Things Are Perfect Now: The Unlikely Resurgence of The Outta Place

The Outta Place
The Outta Place at 240 West. June 30, 1984. Photo courtesy Tom Bessoir.

When it comes to the things you never expected for 2021, getting a new record from NYC’s Outta Place was certainly tops among the list. Even more so after the passing of venerable frontman Michael Chandler a few years back. The fact that there was even a Cavestomp reunion in 2007 was in itself a bit of a miracle.

The Outta Place at their only full reunion at Jon Weiss’ 2007 Cavestomp. Courtesy Cavestomp.

Still, when Cheepskates member and unofficial Cryptkeeper of all things Dive, David John Herrera, mentioned he had received a copy of the Outta Place’s new record in the mail on social media, it piqued my curiosity. I asked David if he would mind writing a few things about the release for our followers.

“Man it sounds so good. Totally primitive man! I have to get the record. I have all their other records. Tomorrow I can plug my phone into my car and blast it! Thank you for sending it.” Ognir – 80s NYC garage/psych scenester

In referring to a Master he had studied, Pablo Picasso once stated, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

When the Outta Place began to take shape in 1982, their ages were 15, 16, 18, 19, and 20. And unlike most of the “Garage scene” groups of the time, the core of the band only knew of songs they spun on 60s compilation LPs titled “Boulders,” “Nuggets,” and “Pebbles” as well as other records by lesser-known bands of that era. They had no knowledge of 70s hard rock nor did they care to. Hence the music was being produced from the heart. They weren’t trying to sound like the 60s, they were (musically) living it.

The Outta Place promo shot.

In the early spring of 1983, they arrived at an NYC rehearsal studio I was working in. Though their sound was still rounding out, it was unmistakable that they were all on the same wavelength. The rhythm of the drums, bass, and organ was just throbbing, and the razor-like guitar was cutting through every lead. Vocally the singer approached every song with wild abandon, and it was very apparent that “these kids were onto something.”

I had just moved to New York four or five months earlier, and all of us quickly became friends, friendships which last to this day. So when SHAKE SOME ACTION! found out I had received a copy of Outta’ Place’s new LP titled “Prehistoric Recordings,” they asked if I would write a review. On first listen the music and sound practically transported me to another time. Not the 60s but the 80s. We all used to play at a wild club (around the corner from the same rehearsal studio) called The Dive. The drinking age in NYC had just gone up from 18 to 19, and so the age of the patrons was all over the map (not to mention the fake IDs). And when the Outta Place played a show there, along with the garage/psych crowd, which had come to call the club
home, much younger friends of the band were everywhere.

The Outta Place’s 2020 release, Prehistoric Recordings. Art by Bastian Tröger.

This new batch of recordings is a real treat. The first six tracks were selected from over 100 hours of reel-to-reel rehearsal tapes, and the second track “What ‘cha’ talking” is the only original composition to which the entire band contributed. The remainder of the tracks were recorded “Live at The Dive.” All are covers, but I always felt the song “Dirty Old Man” resonated because of their general age. “We’re Outta’ Place” is a rewrite of a song originally titled “We’re Pretty Quick” and a “bonus track” is a rework of the “Batman Theme.” For me, the song “Blonds” stands out because of its clean sound and late singer Michael Chandler’s harmonica solo (uncredited), but generally the entire LP just rocks.

Back in the day, there was a scenester named Ognir who, during a radio promo for a six-band garage/psych NYC show, was referred to as “Your caveman host.” He is the one credited with dubbing the Outta Place New York’s “Caveteens” and is quoted at the beginning of this review. Below is one more of his reactions to the new LP:

NYC’s own caveman, Ognir. Photo by Orin Portnoy.

“Hey man just played the Outta’ Place in my car. All I can say man is wow, it’s still primitive after all them years! Love it. Brings back all them cool years at The Dive. Tell Orin thanks again. Just made my day.”

You can pick up a limited-edition vinyl version of the new record at Italy’s Area Pirata Bandcamp page HERE. For more things Dive-related, please visit David’s webpage filled with some neat photos and recollections from those days. If you’re looking for more vinyl, you might also want to visit Orin Portnoy’s Discogs page which features records from The Outta Place, The Bohemian Bedrocks, and The Lone Wolves.

Surprise, Surprise: NYC’s Vipers Refuse to Fade Away

NYC’s Vipers saga can easily fill an entire book. Caught in the tumult of the early 80s garage scene, the band forged a solid reputation of delivering incredible live performances matched with stellar songwriting. A talent that not surprisingly brought them to the very brink of national recognition. However, in a moment that could have been lifted straight out of an episode of Behind the Music, the sudden passing of their manager set off a chain reaction that slowly ate away at the band. The Vipers limped along for a few more years, but disagreements, dissatisfaction, and a hard-living 80s lifestyle took a predictable toll. Eventually, the members all went their separate ways.

While The Vipers catalog has always been available in some form or another, it was only in recent years that guitarist Paul Martin took it upon himself to remix and remaster much of the original material so that it better represented the band. Among one of his first projects was to properly release material from the sloppily mixed, cassette-only Cryptic Vaults/Not So Pretty, Not So New.

The original self-release of The Vipers demos as Cryptic Vaults. Rereleased in 1988 on Midnight Records as Not So Pretty, Not So New.

Teaming up with label owner (and former vocalist of 80s Long Island surf-punk band Immortal Primitives) Bob Cantillo, this year saw the release of the first 45 of “new” Vipers material in over 30 years. “Pretty Lies” (as well as the flip, “Find Another”) is a classic example of a hungry garage band at the height of their powers. Sounding closer to their rough live sound than the full-length platters, the single is an astounding reminder of the talent of the early band and makes an essential addition to The Vipers discography.

Curious to hear more about the time period that the demos spanned, I asked Paul Martin to shed some light on the journey.

ShakeSomeAction: Thanks Paul for taking a while to talk about the release. I’m actually amazed that these tapes survived and sound as amazing as they do. Kudos on a great job.

Paul Martin: Well, thank you!

SSA: So, how did this project begin?

P.M.: In retrospect, it was quite a stroke of luck that, in late 2019, I suddenly decided that I wanted to work on these tapes. One day I just packed a suitcase full of reel-to-reel tapes, jumped on a plane, and carried them with me back to New York City (making sure to tell security to not pass it through the metal detectors!). Upon arriving, I left them with my friend, Paul Antonell in Rhinebeck, NY, who owns an amazing studio. Then, much to everyone’s surprise, the pandemic hit. While it made life incredibly difficult for many, in a weird way it allowed Paul the time to bake the tapes, transfer them from plastic to metal reels and then digitize them. After all was said and done, we had a great starting point to do a lot of stuff.

Redacted master demo tracklist. With first and second singles marked. Courtesy Paul Martin.

I then passed the digitized files over to Vipers guitarist David Mann, who now lives in Sweden but has a ton of recording equipment he’s collected through the years. He ended up doing all the technical work. I would listen to his work, review it and then just get back to him with my commentary of what else needs to be done. It was a funny process of him saying, “Oh, I can’t do that,” and me following up with, “Well, then try doing this.” The whole idea being to try to get the sound as good as possible. Together, we were able to overcome a lot of limitations and find workarounds that pleased both of us.

