Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yet more early 80's SoCal Post-Punk Obscurities

The Urinals, aka 100 Flowers and eventually Trotsky Icepick.

Frequent readers (assuming there are any) will note that I’ve recently been on a jag of exploring early/mid 80’s LA punk, post-punk, and new wave.  Yesterday I stumbled across a site that stimulated a further exploration of this fascinating (and very personal for me, since I lived then and there) era.  It was a collection of gig fliers, set lists, and ticket stubs from a dizzying array of punk and post-punk shows from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s (mostly focused on the early 80’s), and from LA and to a lesser extent Frisco, San Diego, and even England.  Here is a link to the site: .  It’s a great site that fills me with nostalgia.

It also filled me with curiosity to examine what, if anything, is available from some of the more obscure bands on some of the fliers.  Alas, I could not find anything out there by Monitor, the Screws, UK DK, Dead Skin, Afterimage, Dred Scott, or Der Stab.  Monitor was a proto-industrial synth band along the lines of the Screamers or Nervous Gender that hailed from Northridge, CA, and grew out of the L.A. Free Music Society.  The Meat Puppets covered their song “Hair” on their first album, and it is a harsh blare of snarly guitar and growled vocals.  The Screws were HB/OC hardcore along the lines of Vicious Circle and China White, while Dead Skin and Der Stab were two other OC bands that made music that hewed more to a post-punk vibe.  If anyone knows where I can find music by any of these bands, please let me know.

The Chiefs (sometimes spelled the Cheifs) were an early LA punk/hardcore quartet; their sound was similar to that of Black Flag as were the themes of their lyrics, but the vocals owe much to Darby’s early work with the Germs. “Riot Squad”, which is posted on YouTube, captures their simplistic but catchy two chord punk.  They were also notable for having an African American guitarist, the excellent George Walker.  This band rarely gets mentioned with pioneers like Middle Class or the Dickies but they are early adoptees of the whole punk rock thing too.

The Gears also receive few if any plaudits today despite the fact that they too were early punk rock pioneers.  Their sound hews closely to the three chord rumble of the Ramones, with a splash of the melody of the Dickies. “Trudie Trudie”, which celebrates the legendary punkette scenester Trudie Plunger, is a good example of the simple but catchy nature of their songs.  “The Last Chord”, recorded live during a reunion at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach in 2007 is loud and rumbling, while “Let’s Go To The Beach” and “Don’t Be Afraid To Pogo” are more melodic pop-punk that really evoke the Ramones of songs like “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Rockaway Beach”.

Similar to the Chiefs and Gears are the Simpletones, who formed in Rosemead in September of ’78 and who were all bona fide teenagers when they first started out.  They remind me a lot of the so-called “Canadian Ramones”, i.e., Teenage Head, in that their music is simple, goofy and catchy as hell.   “I Like Drugs” and “Don’t Bother Me” are two of their outstanding first-wave punk anthems that would appeal to fans of the Bruddahs, the Weirdos, and the Dickies.

On the artier end were the Shadow Minstrels, another LA art/pop/punk outfit whose members went on to join such other, better-known bands as 45 Grave and the Gun Club.  Their sound incorporated many elements of English post-punk.  They have no songs on iTunes or Pandora but a few songs off their 1983 album Great Expectations are posted to YouTube.  “Alicia” draws on the taut emotional tension of Joy Division but has a minor key omininousness of Siouxsie and the Banshees or Magazine as well as a screechy violin solo.  “The Guest” sounds like a cross between the angular punk funk of Gang of Four with the off-key coyness of the Cure’s work on Pornography. 

Human Hands were a post-punk outfit that pulled from punk rock and art rock too but their music also tended to have a catchy, poppy feel to it.  Several of their albums are available on iTunes, including Bouncing To Disc, which compiles nearly all of their early back-in-the-day work.  I like “New Look”—the guitar has a ska feel to it—it kind of reminds me of “Poison Ivy” by the Lambrettas, but the vocals sound more like Tomata Du Plenty’s of the Screamers.  I also like the rumbling drum bridge in this song.  The mod/ska beat continues on the next song, “Dilemmas” but the synth is more prominent here. “Phantoms in the Darkroom” is more ominous and industrial, like early Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle.  “Walk a Crooked Line” is more straight-ahead pop-punk with a skewed, angular edginess to it.  This is a good band and its disappointing they never made it bigger.

