Mod girl dancing at The Dive (1986)
Photo by Andy Peters
All the photos in this piece were taken by Andy Peters, who if he knows what’s good for him will put together and publish a coffee table book on the scene.
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 Blair.
Vipers – Nothings From Today (Jem/PVC)
Mad Violets – Psilocybe (Voxx)
Fuzztones – Bad News Travels Fast (Midnight)
Tryfles – Had Enough of Your Lies (Midnight)
Secret Service – I’ve Been Hurt So Many Times (Invader)
Optic Nerve – Ain’t That a Man (Cryptovision)
Stepford Husbands – I’m Rowed Out (Cryptovision)
Roman Gods – San Francisco Girls (NBT)
Welcome to the second installment of our look back at the mid 1980s garage/mod scene aka happenings twenty years time ago.
The first chapter took a look at our homegrown scene in Central New Jersey, but – to borrow a phrase from the execrable Simon Cowell – “If I’m being honest…” one cannot address those goings on without also focusing on the very heart of the East Coast scene, i.e. New York City.
As I said previously, my friends and I were into the sounds (mostly old) from our home base in NJ, but it wasn’t until we walked through the doors of the Dive (or to a lesser extent Danceteria, the Pyramid, Tramps, Charas Hall, or the Southern Funk Café, or a few years further on The Strip at McCarthy’s Bar) , and witnessed the true hardcore of this scene that our minds were good and truly blown.
One could make an argument (very convincingly) that many of the New Jersey bands had as much of a foot in the sounds of “modern rock” (the wide palette of sounds that music industry stiffs would soon co-opt and retitle “alternative”), but once you turned your ear to New York City – where things had been underway for a few years already – you were hearing true revivalist music.
I don’t use that term as a pejorative (though in later years it certainly fit the bill) because in 1982/83, bands in NYC, LA and in the UK (and probably a dozen other places) were successfully exhuming and reanimating the sounds of 1966 in a variety of really interesting ways.
This in addition to the fact that a lot of those involved had immersed themselves in the life. This is not to suggest that anyone was in danger of being plucked off the streets and being shipped to Saigon, but rather had taken to dressing and acting the part of the snotty, garage-bound, American International Pictures rebels of almost two decades before. The mop tops, Cuban heeled boots and stovepipe trousers on the men, and Op Art dresses, Cleopatra eye makeup and similar accoutrements on the ladies, as well as all manner of frugging, monkeying and free-form terpsichore under the reactivated strobes (and later San Fran style light shows*) of the NYC club scene.
Yours truly with Rudi Protrudi of the Fuzztones at the Dive
My friends and I came into this circa 1984 when the scene was pretty much at full steam. Bands like the Vipers and the Fuzztones had been packing them in at the Dive’s “Cave Stomps” for a couple of years already. The first time I walked into the middle of this crowd I felt both exhilarated and painfully underdressed. It was incredibly cool to witness this all happening, as it was to be able to find people who were as deep (and in some cases far deeper than) as I was into the sounds of the old school. There were also a number of fanzines, including Ron Rimsite’s ‘99th Floor’ and of course the NJ zines that covered the NYC scene, Incognito, Stranger that Fiction and Smashed Blocked.
Fanzine publisher, record store guru, producer and all around King of the Scene, Ron Rimsite
I should take a second to note that this podcast, while a representative sampling of what was happening in New York, is in no way comprehensive. The past two decades have seen a number of records disappear from my collection, including crucial sides by the Outta Place and the Cheepskates**. This in addition to the fact that the Secret Service were not in fact a New York City band, but hailed instead from suburban Long Island. There were a couple of LI bands on the scene, but only the Secret Service were really crucial to the NYC scene***.
The Fleshtones – on stage at Maxwells in Hoboken
That said, this mix – like volume 1 – gets started with a group who were in many ways the ur band of their scene, the mighty, mighty Fleshtones (who also close out this podcast under an assumed name). The Fleshtones were working a 60’s retro vibe years before anyone else in New York and served as an inspiration not only locally, but worldwide as well. ‘F-F-Fascination’ is one of their earliest recordings and comes from a comp called ‘2×5’, that also featured tunes by the Bloodless Pharaohs, who included in their midst a young Brian Setzer. This tune is a great example of the Fleshtones’ fusion of garage, beat and R&B styles.
The Vipers – On stage at the Dive
Next up is a record that is by far my own favorite from these times, ‘Nothing’s From Today’ by the Vipers. The Vipers – led by Jon Weiss who also played sax on the Fleshtones ‘Roman Gods’ LP and went on to set up the retro-retro Fuzzfests – were probably the best all-around band on the NYC scene. They may not have had the purist retro-flash, or punk edge of the Fuzztones, but they were all excellent musicians and had a gift for writing good songs. ‘Nothing’s From Today’, which was the opening cut on their excellent ‘Outta the Nest’ LP (there was an earlier take on one of the Battle of the Garages LPs) is a melodic tour de force with a vaguely psychedelic edge. I still get a lift hearing this record almost 25 years later.