I don’t know how many people know this, but a lot of the stuff that we officially released was recorded in our rehearsal studio, The Nest. Our room just had the basics: a simple mixing board, microphones, and a reverb unit. That was about it! So while it was useful for making cassettes to review, we couldn’t really listen to the playback critically there. So, that’s kind of what we’re doing now: taking the original 4-track demos but working on them in a proper studio.

SSA: How did you arrive at the idea of starting these releases with “Pretty Lies” and “Find Another”?

PM: Actually, no particular reason other than they’re both originals and were never properly released anywhere. We did start off with four completed songs. The previously mentioned two plus “In Our Own Time” and “Gonna Laugh Right In Your Face.” What I told Bob Cantillo was to just pick the two you like the best for the 45. So, out of those four, “Pretty Lies” and “Find Another” were the two he liked the best! He also liked “Gonna Laugh Right In Your Face,” but I suggested it’d be better if we didn’t do two tracks with guitar solos. It’d be nice to have one that has a harmonica and organ and the other one a guitar solo for variety’s sake.

The Vipers’ 2021 release of “Pretty Lies” b/w “Find Another.” Design by Greg Gutbezahl.

We’re working on a second one now. “Rules of Love” was always a favorite at our shows and something we just never got around to doing in a way that was satisfying. The version on our second album is a very different kind of arrangement than the demo version we’re releasing.

SSA: Any plan for a collection of these demos on an EP or album?

PM: Bob likes just doing 45s, so I’m fine with that. However, Italy’s Misty Lane Records, owned by a fellow named Massimo del Pozzo, is re-releasing Out of the Nest with four extra songs on it. I just sent him everything that I had for the extra songs along with some photographs and things. I don’t know if he’s going to use the original artwork or the artwork that I did for my reissue. I just said, you know, “Here, just go for it!” The one thing that we had a difference of opinion on was where to add the extra songs. He preferred adding them at the very end of the B side and splitting the tracks differently. My preference was to have the A-side play through and then have two tracks after 30 seconds of dead air. So that if you just want to listen to the album, you can play the first six songs and flip it over and play the other six songs. Conversely, you can just put the needle down on a visible separation and play it as a two-sided, four-song EP.

SSA: That sounds the best.

PM: It’s like having an EP within an LP! But to be fair, it’s also his project too, and I didn’t want to give him any resistance in him wanting to do his own thing. Besides, I’ve got plenty of other things to deal with.

SSA: What are some of the other things in the works?

PM: We’re also looking to put out other Viper stuff. I had a live album and a completely remixed second album in the can. And then we have 50 or so demos, plus I’ve got at least another 15 tunes that I know of that I haven’t digitized yet. So that’s basically three LPs worth—or a double CD.

SSA: Do you want to put everything out?

PM: I’d like to see all that stuff come out—if it’s worthy. I mean, there are some things I absolutely just don’t like, but this list of 50 songs is all pretty good. Demo versions of Out of the Nest and the How About Some More albums, many of them with different lyrics and completely different arrangements. The performances themselves are better than what we did in the actual studios because we did them right when the songs were hot. We’d write them, rehearse them, and then when they were at the peak of energy, record it.

99th Floor Flexi with the demo version of “We’re Outta Here.”

The first Midnight records 45 that we did, “Never Alone,” was also recorded in our rehearsal studio, as well as “Who Dat.”Also, a version of “We’re Outta Here,” released on a Flexi along with Ron Rimsite’s 99th Floor fanzine, was recorded at The Nest. So, it’d be nice to get that stuff out.

SSA: I always found it interesting that the demos came out during a period where things seemed to be at a standstill with the band.

PM: We were working on a second album at the time that was supposed to be called Forbidden Fruit when our manager, Bob Chich, died. That stopped us completely in our tracks and put a damper on the whole project. As we just kind of wanted to move past it, we just kept writing songs and playing shows and stuff like that. We wound up getting another manager named Ray Wilson, who was a nice enough guy, but he didn’t understand the dynamics of the group.

So, it was during that weird time that the demos were released. Our original idea was to make a list of our four tracks, and Cryptic Vaults came from that. It then ended up at Midnight Records who released it as Not So Pretty, Not So New. As their version was essentially a copy of a copy, the sound really wasn’t that great. This is really saying something as the original release was pretty rough to begin with!

So, I wanted to have an opportunity to make it sound good. And, it sounds fantastic! Way better than Out of the Nest. So, I’m excited about those tracks coming out sometime in the future.

SSA: Just out of curiosity, what was the first demo The Vipers ever did as band?

David Mann of The Vipers onstage at Irving Plaza. Photo Courtesy Jillian Jonas.

PM: Oh, that was “A Hundred Times A Day,” which came out on Cryptic Vaults along with “When Our Turn Comes.” It was me, Jon, and Graham May, along with a guy named John Flynn, who went by the pseudonym Johnny Decal, on drums. At that time we were sharing a rehearsal space with The Fleshtones in the Music Building. This is incidentally how we met David Mann. He was in Richard Lloyd’s band and was seriously not happy having to cover the rent for Richard who was in a really bad stage in his life at that time. David joined us and The Nest was born.

And, David’s definitely good. I mean, with Richard, he was playing bass, but he’s skilled in many instruments. The first thing we had David play on was the song “Dark is my Day.” That’s him playing bass on that song with Graham and me on guitars. And since David could play keyboards and guitars as well, we were able to switch instruments around depending on who came up with the best line for whatever instrument on any given song. It gave us more variety in how things sounded. With David moving between guitar and organ and Jon playing tenor sax, we were able to do everything from surf music to The Sonics and even Paul Revere and the Raiders live.

SSA: Do you have any good anecdotes about that time?

P.M: The live gigs were really the highlights for us. Do you remember The Cynics out of Pittsburgh? Well, whenever they were in New York, we’d do shows with them. And in return, they would have us come up to Pittsburgh and do shows with them over there. There was a really cool club there called the Electric Banana that was always a blast to play in. Also, in the summertime, Pittsburgh would also have these party boats that navigated the Three Rivers. We played these party boats in which you’d have a Beatles cover band decked out with mop tops in one part of the ship and us playing in a totally different part of the ship! It was so much fun doing those kinds of shows as we got to hang out and meet lots of fun people.

We did some really cool shows. One I remember was in Washington D.C. with Chris Stamey and Alex Chilton. I really liked his pre-dBs 45 that they did together on Ork Records, “Summer Sun.” So hanging out and doing shows with them was really amazing. I really dug that.

We also did this university tour opening up for The Ramones. And (laughs) Joey says to me, “Look, Johnny doesn’t like you guys. He thinks you’re too good. So, you know, he wants to throw you off the tour.” My reaction was, “Whatever (laughs), it’s OK Joey.” He was so relieved: “I’m so glad I can talk to you about it.” So, we wind up doing one show with The Ramones (laughs). And while it was regrettable, it wasn’t our tour, so you sort of had to play by their rules.

Out of all of the Ramones, Tommy was my favorite. And, and he was actually an amazing recording engineer too. But, he wasn’t playing by that time. I think they had already switched to Mark Bell. But, he was there that day we opened. I forget where it was, maybe New Haven? When I went backstage to say hi, Johnny was, like, shooting daggers at me, with a “What the fuck are you doing here?” expression. And then Tommy would come out and go, “Oh, yeah, he’s in a mood.” (laughs) Johnny really hated me for some reason, I’ll never know why. But, my fondest memories are going out to Curry Mahal on Second Avenue to have dinner with Joey. During those earlier CBs gigs, I also got to know Tommy pretty well too. Dee Dee was always out to lunch—but, Joey and Tommy were always really thoughtful.

