Magical musical tour
Tales of bands that made an impact in Chico … in the words of the people who lived them
Spark ’n’ Cinder
Kim Gimbal, keyboards
I’d spent my first two years of school here at Chico State, then transferred to Berkeley. Upon graduation [from Berkeley in 1975], I immediately moved back up here to start a band with Bob the Barber. He had a Halloween gig booked at Canal Street, so we put a band together. That band eventually came to be Prairie Biscuit.
During this time, the Butte Creek Family was performing, Supa Nova was happening and eventually, around February of 1976, The East West Transcendental Spark ‘n’ Cinder Band was formed. I personally couldn’t believe how great these guys were. Great songs, great grooves. I was a huge Grateful Dead fan, and Spark seemed to me to be our own local version of the Dead. They were that good!
Chico and Paradise and Butte Creek Canyon were very cool places to be at that point in time. This area was our little Mecca of hippiedom, away from the big cities, where all of us had come from. We were all part of the “back to the land” movement. Some lived in communes in the canyon, some rented houses together in town, but all of us shared a love for this area that is still felt today.
A big part of what’s made Chico so special all these years has been the musical thread which started to be woven back then. The music has been basic to the fabric of our culture in this town. Imagine what Chico would be like if people like Jimmy Fay, Michael Cannon, Stevie Cook and John LaPado had not settled here.
Of course, it’s not just about the music and the musicians, it’s about the folks who’ve loved the music and lived here all these years. It’s about the young people who began to arrive here during the late ‘60s, and early ‘70s. It’s about the intermingling that occurred between easterners, westerners and locals. It’s about the sharing of talent and spirit—a mutual give and take between those of us who shared a common ideal. All of this has combined to create a lifestyle that is still central to all that is cool about Chico today.
Barbara Manning, vocals/bass
When 28th Day started in 1983, Chico was a vibrant town for the over-21 crowd, but for those of us in our late teens Chico was desolate and unfriendly. There was no venue open to underagers like me. The music scene was visible only through the steamy windows of bars such as Cabos on Ninth Street or Nellie’s on Second.
The occasional house party was an oasis in the desert of long, boring summers. Any bands scheduled to play inside the cramped living room of a party house would battle to get to play first. Usually the cops would end the party in the middle of the first band’s set.
It was in this stifling environment that 28th Day struggled to be seen and heard. We were three pimple-faced outcasts making noisy melodic songs that described the politics and romantic dark clouds permeating our limited social realms. Our frustrations and hopes were expressed in danceable energetic two-minute songs.
Before long we had crowds of other disenfranchised youths crowding into our practice room to listen. Our audience grew enough to convince the crooked club owners to let us play on odd weeknights. A select few members of the older, established Chico rockers checked us out and encouraged us. Soon 28th Day was discovered by an out-of-town producer, signed to a big label, recorded a brilliant album and within a couple of years disbanded in a fiery eruption worthy of the band’s legendary status.
We rocked the doors open for all the younger bands to come after us, and Chico has never been the same since.
Trish Rowland Howard, lead vocals
My band Vomit Launch emerged during a period of musical and creative challenge, much like current times. Major-market music was bloated and uninspired, and the people were bored with what the CEOs offered.
Luckily, college radio would play and support independently recorded bands, and there were clubs in most towns—that the people would go to—that booked those adventurous bands. Thus was reborn a vibrant do-it-yourself scene and aesthetic that was created long, long ago and reemerges from the muck whenever executives suck the fun, creativity and inspiration out of music. Right now is like deja vu! All over again!
We were a product of that particular charmed time. We did not start out as “musicians.” We were dismissed as ridiculous (come on, VOMIT LAUNCH?), yet somehow managed to stay together for something like 10 years, put out many albums, get signed to a very cool alternative record company, appear on MTV, play with old idols (X), new idols (Nirvana), tour so much we had to work for the lowest wages or the most understanding of bosses, and actually live that strange life of rock ‘n’ roll in a shitty old van. We made a lot of incredible friends. And somehow became “musicians.”
I learned so much through those years I’ll try to keep the list short:
1. If you dream it, do it. No one is good at anything right off the bat. If you want to be a singer, sing! Being good at something is not part of the definition.
2. Don’t listen to other people who do not understand you or your vision. Everyone will have an idea for how you should do something. Tell ’em to do it themselves; you’ve got your own plan! (Even if you don’t.)
