Sacramento’s unexpectedly rich rock history runs right through Houston—David Houston, former Public Nuisance band member and legendary scenester.
Unfortunately for surfers, Sacramento is landlocked. Look at a map.
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop this city from turning into an inland hotbed of surf-rock culture in 1963. Sacramento was so surf crazy that it was the first place, outside of their hometown of Los Angeles, where the Beach Boys became a sensation. That Sacramento was the first place the Beach Boys hit it big outside L.A. has been cited in a number of band stories and biographies.
The Beach Boys liked this place so much that they recorded their first live album, Concert, at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in 1964. That same year, the Beatles landed in America, followed by a tsunami of British bands—the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds and plenty more. What followed in the United States was an awful lot of garage bands, as non-athletic kids figured out a new shortcut to popularity.
Sacramento had a few of those, and some of them have acquired the patina of legends. Encina High School teen surf band the Contenders, for example, started out playing the standard surf covers—“Pipeline” by the Chantays, “Misirlou” by Dick Dale—after its members witnessed the Del Counts, a rival band from El Camino High, wowing the girls at an Encina High dance. When the Contenders added vocals, they became the New Breed. Later on, that was shortened to the Breed and then changed to Glad. Then, after bassist Timothy B. Schmit left Glad for Southern California country-rock combo Poco—he later joined the Eagles—the rest of the band soldiered on under the name Redwing, which recorded five albums for Fantasy Records under the aegis of San Francisco Chronicle writer and Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph J. Gleason. Another band, the Oxford Circle, featured a singer and guitarist named Gary Yoder, who was still playing regular gigs in area clubs well into the 1990s.
Across town, off Florin Road, another band came together. This quartet would have a profound influence on Sacramento’s music scene over the next three-and-a-half decades. And even though few contemporary-music fans know the band by name, one of its members has popped up, Zelig-like, in key local musical developments ever since. He has been an unsung hero in helping to shape Sacramento music, as you will see.
The group came together in 1964, calling itself the Jaguars. Like the Contenders and others, its repertoire consisted of the instrumental surf-rock popular at the time. Tom Phillips, who played guitar in the Contenders and later in the New Breed, Glad and Redwing, still plays in a couple of local bands. He also teaches guitar at Skip’s Music. He remembered seeing the Jaguars for the first time when they opened for the Contenders at a teen dance in Elk Grove in 1964. “Those guys were radical,” he recalled. “They had hair down to their waists.” Phillips recalled one other detail, about the Jaguars guitarist, David Houston: “David would go out and destroy his guitar onstage,” he said. “This was before the Who.”
When the lyric urgency of Bob Dylan, and hence the Beatles, rendered fretboard workouts like “Pipeline” and “Misirlou” terminally uncool, the Jaguars added vocals and changed their name to Moss & the Rocks. And later in the decade, when rock music’s tonal colors grew darker and bluesier, Moss & the Rocks changed their name again—this time to Public Nuisance.
Public Nuisance might account for a mere footnote in Sacramento’s music history, except for two things. One of those was a double CD consisting of material recorded by the band, which was released last year on a tiny label called Frantic Records. Titled Gotta Survive, it contained 28 tracks—two unreleased albums’ worth (24 songs’ worth) of material by Public Nuisance that had been recorded in late 1968 and early 1969. Also included were two different versions of a 1966 single by Public Nuisance’s predecessor, Moss & the Rocks, titled “There She Goes” backed with “Please Come Back.” One was recorded here and released on local label Ikon Records; another was cut in L.A. with Sonny and Cher’s producer and released on a label called Chattahoochee.
The music played by Public Nuisance was commensurate with the finest American garage rock of the period, the kind played by such bands as the Electric Prunes, the Knickerbockers and the Seeds and that was chronicled on the 1972 Elektra Records compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era: 1965-1968 or later on the expanded four-CD Nuggets boxed set Rhino issued in 1998. Fans of those reissues would be wowed by the treasure trove of mostly unheard material contained on Gotta Survive, much of which would fit very nicely on Nuggets. From blistering, fuzz-guitar-drenched freakouts to ambitiously loopy attempts at expanding baroque pretensions of 1960s-vintage psychedelic pop, the two CDs of Public Nuisance’s Gotta Survive are a gold mine of groovy obscurities. And even if the songs are a bit too roughly hewn to be mistaken for long-lost Beatles outtakes, they still sound good some 34 years later.
