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You’d expect John Wicks to be more suspicious. The English power-popper’s best-known song, after all, is “Starry Eyes,” a melodically buoyant denunciation of a former manager that he co-wrote for the Records with former partner Will Birch. Some 15 years after the quartet sang “the writ has hit the fan,” however, Wicks has entrusted his career to another manager, Capitol Hill resident Alex Zavastovich.
Of course, Wicks didn’t exactly have a career when the two met last August, at a Mary Chapin Carpenter Patriot Center show. In Washington to thank Carpenter for her frequent performances of “Hearts in Her Eyes,” another Birch/Wicks semi-hit, the singer/songwriter ran into Zavastovich backstage.
“I’d come with the intention of staying the weekend and then flying somewhere else,” says Wicks over lunch at Kramerbooks and Afterwords. But instead of traveling the U.S., perhaps settling eventually in a city known for its music biz, the singer/songwriter moved into Zavastovich’s guest room and the two began planning a comeback. After a few months, Wicks headed to Mexico to get a U.S. work permit and re-enter the country. (He can’t get over the fact that a Mexican border guard stole his chewing gum.) His first gig was last month at 15 Minutes, opening for normally reclusive Illinois popsters Shoes.
“Sometimes there are other places that are waiting to happen,” says Wicks of Washington. “I was impressed by the standard of musicianship around town.”
The singer/songwriter was also pleased to discover that the Records have not been forgotten in D.C., long a strong market for tuneful British rock; “Starry Eyes” ranks 323rd on WHFS’s list of its most requested 500 songs. “After 15 years,” he marvels, “you’d expect it to not even figure.”
“It’s kind of come full circle,” he says of his musical reputation. “It’s a good time for me, without my knowing it.”
The Records were reintroduced to America in 1993 by Rhino’s “D.I.Y.” series, which included a disc—even titled Starry Eyes—that featured the band’s best-known song as well as the Searchers’ version of “Hearts in Her Eyes.” More recently, Too Much Joy released a revamped version of “Starry Eyes,” which Wicks joined the band in playing two weeks ago at the 9:30 Club. (“That’s the fastest I’ve played in years,” he laughs.) Now he’s contributed a track, “Her Stars Are My Stars,” to the upcoming third volume of Yellow Pills, the power-pop sampler series, and is shopping demo tapes of new songs. He’s also formed a band to play clubs in the area.
“They’re really good,” Wicks says of his accompanists, guitarist Dave Egelhofer, bassist Gary Schwartz, drummer Evan Pollock, and backup singer Joe Parsons. “I keep waiting to see some bad musicians [in D.C.]. It keeps me on my toes. ‘Cause I’m not really a musician first.”
Interestingly, Wicks’ presence brings melodic clout to the local mainstream rock scene, which has always been better known for guitar players than songwriters. No experimentalist, he argues that “there’s no point in writing things people don’t like.”
The Rhino reissue brought Wicks “the biggest royalty check I’d gotten in years.” He’d been surviving on “bits and pieces” of royalties, while halfheartedly rehearsing for a Records comeback. Surviving has been “an exercise in “how did I do that?,’ ” he explains. “The last few years in England were pretty dire.”
Like a lot of British musicians who feel excluded by the U.K. music industry’s trendiness, Wicks decided he would “always be on the B-list” at home. “There’s plenty of people in England screaming for the melodic stuff that’s happening over here. But they never hear it.”
“The record companies blame it on the radio and the radio blames it on the record companies,” he declares. “It’s a bit like Russia: “You will only hear this.’ In that sense, [the U.S.] really is the land of opportunity.”
When the Records signed with Virgin, Wicks remembers, he demanded to know what the label would do for them in the U.S. “I just had this feeling that we’d do well in America,” he says. “They probably thought I was really arrogant. But I was just naive.”
Though Virgin ultimately stumbled, failing to manage a release of the Records’ third and final album, its first made Billboard‘s top 50, and “Teenarama” and “Starry Eyes” became underground hits. “I just feel America’s been really good to me every time I’ve been here,” Wicks says, announcing his intention to stay even if his comeback stalls.
People in England, he notes, insist that the U.S. is a vicious place that masks its hostility in the fake sincerity of “have a nice day,” but he has long doubted this. “This time I thought I’d look out for it,” he says triumphantly. “And I’m right.”
“I’ve not been happier since [the Records] broke up,” concludes Wicks of his current American sojourn. “I know I’ve had a hard time stopping smiling. It’s because people are being so nice to me.”
John Wicks will appear Jan. 20 at Republic Gardens and Jan. 25 at the Birchmere.