In a similar vein are the Fibonaccis, another band to come out of LA’s art/noise scene; their music combined post-punk, funk, world beat, prog and jazz.  Their sound was similar to that of such well regarded SST bands as Universal Congress Of.  Nothing of theirs is available on iTunes or Pandora but a few songs are posted on YouTube (and their entire back catalog is available for download on their website,, including the funky, jazzy “Leroy”, which really reminds me of a cross between the NY punk funk of the Contortions (only with a petulant female vocal, courtesy of the beautiful and talented Magie Song, instead of a white guy impersonating James Brown) and the jazz-rock stylings of Joe Baiza.   “Old Mean Ed Gein” starts with a sweet, orchestral beginning but shifts into an atonal avante-classical skein that sounds like it was as inspired by Schoenberg as it is the Sex Pistols.   This band rarely made two songs that sounded remotely similar.  They probably achieved their greatest fame for their odd, angular cover of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, sung in a near-parody of an Asian accent (that actually doesn’t sound that far from Yoko Ono’s vocals).

Another SoCal art/punk band with unique female vocals were Long Beach’s own Suburban Lawns.  Lead singer Su Tissue also had a unique voice and strange, eerie stage presence.  They had a couple of minor local hits in Southern California (thanks largely to Rodney Bingenheimer, who was an early supporter):  “Gidget Goes To Hell”, which sounds like funky punky surf music, and the equally 60’s-esque “Janitor”, which I remember hearing played on KROQ in the early 80’s. “Janitor” has the twitchy new-wave-girl-group sound of “Girls Like Me” by Bonnie Hayes, but Tissue’s vocals remind me of Lene Lovitch’s on songs like “New Toy”.

The Fontanelles also played edgy, funky art/punk that was influenced by Talking Heads.  Several songs are available on YouTube (as well as some more accessible alternative sounding stuff on a recent iTunes album).  Their best-known, or most renowned song, is “Kiss Kicker 99”, which was featured in the horrible Gremlins knockoff Hobgoblins, often touted as one of the worst movies ever made. 

A band that shows an interesting evolution from first-wave straight ahead punk to artier poppier post-punk are the Urinals.  They started in ’77 as a Masque house band playing fast, very simple songs that drew upon the Ramones (like every ’77 band) as well as the childlike lyrical simplicity of Jonathon Richman’s Modern Lovers.  “Dead Flowers”, “Surfing with the Shah” (which approaches a proto-Velvet Underground/industrial drone), the 60’s influenced “Black Hole”,  the Dils-esque “I’m White and Middle Class”, “I’m a Bug”, “U”, and “Ack Ack Ack Ack” (which was later covered by the Minutemen) are all excellent goofball punk ditties. 

However, by 1980 the members of the Urinals were growing disenchanted with the limitations of this genre, as well as those of their off-putting name, and decided to make a break.  They renamed themselves 100 Flowers and shifted their musical approach to one emphasizing post-punk, jazz, and funk and became underground heroes of the LA post-punk movement.  “All Sexed Up” surges on a funky rhythm much like that of James Chance’s early work but cleaner and less overtly sexual.  “Without Limbs” is poppier but quirky and jangly, like a cross between They Might Be Giants and R.E.M.  “Reject Yourself” starts with a rumbling bass line but then becomes a clangy avante noise that sounds equidistant from the Velvet Underground and Pussy Galore.  This is my favorite by them.

100 Flowers broke up in 1983 but Kjehl Johansen and John Talley-Jones formed the similar Trotsky Icepick with Vitus Matare.  Trotksy Icepick created six beautiful, angular alterna-pop for SST records between 1986 and 1993.  One of my fave songs of theirs is “The Commissioner” off first album, Poison Summer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Obscure Southern California Post Punk Bands

Tex and the Horseheads back in the day.

In my previous post I discussed some of the more obscure early 80’s new wave bands from Southern California, including Wall of Voodoo, Felony, Gleaming Spires, and Danny Schneider.  In this post I will continue to examine obscure Southern California early 80’s groups, only this time focusing on bands with more of a post-punk bent.

One band I wasn’t into during the day but which has achieved almost legendary status are Red Scare.  Formed in 1982, Red Scare were one of the few punk/post-punk bands fronted by a woman, the amazing Bobbi Brat.  None of their work is available on iTunes or Pandora or as yet on Spotify but a few songs have been mercifully uploaded to YouTube from the 1984 album Then There were None.  “Mind Inertia” has the zippy rhythm of classic Germs (think “What We Do Is Secret”) coupled with Bobbi’s high, shrieking vocals; this is a good blast of old school Hollywood/LA hardcore.  “Don’t Look In the Basement” starts with an atonal, minor key piano noodling, which builds into a harsh, caterwauling music and vocal that sounds a lot like Juju-era Siouxsie and the Banshees.  The lyrics draw upon the then-popular strain of horror rock particular to LA and best evidenced by bands like Vox Pop and Castration Squad.  “Street Life” starts with an industrial squalling that evokes Fatrix or Throbbing Gristle but is rescued by a classic hardcore bass line that draws the song into its more traditional punk structure.  Still, the lyrics are less strident than on “Mind Inertia”; here Bobbi reminds me a little of Inger Lorre’s later work with the Nymphs.  The music sounds amazingly similar to TSOL’s post-hardcore, pre-metal work on their album Change Today? in that it draws on traditional hardcore for its tempo but has a more complex sonic structure that pulls from post-punk influences like early Cure.  The title track is a chugging, swirling post-punk confection that again shows influences from everything from Joy Division and Siouxsie to Die Kreuzen and P.I.L.  I think I like this song the best of the ones I’ve heard, it really captures the spirit of mid-80’s LA post-punk well.  Right on its heels is “Flight 007”, which has a slower tempo and a repeating riff that shows how Red Scare could incorporate hard rock/metal influences but still swathe them in swirling post-punk guitar work.  “Way Out West” has a cowpunk feel much like fellow LA cowpunks the Screaming Sirens and Rank and File