The second reason Public Nuisance notes more than an asterisk is that one of its members was the aforementioned David Houston, who wrote roughly half the band’s songs; sang; and played guitar, keyboards and harmonica. The rest of the band has faded from the scene: Drummer Ron McMaster works for Capitol Mastering in L.A. as an engineer, where he’s re-mastered classic Capitol, Apple and Blue Note titles for reissue on CD; bassist and singer-songwriter Pat Minter died in 1994; and guitarist Jim Mathews is now a grandparent who isn’t active. But Houston still can be found onstage at such local venues as Luna’s Café or True Love Coffeehouse or busy in his recording studio. Beyond that, his involvement runs like a thread through the fabric of Sacramento’s music scene.
On a recent March afternoon, Houston was sitting at a window table inside Weatherstone, a coffeehouse on 21st Street in Midtown. Occasionally, he can be found there, dressed in his de rigueur black on black and reading a science-fiction paperback.
On this day, Houston was being prodded to exhume his tenure with Public Nuisance, and it was slow going. He typically seems more inclined to focus on the present. The past—that was such a long time ago. And memory can play tricks on you, like it did when he and the other two surviving members of the band, Mathews and McMaster, got together to sort out the chronology of the band, from the Jaguars to Moss & the Rocks to Public Nuisance, for a guy named Joey D, whose label was preparing to release Gotta Survive. The combined stories turned out to be a garage-rock version of Rashomon; everyone had a different take on what really happened. “It’s pretty bizarre to hear the story told three different ways,” Houston recalled.
The gist was that in 1966, Moss & the Rocks showed up at Ikon Records, a label and studio in East Sacramento. A Norwegian engineer named Eirik Wangberg was behind the boards. One Moss & the Rocks member told Houston he recalled that they had won some free recording time in a contest. Their manager was Gary Schiro, a surf-rock promoter from the Jaguars’ era who also managed New Breed and the Oxford Circle. Schiro had connections in L.A., which was one place you went as a Sacramento band that wanted to move to the next level. The other destination, of course, was San Francisco, and Public Nuisance later tried that option when it recorded a 1967 session—now lost—for Fantasy, the jazz label that would get lucky with Creedence Clearwater Revival a year later.
Schiro had the band cutting sides during the budget hours, after midnight and before sunrise. He’d worked out a deal for New Breed and Public Nuisance with Equinox Productions, a custom label with distribution through ABC-Dunhill Records that was run by record producer Terry Melcher, the son of actress Doris Day.
Then, as Houston put it, the big fiasco happened. “Fiasco is an understatement,” he recalled. “When Charles Manson killed Sharon Tate and everybody, that was at Terry Melcher’s house. Terry Melcher [and] Dennis Wilson rented this house; Dennis Wilson was friends with Charlie Manson. Dennis was trying to get Charlie to record something. Evidently, Terry backed out of it, and something happened. I don’t know how true it is, but the story is that the people who went there were after Terry Melcher, not the people who were there.”
Actually, Melcher and actress Candice Bergen had rented the house from theatrical agent Rudi Altobelli but had moved out by January 1969, when film director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate, signed a one-year lease. Melcher, understandably, went into hiding immediately after the murders and shelved all of his projects, including Public Nuisance. “Not that it would have done anything if the record would have come out at the time,” Houston said dryly. “I mean, if it would have come out then, it probably would have had the same fate as the Glad record,” which Equinox/ABC had released in 1968. “It would have come out and—pffft!—be gone.”
So, Public Nuisance, which had been going down to L.A. on the weekends to record, came back to Sacramento. “We did a couple of shows trying to play at the Fillmore, on audition nights—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I don’t remember,” Houston said. “But we never got there. I don’t remember how many years we stayed together after that. It just fell apart.”
Houston tried to put a few other bands together in the early 1970s. “I still kept writing and playing,” he said. “Nothing really came to the surface.” He remembered that one of those groups was named something like the Parnassius. “I thought, ‘Man, this would be good,’” he said. “'We should record this.’” He called his old pal Wangberg, who was working at a studio in L.A., and inquired about coming down on a weekend to record. Wangberg was busy, so they had to find another engineer. The cost was around $1,000. “I called Ron [McMaster] up, and he came and played drums for us,” Houston recalled. “And I don’t know if it was six months or a year later, it was time to record new songs again. And you’d send those out, and nothing really became of it.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, it would be so cool if you could do this recording at home.’”
And that is what Houston set out to do.
