Frank Gutch Jr: Chris Ashford, The Gears and the L.A. Punk Scene (But First, Some Background;

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I hadn’t been in L.A. a month when I met Chris Ashford, a skinny, gangly high school kid who was bugging people on the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard handing out flyers for rival Music Odyssey, the store three doors west of Licorice Pizza where I had just started working.

I can’t remember what he said as he shoved the wrinkled sheet of paper into my hand but I remember thinking man, that could be me.  It was, after all, the equivalent to wearing a sandwich board with words of the devil printed on it, but the kid could hardly have been an instrument of the evil empire (though my religious friends would have begged to differ).  He had an engaging smile although the braces blinded you when the sun was at the right angle, and he was enthusiastic and unobtrusive, a combination most people could not handle.  He was, I remember thinking, a kid and I wondered what the Odyssey was paying him— probably a tradeout in records.  I found out later that he was, indeed, being paid in more than tradeouts and that he understood better than myself the ways of business.

That was, what?  1973?  1974?  Whatever the year, as in the movie Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It has been and it is.  That scrawny kid was hired by the manager at Licorice Pizza only a few weeks later and became a vital part of the store.  We had an outstanding crew there, most of us consumed by music and the lifestyle it portrayed.  We met people we never thought we would meet, such as members of Bad Co. minus Boz, Camel (thanks to Larry Kosslyn), The Doors (the three remaining members of the band after Morrison’s death stopped by fairly regularly) and lesser known bands like Ambrosia (before their first album took off) and Rockville Junction.  We met people we didn’t know like Michael Dinner (thanks to Steve Wilson, who we called Grits because as far as we could tell, that was what he ate) and Terry Sylvester, who although being in The Hollies at the time was doing prep work on his new solo project).  Vin Scully came in the store once with his kids and we had the real surprises such as Steve Franken and Sheila James (Chatsworth Osborne Junior and Zelda Gilroy, respectively, on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).  Even Ray Benich (Damnation) and Jack Eely (the guy who sang Louie Louie for The Kingsmen) stopped by.  No matter who came in, Chris was on their tail, not to bother but to just greet (the crew prided itself on being customer friendly, no matter who it involved).

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Chris is the guy holding the PPL album

Chris became our de facto expert on Country and Surf, de facto meaning that the rest of us were on quests to listen to and learn as much as we could among other genres.  I was schooled in the ways of Connie Smith and Buck Owens and so many other Country artists and I left the store a year or so later knowing more than I ever thought I would about Dick Dale and  Davie Allan & The Arrows, surf artists near and dear to Chris.  I can’t tell you how many times I overheard him trying to get customers interested in Connie Smith when they asked for any other female Country artist.  To my knowledge, most of Smith’s albums, of which at that time were numerous, were out of print, something Chris struggled to understand.

When it came time to leave Los Angeles to open a new Licorice Pizza store in San Diego, I still couldn’t shake the kid.  He kept in touch through various means and when I headed north to Seattle a few years later, he somehow managed to find me.  He was like the bad penny which always returned.  Not really.  I always enjoyed hearing what was going on in Chrisland.  In fact, it became downright intriguing.

tidalwaves 001Not long after I left, Chris began dabbling in records, only producing them, not selling.  He even got a lick or two in, himself, putting together a short-lived band he called The Tidal Waves (Wonder of wonders, it was Surf!).  But surf wasn’t the first thing on his mind,  girls were, but he had befriended a couple of young punks who skateboarded Wilshire fairly regularly, two lads who would soon enough change their God-given names to Darby Crash and Pat Smear.  Yep, the first punks Chris recorded were The Germs.  Maybe they were on their amoebic stage, but they were still The Germs.  Chris put it this way in an excellent interview conducted by horrorgarage.com.

Everything wasn’t planned out; we were just this whirlwind that did it because, obviously, the first Germs single — if you look at the complete history of The Germs — it was recorded way before they became what they were really going to become; but on the other hand, there are enough elements of the charm of what The Germs were to become in there to make it very appealing to people.

