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.

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].

Groovin’ on an Inner Plane

Dino Sorbello and Wendy Wild of the Mad Violets, 1983. Photo by Lisan Lima Seiroty, courtesy of Dino Sorbello.

While Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco had the distinction of being the epicenter of psychedelic lifestyle and musical culture in the 60s, it’s pretty easy to forget that it not only existed but flourished in other parts of the US as well. Most famously exemplified by the myriad of Texas psych bands such as Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators and Houston’s Moving Sidewalks.

The Blues Magoos

New York also had their fair share of such bands, such as the outstanding Blues Magoos. However, for the most part, they too occupied a small niche. Most likely since NYC was regarded by many in the music business as the penultimate soul/pop music town. Nevertheless, the faithful continued to plug away like lysergic sirens hoping to draw more converts into the fold.

Come the 80s you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone in NYC dedicated to this genre. Then you had South Central PA native, Dino Sorbello who singlehandedly gave the long-dormant psychedelic genre a kick in the pants.

As a youth, Dino liked the Doors and older Kinks stuff as well as “some band called The Beatles…” The summer of ’76 proved to be pivotal as his Harrisburg pal Billy Synth (and compiler of the famous Psychedelic Unknown compilations) turned him onto 60s garage and psych. Coinciding with the burgeoning punk movement downtown, Dino eventually found himself driving into Manhattan with pals to catch bands.

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 made Dino move permanently to NYC. Seeking to establish himself in the music he loved so much, the choice was easy. “I grew up with this stuff, it’s the time/era I came here to live in.”

The Mad Violets. Courtesy Dino Sorbello.

Together with the late Wendy Wild, Dino started a band called the Mad Violets in 1982. The band was one of the few that proudly displayed its psychedelic influences for all to see. They were, as Dino puts it, “scratchy, frenetic, but truly a psychedelic, pop, garage, going-for-it rock and roll band.” One of the standout tracks on the outstanding second volume of Voxx’s Battle of the Garages compilation, Psylocibe, presents all of the bands’ strengths in a compact four minutes. Although becoming a favorite in the early days of the Dive, the band broke up at the end of 1984.

The original ’85 lineup of the Blacklight Chameleons. Left to right: Bill Ebauer, Andrea Kusten, Noreen Lewis and Dino Sorbello. Photo by Greg Pokorski, courtesy Dino Sorbello.
Inner Mission LP.

Dino’s next project was The Blacklight Chameleons, which came to fruition in 1985. As Dino adds, “Our original 4-piece did the first Voxx EP. We often played the Dive as well as other venues. Somehow, we dumb-lucked ourselves into an issue of Vanity Fair with Mary Ellen Mark herself taking an amazing photo. We used the magazine as our demo and got gigs all over the place! The usual lineup changes happened, but eventually, we landed
Sharon Middendorf as our singer. We ended up playing in California a lot and Florida too. That lineup recorded the second album Inner Mission. Then, aliens kidnapped everyone and left me here to start a new group, Laughing Sky, because, you know, they were laughing when they flew away with my second band in a row.”

The 1987 version of The Blacklight Chameleons. Left to right: Sharon Middendorf, Bill Ebauer, Marilyne Doherty, Peter Lewis, and Dino Sorbello. Photo by David Hamilton, courtesy Dino Sorbello.

The Chameleons did make a stronger mark than The Violets by putting a more public face to the 60s scene. Not only did they perform frequently at Ivy Vale and Anne Doenas’ psychedelic light-show party, the Mind’s Eye, but the attention also got them on the cover of High Times magazine.

High Times cover and inset article clipping of the Blacklight Chameleons’ Sharon Middendorf. Photo by famous lensman Andre Grossman. Courtesy Dino Sorbello.

