Secret history of Sacramento music
Sacramento’s music scene has a strange, vibrant history that dates way back before the Sammies came to town. Today, Sacramento style isn’t something to sneer at. It’s ours, and we should own it.
When people think of California music, what typically comes to mind are acts associated with Los Angeles or San Francisco: the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or, for non-geriatrics, perhaps one of those generic power-pop bands featured as soundtrack wallpaper on The O.C.
It’s a peculiar cultural bias that leaves the rest of the state—including Sacramento—out of the picture, even though some real cultural landmarks originated outside of the state’s two most famous burgs.
Bakersfield, for example, gave the world Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, not to mention a host of other bare-knuckled country music acts like Wynn Stewart. Fresno gave us Ross Bagdasarian, a.k.a. The Chipmunks’ David Seville, along with, um, Kevin Federline. San Diego was responsible for Jewel, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and such great mutant country rock acts as the Beat Farmers and Mojo Nixon. Vallejo was home to Sly and the Family Stone, and ConFunkShun. The East Bay turned out tons of great blues and R&B acts, like Johnny Otis, Lowell Fulson and Rodger Collins, not to mention El Cerrito’s greatest contribution to American pop culture, Creedence Clearwater Revival. And even Stockton, this writer’s childhood home, gave up Pavement, Chris Isaak and Grant-Lee Phillips, in addition to jazz luminaries Dave Brubeck, who originally hailed from Concord, and Gil Evans, along with ur-hipster beat figure Lord Buckley.
The point being that a lot of important California music and style comes from places outside of San Francisco and Hollywood. And Sacramento certainly has had its share. And though the Sacramento Area Music Awards, or Sammies, have done much to provide a context to help illuminate those contributions for the past 15 years, this town turned out plenty of interesting music before the Sammies came to town.
There’s a lot of forgotten history—stories in the naked city, so to speak. Here are a few of them.
From a perspective gleaned from 45 miles south, in Stockton, the Big Tomato always seemed like one of those striving cities that tried just a little too hard. “Don’t call us a cow town,” this city’s blow-dried newscasters—its ersatz public conscience—would tell us in so many words, cranking up the smooth jazz behind their opining in case we didn’t get the point. But if you scratched its shiny veneer, Sacramento was still aggressively agrarian, at least in its mindset. KRAK 1140-AM, now the sports-station home of the NBA Kings, was at one time one of the most powerful country-music stations in the nation, and its pedal-steel whine emanated from camper-pickup radios up and down the Central Valley.
And plenty of Southwestern expatriates, most of them from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, moved West in the postwar years, and they brought music with them, too. Some of those musicians settled here—Johnnie Lee Wills, brother of western swing-king Bob, had a club called Wills Point, out on Auburn Boulevard near what’s now American River College. Bob Wills’ mandolin player, Tiny Moore, who later played in Merle Haggard’s band, taught at a studio on El Camino Avenue in Arden-Arcade. In that sense, Sacramento is like Los Angeles, another California city that papers over its western-swing past.
Still, Sacramento never morphed into Nashville West, and it only turned out a couple of name country-music acts. Lynn Anderson, whose biggest hit was “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden,” is a local product. And Lee Greenwood, best known for the Bush-administration anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.,” grew up in the Florin-Elk Grove area.
But those acts, especially Greenwood, really weren’t on the collective radar of us music fans south of the San Joaquin County line.
When we would think of Sacramento and music, though, it would be in relation to rock. And when we considered Sacramento music, it would be to note the city’s enormous contribution to album-oriented rock, specifically the Velveeta-slathered arena bands that regularly played Bill Graham Presents’ Day on the Green, bands that also got featured on KZAP, the erstwhile free-form rock station that flipped its format to retrograde, consultant-driven corporate rock with a vengeance. Bands with guitarists from Sacramento included Starship (Craig Chaquico), Night Ranger (Jeff Watson) and Dokken (George Lynch), and arena mainstay Journey’s signature vocalist, Steve Perry, was from the San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford, but he lived here.
For those of us record-store-haunting snobs whose musical tastes were decidedly more arcane, Sacramento’s rock contribution seemed decidedly stinko. But it was an undeserved rap. Sacramento has made plenty of contributions—some well-known and some obscure—to the pop-music lexicon.
One of the more illustrious couples in American rock once lived above a former laundry, now a yoga studio/art gallery, at the southwestern corner of H and 21st streets in Midtown. Erick Purkhiser and Kristy Wallace, better known as Lux Interior and Poison Ivy (Rorschach) of the foundational psychobilly band the Cramps, were students at California State University, Sacramento, when they met in 1972, reportedly when he picked her up hitchhiking. They didn’t stay here, moving first to Ohio and then to New York. But their music, a freewheeling amalgam of punk, rockabilly, gutbucket blues and surf rock married to trashy pulp-fiction and horror-film imagery, has turned out to be hugely influential. And when you think about it, monster-movie visuals with a real gone beat are much more evocative of real, current-day Sacramento than any Journey record could ever hope to be.
But raw sonic noise wasn’t introduced to this town by the Cramps.