I never listened to Red Scare during their heyday, however I do have a small but memorable connection to lead singer Bobbi.  In fall of ’86 or so, I dragged three of my high school buddies up to LA to the Anti-Club to see some bands, including Bobbi Brat’s solo project.  My friends were not punkers, they were suburban college dorks and I remember the whole night was one of almost constant cringing embarrassment for me since they so clearly didn’t fit in at such a place, nor did they like any of the bands we saw.  Anyway after her set Bobbi came offstage and was hanging out in the big lobby area by the door and I happened to strike up a conversation with her.  I have no memory of what we talked about, only that she was really nice and more than a little drunk.  She may have been hitting on me, I have no idea; back then I was an attractive if skinny little punk boy and who knows, maybe that was her type.  She was very attractive, with died black hair in a ponytail, tattoos, big clunky black shoes, and a sophisticated cool demeanor.  I was more than a little intimidated by her, so of course I didn’t try anything.  Sadly, Bobbi died of cancer not two years later; it makes me sad to think that that nice, beautiful punk girl didn’t live long enough to see the ascension of Nirvana and that her own life was cut so tragically short. 

Another female-fronted LA post-punk band was Tex and the Horseheads.  This band was hugely popular in the Southern California punk and post-punk scene circa 1983-1987.  Led by frontwoman Texacala Jones, the Horseheads drew heavily from several seemingly disparate LA musical threads, including the Paisley Underground sound, the horrorpunk/horror rock scene, and most dominantly from the whole country punk/cowpunk sound of bands like the Knitters.  Most of their songs had a grungy, bluesy feel of early 70’s Rolling Stones, and people knowledgeable about these things consider Tex and the Horseheads to be a critical link to the LA hard rock scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and in particular the work of such bands as Junkyard and the Hangmen that pulled similarly on hard rock, blues, country, and punk influences.  But their work also had a jangly, paisley element as well as an almost gothic swamp blues vibe as well, which is why they occasionally shared bills with bands like the Three O’Clock and the Gun Club.  Again, none of their work is on iTunes, Pandora or Spotify, but a few sketchy videos and live performances are uploaded onto YouTube.  “Oh Mother” perhaps best exemplifies the Horsehead sound---equal parts jangly, country, and punk/blues sleaze.  Tex’s vocals are low and growly here but she occasionally showed a softer side; the song “Big House, Part III” shows this softer side, and this song also really shows what an influence she was on the work of Carla Bozulich in the Geraldine Fibbers.  This music video also highlights Tex’s unique fashion style; her big ratty black hair looks like (the sadly late) Amy Winehouse and her predilection for bustiers predates that of Madonna. “Billy Black” off their second, John-Doe-of-X-produced album Life’s So Cool has an even more pronounced country feel, with its slide guitar.  “The Slip” is a stripped down cowpunk campfire song, just Tex and Mike Martt singing a countrified ditty and accompanied by an acoustic guitar.  “Bartender Sam” and “Spider and the Peach” are amped-up country with a punk edge; the shared vocals and chugging power of the latter are particularly notable.  Anyone who likes country influenced music from X to the Hangmen will love these songs and this album. 