I was hoping it would work out playing with The Ramones, but it was still a lot of fun. We worked up the crowd and got them to a good place for when The Ramones got onstage. Overall, everybody said it was a real success. So, you take what you can get, you know? But those were the fun parts of that particular time.

SSA: It really seems that Bob’s death really threw things into a tailspin. How did you meet him?

Bob Chich on a West Coast tour with The Vipers, July 1985. Courtesy Paul Martin.

PM: Bob was a manager at the Rocks In Your Head record store on Prince Street, around the corner from West Broadway. That’s how we got to know him. He was a big early proponent of The Vipers. He was coming down to the shows and telling others how great we were. We even started meeting all his friends! One day he just said, “Well, you know, I might as well just manage you fuckers.” (laughs) But, despite the haphazard way we brought him on, it actually worked out for us. Having a manager that really liked the band and got along with all the guys was really indispensable after a certain point. Before Chich came along, Graham’s girlfriend, Debbon Ayer, was our manager. Although she was more interested in being an actress and working on Broadway, the whole publicity and playing clubs and getting-gigs hustle was sort of up her alley as well. My thinking at the time was that her experience in the theater world was a plus. Hey, that’s what Brian Epstein did, right? And like Epstein, she was a proponent of having a “look” when you go on stage. No jeans and T-shirts kind of thing, just have good boots and good suits. So, while she got us in a good place, it quickly became more than she could handle. To her credit, The Vipers by this point were cruising along. So much so that it was easy to transfer the management to Chich. The mailing list, contacts, everything. And she was very happy to do that.

Yeah, so that was pretty seamless. And then Bob just took it to another level. I mean, had he survived, he probably would have had a major record contract for us. Even right up to the end he kept saying, “Man, you know, Sire wants you, and Warner Brothers wants you, and Epic Records wants you. I’m just trying to play them off each other to get a better deal.” I said, “OK, but don’t wait too long.” So he’s trying to work out a deal for us, and then boom, he’s gone. And it wasn’t the kind of thing we could carry on with since he hadn’t really discussed it in detail with us. He just gave us an overview of how things were going, and we just trusted him enough to know that he would do the best he can. And then all of a sudden the bottom dropped out, and we were left with this big hole in our lives. That was pretty much the beginning of the end. But as we were still on an upward trajectory in our careers, we decided to play it out. Especially since we were still young enough to take that kind of risk.

SSA: It’s an incredible story, Paul. Thanks for taking some time to give us a bit of background on the atmosphere surrounding the initial release of the demos.

The Pretty Lies b/w Find Another 7″ is available NOW from Bob Cantillo at Mono-Bone Records. Contact him here for more info: nybob@me.com

Catch Us If You Can: The Mosquitos Make a Film

As part of the burgeoning 80’s LI music scene, Long Island’s Mosquitos were something of an anomaly. At a time when bar owners knew the easiest way to attract paying customers was by booking bands that performed classic rock tribute shows, The Mosquitos persevered by playing outstanding originals in a style more reminiscent of The Dave Clark Five. Not an easy feat considering their main stomping ground was a NYC suburb a good hour and a half away from Manhattan.

The band however did have a unique approach. As other Manhattan and NJ groups mined more esoteric mid-60s bands for inspiration, the Mosquitos were alone in championing four-part harmonies and catchy hooks served up with a solid 60s beat. Something that a younger generation of music fans had never really seen played live. This was not MTV fare by any means. And with YouTube a good twenty(!) years away, your best bet seeing an old performance was via fuzzy fourth-generation VHS tapes collected by the video enthusiast community.

To experience the Mosquitos live was therefore a revelatory experience for many. It was all but impossible to say you enjoy this genre of music and not be immediately won over by them. Even some of my punk friends into the hardcore movement walked away from their gigs astounded at their conviction.

So, when I recently had a chance to speak to original member Steve Prisco, I jumped at the chance.

Steve had recently premiered the digital version of a fantastic film about the group on social media. Made in 1983, the short shows a quasi-autobiographical day in the life of the band. Walking in the neighborhood, hanging out with friends, and just making do with small day jobs, waiting for the next gig.

While it’s only 17 minutes long, the film does an amazing job of succinctly showing the friendships, dreams, and aspirations of a local band. Except that this local band happens to be a 60’s beat group playing originals in the middle of suburban Long Island!

Shake Some Action: Steve, can you give me a very brief timeline of how the band originally started. Who was friends with whom and then brought the others in? As you guys were practically teenagers I imagine it was HS?

Steve Prisco: Well some of us were teenagers! Iain and I had been friends since high school but were in our late twenties when Iain met Vance who frequented the Sam Goody store where he worked. Vance was “only 17” as the song goes. Iain and I had been in bands together since our teens and had most recently been in The Fabians. Vance had been playing with Tony and Pat. So those two parties got together, with the idea of it just being a one-off show!

SSA: For some reason, the Northport/Huntington area seemed to be ground zero for the start of many 60s influenced bands and musicians. When I think back to how many talented music people came out of this area it boggles the mind. Any theories?

Vance Brecsia on stage. Photo courtesy Steve Prisco

S.P.: It was a pretty special time in Huntington in the 1980s. I think it was a combination of having a bunch of bars who just wanted to fill up the rooms, along with a scene that was accepting of all kinds of original music. While there were 60’s influenced bands like us, there was all kinds of stuff happening, ska, rockabilly, and some really experimental artists.

SSA: The film is amazing in that it captures a perfect slice of life in the area at the time. I don’t know many outside of NY know how relatively quiet and suburban the area is.

S.P.: Well I don’t know about that! Things could get pretty wild every now and then.

SSA: Haha. How did the idea of making a film come about? And who financed it?

S.P.:It was a student film. I believe the brother of one of the filmmakers was a fan and pitched the idea.

SSA: Were the band members uniformly all for it or did it take a while for all to get everyone on board?

Tony “Millions” LoGuercio. Courtesy of Steve Prisco.

S.P.: We had the good fortune to get out of the gate pretty quickly as far as establishing an audience. Vance and Pat had a lot of friends and that, along with the active local scene, quickly built up a nice vibe for the band. Somebody wants to make a movie? Sure! I don’t recall anyone having any issues.

SSA: What town as the opening scene shot. The one where you and this young woman are walking down the street.

S.P.: That’s Huntington, pretty much at the crossroads of Main Street and 25A. And the young woman’s name is Roberta.

SSA: It’s pretty funny how everyone is shown in their natural habitat. Pat, Tony…What record store is featured? Did Vance actually work there?

S.P.: Yes, he did. The record store was One Way Records, owned and operated by the legendary Dave Laru. Dave was a big part of the music scene and put on these shows at a local club. Our first gig was at one of Dave’s shows.

SSA: Along those same lines, was that actually Vance’s room where you guys practice in the film? It looks like a temple to the 60s.

S.P.: Yep. It was pretty wild, but a comfortable space. He had all kinds of stuff, everywhere you looked. He was a real student of the music of that era.

Iain Morrison. Courtesy of Steve Prisco.

SSA: The closing concert scene is amazing in that you get to hear the patter from your manager Scott Savitt. For me, that was always one of the highlights of your live shows. Just how over-the-top and entertaining he was!

