begin to "take off." Turns out that The Fine Arts Alumni Association of Penn (some serious party animals) was having a big outdoor bash and was in need of a band. Coincidently, while at the opera, Gwen and Randy mention to some high society types, including their now-gal-pal Mickey, that they're in a rock group (as if that's why they looked out of place). So Mickey, who's in with the Fine Arts crowd, puts in a good word for The Contractions and the gig is on. This is the first BIG Contractions gig, and the first that pays enough money to cover their music and travel related expenses, plus the main cost of keeping the group together: beer. Peter flew in, and everyone but Larraine was in the lineup that day. It was a success. Especially when Peter jumped off the PA towers, which this time were really quite high as it was an outdoor concert, and wounded his knee. Moreover, some excellent future gigs (e.g., The Palladium) were to come from people in the crowd seeing the group groove at the Fine Arts party.
Even bigger and better things were on the horizon. As fate would have it, the Society for Economic Dynamics was holding its 1998 meetings at the University of Pennsylvania that year. Since Randy was in fact the organizer, the conference dinner-cum-party featured The Contractions live at Rock Lobster, Philly's premiere nightclub, outdoors on the Delaware River. It was more than a success! The band managed to impress all kinds of people who had never heard of them and certainly would be shocked to see that economists can do anything particularly interesting, let alone play music!
The Contractions have since then been on a balanced growth path, despite Morris moving to and Gwen returning to Washington (not really so far from Philly). Boyan, still in NYC, seems to have a new lease on life and is playing better than ever. Peter and Larraine are as brilliant and beautiful, respectively, as ever. Andrei, Martin and Randy are holding the fort in Philly. New people are sitting with the group in every now and again, including Roberto Sanamiego (Penn), James Albrecht (Georgetown), recently. They are constantly working out new tunes, and playing at various places where economists (and others!) gather, such as Cleveland where Peter Rupert organizes gigs and Paul Gomme handles the "special effects," and in Pittsburgh, thanks to Dean Corbae and Dave Dejong. Then there are the Philly bars, like Cavanaugh's and The Palladium. And the traditional Skit Nite(one cannot forget one's roots). And of course the annual U.K. tour, featuring notably The King's Arms and the super-rockin' Top Bar at Essex. At maybe the greatest gig ever, the band was a huge hit in Italy recently at the 1999 SED meetings, going strong until around 3:00 in the morning at the incredible Embarcadero in Porto Conte, Sardina. As this was just a couple of days after playing in Madison, Wisconsin, one can't help but be impressive by the sheer logistics (much credit on that dimension going to Antonio Merlo and especially Marco Vannini).
While in Sardina, the band also explored their more romantic side by having the honor of playing at the wedding of two of their loveliest and most loyal fans, Steve Parente and Catherine (Essie) Berg. More of this mushy stuff will come in September when they play for Ninette Hupp and Richard Rogerson's wedding. It's the least they can do; Rogerson is a true fan who once on a flight from Minneapolis to LA made a few hour stopover in Philly (just a little out of the way) to hear them play. The Contractions are also looking forward to upcoming gigs in Philly, Washington (thanks to Roger Lagunoff), Boston, Iowa City (sic), and perhaps especially the next SED meetings, this time in Costa Rica in 2,000, organized by true fan and sometimes backup singer Alberto Trejos.
Well, that about brings us to date. Hope you enjoyed learning about how this unlikely matching of rock and roll and economics got off the ground. To the friends and fans of the band, hope you get a chance to see The Contractions again soon. To those who don't know the group, come on out at your first opportunity: you may be in for a surprise or two, and you will most definitely a good time!