On a different musical note are two bands that, while they didn’t share the country/blues aspects of Tex and the Horseheads, did contain elements of the then-nascent metal scene in LA.  The first is the Fiends, a band I only remember because I saw them headline a show at the lamented, legendary LA punk venue Raji’s in 1987.  The summer after my first year of college I moved home from UCLA and lived with my parents in Long Beach while I worked full-time at the Quaker State oil bottling plant in Carson, CA.  The work was exhausting; I had to be at work at 7 and worked until 3:30 with a half hour lunch and two 15 minute breaks.  My main job was to help run the assembly line on which bottles came in, were filled with oil, dumped into boxes of a dozen bottles, sealed, then stacked and wrapped on pallets.  The machines were constantly clogging and breaking down and we always had a high production schedule.  In addition to this I also did other work like unload 55 gallon oil drums from semis, which was REALLY tiring.  Most nights and even weekends I was too tired to do anything but collapse into bed by about 9 PM, but one weekend I got bored and lonely for the action of LA, so I drove up to Raji’s by myself just to see what was going on.  The Fiends were playing; I’ve never heard anything about them before or since, and none of their music is available on iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify, but someone has uploaded their 1986 album Gynecology in its entirety onto YouTube.  I recall them mentioning their album of this name had just come out at that time.  I also recall the song “Barabbas”, which has a heavy, chugging sound that reminds me of Pygmy Love Circus—this is big, fat, heavy, proto-metal with a punkish feel.  “Hold Me While I’m Naked” is faster and catchier but also edges almost scarily towards hair metal.  “Rock and Roll Party” also walks that line between punkish sloppiness and metal’s technicality but has a honking sax and a 60’s garage feel too.  Unfortunately the fidelity isn’t great here, but when you’re literally hearing the sounds of the past I guess that doesn’t matter too much.
On the same bill with the Fiends were the all-girl group the Super Heroines.  The Super Heroines were formed in 1981; their sound was a mélange of punk, hard rock, goth, and deathrock.  Leader Eva O. was one of the more notable and charismatic personages to emerge from LA’s goth/deathrock scenes and she has continued to bear the standard for this scene to this very day.   Amazingly, in 1986 Cleopatra records released a compilation album called Anthology 1982-1985 that contains both of their released albums and is available on iTunes and Pandora as well as YouTube.  It is an essential document of their sound.  A great example is the song “Beast”, which alternates between the minor chord dirginess of bands like Die Kreuzen and the strident proto-riot grll sound of bands like Frightwig and the chugging metal power chords of Guns n’ Roses.  Powerful stuff.  “Children of the Light” has moaning background vocals and up-tempo musical accompaniment that reminds me of a cross between 45 Grave and Bauhaus.  “Black Wedding” is another blast of goth/metal/doom/punk that should appeal to loves of the Cure AND Megadeth

There are several bands that I never saw in concert, but I saw their name somewhere and it has stuck with me all these years.  Often that “somewhere” where I heard that name was on the music video/dance show MV3; MV3 had a segment (originally hosted by former teen punk music journalist Shredder) where they would announce that week’s upcoming live shows.  One of the bands I remember hearing mention of on MV3 was Psychobud.  Their distinctive name stuck with me and recently I searched for some of their music online.  I couldn’t find anything on Pandora or Spotify but somewhat surprisingly they have an album on iTunes, Behind the Orange Curtain, released in 2007 on their own imprint.  I can’t figure out if this is a contemporary recording or a compilation of their work from back in the day.  However, they also have several other songs on YouTube and on their own MySpace page too.  Their sound is very English post-punk—electronic but with guitars, very experimental.  But it also reminds me a lot of music that was being made in San Francisco during the early 80’s too.  “Say Goodbye”, on their MySpace page, is a perfect blend of the electronic and the analog; it has twinges of the Cure and Bauhaus (especially “Silent Hedges” off The Sky’s Gone Out).  “Darkness Gives Birth” has an industrial chugging that again reminds me of Fatrix or Neubauten but resolves into a more standard rock format, with whispered vocals adding a layer of mystery.  There are three more songs on their MySpace page, including the Screamers-esque “Sighs” (which is one of my favorites), “Data Data” with its percolating synths and scratching style guitar sound and “Weird” (these songs approaches the punk funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for whom they often opened, and even Gang of Four).  Again, I can’t tell if these songs are old or new but they are quite good regardless of when they’re from.  “Yellow Fog”, which is posted on YouTube, is another catchy blast of strident post-punk with plinking piano accompanying the harsh synth pulse; this song almost reminds me of Locust Abortion Technician era Butthole Surfers crossed with Big Black.  Another great track.  “Here’s Our Correspondent” is from 1983 and has a big post-punk beat and burbling synthesizers that sound like something off Depeche Mode’s first or second album, but then segues into guitars that give this a less new ro feel and more of a punk funk feel.  “Hell’s Koo Koo” is an instrumental ditty accompanying a video called “The Chair” and dispenses with the bubbly synths completely and surges forward on the energy of its throbbing guitar and clanging guitar (the video too has to be seen, its such an early 80’s artifact, classic in its very amateurish cheesiness).  “Waiting for the Accident” has a melancholy and lush sound that brings to mind “Play for Today” or “Secrets” by the Cure (off their Seventeen Seconds EP).