In the late 1960s through the 1970s, recording technology progressed rapidly, from two-track to three-, four-, eight-, 16- and on up to 32-track recorders. Multi-track recordings could squeeze a lot more sound into the bandwidth, and the resulting discs, with their heavily compressed midranges, gave rise to what came to be known as album-oriented rock, or more derisively as corporate rock. One of the major civic exponents of the style was nearby San Francisco, and more than a few of those bands had a member with ties to Sacramento: Santana offshoot Journey (singer Steve Perry, a Hanford native who lived here briefly in the 1970s and played in bands), Starship (guitarist Craig Chaquico, today a successful new-age performer), the Elvin Bishop Group (singer Mickey Thomas) and, later, Night Ranger (guitarist Jeff Watson) and Dokken (guitarist George Lynch).
But, as recording in the bigger studios got more costly and involved, a demystification process also was taking place; some artists were starting to look at alternatives to blowing a bunch of money in a big studio and then waiting around to get signed to a major label. By 1979, when Diane Sward Rapaport published her do-it-yourself manual How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, the trend had escalated into a movement that encompassed everything, from acoustic folk and blues to punk rock, new wave and bands burned out by the big-label shuffle.
Houston had arrived at that point organically a few years earlier, propelled by his musings on home recording. “Someone told me that TEAC was making a four-track,” he recalled. “And I didn’t know anything about recording, besides what I’d experienced.” For example, the differences between a four-track and an eight-track recorder are that the eight-track is much more complicated, electronically. So, Houston went to a store called the Vox Room, a blockish building on Bell Street just off El Camino Avenue that featured a huge, psychedelic, painted-plywood band standing on its roof, to check out the forthcoming TEAC four-track. “And they went, ‘Dude, they’re making an eight-track recorder that’ll be out in like two months.’ And I was like”—Houston slipped into a dumb-guy voice—“'How much is that?’”
Houston somehow convinced his parents to get a loan so he could get the eight-track and a small mixing board. Then, he picked out an amplifier and some speakers at Radio Shack, and he set everything up in a tiny room in the back of his parents’ house. “I vaguely remember I knew how to clean the heads,” he recalled. His initial efforts were not promising. After a friend brought over some Neumann U 87 studio microphones to demonstrate the inadequacy of using concert mics for recording, and then patiently pointed out that Radio Shack speakers hooked up to a home stereo amplifier aren’t quite as good as real studio monitors hooked up to a studio-quality amplifier, Houston realized he needed to upgrade. “He let me borrow the microphones,” Houston said. “I bought JBL monitors, a Crown amplifier, and I think he let me borrow some compressors. And it totally changed everything.”
If Houston had known what his setup ultimately would cost, he wouldn’t have gotten it. “I got into it for this amount of money,” he said, sighing. “But it ended up being this amount of money—oh, gotta get this; oh, gotta get that. But that’s how you learn.”
By this point, Houston had figured that if he could record other bands, it might help him pay off the loan that his parents had taken out, which he did.
“I recorded the first Steel Breeze incarnation, when they were from Davis,” he said. “It was the Goorabian brothers, two women and one other guy.” A later iteration of Steel Breeze had its one big hit in 1982 with the Kim Fowley-produced single “You Don’t Want Me Anymore.” The video for that song, filmed at Grand Island Mansion on Steamboat Slough, was ubiquitous for a while on MTV.
Other early clients of what Houston had named Moon Studios included country songwriter Bob Cheevers, who later hosted a songwriter showcase at Melarkey’s on Broadway in Sacramento; a local rock band named Barrelhouse; future Christian pop producer Charlie Peacock; local blues icon Johnny Heartsman; and Uncle Rainbow, which later would evolve into the popular 1980s dance-rock band Bourgeois-Tagg.
Another band Houston recorded at the garage studio was the Twinkeyz, a futuristic new-wave combo that was the brainchild of comic-book artist Don Marquez, better known as Donnie Jupiter. The original incarnation was Jupiter and a few others making eep-opp-ork-ork style Elroy and Judy mutant pop, with Houston playing “accessories”—synthesizer and Mellotron. “I might have done some guitar work when they did ‘Aliens in Our Midst’ or something,” he recalled. Then they came in again, and Donnie had more of a band; he had Tom Darling, Keith McKee and a couple of other people.
Houston smiled. “I remember it was really fun,” he said, cryptically. “I knew Donnie in high school.”
Working with Jupiter helped Houston clarify his own direction as a budding producer. “Something that I’ve always loved about musicians and bands getting together is the newness of it,” he explained. “I don’t want to sound naive about it, but they’re excited about what they’re doing. I know, now, that I love to see bands, even if they’re musicians who have been in other bands for years, when it’s their first show as a new thing. It’s so on edge. There’s some magic going on, and it really translates, and I love that. And that’s what Donnie had when he came in: He had this magic blue thing going on.”
