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Dismantling The Mechanics

26 Jun

Call me short sighted, but I don’t suspect to ever get over what the rock ‘n’ roll legacy of THE MECHANICS has meant to me over the past few years. In my world, they are a rare commodity: a late 70’s punk-influenced SoCal band this music fanatic previously knew nothing about, at least until I stumbled upon this website in 2008. Said website turned out to be a bottomless wellspring of awesome pics, killer mp3s, and hilariously honest memories of Dennis Catron, once THE MECHANICS’ lead gtrist. Most importantly, his band’s music – a steamrollin’ brand of Detroit-inspired, revved up hard rock – coulda wiped the floor with everybody who wasn’t allowed to play The Masque club back then. For real.

THE MECHANICS were born in a mid-70′s Fullerton vacuum after hippie had become a department store marketing scam, while glam was hot but hard to keep hold of in the suburbs, and when hard rock was king of the world. Funny thing was, by the time they started gigging (Oct. 1977) punk rock had also hit SoCal. And these longhair MECHANICS, well, they absolutely loved it; the ripping riffs & raging tempos they employed proved that.

But the metal tag remained appropriate too, alot of which came squarely from Dennis himself. His lazy smile and shoulder-length curls were archetypal stoner, his fretboard agility rivalled that of UFO’s Michael Schenker, and he played a Gibson Flying V for christs sake! Listen closer, though, and you’ll recognise his phrasing was pure IGGY-era James Williamson, with his unhinged, bluesy leads exploding in yr face like a can of tightly coiled snakes. His style was perfectly pitched to satisfy both VAN HALEN heshians and the younger, up-and-coming HC punker types then serving detention at Fullerton high schools. Needless the say, it’s a little bit of heaven to my ears.

I only know Dennis via cyberspace, but I know this: he’s a sweet man with a funnybone larger than my skull, a passion for vintage gtrs, and a healthy love of all things rocking. For the uninitiated, there’s a great interview with him posted here – but as usual, I had other questions. Read on and I guarantee you’ll rock harder, forevermore.

1) So: it’s 1976, the Bicentennial, Gerald Ford is President, PETER FRAMPTON is king of the airwaves, and you’ve started playing BOWIE covers in a teen Fullerton band called L.A. BRATS. Talk a little about this MECHANICS’ pre-history in ways the young ‘uns who weren’t born yet can really come to grips with.

Sandy (drummer) and me go back to 8th grade. He was playing with guys better than me, so I woodshedded relentlessly with the intent of getting better than them & stealing their awesome drummer. It worked, and then Mike Moore (later of THE VECTORS, now a gazillionaire movie studio owner) joined us on bass.

A friend at Lowell named Victor Bornia asked me to come by an 8th grade noonie where his band CREAM PUFF FATTY (not a typo) was playing. I liked the band, but I didn’t get their singer, Scott Hoogland. He was absolutely the coolest looking person I’d seen in my life, but he talked in a fake British accent & he stood stone still. I found out later he was instructed by the band to do so since they didn’t appreciate the Iggy moves during their Elton John covers.

They gave him the boot for a stock rock singer named Billy (‘The James Brolin of Rock’) Woodson, so Scott, Sandy & me hooked up. We put an ad in The Recycler for a rhythm player & got John Crawford, later of BERLIN. Brett was the last piece. He was Scott’s friend from La Habra High & was gonna be our light man. Instead he bought a Ricky 4001 bass & we now were a band. At this point a so-so covers one, but a band nevertheless.

The first thing we did when we realized we were officially a band was get L.A. BRATS t-shirts made with our names on them, fairly similar to the iconic one used by THE RUNAWAYS, who we were all of course in love with. Scott’s even said ‘Rodney’ which no one knew was his real name! We all got black ones, our lone groupie Suzie got a purple one, and we all walked around at the La Mirada Mall in them like we were major rock stars. I’ve never felt so proud in my life.

