His musical road hasn’t always been smoothly paved—or paved at all. But with two new releases and continual live work with the band he cofounded forty years ago—a band that some consider America’s premier progressive pop act—he’s reminding us what a monster player he’s always been.
When Joey D’Amico was tracking Crack the Sky’s 1975 self-titled debut, veteran recording engineer Don Puluse (Billy Joel, Bob Dylan) bestowed upon him a bit of wisdom he hasn’t easily forgotten. “Hopefully this won’t be your last record,” Puluse said to D’Amico, adding, “You don’t have to throw in everything you know. Just build yourself. As you learn, people can see your progression as a drummer and how you’re improving.”
Although he’s periodically exited and rejoined the guitar-driven, harmony-rich art-rock band over the years, it’s been D’Amico’s economic and selfless playing that’s defined the pulse of Crack the Sky. Two recent releases, Crackology, packed with rerecorded CTS perennial favorites, and Living in Reverse, rife with surprisingly fresh electroacoustic material, highlight D’Amico’s team-player approach. It’s one he embraced early on. “In the 1970s, when the whole band played on a track, they would play it back to hear if I made any mistakes,” says D’Amico. “If what I did was okay, they would add on their tracks. I got used to doing tracks in one or two takes. I didn’t want to waste everybody’s time.”
Very little has changed. Without flash or fanfare, D’Amico drives a hard groove through the dense music madness unfolding all around him. Tracks such as “Ice,”“Hold On/Surf City,”“Lighten Up McGraw,” and “Nuclear Apathy” from Crackology and “Bang” and “Raining Rain” from Living in Reverse demonstrate how crucial D’Amico’s timekeeping has been—and still is—to the band’s musical direction.
“Joey lays a solid foundation for the monkeyshines that we do,” says songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist John Palumbo.
“He’s like a human metronome,” adds guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Rick Witkowski. “He has an innate, perfect timing.”
“Joey D’Amico may be the most ego-free drummer, maybe the most ego-free musician, I’ve ever worked with,” claims bassist/vocalist Dave DeMarco. “On top of it, he’s the nicest guy in the world.”
As early as 1980’s White Music, electronic and other sound effects bolstered CTS songs. For 1989’s From the Greenhouse, Palumbo programmed beats, eschewing acoustic drumming altogether. Today, D’Amico blends his craft seamlessly with the band’s synthetic aesthetics.
“For Living in Reverse, some of the rhythm tracks were electronic,” says D’Amico, who adds that the band recorded live in Witkowski’s Studio L whenever they could. “I would play around with whatever beat was programmed and enhance it. Other times I’d play a complete song.”
D’Amico relates that the track “Bang” was developed rather organically in the studio. “I traveled with [guitarist] Bobby Hird to Rick’s studio in Weirton [West Virginia], and we’d just throw ideas around,” says D’Amico. “‘Bang’ is a blend of electronics and acoustic drums, and it was Bobby who came up with the Latin beat on it. I wasn’t hearing it, but my experience told me to listen to everybody in the band for ideas.”
“When I send them my demos, it’s all keyboards, drum machine, and guitars, and Joey has to learn what those machines are doing,” says Palumbo, who’s done mixing work for Yoko Ono and collaborated with the cultural icon for the 2018 single, “Hey, Mr. President.”“He does this without complaining. A lot of drummers don’t like to do that.”
Understanding why D’Amico is so prized, we should trace the band’s history back to its origins. One of D’Amico’s earliest memories as a young drummer, barely big enough to reach the foot pedals, was sitting in with a local band for a cover of “Wipe Out.”“Eventually in eighth grade I received a drumkit,” says D’Amico. “The first one was a Ludwig, and that was close to when the Beatles came out.
“Ringo was the first real drummer to make an impression on me,” D’Amico continues. “A Hard Day’s Night came out, and I was able to see what Ringo was doing on his hi-hat. That was the first time I zoned in on the structure of a song and how he would switch from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal to transition from one section of the song to another.”