In an interesting footnote, Dino also played in the reunited version of the NYC 60s psychedelic band, The Third Bardo. Best known for their iconic song “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time“, which wound up on the critically acclaimed compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. When I asked Dino about this he said, “I did play with The Third Bardo! They were legends to us in the 80s … like could they really exist in real life? But I met them at a Stony Brook show and joined them as thereminist when they heard I played one. I played with them on a local radio show on NYU and about half a dozen shows in the NYC area with them before they again returned to a scattered state. I was hoping to get them to record a new album, but that alas that didn’t happen.”

The bands Laughing Sky and Tripwave followed through to the 90s. Dino’s recent projects continued to mine the psychedelic plane by combining keyboards, guitar and theremin. Together with partner Jynx Lynx, the two-piece combine covers (such as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”) with originals and entirely remake them into trippy, atmospheric sound tapestries that combine Jynx’s ethereal vocals and keyboards with Dino’s overdriven sounds on guitar and theremin. It’s a unique mix, but it works.

Jynx Lynx and Dino onstage. Photo by Eileen, courtesy Dino Sorbello.

“I started playing music with Jynx after her band Bombshell broke up, she was playing solo shows and would have various guests playing, including me.” When asked what his goal was, Dino responded, “There’s no ‘goal’ other than to really be able to play the theremin as an instrument with a voice, instead of just sound effects. Jynx writes some pretty great songs, and I get a few of mine in there as well. We have plenty of room to be psychedelic and groove with the electric 12-string too. Seems like lately, with our new second CD out, Real Surreal, we’re getting pretty busy.”

As if Dino’s musical talents weren’t enough, he was also one of the few people at the time who embraced video in its earliest years and took it on himself to create a long-running Manhattan cable access show.

Tripwave! has been running on Manhattan cable since 2001 and, according to Dino, has been on the air in LA and Seattle/Canada too. He added, “Anyone in the world can watch it by going to mnn.org on Thursday nights at 11 p.m., EST, and selecting CH. 4. There’s a lot of one-of-a-kind videos I shot myself, psychedelic music past, present, and future, with nature footage.”

With the recent passing of psychedelic icon Roky Erickson, Dino plans on airing some performance videos he shot of his friend. The shows occurred in Pittsburg soon after Roky’s brother Sumner took over conservatorship and began nursing him back to health. A process most famously documented in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. As Dino noted, “I got to take him to Eat’n’Park for breakfast and even ran a big catfish grill for him on the roof deck one evening. I told him all about the NYC scene.”

It seems somehow fitting to end it here. With the image of the master of 60s Texas psych happily chatting with the disciple of 80s NYC psych, over a plate of eggs. Who says that there is no order in the universe? To keep abreast of all things Dino, visit his website tripwave.com.

NYC Memories: Sumner Erickson, Roky Erickson and Dino Sorbello with Jynx at the Empire State Building, June 25, 2007. Photo courtesy and © Dino Sorbello.

Presenting…Los Saicos

Left to right: Rolando “El Chino” Carpio, César “Papi” Castrillón, Erwin Flores and Francisco “Pancho” Guevara.

A 60s Peruvian garage band, on an NYC-themed blog? Yes, it does sound a bit odd, but allow me to explain. While the goal of this blog was to dig a bit further into the garage punk scene in NYC during a certain period of time. In a lot of ways, the posts are intrinsically linked to my own unique NYC experiences. And foremost among those is the odd combination of identifying as a native-born NYer, with 100% Peruvian parents. Each side seeming to contradict each other. Even more so when it came to music.

While the garage scene was a godsend for a kid looking to belong somewhere, it was also interesting to be in a situation where there were no other Hispanics…in NYC!! A situation mirrored by my good buddy Larry, who happened to be the only African-American at the time. While the scene was extremely welcoming, we could not help but be quietly wonder why we didn’t see others like us in that setting. It was only natural that the discovery of bands like Death and Los Saicos were really important cultural markers for us in those pre-internet days.

As I mentioned in a post two years ago, one of the highlights of a visit to my mom’s family home in Lima was a visit to the place Los Saicos used to hang out. Now marked by a small plaque. Which makes the following announcement all the more surreal, but just as meaningful.

