Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Standells: Banned In The USA!

The Standells - promo pic
Originally published in American Music Press (1990s)



By Devorah Ostrov

It's hard to imagine in these days of "Cop Killer," "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," and Madonna that four nice young men simply suggesting that their fans "Try It" could cause such a hullabaloo.

The time and place was mid-sixties USA, and the group was the Standells, who were following up their smash teen-angst hits "Dirty Water" and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" with the psychedelically-infused and quickly banned exhortation. Writing from the distance of 1972, rock historian and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, in the liner notes to Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, declared the banning of "Try It" an honor. In reality, it spelled the end of the Standells' career.

"This guy, (radio mogul) Gordon McLendon, thought he was going to clean up the rock 'n' roll scene," fumes drummer/vocalist Dick Dodd - who along with keyboardist/vocalist Larry Tamblyn, and guitarist Tony Valentino had turned out in LA for a rare screening of Riot On Sunset Strip, which features rockin' performances by both the Standells and the Chocolate Watchband. "He was just a lot of hot air, but he was a very powerful man. He owned a bunch of radio stations across the country, and he said, 'I'm gonna tell kids what to buy and what to listen to.'"

"He went on the news," adds Tamblyn, "showed a picture of our record, and said, 'Don't buy this. It's a filthy record.' He made a national campaign out of us."

Shockingly innocent, the song never actually spells out what the band is urging you to try, although popular opinion held it was a blatant request for a girl to surrender her virginity.

Dodd recalls: "At the time, we just said, 'Well... er... uh... just try having a good time.' That's baloney! 'Try It' meant 'TRY IT!' But this guy (McLendon) took us on a TV show (Art Linkletter's House Party) and tried to rip us apart!"

But, like the P.M.R.C. vs. Twisted Sister/Frank Zappa debates over record labelling some twenty years later, the moralistic moron underestimated the intelligence of the supposedly long-haired hooligans he opposed, and the nationally televised debate was a decided victory for rock 'n' roll.

Banned! - The Standells' Try It LP
"We creamed the guy," exclaims Tamblyn. "Even my brother, who's an arch conservative, said we made the guy look like an idiot!" (The brother he's referring to is Warren; his other brother is actor, Russ West Side Story Tamblyn.)

"He said how bad we were, how bad we were for the country," states Dodd. "We asked him about that song from the '30s, the lyrics go: 'Bees do it/Birds do it... Let's do it.' Well, what's 'do it'? It's the same as 'try it'! Plus, Larry had found out some things about McLendon..."

"We'd gone to Dallas (McLendon's home town) to do some shows," says Tamblyn. "I found out that the man was a pervert! He'd been booked for statutory rape of his 13-year-old niece! So, we planted people in the [television] audience, and every time it looked like he was making some headway somebody would yell out, 'What about your niece, McLendon?' He'd get red and look out into the audience to see who was saying it."

Dodd adds, "There were so many kids there with posters saying STANDELLS! and WE'VE TRIED IT! that it was pretty one-sided. But it was either going to be that way or everyone would've been on his side. I don't think it would've evened out so we could have had an adult discussion about the song."

The band wasn't always so controversial. Check out the liner notes to The Hot Ones! - a collection of Top Ten hits including the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville," the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," and Sam the Sham's "Lil' Red Riding Hood" covered by the Standells - which makes them sound about as wild as the Archies: "The Standells really like doing what they do. Sure, part of it's being famous and making money and who doesn't like that? But these four guys honestly dig their music, their performances, their recordings - yes, their fans too. They enjoy being a group."

Tamblyn and Valentino ("and two other guys") formed the nucleus of the Standells in 1962. The group's first job was in Hawaii as part of a Japanese floor show at the Oasis Club - they went on right after the stripper! When the "two other guys" (bassist Jody Rice and drummer Benny King) left a few months later, Tamblyn assumed the leadership of the group (at one point the band's full title was Larry Tamblyn and the Standels - the extra l was added in 1963), and the guys came home to California.

The Standells - promo pic
Tamblyn picks up the story: "We were booked into some horrible club. Right from Hawaii we went to Fresno, and it was one of those clubs where we were playing to two or three people. We finally picked up (bassist) Gary Lane (later replaced by Dave Burke) and (drummer) Gary Leeds (forming the band's first solid lineup), and played a number of clubs in Eureka and Sacramento. Eventually, we came back to LA, and there was an opening at the Peppermint West - it was the hot spot at the time!"

It was at the Peppermint West that the band hooked up with manager Bert Jacobs. Tamblyn recounts the negotiations that ensued: "He came in and said, 'Hey, I'd like to get you a contract and do a record.'"

Jacobs lived up to his word. Not only did he garner the group a recording contract with Capitol Records subsidiary Tower, he also arranged appearances for them in several teensploitation flicks (besides Riot On Sunset Strip, the Standells are also featured in Get Yourself A College Girl and Zebra In The Kitchen) as well as regular stints on American Bandstand, and its Paul Revere and the Raiders-hosted summertime cousin Where The Action Is. The band also guest stared as rowdy housesitters for The Munsters in the episode "Far Out Munster." And no one lets Dodd forget about that...

"Every time somebody sees it they say, 'Hey, Dodd, I saw you on TV last night. God, didn't you guys know how to sing back then?' We went in to record the songs for the show ("Do the Ringo" and a cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand"), and this old guy came out and put the mike in the middle of the room, right? He goes into this booth, and I'm looking at the rest of the guys going, 'I don't believe this.' No headsets, no dividers, no nothing! He says, 'Go through the song.' We thought we were putting down a basic track - putting the bass, guitar, and drums on one track. So, we went through it a couple of times, then he comes out and says, 'Alright, we're going to take one. Now sing real loud.' We didn't do the music and then sing to the tape - we had to sing REAL LOUD!"

Just how the Standells went from safe churners of Top Ten cover songs to snarling teen punks is still being debated, but it all centers around a fortuitous meeting with producer/songwriter Ed Cobb - himself a member of the ultra-clean Four Preps. The liner notes to a Rhino Records Best Of compilation lean towards giving Cobb the imaging credit: "Rather than a combined future in a Disneyland-like middle American heaven, Ed and the boys pulled a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and bounded back with a very seething, resentful, provoking approach that was very influenced by the Rolling Stones."

On the other hand, Dodd (a former Mousekeeter, who replaced Gary Leeds in 1964 when Leeds went on to join the Walker Brothers) recalls his own influence on the group: "When I met the band they all wore suits, and they were playing really danceable, kind of tra-la-la music, while I was really into rock 'n' roll." He also notes the group's subsequent influence on Cobb: "He was a real clean-cut kid. Then he met us and kind of changed!"

"Far Out Munster" - The Munsters meet the Standells
Whatever happened, it was Cobb who brought the Standells their first - and most mega - hit, "Dirty Water." Based on an actual incident ("Ed was in Boston," says Dodd, "and he was walking by the Charles river with his girlfriend checking out how grungy the water was, and some guy tried to jump him."), Tower released the single towards the end of 1965. Supposedly, the label didn't have any great belief in the song, but it coveted a Ketty Lester record that Cobb had also produced. In July of the following year, "Dirty Water" surprised everyone when it climbed to #11 on the Billboard national chart.

"We kind of recorded it and then put it away," chuckles Valentino. "We were recording some songs with Sonny Bono at the time..."

"Yeah!" Tamblyn breaks in. "We recorded it along with 'Rari' and several others, and had forgotten about it."

"We recorded it in a studio above this garage," reminisces Dodd. "It wasn't even air-conditioned or anything, and it was so hot in LA. The room was a sweatbox! So, we did "Dirty Water," and we all kind of looked at each other and went, 'Eh.' Then Ed called me up and said, 'Let's work on this vocal some more,' because he really didn't have the whole song finished. I came up with most of the last verse and [the intro]":

"I'm gonna tell you a story
I'm gonna tell you about my town
I'm gonna tell you a big fat story, baby
Yeah, it's about my town..."

With the amazing success of "Dirty Water," the Standells were in a position to tour the States - that they did so as openers for the Rolling Stones makes the shows legendary. Just how did that tour come about?

According to Dodd, he pleaded with Bill Wyman to take the Standells on the road with the Stones. "I was always saying, 'C'mon, take us on tour, man. You guys are really big stuff!' And this was just at the time that they were really hitting. The English thing was just humungous! So, Bill's saying, 'Well, if you guys had a hit record...' Then for some reason we were in Seattle and our manager called us up saying, 'You guys will not believe what happened. You're #1 in Miami!' From being #1 in Miami - that's where the song broke - it just spread. The next thing I knew, we were on tour with the Rolling Stones! And in every city we played, 'Dirty Water' was at #1!"

It must have been quite a culture shock to go out on a tour of that magnitude, not just because of the Stones, but because of the hysteria surrounding them.

Advertisement for the Standells
at the Cheetah in Venice, CA.
"Yeah, that part was really weird!" agrees Tamblyn. "Our first show - I remember it vividly - was in Boston. We were bigger than the Stones in Boston 'cause of 'Dirty Water.' (To this day, because of the famous chorus which ends with the line: "I love that dirty water/Boston, you're my home," it's hard to convince people that the Standells were LA-based.) And there was a big riot! They were throwing tear gas at kids when we drove through town. It was like a war zone!"

