Night of the Phantom: The Fuzztones at The Dive

This past month has proved very surprising in the world of 60s bands. The Beatles released a track that eerily blended the living and dead fabs in a way that was both impressive and slightly disturbing. And then, just as surprising, their scruffier contemporaries also released an album’s worth of new material featuring their own departed band member. Showing that even in the afterlife, Charlie was sure as hell determined not to be not to be outdone by John and George.

While we here in NYC thankfully did not have any AI-enhanced posthumous releases, we did get something from a long-forgotten lineup of a classic NYC garage band, The Fuzztones. The story of The Fuzztones is a long one, what many often speak about are the band’s formative years in New York. Recorded in decidedly lo-fi fashion, the recording nonetheless shows the band firing on all cylinders and powerfully blasting through several (now) well-known songs to an appreciative audience of probably less than 100 people. All crammed into what was the garage punk equivalent of the Cavern Club in Midtown Manhattan, The Dive. And while the tiny club closed its doors in 1986, it’s still spoken about on the same level as its more famous brethren The Mudd Club and Club 57.

Eager to find out more about the era the recording was made in I reached out to Rudi Protrudi and Elan Portnoy, former singer and guitarist of the NYC Fuzztones lineup:

ShakeSomeAction: The recording is pretty amazing in that it documents a part of the Fuzztones legacy that sometimes gets short shrift. The NY years. Who recorded it?

Rudi Protrudi: Good question. I found it on the net – someone had posted it. I downloaded it, thought it sounded pretty good, and saw that the set we played that night contained three songs that we had never played before or since.

Elan Portnoy: I’m not sure. I do remember my brother Orin recorded some shows back in the day — could be him. It would have had to be an “air” recording since there was no board to do a “board” recording from!

SSA: Why release the recording now?

RP: Mainly because of those covers. “Numbers” by Terry knight & The Pack, “Run Better Run” by the Cheepskates, and “Help You Ann” by the Lyres. We also did “She Told Me lies” by the Chesterfield Kings that night, which we did do one or two times before or after that. On top of that, we played “Me Tarzan You Jane,” “It Came In TheMail” and “One Girl Man,” which most Fuzztones fanes never heard us do until the L.A. line-up recorded them, so I thought I should release the tracks as an album. I took it into a studio and beefed it up. I don’t remember if it was stereo or mono, but if it was mono I made it stereo – something you can do now with modern technology! In fact Radiation Records out of Italy will be re-releasing Leave Your Mind At Home soon, and I remastered that too, as well as making it stereo!

SSA: The Fuzztones’ love for covers was always evident. This recording contains some that were rarely if ever heard afterward. How did you guys pick them?

EP: The older stuff was found mostly in our record collections or on recommendation from Bruce and Scott of Venus Records who turned me on to lots of great garage punk comps. Also, we thought it’d be fun to do covers of contemporary bands, (i.e., Cramps, Lyres, Cheepskates, etc.) with whom we were often on the same bill. Kind of a nod to our buddies.

SSA: Do other live recordings from this time exist? I remember Midnight released Leave Your Mind at Home and the Screamin’ Jay excerpt from a NY show.

RP: I have so many live tapes from that time it’d make your head spin. I have live tapes and videos from every line-up of The Fuzztones from 1982 up to now. I also have quite a few videos of other bands from the so-called Garage Revival as well – many of which I took myself. Some of the 60s bands that got back together too: The Chocolate Watchband, the Monks, Electric Prunes, Pretty Things, ? and the Mysterians, Standells, Wailers, Trashmen. Screamin’ Jay as well….

EP: I have excellent quality recordings from FuzzFest ’84, which will be released fairly soon on either Misty Lane Records or Teen Sound Records in Italy, along with Tryfles, Mosquitos, Cheepskates, Vipers, and Outta Place. All killer, no Phyllis Diller.

SSA: When was the first time the Fuzztones played the Dive and how did that come about?

EP: In the summer of 1983, Dave from the Cheepskates told us about a cool little club on W29th St. So, we jumped at the chance to join them on an upcoming night. The vibe at The Dive was amazingly electric and the audience went wild. We returned to our favorite spot many times and always had a blast.

RP: My recollection is much more fuzzy. Michael Jay says it was his wife who tipped us off as she was a waitress there for a short while. But, to be honest, I don’t really remember.

SSA: The band was always a tight unit, how often and where did you practice?

Inside the Music Building.

EP: There used to be an old commercial building on 584 8th Ave., at about 39th or 40th St., referred to as The Music Building. The management rented rooms to many of the groups in NYC. We had a room on the 8th floor, formerly occupied by Madonna. When we moved in, we found the walls were still decorated with her silky, faded, multi-colored material. No air-conditioning and sketchy heat in winter, plus the bathrooms always smelled like a combination of dead fish and vintage kitty litter. Yet, it was affordable as long as we shared the space with The Outta Place and The Mad Violets. We practiced three times a week which got us tight pretty quick. A cool thing about the building was its proximity to The Dive; we would walk over after rehearsing on many nights. Sometimes, a bunch of us would split from The Dive and have casual jams at three or four in the morning back at the rehearsal room. Lots of records were recorded in that room such as Bad News/Brand New Man, The Bohemian Bedrocks LP, The Twisted 45, the Outta Place’s first EP and lots of demos.