S.P.: Unfortunately, various non-disclosure agreements prevent me from talking about Scotto! Only kidding, somewhat. Scott was endlessly entertaining and we loved to egg him on. He took care of us on the road and always fired up the crowd.

SSA: It’s telling that the film features Pat Bishow on drums. At what time did Mitch Towse join the band and why did Pat leave?

S.P.: I believe the switch was somewhere towards the end of 1983. Pat is an amazing guy, a talented filmmaker, and drop-dead funny. However, I always thought he might actually drop dead towards the end of one of our shows – it took a lot of energy and he needed to take a break. I remember it as being an amicable split. Pat was hugely instrumental in creating our sound.

SSA: Where there any plans to show this in any particular place? It’s actually very long for a commercial video. It reminds me of the sort of long-form videos they would show on the short-lived UHF music video channel U68 in 1985. A full two years after this film.

Steve Prisco. Courtesy of Steve Prisco.

S.P.: Funny you mention U68. They played our second video quite a bit. I don’t know if this was intended to have any other purpose than a grade, being a student film. I am just glad that it exists, for the memories.

SSA: I heard you are starting a site dedicated to the band. That’s amazing and long overdue. I’m looking forward to all the great things you might upload to it.

S.P.: There is a Facebook page, The Mosquitos Appreciation Society. I’ve been posting some updated videos and things there. I am going to set up a YouTube page as you can post higher quality videos there than on Facebook.

SSA: Thanks for the chat, Steve. I just want to express how much fun it was to see your band back in the day and I hope that through your site more garage rock fans will be exposed to how incredibly talented you guys were. Feel free to let us know about any upcoming band news. We’re 110% pro-Mosquitos here.

S.P.: Thanks. I’ve just done a remix of “You Don’t Give A Hang About Me” from the original master tapes. We’ve got a few things in the pipeline. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop!

My thanks to Steve Prisco (as well as his bandmates Tony LoGuercio, Vance Brescia, Pat Bishop, Mitch Towse, and Iain Morrison) for sharing this wonderful piece of history with us prior to the site launch. Stay tuned for the Mosquitos’ very own website coming soon.

Past…Forward: Mick Hale, and the Mod Fun Legacy

Two peas in a pod. That’s pretty much how I’d describe the relationship between the somewhat competing underground music scenes in the 80s. While there is no denying there was friction, for the most part, the 60s mod and garage followers’ overlapping interests enabled them to find some common ground. A perfect example of this is the group Mod Fun.

Birthed in NJ, and nurtured by the NJ mod scene, the group often crossed the river and played in Manhattan. Eventually they expanded their fanbase to include decidedly non-modernist garage punk fans on both sides of the river.

So when Mick “London” Hale recently posted news about an upcoming big Mod Fun announcement, I was intrigued. Enough to fire off a quick message. A short while later, I received a reply from Mick:

Mod Fun 90 Wardour St and then some
90 Wardour Street…and Then Sum (2020). The new reissued and remastered first Mod Fun LP with 17 additional bonus tracks.

“We are reissuing BOTH 80s albums (remastered in full) digitally on all platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, Napster, etc.) for the first time! In fact, the Midnight record has never had any of its original tracks released since the butchered vinyl edition in the 80s. So, this is a BIG one for us. It will also include the remastered ‘Hangin’ Round EP’ along with a bunch of demos and live tracks from that period, 25 tracks in all.

Dorothy's Expanded Dream
Dorothy’s Expanded Dream (2020). The new reissued and remastered second Mod Fun LP now with 15 additional bonus tracks.

“Additionally, the remastered ‘Dorothy’s Dream’ album will be expanded to 25 tracks as well for its digital debut! Included in this release will be more live tracks and demos from back in the day.”

Say no more.

I reconnected with Mick and asked him if we could do a short Q&A concerning the release of the tracks. Mick, as much the gentleman now as he was then, wholeheartedly agreed.

SSA: Just for the people not familiar with Mod Fun, can you give me a quick summary of how you guys originally met and how the idea for a 60s inspired band came about?

A bunch of young upstarts. Photo Courtesy and © Mod Fun.

MH: Well, actually I knew Bob Strete (Edit: the bass player) practically from birth since our Mums were friends and neighbors early on. We did move to different towns by the time we were teenagers but still kept in touch. I eventually ended moving back to Lodi where we had both originally met. Around 1979 or ’80—with both of us deep in our KISS(!) phase—we decided to buy some guitars. However, by the time we met Chris Collins (Edit: the drummer) we were getting into bands like The Police, the Sex Pistols and a whole bunch of British new wave and punk sounds. Naturally, we also loved the Beatles as deeply as any music-obsessed teen would. As far as our band though, the deeper dive into ’60s sounds came after about a year as “Mod Fun.” It was then after diving into Motown, Stax and other Paul Weller “influences” that we started to go down a more “retro” rabbit hole.

Mod Fun gig flyer Courtesy Waterloo Station Fanzine. Publishers Melanie Rock and Louis Zuluaga.

SSA: Being in New Jersey, it must have been very odd being a 60s fanatic. Not many know how those years were filled with endless cover bands and classic rock. Coming from Queens I can empathize. How did you find early gigs?

MH: At first we’d see all these totally new wave bands listed in the Aquarian (the NJ alternative weekly) playing at places like Bloomfield’s Dirt Club and Jetty or the Showplace in Dover. We’d naively contact them for gigs and, to our surprise (especially in the beginning) we’d get on bills with these bands in their 20s and 30s who had records out. We were just kids in our senior year of HS! At that time we were very Jam-ish but doing all the same soul covers like “Midnight Hour” and “Heatwave.” I also recall we did “Time for Action” by Secret Affair. We even had a two-piece horn section back in the very beginning! 

SSA: After the band was formed did you gravitate to the NJ scene? Or was it the NY scene and bands that you heard about first?

Mod Fun onstage at CBGBs. Photo Courtesy and ©Mod Fun.

MH: We actually straddled both scenes. We grew up in Bergen County only about 17 minutes away from the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, so we were always gigging in NJ and crossing over into Manhattan. I’d say, for every two gigs we did in NJ, there was at least one in NYC in a typical month. Back then (before “experiencing” the Dive) we played a LOT at this place on the corner of Bleeker and Broadway called R.T. Firefly, sometimes two times a month. also at CB’s, Dr. B, S.N.A.F.U., Kenny’s Castaways, some others I’m probably forgetting.

SSA: I love asking people what they felt like when they entered the Dive for the first time. Everyone has a different take.

Dive Ad July 12 – July 16, 1985 with Mod Fun.

MH: Yes, the Dive was a total trip to go at first. We must have gotten into that scene after it had only been going for a few months, too. In fact, the first time we played there was before they built up the stage into a proper, decent-sized square one. I have an early pic of us there when there were mirrors behind the “stage” that was only about 4 inches up off the floor and an awful triangular shape which made it hard to fit on. I don’t think our first gig there was a Cavestomp, but we did play with another 60s-ish band…maybe the Creeping Pumpkins and (the not 60s-ish) Bill Pop/Tapes. But after we did a weekend with the Cheepskates, we started to get booked with all the other 60s-styled bands at every gig, so we sort of grew with the venue as it turned more and more retro band friendly. I seem to recall there were even plays or other “arty” (less musical) performances going on there in the early days too. By then we had also met Ron Rimsite who is really heavily responsible for us growing into a much more U.K. Psyche/Freakbeat-inspired style. He gave me so many cassettes of great obscure trippy English and R&B influenced stuff.