"We'd get off the plane and there'd be 50,000 kids waiting to see the Stones," recalls Dodd, "and we'd have our limo, and the McCoys (fronted by a barely teenaged Rick Derringer, who were topping the pop charts with "Hang On Sloopy") would jump into their limo... This is a funny story: We were doing a soundcheck somewhere in the Midwest. The Stones hardly ever came to soundchecks, and usually we really couldn't get a soundcheck. So us and the McCoys were just jamming, y'know. It was an empty auditorium. I wasn't playing drums; I was up front doing this whole Mick Jagger thing - just going crazy! I had a pair of sweat socks stuffed down the front of my pants, and I was prancing and dancing around. Everybody was cracking up! Then all of a sudden, we heard some people clapping toward where the lightboard was, and there were Mick and Keith just cracking up! He says, 'Very good. Very, very good!' I was so embarrassed. I was just going, 'Oh, no.' But he thought it was funny. Nothing ever came down that he thought we were making fun of him."

The two follow-up singles - "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" and "Why Pick on Me" (both written by Cobb) - didn't race up the charts quite as quickly (reaching #43 and #54 respectively), but both maintained the gritty rhythm and blues sound of "Dirty Water," and the growled lyrics cemented the Standells' tough stance...

"Good guys, bad guys which is which
The white-collar worker or the digger in the ditch
Hey, and who's to say who's the better man
When I've always done the best I can..."

Another Cobb-penned tune (again written from personal experience), "Have You Ever Spent the Night in Jail," from the Why Pick On Me album - recorded a year before the infamous Rolling Stones' drug busts - was evidence, according to one reporter, that the Standells were "the equivalence of a menacing, musical street gang."

With the 1967 Try It album - the group's last full-length release - the Standells began flirting with the new psychedelic sound, culminating with two of their most innovative songs: the title track single (which Valentino points out was #1 at every radio station playing it before the ban) and the hypnotic "All Fall Down," written by Dodd (although the original LP gives Dodd sole credit, subsequent reissues and best of compilations give co-writing credit to John Fleck). The drummer remembers the producer's initial resistance to including its anti-war sentiments on the album, saying: "I really fought for that one. It makes me feel good that you like it."

"I was hanging out at the Whisky," Dodd explains of the band's changing direction, "and all these bands were playing there - Love, the Byrds... that whole drug scene. In those days, everybody was getting high." He self-consciously tacks on, "I, myself, just drank milk!" Then he reveals how he came to write the song: "I got mad one night because of what was happening in Vietnam. I was watching the news, seeing all these guys running through the fields, getting shot, dropping like flies. Then the announcer said, 'We're in the race again...' And this nursery rhyme was going through my head - Ring around the rosy/Pocket full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down."

The Standells never recouped the losses from the banning of the "Try It" 45, which is estimated to have cost at least one million dollars in lost radio play and sales. "Our management could have really turned the ban into a gold mine," says Tamblyn, "but they didn't do it. They were scared, they didn't want to do anything to rock the boat."

Dirty Water album cover pic
The group's problems were further compounded by the release of several risky singles, which led to the end of the band's career.

The first 45 to flop was the non-album track "Don't Tell Me What to Do" b/w "When I Was a Cowboy" (the B-side is categorized as a "psychedelic/western"). Released prior to "Try It" and recorded under the pseudonymous moniker Sllednats (Standells spelled backwards), the band weren't really surprized by its lack of sales: "Nobody knew who it was," notes Tamblyn.

The group's final two singles were "Can't Help but Love You," an unconvincing stab at Stax-inspired soul, which only reached #78 in the charts, and "Animal Girl," an out-of-character, standard love song which failed to chart at all.

But nothing beats the sounds on those mid-sixties Standells' records - as dozens of current bands imitating the style and stance of "Dirty Water" will attest to.

"The thing about it was, Ed wasn't really trying to capture great musicianship," offers Dodd, giving as much credit to producer/songwriter Cobb as to the band itself in explaining the music's lasting quality. "He was just trying to capture an emotion, and he did a pretty good job. There's a few mistakes here and there, but the feel was right. We weren't hot musicians, or anything. We just had something - a chemistry - that made us sound the way we did. We played well together."

By the way, what did the guys think of Riot On Sunset Strip some twenty-five years on?

Dodd: Well, when it first came out, people weren't laughing that much! The language... The way the kids were saying things like, "C'mon bird, let's fly out of this joint!"

Tamblyn: And nobody ever really said, "Let's cut out!" Or when that reporter was talking to the other one, saying, "These kids are on grass and acid!"

And what about their own performance scene?

Tamblyn: I thought we looked pretty good, actually! I compared it with some of the other groups [in the film], and I thought we could be doing the same thing today and pass pretty well.

This article was revised on April 17, 2017 based on information gratefully received from @Standells on Twitter.

Monday, 23 January 2017

John Mendelssohn: An Unpublished Interview

Christopher Milk
(L-R) The Kiddo, Surly Ralph, John Mendelssohn, G. Whiz
In 1995 Rhino Records published I, Caramba, the autobiography of legendary rock critic, musician, and graphic artist John Mendelssohn. The book came nicely packaged with a CD compilation featuring solo demo material and several tracks from two of his bands - the Pits and Christopher Milk. Shortly after the book/CD was released, my friend Loren Dobson and I visited Mendelssohn at his Sunset District home to talk about his life and times. Well-known for his vitriolic wit and penchant for over-the-top self-promotion, Mendelssohn was extremely gracious and surprisingly soft-spoken; he gave us an afternoon of his time as well as a personal copy of the extraordinarily hard to find Christopher Milk LP Some People Will Drink Anything.

But the interview was never published, or indeed written. Which was my fault. I knew it was going to be a big job - never mind transcribing the two hours of taped conversation, there were also dozens of passages I wanted to include from the book and stacks of old magazines to comb through for research. It would have to be split into two, maybe even three parts to fit into the 'zine we did. But mostly, I was worried that Mendelssohn wouldn't like the finished product, that he would find fault with my grammatically incorrect sentence structures and misplaced punctuation marks. So, having worked myself into a tizzy of self-doubt, I completely chickened out. And the interview tapes have sat in a drawer for the past 21 years.

Until now! A few weeks ago, Loren posted a question about Christopher Milk on his Facebook page, which in turn put me in touch with photographer (and Mrs. Twister) Heather Harris. Heather nudged me to "do it," and this time dammit! I couldn't think of a good reason not to.

Interview by Devorah Ostrov & Loren Dobson
Story by Devorah Ostrov

"Long victimized by their own awesome physical beauty - which often so dazzles an audience that it doesn't even notice the group's music - Christopher Milk here demonstrate that they are indeed the most brilliant rock band in the history of the universe."

So began the liner notes included with the first (and only) Christopher Milk LP, Some People Will Drink Anything. Although credited to one Bhaskar Menon, this excessively boastful introduction could only have been written by the group's lyricist and frontman, John Mendelssohn, whose sharp wit has managed to both antagonize fellow musicians and entertain rock magazine readers for several decades.

As he's an experienced journalist, Mendelssohn took the reins of this interview by asking me if I was surprised by anything I'd read in his book. And so, we began by talking about the picture he paints of a somewhat grim and neurotic childhood.

Mendelssohn was born in Washington, D.C. "in the same year as David Bowie and Iggy Pop," per his autobiography. Which would be 1947. When he was just a few months old, the family relocated to Southern California.

Mendelssohn writes about his mother being "excruciatingly shy and insecure," adding, "She was terrified of nearly everything, and I was very much her son."

When I ask about his earliest memory, he recounts a tale from his book: "My mother encouraging me to hide under the bed while she took a shower. Now there's a view of the world that makes for a lot of confidence! 'Hide under the bed because somebody is going to try to kidnap you while I'm taking a shower!'"

At the same time, he talks about how his mother dominated the family, especially his father. "My mother sort of ruled the family," says Mendelssohn, "and she was desperately unhappy. She loathed my dad. My dad was really passive and never ever stuck up for himself. Except when it would go a little bit over the line and he would explode. My mom is a really joyless sort of person. It got beaten into her at an early age to experience the world as a joyless, frightening, oppressive place. And that's what I learnt. I struggle with that to this day."

It sounds like you had a painful childhood, I offer.

"It was a terrible environment," replies Mendelssohn. "I was a very unhappy person. This is something I realized only in my 40s... I always felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Which is a horrible way to grow up. Thinking that there's something internally, fundamentally wrong. But the thing was, I never saw anybody being strong. I never saw anybody sticking up for himself. My mom bullied my dad mercilessly. So, I had no idea what strength looked like. I had no idea what self-defence looked like. When I was six or seven, living in the San Fernando Valley, I got into fights almost daily. There was a period where I would fight back, and I would win sometimes. But it just seemed wrong to me that I should fight back. In a perverse way, it seemed like the natural thing was to back down. And as I got older that became the pattern. And I hated myself for it. I always hated myself for not being a fighter, and for allowing people to pick on me."

Did your parents encourage your writing, musicianship, art work?

"They were proud of me. They were always very proud of me when my work was published. As far as being an artist... They always had a real pragmatic approach to the whole thing. I greatly regret that I didn't do something in school that I would have enjoyed. While I was getting a degree in sociology, the Mael brothers (Ron and Russell, who would later form Sparks) went to UCLA film school. What I'd always been told was 'you've got to do something more substantial.'"

I mention that based of the confident swagger of his writing and flamboyant stage persona, I'd thought he would have been more outgoing and funny as a teenager.

"I was fairly funny, but not at all outgoing. It was my one small claim to fame, I had a sharp tongue and a quick wit. My mom slashed my dad up every day of my life as a kid. I was exposed to some very high-grade sarcasm."

Apparently, even as a child Mendelssohn was a rock 'n' roll snob. Terming himself an "elitist," he writes that he "left Elvis to others and idolized the folkabilly sensation Jimmie Rogers, of 'Honeycomb' fame." He laughs, "I was just joking about that. I liked Elvis. But there was something about Jimmy Rogers' voice that really got me."