3. Persistence is everything.
4. Forget everything I’ve just written and make your own world! And invite me to the grand opening!
Cole Marquis, guitar/vocals
I’ll always remember the Chico music scene in the ‘80s as a spectacular explosion on a very small scale. I had the great luck of being in two groups from that period that had an impact on the local front, 28th Day and the Downsiders. Although they shared many things in common musically, they could not have been more different.
28th Day will always be the first love; so fresh and innocent, so passionate and right, but in the end so heartbreaking. The Downsiders were the rebound; experienced, cerebral and confident.
Like brothers we came together at the perfect time, embarking on a journey that covered thousands of miles of touring, two records, hundreds of shows, one totaled van, a couple of tons of beer, more broken guitar strings than seems humanly possible, two countries, a long list of unmentionables and three of the most outstanding years of my life. We performed with many of the best bands of the era, saw the United States from the inside out, and played every chance we got.
It was the ultimate boys club, but the thing that made it best of all was the music. There were times when it was so powerful that it seemed impossible that no one would notice. But outside of our intense Chico fans, by and large, no one did. In the end we just burned out, frustrated by the lack of recognition despite our hard work. And so we disbanded, a year before our long-haired, flannel-wearing, distortion making brethren in Seattle burst upon the scene, stealing the thunder back from the likes of Cinderella and Poison.
I guess you could call the Downsiders proto-grunge, although we were much more in line with the art rock styling of Sonic Youth and R.E.M. than the sludge-rock of The Stooges. Besides myself on guitar and vocals, the band consisted of Jeff Tracy (guitar), Chris Cloward (bass, vocals), and Keith Foust (drums). We released two records (Downsiders, and All My Friends are Fish) on the Mammoth/Black Park label in the late ‘80s. They didn’t quite know how to market four wild boys from little Chico, Calif., and kept waiting for the band that “wanted to drink as hard as The Replacements” and insisted on writing songs that went farther and farther out of pop rock territory to end up dead on the road somewhere in a destroyed van. The wreck happened, but we just kept on going.
Even though or timing was extremely bad, I will always be proud of the effort we gave, the songs we wrote and the music we made. I think the Downsiders always tried to push the limits of what could be done sonically, for better or for worse. We always strived for the newest sound, the coolest passage and the biggest chord. It was fun, and it was free.
The Mother Hips
Tim Bluhm, guitar/vocals
Greg [Loiacono] and I had been in an acoustic trio called Ali and the Cats, and we would sit in with the rhythm section of a popular Zeppelin cover band called the Keystones. Eventually it became a permanent thing, and we started playing keggers around the avenues.
The bar scene was dominated by cover bands, and the bar owners wouldn’t let us play. I guess we kind of made it our mission to break into the bar scene—better sound systems, more money, and your shoes wouldn’t get dusty. LaSalle’s finally let us play, and we sold it out. It was very exciting. Then we started playing other places in town and eventually worked up to the fairgrounds. There were other original bands that did well after that, too, like Northurn Lyghts, Sunset Red and Buffalo Creek.
I think Chico’s isolation from other cities and other music scenes had a lot to do with how the Hips developed. We weren’t part of a scene. There were some good punk bands, but we didn’t fit into that. If we had been in Stockton, we might’ve tried to sound like Pavement or something. But we mostly just had the records in our house: Leonard Cohen, Black Sabbath, Gene Clark, Led Zeppelin, Merle Haggard, the Bee Gees. It came out kind of weird, but we liked it. It was our own.
Ken Lovgren, bass
We had a real Loverboy’s “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” ethos. We’d think, “Let us on the stage at Juanita’s or the Blue Room, give us a handful of friends, and we’ll deliver an invitation to celebrate … a loud one!” We spent hours tightening our set in a warehouse on Orange Street, but as soon as we’d get in front of people, the temptation to goof off at our own expense was irresistible. Kelly [Bauman] is a born artist, and Jim [Rizzuto] is a regular John Bonham incarnate, so it sounded pretty good despite our lack of commitment to technical excellence.
Like a lot of bands, at some point we wanted to know, “Could we get paid to do this? Do rock for a living?” We knew that required building a fan-base beyond Chico. Touring on the West Coast involves driving—sometimes a full day in a junky van between gigs. We learned that getting gigs requires talking on the phone to club owners who aren’t nearly as excited to talk to you as you are to them. At some point we realized, “Oh, wait, this is starting to feel like a job,” and ran for the hills.
I have a lot of respect for real musicians. They work incredibly hard to make it look like free lunch.