Aliens in our midst
In a previous life, Folsom comic artist Don Marquez helped free Sacramento from corporate-rock domination with his 1970s psych-punk band the Twinkeyz
There’s a chord. Here’s another chord. Here’s another chord. Now form a band.
Perhaps nothing else captures the do-it-yourself (or DIY) ethos of the late-1970s punk scene better than these clear-cut instructions, originally published in the U.K. punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue in 1976. The above manifesto came printed alongside drawings of three chord positions. At first glance, it may have looked like just a crude guitar tutorial, but it was much more. It was a call to arms.
In the mid-’70s, during punk’s formative years, America’s mainstream rock scene was a musical wasteland filled with aging pop stars and overblown instrumental virtuosity. By mid-decade, rock ’n’ roll, and all it stood for, had lost nearly all of its inherent relevance. And at perhaps no other time in rock history was there such a disconnect between a band and its fans.
Teenagers worldwide, disenchanted by rock’s extravagant, alienating zeitgeist, formed their own bands. And perfectly content with doing everything themselves, they self-recorded, self-produced and self-promoted their wares—all without major-label backing. Armed with this independent, nonconformist approach, these bands stood in the face of the hedonistic, mid-’70s rock world. Their music was about attitude, presentation and unpredictability, not long guitar solos and Top 40 hits.
One of the earliest Sacramento bands to heed this call was late-’70s sci-fi punk collective the Twinkeyz. Masterminded by guitarist and artist Donnie Jupiter, the Twinkeyz personified the independent, DIY punk spirit. Brandishing garage-pysch chord progressions, wild experimental effects and Jupiter’s science-fiction-laced lyrics, the Twinkeyz were outcasts amid Sacramento’s mainstream music scene.
But to talk today with Don Marquez, a.k.a. Donnie Jupiter, you’d think that starting a band like the Twinkeyz was just something that anyone would have done at the time. “The mid-’70s were a pretty dismal period for music,” said Marquez. “There were all these bands out there that looked the same and sounded the same. We just thought we could make more interesting music than that.”
As a kid growing up in Sacramento in the 1960s, Marquez divided the greater part of his childhood between music, science-fiction novels, comic books and drawing. “I always enjoyed music, from the time I was a little kid listening to the radio,” said Marquez. “Drawing was one of my favorite things to do. I also read a lot of science fiction from the time I was old enough to go buy a paperback on my own.”
After watching the Beatles and other bands perform live on TV, like countless other kids at the time, Marquez became entranced by the lure of making music. “When the whole Beatles thing came along, people saw guys playing their own instruments, and everybody wanted to do it,” said Marquez. “I went out and got a cheap guitar and started learning some chords just like thousands of people did at that time.”
Starting out in a handful of makeshift AM-radio cover bands, one called the Mixed Emotions, Marquez eventually got together with a schoolmate, guitarist Walter Smith, and drummer Keith McKee—“the only real musician in the band,” Marquez insisted—and the three formed a band. Agreeing upon the moniker the Twinkeyz, an offhand tribute to Pink Fairies drummer Twink, Marquez, Smith and McKee laid out their musical aspirations. “We wanted to make it as crazy as possible,” said Marquez. “We thought that the Twinkeyz would offend and alienate some people but that other people would like it, too.”
Arriving at a time when bands like Foreigner, Styx and Boston reigned supreme, the Twinkeyz’ brand of extraterrestrial punk wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. “I think people thought we were a joke, really,” said Marquez. “We weren’t really part of any Sacramento scene, socially. And musically, we definitely weren’t part of the typical Sacramento scene. There was a really small core of people that were like-minded, but, for the most part, the response was lukewarm at best.”
Undaunted, the Twinkeyz continued on, playing scattered shows in Sacramento and Davis and pushing their sound into alien dimensions. “It was completely a word-of-mouth thing,” said Marquez. “We used to play at this old bar in Sacramento called Slick Willy’s a few times. But we tended to play more often over in Davis. The people there seemed more receptive to our type of music.”
In early 1977, the Twinkeyz holed up in Moon Studios, operated by producer and Public Nuisance guitarist David Houston, and began what would become an ongoing work relationship with him, kicking things off with the recording of the Twinkeyz’ first 45, “Aliens in Our Midst” backed with “Little Joey.” “We were all pretty raw musicians when we first went to the studio, and I remember being surprised at how Dave was able to smooth out the rough edges,” said Marquez. “We did the guitars and drums the first time and came back later and put on a bass track, some vocals and whatever else occurred to us to add. We thought as long as there was another track open, we should put something on it.”