Mod Fun at The Dive
Mod Fun on the Dive’s new larger stage! Courtesy Mod Fun. Photo ©Andy Peters

SSA: Why did Mod Fun eventually stop? Life responsibilities?

Village Voice, Dec 24, 1985

MH: That’s a strange story. We split up as Mod Fun but regrouped as Paintbox and played a bunch of local shows. Then to our surprise, we were offered a two-week European tour by some guys who owned a record shop in Berlin. Their idea was to promote a “US garage” package tour in Europe. It sounded great! So, we met with these two guys in Hoboken and explained to them how we were interested, but we’d like to be billed as “Paintbox *(formerly Mod Fun).” They were all like “Yah, yah, that’s great!!” We then arrive in Europe and every single poster had the artwork for “90 Wardour Street” and has us billed as “MOD FUN.” This might have not been a big deal if it was just the three of us, but since Chris was dating the keyboard player from Paintbox, it put her in a sticky situation. We had to revamp the whole set to all Mod Fun and no Paintbox songs. It caused a division right down the middle of the band. We barely even made it through that tour. Upon our return to the States, Bob and I started Crocodile Shop with the drummer from Lord John and didn’t talk to Chris for a couple of years. Eventually, we did work through this awkward phase though. Chris even started engineering some of our recording sessions and doing live sound for Crocodile Shop at a few gigs (Maxwells, Limelight).

SSA: I’m sure the idea of reissuing your albums and other tracks has occurred to you over the years. What was different this time around?

MH: Yes, definitely! We did actually have the label Get Hip! out of Pittsburgh issue a “best of” CD in the years when Mod Fun wasn’t active at all. Since Dave Amels from Cryptovision was working with Get Hip, he had the “Dorothy’s Dream” master tapes and some other tracks we did with him back then for Mod compilations. While we did not have access to the Midnight Records material, we did the best we could. That was the “Past…Forward” CD issued in…maybe 1995? It was repressed in 2004 when we actually got Mod Fun back together for a reunion show in Asbury Park. However, to answer your question, this time I found myself with a bunch of downtime after losing a lot of my DJ gigs here in Asbury Park. I knew I wanted to do something musical during this “social isolation” period, so I started digging through old tapes. I ran them through some outboard EQ into my Mac and remastered the stuff. Not only did it keep me busy, but I was way happier with the sound than the original vinyl mastering jobs, which we had little control over.

Mod Fun Dorothy's Dream 1986
Promoting 1986’s “Dorothy’s Dream” LP. Left to right: Chris Collins, producer Dave Amels, Mick London and Bob Strete. Photo Courtesy and ©Mod Fun.

SSA: Bill Luther did a great job with the reissue of your first single a short while back. That must have felt special since you guys knew each other for ages.

The re-issued Mod Fun 45.

MH: Yup, Bill is great, one of our best mates and super supportive over the years. The color cover sleeve and his blurb on the back were superb. It was an honor for us to be his debut release on his label. 

SSA: Were the tapes all in one spot or scattered about in different places? Any require tracking down? Did you find tapes in an unusual place?

MH: Let’s just say it took a lot of digging. I’ve moved maybe five or six times since the ’80s so some stuff was packed away super deep. Tapes were all mixed up in milkcrates, storage totes, boxes, cassette cases…you name it. It was all under one roof, but I still felt like an archeologist at times, stumbling onto great material on an unlabeled tape and all.

SSA: From my own experiences going through archival stuff, I know not everything you find is gold. Sometimes it’s amusing to try to remember why I held onto one thing and not another. Any stories of discoveries like this?

MH: Oh gosh, yes. I found strange “side projects” we did back then. Really crazy stuff.

SSA: There are happy surprises though. Can you recall any of those?

MH: Yes! A four-track demo of eight covers we did after “Dorothy’s Dream” that I literally had been searching for about a decade! It was on the B-side of a live tape. I think five of the tracks are appearing on the new reissues.

SSA: This might sound odd considering we’re all getting on in years, but any short tours planned after all this COVID mess clears up? Even just a final NYC gig would be ideal.

Current Mod Fun
Mod Fun nowadays. Photo courtesy and ©Mod Fun.

MH: Yes! We were actually just about to do a big reunion show in D.C. the Sunday all the COVID19 mess hit the fan. We were able to do a local Asbury Park warm-up show, but right after that, the band in D.C. canceled the gig down there. It was super disappointing too, considering all the logistical hoops we had to jump thru to get Bob back out here from Kentucky for the gig. But, looking ahead, he’s trying to move back out here so we can “get the band back together, maaaan.”

SSA: Any plans for live material coming out from the early years? The band used to put on a powerhouse live show back in the day, I recall. You gave LI’s Secret Service a run for their money.

Mod Fun at The Dive. Photo (& graphic) Courtesy Stranger Than Fiction Fanzine. ©Scott “Rudie” Rosinski.

MH: Actually, there are a whole bunch of live tracks included (from back then) on these collections, some recorded at Berkeley Square, a Radiothon we did in Trenton and some even at the Dive(!) 

SSA: Thanks again, Mick, for sharing this wonderful news on our site. And for taking a moment to share some background on the release. Hope to see you guys live…soon!

MH: Thank You, Jeff! 

The revamped first and second Mod Fun records are available now on all digital platforms. The first single reissue is still available on vinyl from Bill Luther’s Pennytown Records. Link here!

Safe European Home: Overseas Vinyl

The Bohemian Bedrocks
The Bohemian Bedrocks at The Dive. left to right: Orin Portnoy, Bobby Belfiore, Elan Portnoy, and Ira Elliot. Photo courtesy www.cheepskatesmovie.com

Sadly, like much of the history of early rock and general in general, it was the young kids of Europe to first notice and then support U.S. punk bands. Taking this principle to heart, NYC bands have found greener pastures touring Europe for the longest time. Often coming back with tales of how they would suddenly find themselves playing to thousands of people at outdoor festivals. Only to then jump on a plane, arrive in NYC a few hours later, and then play to the same 20-50 familiar faces the following week.

A perfect example of the Euro connection in regards to NYC garage bands was The Headless Horsemen. In 1987 a Dutch label, Resonance Records, showed a strong interest in releasing their first LP. However, once the record came out, the label then pushed the band to release an EP the following year. Essentially, using up songs that were slated to go on their second full length. Although the EP was solid and a great addition to their catalog, it didn’t sell well. While the band still toured successfully, the combination of fewer tracks at an LP price didn’t help their cause at the merch table. The record did make it stateside but, priced like an import, that too quickly disappeared. Soon Resonance went out of business.

Another NYC band with an interesting Euro connection was The Bohemian Bedrocks. A short-lived mid-80s group that contained members of both The Fuzztones and the future Optic Nerve. While the band both played out and recorded original material, their material was never released. After a year of performing, half of the guys went back out on tour with The Fuzztones while the other half became the aforementioned Optic Nerve. The Bedrocks ceased to be. (Some rare images from the Bedrocks live gigs, can be found on David Herrera’s informative site chronicling the Dive nightclub. Link HERE.)

Come 2012 though, Germany’s Screaming Apple Records came to the rescue. While they were only too eager to release the tracks by this quasi-supergroup in Europe, the import was hard to find in US stores. Even now, years later, while I was on a hunt for a new copy, I only found overseas vendors selling them.

Thankfully, this was not the end of the story for both records.

