Mod Fun on stage at The Dive (1986)
Photo by Andy Peters
DOH!!! While a-googling to do some fact checking, I discovered that my old pal Blair Buscareno put together podcasts, using the ‘Highs In the Mid 80’s’ title (also inspired by a mid-80’s collection of 60’s punk comps) a few years back over at GaragePunk.com. There are definitely some intersections in the track selections, but Blair also has a number of cuts that I didn’t use here. He also did a second volume focusing on the Long Island scene. As a result I have retitled this series (also punning in the same direction) as Gravel, which is how they will proceed henceforth. I don’t know that there has ever been anyone as dedicated to following the garage punk scene (then or now) than Blair. My apologies to him.
Secret Syde – A Hole In My Pocket (Mutha)
Mod Fun – I Am With You (New)
Lord John – Westminiature Abbey (Bomp)
Phantom Five – She’s Not (Making Tyme)
Laughing Soup Dish – Teenage Lima Bean (Voxx)
Insomniacs – My Favorite Story (Umbrella)
The scene of the crime…(ignore the little green arrow)
The podcast I bring you today – Iron Leg Digital Trip #11 – GRAVEL Vol 1 – Riot On the Garden State Parkway (longest podcast title EVER!)- has been in the works, at least theoretically since I started this blog almost a year ago.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably seen me mention the fact (repeatedly) that I was a part of the garage/mod revival back in the 80’s as fan, fanzine writer and musician.
It was a tremendously exciting time as this was a worldwide phenomenon with big scenes on both coasts (and a lot of places in between) and all over the rest of the world.
Though the center of most of my activities was New York City – home of the venues where these bands could be heard (and in a pre-internet age where the records and fanzines could be purchased), or, to carry a phrase from 1966 to 1986, it was ‘where the action was’.
Interestingly enough, there was plenty of action right outside my front door.
My first inkling that anything of this kind was going on was in the pages of a NJ rock paper called the Aquarian Weekly. In addition to page after page of ads for live music venues (something you just don’t see anymore) there were articles and record reviews. It was in the Aquarian that I first read the names of the Chocolate Watchband and the Standells. I don’t remember which of the revival bands I heard about first, but in a way I was already familiar with the sounds.
If you had your ear to college (or sometimes commercial) radio in the late 70’s and early 80’s the sounds of power pop and new wave were inescapable. Within this scene, prior to the actually resurrection of pageboy haircuts and Beatle boots, there was a fair amount of 60’s revivalism going on already with many of what we knew as “skinny tie” bands (like the Shoes and the Romantics) mining the sounds of the Beatles, Kinks, Byrds and their ilk. There were even – on occasion – forays into garage rock with tunes like ‘You Belong to Me’ by Elvis Costello & the Attractions and the cover of the Standells ‘Dirty Water’ by the Inmates. One might even work bands like Cheap Trick, or any of the Chiswick label bands like Count Bishops and Little Bob Story into this continuum.
Either way, it was a few years on before these somewhat more commercial sounds gave way (at least in the underground) to cellar dwelling record collector types brandishing vintage guitars, combo organs and snotty attitudes in small clubs in Los Angeles, New York, London and elsewhere, attempting to recreate the ‘Riot On the Sunset Strip’ aesthetic 20 years on.
My initial connection to this scene was via my fanzine Incognito which, in true 80’s DIY fashion I wrote, pasted together and copied myself and consigned to local record shops. I put the first issue together in 1984, and it wasn’t too far into this enterprise that I received a letter from a cat (from one town over) named Bill Luther, who had picked up my zine in a New Brunswick record store and wanted to let me know that he was into the old sounds as well.
It was with Bill that I first set foot in what would become something of a home away from home, that being the Dive in New York City. It was in that tiny club that I had my first experience with hardcore revivalists, working “the look” like nobody’s business.
At first, seeing guys and girls who looked like they stepped out of 1966 was jarring. I had no idea that anyone had been taking 60’s devotion to such extremes, especially considering that my fashion sense was at the time limited to jeans and cutoff sweatshirts. I think it was Bill who said that the first time he saw me he thought I was a biker. Sadly, due in large part to my inability to fit into fashionable clothes (even my size 15 feet were far too big for Beatle boots) I never really became much of a retro fashion plate.
Before long I became a regular habitué of the NYC scene, mixing with like minds (hailing from the garage and mod scenes) and immersing myself in the world of reissue compilations and fanzines from around the world (often thanks to the intersession of scene king, zine editor and Venus Records clerk Ron Rimsite who would, in his inimitable North Jersey whine would direct us to the more interesting new releases).