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

"'The Stripper' by David Rose. It inflamed my 15-year-old passions! I exchanged it for 'Ahab the Arab' by Ray Stevens because my passions were a little bit too inflamed."

Mendelssohn's autobiography
In the book, Mendelssohn also claims (unlike every single other teenager of his generation) to have been unimpressed by seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. "That's right," he tells us. "I didn't get it. I thought it was really corny."

But seeing A Hard Day's Night made him change his mind. "I couldn't have changed it more," he stresses. "I was smitten." In the book, he writes of the film: "Much as I adored every frame, I could hardly wait for it to end so I could assemble a group of my own with me as the American Ringo."

Mendelssohn's first group, he tells us, included "these guys who were in the Santa Monica High School jazz band," and according to the book he christened them the Fogmen "in honor of the great popularity at that time of many groups from London."

What sort of music did you play?

"Beatles stuff... a couple of originals... a couple of surf songs to fill the set out."

And you played drums?

"Yeah, really badly. I didn't have a clue. I mean, I actually thought that having played snare drum in the Orville Wright Junior High School orchestra... What else is there to know? When you play snare drums you're using your hands, not your feet. So, I bought my first drum kit... I didn't even bother to buy a high hat. I didn't do anything with my left foot. It was just sort of over there."

The Fogmen disintegrated when a couple of the guys ("who'd actually known how to play their instruments," notes John in the book) left to form the Inrhodes - "sort of the Beatles of greater Santa Monica." Mendelssohn enrolled at UCLA and aimlessly shuffled through a series of mindless jobs before forming his next band, a jazz/rock trio called the 1930 Four. "The idea was," Mendelssohn says, "if we called it that, we could wear 1930s era clothing."

Nice pun. But, I feel compelled to point out, there were only three of you.

"Yeah, the fourth guy quit. The organ player (of whom Mendelssohn writes, "hated me for my ineptitude") was a jazz guy. I was the last person in the world who would have been able to, or inclined to play jazz. But it was fun for a while."

On June 16, 1967, two days before they took the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, Mendelssohn travelled to San Francisco to see the Who at the Fillmore West. "I've never seen anything better," he writes. When I ask what the show was like, he can barely control his excitement: "It was like nirvana! The physical sensation of a microphone coming that close to my head...!"

A couple of months later and back in LA, Mendelssohn staked out the back of a local radio station where the Who were being interviewed. In his book, Mendelssohn recounts the tale of how he "managed somehow both to speak the great man's name and to hand him some... trippy lyrics I'd written." What was it like, I wonder, to finally meet his hero Pete Townsend? "That was..." he reflects, trails off, and after a long pause continues, "beyond thrilling! I could barely breathe."

Aside from that episode, Mendelssohn was miserable during the summer of love, writing that he spent it "in agony." He was kicked out of the 1930 Four and his girlfriend broke up with him. (According to the autobiography: "...I wrote my new girlfriend every day and called her every night. When she neglected to do the same, I made no attempt to conceal my disappointment. After about three weeks of this, she'd had enough, and informed me we were through.") He also writes that he "secretly loathed" the music coming out of San Francisco and name checks "the Jefferson Airplane and that whole bunch."

And don't get him started on hippie politics! "I fell for it in a way," he acknowledges. "The peace and love part was fun. People being friendly to one another, that was nice. It was the political stuff that put me off. In the days when students were marching around shutting down universities, it always seemed very clear to me that the people leading those marches were every bit the assholes that the people they were protesting against were. It was like that Who song: 'Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.' Except that the new boss has ringlets down to his shoulders, and a bandana, and a Che pin. But he's just as drunk on power and just as much a megalomaniac as the other guy."

He wasn't any happier the following year. The summer of 1968 he says, "was all this English blues. All this stuff I hated! John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac... Fleetwood Mac, Arthur Brown, and the Who were all on this bill together. And I swear Fleetwood Mac played the same song over and over and over again. The same tempo, the same key, the same solo. It was painful." Not even the Who could cheer him up. "It was a real disappointment to me when they started dressing badly on the '68 tour," he says.

But it was during these two years that he first met Ralph Oswald, formed the nucleus of a band around the moniker of Christopher Milk, and began his career as a rock critic. In the book, Mendelssohn mentions that he wrote "a little essay unfavourably comparing the Doors, whom I thought pretention made flesh, to the Crazy World of Arthur Brown," which was published in UCLA's Daily Bruin newspaper.

Was this your first attempt at rock criticism?

"No... I'd sort of written what could be construed as rock criticism in my high school newspaper. I wrote little bits and pieces. And then I wrote something in college, but I didn't get any encouragement. Then at the beginning of my senior year I wrote [the Doors piece], and the editor encouraged me. He opened the door. It was very inspiring to have somebody encourage me."

Do you remember what you wrote?

"I said the Doors were 'stupid and pretentious' and Arthur Brown was 'wonderful' - essentially."

In his book, Mendelssohn discloses how he developed his distinctive journalistic style and penchant for acerbic wit. He writes: "I hadn't much to say, and couldn't write to save my life... Just in the nick of time, I developed a style - or, more accurately, stole one, from the great English provocateur Nik Cohn..."

Considered to be one of the fathers of rock criticism, in the 1960s Cohn wrote a regular column for The Observer and authored Pop From The Beginning, at the time the definitive title on the subject. One recent reviewer of Cohn's book termed it "...an unruly, thrilling and definitive history of an era, from Bill Haley to Jimi Hendrix, full of guts, flash, energy and speed. In vividly describing the music and cutting through the hype, Nik Cohn engendered and perfected a new form: rock criticism." (Penguin Books)

"I'd gotten some notoriety before that," notes Mendelssohn, "but when I got hold of that book - I just plugged into that. It was a conscious desire to be as interesting as the music."

It seems like you were almost picking fights with your writing; provoking people with your words.

"Sober, responsible criticism is a real yawner for me. Unless it's really good, sober, responsible criticism. And I guess I didn't feel up to that task. So it's partially that, and probably to a much greater extent, my yearning for attention. I figured I could get people to pay attention to me that way."

And you did.

"And I did."

Although the autobiography doesn't mention how they met (when pressed, Mendelssohn says, "I don't know how we actually made plans to get together"), it was during the summer of '67 when he and Ralph Oswald first became "semi-friendly." Ralph had been a member of Dave & the Van-Tays. "They were the top surf band at University High School," says Mendelssohn. "They ruled University High School!"

"We saw the signs." 1970s Christopher Milk advertisement
Nicknamed "Surly" Ralph (apparently because he tried to hide his acute shyness with surliness), the guitarist was a "man to be reckoned with," says Mendelssohn. "He had a hookah. I'd see him at these parties with his hookah. Ralph had quite a reputation."

In the book, Mendelssohn simply writes that he and Ralph began playing with "different bass guitarists as Christopher Milk, a name I'd seen in San Francisco and been amused by..."

"We were called Christopher Milk from the summer of '68," he elaborates. "Ralph and I drove up here so I could torture myself by seeing this girlfriend who'd caused me all this heartache during 'the summer of love.' So I could see her again and be reminded that she didn't want any part of me. So we came up here for that, and we saw the signs - the Christopher Milk signs.

Signs?

"A former mayor of San Francisco was called George Christopher," Mendelssohn explains. "And he owned a dairy."

This first, tentative version of Christopher Milk was short-lived but one change in bass players, according to the family tree on the group's website (christophermilk.com) has Steven Bruce Ferguson giving way to noted LA Times rock critic Richard Cromelin (who, Mendelssohn confirms, "played one gig"). After playing a frat house party and an aerospace social, the group broke-up. Surly Ralph went off to study pharmacology at USC and, shrugs Mendelssohn, "I dunno... I just sort of lost the taste for it."

Nineteen sixty-nine, Mendelssohn's senior year at UCLA, was another crucial period. His career in rock journalism was flourishing: His byline appeared in Rolling Stone "beneath a disapproving review" of Led Zeppelin's first album, as well as his infamous appraisal of Led Zeppelin II; he interviewed Pete Townshend; he was hired by Warner/Reprise Records to spearhead the "God Save the Kinks" campaign, and was sent to New York by the record company "to convey their heartfelt felicitations" and hang out with Ray Davies. And for a brief time, he was the drummer for Halfnelson - the band fronted by Ron and Russell Mael - before they morphed into Sparks.

Firstly, how did you get involved with Rolling Stone?

"They had a little box that said, 'If you're interested in writing, send us something.' So, I copied my review that had been published in the UCLA Daily Bruin and sent it to them. And they published it, to my amazement."

His reviews of Led Zeppelin's debut album and Led Zeppelin II, both published in Rolling Stone in 1969, made him notorious.

Of the first album, he commented: "'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You'" alternates between prissy Robert Plant's howled vocals fronting an acoustic guitar and driving choruses of the band running down a four-chord progression while John Bonham smashes his cymbals on every beat. The song is very dull in places (especially on the vocal passages), very redundant, and certainly not worth the six-and-a-half minutes the Zeppelin gives it..."

He didn't like Led Zeppelin II either. Incorporating snarky (but funny) prose such as: "And who can deny that Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5'4" and 5'8" in the world?" and "...Robert Plant, who is rumoured to sing some notes on this record that only dogs can hear..." Mendelssohn observes in the book, "made me the talk of two continents and several islands."

"The amount of attention that review generated was ridiculous," he exclaims.

Of this period, Mendelssohn writes: "On the basis of perhaps a dozen snide record reviews, the populace of Los Angeles had come by this time to tremble with excitement at my approach. False-eyelashed flacks made themselves available to me sexually. I was taken to lunch. Led Zeppelin took time out from their show at the Anaheim Convention Center to promise to make my ears resemble cauliflower."

