Classic Americana Albums: The Roches “The Roches”

Warner Records, 1979

I don’t know when I first heard The Roches but I do know it was love at first hearing and I’ve loved them ever since. I’ve always had a thing about female sibling harmonies – my first article for this series was Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s debut album – I think I feel a theme coming on!

Like the McGarrigle’s debut album ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’, The Roches didn’t have to think too hard to come up with a title and also went the eponymous route calling the album ‘The Roches’. Unlike the two Canadian sisters, there were three Roche siblings in the band: Maggie, Terre (pronounced Terry) and Suzzy. They started out as duo with Maggie and Terre playing locally and got their break when Paul Simon asked the duo to sing back up on his 1973 album ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’. Then in the mid-seventies, they were joined by Suzzy and started to play the folk clubs in Greenwich Village such as Gerde’s Folk City and as their reputation grew, they were signed to Warner Brothers Records who oddly got Robert Fripp from King Crimson to produce the album – definitely a left-field choice. Also oddly, as I’ll describe below, there’s very little in the way of production or instrumentation apart from the sister’s acoustic guitars. However it is produced in “Audio Verité” probably to pay homage to “Cinema Verité” which is defined as “films which avoid artificiality and artistic effect and are generally made with simple equipment” which is precisely describes the sound of the album which was recorded at the Hit Factory in New York in September, October and November of 1978,

The album opens with a song called ‘We’ written by all three sisters. It’s literally an introduction to the trio and starts with ‘We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy. Maggie and Terre and Suzzy Roche’ and goes on to tell their story about how they came from deepest New Jersey but now live in New York City. It features their wonderful three-part harmonies as they sing over very simple strummed, acoustic guitars. This is followed by ‘Hammond Song’ which has nothing to do with the organ but the town of Hammond, Louisiana where the girls ran to when their relationship with Warner Brothers wasn’t going well and they were advised by someone at the label to “wear hipper clothes”. Written by Maggie, the opening line states ‘If you go down to Hammond, you’ll never come back’ although they obviously did! There are some wonderful harmonies as well the song showcasing Maggie’s deep, almost baritone voice. Apart from acoustic guitar, there’s also some synthesiser and Fripp on his trademark, ringing electric guitar sound. In the liner notes, it says he plays electric guitar and “Fripperies” – whatever they may be.

Track three is ‘Mr Sellack’ written by Terre who takes the lead vocal – she also does the high harmonies in the group. It’s a simple production that shuffles along featuring Tony Levin on bass whilst Terre sings about getting her job back from Mr Sellack waiting tables in a diner as she ‘Won’t be nasty to customers no more’. This is followed by another Maggie song ‘Damned Old Dog’ where over a simple acoustic guitar, the girls wonder if they want to be a dog – an existential question where the answer is that if they were, they wouldn’t have to be a ‘Goddamn human’. Track five ‘The Troubles’ is the halfway mark and the last track on side one of the vinyl version of the album. Written by all three sisters, once again over an acoustic guitar, this time using more complicated chords, Levin’s bass and some whistling, they sing what seems like a simple song where ‘We’re going away to Ireland soon’ to play concerts but this is during “The Troubles” it comes with a warning that ‘We’ll try not to get in the way of guns’ using complicated harmonies that are almost in the style of rounds.

Side two starts with Suzzy’s ‘The Train’ where she sings about a train journey where unfortunately a ‘big guy’ sits next to her reading the paper and drinking beer which makes both her and the big guy miserable. Track seven finds Maggie bemoaning the fact that married men seem to chase her ‘One says he’ll come after me, another one says I’ll drop you a line, one says all o’ my agony is in my mind’. The next song is Terre’s ‘Runs In The Family’ where she sings ‘My uncle did it, my Daddy did it, I’m beginning to think that it runs in the family’ although she never explains what ‘it’ is – enigmatic like a lot of her songs. The penultimate track is Maggie’s ‘Quitting Time’ where she sings a melancholic lyric about ‘Even as you are leaning into that glass of wine, you and beloved business have come to the end of the line’. The track has some of the most sublime harmonies on the whole album that tug at the heartstrings, aided and abetted by Levi’s complimentary bass line. The album closes with another Maggie song ‘Pretty And High’  which is a complicated tale that features princes, magicians, circuses and clowns which sounds like fun but under the surface is deep and dark.

‘The Roches’ is an album of very personal stories that often bares the soul of the sisters and highlights their vulnerability which comes across not only in the lyrics but their often brittle vocals. The arrangements are mainly simple and basic but that allows the listener to concentrate on the lyrics which may seem banal but on repeated listens, reveal themselves to be anything but. Like The McGarrigles, The Roches sound delightful but they often go to the dark side which makes them always interesting to listen to. The album was well received when it was released in 1979 but it didn’t sell in numbers but gained some recognition when Phoebe Snow covered ‘The Married Men’. The sisters went on to record nine more studio albums, the last being ‘Moonswept’ in 2007.There are also solo albums and a couple of albums from Suzzy and Maggi. I was lucky enough to see them live at the Bloomsbury Theatre in March 2006 and they were wonderful, although a little chaotic.  Unfortunately Maggie died in January 2017 so the trio is no more but they left behind a wonderful legacy that they can be justly very proud of.

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Jeremy Courtnadge

Nice to read something about The Roches. A much underappreciated group – certainly in the UK – I feel.

I was once given some video recordings of them, including a 1980 Christmas show. Funny, charming and above all brilliant music. Loudon Wainwright guested, a nod to the future if there can be such a thing.

I’m now forced to dig out my Roche albums. Thanks for the article.

Alastair Thomson

Suzy Roche has also done a couple of albums with daughter Lucy (Wainwright Roche) as well as writing a couple of novels. Well worth seeking out

John Jenkins

I bought this album way back when it came out after hearing “Mr Sellack” on Alexis Corner BBC Radio show. Its a song that i have constantly played to others as an example of how good harmonies can be plus how clever a song may be in terms of lyrics and chords. Nice someone else apprecaies this too x