2) This all led to THE MECHANICS who some have called (rightfully or not) Orange County’s first punk band. How did such a winning line-up come together? Drums, bass, gtrs, singing – there was absolutely no weak link that I’ve been able to identify.

After we gave Crawford the boot, Scott suggested Tim Racca who he’d been moonlighting with in Tim’s band HEAD OVER HEELS. We jammed one night, Tim had all these great tunes, and that was it. In the BRATS we were doing UFO & MONTROSE covers and had like one original, so the idea of all originals was really exciting. We started with a lot of old tunes from HEAD OVER HEELS & THE TOYS that became MECHANICS tunes later like “Airplay” and “Body Rot”, but they were originally punchy, slower numbers. Eventually they all morphed into these adrenaline rushes. More on that later!

Brett had left for some reason, so we had local bass whiz Scott Koehler for a while, Rikk Agnew auditioned but spent most of the audition rolling around on the floor, and then happily Brett came back. He’d leave in a year to play folk music with his family, but that’s another story.

Our best & most remembered line-up was with Timmy Maag on bass. After Brett bailed, Timmy approached us as a fan saying he’d never picked up an instrument in his life, but if we’d give him 3 months, he’d woodshed and be the perfect fit. It only took him 2. For 2 months he and Tim banged away at Tim’s house while the rest of us explored new drugs at our studio. When they were done Maag could downstroke better than Dee Dee and Johnny combined.

We would have never booted Maag btw, but he and Tim could kill huge blocks of time arguing during practice. Neither would budge, so we decided since Racca wrote 95% of the material, Timmy was history. That was a drag even more from the angle that Timmy was the coolest guy in the band. We got this solid rock bassist named Mike to replace Maag, and we never sounded the same after that. Don’t mean that as a bad thing, it just changed everything. We became tighter with Mike, more professional and way more rock & roll, but Maag’s relentless simplicity honestly propelled everything. The day Maag left you could no longer think of us a punk band, especially since we dropped all of our punk tunes when Mike joined.

3) When I look at pictures of you guys, I think metal/hard rock fellas, all the way. But when I shut my eyes and listen – it’s full-on, rampaging punk rock I’m hearing. How did you guys come up with such a combination?

I’d like to say it was a great game plan, but it was actually just jumping on the punk bandwagon! At first we sped things up for fun, but then we’d all look at each other and just start laughing. All of our medium tempo rock tunes morphed into these way better 2:20 minute punk anthems. For whatever reason we were the tightest band in the world when we blew the tempos out.

BTW, for all my dissing of punk, I/we really did love THE DAMNED, GENERATION X & especially THE WEIRDOS. THE WEIRDOS were one of the best live bands ever!

4) Your website notes for your 11 November 1977 gig at The Masque in Hollywood: “Legendary punk club. Owner Brendan Mullen decides THE MECHANICS are ‘Way Too Metal’ to invite back.” Please, do elaborate.

It was actually an audition. You had to audition for Brendan before he’d let you in. The first people we met inside were Rik L. Rik and Dim Wanker who both looked like little kids. We plugged in & just killed it. We saw Brendan maybe twice the whole set. He was running room to room with an anguished expression trying to look like he was doing something important or whatever. 10 minutes after we were done & tearing down he gave us the “you guys are waaaay too metal!” line & took off again.

5) Mike Ness said you guys would yell “we’re THE MECHANICS and we don’t play any slow fucking songs” but your slower songs (like “Strategic Air Command”) were among your very best. How did the band and different audiences react to the tempos?

Mike’s close. It’s, “We’re THE MECHANICS . . . and we don’t play no slow songs”, yelled by Scott after the intro tape we played our first year, which was Brett’s Pinto not starting while he screams obscenities. We’d sometimes do a slow song second in the set, just to fuck with people. Thanks for the nice words, but I just hated doing slow songs! They could be huge momentum suckers.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the Internet, but our fan base was 98% stoners, not punks. I bitch about this probably too much, but the OC scene in the late 70’s wasn’t remotely punk. That was more like 80-81. The late 70’s were hall party bands like CALICO JACK, PEE WEE (blues whiz), THE STRAND, A LA CARTE & BADMOON. Bands that had long hair, stage clothes, drum risers & light shows. I really wish more stoners would write on the internet and balance things out! It really irks me that people can’t find shit on BADMOON, kings of the OC party scene, but I can find a trove of information on motherfucking DOGGY STYLE. Arrgh!