One more band that I heard of from MV3 had perhaps the most distinctive (some might say “ridiculous”) name of the entire post-punk era:  Grandpa’s Become a Fungus.  Like Psychobud, they played music that had one foot in the jangly, strident sounds of English post-punk like Bauhaus but in this case their overall approach veered much closer to that of the Butthole Surfers.  There are not one but two GBAF albums on iTunes (also available on Napster and music) and they capture the total randomness of this band, which also evokes bands like Ween and They Might Be Giants at times.  This is strange music for strange people.  It’s almost impossible to describe their sound as every single song sounds different; you just need to check out these albums (they also have songs posted on YouTube and on Yahoo Music) and see for yourself.  Anyone into music that’s strange for the sake of strangeness will probably like this band a lot. 

I have another connection to this band which is more personal.  In college my girlfriend at the time had a high school friend named Christine who was kind of a punkette.  Anyway Christine’s boyfriend was this punk guy Patrick who’s last name I can’t remember.  Patrick was a REAL punk—small, ratty, infrequently bathed, marginally employed or even educated (he’d dropped out of high school, though he was one of the smartest people I knew).  And like many smart punks Patrick had wide taste in music, liking everything from Bauhaus (he had seen them LIVE, which made him a god to me, since by this time, late ’86 or ’87, Bauhaus had been broken up for a couple years and were considered legendary) to Jane’s Addiction (Patrick and I talked to Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell after an incredible show of theirs at UCLA’s Cooperage; at that time Patrick was considering opening a club—with what money I have no idea—and approached Perry about playing at it.  Perry agreed but alas the club never happened) but perhaps most impressive is that he was the person who first got me to listen to, and like, the gypsy jazz guitar noodlings of Django Reinhardt.  Patrick and Chris lived in a REALLY grungy loft in mid-town LA near the Park Plaza Hotel (home of the legendary Power Tools and Scream clubs) and they lived VERY hand to mouth.  At the time I was a struggling student reluctant to ask my parents for financial support so Patrick and Chris and my girlfriend and I would go on the cheapest double dates imaginable; I can remember one such memorable occasion, when we pooled out coins (literally) and bought a Duraflame log and a bottle of Schnapps and that was our date, having a “fire” at my girlfriend’s apartment (in Brentwood right around the corner from Santo Pietro’s Restaurant, which morphed into Mezza Luna, which was where Ron Goldman was working before OJ Simpson stabbed him to death a  few years later)!  Anyway Patrick had some connection with GBAF; he knew several of the guys in the band, and I believe they would occasionally perform together.  I seem to recall seeing them play a strange gig at Otis Parson’s School of Design in downtown LA where Patrick leaped on stage and slow motion tackled the guitarist while strobe lights flashed and the music shimmied through some weird Butthole Surfers style acid flashback.  Good times.  I wonder what ever became of Patrick.  I hope he’s doing well, wherever he is.

Another strange band from that time was Krotch, often advertised around UCLA campus as “UCLA’s own Krotch”, which for me always conjured up images of what the hairy, musky fissure between a college campus’s legs would look like.  Anyhoo they were voted “LA’s Worst Band” by no less an authority than the LA Weekly.  There is absolutely NOTHING out there by this band—no MP3s, no tribute pages, nothing.   The only digital hint I can dig up that suggests this band even existed are a couple of pages that mention Kevin Bourque, who is (or was; I’m not sure of the date of these sites) a member of the traveling multimedia performance troups  Muytator and Skin and who was formerly a member of Krotch and a graduate of UCLA’s film program. 

I actually believe I SAW Krotch live once, though I’m not 100% sure.  My roommate Thane and I went to a party on UCLA’s Frat Row with this girl who had a crush on him named Pam and her roommate Amy.  It ended up Amy had a thing for me so we ended up being a double couple for awhile.  Anyway at the party we went to I believe Krotch was playing though again I’m not 100% sure.  Pam was a film/theater major so it wouldn't be unheard of for her to have known some of the members of Krotch, who were mostly film/theater majors at UCLA too from what I gather.  We walked in just as they were finishing their final encore, a mash-up of “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin and “Freedom of Choice” by Devo (two truly inspired choices, particularly when combined).  If anyone has any information or memories of Krotch they’d like to share I’d love to hear them.

A semi-legendary band that I never heard or saw in the day was the Earwigs.  The only reason I even knew of them then was because someone (probably the band) had spray painted “The Earwigs” on a wall in front of the famous Huntington Beach punk venue the Golden Bear.  Given their name I assumed their music would be ugly and harsh.  Imagine my surprise when I Googled them recently and their music turned out to be a catchy combination of punk energy with 50’s rockabilly a la Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.  There’s nothing by this band on iTunes, Pandora or Spotify or even YouTube, but they’ve got a nice MySpace page and several songs are available there, including “Here Comes the Earwigs”, which captures this proto-psychobilly sound nicely, but also shows off the brash English invasion feel of their sound too, which often sounds like (very) early Rolling Stones.  “Do You Wanna Be My Girlfriend” is another toe tapping ditty that mines fertile 60’s ground and has even more melodic vocals.  This song brings to my mind some of the stuff the Ramones did that tried to recapture the girl group feel of the 60’s—raw but lyrical.  “Jealous” is more 50’s oriented—except for the rawness of the vocals this could literally be a lost Gene Vincent single from the 50’s.  I love the hand claps that punctuate this song and “Here Comes the Earwigs”, it’s a great touch.  I REALLY like this stuff—not quite as raunchy or grungy as the Cramps, not quite as poppy or kitschy as the B-52s, but rawer than the Stray Cats, this is really phenomenal first-wave OC (the Earwigs were from the community of Fountain Valley, just inland from HB) punkabilly.  The thing is, I would have LOVED this sound back then since I loved mod/ska revival AND rockabilly. 