To say I was caught by surprise when Elan Portnoy revealed he had copies of both these imports (as well as the 1st HH LP and Rarities LP) for sale, is putting it mildly. Judging by the responses on his FB page, I was not alone. A quick email to Elan confirmed that he had “been sitting on these for a long time. Ever since they came out!” One week and one Paypal payment later, the records arrived.

Headless Horsemen Bohemian Bedrocks Records
Fuzz in a Box: Recently unearthed copies of the Headless Horsemen’s Gotta Be Cool EP and The Bohemian Bedrocks LP.

Hearing them now after so many years is an experience unto itself. On the one hand, you’re glad that finally, they’re a bit more widely available stateside. Then again, it’s hard not to feel a bit wistful to hear both groups at the prime of their existence, playing their strongest material to a (then) limited audience.

Alas while we cannot turn on the Wayback Machine, we can easily order these records once again. They certainly do not deserve to be stacked away in a storage container somewhere, unheard and more importantly, not enjoyed. Not only do they represent a specific time period in NYC, but also a moment in time where every member of these bands was concerned with just one thing. Making you have a lease-breaking, no-holds-barred good time. And that dear friends are as good a reason as any to crack open your billfold.

The Headless Horsemen’s Self-Titled 1st LP, You Gotta Be Cool EP (Resonance Records), and Demos and Rarities LP (Dangerhouse Skylab) are available for purchase along with The Bohemian Bedrocks LP (Screaming Apple) from Elan Portnoy. $20/LP, $15/EP. Postpaid (US). For more information contact Elan at elanportnoy(at)gmail(dot)com.

I Don’t Fit In

Paul Collins. Photo ©Rob Overtoom. Courtesy Hozac Records and Books.

Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White, I’m Not Like Anybody Else, Five Years Ahead of my Time. The misfit world has long been a unifying factor in the music scene. For every megastar with beaming Chicklets smile, you have hundreds of thousands of faceless guys and gals slogging through a career with a fair share of crappy motels and substandard meals. It’s rare to walk up to a music fan who cannot reel off a laundry list of supremely talented individuals who subsist hand to mouth—if they’re lucky.

Part of the reason d’etre for this blog was to highlight those NYC folk who’ve gone through this or are currently going through this. While many musicians have somehow found a balance, others are not so lucky. Something I’m reminded of constantly. And even out of the success stories, it’s hard to measure what the definition of “success” is.

I hate using a cliché, but Paul Collins’ career definitely exemplifies one to a T. He’s a survivor. A quick Google will lead you to Paul’s many achievements in the power pop realm (as well as his sometimes contentious relationship with fame, and former bandmates.) Still, Paul is a pro. One cannot exist in the industry for over 40 years without having—not just a strong backbone—but being a bit ornery as well.

Yet, everyone has to decide when it’s time to call it quits. And Paul has recently decided to gracefully close out his powerpop career with not just one, but two career highlights.

I Don’t Fit In is not just an autobiography, but also an overview of the heady time he was a member of The Nerves and The Beat. Two of the genre’s most exemplary and revered groups.

Discussing the book with Paul not too long ago he mentioned that it was in the planning stages for the longest time. Tracing its roots to when he was in Spain and going through a particularly difficult tour. The book started off as a semi-autobiographical exercise complete with anonymized names. While he did find someone to publish it in Spanish, he found no takers for an English language version. Disappointed, but undeterred, Paul eventually relocated back to his hometown, NYC, and continued to record and perform.

In 2018 however, Hozak Records label owner Todd Novak approached Paul and asked him if he would be interested in publishing his story. The indy label, long known as a haven for supporting new artists had started a book imprint and was experiencing some success publishing artist autobiographies. Teaming him up with writer Chuck Nolan, they reworked and added to Pauls’s original notes to create the definitive roadmap of his musical journey.

“Adding the bow tie to the package” (as Paul put it) is the release of Another World, a remastered collection of archival material that had only previously existed on personal cassette tapes that Paul had held onto for years. When I asked if there would be a volume two he replied “Nope, that’s it!” His assuredness made me realize how serious he was in commemorating this chapter of his life in the most positive way. And for someone like Paul Collins, that seems sorta fitting. I can’t imagine him saying goodbye on a less than stellar note.

Paul Collins Band at Naba, Osaka, Japan. March 2011. Photo © Jeff Cuyubamba

In 2011 I happened to find myself in Japan as The Paul Collins Band made their first appearances ever in the land of the rising sun. While I completely understood how the band was respected in the US, I was totally unprepared for the outpouring of support they would receive on this short tour. While all the sets started with an enthusiastic audience, they always ended with a smiling, sweaty, beaming mob waving their arms and looking like they experienced the second coming.

The fans go nuts for Paul in Osaka. @Jeff Cuyubamba

While the band was razor-sharp, much of the success was in the way Paul slowly built the crowd into a frenzy. What’s funny is that while I was amazed, Paul just smiled and took it in stride. As if he knew that this is what performers do. You just put on a great show for your fans. A fact further emphasized by what happened the following day. While my head was still buzzing from the enthusiastic crowd response, I asked Paul what his highlight was from the previous day. He replied excitedly that it was having the most delicious soup in the basement of the tallest building in Tokyo.

You can order I Don’t Fit In from Hozak Records and Books at this link. Another World can be ordered from Bomp Records here.

Talk About The Passion

Peppermint Lounge Ad October 1984. Designed by Marlene Weisman.

In the midst of all this craziness going on around the world. It’s nice to be reassured of some things.

Like most folks, this situation has given me some time to dive back into things that I’ve put off forever. In this case, it’s scanning old negatives that haven’t seen the light of day in over 30 years. Neatly filed away in glassine envelopes, the hundreds of negatives I accumulated documented all the things that a young person with a bulk roll of Tri-X and unlimited darkroom access could ever wish for. To my surprise, scattered amongst images of my Queens neighborhood, college pals, photo experiments, and pets I discovered some of my first forays into live band photography.

There were some nice finds among the various band shots. For instance, I found a couple of images of legendary hardcore punk band Ism playing the small rathskeller in my college’s student union building, Marshall Crenshaw touring behind his first record there, as well as an unknown (but somehow familiar) mystery rockabilly band.

R.E.M.’s 1983 gig at Queens College. Let’s Active never did play. Boston’s Neats filled in.

Now while Queens College really wasn’t a stop for bigger bands, it did amazingly get some reasonably well known smaller groups to play on campus like The dbs, Robert Gordon, R.E.M., and surprisingly, The Ramones. Whose performance in the plushly upholstered Colden Auditorium left in it’s wake a plethora of broken seats. There certainly was no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’ that night. That little incident effectively banned ALL rock bands from performing the auditorium for decades. Nevertheless, the Student Union was always available for gigs.

But, as I searched my memory for a clue to the rockabilly band’s name, I kept coming up with nothing. Just as I was ready to admit defeat, I crouched over my light table and spotted the band’s logo prominently emblazoned on the negative image of the kick drum. Squeaky Clean.

Squeaky Clean by contrast weren’t as well known as the other bands I mentioned. At that time the band had been around for only a year or so and had just released an EP and were doing the usual NYC club rounds. Somehow a copy of their EP wound up at the college’s newspaper office where I was the photo editor. That, in turn, led to someone writing about them and yours truly winding up in the rathskeller, camera in hand. While I was already firmly indoctrinated into 60s garage punk sounds, their 50s retro approach with an 80s twist nonetheless intrigued me.