D’Amico took lessons but soon ditched sheet music for playing along with his favorite records. Word got around Steubenville, Ohio, that a budding drummer was building his chops and could keep pretty good time. “Because I was the only guy who had a drumset in school, [original Crack the Sky bassist] Joe Macre would come to the house and play rhythm guitar,” says D’Amico. “But he didn’t really know how to play many songs.”
Soon enough, though, the boys had enough songs together to begin gigging locally, and by the end of one fateful night, they’d discovered two things: they were a solid outfit, and the bass player had failed to plug in his amp. “From then on Joe Macre decided to play bass,” says D’Amico. “That’s how Crack the Sky happened.”
Throughout his teens, D’Amico remained open to different forms of music. “I became infatuated with the James Brown Band,” he recalls. “I saw them live when I was in high school, and what I remember most is the constant movement on the snare drum. I picked up on what they were doing—how the left hand was not stagnant.”
Finding college life unfulfilling, D’Amico quit school and hooked up with Witkowski, then of the band Scheherazade and already a regional legend. “News spread through the [Ohio River] Valley of this guy who played drums but was also a great guitar player,” says D’Amico, who uses Witkowski’s 1969 Rogers kit when he records in Studio L. “Later, when I would sing during shows, Rick would hop back to play drums. We would switch off like that throughout the night.”
After Witkowski met Palumbo in a local music store, the band solidified. “We were rehearsing in the cold cellar of Gary’s Day Care center,” says D’Amico. “About an hour before the rest of the band would get there, Joe Macre and I would practice. It was a team, really. [Guitarist] Jimmy [Griffiths] and Rick collaborated, and then we would try to piece it together to see what John [Palumbo] thought.”
“Mack [Macre] wanted to lock into the kick drum so much, he would lay down and put his head inside it so he could feel the rhythm,” adds Witkowksi.
By the early 1970s, members of what would be Crack the Sky came to the attention of Jim Croce producers Terry Cashman (aka Dennis Minogue) and Tommy West (Thomas Picardo). The business partners failed to bite. Within a couple of years, however, the band delivered a highly polished demo that Cashman’s nephew, Terence Minogue, used to convince his uncle and West to take a second look at Crack the Sky, then-dubbed ArcAngel.
Cashman and West initially wished to sign Crack the Sky with ABC, but instead established the Lifesong Records label, which pressed much of the band’s classic material, in 1975.
Crack the Sky roamed a broad musical spectrum, sometimes within the span of a single song, from riff-driven muso rock and string-laden art-rock to dark Americana, rock ’n’ roll shuffling, and techno new wave, recalling the Beatles at their most meditative, King Crimson at their jazzy knottiest, and even Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn-baked soulfulness. Songs such as “Ice,” “Surf City,” “Rangers at Midnight,” “Animal Skins,” “Lighten Up McGraw,” “Safety in Numbers,” “Flashlight,” and “Nuclear Apathy” showcase how smoothly D’Amico navigated very choppy musical waters through concise rhythmic patterns, while shadowing gnarly guitar riffs with clearly defined accents and anchoring polyrhythmic patterns with a measure of funk and hard-rock spunk. “Don Puluse gave good advice,” says D’Amico, “and when I became more relaxed, I tried to do little things when I thought there were openings, but not overplay.”
Airplay and a Rolling Stone Debut Album of the Year nod seemed to indicate greater things to come. Alas, commercial fortune didn’t materialize. The label’s inadequate distribution system meant that Crack the Sky records weren’t always delivered to the stores in towns where radio station DJs were spinning them. When the stars aligned, though, Crack exceeded expectations. “They’re like the Beatles in Baltimore,” Terence Minogue said in 2017.