Sacramento boasted a healthy garage-rock scene in the mid- to late 1960s, as Big Beat Records consultant and Northern California rock historian Alec Palao documented on the compilation The Sound of Young Sacramento and local garage-rock fanatic and Frantic Records proprietor Joey D did later on the two-CD set The Ikon Records Story. East Sac’s Ikon studio and label and Bill Rase’s recording studio on Franklin Boulevard provided an easy access point for local teen bands to record double-sided singles, which resulted in some great period pieces of the Nuggets variety.
Some of those acts are still around, of course—until Joey D released a two-CD set of vintage Public Nuisance and Moss & the Rocks sides, most locals figured David Houston was a gentle folk-pop singer-songwriter who occasionally produced records for other people. Gary Yoder was still gigging regularly around town, and his history as frontman for Davis-based psychedelic band the Oxford Circle, whose blistering 1966 set at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom was issued by Big Beat, was largely unrecognized. Dirk Hamilton, a singer-songwriter who later recorded four major-label albums in the 1970s and who still tours regularly in Italy, where he has a healthy fan base, recorded for Ikon, both as a solo act and as a member of the Bobbies. Perhaps the most famous graduate of that scene is Timothy B. Schmit of the New Breed, later known as Glad, who went on to join Poco before becoming a member of the Eagles.
As the early 1970s dawned, advances in recording technologies had accelerated rapidly; studios upgraded from two-track to four-, eight-, 16- and even 32- and 64-track consoles in a short span of time. Multi-track recording changed the professional and public perception of what a record should sound like, which made the cleaner, more straightforward recordings from the ’60s sound quaint—a quaintness that, of course, would come back into vogue later on, once listeners tired of the sonic molasses endemic to multi-track records done badly.
The Sgt. Pepper’s syndrome
The net effect of recording’s technological breakthrough, however, was that studio recordings became more of a luxury; it was harder for bands to just pop in the studio to cut a couple of sides in 1974 like they might have done at Bill Rase’s studio in 1966. (Sure, there were eight-track garage studios, but their results paled next to that latest Roy Thomas Baker-produced record.) Along with the explosion in technologies was a change in thinking; call it the Sgt. Pepper’s syndrome. Songs couldn’t just stand alone; they needed to be arranged into album-length statements.
All of which conspired to make the early to mid-1970s a bit of a dark age for recording, at least locally. The typical career arc involved playing long enough to get an act together to leave town for greener pastures, like Hollywood or maybe San Francisco.
One local act that followed that route out of Sacramento was Fanny, a four-woman band led by two expatriate sisters from the Philippines named Jean and June Millington, which was signed by Reprise Records—making it the first (or second) all-female band to be signed by a major label, decades ahead of the Donnas. Fanny got steered toward the conventional route, though, recording with glossy pop producer Richard Perry, who cut hit records with Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, the Pointer Sisters and others. After four albums for Reprise (anthologized recently by Rhino Handmade) and another for Casablanca, Fanny called it quits; Jean married David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, while sister June still records as a member of Slammin’ Babes and is active in the DIY and bi-friendly music scenes.
Not until the punk aesthetic—which made clean-sounding four- and eight-track recordings cool again and which allowed for singles and EPs as well as albums—came along were local bands anywhere near as prolific as they were in the ’60s.
The first wave of punk and its do-it-yourself spirit hit Sacramento as hard as it hit a lot of other places. Studio recordings, all of a sudden liberated from the priesthood at the Church of Steely Dan, sounded fresh and vibrant. Weird little singles started turning up in local record stores, by bands like the Twinkeyz, Ozzie, the Suspects (which moved to L.A., dumped the skinny ties and became the psychedelic revivalist band the Dream Syndicate) and the Mumbles/Permanent Wave, some of which penetrated below the Lodi grape curtain. From our vantage point, Sacramento’s new-wave/punk scene had a bit of an art-damage vibe; it was, as a Stockton guitarist pal was fond of putting it, “a bit too Elroy and Judy Jetson for my liking.” But those bands were a lot cooler sounding than the latest Molly Hatchet record, and way more fun, too.
By the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, more venues began to spring up around town that featured the kind of live acts you couldn’t see at Shire Road Pub, a now-defunct club on Auburn Boulevard that specialized in album-rock bands, or the Oasis Ballroom, the Midtown club that often booked Tesla (then known as City Kidd).
There were some fun places, too. China Wagon, in what’s now a Pho restaurant at 19th Street and Broadway, served up a mix—pioneered by Madame Wong’s in L.A.—of punk rock and greasy Chinese food, and if the going got too squirrelly, which it often did, you could drop into a party at Rev. Bob’s Church of the Immaculate ’57 Chevy around the corner, drink beer from the Fount of the Fightin’ Jesus and chill out to weird subgenius Claymation videos. Galactica 2000, which began life as a disco at 15th and K streets (it’s now the location of the new Capitol Garage), booked shows for a time, as did Lord Beaverbrook’s on Fair Oaks Boulevard (now a Zinfandel Grill).
