Northwest Music History: Rock

Nancy Claire

Not surprisingly the bands of the 1950s and 60s that would define The Northwest Sound was mostly a boys game.  There had been women who’d made it in their own right –Bonnie Guitar comes to mind- but even she was closer to country than the newer sounds.  Bea Smith had made her name in rockabilly but  The NorthwestSound relied on a hybrid of R&B and jazz.  In fact most of the successful women performing were either coming out of rockabilly, hillbilly music or singing blues and early R&B among the many black venues surrounding Jackson St.  Of course many of these clubs were avoided by whites, and those teenagers wanting to hear the real deal dare not venture into many of the mostly-black bottle clubs and dens of gambling and prostitution that some rightly were known as.  Police raids were common along Jackson Street and door men were careful not to give entry to the kids that may be cause for even more raids.  The musicians who had come to play R&B were the exception to the rule.  Their fans may have been frightened off by what was collectively known as the (primarily black) Jackson St. Scene. The Birdland, The Ubangi Club, The House of Entertainment and especially The Black and Tan (which was largely integrated by the late 50s) were all clubs that attracted the young white practitioners of teen-dance R&B.

Very few of the early Northwest Sound bands ventured into vocals or women in general.  This wasn’t a purposeful lock-out of women.  It was out of popular demand.  Audiences didn’t mind instrumentals, they simply wanted to dance.  Girl Groups from across the nation were seen as a novelty acts.  Very few bands had fully-fledged female members of their bands.  There were exceptions, but this was mostly the face of the Northwest Sound during the mid-late 1950s. Enter The Fleetwoods.

Artist, label owner and producer Bonnie Guitar and her business partner Bob Reisdorff of Dolphin Records (soon to be re-christened as Dolton Records had taken note of the Olympia trio (Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis).  The band did not fit into the girl group mold, nor was it the kind of rollicking R&B Northwest fans were used to… but Bonnie and Bob’s belief in The Fleetwoods and their signing them paid off in droves.  The first two releases by The Fleetwoods rose … Read more›

The Frantics: How an R&B teen dance band become monsters of Psychedelic Rock

The story of The Frantics covers alot of NW music history.  It’s also a tale of two bands…at least.  The birth of what would become The Frantics goes back to 1955 when schoolmates Ron Petersen and Chuck Schoning formed a duo in 7th grade.  They initially named themselves The Hi-Fi’s.  Ron played guitar and Chuck playing accordian.  Soon Chuck was loaned a keyboard and the band would expand with new recruits Joel Goodman (drums), Dean Tonkins (bass), and Gary Gerke (piano). After paring this line-up down to Ron Petersen, Joel Goodman, Chuck Schoning and  Jim Manolides  the band would become known as The Four Frantics.  All members of The Four Frantics at this time were underage, so they hit the mighty teen dance circuit that was then at its height in the Northwest.  Later Bob Hosko would sit in as sax player so the band shortened its name to The Frantics. By 1958 the band had gone through a few more personnel changes, heralding in the first classic line-up of the band.  It was solidified with Ron Petersen (guitar), Joel Goodman (later, Don Fulton then,  Jon Keliehor) on drums, Chuck Schoning (keyboards), Bob Hosko (saxophone), and Jim Manolides (bass).  The band continued to play teen dances in the Puget Sound region, and by 1958 had become a local sensation.  They’d also attracted the attention of local label Dolton Records.

The Frantics sound was simple.  An incredibly tight rhythm section, highly proficient guitar playing and an up-front raunchy, R&B and Jazz influenced saxophone.   The result was both fun, danceable and a bit dangerous.  It was the sound of NW garage rock played with a little more finesse. The band was all-instrumental except for occassional appearances by locally in-demand vocalist Nancy Claire. Nancy made the rounds of the NW scene, both before and after her tenure with The Frantics, She played with the most iconic players of her era.  Nancy Claire had such a high profile in the 60s that she will be covered in her own future post.

