An online search for one of Gross National Productions most well-known tracks, “Don’t Romance Me,” reveals a YouTube video in which the song is set to some rather amorous imagery: two adults huddled closely beneath an umbrella; the famous spaghetti dinner from Lady and the Tramp; a pair of smooching toddlers; the iconic bow scene from Titanic. What listeners will quickly discover is that “Don’t Romance Me” is hardly a conventional love song—not with a chorus of “Don’t romance me / Just enhance me,” which is possibly the narrator not only wishing to be a better man, but a bigger man as well (nudge, nudge; wink, wink).
The video—credited to former GNP member Gary Rutstein—is wonderfully illustrative of Gross National Productions’ sly, off-beat wit, of the band’s ability to use humor to forge immediate connections with listeners. You took pleasure in being in on their unique gags. GNP was serious about not being taken seriously; they played tight and sounded loose; they made jokes and didn’t mind occasionally being the butt of one.
Founded in 1970, GNP originally consisted of four students from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Rutstein on keyboard and guitar, Tom Dempsey on trumpet, Joe Botti on drums, and Doug Stevens on vocals, who performed under the pseudonym Matt Maverick) and three more from Salem State College (Artie Johnson on bass, Tony Bartolini on saxophone, and John Press on guitar). Brought together by a shared love for “the Beatles, raunchy comedy, and quick ways to get women,” the septet honed its skills at the legendary Unicorn Coffee House on Bolyston Street.
Metromedia Records eventually came calling as well as legendary songwriter and producer George “Shadow” Morton, best known for his work with 1960s girl group the Shangri-Las. The result was 1972’s P-Flaps and Low Blows, an album that’s soaring yet silly, bawdy yet batty. GNP dabbles in glam rock, Vaudeville, and lounge—sometimes all in one song.
During its heyday, GNP performed with a number of prominent artists, including Frank Zappa, Spirit, Sha Na Na, Badfinger, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. However, the band suffered a series of misfortunes—a split with management, the theft of most of their gear—before officially disbanding. The original lineup got back together in 1975 (with percussionist David Pontbriand added to the lineup), on the recommendation of Epic Records producer Tom Werman, but the reunion was short-lived.
Following this second break-up, Stevens began performing under the stage name Red Peters. He released a number of raunchy singles and albums (sample title: “How’s Your Whole … Family?”), became a frequent guest on “The Howard Stern Show,” and landed a spot on Sirius XM, hosting “The Red Peters Comedy Music Hour.” In 1976, Stevens reunited with Dempsey to form Handsome Brothers Music Service, a production company that specializes in music scoring, songwriting, and sound design.
Artie Johnson, bass player for GNP continues to work with Red Peters, performing, co-writing tunes on both Red Peters CDs, and for the Red Peters Sirius XM Radio Show and The Comedy Cruise.
Anthony Bartolini continues to play in his Cape Cod band known as The Last Men on Earth.
Johnny Press later played in Boston recording bands Velocity and Smokin’ Joe, and now plays in his own band The Johnny Press Mess. He is now recording a CD with Local Rocker Joe Black of Balloon Fame.
(by Ryan Foley)