Did you really skip your college graduation to interview Pete Townshend?

"Yes. Not that it was a big deal. Believe me. Probably 14,000 people graduated that day. It's not like they were going to call anybody up and shake their hands. It was just this mass thing. I wasn't missing that much."

Were you nice to Townshend or were you sarcastic?

"With people I'm in awe of, I don't get sarcastic. You can see that photograph of us where I have that shit-eating, fawning look on my face! And that little wispy moustache, and those stupid glasses... oh, I was a sight!" (The photo is reprinted in the book with the caption: "Which the pop star and which the hopelessly dweebish former (just barely!) college student? It was nearly impossible to tell on the day I interviewed my idol Pete Townshend for the first time.")

When did you first see the Kinks?

"When they came to New York in October of '69. They were incredibly bad. They hadn't rehearsed. Ray would start a song and the others would just sort of stand there not knowing what to do. So, he'd have to stop and pick another one."

You mention that you changed your appearance due to Ray Davies' influence. You began buying more expensive clothing, you got a $10 haircut...

"I went to New York in this derelict leather jacket... I was always fashion conscious, and there was a brief period where it seemed fairly fashionable to wear leather jackets that looked as though you'd pulled them off a drunk in the gutter. So, I got one of those and I wore it to New York. Ray Davies was immaculately tailored; I felt like an idiot. So, I took steps when I got home."

Is that when Ray gave you his orange velour tie?

"It was a couple of weeks later in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful tie."


David Bowie picks Christopher Milk!
Do you still have it?

"No. I gave it to Harold (Bronson, co-founder of Rhino Records). But we're not really on speaking terms anymore."


You write that you met Russell Mael in Italian 101 at UCLA...

"I didn't actually meet him... We used to see one another at UCLA and sort of eye one another suspiciously because there were very few people at UCLA who looked as we did."

How did you come to join Halfnelson with the Mael brothers?

"I think they knew about me, and they knew I played the drums. Oh y'know... I had this friend, Dennis Castanares, who was the pied piper of UCLA. He would sit down under a tree with his guitar and play the entirety of Sgt. Pepper. He would get crowds of 200 people around him, singing along. He had this amazing charisma! So, he and I and the two Mael brothers met up at a kind of mutual audition. They called themselves the Beverly Hills Blues Band. Ron was playing lead guitar. That lasted as long as it took to rehearse."

Although he plays down his time in Halfnelson, telling us that he was only in the band "for a couple of unforgettable weeks when I was very young," according to Monte Mallin, who interviewed Mendelssohn for his blog page (montesnewblog.blogspot.com), his tenure was from July - September 1969, during which the group's never-released twelve-song demo LP was recorded with Mendelssohn on drums and Earle Mankey on guitar (and very possibly Surly Ralph on bass).

"I imagine it's really, really bad," says Mendelssohn about his recorded performance. "I was awful. I never bothered with things like rehearsing. And I didn't really have much of a knack for it."

In your autobiography, you write that the Mael brothers "wanted to be precious and adorable as they wrongly imagined the Kinks to be, while I, a Who fan, wanted to be intimidating..."

"I started pushing my ideas. They wanted to be really cute and I found that nauseating. They had these little things where the drummer who replaced me would jump up and run over and tinkle some little bells... and then he'd run back. It made me wanna gag!  I wanted to push things off stages and break them!"

But Mendelssohn wasn't bothered when he was "asked not to be in the group any more." By the end of the decade, Mendelssohn writes, he was making "plans for lunch with Spencer Davis" and "associating with a much higher calibre of person... As only befitted the king of L.A."

No less a personage than Iggy Pop set the wheels in motion for the rebirth of Christopher Milk. Mendelssohn had written a feature on Mr. Pop for the May 29, 1970 issue of Entertainment World - "the trade weekly for all the entertainment industry" as it was billed. Meanwhile Kurt Ingham, the photographer who snapped the magazine's cover pic of Iggy, was in the audience when the Stooges played the Whisky that same month. When he and Mendelssohn met a few weeks later, Ingham related how "Iggy had leapt off stage and crawled between tables gnawing on the audience's shoes." In his book, Mendelssohn writes, "The photographer intimated that if he were in a band, he'd be willing to do likewise."

That was all Mendelssohn needed to hear. "I thought, what could possibly be better than that?"

Ingham was rechristened Mr. Twister, Surly Ralph returned, and a bass player dubbed The Kiddo magically appeared. (The Kiddo's real name is Kirk Henry, but there's no back story for him in Mendelssohn's book. According to the Christopher Milk website, Henry had been a member of the Stack, "whose claims to near-fame included a signing with Columbia Records, a Pepsi-Cola commercial in the can, and a behind-the-scenes contribution to the soundtrack of Wild In The Streets." He and Mendelssohn crossed paths at parties and on the UCLA campus.)

That summer they "compromised the purity of our musical vision" and rehearsed a bit. "It seemed to me that rehearse was the last thing we wanted to do," writes Mendelssohn, "the first being setting up somewhere without permission and making as much noise as possible while the little photographer... gnawed on shoes." They also made their live debut at a UCLA dormitory party. "To ensure that we wouldn't sound too slick, I played lead guitar through much of it," he writes. "I'd had a guitar in hand for a total of maybe an hour in my lifetime at that point. I'm not certain that I'd have been worse if I'd played with my toes."

As other shows followed, the band quickly developed a local reputation for causing mayhem! The book We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk quotes photographer Heather Harris about one early performance: "Doug Weston banned Christopher Milk for life in 1970 after lead singer Mr. Twister wreaked havoc during the Troubadour's Monday 'Hoot Night.' [Mr. Twister] wrecked a bunch of microphones and was pouring hot wax all over himself and running out into the audience and biting people... he was overturning tables and spilling drinks into customer's laps." And in a two-page spread about the group in Phonograph Record Magazine, writer J. Robert Tebble states: "Mr. Twister was Christopher Milk's Iggy Stooge."

During Christopher Milk's first couple of years, Mendelssohn continued with his other job as a - in his words - "heartless destroyer of careers."

"I saw no reason that I couldn't both have my own group and remain the king of West Coast rock criticism," he humbly declares in the autobiography.

Which is why readers of Rolling Stone would find it humorous when the band's name was casually dropped into his album reviews, such as this one for Who's Next: “And there you have it, chums, an album that, despite a degree of sober calculatedness that would prove fatal to a lesser group, ranks right up there with David Bowie's and Black Oak Arkansas's and Crazy Horse's and Procol Harum's and Alice Cooper's and Christopher Milk's as among the most wondrous of 1971.” -- John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stone, September 2, 1971.

Other musicians with whom Mendelssohn was now sharing the bill were less amused. He writes: "I brutalized the frightful local group Pollution in general and co-lead singer Dobie Gray in particular in the Times. Two weeks later, we... naturally!... opened for them at the Whisky. If looks could kill, Dobie's as we came off stage the first night would have been the end of me."

In early '71, accompanied by The Kiddo, Mendelssohn flew to San Francisco to interview "an obscure English folkie" named David Bowie for Rolling Stone. Intimidated by Bowie's wit and self-confidence, John writes that the magazine "might as well have sent a cabbage."

Christopher Milk promo pic
Phonograph Record Magazine November 1972
"I ran across the [interview] tape a couple of years ago," he tells us. "I marvelled at it. I just sort of sit there and mutter a few unintelligible syllables every now and again and Bowie, in desperation, just keeps talking!" Mendelssohn's write-up of this meeting was published in the April 1, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. It begins with a lovely, almost poetic description of the singer: "In his floral-patterned velvet midi-gown and cosmetically enhanced eyes, in his fine chest-length blonde hair and mod nutty engineer's cap that he bought in the ladies' hat section of the City of Paris department store in San Francisco, David Bowie is ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, although he would prefer to be regarded as the latter-day Garbo."

At the time, Bowie ranked Christopher Milk as one of his 3 top picks (alongside Iggy Pop and Paul Rodgers) in the New Musical Express feature "How the World's Best Picked the World's Best."

Had you given Bowie a demo tape?

"He came to a rehearsal. We flew back to LA together and hung out a little bit. Christopher Milk was rehearsing, so he came by."

Obviously, he was very impressed!

"I think he was being light-hearted about it. I can't imagine us having impressed him that much. We played 'Waiting for the Man' with him."

Do you have a tape of that anywhere?

"No."

By this point, thinking that the band might get signed to a major label on the strength of his name alone, Mendelssohn, being only slightly facetious writes, "I decided that nothing less than the pope's balcony could satisfy me now, and I appointed myself Christopher Milk's lead singer."

Demos were recorded and shopped around. "Nearly everyone for whom I played our demos was appalled," he writes, "but I thought it was they who were missing the boat. It meant so much to us! How could it possibly be less than brilliant?"

United Artists Records finally signed the group, and a four-song EP (five! if you count the lead track "Hey, Heavyweight" which shows up again in mono on side two) was issued with a lavish gatefold sleeve, mini poster, and lyric sheet. Co-produced by Mendelssohn, it was, he writes, "disastrously amateurish." In the book, he notes that Lester Bangs told him, "It doesn't make it."

In his PRM feature, Tebble states that Martin Cerf, then-head of UA creative services, "created a 'super-exploitation' campaign for the band even before the record was released." He also notes that "entertaining but fallacious" press releases were issued, including one about Mr. Twister biting a policeman.