Despite the punk tag we were always looking to play on rock bills. I always thought our competition was A LA CARTE and SMILE, not THE EYES or THE DEATBEATS! We always did great in front of your typical Starwood crowd. Punk shows not so much. You’d always have some whack-off going on about the long hair or even Sandy playing a double bass kit. Idiots. FEAR opened for us at Club 88 once & the audience looked ridiculous together. The FEAR girls are all in black leather and trying to look tough, and all our girls were wearing megawatt colors of spandex, silk tops & Farrah cuts. It looked like a SMILE crowd showed up to a MISFITS show by mistake.

6) Tim Racca is credited by guys from AGENT ORANGE, SOCIAL DISTORTION, and THE ADOLESCENTS as a primal influence. What is this about, and how did you and Tim balance melodic/ rhythmic/ harmonic content in the band?

Mike Ness and Dennis Danell (RIP) were Tim’s biggest fans early on. Then Rick Agnew, who even once started a MECHANICS covers band. Less so Mike Palm. Ness & Agnew were around all the time but Palm was always very focused on his own thing, even early on. They all disappeared by 1979 or so once they had their own bands going, but they came to most every show & rehearsal in the beginning.

We generally played to our strengths, so the lead rhythm parts went to Tim (think AC/DC: that’s Malcolm’s tone you’re hearing, not Angus until the solos), and embellishments & the octaves went to me. Tim’s a much tighter rhythm player than me, and his Firebird had a more signature rhythm sound than my Flying V. We always had the 2 camps for the guitars, Tim’s fans like Ness who liked his power & tone, and the stonys on my side of the stage waiting for solos.

7) Who the heck was Robert Logan, and what did he add to THE MECHANICS?

Robert Logan was a guy we met early on when his entourage popped in to a rehearsal. He had safety pins deep through the skin in his forehead, Salvation Army clothes, and was a completely antagonistic prick. I liked him immediately. Robert had what I suspect were those Manson qualities that drew people to him. He’d always be surrounded by a different set of misfits, and he’d always have them involved in whatever band or project he was working on at the time. He made even the oddest person feel special. His contributions were more to do with keeping things off balance and making things seem more like a Richard Brautigan novel than real life. You can read more of the things he’s infamous for on my website but I’ll add he was really a sweetheart deep down, albeit one that left questionable porn out on Sundays to bum out people from his parents church.

8) Blackie Lawless and George Lynch also seem to loom large in your personal musical cosmology. Tell us why we should be trolling bins for used WASP and DOKKEN records.

Blackie was the first ‘Star’ we ever ran into, and by that I mean he had this presence before anyone knew who he was. We saw him milling about at the (supposed) 1st punk show at Trooper’s hall (Radio Free Hollywood – THE DOGS, THE POP, THE MOTELS) and he was just bigger than life. He looked like what you hoped someone from Hollywood would look like, like he couldn’t be from anywhere else. We gigged with his band SISTER (ex-KILLER KANE BAND) and he started coming to our shows thereafter. My favorite and oft told Blackie story was one time when Sandy and me were getting high in The Starwood parking lot, and we see him drunkenly exit the side door with a giggling blonde under each arm. Sandy yells, “Hey Blackie! Where you off to?” He smiles his leering smile at us and yells back, “I’m gonna go fuck these two chicks!!”

Blackie also put the 1st nail in our coffin. He was in the balcony watching our last Starwood show (where we were all coked up & tired out), and he shook his head and said sadly to our managers, “Man, what happened to their energy?” Then he hung his head and walked off. They said he looked like he’d been shot :-)

George is a different case since I really didn’t know him very well. His band XCITER opened for us a bunch & he’d routinely mop the floor with me. Of course our rabid fans would sit on their hands during his sets, then go batshit when we came on. That always bugged the heck out of me, and still does. Gotta give props when someone eats you for breakfast.