Squeaky Clean EP, 1984.

After having ID’d them, curiosity led me to do a quick Google to see if there was any music online to further refresh my memory. I reasoned that if I could easily find a rare unissued 60s garage punk acetate on Youtube, there had to be something as pedestrian as an unknown mid-80s rockabilly band from NYC. To my surprise, what I found instead was the band’s website. Apparently, the group was still in existence.

After I picked myself up from the floor, I sent off an email to them and mentioned how I happened to come across their site. I soon received a nice reply as well as a quick recap of the band’s career from Glenn Manion, the band’s guitarist.

“We pursued our musical success fantasy for a number of years.  Our six-song EP that we put out in 1984  (right around the same time your pix are from, judging by hair styles, lack of glasses and PA gear) got some good attention even though we had no idea how to promote it.  We were a lot smarter when we released a full LP in 1987, but by then it was harder to stand out from other DIY records  (this was way before YouTube, remember). 

Suzanne Smithline, Michael J. Colombo, and Glenn Manion of Squeaky Clean performing at the Queens College Rathskeller, Flushing NY 1984.

We did win a “Best Unsigned Band” award in 1989, but by then it was clear that our sensibility was not in sync with what major labels were signing.
So we decided to keep on playing the music we love and try to find our own audiences.  We put a kid-friendly spin on our presentation and did school assembly programs.  We discovered that senior citizens liked our approach to old-school rock and roll, so we developed a presentation for them.  Basically we just kept at it, reinventing ourselves as the times required and learning how to do more types of music well.

We were never part of the club scene other than our own shows.  Once we started a family, hanging out and making the scene was no longer possible.” 

As an interesting side note, Glen mentioned that the band’s logo was created by their good friend, graphic designer, and artist, Marlene Weisman. While the band members weren’t involved in the eighties club scene, Marlene most definitely was. Her involvement led to designing many of the print ads, promos, and logos for bands and clubs during that time. Most notably, The Peppermint Lounge’s weekly ad for the Village Voice. A quick followup email to Marlene confirmed not just her involvement but also her kindness in offering to contribute some of her Pep ads to this site.

While Marlene moved from the music work to TV work and scored plum gigs doing the graphics for several well-known late-night shows, she still found time to create visual art in a city climate that does not cater to that. A point that was further driven home when Marlene mentioned that she was currently in the process of helping her non-profit artists’ group find new space.

While it’s too easy to wrap this up this post with the often-repeated trope of creative people following their muse despite the odds, it’s kind of hard to avoid it in this case. Amazingly, despite the hardships that both Glenn and Marlene faced in their fields, they still managed to hold onto what they loved to do. And if anything is a testament to the spirit of this site, that surely is. Kudos guys.

Below is a clip of Squeaky Clean performing an original, “Cops & Robbers”, on Manhattan Cable around 1984.

Satisfaction Guaranteed: Meet The Overdrive Five

As a teen, I sort of had a feeling things were heading in the wrong direction. Although I was weaned on AM radio, like most of my peers, I eventually drifted over to the FM side of the radio dial. During the mid-70s this meant you were often subjected to the likes of terrible milquetoast supergroups, sprinkled in with the quickly fading guitar-based bands. Even all these years later, the word “supergroup” sends a slight shiver up my spine. Salvation, though, was just around the corner — and for me it couldn’t have come soon enough.

Despite that awful term, I do have to confess that it is fun to see driven, passionate musicians share that connection with others who chase the same muse. A point confirmed by the reunion of (certain) older groups, such as The Monks, The Sonics and The Remains whose shows made me wonder if it was indeed them or just kids in septuagenarian costumes pulling a fast one on us.

Well, these guys are not septuagenarians. Far from it. But, between them, they also share a similar deep, intrinsic passion for music. One honed only after many years of weathering the ups and downs of a typical career in music. It just so happens to be our good fortune that the music they love is 60s garage punk.

The Overdrive Five brings together Elan Portnoy, Ira Elliot, John Carlucci and Sam Steinig and came to be in much the same way most bands come about: a shared desire to keep playing the music they love. What makes this combo unique, however, is how each member effortlessly taps into the mojo that made them stand out in their previous groups. It’s like hearing the best of those bands times four (or “Five”).

Guitarist Elan Portnoy did his time in such combos as The Fuzztones, The Headless Horsemen, Bohemian Bedrocks and The Twisted as well as performing on stage with a vast array of legends such as Screamin Jay Hawkins, Mark Lindsay, Roy Loney, Hilton Valentine and Tony Valentino, to name a few. Drummer Ira Elliot not only played with Elan in The Fuzztones, Headless Horsemen and Bohemian Bedrocks but has also been an integral part of well-loved indie combo Nada Surf for the past 25 years. Currently, he also moonlights in the Hamburg-era Beatles cover band, Bambi Kino. Bassist John Carlucci was a member of the legendary 70s power pop band, The Speedies. In the late 80s, he joined the West Coast version of The Fuzztones and afterward found himself playing with the likes of Sylvain Sylvain, Lemmy, Dave Vanian, Nikki Corvette, Palmyra Delran and a slew of other acts. Rounding out the quartet, vocalist Sam Steinig and his trusty Vox organ started PA’s Mondo Topless in 1992 and continued for 18 years before forming the soul-tinged GTVs. Nowadays you’ll find Sam returning to his garage roots in Philly’s Kiss Boom Bah.

Not too shabby.

But don’t take my word for it: Below is the band’s take on The Shadows of Knight classic “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” graciously provided by Elan, showcasing the power of the new band. To say this tune is exhilarating is putting it mildly. And this is just a studio demo. The band is currently in the process of setting up a few live gigs (and a European tour) in the months ahead. Stay tuned!

A NIght With Thee Cellar Dwellers

Like I mentioned in the previous post, cross-pollination was one of the things that made the NYC scene thrive. Despite the limited exposure that all the bands received, a small network formed in the East Coast of those “in the know” who were only too happy to share info, tapes and the like with other like-minded souls.

Thee Cellar Dewellers were one of those bands. Located in the small town of Carlisle, PA way off in Central Pennsylvania, the band was certainly off the beaten track. However, their proximity to Harrisburg enabled them to form connections that eventually led to them playing in NYC as well as other larger cities like Washington D.C.

I spoke to founder Jim Baetz about the NYC connection and what led to them making their NYC debut.

SSA: Thanks for your time Jim. Can you tell us the progression of the group from a local PA band to a touring band?

Thee Cellar Dwellers on a bill with NYC’s Blacklight Chameleons October, 25, 1986. Courtesy of Jim Baetz.

Jim Baetz: Here is a bit of a timeline.  We somehow got in touch with Dino Sorbello from the Blacklight Chameleons in mid-1986.  He is a Central PA native.  I’m really not sure how, but he was the NYC person we were first in contact with, as far as I can remember.  Probably close to that time, we reached out to Larry Grogan and Bill Luther because they both had fanzines we had read.  We had put on a few shows here ourselves and had The Blacklight Chameleons play with us.  That was October of 86.  While The Headless Horsemen are listed on the flyer, they didn’t make the show.  I believe PA’s The Cool Italians performed in their place.

Cellar Dwellers, Strip 12-87
Thee Cellar Dwellers with Maine’s The Talismen at the Strip Dec 19, 1987.