Tebble mentions that UA also ran ads offering to give the EP away to anyone who would write in and ask for it, adding, "The response was tremendous. Ten thousand copies of the record were sent out." One respondent was Andy Seven, who in February 2011 reminisced enthusiastically about the EP on his blog page (blackhairedboy.blogspot.com): "It was available only through mail order. I think the whole thing cost $1.00, so I jumped at the opportunity to score this puppy." T. Tex Edwards, who commented on Andy's blog agreed, "I too jumped at the chance to order the UA C-Milk EP when I saw the offer in Phonograph Record. I still dig it out from time-to-time & it still holds up."

Strangely, Mendelssohn doesn't mention this promotion in his book and when asked, he doesn't seem to have been aware of it. "I didn't give any away," he says. "The record company might have sent some out. I don't know how many." But he does agree that the EP "was made to create interest."

The EP wasn't well-received by the music press; one particularly mean review from Coast magazine, under the headline No Use Crying Over Spilt Milk, said it thought one song was a "bad parody of the Strawberry Alarm Clock imitating the Beatles imitating the Association." And Nick Venet, then head of A&R at UA pronounced the EP was "dog shit." Meanwhile, management problems hampered the group's ability to properly promote the record through live shows, and UA declined to release an album - saying there was no budget for a Christopher Milk LP in that quarter of the fiscal year. In PRM, Tebble wrote: "Mendelsohn was adamant. He wanted an album or a release. He got the release."

Although he confused Mendelssohn the person with Christopher Milk the band, Venet's final words on the subject were: "We wish Christopher Milk all the luck in the world. We hope he has hits and a wonderful career as a performer. We wish him no stoppage of his career. And when he grows up he'll feel that way about the next label that dumps him."

When the EP didn't do well commercially and UA had dropped the band, you were still encouraged to carry on?

"Oh, I wanted to keep going forever!"

Christopher Milk was a serious enterprise then? It wasn't just a rock critic trying to prove he could also be a rock star?

"We were dead serious. Ralph gave up pharmacology college to do the band, so it was pretty serious for him. Everybody had other things that they were doing."

UA advert for the EP giveaway
Having ballooned to a sextet on the EP, with Donnie Alvarado on guitar and Tres Feltman on drums, before the group moved on some drastic personnel changes were made. Feltman was replaced by George Dragotta, who received the nickname G. Whiz. Alvarado disappeared and with Mendelssohn now the group's official lead singer, Mr. Twister's services were no longer required.

"It was ridiculous," Mendelssohn says about the group's extended line-up. "We had two singers - it was like a mini review. I'd do my bit and then [Mr. Twister] would come on. He was there for shock value; he was supposed to create chaos - as he did to some extent at the Troubadour. He jumped up on a table and all these drinks went smashing to the floor! That was pretty good. But he secretly fancied himself Mick Jagger. He was very serious about it. He wasn't going to chew anybody's shoes! And chewing people's shoes was the reason he was in the band in the first place!" 

Christopher Milk's EP attracted the attention of up-and-coming British producer Chris Thomas, who at that point was known for his work on Procol Harum's Home and Broken Barricades albums, as well as the Beatles' White Album. He would later go on to co-produce Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols.

Mendelssohn enjoys telling people how Thomas "flew halfway around the world" (sometimes he "swam across the Atlantic") to work with Christopher Milk, and he produced an album's worth of material for the group on credit.  Mendelssohn writes that Thomas, "...either thought that we had terrific ideas, as he claimed, or liked the idea of spending two months in Southern California at someone else's expense..." In the book, Mendelssohn recalls the recording process: "Discerning early on that I didn't give him much to work with, Chris resigned himself to vocals that would forever embarrass me, and spent nights on end getting Surly R[alph] to overdub guitar and keyboard parts while The Kiddo and I killed time playing pinball..."

Mendelssohn didn't have to shop the LP for very long before David Berson signed the band to Warner/Reprise. PRM reported that Mendelssohn told Berson he was recording an album with Chris Thomas and that Berson would surely love it. Berson did indeed like what he heard and the label arranged a showcase gig for the band, which Mendelssohn humorously recalls in the book: "I kept stumbling over mike cords and guitar cords and cymbal stands and other members of the group, and spent most of the performance prone on the stage trying to make it appear intentional." In PRM, Mendelssohn described the show as "the worst in the band's history... It was a disaster!"

Nevertheless, in 1972 Warner/Reprise (where Mendelssohn had been employed three years
previously) released the group's first (and as it turned out, only) album Some People Will Drink Anything. (According to the band's website, the title was changed from Some People Will Drink To Anything at the behest of Chris Thomas.)

The album cover photo, taken by Richard Creamer, showed the band sitting in a booth at Santa Monica's famous Oar House Saloon. Their expressions are frozen in place - for better or worse in the case of Surly Ralph who seems to be impersonating Edvard Munch's The Scream - gawping at The Kiddo as he's about to gulp down a suspicious looking cocktail.

You've said that the album cover was a good idea, but it wasn't realized very well. What did you mean by that?

"It wasn't even a very good idea! I mean, it's horrible!"

The advertising campaign for the LP seemed to rely heavily on a full-page mock review written by Mendelssohn. In the advert, Mendelssohn heaps praise on his bandmates ("The rhythm section of pint-sized percussionist G. Whiz and heart-throbbingly-cherubic The Kiddo on bass is red-hot and right-on throughout. Ralph (Dr. Sax) Oswald's is surely one of the most stunning recording debuts by a guitarist in recent memory, and I've little doubt that anyone with unbiased ears will fail to be most impressed with the same as a composer..."), while he treats his own contributions with self-deprecating humor: "...in my once expensive opinion, Christopher Milk's Some People Will Drink Anything is mostly sublimely far-out (as often as not, I hasten to add for purposes of credibility, in spite of rather than because of the things I did on it)."

Was it your idea to write the review/advert?

"No, it wasn't. It was Stan Cornyn (then-head of the Creative Services department at Warner/Reprise). He was the guy who originally hired me there as a writer.

Did he ask you to write something self-mocking?

"He didn't necessarily want it to be self-mocking. But I wasn't gonna be... One of the few things I like to pride myself on, is that I have some sense of proportion. I wasn't gonna write a straight thing about how great we were. My philosophy was... all ads said pretty much the same thing. My attitude then - and now - is to write something completely outrageous that's going to get somebody's attention. Make some ludicrous claims!"

Despite Surly Ralph doing a chart to ensure that the band was signing its record deal at an "astrologically propitious moment;" despite opening for Foghat at the Whisky ("They were British," writes Mendelssohn, "so every groupie in Southern California showed up in her most scandalous attire. And didn't give us the time of day."); despite Mendelssohn's hyperbolic ad copy; despite the dire prediction by Tebble in PRM that, "Everyone with a typewriter and access to a printing press wants the chance to slam Christopher Milk, just as Mendelsohn slammed their faves" - the LP failed to garner much notice. Apart from Nick Tosches, who "beat it to a bloody pulp in Rolling Stone," Mendelssohn observes, "nobody paid much attention."

They were given one final chance. "David Be[rson] wangled us a small budget to try to record a hit single," writes Mendelssohn, and the following year the band released its swansong 45 - a cover of Terry Reid's "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace" b/w (per the group's wesbsite, an "overamped piss-take") cover of the Beatle's "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

And it wouldn't be for lack of trying that the song wasn't a hit. In the September '73 issue of PRM, Lisa Rococo told readers of her column: "...if 'Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace' ever gets played on the radio and enough people hear it while they're driving (it's an exquisite car song), it's going to be an unqualified smash. It's easily the best thing the boys have done." Meanwhile, members of the band were personally calling program directors all over the country urging them to play the 45. Mendelssohn writes: "Many of them didn't believe that it was really The! John! Mendelssohn! on the other end... but nobody much played the record, and the label showed us the door."

The band's final performance was at the El Monte Legion Stadium. Mendelssohn writes: "I came on stage in platform shoes I'd had to buy in the ladies section because they weren't making them for men yet, but had to kick them off 16 bars into 'Hello Susie' for fear of breaking my neck." For Christopher Milk, it was all over except for the "bitter quibbling."

From what I understand, the break-up wasn't on good terms.

"No. It was on fairly bad terms. We were frustrated, and we all blamed one another. And when it came time to split up the equipment it got fairly acrimonious. We'd bought it with the advance from Warner Bros. I thought that the Kiddo got more than his share and the Kiddo thought otherwise. It got fairly bitter."

Speaking of the Warner Bros. advance money... What's the story about the group's manager and a drug deal gone wrong?

"This guy said, 'If you give me X number of dollars, I can double it.' And I liked the idea of his doubling the money. So I said, 'If it's all right with the others it's OK with me. He not only doubled it... he lost it."

"It wasn't even a very good idea!" Cover photo for
Some People Will Drink Anything
With the demise of Christopher Milk, Mendelssohn more or less gave up rock criticism as well. "I was bored with it," he tells us. "It didn't seem very important." He spent the next couple of years making tapes; he became a regular at the Rainbow and the Starwood; he pinned over a lost love and found "momentary consolation" in the arms of others; he "wrote some wonderful songs, and was accused, to my limitless mortification, of sounding like Sparks."

In the June, 1974 issue of Creem magazine, Lisa Robinson reported: "John Mendelsohn phoned from L.A. to say that he has finished a solo demo he's been working on since last June but has long since abandoned the idea of becoming the superstar he always thought he would be."

But, hey! In the spring of 1976, Christopher Milk was back - albeit briefly. The band reformed for a two-night stand at the Starwood. "We wore our ridiculous sequined overalls from the El Monte gig," writes Mendelssohn, "played a couple of The Kiddo's songs, and reveled in our ill-preparedness."

"It was a disaster!" Mendelssohn confirms, when questioned about the reunion. "But for once we weren't terrified. I'd always been rigid with terror before going onstage with Christopher Milk, because I knew I wasn't very good. This time, we were awful and we knew it, and it was just fun! So, the audience enjoyed it for a change."

