This is my first post in a long while here. There is a reason for that. A little over six months ago we lost a huge part of what I believe made the New York music scene as special as it was to many of us. And to be quite honest, celebrating this time and period in the mid-80s garage scene is quite hard without paying some sort of homage to this man.
On November 13, 2016 we lost record collector, fan, and musician Billy Miller. Billy took his pure love of rock n’ roll and created a world in which he and many, many, others could live in and enjoy. Starting very humbly with just a fanzine and an unending passion, he forged a path produced by his own fevered vision of a world where unsung musicians were lauded and rewarded with long-overdue praise.
So while it was well known amongst his closest friends that he was battling cancer, it was nevertheless a shock that to hear of his sudden passing. Since then, many many writers much more eloquent than myself have shared their views of his passing. All touching on some part of his life that made his very presence a pleasure to thousands around the world. From the New York Times obit, to Billboard magazine all the way to Lindsay Hogg’s impassioned blog post on his Next Big Things website. Its all covered.
So what could I add? Not much really. Just preaching to the choir at this point. Nevertheless, I am sure I feel the same hollow feeling inside that others do when they think about Billy. A feeling that cannot begin to match the one felt by his loving partner Miriam Linna. Loss is never easy. In fact, while the garage scene tends to focus on some aspect of loss…it is only because we never really understand it. Its a deep, shared, experience that humanizes all of us. Billy knew this. In fact, I am sure, somewhere, Billy is looking down and hoping we start a band…cause thats just the kind of guy he was. RIP good sir.
As a kid growing up in Briarwood, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens, I never really felt that I was a “New Yorker”. Despite being within the geographical confines of NYC, it seemed like another world. When compared to the mythical OZ across the river, all we really had to mark ourselves as New Yorkers were The Mets and the ’39 and ’64 Worlds Fairs. Any excursion to Manhattan was even labelled as a trek to the “city”. So, with this mindset, my pals and I would often take a 30 minute walk to Forest Hills to satisfy our young wanderlust. It was one of the few places in our world where you could hang inside a record store, see a movie, and grab some fast food (a rarity at the time!). Little did we realize that merely a few blocks away, four guys were cooking up something that was to change…well, everything.
It was only as an adult that I began to grasp how inconceivable it was that everything that I held dear about music, came to existence a few subway stops away—in Queens yet! So, I couldn’t have been more pleased this past summer to see that the ultimate garage punk band, The Ramones, were honored by an exhibition at the Queens Museum. As I told a few people, the exhibit served as a way to not just honor the band but also honor the spirit of the fans, the borough and even New York City. It was wildly satisfying on so many different levels. Even if it did oddly make me feel like a living fossil.
When it was announced that The Ramones would have a street naming ceremony in Forest Hills on October 30, I knew there was no way that I could miss this. Actually, I had also attended the dedication of Joey Ramone Place near CBGBs way back in 2003. But this ceremony seemed much more personal in a lot of ways. For one, it was finally on home turf.
Bracing for a crowd that I thought would rival the Manhattan ceremony, I was surprised to see only about 100 mostly older die-hard fans milling about the front of Forest Hills High School. Maybe it was the time. 11AM on a Sunday morning did not endear itself to anyone even remotely used to sleeping in on the weekend. Nevertheless, spirits were high as fans happily chatted while Ramones tunes played in the background.
The ceremony started off with the usual speeches from the assembled politicos and school executives. Each (oddly) describing their personal Ramones memories. But the real treat was hearing from a select group of people closely associated with the group. Tour Manager Monty Melnick, Band Manager Danny Fields, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh, ex-Cramps drummer Miriam Linna, and even The Damned’s Capt. Sensible all shared an anecdote or two, but also spoke about how deeply the band mattered to them. You couldn’t have thought of a nicer way to close off the first part of the ceremony. After the speeches, the street sign was summarily unveiled. And, while it was nice to see, I couldn’t help but feel it was almost anti-climactic. Just having the band acknowledged and held dear by so many was the real kicker. Gabba gabba we accept you one of us.
Vinyl Junkie Alert: Miriam Linna, who along with Billy Miller own the outstanding imprint Norton Records, recently released a piece of Ramones history that collectors would find well worth their time seeking out. As part of Norton’s offering for Record Store Day this year Norton pressed up a limited run of 100 7″ copies of The Ramones 1975 demo for Judy is A Punk on clear blue vinyl. And as if to make the single even more interesting, the cover image is a rare shot of the boys actually smiling. Obsessives take note!