Then, in March of ’87, NYC’s Secret Service, NJ’s Phantom V, along with The Cool Italians and Thee Cellar Dwellers played a local show here.  This was about a month before our first Mind’s Eye show in April of 87.  In total, I think we only played shows in NYC three times.  Once at the Strip with the Phantom V and I believe, two Mind’s Eye shows. There is actually some video of us playing the first show with the Blacklight Chameleons.  I will need to dig this up and have it transferred to DVD.  I believe I still have it. 

SSA: What were your impressions of playing NYC at the time? I’m sure the NYC bands were more than eager to have you come over and play.

Minds Eye Poster
Minds Eye Show at Tramps April 18 with the Cynics, The Blacklight Chameleons, and Thee Cellar Dwellers April 18, 1987. Art by Ivy Vale.

JB:  It was really exciting to do the shows there.  New York was where you wanted to play and doing a Mind’s Eye show was about as good as it could get.  Joey Ramone was at the show we did with The Cynics and The Blacklight Chameleons, but I believe he showed up after our set.  I said hello and he seemed like an amazingly nice guy.  As expected, he had plenty of people around him.  That show was a blast.  We were friends with both The Cynics and Chameleons—Ivy and Ann had set it up that way.  They figured the night would have a great vibe.  I feel they got that right.  We did have a really strong night and a lot of fun after the fact.

SSA: You also mentioned you played The Strip. Now that must have been quite a different experience! It was more of a CB’s, dive-ish sort of place.

Cellar Dwellers, Strip 01-87
Thee Cellar Dwellers with the Phantom V (the surprise band) at the Strip, Jan 23, 1988.

JB: The Strip was a little less fun.  But still a good time.  We played with the Phantom V.  Unfortunately, I don’t have many memories of playing that show.  Not sure how good we were or anything.  I do remember the place being very old.  But we did have fun because a bunch of friends showed up. We always ended up having a good time wherever and whenever we played out.  

SSA: Did you have a chance to catch any other NYC shows?

JB: We attended a few Mind’s Eye shows and very likely others.  Especially if the Cynics, Blacklight Chameleons or The Ravens from Philly were playing.   We loved playing in NYC, but we actually played more often in DC.

SSA: Thanks so much for your thoughts, Jim. There is so little information out about Thee Cellar Dwellers that any sort of info certainly puts the era into better focus.

JB: Thanks for being interested, I am still a bit surprised when people are interested in any of the bands I have been involved with! 

Despite the strong NYC reception, Thee Cellar Dwellers existed for only a short while longer. A single exists on Get Hip Records but is now out of print. In addition, songs were also compiled for a full-length release, however, the deal sadly fell through. Seeing this as an opportune time to move on, the members went their separate ways soon after. Jim into a power-pop band called Needle Jack, Mike Schultz to college and the remaining three (Mark Ebling, Susan Mackey, Eric Ebeling) forming The Omega Men.

However, back in 1987, you’d be hard-pressed to find any more deserving band to support the mighty Cynics. The proof is in the track below. Also, as an additional bonus, Jim graciously provided a demo that never made it to vinyl. Huge thanks to William Luther who graciously provided the amazing live shots from a February 1987 gig at an American Legion Hall in Mechanicsburg, PA. seen up top, and below.

Minds Eye, April 16, 1987. Full Set List: Try It (The Standells), Those Lies You Told, I Can Only Give You Everything (Them), Hang Up (The Wailers), Psycho (The Sonics), She’s Coming Home (The Blues Magoos), Five Years Ahead of My Time (The Third Bardo), Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (The Standells), Can’t You See, Hey Little Bird (The Barbarians), Dwellin’, Around and Around (Chuck Berry), Doin’ Me In (Gonn), You’re Gonna Miss Me (The 13th Floor Elevators), You Got No Choice, ENCORE: I Can’t Control Myself (The Troggs).

Out of Our Tree, Eh? The Gruesomes Visit NYC

While the local groups I tend to focus on this site tend to lean towards the bands loved by the garage music followers of Manhattan, Jersey, and L.I., I often get the urge to feature other areas. In fact, quite a few East Coast groups happened to make their way through NYC during the 80s heyday. Some stuck around for a few years, others just as quickly toured and disbanded. While band styles varied wildly, the one thing all the bands shared was an intense desire to play “NYC”. A sentiment mirrored by locals that welcomed not just the new sounds but also people who shared the same interests as them. Something quite special in the pre-internet age.

Despite the fleeting nature of touring, these groups had just as much of an influence on the tri-state scene than one might think. While most came from neighboring states like Pennsylvania, Connecticut, D.C., and Massachusetts, every once in a while we would be treated by some bands who made the long trek from Canada.

The Gruesomes were one of those bands. Hailing from Montreal Quebec, the band instantly gained a strong local following after the debut of their first album, 1986’s Tyrants of Teen Trash. Due to their irreverent stage show, and relentless touring (as well as excellent songs) the band slowly began to get noticed outside of Canada. Their increase in popularity dovetailed into the release of their sophomore effort Gruesomania in 1987.

Soon after finishing the album, original drummer Eric Davis departed and was replaced by John Knoll. Without missing a (ahem) “beat”, the band soon embarked on their first tour of the USA. On Wednesday, May 20, 1987, the Gruesomes hit NYC and took the stage of Tramps at it’s original 15th St. location, sharing the stage with NYC’s Headless Horsemen.

When recalling this time bass player John Davis said “The Gruesomes show at Tramps (The Mind’s Eye) was our first ever gig in NYC. It was also our first gig with our new and understandably nervous drummer, John Knoll. We found the NY audiences, more than Montreal, to be very knowledgable about our source material, loudly commenting on each song as it was announced. We appreciated their wisecracks and banter with the band. We were delighted to see that the Headless Horsemen, whose records we always loved, were also funny and irreverent onstage like us! We have remained good friends with them to this day. 

It was a source of pride for Montreal bands to get a gig in NYC – playing there gave us bragging rights back home on the local scene. We have played NY many times since, and have always had great memorable shows.”

As John mentions, the band returned several more times to the New York area and played Cavestomp! sponsored shows at Westbeth Theater in the West Village and The Village Underground.

John Davis, Bobby Beaton, John Knoll (background) and Gerry Alvarez of The Gruesomes on stage at Cavestomp! 2000 at the Westbeth Theater, 151 Bank St., Manhattan. Friday, November 3, 2000.
Gerry Alvarez, Bobby Beaton, John Knoll (background) and John Davis of The Gruesomes on stage at the Village Underground, 130 W 3rd St., Manhattan. Saturday, October 27, 2001.

Showing no signs of stopping, The Gruesomes have a 45 coming out in Spain and will be touring there from Feb 27 to March 9, 2020.

Alas, much like matters of the heart, that first experience always refuses to fade away. So, here in glorious monophonic sound is a song from that Spring night set in 1987 which gives you a taste of what the early young band was capable of…even with a nervous drummer.

Full Setlist: Je Cherche [Les Lutins], Cry in the Night, (Theme from) Bikers From Hell, Til The Following Night [Screamin’ Lord Sutch], Unchain My Heart [Ray Charles/Undertakers], Leave My Kitten Alone [Little Willie John], You Broke my Heart [The Vibrators], That’s Your Problem [The Outsiders], Bloodhound [Downliners Sect], Jackknife, Get Outta My Hair, No More Lies, Til the End of the Day [The Kinks], What’s Your Problem?, I Never Loved Her [The Starfires], I Can Tell [Johnny Kidd].