No one should ever troll bins for WASP or DOKKEN records, btw :-) George has never had a band that’s lived up to his playing ability and especially has never found the right singer to compliment him, and I’ve always wished one of Blackie’s other bands had caught on instead of WASP. WASP are like the least interesting & talented out of all his bands. He’s much, much cooler than the WASP character he created.

9) There are ass-flattening live/demo recordings of dozens of MECHANICS songs floating around in cyberspace, but only two of them (“No Brakes” and “Drivin’ Me Away”) were ever waxed. Why wasn’t there more contemporaneous documentation, and where’s the retrospective double-album set THE MECHANICS legacy clearly justifies?

Hah. That 7″ 45 is the most regrettable thing we ever did. It’s nice it sells for a bunch on EBay, but I bet when the buyer slaps it on he’s scratching his head wondering what the hype is about! We should have recorded when Timmy Maag was in the band, but we just never thought about it. We were too busy gigging and trying to get seen. The outtakes for that 45 kill the single. The ‘A’ side was a brand new song & had the new buzz around it, and we did the pandering move of putting a slow song on the ‘B’ side. We were running on empty by then, so we weren’t thinking clearly! We must have had 20 tunes better than “No Brakes”, seriously.

A retrospective . . . we’ve got some nice offers from Rave Up Records, GTA, plus a few others I’m forgetting, and Tim has buried all of them. It used to piss me off to no end, but now I kind of get it. He’s never quit playing and I suspect he feels like he doesn’t want to go back in any way, like it would diminish the fact he’s still a vital musician. Bowie looks at it that way, so you gotta respect that I suppose. Or at lease grin and bear that you’re not gonna hear “Queen Bitch” live anytime soon!

10) How did THE MECHANICS thing wind down, and what did you move on to, musically speaking, in the 80’s/90s?

We were on completely different pages by the end. Tim took a breather from writing MECHANICS songs and was trying to get us interested in playing songs from a joke band (THE GENIUS BROS.) he was in. I think he was just tired of writing all these great songs and ending up back at zero. Scott and me had been writing decent songs towards the end, so we called Eric Overman and started LA MORT, which was basically THE MECHANICS without Tim, just like the L.A. BRATS were.

I’d like to say things really took off, but they didn’t. I wasn’t cut out to be a bandleader at all. Going from local guitar god to the guy in charge of collecting rent and getting everyone to rehearsal on time was an absolute nightmare. After Eric I wanted to give a shot to my teenage idol Fred Taccone (THE STRAND, later DI), but we caught him right when he was fighting some demons, so we spent the next year going through bass player after bass player. Sandy finally got sick of waiting & longed to go off with his friends in the ADOLESCENTS crowd, so we sadly cut bait.

Scott, Sandy, Mike and me did one last show in 1985 as THE SHADOWS (couldn’t think up a name on short notice, borrowed Hank Marvin’s for a month!) We sounded like a tight new band – the last show tape from Joshua’s still holds up, and Scott kills on the 3 song demo we recorded. As we were getting psyched over mixing the demo Mike calls us to say his wife doesn’t want him playing in a band anymore. Wife doesn’t want you to play? Good lord :-)

After that I went out on a bunch of Recycler auditions, which usually resulted in bands seeing my vanishing hairline & then apologizing cause they’d forgotten another guitarist was coming to audition that night. Really bummed me out, but I suspect I’d feel the same way if I was expecting Jimmy Page and Elton John showed up. After a couple of years I gave in to the fact I’d never be a part of a mythical singer/guitarist combo again, so I called it a day.

11) Finally: who are the musicians/artist who most inspire you now, and how does your son make sense of his daddy’s chequered rock and roll past today?