The “Aliens” single was released a few months later on Twirp Records, a company formed by the band, and the Twinkeyz seemed to be gaining momentum. Then, guitarist Walter Smith left the Twinkeyz to join another local band, Permanent Wave. In his place, the brilliant but volatile Tom Darling, who had been playing off and on with the Twinkeyz, was called in to take over the leads. “I’m not too sure why things happened like they did,” said Marquez. “I guess a few of the people involved had what I would call personality differences, and that’s what triggered it.”
With Smith out and Darling now onboard, the band re-released the “Aliens” single on Grok Records later that year, this time packaged with the newly recorded “1,000 Reasons” as its B-side. “We didn’t think we had sold as many copies of the first 45 as we could,” said Marquez. “And instead of just reissuing the old one, we did a new B-side, came up with a new record-company name and put it out. It was all an independent thing that we did ourselves.”
In 1978, after a third 45, “E.S.P.” backed with “Cartoon Land,” also on Grok, and a handful of live shows, the Twinkeyz returned to Moon Studios to record their first and only full-length, Alpha Jerk. Backed by Houston’s inventive production, Darling’s experimental guitar work and Marquez’ twisted themes, Alpha Jerk found the Twinkeyz traveling down newly ambitious, experimental paths. “Once we got an idea of what we could do, I guess we got carried away with it,” said Marquez. “Especially Tom and I. Tom always wanted to come up with some new crazy sound. He had a little guitar amp that he built inside a coffee can. And he’d put it inside a piano and play it so that it made all the strings of the piano vibrate. Anything that we could do to make it a crazy, unique ambience, we went for it.”
Despite the album’s palpable achievements, when it was released in 1979 on a Dutch label, Plurex, Alpha Jerk suffered from poor mastering, a muddled final mix and a Holland-only release. As creative differences crept to an all-time high, a fourth single, “Watch Out for Her Kiss” backed with “My Plea,” was scrapped, and the Twinkeyz called its quits in the spring of 1980. Marquez persevered but was unable to regain any momentum. “After the Twinkeyz seemed totally dead, I tried putting together a solo project with a lot of the same people, but nothing seemed to really come together,” he said.
Inspired by a DIY mini-comic-book movement at the time, Marquez quickly switched gears and redirected his time and energy into drawing. “After the Twinkeyz ended, I started self-publishing my art again, and from that, I got some professional comic-book work,” said Marquez. “I worked on a comic called Thunder Bunny for a while, did a couple issues of another called Sheena of the Jungle. And I did a comic-book adaptation of the pilot for a TV show called Werewolf.”
Backed by a steady art career, in the mid-1980s, Marquez returned to the local music scene, playing with the stellar punk outfit the Lizards. But Marquez’ art gig remained his primary focus. “Once I started getting [art] work for pay, it kind of crowded music out,” said Marquez. “I never did really say, ‘Well, I give up on music.’ I just never had time to pursue it. I never earned any money playing music, but I always did earn a few bucks doing artwork. And just that factor alone decided my course.”
In 1998, Marquez was approached by Karl Ikola, a former KDVS deejay and the owner of the independent Anopheles label out of San Francisco, about putting together a properly remastered anthology of the Twinkeyz’ work. After getting Marquez’ approval, Ikola went about remixing Alpha Jerk and also compiling an extended Twinkeyz catalog, including both tracks from their unreleased fourth single and cassette recordings from their very first live show. With the release of the limited-edition Aliens in Our Midst CD in 1998 and the also limited Cartoon Land LP in 2002, Twinkeyz fans and newcomers could hear the band’s recordings as they were originally intended. When asked about the project, Marquez gave a look of satisfaction, saying, “I think he did an excellent job.”
Today, Marquez continues to make his living as an artist, selling original comic-art pieces through his Web site and on eBay. His art still embodies the same kind of mysticism and weirdness that characterized the Twinkeyz’ otherworldly sounds. As we sat on his front porch, I asked him where he thinks the Twinkeyz will go down in Sacramento music history. “Well, it’s hard for me to be objective. I don’t know if we’re taken seriously or not, really,” he said. “At the time, there was this underground movement that started simultaneously in a lot of places all over the world. We were just local representatives of that.” Spoken like a saint.