The rise of disco, financial spats between the band and Lifesong (the subject of the Palumbo-penned “We Want Mine”), and internal conflicts didn’t help the band’s stability. Palumbo exited prior to the recording of 1978’s Safety in Numbers at Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec. The group recruited lead singer Gary Lee Chappell and recorded songs Palumbo wrote or cowrote anyway, including one that D’Amico took lead vocals on, “Long Nights,” which resurfaced on Crackology.
Where it once appeared that Crack the Sky’s dynamic music and dark and often quirky character-driven lyrics had bottled the zeitgeist of a turbulent and disaffected post–Watergate America, by the late 1970s the band was quickly losing whatever cultural currency it had accrued. By the early 1980s, CTS became largely a studio vehicle for Palumbo and, to a degree, Witkowski. D’Amico decided it was time to split.
“When the band broke up, Joe Macre went back to Steubenville,” says D’Amico. “I was in New Jersey looking for work, and I was going to start parking cars at some country club. Right when I was going to do that, Joe called and said he had this thing going on in Ohio, the B. E. Taylor Group.” D’Amico, along with Macre and Witkowski, appeared on three commercial records with Taylor, including 1983’s Love Won the Fight, which spawned the popular lovesick anthem “Vitamin L,” sung by D’Amico.
It was a surprising turn of events, considering that Taylor (who would pass away in 2016 from an inoperable brain tumor) was a brassy singer with a big, blue-eyed-soul voice. “I sang more often back in the B. E. Taylor Group days,” says D’Amico. “Because I wanted to have a better view of the audience when singing, I decided to try a different angle with my drums. It seemed to work and, more importantly, Rick Witkowski thought it looked cool.”
D’Amico returned to the Crack the Sky fold a couple years later, playing a series of shows at the legendary Hammerjacks club in Baltimore and contributing vocals to the albums From the Greenhouse and Dog City. When his work with the band slowed again, he joined a local band playing covers and some originals, and he continued to work occasionally with Witkowski. After a stint with Greek band Acropolis Now, which challenged the drummer through their liberal application of Eastern European tempos and rhythms, D’Amico joined Starburst, a ten-piece group with horns, touring the casino circuit. “Jobs were sometimes difficult to book,” recalls D’Amico, “because a lot of venues didn’t want to hire a ten-piece show band.”
Though he was optimistic as a new century dawned, D’Amico discovered job opportunities were nearly nonexistent. Pulling up stakes provided fewer prospects and greater frustration. “In 2003 we came to Gettysburg, because my wife got a teaching job,” D’Amico says. “It was a tough five years; I sent résumés to music stores but didn’t get any calls.”
Just as D’Amico was resigning himself to a slow fade from the music business, Macre, who’d transitioned into the worlds of jingles and audio engineering/production, plucked his boyhood friend from his career quagmire and invited him to perform once again with Crack the Sky and reclaim the drum throne from John Tracey.
D’Amico subsequently recorded CTS’s 2010 studio album, Machine, 2012’s Ostrich, and 2015’s The Beauty of Nothing, and he appears on the DVD All Access, which documents the band’s 2008 appearance at RoSfest and another show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from later that same year. And the album Alive and Kickin’ Ass, released in 2006, culls smokin’ live performances from Cleveland and Philadelphia, expanding on and incorporating the original tracks from the 1978 Lifesong entry Live Sky.
D’Amico is back where so many believe he belonged in the first place—rooting CTS’s busy, idiosyncratic art-rock. “I’m pretty close to the rest of the guys now,” says D’Amico. “When we do rehearsals we convene in Westminster, Maryland. That’s only about an hour away from me. It makes it convenient.”
Tools of the Trade
While Joey D’Amico records on the 1969 Rogers kit that Rick Witkowski has at his West Virginia studio, he plays Gretsch drums at home and on the road. D’Amico’s setup includes a mix of Sabian and Zildjian cymbals, and he uses Tama stands, an Ahead Spinal-G drum throne, and the same Ludwig Speed King pedal he’s used since eighth grade.