While we’re on the subject of New Jersey garage/mod bands of the 80s, you really cannot forget the Phantom Five. While they never got to play the Dive, the group did play many of the most well-known venues of the time like Tramps, CBGB, and McCarthys/The Strip. In fact, they even ventured as far out as Bethlehem, PA and Nyack!
Started in 1985, by the brothers Grogan, Larry(D), Vince(B) and Chris (G) soon joined forces with pal Bill Luther and recorded a fantastic EP titled Great Jones Street in late summer 1986. Put out and produced by Mod Fun‘s Mick London (in an actual garage no less!) the EP showcased the bands great knack for catchy garage punkers. The Five were also unique in that while many groups strived for a calculated image, these guys were more than content to just let the music speak for itself. They were the very epitome of an actual mid-60s garage punk band. In 1987, John ‘Bluesman’ Rahmer replaced Bill Luther.
Tunes were recorded for a second EP that was to have been released on Stepford Husbands’ Dave Amels label, Cryptovision in 1987. Unfortunately, plans fell though and the EP never came out. The band soon called it quits with the various members moving on to other projects. Chris formed the Grievous Angels, Vince joined Gigantic, Bill the Tea Party (pre-Insomniacs) and Larry returned to doing zines.
These days Larry remains a fan of music, moving into collecting and DJing as well as tending to his fantastic soul and pop culture blogs. Former member Bill Luther also a collector and DJ, maintains his own 60s related music blog as well. —Many thanks to Larry Grogan for invaluable info.
When it comes to discussing the Mod scene in NY/NJ, during the 80s a couple of choice names always seem to come up—Mod Fun and The Secret Service. While those two ensembles certainly lived up to the intense buzz they created, no one back then would have guessed that three of their fans from across the Hudson would form their own group and end up surpassing their idols.
The Insomniacs originally consisted of the brothers Robert and David Wojciechowski who, along with their pal Mike Sinnochi, formed the core of the group for many years. As long time denizens of the Dive, all three were all well aware of and active participants in the mod and garage scenes. Soon after the demise of the brothers’ previous band, The Tea Party, Dave, Bob and Mike began performing newly written material under the name The Insomniacs.
Almost immediately they built up a strong following in the NY/NJ area. That, coupled with the bands incendiary live performances were enough to catch the attention of Estrus records honcho Dave Crider, who signed them to his label in 1994. This 45 produced in 1991 however, is the first single they put out. It showcases the bands strong, hard-edged, 60s flavored pop songs that would garner them acclaim not just here, but overseas as well. Sharp fans will notice that this 45 version is markedly different from the version that wound up on 1994’s CD collection Wake Up! As Dave said “The Estrus version was a totally new recording for the “ghoul” ten inch. It’s much faster as by then we were playing all the time and that’s how we did it live.”
Advance apologies for the snap, crackle, and pop. My copy somehow amazingly managed to survive not only being stepped on, but also having cheap beer spilled on it! A testament to the raucous record release atmosphere at McCarthys Bar that night.
The band still performs occasionally, with new drummer Joel replacing Mike Sinnochi who retired from performing.
I hate to say it, but there are few people I really look up to in terms of graphic design. And, it’s definitely not because of the lack of talent out there. While I was able to carve out a career in publishing in spite of myself, what truly makes my wheels spin is an entirely different beast. One that is entirely at odds to what is generally perceived to be the typical design aesthetic.
Looking back, I guess coming of age during the 60s and 70s nailed directly in front of a B&W television didn’t help. As Joey Ramone said “It’s TV’s fault I am this way”. The tube shaped not just my design appreciation but also my cultural tastes. One that fit perfectly into what was to soon become the 80s punk side of me. From that point on there was no looking back.
It was during these years of discovery that I started running across designer Art Chantry’s work. I couldn’t believe that not only did someone actually think the same way I did, but was able to make a career celebrating lo-fi vernacular art. Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so out if place digging for discarded 50s clipart in my publishing companies trash pile.
As the years went on and Art’s work started becoming more and more well-known outside punk circles, I began to feel like the guy who saw the Stones when they played at the Crawdaddy. Imitators started piling on and pretty soon you couldn’t sneeze without running into some company milking the “nostalgia” bandwagon. Nevertheless, Art kept on doing what he did—like no one else.
Interviews and exhibitions furthered my admiration and respect for the man. It also emboldened me to know that yes, you could do what you are passionate about and be successful. Its a simple thing that pretty often we all lose sight of. Especially in a culture that values self-promotion and loudness over substance.
