Years before a group of randy agents in their namesake organization made the word “Cartagena” synonymous with rollicking good times, the two-man New Jersey-based entity known as the Secret Service Band developed an operational philosophy that can be summed up in three phrases they’ve recited many times:
You gotta fight
For your right
Though they’ve promulgated this philosophy all around the Philadelphia region and in places as far-flung as Florida and Las Vegas, the real spiritual home for their particular fun-based gestalt (which, of course, is German for “This is how we do it now”) is a low-ceilinged room containing a few well-stocked bars, just a stroll from the sands of Sea Isle City—a club called the Ocean Drive. Whether for convenience or to add more sinister implication, a lot of people call the place simply “the O.D.”
Here, since the mid-’80s, Dominic Albanese and Craig Phillips, two South Jersey natives now pushing 60, have labored, armed with nothing more threatening than a Reverend guitar and a Fender bass, toward one goal: to whip the Shore’s supple and sunburned youth (and often folks who are old enough to be their parents, and sometimes actually are their parents) into a delirium that would rival some of the better parties thrown by the Emperor Tiberius.
“It’s a riot,” says Dom, who does about half the singing and almost all the talking for the duo. “We’re old guys. We’re not God’s gift to music by any means. The audience mainly goes from 21-year-olds who can barely get into the bar up to 30. And it’s pandemonium.”
Ralph Pasceri, one of the O.D.’s owners, who started working at the club years ago as a teenager, says of Secret Service, “Nothing I’ve ever seen is quite like it. They’re the perfect storm.”
The constituent elements creating this formidable entertainment hurricane are unremarkable. Albanese, 56, is of medium height and fairly fit, with short graying hair, and wouldn’t look out of place flipping dough in a pizza parlor. Phillips is 58 and blond, taller, and carries both more bulk and some extra flesh in his midsection. His rightful place in the music world could easily seem to be a public-school classroom, and he does in fact teach kids how to play the violin and such. Except for a couple original songs like “The O.D. Stomp,” which owes a large debt to that old chestnut “The Alley Cat” and has morphed over the years into a routine that includes both crowd and bartender choreography, the pair exclusively play music written and recorded by other performers. They’re a cover band.
In the iconography of the Jersey Shore, the bar band stands somewhere between Lucy the Elephant and the Wildwood amusement piers. It’s a ritual as established and enduring as wolfing down a Boardwalk slice. The quintessential sound of summer isn’t just the squawk of seagulls, but that valiant and always slightly sad attempt by no-name performers to re-create the magic of stars from Sinatra to Springsteen. They may never quite capture fame, but they become an indelible soundtrack in our nostalgic reveries of youth.
“I don’t think Secret Service gets the true credit they deserve,” says their friend Big Daddy Graham, himself a grizzled vet of the Shore club circuit. “They’ve never had a hit record or appeared on Jimmy Fallon. They’re just a cover band to a lot of people. But there’s only a handful of great cover bands, and only a smaller handful out there that have had the career that Secret Service has.”
So what’s the secret? “They never throw it away,” Big Daddy says. “It might just be another Wednesday, or another ‘No Shower Happy Hour.’ When you’re in the car driving to those gigs, they blend into one another. And it’s so easy to just throw a night like that away. But to the people in the club, it’s their vacation. They’re not there every Wednesday. Dom and Craig understand that. They don’t throw a night away. Those guys don’t throw a set away. They don’t throw a song away.”