By 1959 The Frantics were slated to record for Dolton Records with prominent engineer Joe Boles in the basement studio of his West Seattle home.  Boles was working with Dolton Records at the time and had done recordings and demos with soon-to-be-famous acts like The Fleetwoods, The Ventures and The Wailers. It was Boles himself that recorded The Ventures Read more›

Ballin’ Jack

Ballin’ Jack was formed in Seattle by former childhood friends Luther Rabb and Ronnie Hammon. Both of them had gone to school with and been friends with Jimi Hendrix at the city’s Garfield High School.  In the early 60s Luther Rabb played around the NW with several moderately successful outfits on the teen and R&B circuits.   He had even played saxophonist alongside Jimi Hendrix’s in The Velvetones, the first band Hendrix had been involved in.  Ronnie Hammon was a drummer who’d also backed a few Seattle bands-none of them particularly notable.  In 1967 Rabb and Hammon decided to form their own band.  Rabb, a multi-accomplished musician would leave the saxophone behind and switch to bass guitar.  Hammon continued drumming, thus forming a strong rhythm section.  Almost immeadiately they added Jim Coile on flute and Tim McFarland on trombone. A bit later Jim Walters would come onboard as their saxophonist and Glen Thomas providing the lead guitar.  The name Ballin’ Jack has obscure origins.  It could be based on “Ballin’ the Jack” a 1913 song written by Jim Burris and  Chris Smith.  It could refer to the and the ensuing dance that became popularized by the song.  The expression “Ballin’ the Jack” also has ties to railroad workers who used the expression “to go full speed”.  But the band’s use of the shortened expression probably was chosen for one of two other reasons.  Sometimes the term “ballin’ the jack” implied having a great time.  There’s certainly enough examples of the expression being used in film, on Broadway and popular music….but sometime the meaning was (literally) deep, full-on sex.  Blues great Big Bill Broonzy sang in “Feel So Good”

My baby’s coming home
I hope that she won’t fail because I feel so good, I feel so good.
You know I feel so good, feel like balling the jack

As Bessie Smith sang in “Baby Doll” in 1926,

He can be ugly, he can be black
So long as he can eagle rock and ball the jack

There’s several ways to interpret the term, but “ballin the jack” was an expression often used in jazz and blues circles to mean deep, full and fast sex.  It may be this veiled, slang reference is the meaning the band intended their name to represent.

Ballin’ Jack found themselves moving to Los Angeles, living in a large … Read more›

The Spectators

The Spectators played fewer than 20 gigs. They performed only 15 songs live. But their reputation as one of the most original and accomplished bands of the early Seattle alternative scene continues to grow into the 21st century. Their first gig was December 8th 1980, the same day John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. It was just like most other nights at Seattle’s legendary Gorilla Room on Second Avenue; a handful of people showed up, and more free beer was drunk up by the bar staff and their under-aged buddies than was ever sold. But that night one of the finest Seattle bands of the era played to the nearly empty club. Over the next few months the band would be regulars at the Gorilla Room and WREX and end up on the stage of Seattle’s Showbox Theater at least twice, as co-headliners, and as openers for The Stranglers. Later, Bob Mould, having played three dates with The Spectators while on the first national tour by Hüsker Dü , called them “the greatest unsigned band in America“. Less than a yearlater The Spectators were gone.

The Spectators combination of surf, metal, jazz and punk predates most alt bands with similar influences by a full decade. They were a power-trio, but one that dealt their deadly blows with intricate and subtle precision rather than blind swings. This was a band that had brains as well as brawn. By using a limited amount ofeffects, guitarist Byron Duff and bass player Stanford “Stan” Filarca created a sound so tightly woven that it was hard totell who was playing lead, where the rhythm was coming from and how they could possibly sound so big and layered at the same time. Add to the mix the powerful, inventive and perfect tempo of drummer Jeff Farrand and it’s hard to think of any finer trio in rock, signed or unsigned, even today.

During their short life The Spectators recorded very little of their output in the studio-about six studio tracks still exist. Unfortunately most of it has been lost or the tapes have degraded so badly they’re practically unlistenable.  Fortunately there still are some fairly high quality mono recording caught on a cassette player using a condenser mike! Some of these cassettes and board mixes have been discovered, including this recording of Call It Chaos. One-time Seattle promoter and indie label … Read more›

The Refuzors

During the early to mid 1980s The Refuzors were A-list Seattle punk rockers. They were one of the best live bands around. Uncompromising, edgy and raw.  They could have been lumped in with alot of hardcore bands from that era but for one thing. The songwriting, mostly by guitarist and vocalist Mike Refuzor set them far ahead of other great hardcore Seattle bands.  And they were always unexpectedly fun.  The Refuzors started out as a trio, and it’s probably their original line-up or Mike Refuzor (Mike Lambert) Bass and Vocals, Danny Refuzor (Danny Barton) on guitar and Roach Refuzor Dan Bradshaw) on drums that is most memorable. Other incarnations included Ward Refuzor (Ward Nelson) on guitar, Al Dams, Mike Purdon on bass  and Renee Refuzor (Renee Vazquez) doing some of the vocals.