It was during the next few years that I began to discover that there were in the area many like-minded folk with similar interests and we had a scene of our own right here in Central New Jersey.
It pays to take a minute to parse the meaning of the word “scene” as it’s used in this context. The music world tends to assign the sobriquet ‘scene’ geographically to regional gatherings of like minds around live venues (first and foremost), record stores, zines and most importantly, fans. Though New York City was the de facto garage/mod scene, there’s much to be said for our little enclave in Monmouth County. Though there were no live venues dedicated to our sounds, nor were there any genre specific record stores, we did have a scene of sorts, created out of a web of social interaction (many a garage/mod house party and barbecue were had), zines and shared musical interests. These were the days of mix tape trading, and there was among our crowd a brisk traffic in C-90s in which we were constantly sharing sounds and turning each other on to new stuff all the time.
The first example tuning into these sound locally actually predates my involvement in the scene, with my discovery (via a high school friend) of the Smithereens. This was years before they went on to international fame, and we’d go to see them rock out on the basement stage of the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ (as close as a home base as they ever had). The Smithereens were kind of a missing link between the new wave/power pop vibe and the purist/revivalist scene, writing their own powerful, Beatle-y originals and mixing in a wide variety of 60’s covers by the Kinks, Pretty Things and Count Five among others. Many a night was spent sweating in that tightly packed club, guzzling cheap beer and after the show heading across the Raritan River for the finest hamburgers in all of New Jersey at the White Rose System.
The Smithereens had been together since at least 1980 and had already recorded two EPs – ‘Girls About Town’ and ‘Beauty and Sadness’. Though they never forced themselves into a retro look, the sound was definitely there. They were a fantastic band and hugely inspirational to my friends and I.
The mix opens with a track that appeared on the ‘Girls About Town’ EP (though since I’ve never been able to grab a copy of that rare disc (oddly enough I do have the picture sleeve), I took the tune from a compilation released by local punk bar the Dirt Club). ‘Just Got Me a Girl’ is a great example of the Smithereens sound with chiming guitars, tight harmonies and a sound that is clearly 60’s influenced. As I said before they had one foot firmly in the power pop sound (alongside other Jersey bands like the Colors) and another edging toward the new retro vibe. It’s important to mention that the Smithereens were never really embraced by the garage/mod scene, but they were for a time far more commercially successful that any of the scene-connected bands (other than maybe the Bangles) and never really traveled in those circles.
The first really local (i.e. within my home base of Monmouth County) band I ever heard with an ear turned to the 60’s was the Secret Syde. They recorded an album for local punk/metal label Mutha records (they were really the only band of their kind on the label). In the early 80’s I saw them play a few times at the local punk mecca the Brighton Bar in Long Branch, as well as a couple of very strange opening slots for Black Flag (at a skating rink no less) and the Joe Perry Project (at Monmouth College). Even then there was a kinship of sorts as the band began to recognize my friends and me as kindred spirits. The tune ‘A Hole Where My Pocket Should Be’ from their 1983 debut is a killer bit of psyche punk. The rest of the LP is excellent and ought to be reissued by someone (along with their second, LP which never saw the light of day).
As I became involved in the Dive scene, the most important New Jersey band (and in my opinion the best New York area band at the time) was Mod Fun. Hailing from the North Jersey suburb of Maywood and led by singer/guitarist Mick London (who had his own zine), Mod Fun worked a dynamic combination of mod, psyche and garage wrapped in a pop art sensibility. Their first 45 was one of the earliest signs for me that something interesting was going on. The a-side of that record, ‘I Am With You’ is still – in my opinion – the finest example of a band fully immersed in the retro scene yet able to transcend the revivalist label. Mod Fun was a formidable live band and managed to tour the country in a van at least once, releasing a number of excellent 45s, EPs and an LP for Midnight Records. It was via their set lists that I was first exposed to tunes by the Artwoods and the Syn. Mick London (often with Mod Fun bassist Bob Strete) went on to form Paint Box and Crocodile Shop, reforming Mod Fun (with Strete and drummer Chris Collins) in the last few years.
