From 10 shows to a cult following

The Twinkeyz helped shape Sacramento’s music scene in the late ’70s, and their allure only strengthens

Live at Mabuhay Gardens, left to right: Jeff Lundell on bass, Donnie Marquez on guitar, and Tom Darling on guitar.

Live at Mabuhay Gardens, left to right: Jeff Lundell on bass, Donnie Marquez on guitar, and Tom Darling on guitar.

Photo courtesy of Donnie Marquez

Donnie Marquez’s house is nearly identical to the other suburban homes lining his quiet Folsom neighborhood. That is, until you get inside and notice the portraits of monsters from films such as Bride of Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon hanging on the wall like esteemed family members. These nearly flawless paintings are his own handiwork. He sells them on eBay, his primary income stream, where he also sells comic books that he draws and writes with a similar fantasy and sci-fi aesthetic. This is the world Marquez is most comfortable in.

“I’m 100 percent convinced that aliens are watching us and intermingling with us. It just seemed like that’s worth mentioning,” Marquez says in a calm, low-key voice—everything that escapes his mouth has this same soothing, low-frequency energy to it.

The topic of aliens comes up because we’re talking about his band The Twinkeyz, a late ’70s Sacramento weirdo punky psychedelic band that played maybe 10 shows, recorded a couple of singles, an LP—and somehow earned a cult following that’s stronger now than it’s ever been. Back then, Marquez was known as Donnie Jupiter. Last year, Sacramento label S.S. Records reissued his band’s 1979 LP Alpha Jerk on vinyl. The initial pressing of 500 copies sold out in three months. Most important, the Twinkeyz had an impact on the scene far beyond any cult status they earned.

Since they formed 40 years go, The Twinkeyz have always been associated with aliens. Their first and best known song is the quirky “Aliens in Our Midst.” It’s an odd pop song with doo-wop harmonies, drunken, noodling guitar licks and bizarre sci-fi lyrics, which operate on multiple levels.

“The song’s about alienation and being alienated. It’s also about aliens coming to Earth from other planets,” Marquez says.

When the Twinkeyz released the “Aliens In Our Midst” single in 1977, there wasn’t a scene for underground rock bands in Sacramento, whether it be punk, New Wave, power-pop or anything outside of the mainstream stadium rock or disco world that was popular in town. Scott Soriano, who runs S.S. Records, describes Sacramento at this time as “that really suffocating hippie dippy culture … like cocaine cowboy country rock like the Eagles.”

Donnie Marquez, left, connects to Tom Darling through a portal.

Photo courtesy of Donnie Marquez

The fact that Twinkeyz existed and that their single was getting reviewed in fanzines around the world was an inspiration for other bands to create a small scene in Midtown and Davis in the late ’70s. The movement predated the punk scene but was open to stripped-down subgenres of rock with whatever odd flairs the members wanted to give it. Bands included Ozzie, The Mumbles, The Suspects, Permanent Wave, Labial Fricative and Alternate Learning.

A couple of these musicians would go on to have a far-ranging impact. Davis’ Steve Wynn, from The Suspects, moved to LA in the ’80s, starting Dream Syndicate, which helped shape the Paisley Underground scene and influenced bands like Galaxie 500 and the Feelies.

“I heard ’Aliens in Our Midst’ and couldn’t believe how great it was. I thought, ’Wow these guys are freaks, but they’re cool freaks,’” Wynn says. “The big thing I remember was that they got reviewed in the NME. Wow, a band from this area got reviewed in the NME. It was a great review.”

Scott Miller, who played in Alternate Learning, would form cult bands Game Theory and Loud Family and influence ’90s indie rock acts like New Pornographers and Aimee Mann. He absolutely loved the Twinkeyz; Game Theory even covered “Aliens in Our Midst.” In Miller’s biography, Don’t All Thank Me At Once, author Brett Milano describes a critical moment for Miller: learning that Marquez received a royalty check for record sales in Holland.

“The idea that you could make a record and have it heard in far-away places was inspiring to Scott,” says Miller’s longtime friend Joe Becker in the book.

Nothing stylistically linked the late ’70s Sacramento bands to one another, but among all of them, the Twinkeyz were by far the strangest. The group doesn’t even sound like the era they came from. Marquez’s primary influences were The Velvet Underground and early ’70s glam rock bands like Roxy Music. Yet his band’s disheveled rhythm, seemingly improvised vocals and bare-bones recordings gave their sound a quality that hinted at the burgeoning punk movement, despite the fact that Marquez says punk was not an influence on his songwriting.