Another Southern California rockabilly pioneer was James Intveld.  James was brought up listening to his parents' Elvis and Hank Williams records and in the 80’s he formed a band centered on a classic 50’s rockabilly sound.  James achieved some minor fame for being the singing voice for Johnny Depp’s character in the John Waters film Cry Baby.  James went on to have a long, lauded career and several of his albums are available on iTunes and Amazon Music; all of them highlight his fantastic voice and guitar playing and are highly recommended to anyone who loves classic, straight-up rockabilly.  One great song is his cover of “Stumbling” by Peter La Farge, who was a renowned folk performer who was friends with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and who died in ’65 of an overdose before he could achieve the same fame as his friends. 

But a couple of cool videos are also uploaded on YouTube that capture the true spirit of James even better.  Both are off Art Fein’s cable access TV show; for those of you who don’t know Mr. Fein he has worked in and around the music biz for 40 years and has in particular played a big role in keeping roots/rockabilly music alive, as a producer of such acts as the Cramps and the Blasters and as host of his long-running TV show, which featured many first-run and next-wave rockabilly artists.  One great video, from 1987, features James, Brian Setzer, and Billy Zoom of X, jamming on Elvis’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.  Three outstanding talents tearing up a much-loved classic—this is fantastic.  Equally good to me is James’ cover (with Russell Scott of the Red Hots) of “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers.  Much of James’ commercially available work has moved beyond simply rockabilly and now touches more heavily on country and gospel, and fans of Chris Isaak would probably love most of it though I personally feel James’ music hews closer to the traditional country roots of rockabilly a bit more. 

I THINK I saw James play, around ’85 or ’86.  I was friends with a girl on my dorm floor named Mina who was from Vegas and who was really into LA bands like X and Black Flag (Mina was the one who first turned me onto Flag’s Slip It In album).  Mina loved punkabilly and was attracted to pale guys with pompadours so James Intveld was like her god.  I can remember her trying to drag me to see him many times but rockabilly wasn’t my thing then so I resisted most of the time but I have a faint memory of seeing him once although for the life of me I can’t remember the venue.  The Roxy perhaps?  I seem to recall it was some really sterile club with little ambience.  Anyway this must have been in late ’85 or early ’86, which is amazing considering that in December 1985 James’ brother Ricky was killed with six others when Ricky Nelson’s plane crashed in Texas, killing the 50’s TV and pop star and his band (of which Ricky was a member).  The crash devastated James (understandably) but clearly as a professional he went on with his shows.

Mina also dragged me to two other shows that year:  Billy Zoom’s solo band (again can’t remember the venue but I believe he had Jewish lesbian folksinger Phranc opening for him) and a John Doe solo show on like a Wednesday night at Raji’s.  John was, and is, an amazingly talented and charismatic performer and the show was incredible, but got even MORE incredible when first Exene and then Dave Alvin joined him onstage for an impromptu Knitters acoustic show.  Now THAT was transcendent. 

And finally (at least until I have a brainstorm and remember some more obscure 80’s bands), closer to home literally were the Falling Idols (love the name).  The Falling Idols hailed from my home town of Long Beach, CA, and featured Trey Pangborn on guitar, whose brother Russ was in my class in elementary school in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.  I never saw them play but their name was all over (literally) Long Beach back then.  Their sound started as straightforward 80’s post-hardcore punk (best displayed on their song “Hell No” off their 1982 album) but eventually evolved into a more nuanced post-punk sound that included everything from Cramps-meets-Bauhaus (like on the song “Defeat the Purpose” off the When Men Were Men and Sheep Were Scared compilation) to the TSOL-inspired “Cut It Out”.  Falling Idols were a huge influence on another, later Long Beach band that DID hit the big time—Sublime, who covered their self-titled song “Falling Idols”.  Falling Idol member Greg Lowther went on to form Long Beach Records, which has released work by many obscure but locally popular Long Beach bands, including Long Beach Shortbus (which features Eric Wilson, formerly of Sublime), Corn Doggy Dog and the ½ Pound, and 3rd Alley.  Trey has played guitar for Bargain Music and One Hit Wonder as well as Shortbus.  Anyone who likes the ska/reggae/punk of Sublime songs like “What I Got” and “Santeria” will like songs like “Everyone Is Beautiful”, “Girl Next Door”, and “Better Than This” by Long Beach Shortbus.  Corn Doggy Dog features Zman, aka Todd Zalkins, who was in my grade and went to my grade school and junior high and was a lunatic then and apparently still is.  He is also a stand-up comic who emceed many Sublime shows back in the day.  Trey also plays guitar with them too and other members and former members have connections to bands like Pennywise and the Vandals.  “Banjo Eyes” is a great punk/hard rock song that’s available on YouTube.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Everywhere At Once: New Wave One Hit Wonders in Southern California

