The Cichlids' story is one of your typical musical stories rife with intrigue, pleasure, strife, and the passing of time. The act was widely considered one of the first alternative Florida acts who could have (should have) made it, and 1980's Be True To Your School is the crowning achievement of its short tenure.
But regardless of length, the stuff that made the Cichlids legendary were circumstances. Case in point: Halloween 1979, Peaches Records and Tapes in Ft. Lauderdale, the now-defunct WSHE-FM doing a live broadcast and a raging tropical storm outside. Story goes that the record store was formerly some type of supermarket and wasn't wired to handle the rock and roll onslaught with the added electric nature of the thunderstorm. The gig resulted in a psychedelic mess that is still discussed by local aficionados.
Formed in early 1979, the Cichlids were comprised of Debbie DeNeese on vocals and guitar, Bobby Tak on drums and vocals, Allan Portman on guitar and vocals, and Susan Bartel on bass. With a huge following, an era of extreme local support (seriously, when's the last time you heard a local band on mainstream Miami radio?) and a heaping dose of musical creativity, the Cichlids were primed for national success.
And here's where it gets interesting. Though the foursome was originally a full-fledged punk rock band, its label, TK Records, decided to push the band in a more New Wave direction to play up its marketability. Keep in mind that TK was first and foremost a "dance music" label (KC & the Sunshine Band type of stuff), so how savvy of a move this was is questionable.
Regardless of that, Be True To Your School came out to some acclaim in 1980. With the addition of manager Robert Mascaro - a gent who'll forever be maligned in local circles as a pushy and destructive personality - the band underwent a rapid period of deterioration. Guitarist Portman and bassist Bartel would depart the band almost immediately after the record's release.
The 13 tracks on the album arguably found a truce between the band's punk roots and the label/management's New Wave direction, while keeping the energy at 100 percent throughout. Opener "Missionary Man" is a rager, and it's followed by "With My Girl" and "Bubble Gum," a pair of poppy tracks. (The latter was featured in a single backing "Lifeguard Dan" which was their entry into teenage girl-lust surf rock, and probably the one song I don't really care much for.I'm guessing that stems from me never being a teenaged chick pining for some stoner lifeguard dude.)
"Jewish Girls" is a fucking riot and oh so true for many young Jewish males pressed into tradition; shiksas need not apply. My favorite moment on the album is the one-two punch of "Let's Go Menial" and "14 or Fight" which deliver a welcome ounce of pop-tinged hardcore, which is then tempered by the good nature of "Ubangi Stomp" and "Did You Ever." Also on hand, is a very sexy cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" which works very well set against the original material
Sadly, The Cichlids performed "officially" for the last time in 1981, but by then had managed to put South Florida on the map and accomplish a hell of a lot more than most do with a decade under the belt. Whatever little differences might' have marred their disbanding, they happily reunited back in 2007 for a one-off show, and Bobby Tak has been busying himself with the Loose Cannons, so who knows if another engagement is that far off in the future?
In any event, I must insist that you seek out this album; it's a satisfying listen that has weathered the years with class. Thankfully, for you vinyl types, the album pops up on eBay with some frequency and I've spotted it in the bins at Yesterday & Today Records on Bird Road. For the digitally inclined, there are plenty of places across the web where you can find it, but I recommend the following sites: The Pete Moss Memorial All-Nite Record Shop
and Lou Ming Presents
, both good sources for Miami music from that time.
Check out this video below of the Cichlids' kick-ass rendition of the Stooges "Search and Destroy," in which Debbie runs rampant.