The Refuzors were good at creating controversy-but some of it was also the cause of the press.  In a revew of the band local rock critic (at the time) printed her views of The Refuzors (and Mike specifically) of being neo-Nazi, white supremecists and fascists.  The comments were made in the widely read but now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Her pronouncement wasn’t based on the lyrics or outward signs of Nazism.  The Refuzors never associated themselves with the neo-Nazi or white supremacist movements.  Hackett based her opinon on their dress; the all black, all leather uniform that many punks adhered to in the early 1980s.  The result of the public accusation led Mike to write one of his best songs, “White Power”.  And of course, once more the media went wild.  How could any major band write such a song?
The fact is the song’s lyrics make clear that they did NOT support white supremacy.  The lyrics start:

People may say things about me.
Some of them things are true, some are lies
With the power of the press you labeled me a Nazi
I bet you can’t even look me in the eyes

Later in the chorus Mike sings;

I never said White Power
I never said White Power to you
White Power
I’m sayin’ it now
You put those words in my mouth…

A studio version of the song was included on the near-legendary “Seattle Syndrome” compilation, but it seems as of this writing there are only very poorly recorded live versions of the song available on the internet.  Aside from the inclusion on The Seattle Syndrome … Read more›

The Visible Targets

                 Pamela Golden, Rebecca Hanilton, Ron Simmons, Laura Keane

The Visible Targets, with the frontline of sisters Pamela Golden, Laura Keane and Rebecca Hamilton could have dressed up as babes.  They could have played covers for frat parties.  They could have been a “novelty band”.  Instead they chose to work within Seattle’s alternative scene, playing alongside art bands, punks and “loser” bands as well as the innovators.  It’s no wonder that the band was often scoffed at by the supposedly hip, more cynical and “serious bands.   The irony is those “hipper” more cynical audiences always showed-up at their shows.  The truth is The Visible Targets were original, musically talented and…fun.  They were secure in their musical talent and determination.  It’s fair to say they were the forerunners of the riot grrl movement that wouldn’t flourish for another decade.  The sisters, originally from Yakima WA had paid their dues in cover bands and had even spent time in England trying to jump-start their career.  But it wasn’t until they returned to the US and recruited Ron Simmons as drummer.  Ron was an old friend of theirs from school, and he fit in perfectly.  With the sisters in front and Simmons in the back providing an excellent behind them the band (then known as Wreckless) set out to conquer Seattle-and further.  With their name change to The Visible Targets, and their musical and lyrical dexterity popularity was to come quickly with a dedicated fan base who loved their approach, their look, and most of all their musical and lyrical talent.

The Visible Targets first came to light via Bruce Pavitt’s 1980 ‘cassettezine’ Sub Pop 5. The band then caught the attention of Bob Jenniker, a successful record store owner in Portland and Seattle that had begun the Park Avenue Records label. Bob had released the The Wipers’ Alien Boy, Youth of America and Is This Real, all of them seminal recordings from the American underground. Jenniker was scouting for new talent for his label, and when he found The Visible Targets. He was so impressed he not only signed them; he became the band’s manager and dedicated friend.

The band reflected everything good about the ‘power pop” and new wave” music of the 1980’s. They had an incredible pop sensibility, a talented line-up with enough edge to satisfy serious musicians while appealing to fans that were more interested in being entertained than … Read more›