Wall of Voodoo

It’s no surprise that the post-punk/new wave era begat arguably more one-hit wonders than any other musical era before or since (the days of 60’s garage punk and of late 80’s hair metal are up there too).  For a time between about 1981 and 1985 it seemed like every English kid with a funny haircut and weird band name had one song that grabbed a brief quota of attention. 

Southern California, where I grew up, had its share of local one hit wonders who came out of the post-punk scene.  In a previous post I mentioned the group Wall of Voodoo.  Started by film score crafter Stan Ridgeway and Bruce and Mark Moreland, formerly of the first-generation punk band the Skulls, Wall of Voodoo created music that pulled on several different sonic strands, including punk, new wave, spaghetti western film scores, country, and avant-classical.  Their huge hit was “Mexican Radio”, which perfectly captures the strange post-punk-meets-spaghetti-western-soundtrack vibe of their work.  But a song that was almost as popular in my junior high was “Red Light”, which starts with a catchy beat and strident keyboards that owe a debt to LA’s seminal industrial punk band the Screamers.  The frantic rhythm and squalling guitars alternatively give this a new wave and a punk feel, respectively.  In a perfect world this would have been what the Screamers might have evolved into had they survived long enough.  But Ridgeway gives it his own personal touch with the guitars that come in throughout the song, which alternatively evoke that same spaghetti western feel of “Mexican Radio” and the funk guitar of groups like Parliament.  At the time, this song was just weird enough, but also just catchy enough, that it became a regional hit on LA radio (most notably alternative pioneers KROQ and the pre-metal KNAC).

Another twitchy new wave hit, both locally and nationally, was “The Fanatic” by Felony.    Lead singer Jeffery Spry had been a member of Ron and Scott Asheton’s post-Stooges band New Order (not to be confused with the much better-known English band of the same name that morphed out of Joy Division), along with Dennis Thompson of the MC5 circa ’75-77 but in 1980 or so formed a new band along with his brother Joe.  “The Fanatic” was featured in the seminal movie “Valley Girl” and has edgy lyrics about, well, a fanatic who’s into cigarettes and alcohol and dirty movies and other vices.   The song has a percolating bass line and memorable keyboard riff and a poppy rhythm but mostly is carried by Jeff’s slightly shrill vocals, which lend an authenticity to his talk of strange perversions and obsessions. 

A quick digression here:  If you haven’t seen it, “Valley Girl” is a great movie to check out, if only for the music.  Of all the movies that came out about teen life in the 1980’s, “Valley Girl” definitely had the soundtrack that was most spot-on in terms of what my friends and I were listening to at that time and in that place (i.e., Southern California circa 1981 or 2), and is a classic slice of early 80’s new wave one-hit wonders.  Pretty much everyone I knew loved the song “I Melt With You” by Modern English; it was THE most romantic song ever as far as we were concerned, and girls in particular loved it.  “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs was similarly beloved for its lush feel.  “Jukebox” by the Flirts is an incredibly catchy slice of 80’s new wave-inflected girl group pop, while “Eyes of a Stranger” by the Payolas is soulful and a little dark.  Josie Cotton, who is featured performing in the climactic prom scene, offers up two of her catchy 60’s-influenced songs, the terrific “He Could Be The One”, with its swirling Farfisa organ and hip shaking 60’s feel, and the more novelty-oriented “Johnny Are You Queer?”  Men At Work went on to have several hits over the ensuing years but “Who Can It Be Now” is a great example of their own sax-heavy, slightly neurotic take on new wave.  And of course Ron and Russell Mael’s group Sparks contributed two songs, “Angst in my Pants”, which is on the soundtrack, and “Eaten by the Monster of Love”, which is in the film but not on the soundtrack.  Has there ever been a band who had such a different and successful second act than Sparks?  As mentioned in a previous post, Sparks started as one of the strangest, quirkiest glam/glitter rock bands, relocating to England in the mid-70’s and achieving some fame there.  But by the 80’s they’d successfully merged with the exploding new wave scene and made a handful of hits that were funny, catchy and intelligent. 