Dino Sorbello – On stage at the Dive
Though they aren’t as well remembered today, the Mad Violets were important in that they were there early, and included in their ranks important scene catalysts Dino Sorbello and Wendy Wild (who would go on to join Peter Zaremba’s Love Delegation). ‘Psilocybe’, another ‘Battle of the Garages’ cut is a finely crafted ode to the psychedelic mushroom of the title.
Elan Portnoy of the Fuzztones – On stage at the Peppermint Lounge
Now the Fuzztones, let me tell you sonny, these cats were BADASS! Led by Rudi Protrudi, who had reportedly played in an actual teen garage band in the actual NINETEEN SIXTIES (?!?!?) had the look on lock and were a dynamite live band. Though other bands may have cultivated their style as diligently (i.e. the Ravens), the Fuzztones worked in a postmodern, vaguely cartoony**** take on 60’s punk, as much The Way Outs or the Impossibles as the Chocolate Watchband and the Gonn. ‘Bad News Travels Fast’ is in my opinion their finest 45, and is a rock solid bit of balls out garage punk. As far as I can tell Rudi is still at it somewhere, and there’s probably a version of the Fuzztones today.
Lesya of the Tryfles – on stage at the Dive
The Tryfles were in no way a major band – at least musically – but the members of the band, including Jon Fay and Peter Stuart were important movers and shakers on the scene, with Stuart going on to form the Headless Horsemen. Their excellent Midnight 45, ‘Had Enough of Your Lies’ manages to recreate the lo-fi 60’s garage buzz, and take an odd lyrical shot at the Vipers for supposed poseurism.
Tryfles guitarist Lesya Karpilov worked at one of the more important centers of the scene, Midnight Records. Operated by French expatriot J.D. Martignon, Midnight wasn’t just a major mail order dealer of that raw 60’s punk sound, but also operated as the major local label with releases by most of the major New York bands including the Vipers, Fuzztones, Outta Place, Cheepskates, Tryfles and Mod Fun (as well as Midwest giants Plasticland).
The Secret Service – Halloween 1986 at the Dive
If most of the bands up to this point were working a garage vibe, the Secret Service were the main exponents of UK R&Beat, channeling the likes of the Animals, Yardbirds, Birds and Pretty Things. Featuring vocalist Wayne Manor, bassist Jim Gange, guitarist Rob Normandin and drummer Steve Pepar, the Secret Service were a shit-hot live band with a number of excellent originals as well as an arsenal of crowd pleasing covers at their disposal. I had the honor of both seeing them live many times, as well as opening for them a handful of times with my own band the Phantom Five. Though they had been a big part of the scene for a while, their LP didn’t drop until fairly late in the game, which is a shame because ‘I’ve Been Hurt So Many Times’ is indicative of its high quality.
The Optic Nerve – On stage at the Whiskey Bar, Huntington, LI
Another band that managed to depart from the fuzz punk script to carve out a niche of its own was the Optic Nerve. Though they appeared on the scene after many of the bands in this mix, they released a few excellent EPs (as well as one of the first CDs to come out of the scene). Led by singer/guitarist Bobby Belfiore (also an accomplished artist), the Optic Nerve (which also featured Tony Matura, Orin Portnoy – brother of Fuzztone Elan – and Frank Manlin of the Ravens) worked a jangly, folk rock sound that many of their contemporaries had neglected. ‘Ain’t That a Man’ has that great, 1965 Sunset Strip folk rock vibe.
Though I never saw the Stepford Husbands live (god knows why…) I was well acquainted with their keyboardist Dave Amels, a regular presence on the scene who went on to work producing (and playing keyboards for) a number of other groups. Their rocking cover of the Eyes ‘I’m Rowed Out’ is excellent.
This mix closes out with a tune by the ‘Roman Gods’ (actually the Fleshtones) with a cover of the Fever Tree’s ‘San Francisco Girls’. I’d all but forgotten about this record – which was given away free with a fanzine called Next Big Thing – but when I was digging out stuff for this mix, I remembered how much I liked it.
The next few chapters of this series will feature bands from elsewhere in the US, from major players like the Telltale Hearts, Chesterfield Kings, Lyres and Plasticland, as well as a number of more obscure (but no less excellent) groups.
As always, I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll be back next week with some more groovy gravy.
*Later on the Minds Eye shows at Tramps featured the Captain Whizzo light show