From there on out, the label, which he had dubbed What? Records, would make little enough impact on the music industry but major impact on the local punk scene.  Over the next few years, Chris would have a hand in recording and/or releasing records by bands like The Dils, KAOS, Agent Orange, The Skulls, The Eyes, and The Controllers.  In fact, Chris not too long ago pressed up a limited edition vinyl 10” compilation disc of some of the tracks he released during that period.  (click here)

ilokilogoHis next move, Iloki, was not so much a different label as it was him having a chance to sell the rights to the What? label name and come up with a bit of cash.  (Chris and I just this morning discussed his philosophy regarding his various enterprises, agreeing that it was more a matter of getting enough out of one project to be able to afford to do the next— he is always thinking ten projects ahead)  For one thing, the trending music had changed, the original punk movement losing steam and a new surf-oriented reprisal gaining steam.

Again, from horrorgarage.com:

Iloki was the immediate name that I went to, since I was doing surf music, hence “palm tree of hits.” It basically means, “I’m low key.” It gives a Hawaiian kind of thing to it. Everybody puts all kinds of meanings to it, but that was the one that basically relates to the whole scheme of it all.

While most of what came out of that label was surf-oriented, toward the end Chris teamed up with the guys who would hand him today’s project— the Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo documentary— on a platter.

I reissued an album by a group called The Pyramids, who had had a hit called “Penetration,” and did three What Surf compilations and recorded various different people. That’s when I hooked up with Agent Orange and produced two of their songs, covers, for my comps and then later worked with them and got that first EP on Enigma, a label to which they signed.

Around ’91, Chris tied up with Skull Control, a band consisting of Kidd Spike (The Controllers),  Nicky Beat (The Weirdos), and Billy Bones (The Skulls).  Kidd Spike would be his connection to The Gears.

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Consider that a Cliff’s Notes version of how Chris met Spike, and how eventually Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo happened.  There may be a couple of small sidesteps in there somewhere, but for the purposes of this column, it suffices.

In the meantime, another wind was blowing and Chris decided to start another label— Wondercap Records.  Through some osmosis unknown to man, Chris got bitten by the jazz bug.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but when he started to think recording and releasing product by jazz artists, Iloki was hardly the label on which to do it.  As far as I can tell, it all started with Dave Winogrond, who had played drums in The Tidal Waves.  Then, Chris found out about an album which Sam Phipps (Sluggo from Oingo Boingo) had recorded— maybe not a full album because Chris and Sam went into the studio to record a few new tracks for the project.  Then, it was DJ Bonebrake (who had drummed on a couple of the tracks by The Germs as well as having been the drummer for X).  It is about this time my head started spinning, this string of names mostly new to me swirling in my already confused mind.  Basically, though, this was Wondercap.

(An aside:  If you are at all interested, I highly recommend reading the full interview as posted by horrorgarage, which you can access by clicking here.  It covers Chris’s involvement with music from a label standpoint very well and, truth be told, one buried story like this is better than a thousand rehashed stories by the stars and superstars, as far as I am concerned)

But I digress.  So when the opportunity to work with The Gears came along, Chris was ready.  Kidd Spike, it seems, had a few songs that the band had recorded in 2003 but (to my knowledge) had not released.  Chris and the Kidd got together and said why not?  Chris headed into the studio with Jose “Chepe” Alcantar to mix and the rest is history.  The 10-inch EP was released in 2009 with three originals and one cover (that being Chuck Berry‘s Sweet Little Sixteen).  God knows why he did it, but Chris decided to put the four tracks on both sides, technically making it an eight-song EP, but with the four songs repeated.  When you think about it, it’s kind of cool.  But you do see what I put up with, right?

Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo….. From Song to Documentary

dontbeafraidtopogoAs I found out from watching the DVD, Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo was one of The Gears’ first songs.  The Pogo.  I’d heard about it but did not understand it.  One of the interviewees in the doc set me straight.  The big dance for punks, evidently, was the Slam, a wild and sometimes violent throwing of bodies around (evidently it involved throwing your own body around, saving lots of energy for throwing it against nearby bodies).  After studying the phenomenon, Professor Ludwig von Drake (I’m kidding!) set about creating an alternative, one which would not leave the individuals broken and bloody at the end of the night, that being the Pogo.  Whereas the Slam was sideways, see, the Pogo was up and down, so unless you were standing on someone or had someone directly above your head, little contact was made (although there were weaklings with little body control who could turn the Pogo into a bloodbath).  Hence the term “Pogo.” (Hey, wasn’t he a comic strip character?)

IMG_0014b The Gears with Chris Ashford (bottom right)

The dance wasn’t the thing, though.  The music was.  Well, actually, they both were.  And this doc tells the story of how the music came to be.  How the guys found one another.  How they found others.  How the L.A. punk scene basically evolved.  The scene may have not been as coalesced as was others— the scenes in Boston and NYC being examples— but the music which came out of it was epic.

The Gears, for the most part, were from Northeast L.A.  Glassel Park.  Highland Park.  They grew up there and lived there.  Even Kidd Spike made mention of being attached to the area.  It was home.

“Dave (Drive) has had the same phone number since 1945 or something like that,” said Spike (at least I think it was Spike).  “This is homebase.  This has always been homebase.”

About Taylor Yards, the switching station for most of the trains in L.A.  “The sounds of the trains’ brakes at Taylor Yards were in the key of C,” he said, “and you could tune your guitar to it.”

The Gears did a 45 with Freddy Cannon not all that long ago.  Did I mention that?  Freddie loved the sessions and gave a huge nod to the band.  freddythegearsJack Lee (The Nerves) tried to help the band.  There were so many references it was hard to keep up.  The guys spit out their musical (and sometimes personal) lives machine-gun style, sounding at times like over-caffeinated AM disc jockeys.  There were old clips and more recent clips of the band playing, of the guys talking.  Miss Mercy of the GTOs did, I think, Brian Redz‘s hair.  Sean Shift talked about the changing of the guard — he took over Dave Drive‘s shift.  Crazy Reuben talked about the early days of the band and how he absconded with most of the band’s first 45 because he was pissed (you have to see the doc to find out why).  Mike Manifold explained how he learned fifteen songs in two days and played them all without ever having played with the band before.  Axxel G. Reese.  God, what can I say about Axxel?  He isn’t delusional, exactly, but…..

Last month, Chris had a showing of the documentary at the Vista Theater in Hollywood.  A few friends went.  All of them raved.  But they knew the band.  They knew the area.  And they knew the scene.

After watching it in one sitting beginning to end, I only wish that every city and town had been able to put together docs like this one.  I see that they put one together for Toronto (The Last Pogo Jumps Again).  They put something together about Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, didn’t they?  God, how I would love to see one covering the guard armory circuit of the Willamette Valley of Oregon, or the Seattle scene (vintage or punk), or the Fort Worth and Dallas scenes of the 60s.  Can you imagine if someone had vintage film of, say, The Wailers or The Sonics or Don & The Goodtimes?

Chris is right now trying to set up a few more showings around the country.  Three people closely involved with the band live in Salem and Portland, so he is looking into that.  He is looking at music fests and film festivals.  If you have any leads, I am sure he would appreciate them.  Just visit the Wondercap Records website (http://www.wondercaprecords.com/index.html) and leave a message.

It is universal, this music needing documenting.  I now know a ton about the punks in L.A.  I know about the Akron scene of the late 70s and early 80s.  I know more about the movement in the South (check out the doc We Didn’t Get Famous).  How about Minneapolis/St. Paul in the 70s.  Florida in the 60s.  Seattle before grunge took over the world.  Ah, my eyes.  They are rolling back into my head.  Fade to black.  Thud.

Up-and-Coming…..