“It was a time when no one was talking about psychedelic music, and they were the trippiest,” Wynn says. “They were way ahead of their time and way behind their time at the same time.”

Donnie Marquez, Steve Bateman, Walter Smith and Wit Witkowski.

Photo courtesy of Donnie Marquez

Back then, their reach was limited to the handful of folks who hung out at small record stores, read fanzines and happened to catch one of their very few shows. They were popular with people who knew them, but that was a really small group.

“People didn’t really care,” says Rick Daprato, who ran various record stores through the years and played in Labial Fricative. “There was a little underground following that would hang out at my record store that knew about him and liked him.”

The fact that they were unable to develop much of a following likely had more to do with their inability to gain momentum as a group. When they recorded the first single, they weren’t even a band. It was a recording project between Marquez and his friend Walter Smith. Their friend Keith McKee, who was a professional touring drummer for a Patsy Cline tribute show, did them a solid and played on the record.

“We both were guitarists. Neither one of us had much equipment. I don’t think either one of us had an amp that you could go take and play a gig. We didn’t have a drummer or bass player,” Marquez says.

Interest in the record prompted them to form a live band. They recruited guitarist Tom Darling, drummer Marc Bonilla and backup vocalist Wit Witkowski. Their first gig was a house show in San Francisco, which went over well. After that Smith would leave, and with the exception of Darling the lineup would forever be unstable.

That first show, Darling says, was the best. He imagined if they’d kept this lineup intact, they would have made a bigger impact.

“Some of the songs were hysterical. Others were good rock ’n’ roll,” Darling says of the first show. “We could have had the right personnel and still been together because something about the chemistry—that was euphoria then.”

Donnie Marquez and Tom Darling, looking fly.

Photo courtesy of Donnie Marquez

Of The Twinkeyz' roughly 10 shows, Marquez remembers playing with four different drummers and several bassists. Sometimes he played bass. McKee would play when he could, but he was too busy with his own project to commit 100 percent. He did manage to play on all the Twinkeyz recordings. (“That’s me on all the records. I’m a Twinkey,” he tells me.) The other consistent factor in the band was David Houston, who recorded all of their songs and added keys and other sounds to the records, particularly on Alpha Jerk.

“They seemed like a psychedelic punk band, almost before the punk scene was the punk scene. That’s why it stands the test of time because that’s where so many people were heading,” Houston says. “They weren’t thinking about, ’Hmmm, let’s pull this together and try to make something.’ That’s just the way they were. There wasn’t any thought behind it.”

Part of what makes Alpha Jerk still sound fresh is the mixture of these key four people. There’s Marquez’s oddball yet palatable sci-fi and fantasy-influenced pop songwriting, Darling’s crazy beyond-Hendrix guitar playing (“I played everything different each time I was performing. Not predictable.”), McKee’s solid, precise drumming, and Houston’s attention to detail and penchant for unusual noises.

In the couple of years the band played, there was never a moment when they had a solid lineup. “It always seemed like we were trying to teach someone new the songs,” says Marquez. Even by the time they’d finished Alpha Jerk, which got released on Dutch label Plurex Records in 1979, they struggled to get anything going. Later that year, it got to be too much work. They called it quits.

“I found it exhausting and frustrating trying to keep a band going with the constant changes in lineup,” Marquez says.

Prior to S.S. Records’ vinyl reissue last year, there have been two Twinkeyz anthologies releases: Aliens In Our Midst – Complete Recordings 1977-1980, released on CD in 1998, and Cartoon Land, released on various formats in 2002. S.S. rereleased the album in the exact same order, with the original (and previously lost) cover and a proper remix.

There’s never been a Twinkeyz reunion, and it’s unlikely there ever will be one. Most of the members don’t really talk to each other anymore. (“It’s sort of like ex-wives,” Darling says.) Marquez devotes all of his creative energy to art these days. The last time he played guitar was when he had dial-up internet, he says. He’d fiddle around while it loaded up.

But Marquez doesn’t mind talking about the band. He’s surprised anyone still cares about it.

“We did that music a long time ago,” Marquez says. “It could have totally been forgotten, but it kind of has a life of its own.”