On April 27, 2019, Bushwick’s Market Hotel, in conjunction with Rockass Online, and this website, will present César “Papi Saico” Castrillón performing with Los Sadicos. Tickets are on sale now and readers of this blog are encouraged to take advantage of the pre-sale, which ends this Friday, February 8th. Presale link HERE

Rosemarys and The What IV

The What IV at Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern, Brooklyn. New Years Eve 2004. Left to right: Jon Chalmers (Ex-Talismen), Greg Ginter, Chris Raymond, Pete Ciccone and Karl Meyers. At this gig, Jon was filling in for Mike Hoffman who was temporarily absent due to the birth of his son.

During the 90s while Manhattan was undergoing massive changes, many musicians and artists took refuge in the low-rent, decidedly sketchy areas by the Williamsburg Bridge. As expected, within a few years the area became a small breeding ground for various types of  cool music, Garage Punk being one of them.

Central among the watering holes favored by cash-strapped punks was Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern. An old-school joint where owner Rosemary Bleday held court and served locals for decades. Decked out with a supremely coiffed beehive, Rosemary was the stereotypical NYC tough lady with a heart of gold. A quality that endeared her to many. Most especially to the young musicians who had begun to call this area home.

Among those admirers were pop punks the Vacant Lot. Formed after the demise of legendary NYC garage rockers The Rat Bastards, the Lot took on a more melodic pop direction while the remaining ex-Bastards became the Devil Dogs. Delving deeper into the harder, in-your-face, garage sound.

This brings us to the What IV. An alias of the the Vacant Lot, the What IV was the defacto house band at Rosemary’s for several years. Existing between 1997 and 2005, the band consisted of Lot members Pete Ciccone, Mike Hoffman, Chris Raymond, and Greg Ginter. Rounding out the lineup was local pal, Karl Meyers (Main Drag Studios owner) on keys/sax.

As Pete relates “Rosemary asked us for years to play there, but the Vacant Lot was way too loud, so we created this band, which was all garage / beat / frat / eurobeat to play at a more barroom sound level. We played every holiday there for years, (Halloween, New Years, Valentines Day, etc.) along with a couple of other local bars and a few NYC dives like Siberia – avoiding clubs. We would do 5 or 6 sets and the start over once we ran out of songs or beer!” The project soldered on until all the members eventually moved out of Brooklyn.

These days Rosemary’s still stands. And from what I understand, still serves beer in styrofoam cups (for now). A perk many of the privileged folk who now live in that area probably find very “authentic”.

Musical Interlude – The Optic Nerve @ Neither/Nor 1986

While digitizing some old cassettes, I ran across this gem of a performance from NYC’s own Optic Nerve. Centering on more folk-rock stylings, the Nerve were unique among the plethora of harder sounding NYC bands. Bobby Belfiore, Tony Matura and Orin Portnoy formed the core of the band throughout its existence, supplemented on drums mainly by Ken Anderson, Greg Clark and Frank Max. This performance is taken from a show at Neither/Nor bookstore on 703 East 6th St.

Located in what was once the wastelands between Ave C and D, Neither/Nor was a launching point for much of the literary talent in lower Manhattan during the mid-80s. The bookstore occupied the ground floor of an old, dilapidated loft building, which amazingly survives to this day. No small feat considering that directly opposite the building in the 80s one would have found just open lots strewn with rubble.  Neither/Nor not only served as a artistic oasis for the community, it also nurtured future talents such as Joel Rose and Nuyorican poet and playwright Miguel Piñero.

The Optic Nerve went on to have one of their songs immortalized on the Children of Nuggets box set alongside the likes of The Cramps, Lyres, The Hoodoo Gurus and other equally important contemporaries. At Neither/Nor though, they were just another local garage group scraping by and playing their hearts out to a small, but passionate, fanbase.