It's November 1976, and the Rubinoos are preparing to record the debut album that would be hailed as an instant classic and serve as the foundation of their reputation as one of America's greatest power pop acts. They also happen to be four guys still in their teens who act like they've been given the keys to the candy store when they head into a first-class recording studio for the first time. Recording engineer Glenn Kolotkin took the band into the CBS Studio in San Francisco to let them get a feel for the place while he worked out basic sounds before proper recording for The Rubinoos began, and they bashed out whatever came to mind live to tape that afternoon. Someone happened to hold on to that tape, and 2021's The CBS Tapes allows listeners outside the Rubinoos' immediate circle to hear it for the first time. What's captured here is the sound of four teenage smartasses who also happen to be a great rock & roll band; they revel in childish glee when they swear into the mikes, they do funny voices to amuse themselves, they crack frequent jokes about someone's obsession with Catholic girls, and along with a few of their own tunes, they lurch into plenty of covers, including the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" (secure in the knowledge of how deathly unhip it is) and a then-current Pepsi jingle they treat with mock seriousness. In many ways, The CBS Tapes plays like a glorified rehearsal tape, but it's also a very entertaining testimony to how good the Rubinoos were even this early in their career. The arrangements are tight and punchy even when they sound like they're working them out on the fly, the harmonies are gorgeous, the playing is concise and on point, and the energy and sense of joy in these performances is irresistible. While Tommy Dunbar and Jon Rubin would go on to a long career as the power pop cult heroes who should have been stars, on this date in late 1976, they were having a blast with a seemingly glorious future ahead of them, and listening to The CBS Tapes, you'll be grinning right along with them. This is the sort of album that's for committed fans only, but those fans will be delighted it exists.
The CBS Tapes Review
by Mark Deming