At some point, Moon Studios moved from Houston’s parents’ garage into what he called “the more legitimate studio we had” on Otto Circle off 47th Avenue, near the Campbell’s Soup plant. One client was a stage band from Sacramento High School that included Greg Brown and Todd Roper, the future guitarist and drummer, respectively, for Saturday’s Child, Cake and Deathray. “They recorded their first time at the studio,” Houston remembered. “And Todd came up the other day—'You know, I haven’t been wanting to talk to you about this, but …’—and he told me the whole story of him and Greg coming in. It was great. It was really funny.”
Another client was Jay King, who had co-produced an unlikely top-10 hit in 1986 with Timex Social Club’s “Rumors,” a song recorded in Stockton and released on King’s label, Jay, out of his Midtown apartment. Timex Social Club left for another label while the record was still a hit. King scrambled to put together a deal with hip-hop label Tommy Boy through Warner Bros. that included a new group called Club Nouveau, which featured Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster, who went on to produce En Vogue and Tony! Toni! Toné!, two huge R&B acts.
In the 1980s, King brought all kinds of people into Moon Studios, including LaToya Jackson and ex-Temptations members David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. “They were so cool,” Houston recalled. “They came in; it was like, ‘OK, you tell us to go there. We will.’ They didn’t want to sit around—didn’t want to talk. They were like, ‘Show me where the studio is. Let’s do this. Let’s get out of here.’ And they could record from the beginning to the end of the song and just leave you amazed.”
By the end of the 1980s, the contemporary-hits radio format, which had ruled with a mix of R&B, commercialized rap and dance music, started to fade, and King’s hot streak slowed down. Houston eventually closed the studio off 47th Avenue in 1991 and worked for a couple of years at another studio off Bradshaw Road before moving his gear back to the garage studio in 1994—right around the time Sacramento’s music scene shifted gears toward an even more decentralized and independent-minded approach.
Many of the city’s venues had closed. Club Minimal, run by former boxing promoter Stewart Katz, now a local attorney, had been a delightful punk-rock hellhole in an industrial strip mall across the tracks from Sacramento City College. The club was home to such bands as the Square Cools and later the great Cactus Liquors, which were also history by then. One band left over from the Club Minimal days is still going strong, though: the Groovie Ghoulies. In the mid-1980s, the Ghoulies included Kepi, still the band’s singer, and future Cattle Club soundman and Nobody Show host Eric Bianchi. Today, the world-renowned trio (whose highly infectious music sounds like four-on-the-floor, Ramones-styled punk crunch mixed with sugar-frosted, Saturday-morning-cartoon music) features Kepi, whose Count Chocula-like illustrations define the band’s image, on vocals and bass, and his wife, Roach, on guitar.
As Houston said, that band is one of this city’s finest ambassadors. “The Ghoulies have played all over the world,” he noted. “And they haven’t necessarily reached Tesla or Cake status. Yet, they still play a lot here in town. They are definitely part of the Sacto community music scene. Kepi has worked hard to keep it that way.”
While major-label album-oriented-rock bands like Sacramento’s own Tesla continued to find success with the same blues-based hard-rock formula that kept Aerosmith headlining sheds for years, big changes were afoot. The city had forced the Oasis Ballroom, the Midtown club at 20th and I streets where Tesla cut its teeth as City Kidd, to close because of neighborhood complaints. A pair of promoters, Brian McKenna and Jerry Perry, had started booking acts in a gay bar on Folsom Boulevard called Bojangles, which they renamed the Cattle Club. Davis, with its progressive radio station KDVS, its house parties and the collective of bands that practiced at a space on Olive Drive, had been home to a fine underground music scene from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Bands like the Suspects (which evolved into Dream Syndicate), Game Theory and Thin White Rope put Davis on the same college-town rock-mecca map as Athens, Ga.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Madison, Wis. Some of the bands played on this side of the causeway or had members who lived here. There were also a few local indie record labels, such as Mad Rover and Rusty Nail, and new recording studios, like Enharmonik and Pus Cavern.