WREX

WREX was established in Belltown, Seattle by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan in the early Fall of 1979.  The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. Johnny’s Handlebar, at the time it closed was said to be the oldest, continuously open gay bar on the West Coast.  For the first few months of it’s life WREX remained a typical 70s/80s gay bar, catering to local gay men.  The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system curated by Ted Ladd.  A DJ spun the popular music found in thousands of gay discos around the nation (and in Seattle) which also included a handful of the poppier “new wave” hits that most gay bars also included among their playlists. As the novelty of the new gay bar wore off the gay clientele retreated to many of their previous haunts around town.  The Brass Door, Neighbors, The Park Avenue, and a plethora of other LGBT venues that  were popping up with regularity.  WREX was still viable as a business, but they needed something more to bring in customers.  One of the targets WREX had not yet tapped into was the growing popularity of punk in the LGBT community  Many who came of age during the punk era rejected the “clone” culture that pervaded the  gay scene at the time.  Not only that, alot of younger straight adults interested in punk barely regarded a difference between themselves and their queer friends. They all gravitated  toward punk as an alternative, so they were all one tribe. It’s not surprising that gays bars were regularly part of the punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They were always ready to allow punk rock in their midst because it represented the same kind of outsidership, and it’s no wonder so many gay youth were willing to embrace more outré artists that had emerged from gay disco-artists like Sylvester and the iconic Grace Jones.

Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management … Read more›

Student Nurse

By the early 1980s Student Nurse was a mainstay of the alternative Seattle music scene.  Their angular. slightly dissonant and dance-driven sound set them apart from the darker, punkier and heavier bands they shared bills with.  Bands like Audio Leter, The Fags, Red Dress, and The Refuzors.  Like the best of their contemporaries they honed-in on their particular, unique sound and the band expanded outward, sending them on a trajectory somewhere between subversion and art-damage.

Student Nurse started as the brainchild of married couple John Rogers (drums) Helena Rogers (guitar and vocals) along with bassist Joe Harris and rhythm guitarist Al Davis.  In 1979 the band self-released their first single, (“Disco Dog b/w Lies).  The songs stood perilously between weirdness and pop-exactly as the band had anticipated.  One other song from this line-up was included on the ground-breaking “Seattle Syndrome” compilation released on Engram Records in 1981. By that time Harris and Davis had left the band and the jittery guitar leads of Helena Rogers were accompanied by new members guitarist Tom Boetcher and bassist Eric Muhs.  Helena’s vocals were disjointed, pointalist and determined. John’s jazz-influenced drumming and rhythms were the perfect foil to the rest of the band which left the impression the music had fallen on it’s face-in the best possible way.

Their next vinyl outing was the one-sided 12″ “As Seen On TV” with individually hand-screened artwork by Helena on the cover-as had been the case with the first single.  This is the kind of stuff collectors drool over nowadays, but Helena and the rest of the band weren’t interested in collectors of the growing market for oddball packaging that would later cater to a pre-manufactured market for Seattle music, and the rest of the alternative/independent scene.  For Student Nurse it was all about the aesthetics and ethics they held.

In 1981 Student Nurse entered Triangle Studios-later to be renamed as the famous “Triad Studios” where so many other successful bands would record.  The choice of the material for their next single  may have seemed odd, as they chose two of their more accessible songs, the Dutch-lyriced “Recht Op Staan” (“Stand Up Straight” in English-a song referring to the importance of good posture).  The B-side was an instrumental called “Electronic Pop Smash”.  Both choices were designed to catch listeners and fans off-guard.  Maire Masco, one of the heads of Pravda, the label that released “Recht Op Staan” … Read more›

Gary Heffern

Gary Heffern began his career the late 70’s singing with San Diego punk band The Penetrators alongside Country Dick Montana. Heffern’s done poetry readings with everyone from John Doe, to Nina Hagen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first two solo albums ‘Bald Tires in the Rain’ and ‘Painful Days’ have featured some of the incredible cadre of his admirers. John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick Montana, The Walkabouts, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney.

Heffern spent a good part of his career as part of the Seattle music scene, but his muse has taken him to Finland, living near the Arctic Circle where an incredible video of his song ‘La La Land’ was shot in 2008. It’s an epic, sad, beautiful, and reflective observation of the fading away of a parent…It’s touching without ever slipping into the sentimentality one would expect.

His album “Consolation” featured a who’s who of American roots music; Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Case, Mark Lanegan, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M.) Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth from ‘Built to Spill‘, and on and on. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on Consolation and currently as “Gary Heffern And The Beautiful People” and is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap.

Seattle rock critic and well-known author Charles R. Cross writes:”In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer” from the album “Consulation” sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it. There is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable timepiece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern”.
Aside from his songwriting, albums. online music and … Read more›