by Rich McIlhenny
If you grew up in Chestnut Hill, Mt Airy or the surrounding suburbs in the mid 1980’s, chances are you spent some time at the famed Depot Restaurant, where Starbucks is currently located at 8515 Germantown Ave. On weekend nights, the downstairs bar was packed with locals being served by the best bartender there ever was, Billy Picarello.
Sometimes DJ Dennis Jacoby was there spinning records, but once in a while there would be live music, and sometimes it was one of the Philly areas hottest bands of the time, Social Voyeurs. With hundreds of loyal fans and followers dancing and singing along with them, the band would perform on a small makeshift stage in the back of the room, where a couple of dining tables and the Pac Man and Defender machines were usually located.
With Mt. Airy’s own Bobby Nolen pounding the drums, Mark Newman swaying back and forth while providing the bass line and Keith Atkinson bending down and wailing on his guitar, lead singer Bob Sobel would mesmerize the crowd with his vocals on songs like “Pretty Pretty,” “The Boy and the Beat” or “Try.”
At the end of the night, Sobel and maybe 100 members of the audience would slowly lower their bodies until they were all lying on the floor during the hypnotic part of the song “Lights Down,” where Bob would hold the microphone out to anyone lying near him to join him in his chanting vocals.
Eventually he and the audience would slowly rise from the floor and jump into the air, singing at the top of their lungs as the song reached its fever-pitched ending, and the crowd would scream for one more song. But everyone knew that “Lights Down” was the last song, and the lights in the bar would come on and soon. Billy Pic would eventually shout out “Folks, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”
The band members met and first started performing together at Penn State University, where they became regular performers in clubs starting in 1983. Their popularity grew, and word spread even more about them when they came home to Philly and started performing with well known bands such as The Hooters, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, Beru Revue, The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and others throughout the city.
They received a lot of local air play after releasing their debut album, “The Boy and The Beat.” All of their fans in and around Philly and Penn State watched nervously and excitedly for weeks as they went to Hollywood to appear on the show “Star Search,” hosted by Philadelphia’s own (and Johnny Carson’s sidekick), Ed McMahon.
They reached the semi-finals and tied a California band with enormous mullets and wearing oversized colorful ‘80s suit jackets (check out the YouTube video), and when the biased LA crowd was asked to cheer for their favorites, our hopes and dreams were crushed when they cheered louder for their home town band. The Social Voyeurs members continued to play together for a few more years but eventually moved on to other bands and solo careers and starting families.
After 30 years and thousands of requests for a reunion performance, the Social Voyeurs are getting together to perform Sunday, Oct. 4, at a star-studded 1980s’ event at Alma Mater, which until recently was called the 7165 Lounge (and before that, North by Northwest), 7165 Germantown Ave. in Mt Airy.
The show starts at 5 p.m. (doors open at 4) just as Chestnut Hill’s Fall for the Arts Festival will be ending. Also performing will be an all-star band that includes local legend John McNutt and will headlined by world-renowned bassist Derek Forbes of the 1980s’ band Simple Minds. (Their 1985 hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” reached #1 on Billboard’s 100 Hot Rock Tracks. Derek has won numerous awards, having been named the best bass player in Scotland and The UK.)
Chestnut Hill’s own Roger Learnard will MC the evening, and his band will open the show.