What happened as Sacramento entered the 1990s was that a revived music scene developed. Quirky pop singer-songwriter Anton Barbeau moved out of the bedroom, where he’d been busy cutting epic song cycles on his four-track recorder, and put a band together. A number of local bands emerged that would come to define the Sacramento sound: Kai Kln; the Mother Hips; Far, whose later demise would give birth to current bands onelinedrawing, the Revolution Smile and Milwaukee; Funky Blue Velvet; the Deftones; Sex 66; Tattooed Love Dogs; and Go Dog Go, which would later morph into the 1990s powerhouse club band Magnolia Thunderfinger. Singer-songwriter and Greta’s Café waiter John McCrea would form Cake, which was ubiquitous in local clubs early in the decade until its second album, Fashion Nugget, became a national hit.
There was a sense of building inevitability. One sea change happened when local promoters noticed that they were depending more on local acts than touring bands to draw their crowds. “Eventually, we were able to take bands like Kai Kln and sell out the Crest Theatre with them,” promoter Perry recalled. “We were able to take this band that started out doing $3 Thursdays at the Cattle Club, and two years later, we were selling out the Crest at $10 a head, bringing in a thousand people.”
By the early 1990s, Houston was showing up at smaller venues like Club Montreal on K Street and Luna’s Café on 16th Street, which were geared more toward such singer-songwriters as Caron Vikre and Natalie Cortez. He made friends with Kevin Seconds, the frontman of Reno punk legends 7Seconds, who had relocated to Sacramento and was running the open-mic night at Montreal. Seconds later would host open mics at local venues Capitol Garage and Old Ironsides before opening the True Love Coffeehouse with his wife Allyson, who also plays with him in the band Go National. (Kevin Seconds also would collaborate with Houston to write a song, with vocals, over an unfinished Public Nuisance track. Titled “Going Nowhere,” it appears on Gotta Survive.)
Houston was busy recording, too. His CV from the decade includes a number of local groups and musicians, including Popgun and its predecessor, 100 Acre Wood, both fronted by Mark Harrod; the Knockoffs, whose record he mastered; and Mumbo Gumbo singer Chris Webster. “We did some work together; it never came out, though,” Houston said of Webster. Houston worked with Audrey St. Violet, the cross-dressing persona adopted by former 1980s promoter Bo Richards (who booked the club China Wagon that got cleaned up and turned into a jazz venue called On Broadway), and Club Can’t Tell, which is now the Esquire Grill restaurant on K Street. Houston recorded Natalie Cortez’s the Ultra Violets, the band Her Six Daughters, Grub Dog, David Nachmanoff, Bob Woods, the Flesh Petals featuring Joan Hawkins and Hannah Lingrell, and Barbeau. And that’s not including solo projects by Kevin and Allyson Seconds, spoken-word sets featuring Grub Dog’s wife Mo Stoycoff backed by music, and projects by former SN&R news editor Michael Pulley.
With the ongoing train wreck of the record business, from the big five major labels to the retail chains that sell their records, music once again has taken on a local focus, like it did during Public Nuisance’s heyday. You can blame the collapse on downloading, on the music industry’s insistence on foisting overpriced CDs of dubious musical quality, or on the consolidation of radio into two or three giant corporations. It doesn’t matter because the heyday of the music industry appears to be over. Still, musicians continue to pick up instruments to make music, songwriters continue to write songs, and there is a cottage industry for local music. And people like Houston are still recording budding local talent.
Today, it isn’t uncommon to find Houston holding court at a table just inside the door at the True Love, kibitzing with local songwriter Warren Bishop or writer Cary Rodda. Houston’s usually wearing his customary black, which is why Kevin Seconds dubbed him The Dark Lord. But Houston is no sinister Anton La Vey character; he seems warm, accessible and somewhat modest—even downright bashful.
Houston still goes out a lot, to stay in touch with musicians around town, and he still performs when he isn’t recording. (Since 1994, he has self-released five albums of original material, available through his Web site davidhouston.com.) “I tend to get so isolated, working in the studio,” he said. “You go in at 1 in the afternoon and you don’t leave till 2 the next morning. Do that three or four weeks, and you lose touch with the world. So, when a band comes in to record, I try to go see them live, and sometimes that translates into the recording.”
Houston still loves to haunt the open-mic nights, where he might run across a fresh talent like Nevada City singer Aaron Ross or local duos Life Is Bonkers or Squish the Bad Man. “You go tell them how great they are,” he said. He might mention that, yes, he does have a recording studio, but so does everybody else these days. The advent of affordable desktop studio programs is leading to a further democratization of recording.
But not everyone knows how to run their stuff, and that’s where a guy like Houston comes in. The Dark Lord may prefer to blend into the shadows most of the time. But when it comes to helping fledgling artists find their voices, people like him are invaluable in helping to incubate, nurture and guide Sacramento’s music scene, which has come a long way since those teen dances in the 1960s.