My tastes are still 71′-75′ rock & glam, and most of all the British Invasion stuff. Lather reverb all over a CHAD & JEREMY recording and I will still cry like a bitch when I hear it. My favorite musicians will always be David Werner, Michael Schenker & probably CREAM-era Jack Bruce. As for new stuff just GUITAR WOLF. I totally admire his unwavering devotion to his art. I remember when I first heard about him. Mike Palm had come back from touring Japan and told me, “I saw this guitar player in Tokyo. He was covered head to toe in leather & had a 50′ Strat that must be worth $20,000. He could barely play & didn’t bother trying to it tune the whole night. The bass player and the drummer came out combing their hair back and everyone was wearing sunglasses. The guitar player spent half the night trying to jump off a table and hit his head on a ceiling fan. You would have loved them.” And I do love them. That shot of him standing on the amp at the end this clip gives me freakin’ goose bumps!

My son Nicholas doesn’t know a thing about my past & could care less when I pick up a guitar. He wails on his guitar and thinks he’s smoking me. With that kind of cool he’ll hopefully do a lot better than I did.


Thanks to Dennis for permission to use the images above


Orange Curtain Call

17 Jan


Gonna talk a bit about music from that flank of SoCal I always tried my darnedest to avoid, but invariably ended up getting lost in: Orange County. Growing up as a kid in the South Bay, OC wasn’t nowhere except a place you’d caravan to for birthday parties – it was the home of Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Movieland Wax Museum, and the longgone Movie World. Then overnight: it was home to HC punk bands with a knack for nasty, raging tunage – SOCIAL DISTORTION, AGENT ORANGE, THE ADOLESCENTS.

While a few trips to Huntington Beach in the intervening years to see bands play did challenge my preconceived notions, those endless tract home neighborhoods and creepy conservative political groups down there continued to intimidate the hell outta me up until meeting my wife in ’95, down Irvine way. With a little help from her and a couple of longtime Buena Park residents, my eyes finally began opening to what is actually a fairly unique, richly diverse patchwork of suburban SoCal sprawl. When we left America for the UK, I found myself sorta missing OC. Well, almost.

Now I’m no expert on their music, but recently my attention has been caught by a bunch of records that were born/bred in that godforsaken county. I’ll start with the 60’s/70s, but do return at a later date to a hear a bit about ’80s OC action too. In chronological order:

1. THE HUMAN EXPRESSIONLove At Psychedelic Velocity (Collectable Records, 1994) Just rippin’ garage rock by at bunch of cavemen with Prince Valiant haircuts who sulked around mid/late 60’s Tustin and Westminster. It’s straight from Sky Saxon’s SEEDy school of 2-chord wonder, with bipolar moods teetering from raging anger to somber mournfulness and then back again, over and over. “You’re sick, and it’s wrong/ and baby it won’t be long/ til they’re readin’ your will” – yes, all you long time outsider types will no doubt be familiar with the inherent pleasure in such wallowing. Even the unreleased solo cuts that leader Jim Quarles did years later develop naturally from the early minimalism and sound strong. This kinda contrary sneer actually makes way more sense coming straight outta trackhome hell than off Sunset Blvd. A small but incredibly vital baby step in the growth of wildass, hairy rocking & rolling.

2. WILDFIRESmokin demo (self released, 1970) Laguna Beach boys who first waxed in the early 60’s surf era with Phil Pearlman as PHIL & THE FLAKES. Phil’s freaky work from the 60’s/70’s has been the focus of a number of revisitations as of late, but I prefer the groovin’, heavy motion his old bandmates made after they forged ahead on their own. By the time this demo was recorded, they were living out in Austin, TX and recording at Sonobeat Records – home to dozens of other great TX psych/blues acts at the time. I’m not sure how much of this fuzzfaced, GRAND FUNK-inspired sound was in place before they left CA, though the lyrics do have a feelgood California thing to em. I wish more modern heavy bands could express themselves with such ease – heavy don’t haveta mean dark/angry/brooding, ya know. In the end its irrelevant, since what’s been handed down to us is totally hot, blue, and righteous.