Another band featured performing in “Valley Girl” was the seminal LA powerpop band, the Plimsouls.  Their song “Million Miles Away” was a huge local hit in LA and is still one of my favorite songs to this day, even though I listened to it about a billion times back then.  But they also perform two other marvelous songs in this movie, the incredibly up-beat “Everywhere At Once” (the title song of their debut album) and the beautiful ballad “Oldest Story in the World”.  Incidentally, they perform these songs at the LA club the Central (sometimes called the Club Central), which in time morphed into Johnny Depp’s club the Viper Room (outside of which young actor River Phoenix tragically overdosed in 1993).  My favorite musical part of this movie is when punks Randy and Fred have absconded with the willing Julie and reluctant Staci and are taking them “over the hill” into Hollywood, which was taboo territory to good suburban Vals because of its crime and sleaze.  As they crest Mulholland “I La La Love You” by Pat Travers comes on, and Staci says “I hate this song” at the same time Randy says “I love this song”.  Just hearing this song even now still elicits a shiver of illicit anticipation in me.  Not too many years after this movie came out, I was a sheltered suburban geek let loose in the big city of LA when I went off to college at UCLA, and this scene evokes all of the excitement and thrill I’d feel whenever older, more knowledgeable friends would take me into the heart of Hollywood and LA to go clubbing.  A couple years later my girlfriend at the time lived in the Valley and we’d drive over the Hills and come down Highland Avenue and into Hollywood just like they do in the movie and go to clubs like English Acid, Cheetah, Power Tools, and Scream.  I love the montage scene too of all the old Hollywood haunts, too—the late lamented Seven Seas club, the Rainbow,  the Roxy, etc.  After they enter the club the Plimsouls perform “Everywhere At Once” and “Million Miles Away”, two of their best songs.  Finally the scene cuts to Randy and Julie making out in his convertible while Fred chases Staci around the car; Gary Myrick’s magnificent “Time To Win” (strangely, this song isn’t on the soundtrack though his other song, “She Talks In Stereo”, is), a wonderful slice of early 80’s new wave-inflected hard rock, plays in the background.  This to me is the musical heart of this movie—four transcendent songs that still sound wonderful and evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for such innocent times.

Speaking of innocence, don’t be duped by any of the terrible “Valley Girl” wannabe crap that’s currently available on iTunes—none of it has any connection whatsoever to the original movie or soundtrack.  DON’T waste your money on any of it.

Speaking of Sparks, two former members of Sparks, Jim Goodwin and Bob Haag, formed the band Gleaming Spires with Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick (who later worked with Devo).  They had a minor hit with their bawdy novelty song “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls”, which was featured in the movies “Last American Virgin” and “Revenge of the Nerds”; incidentally the soundtrack to “Last American Virgin” comes a close second in terms of being representative of what my friends and I were really listening to in the early 80’s).   In a similar vein is the even raunchier “Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage” by Arizona’s Killer Pussy, which musically sounds a lot like early B-52’s with its peppy tempo and heavy 60’s organ, but lyrically is less fascinated with 50’s kitsch and more fascinated with, well, enemas.  These two songs were, perhaps not surprisingly, big hits with me and my junior high friends.  Anyway, this song and several other cuts from their album Bikini Wax are uploaded onto YouTube.

On a much cleaner note is the Caribbean-influenced “Belly of the Whale” by Burning Sensations.  This achieved some national fame for its video on MTV and catchy calypso beat.  It’s been almost 30 years and I still absolutely love this song; the organ reminds me of the organ on Ray Davies’ beautiful song “Come Dancing”.  This was perhaps the closest America came to capturing the hugely popular ska feel of the English Beat (though I admit its more calypso or reggae-lite than ska).  It’s a great, infectious song with a fantastic chorus.  Percussionist Michael Tempo went on to form the Bonedaddys, who have played fun world beat style music for nearly 30 years now.  Alas none of their early work is available but their album Waterslide from 2007 is on iTunes and the title track was in the movie “I Love You, Man”—its upbeat, happy music with an island feel.

A strange song that I only remember from seeing the music video on the dance/video show MV3 is “Cool Nerd” by Danny Schneider, a northern California musician who moved to SoCal in the early 80’s and played in a whole host of really obscure bands, including Speedlimit, Velvet Mourning, Coda, Opus Fluke, Reap the Flax and the Headphone Fighters.  I remember this song being really catchy but I’d forgotten the artist.  A couple of years ago thanks to the magic of the internet I tracked it down.  Schneider had a couple of other minor local hits but this song is marvelous, with its Buddy-Holly-meets-David-Byrne vibe and sweet guitar strumming.  Danny’s got a great web site dedicated to his music:  It’s worth checking out, this guy was really talented and has some marvelous songs, it’s a shame he never made it bigger.