Being NYC, many smaller bands from outside the area always made it a point to make the city a stopover. One of those bands, The Mockers, came all the way from Virginia Beach, VA. Details of how I found out about their NYC gig is still a bit hazy…but with a name like The Mockers, any 60s music fan worth his salt would be curious. There was no question where I would be that sunny weekend afternoon in 1987—NYU’s old Loeb student union.
At this point the group was only a few years old and, like most bands at that point in their career, they were hungry to win over the audience. True to form they delivered a perfect 60s-flavored pop set that even made converts of people who just happened to wander into the performance area by accident. After the show ended I went over to head Mocker Seth Gordon and complimented him on a wonderful set. Seth sincerely thanked me and did something that used to be a lot more common among bands and fans. He handed me a demo tape in appreciation.
The 1987 demo version of Outdoor Cafe (which was to eventually make its way to 1995s Somewhere Between Mocksville and Harmony LP) is minimally produced and shows the band as close to live as you can get. Truly a gem of a song, and performance.
Nowadays The Mockers are in the midst of an extended hiatus. However, over the years they did go on to have a long and fruitful career overseas. Big in Japan indeed.
If this site had a patron saint, it would have to be The Vipers. For the short period that they existed, they not only laid the ground work for the scene but also inspired innumerable others to take up the cause. To this day, even garage music fans in Japan know about them. So, to know that the first LP was never properly reissued was truly a crime. One that ex-Viper Paul Martin was happy to take on.
Now the fruits of his labor of love are available for anyone to purchase. How good is this album? To quote Mike Stax in Ugly Things fanzine “The Vipers set themselves apart with superior songwriting chops and a melodic, harmony-based sound that was closer to the Knickerbockers and the Turtles than the Seeds or the Music Machine. While other bands got by on attitude and bluster, the Vipers used finesse, a quality that served them particularly well on Outta the Nest!”
While the disc does not have any extra tracks, the sound was remastered from a pristine original pressing and pressed on heavy vinyl. To say the sound jumps out at you is putting it mildly. Its an amazing job considering the material. A 24″ x 36″ poster rounds out the package.
Garage music die-hards can do themselves a favor and pick up the vinyl straight from the source. Rocka-Rola Records 101A Clay Street, San Francisco, CA 94111. $25 (US & Canada). Paypal devotees & inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org!
When it came down to record labels that catered to the NY garage punk world during the mid 80s, only two could really claim to being in touch with the scene. Billy Miller and Miriam Linna’s Norton Records and J.D. Martignon’s Midnight Records. These three larger than life folks not only formed the backbone of the small music scene, but in many cases employed many of the die-hard fans and musicians who reveled in it’s world.
It was therefore bittersweet to hear of J.D.’s passing a few days ago. While the man was certainly no saint, he did have his hand (wanted or not) in many of the major events of NYC 60’s garage punk scene. For a full recap please go to DJ Shimmy’s excellent article on J.D. and his label a few years back in Bananas fanzine. Part one talks about J.D.’s life before Midnight and Part 2 goes into his label’s garage glory years. Its well researched and an interesting window into the life of the man many knew as only an irritable, hustling record store owner.
I’ve written previously on the Japanese garage band scene and it’s amazing ability to take the basics and put their own indelible spin on it. Another area that is just as important but often neglected is the art angle. Shows need advertising. And while the Japanese scene boasts its own lineup of stellar illustrators, the one most often pointed to as the Grandaddy of them all is Rockin’Jelly Bean.
Starting as a way to advertise his surf-garage band (the amazing Jackie and the Cedrics) his style of art evolved into a combination of 50/60s pinup girls, and 70s exploitation movies with a smattering of eroticism. Success and accolades soon followed allowing RJB to open up a store, Erostika, in the Harajuku area of Tokyo, followed by another one in Nagoya.
Personally, I am indebted to RJB for being kind enough to encourage me to bring many of the images on this site to Japan for a gallery show in Shimokitazawa as well as an additional show at his store in 2009. At that point I had only begun exploring what to do with the images I had collected. It was mainly through his encouragement that much of what you see here became a reality. Which brings me to the point of this post!
While I do not find myself out and about nowadays, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the groups that are to this day flying the 60s garage punk banner in NYC. First up is these fab Brooklynites. The Above have been around for quite a while and probably take the award for stick-to-it-iveness. Much like the great bands of days gone by they blend a unique, yet familiar, mix of R&B, Soul, Freakbeat, Garage and Beat. I recommend checking out their live shows as they rock like you wouldn’t believe.