In early 1977, Mendelssohn re-emerged with a new band called the Pits. Several years later, in a feature for Mojo, he recalled how the band came about: "Three years after my group Christopher Milk... agreed that we'd delighted audiences long enough, I played some new songs for an A&R guy at a publishing company... He did a bit of this and a bit of that on the side, including some promoting, and said if I put a group together, he could guarantee a lucrative Canadian tour."

You can almost hear Mendelssohn sigh as he writes: "He liked my stuff, and the dream flickered back to life." The tour failed to materialise and the A&R guy abruptly stopped taking his calls, but the Pits (whose line-up included Mendelssohn's old friend and ex-Motel, Richard d'Andrea, on bass) stayed together long enough to open for Devo at the Starwood. ("How Devo's militantly dweebish and misshapen fans loved our long hair and traditional rock sexpot attire..." writes Mendelssohn.) Their final show, at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, included last-minute recruit Gary Valentine (cousin of the Pits drummer) on guitar. "By the time we got home, writes Mendelssohn, "the Pits were only two. I threw in the towel, freeing Richard to hook up with the former bass guitarist of Blondie."

While d'Andrea and Valentine went off to form the Know, Mendelssohn bided his time: working on his music, writing unsaleable screenplays, and getting a tan. Readers of Rolling Stone might have noticed his occasional byline on features about Andy Kaufman and Foreigner. And then there was the day he thought about driving into oncoming traffic...

After suffering a bout of "excruciating existential panic," Mendelssohn writes somewhat glibly: "Had me a lil ole anxiety attack... Suddenly my heart began to pound like the bass drum at a gay disco, and I wanted fervently to drive into oncoming traffic. Somehow I fought the impulse off, parked my car, and ran dripping sweat to my sister's..."

"Oh, I very seriously wanted to!" he assures us. "But it was just once. I mean, everybody's entitled to one anxiety attack."

As the 1970s ended and the 1980s dawned, he continued to work on his music, his unsaleable short stories, and his tan. To alleviate his boredom, Mendelssohn restored the second s to his surname. "Cultured sorts would wonder if I were related to the composer," he muses. And uncultured sorts who read music magazines would forever wonder why sometimes his name was spelt with only one s and sometimes with two.

Now and again Mendelssohn's byline would pop up in the pages of rock magazines - such as his interview with the Cramps ("The Lord Giveth While The Cramps Taketh Away") in the August 1980 issue of Creem. And sometimes you could even find his byline in a certain "high quality magazine for men" - for which he interviewed Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls actress Edy Williams and lived to tell a funny story about it.

But by the time of his 35th birthday, married and broke, he could mostly be found at his day job, typing enrolment cards at UCLA Extension. "I left no middle initial untransposed," he writes (just a little too proudly), "not only because I wanted to keep my passive/aggressive chops up, but because I believe that... middle initials are sheerest pretension, an attempt to sound like a CEO or something."

In July 1983, Mendelssohn's fans were thrilled to see his byline return on a monthly basis as the new Eleganza columnist for Creem magazine. "It was supposed to be about fashion," Mendelssohn recalls in the book, "but I got bored with that halfway through my second column, and began devoting the space to rabid denunciations of Motley Crue..."

It seems like Creem would be the perfect outlet for your writing. How did you come to write the Eleganza column?

"They just called me up and offered it to me. Dave DiMartino liked my writing."

(In a conversation with A.C. Rhodes at rockcritics.com, DiMartino confirms: "I was such a fan [of Mendelssohn] that I sought him out and got him to write for us... we gave him the Eleganza column and started using him as a feature writer. And I was really happy to do that.")

How many years did you write the column for?

"Four-and-a-half or five. You know, it drove my wife crazy because I used that column as an excuse to meet all these women I lusted after."

Like the "Daughters Of Darkness" column!

"Nature abhors a vacuum, but Eleganza adores someone who dares to dress with panache, élan, and all the other French nouns that mean pizzazz. You might not go for the specific look that the three Los Angeles women who are this column's stars have in common. But you can't contest their pizzazz." -- John Mendelssohn, Eleganza: Daughters of Darkness, Creem, November 1983

"I was disappointed when I met her," says Mendelssohn of goth queen and then-Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison. "I thought she was going to be a lot more... y'know... lust-inciting. But she wasn't, in person. And Angeline... Angeline's a good sort. She's a really nice person." 

"Hollywood teems of lusters after fame, rock stars of tomorrow, would-be symbols of sex. But none of them has managed to make herself more conspicuous than Angelyne, whose pouting likeness has adorned traffic light switching boxes and bus shelters through the '80s, and who, as this is written, reclines sultrily atop her fuchsia Corvette on a jillion fluorescent back-lit billboards from Capitol Tower to the sea." -- John Mendelssohn, Eleganza: Introducing Angelyne, Creem, May 1984

At the same that you were writing about Angelyne in Creem, William Morrow published your book Kinks Kronikles - but you only devote two short sentences to it in your autobiography ("I wrote a book about The Kinks. The Kinks were not pleased.") And there's nothing at all about the 1972 Reprise double-album compilation for which you're famously known. Why is that?

"It still haunts me. I got a fan letter today... half of it was about me, while the other half was about the Kinks. I don't care about the Kinks! I haven't liked them since 1970! And yet for the past twenty-five years' people hear my name and they think, "Oh, yeah!" And they write me letters... they tell me about some rare Indonesian B-side that they're sure I'll just die to have."

To be fair, for a while you were the world's biggest Kinks fan.

"I might have been the most conspicuous, but I certainly wasn't the... There are people who are really obsessive about them. People who have those Indonesian B-sides!"

You've said that you hate the design of The Kink Kronikles album cover...

"Oh, God yes!"

Could they have done better with the artwork?

"The question is: Could they have done worse? Yes, they could have! They could indeed have! And I'll tell you how: I volunteered to do the artwork. I was just beginning my infatuation with Coco-Cola then, and I was writing everything in Coco-Cola script. I tried to do The Kink Kronicles in it, and did a really lame job. I pushed it fairly hard."

Is it true that they cut your liner notes to make them fit?

"It's not that they're cut... Do you know what a 'widow' is? It's where you come to the last line of a paragraph and you have a little word which looks out of balance with the rest of the lines. Every time that would happen, they would start sticking words in to make the lines longer."

In the letter that you wrote to David Geffen entreating him to meet with you regarding the unauthorized (and unpublished) biography you were writing, you say, "If I had it to do over again... Christopher Milk would be a very different group." What did you mean by that?


"It still haunts me."
Ad for The Kink Kronikles 2-LP Set
"That's a complex question. I probably shouldn't have been the singer. I think that's the biggest thing. And in hindsight, I can see that we should have presented ourselves completely differently. I should have followed the advice that I later formulated in Creem, which is: The last thing you want to do is to look like everybody else. And that's exactly what we did. We tried to be fashionable in all the standard ways. We would open our set with 'Hello Susie' by the Move. It's like waving a sign that says, 'We're a cover band!' And I'd try to curb Ralph's pretentions a little bit. I was very much a Beatles fan, and a Who fan. And Ralph was into all this pompus stuff, like Yes. So, a lot of his stuff got sort of inflated. These songs would go on for six minutes, when they should have gone on for two-and-a-half. I guess those are the major things."

How did Christopher Milk come to have a lien imposed on it by the Franchise Tax Board?

"The California Franchise Tax Board said that we should have paid sales tax because we sold our master to Warner Bros. We maintain that Warner Bros. should have paid the sales tax. But it was eight years after we broke-up that we got [the notice]. Nobody had any money. The Kiddo got stuck with it because he'd bought a condo. He broke up with his fiancé, sold the condo, and the Tax Board stepped in and said, 'We'll take that.' It was a horrible thing."

How did the autobiography/CD deal with Rhino come about?

"Harold invited me to do it. We were in touch."

Was it a good mental exercise to recall all the details of your life?

"Some of the reviews have said things like: 'This is really narcissistic,' and, 'It's incredibly detailed.'  How do you write an autobiography without appearing narcissistic? And detailed? To me, it seems like a tiny portion of what I could have written about. Was it therapeutic? Is that what you asked? I carry my life around with me. It's not like I have to sit down and think: What did I feel like when I was fifteen? The way I felt when I was fifteen is right there. I could've written a thick book just to the age of seven or eight."

How is it selling?

"My question is... How did I put this to them? It's not gonna sell if you can't buy it. And you can't buy it. So how can it sell? The week the Rolling Stone review came out - which was kind of favourable - it was impossible to buy the book in San Francisco. And I dare say, it was impossible to buy it in a lot of other places.

Have the guys in Christopher Milk read the book?

"Ralph has. Ralph liked it. The Kiddo sent me a letter saying you're a liar and a coward. The drummer... no one speaks to.

I love that you refer to G. Whiz as "the drummer" in the intro to your autobiography ("Surly Ralph! The Kiddo! John! The drummer!"), like you did with Kinks' bassist John Dalton in the "God Save the Kinks" campaign advert ("Ray, Dave, Mick, and Whatshisname").

"I always teased [G. Whiz]. I always gave him a hard time. And y'know, I think it's kind of funny that there be somebody in the group who's so completely insignificant that you wouldn't remember his name. The fans call him Whatshisname."

Has your mother read the book?

"She started to, but it hurt her very badly. It got her very upset. She put it aside, hid it somewhere."

What do you think about the current state of rock journalism?

"I don't think about it. I only think about it when I read Joel Selvin (SF Chronicle music critic). And I think: How is it that a person who writes this badly is paid by a major newspaper to do this? How can this be? I don't pay much attention to rock 'n' roll anymore, because I find so much of it disappointing. I listen to NPR."