Lord John onstage at Maxwells, Hoboken (1986)
(L-R Tom Gibson, Ray Normandy)
Photo by Andy Peters
Lord John was another Monmouth County band. I first saw them put on a smoking show at a long defunct New Brunswick club called Patrix (that if memory serves was actually inside an old house). Lord John played psychedelic punk rock that took the current sounds of the UK underground and mixed it with the sounds of the 60’s. ‘West Miniature Abbey’ is a track from their 1985 Bomp LP ‘Six Days of Sound’. Guitarists Tom Gibson and Ray Normandy went on to record a number of self-released tapes as the Narc Twins.
The Phantom Five, on the tracks in Helmetta, NJ (1986)
(L-R Chris Grogan, Vince Grogan, Larry Grogan, Bill Luther)
Photo by Rudie Rosinski
Not long after my introduction to the NYC garage/mod scene Bill Luther (who had his own zine, Smashed Blocked), my brothers Christopher, Vincent and I formed our own band the Phantom Five. Our sound was a sometimes schizo mix of garage punk, UK Beat and folk rock. We recorded our 1986 EP ‘Great Jones Street’ in our parents’ garage (natch), under the guidance of Mod Fun’s Mick London, who released the EP on his Making Tyme label. Of the four tunes on the record (three originals and a psyched up cover of the Byrds ‘So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star’), ‘She’s Not’ was by far the garag-iest, filled with fuzz and snot. The picture on the sleeve of the record (and the photo above) was taken by Rudie Rosinski, a friend of Bill’s who had his own fanzine (Stranger Than Fiction) for a time before taking his own life in 1986. Oddly enough the Phantom Five played the majority of its gigs out of town, often in New York City or at clubs and colleges elsewhere in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. We kept it going (recording a second, unreleased EP) until 1988.
Another Monmouth County band – the only one to have a record released by the storied Voxx label – was the Laughing Soup Dish. Led by Marc Saxton, the LSD had a psychedelic garage sound, which in a live setting was redolent of the Texas psyche of the 13th Floor Elevators and the Red Crayola. ‘Teenage Lima Bean’ was one side of their Voxx 45.
Making the scene at the Bike Club, Lincroft, NJ (1986)
(L-R Your host, Martin, unkown, Bandaido (in red beret), Liz Waters (Partially obscured), Rudie Rosinski, Ted Essex)
Photo by Bill Luther (I Think)
I have to take a moment to mention an interesting part of our own little scene, the Bike Club in Lincroft. Actually the basement of the suburban house of scenester Martin Splichol, the Bike Club was a pop art experiment that hosted shows by the Phantom Five, Mick London (performing solo with a multimedia slide show) and other local bands, even seeing visits from NYC fans (some of whom are in the picture above). The fact that the Monmouth County bands didn’t really have a commercial club to call home, the Bike Club was a brief but important base of operations.
Though I can’t say for sure if the last band in this mix played at the Bike Club (they may have in their earlier guise as the Tea Club), I can say with certainty that its members were definitely there. The Insomniacs didn’t release their first record until 1990/91, but the members of the band, brothers David and Robert Wojciechowski (bass and guitar) and drummer Mike Sinocchi were longtime members of the scene in NJ and NYC. The brother’s older sibling Michael was the high school friend with whom I first saw the Smithereens, and I had known the brothers since they were in middle school.
In much the same way that the Smithereens were a transitional band, bridging power pop and the early days of the revivalist scene, the Insomniacs came along as the scene itself became more diffuse, carrying on the sound long after the costume party had ended. They’re still around today and have released numerous excellent records on a variety of labels. ‘My Favorite Story’ (which happens to be my favorite Insomniacs tune) appeared on their first EP on their own Umbrella label.
Interestingly enough, of the seven bands represented in the mix, three of them are still (in one form or another) going concerns, with the Smithereens closing in on the end of their third decade together. Of the other folks mentioned, Bill Luther has for many years been a highly respected collector and DJ as well as writing for the mod site Uppers. My brothers both continued to play after the demise of the Phantom Five, Vincent in Gigantic and later in Buzzed Meg (with Jim and Dennis of the Smithereens) and Christopher in the Grievous Angels and on his own. I am as you know all about the interwebs these days.
I can’t tell you what happened to some of the other local bands, other than I lost touch with many of the members after the original groups broke up and they drifted off into other projects, long lost in the recesses of my memory.
Special mention should also go out to Andy Peters who documented many of the bands and fans on the scene with his camera. He took the pictures of Lord John and Mod Fun, and I’ll be including some of his other picture in the future volumes of this series.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for Highs In the Mid 80’s podcasts devoted to the New York City bands, bands from elsewhere in the US as well as international bands.
As always, I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you soon.