3. HARVEST FLIGHTOne Way (Destiny, 1971) Rock of The Jesus Movement stands as one of the odder musical scenes to develop in the 70’s. It was a Bizzaro-World version of the mainstream rock world, complete with IRON BUTTERFLY organ monsters (AZITIZ), DOORSish prog-blues dudes (AGAPE), and guttural, soulful JOE COCKER types (Larry Norman, Randy Matthews). Lots of these guys were listening to the very same stuff you/I love from that period, and more than a few of em had talent to spare. The better relics they left behind deserve a wider audience than they got from 1/8 page advertisements in backpages of The Hollywood Free Paper.

This LP sprung outta the very earliest OC Jesus Movement stirrings centered around Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel, and the main guy here, Evan Williams, was a talented gtrist and all-around musician (for a Christian). Although this is largely a solo project it incorporates an intimate familiarity with all sorts of LA rock stuff around that time – Sunset Strip STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK harmonies, cool DOORSian organ/gtr blues, floaty MU-like acoustic passages – yeah I’d reckon Merrell Fankhauser ain’t a bad reference point for the kind of wide-eyed musicospiritual exploration going on here. If only the lyrics weren’t so fucking intrusive in their BORN-AGAIN BONEHEADEDNESS (and believe me they are), I’d give this one a 9.5 on the psych-o-meter. Me, I try and imagine he’s singing about some little grey reticulan, since the music on this is quite fine, indeed.

4. HONKFive Summer Stories Soundtrack (Granite Records, 1972) Dennis Catron of THE MECHANICS (see below) names HONK as the best band that OC ever gave the world, and listening to their sweet soundtrack to this surf documentary tonight, I’m inclined to agree. It’s that early 70’s Cali mix of rural/country/jazz rock that most of you dread, and have fair reason to do so. A bit of later BYRDS, some Skull & Roses-era DEAD, a dollop of brassy CHICAGO, all topped with occasional group vocal harmonies that FLEETWOOD MAC would make us all despise a few years later. Yep: this should by all rights suck major dick.

But these guys (& one gal) are so musically inventive and gorgeously melodious with their hippie-as-surf rocking, all comparisons fail to do it justice. And make no mistake, they do rock, when not quietly weaving acoustic-driven instumental passages. Every cut here comes out like a great big pretty smile, every goddamn time. It reminds me of nothing so much as the beautiful pair of MORNING LPs that came out around this time, also in SoCal. Ooh Man the hills above Laguna Beach – laced as they were with copious amounts of Brotherhood of Eternal Love acid – must’ve been real nice back then. Never seen the flick in question but YouTube clips make it seem like something that might accidentally make your next Friday evening in alone. This LP certainly will.

5. THE MECHANICS – The best late 70’s band from Fullerton – hell, from the whole of SoCal! – that you never heard of. They rocked tightly wound, punk-fueled hardrock songs that belied wide-ranging influences. Yes I hear THE STOOGES and maybe some DEAD BOYS, but also BÖC and that bitchen pre-industry VAN HALEN (see their Gene Simmons demos from ’76 for proof they once had something to offer) too. THE MECHANICS ended up like something Phast Freddie woulda raved about in the pages of Back Door Man magazine, and sounded as great as LA’s THE DOGS – you know, what new wavers decried as metal, but what hardrockers slandered as punk. They somehow continued sounding amazing long after the LA hardrock scene had completely gone down the toilet – go figure.

Apparently both THE AVENGERS and THE ADOLESCENTS covered their songs, while Rikk Agnew and Mike Ness still profess deep love for em to this day. They have an incredible website maintained by gtrist Dennis Catron full of insightful and hilarious info, great photos, and tons of MP3s not only by them but equally-obscure related acts – it sets a benchmark that I wish every lost band from that time would aspire to. If you like to rock and never heard THE MECHANICS, there’s a money-back guarantee says this stuff’ll absolutely floor you.

Thanks to Rejuvesite for the photo I can relate to