Tell us a bit about your latest project - the Spandex Amazons. It's a comedy troupe?

"It's the repository of all my hopes and dreams at the moment. Its half sketches and half songs. I write it, act in it, and direct it. I feel a lot more confident in my ability as an actor than I did in my ability as a drummer or singer. I never had any confidence in myself as a singer."

Who were you most scared of interviewing? David Bowie?

"That was bad, but I wasn't really scared. Procol Harum was the first one, and that was really frightening because I considered them these God-like characters. And here I was... I was completely awed. And they were really boring people (you can read Mendelssohn's complete 1971 interview with Procol Harum here). Whereas Bowie, if you sat next to him on a bus and just started talking to him, you'd stand a chance of being a little intimidated because he's very, very bright."

What rock star were you most thrilled to meet?

"They were all great! I was meeting my heroes!"

Mendelssohn's life continued its roller-coaster trajectory through the 1990s: He worked unhappily "processing words" for a corporate law firm, which he sardonically refers to as Payne, Misery & Suffering; he enjoyed the company of his young daughter; he mourned the death of his father; and desperate for money, he entered an MTV contest to name a Paula Abdul concert tour (inconceivably, The Annoying Talentless Little Butterball Tour didn't win).

In more recent years, Mendelssohn relocated to the UK with his second wife, where he composed and produced the solo album, Sex With Twinge, as well as Mistress Chloe's Like A Moth To Its Flame. He authored and published three books (Dominatrix: The Making Of Mistress Chloe, Waiting For Kate Bush, and Gigantic: The Pixies And Frank Black), and has directed and starred in two sketch comedy revues. Returning to the US in 2007, Mendelssohn composed, performed, and recorded his second solo album, Sorry We're Open (released in 2010 and available on Spotify). He is currently back in the UK, living in London and performing with his new band the Freudian Sluts (www.freudiansluts.co.uk).

You can keep up-to-date with Mendelssohn's thoughts on life by following his blog: "Mendel Illness" (johnmendelssohn.blogspot.com). 

Websites I found useful:
www.christophermilk.com 
www.rocksbackpages.com
www.bootlegzone.com
rateyourmusic.com

For more info about John Mendelssohn:
johnmendelssohn.blogspot.com
John Mendelssohn - Wikipedia

Join the Christopher Milk Fan Club group on Facebook

Watch these amazing Christopher Milk videos on YouTube:
The Christopher Milk Story
More Christopher Milk

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The History of Peter Case Part 2: The Plimsouls

Back cover of the "Zero Hour" EP
Originally published in Teenage Kicks No. 2 (Fall 1997)

By Devorah Ostrov

In our last issue, we followed Peter Case through his career with seminal power poppers the Nerves, whose lineup included Jack Lee on guitar and Paul Collins on drums.

After the Nerves disintegrated in early 1978, Case and Collins continued to work together as the Breakaways. Although short-lived ("It lasted about a month," remembers Case. "We played the Whisky once, that was it.") the band did record "eight or nine" tracks. Two Breakaways' tunes, "One Way Ticket" and an early version of "Walking Out on Love," can be found on the excellent Bomp Records compilation The Roots Of Powerpop. "Walking Out on Love" would later surface on the Beat's debut album along with "U.S.A.," another song originally by the Breakaways.

Amongst other things, the Breakaways suffered from an unstable lineup. "We had a bunch of different guitarists," says Case. In his opinion, the rhythm section was also weak. "I wanted to get off bass and I wanted Paul to get off drums," he says. At Case's urging, Collins switched to lead guitar, becoming the group's true frontman. Case took up rhythm guitar, Mike Ruiz and Steve Huff were recruited on drums and bass respectively, and the group's name was changed to the Beat.

Still, tension between the two principle band members led to Case's departure before the Beat was signed to CBS Records. According to Case, "Some problems went down and I didn't want to work with Paul anymore. I just wanted to do my own thing. I let him have the Beat and I went off and put my own band together."

Except it wasn't really that easy. For a year, Case kicked around LA, writing songs, painting houses, working "weird jobs." He even joined 20/20 "for a day." And he ran ads in music papers. "I knew Carla Olson (from the Textones) and Kathy Valentine (ex-Textones, soon-to-be Go-Go). We were all running ads trying to start bands. We were going through thousands of people, and we'd always compare them!"

Geffin Records promo pic
Although he didn't know him well, drummer Lou Ramirez was another acquaintance of Case's. "He'd been over to my house a couple of times," recalls Case. "I think I might have met him through a want ad." Ramirez and his bassist friend Dave Pahoa had a five-night-a-week gig backing a blind guitarist named Doc at a bar in El Monte. One night Ramirez invited Case to join them.

Things went well for several gigs, with Case mixing in some rock 'n' roll and rockabilly with Doc's usual country repertoire, and alternating sets allowed the threesome to work out some originals. Plus, they got free beer.

According to legend, one night they answered a request for "Polk Salad Annie" and delivered a rave-up version: "Hell-bent, lying on stage!" was how Case described it back then. Supposedly the bar's owner, sober for a change, freaked when he saw the band going nuts and fired them.

In actuality, only Case was fired, but the rest of the story holds true. "We did get way outta hand on 'Polk Salad Annie' quite a few times! We used to do a lot of feedback and noise... smash stuff! The boss came in one day and said, 'Pete's on acid.' He told David, 'We can't have Pete anymore.' David said, 'Well, we quit.'" For the record, Case wasn't on acid... that night.

Promo pic
Case, Ramirez, and Pahoa stayed together, debuting as the Plimsouls for a show at the Camarillo State Mental Institution (as openers for the Angry Samoans). Shows in LA proper followed quickly - at Club 88, Madam Wong's, and the Hong Kong Café. 

The group's moniker, a British term for sneakers, was Case's idea. (He mentions having put together another outfit called the Plimsouls shortly after leaving the Beat, but that long forgotten lineup never played live.) However, he's surprisingly ambivalent about the name these days. "It's lightweight. It doesn't really mean anything, except that we like soul music. That's all it means. We named it that because the other groups were like the Cars - real obvious. And we hated that! So, we called it the Plimsouls. I guess it's a cool name."

Although he can't remember exactly when it was, Case does remember where he first met guitarist Eddie Munoz. "It was at a Flamin' Groovies show at the Starwood." (He also recalls that the show was in promotion of the Groovies' Now album, which would put it sometime in 1978.) And according to Case, Munoz was considered a Plimsoul as early on as the group's first rehearsal. But Munoz, an Austin native who repaired guitars for a living, had to postpone joining the group while he worked as a guitar roadie on the Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe Armed Forces tour. His first show with the Plimsouls wouldn't be until they played Gazzari's a year later.

Meanwhile, the three-piece group (reportedly on a budget of  "something like $300") entered the studio to record the Zero Hour EP, released in 1980 on the very indie Beat label. "The label was this guy Steve Zepeda," explains Case, "who lived with his mother in Long Beach. He lived in the garage, y'know."

Beat Records advertisement for the "Zero Hour" EP
Produced by the band's manager, Danny Holloway (introduced to them by Zepeda, Holloway's previous production credits included the Heptones' Night Food), the EP featured the bopping title-track (which Case wrote while he was left sitting in a car waiting for his girlfriend. "I was trying to catch a train, so I was mad!"), the effervescent "Great Big World," and the way-rockin' "Hypnotized" and "How Long Will It Take?" A cool cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" completed the five tracks.

The EP sold well in Los Angeles and KROQ's Rodney Bingenhiemer played "Zero Hour" regularly, turning it into something of a hit song. Overnight the Plimsouls became local superstars! "Before the EP we were making $150 a night playing pubs," muses Case. "We would take the bus to Santa Monica, with our amps, to play this pub called the Londoner. Then all of a sudden we were packing the Starwood!"

And as Case told one magazine at the time, the Plimsouls appealed to all types. "We get everybody at our gigs: punks, skinny-tie college-types, bi's, tri's. You never have to worry about what to wear to a Plimsouls' show..."

Planet advertisement for the "Now" 45
"That was true," confirms Case. "There would be punk rock people... I know the Circle Jerks were Plimsouls fans. And I just found out that Brett from Epitaph Records was a Plimsouls fan. All kinds of people were Plimsouls fans. On a lot of different levels people were into it."

With all the hoopla following the EP's release, the band's decision to sign a two-album deal with small-time Planet Records (an Elektra offshoot whose roster included, according to Case, "nobody you've ever heard of.") was a strange one. Even today Case can't explain how it came about. "It's a good question, really. I'm not sure, y'know. They just got real interested. They really wanted to sign some new bands. After (the success of) the Knack, they probably wanted a 'new wave' band and thought we fit the bill."

In 1981 Planet released the group's self-titled debut album, with Holloway again acting as producer.  The opening R&B infused "Lost Time" featured a horn section arranged by New Orleans great Harold Batiste while other tracks bounced ("In This Town" and "Hush, Hush"), swaggered with a country tinge ("I Want You Back"), and provided a rush of adrenaline ("Everyday Things"). Combined with the mid-period Beatles feel of "Now," the finely-crafted "I Want What You Got," and the note-for-note remake of "Zero Hour," the album showcased the group's exceptionally wide-ranging skill. Meanwhile, two cover tunes - the Easybeats' "Women" and Wilson Pickett's "Mini-Skirt Minnie" - highlighted the Plimsouls dual pop and soul influences.