Who?Things are hopping.  I am working on a review of the new Danny Schmidt album, Owls.  It will be released in a couple of weeks and I can’t say enough about it.  Danny pulled out the stops this time, mixing acoustic finger-picking with, at times, a full-on rock band.  Powerful yet sensitive, it is possibly his best yet (and he has put out some beauties).  Did I ever mention that one of my favorite guitarists, Paul Curreri, learned most of his finger-picking technique from Danny?  Oh, and dig this.  I did an interview with Danny back in 2008.  One of the best interviews I ever did.  The Indie scene was quite new to me then and Danny took the time to explain a lot of things I did not know— about distribution and recording and touring.  He says I can reprint it if I will allow for updates.  I’m pumped.  Every time I talk with him, I learn something new.  Stay tuned.

Paul Hood, with whom I worked at Peaches in Seattle for a short time, has told me that the Toiling Midgets stuff has been re-released.  I plan on interviewing him via Skype, but am getting feedback on my connections.  Anybody know why?  As soon as I can figure it out, I will be running at least a part of a future column on Paul and his music past and on the Midgets’ reissue, if that be what it is.  Again, stay tuned.

David Olney and America’s Game

OlneyHadfleyBaseballDavid Olney has tied up with John Hadley to produce an album  of music about baseball.  The info says that it was released in 2009, but I had not heard about it until a couple of weeks ago.  Titled Ol’ Diz: A Musical Baseball Story, it tells in, I assume, fabled song the story behind the greats and the game.  The song I heard was a killer.  It put together pieces from all over the place and created a field of dreams all its own.  when I asked Olney about the song, he sent me this in the way of explanation:

Two days ago Carlos Carrasco of the Cleveland Indians was hit by a line drive. Looks like he’ll be alright. I was a kid when Herb Score was nailed by a liner off the bat of Gil McDougal. I remember how that incident chilled me.  Suddenly baseball was more than a game. It was a life and death drama. Some years later Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox was hit by a pitch that more or less ended Conigliaro’s career.  That dreadful moment is one of the things Coover captured in The Universal Baseball Assn. And that’s what I was going for in Baseball. I had heard a recording of Glen Gould’s called North (I think) where he had three or four people talking about experiencing winter in Canada. He recorded each person separately and then combined them as if they were sections of an orchestra. I wanted to try something similar in my piece. The name Damon Young combined the ideas of Greek-ness and youth. The announcer was of my own invention. A character with a God’s eye view of humanity. But he’s not controlling the action. He’s only watching in amazement.

Is it any wonder that I follow Olney as closely as I do?  It comes in CD format.  Anyone interested can find it here.

NotesNotes…..  Back in the old days, we called this old-timey.  Then intelligent people peppered the Earth and broke down the genre.  This became clawhammer banjo.  Now they call it Appalachian? Christ almighty!  If they keep changing things on me,. I will never keep up!  By the way, where is Burma these days?  Ans Rhodesia?  Am I going to have to buy new maps?  From the talented Tippy Southcloud with thanks to Charlottesville’s Jamie Dyer and good ol’ Brian Wimer.

I’m not posting this video because it is Kim Fowley.  I’m posting it because any song which starts with I’m ugly is Top Ten on my hit parade.  Not to mention that it has a good beat and I can dance to it.  Truthfully, it makes me laugh.  Thought it might give you a chuckle too.

First off, I love Wurlitzer piano and have since the early seventies when it was used mainly as an oddity (it created some of the most beautiful keyboard tones I have ever heard).  Seldom have I heard the Wurlitzer used as a band instrument (it is usually saved for solos or special songs), but Kip Boardman does it on his latest album, Boardman.  He is joined on the album by two musicians I have grown to love— Dave Gleason on guitar and Eric Heywood on guitar and pedal steel (those guys are good!).  I liken Boardman to a Randy Newman who can sing— not that Randy can’t, but not this good).  Great songwriter.  If you decide to listen, be aware that Boardman is not a one trick pony.  He writes in many styles, all good.

For all of the music that Adam Marsland has been involved with, it is a shame that he is not more well-known.  The guy has the touch for pop music of all kinds.  Here he is with his new band, Pacific Soul Limited, rocking the soul fantastic.  Great retro sound and very well done.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Wednesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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