Complimentary pass for The Fuzztones at The Peppermint Lounge Dec 1, 1984.
Complimentary pass for The Fuzztones at The Peppermint Lounge Dec 1, 1984.

SSA: As a sound person, playing at the Dive certainly must have had its challenges. I mean, it wasn’t decked out like, say, The Peppermint Lounge or Irving Plaza, sound-wise. What’s your recollection of that?

EP: Since it was such a small place, the sound system didn’t need to be too large to get the job done. A couple of vocal mics were pretty much the extent of it. I don’t think there was anything in the way of onstage monitors, at least not at first, but it didn’t matter. With crowds of people jammed into a little place like that mixed with cheap drinks at the bar (the drinking age was 18 but lots of younger kids were regulars), it was always a super-swinging party. Nothing like it since, really.

SSA: Oh and I’m sure people would love to hear what the “dressing room” was like. Not nearly as famously shabby as CB’s. But, even they had more room!

EP: The Dive’s “dressing room” was the abandoned kitchen behind the stage. And yes, it was pretty cozy back there. Sometimes, the place was so crowded, it was nearly impossible to get between the kitchen and the stage!

Bruce Planty at The Southern Funk.

SSA: Recently record collector Bruce Planty passed away. Bruce used to DJ at The Dive occasionally and was one of the first people who introduced many to these amazing records. His taste was exceptional. Do you have memories of Bruce at The Dive?

EP: Absolutely! Bruce was a great Dive DJ, that’s why we hired him to DJ at FuzzFest ’84. He worked at Venus Records downtown and always had something great to turn me on to. From the compilations he recommended, I found lots of potential covers for The Fuzztones to do. He was an important part of the whole thing, at least for me. RIP Bruce.

RP: Bruce had a cool record shop that we often frequented and turned us on to a few good tunes. We were already together and doing what we did before Venus Records was even in existence though. He DID offer to release our first single, “Bad News Travels Fast,” and we DID give it to him, but he sat on it for months. Meanwhile all the other NYC Garage bands started releasing records, so after about 6 months we gave up on Bruce and let Midnight Records release it. It was the best move at the time.

SSA: To close this out, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask. On the “Brand New Man, Brand New Car” single, I always got a kick out of the screaming and yelling on that cut. It sure made you feel like it was some big party you were missing out on. Who was the peanut gallery?

Bad News Travels Fast/Brand New Man, Brand New Car MIdnight records single.
Bad News Travels Fast/Brand New Man, Brand New Car. Midnight Records 45.

EP: I had the privilege of producing that record and remember it well. We had a party in our rehearsal room at The Music Building with the intention of recording backing tracks for the Midnight Records 45 after everyone got completely trashed. I used a reel-to-reel tape deck borrowed from work and a couple of mics hanging from the ceiling. In attendance, I recall Gena Brower, whose plentiful, piercing screams can be heard on the record, Shari Mirojnick, brother Orin, Michael Chandler, Wendy Wild, Dino Sorbello, Jill Brown, Alicia Giambrone, Rene Laigo and probably more. It didn’t take much to fill that room. I added bottle-smashing sound effects and mixed the tracks with the needles pinned on the tape deck. I was shooting for a wild party/explosion sort of thing. One of my all-time favorites.

SSA: That was a Michael Chandler song. Did The NYC Fuzztones hang out with him often? He was a pretty great person. I’m sure you have a funny story about him.

EP: I have lots of funny stories about Chandler! He was a brilliant and kindhearted character with The Midas Touch when it came to writing lyrics. He had a great sense of humor and was always very friendly. The Outta Place and Fuzztones members were very close and frequently hung out together. My girl Shari and brother Orin were in The Outta Place and Deb was going out with Chandler at the time, so we all ended up in the same place on most occasions.

The Twisted 45 Cover
The Twisted 45 Cover

In 1984, my brother Orin and I were asked to make a 45 for Midnight Records as The Twisted. The A-side was Sheez Wycked and the B-side was The Thing, composed by Orin, myself, and Chandler one magic night in my parent’s living room. We had drums (played with chopsticks) guitars and a small organ. It was getting late and with a few cocktails in us, we couldn’t stand up. While the three of us lay on the floor, completely crocked, Chandler came up with the cool guitar riff while poking the little organ. I managed to roll over toward the tape machine and pushed record while Chandler kept repeating the riff. The next thing I remember, we regained consciousness with the sun shining brightly through the living room window, It felt as if someone had clocked me on the back of the head with an anvil. Ah, the good old days…

Thanks, Rudi and Elan for your thoughts concerning not just the release, but the atmosphere surrounding the recordings all those years ago. If you want to pick up “The Fuzztones at The Dive ’85” please head to Bandcamp

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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

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.

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!