Planet issued "Zero Hour" as a 45, b/w a live cover of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and a live version of "Hush, Hush," which did well in LA but went nowhere nationally. A follow-up release of "Now" b/w an instrumental version of the old Nerve's tune "When You Find Out" (sounding very surfy!) followed, but didn't fare much better; although it did garner a mention from Trouser Press' celebrity guest reviewer Billy Idol, who grumbled: "I don't really like this kind of American-sounding record... It's very professional - or sounds it." And, perhaps due in large part to a complete lack of interest by the record company ("There was no promotion," contends Case. "Absolutely none."), outside of a few major California cities, the album didn't sell at all. Through sheer force of will it climbed to #153 on the Billboard album chart.

Still, a cross-country tour went well (a live recording of their Cleveland show, dubbed One Night In America, is perhaps a better document of the group at that time than the studio album. And, says Case, "It's a lot more exciting!"), and the band received some favourable write-ups in the national rock press.

Live! Beg, Borrow & Steal  - released 2010 Alive Records
In his Trouser Press feature, Jim Green enthusiastically described the Plimsouls' sound: "Ah yes. The ringing guitars, simple rocking beat - definitely American but with a twist of Limey-philia." He also brought up two sore spots. One was the evil Knack and the huge hype build-up/backlash which was sucking up all other LA pop bands in its wake. "We ain't just another Knack," Case seethed back then. "We're real different - in motivation, content, approach... Sure, you can make superficial comparisons, and people do it before they hear us, see us live."

Sixteen years later, Case recalls a proposed anti-Knack photo shoot: "We were gonna take a picture of the Plimsouls with machine guns and call it Get the Knack!" With a vicious chuckle, he adds, "Would've been good."

Point number two was the slick sound of the LP itself, which Billy Idol had referred to in his review of the "Now" 45. Green treated the problem delicately, saying that the band was "displeased... inasmuch as it was cut in the conventional, fragmented manner of laying down backing tracks and then overdubs, making for less spontaneity than they would prefer." He then quickly stated that "some of the album retains their live R&B grit, and onstage the Plimsouls are hotter than ever."

Today Case can be more honest in his assessment. "It got ruined in the mastering. Planet had really taken the guts out of it. Somebody was afraid of how it sounded, and they ruined it right before it came out. Which was a real great surprise! They said, 'Here's your record.' And I remember me and Eddie were both holding our chests, we were both doubled over in pain. We were having dual anxiety attacks, going, 'Oh my God, they've ruined it.'"

(The Rhino Records CD reissue, Plimsouls... Plus, includes a re-mastered version of the entire first album, and is of much superior sound quality. "I was pleasantly surprised when I got the tapes," comments Case. "They redid it, really made it a lot better.")

Photo from a Trouser Press feature - August 1981
Once back from the tour, Case asked Planet to release the band from its deal. Although there was still one more album to go on the contract, the record company didn't argue. Planet obviously thought the Plimsouls were a lost cause; for his part, Case didn't trust Planet to handle a new tune the band was working on called "A Million Miles Away."

The song actually dated from some months earlier. Case and his friend Chris Fradkin had gone to see the Germs (one of Darby Crash's last shows). Afterwards they stopped off at a bar and Case, still reeling from the death of John Lennon and a recent break-up with his girlfriend, poured out his feelings of loneliness on a napkin:

"Friday night I'd just got back
I had my eyes shut
Was dreaming about the past
I thought about you while the radio played
Should've got moving
For some reason I stayed
I started drifting to a different place
I realized I was falling off the face of the world
And there was nothing left to bring me back...

Later, the two repaired to the apartment of another friend, Joey Alkes, where a massive hook of a chorus...
"I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
I'm just a million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today..."

was combined with an exuberant rhythm track and a Ventures-meet-the-Byrds guitar riff to complete a rough mix of the destined-to-be classic.

The prolific threesome (who had previously collaborated on "Now" and "Hush, Hush") wrote several other songs that evening - and then forgot about the tape "for quite a while." Finally, Munoz got a hold of it and picked out "A Million Miles Away" as the one the band had to learn.

Planet Records promo picture
Released in April 1982 as a 12" single (backed with the equally wonderful "I'll Get Lucky") on the group's own Shaky City label (with distribution through Bomp Records), "A Million Miles Away" blasted forth from radios across the country. "It was a huge radio hit," enthuses Case. "It was a hit in San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Texas..."

And in Los Angeles, the Plimsouls pretty much ruled the airwaves. "I remember driving to a gig in LA," says Case, "and I turned on the radio - it was playing on all four of the stations I turned to!"

The band was selling out the Roxy night after night, and it quickly became apparent that they needed help in handling the monster they'd created. "We felt like we just couldn't meet the demand that was going on with the record," explained Case, adding that releasing an LP on Shaky City was, at most, only a brief consideration. "I didn't wanna be in the record business."

On the strength of "A Million Miles Away" the Plimsouls were signed to Geffen Records - at the time considered a small label. "They only had a few acts, like John Hiatt, who was a friend of ours. And we thought that it might make sense to be with John. Of course, it didn't. But that's what we thought."

Case terms the months preceding their Geffen signing as "the winter of our discontent," but adds that it was "actually a really good period for the Plimsouls. We were just hanging out, writing, playing music all the time, rehearsing five or six days a week." During this time, Case wrote most of what would become the second Plimsouls' album, and "half or more" of the songs were recorded through Shaky City.

Photo used for the Beach Town Confidential 
(Live at the Golden Bear) LP - Alive Records 1983
So... with the inclusion of one song lifted from the Zero Hour EP (a re-recorded version of "How Long Will it Take?" both "A Million Miles Away" and its B-side, plus two well-chosen covers (the Equals' "My Life Ain't Easy" and Mouse and the Traps "Lie, Beg, Borrow, and Steal"), it seems like it would have been easy for Geffen to have rush-released the Plimsouls' second album while "A Million Miles Away" was still hot.

Instead (as Case says, "What sank the ship"), Everywhere At Once wasn't issued until July of '83, by which point the song had finished its run. Geffen then reissued the exact same recording (supposedly only the EQ of the mastering was slightly different) of "A Million Miles Away" as the album's initial 45. Were they hoping lightening would strike twice? It didn't. The song only reached #82 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "They underestimated what we'd done on our own label," states Case. "They had no respect for underground stuff at that point."

The album received some good reviews. One noted that the tunes all "bubbled with undiminished fire and melody, while the lyrics showed signs of frustration." However, Case claims the writer was reading too much into it. "My frustrations were huge, but the Plimsouls were probably the least frustrating thing in my life at that point. Those songs were mostly about relationships, just being alive."

It was also accorded a modicum of publicity, but it was too little too late and Everywhere At Once stiffed. A video of "A Million Miles Away," using "fake actors, fake scenes, and fake singing," was made for MTV, but it was rarely shown. "The big thing was Flock of Seagulls, all that New Romantic stuff," says Case. "That's what we were up against on MTV."

A second single, the rhythm-driven "Magic Touch," with its echoes of "I Fought the Law" and "Pipeline" guitar riffs, never made it onto the radio. It was "too primitive," says Case, quoting KROQ. "I thought it was a hit single," he says, "but they didn't."

Publicity photo by Craig Dietz
A minor role as a bar band in that summer's teen-fad flick Valley Girl (they got the gig through fan Nicholas Cage!) has proved to be unforgettable (if hard to live down), but it didn't boost album sales. "They didn't tell me it would be called Valley Girl, sighs Case. "They said it was like Romeo and Juliet set in modern LA."

One day, as Case remembers it, David Geffen asked him, "What happened?"

"I said, 'You're David Geffen. You tell me what happened.' That was the last conversation we ever had about the Plimsouls."

Officially, the Plimsouls broke up at the tail end of '83. Ramirez had already wandered off, and Case announced that he was going solo. "I told 'em I was gonna go back to my folk roots, or what have you." However, Case was coaxed into staying for one more cross-country tour in order to pay off the band's huge tax bill. "Of course, nobody used the money to pay off their tax debt," he laughs. "They just accrued more tax debt!"

The Plimsouls with Clem Burke circa 1997
               Photo: Greg Allen
With a lineup that included a third guitarist and Charlie Quintana (ex-Pluz) on drums, the Plimsouls raged through some of their most legendary performances. "It was a great tour!" enthuses Case. "I remember playing Liberty Lunch in Austin. We set the attendance record - there were thousands of people there. And the band just rocked out! We were just blazing as we went through Texas that summer."

After the split, Case didn't see much of Pahoa. "I think he fronted a band called Psycho Witch..." he offers. But Case and Munoz (who surfaced with the Walking Wounded) remained friends. "Me and Eddie were always the closest," he says. For the next decade, Case concentrated on his solo career, releasing five mostly folk albums. There were no plans to reunite the Plimsouls. Until...

An offer to re-record "A Million Miles Away" for the Speed soundtrack brought Case, Munoz, and Pahoa together again for a series of live shows. Case is vague about Ramirez, saying only that he talked to the drummer when the group first got back together, but that his re-joining the band "is just not gonna happen." The lineup now includes ex-Blondie/Dramarama drummer Clem Burke.

And while Case intends to continue working as a solo artist, a new Plimsouls' album has just been released (currently only available as an import through France's Musa label and Big Star in the UK). Titled Kool Trash, the ten songs (including "Playing with Jack," "Falling Awake," and "Dangerous Book") are as strong and catchy as ever! More US live shows also seem certain!

★★★

One bit of interesting trivia: When Case had some momentary doubts about being a full-time frontman, power pop icon Phil Seymour was offered the post. "I was trying not to be the singer," says Case, "because it seemed cooler to just be the guitar player - like Pete Townshend. We asked Phil to join, but he wanted to call it Phil Seymour and the Plimsouls. We said, 'No!' So he wouldn't join." The group did record a version of "Now" at Shelter Studios with Seymour on vocals, which has yet to surface.