One of the best dumps for music was the short-lived Club Minimal, a circa-1983 Curtis Park industrial space off Sutterville Road, which was booked and run by boxing promoter (and now attorney) Stewart Katz. A couple of Stockton bands were getting regular exposure there, which is what brought me there, along with such locals as the Square Cools and Rebel Truth, and touring acts like Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets and many more. Another place, with a bit more class, was Club Can’t Tell, on K Street (roughly where the IMAX Theatre now stands), which was run by Bo Richards, later known as performer Audrey St. Violet, and his girlfriend Carol; the club booked local and touring acts.
And the culmination of that noisy cultural renaissance was when local promoters Jerry Perry and Brian McKenna, then partners, began booking a few nights a week at a Folsom Boulevard gay bar called Bojangles, which they renamed the Cattle Club (it’s now called The Library). That, and the venerable downtown bar Old Ironsides converting to live music, brings us closer to the Sammies era.
Of the local bands from the 1980s, two of them made an impression on me as a new local resident. One was Hunting Game, a trio that featured Tony Passarell, Kele Duncan and Tommy Van Wormer. The band is lost to obscurity now, its only recorded output a four-song EP titled Rules, released on the now-mysterious Vavava label. All three of its members are still around, though. Passarell, a mainstay of the local free-jazz scene, hosts a jazz program at Old Ironsides every Sunday night; his CV includes the Borman Six, a late-’80s hip-hop-rock-go-go fusion band that was way ahead of its time and, following that, the Bub Orchestra. Duncan, whose wake-the-dead banshee vocals were startling, is studying acupuncture, and Van Wormer spins records on KDVS as DJ Tommy V.
What set Hunting Game apart was the way it yoked punk-band energy with dance beats and that fissionable energy found on John Coltrane and Albert Ayler records. It may not have been wholly original, as a number of bands, in America and in England, were working from a similar recipe, but many of those—like Gang of Four and Pylon—are still getting ink, while Hunting Game merely populates record-collector lists.
The other band was Tales of Terror, fronted by the late Lyon Wong, the son of actor Victor Wong; the younger Wong died on a Midtown sidewalk in 1986 after a bellicose high-school jock, whose perverse idea of a good time involved administering smash mouth on alternative-looking types, stepped out of a carload of thugs near the Zebra Club and punched him in the head. The band also featured the late Jeff “Dusty Coffins” Magner and Pat Stratford, both from the aforementioned Square Cools. Tales released one album in 1984, a self-titled effort on the San Francisco indie CD Presents. The album showcased another band that was way ahead of the curve, this time in fusing punk, metal and mindless drug-fueled debauchery. And the album made enough of an impression on young Kurt Cobain, who listed it as essential listening in his diary. Magner was later in the hard-partying Cactus Liquors, another great band with a tragic denouement, and Stratford was in the Whorelords.
By the end of the 1980s, affordable recording had become relatively commonplace, and the familiar contours of the local music scene as chronicled yearly by the Sammies, and in such monthly publications as promoter Jerry Perry’s Alive & Kicking, were becoming more clearly defined.
As long as we’re talking about groundbreaking local acts here, one now-established local artist deserves mention—not for what he’s doing now, but based on his early output.
I remember getting a message—it might have been from David Barton, then the Bee’s pop-music critic—that “this kid” would be calling and that he was some kind of basement wunderkind who sat around with a keyboard and a four-track recorder, whipping up these groovy low-fidelity garage-pop masterpieces, which he would dub onto cassettes and sell at The Beat. So, when a then-quite-young Anton Barbeau called, wanting coverage in the nationally distributed music magazine where I worked, I was ready for him. No, no, you need to have national distribution, I recall telling him, before we can do a big article on you. But would I listen?
Sure. The tape might have been called Back to Balmain, or maybe it was another (he had several full-length cassette albums). At the time, the idea of low-fi bedroom recordings hadn’t become commonplace, aside from Austin’s resident outsider-music auteur Daniel Johnston. But there was definitely something there, even if the songs didn’t have Todd Rundgren production values. They already did have elements we now recognize as signature Anton Barbeau—clever wordplay, nasal vocals, catchy melodies, and subject matter or perspective outside of what would be declared as “normal” by the collective ego.
Celebrate the strange
Still, why should we care about normal?
Sacramento isn’t some paradise of vanilla focus-group blandness as articulated by carefully manicured newsbots; it’s a vibrant and weird place, a miniature Los Angeles-style melting pot with state government in place of the Hollywood dream factory, even if Hollywood stuck us with one of its more cardboard action figures to run the joint. The better things from this town celebrate that strangeness, rather than try to hide it.
This leads into my all-time favorite piece of Sacramento weirdness, acquired at a local thrift store several years ago. Easy Living the American Way, an album by former Sacramento RV and mobile-home salesman Ron Schmeck, is the kind of unbelievable country and western kitsch that Hollywood scriptwriters get paid big bucks to concoct though they somehow never quite hit the mark. That’s because it’s hard to replicate authentic genius without being an authentic genius.
Schmeck hosted a weekly showcase of white-trash Americana on KCRA-3 and KTXL-40 well before it was cool, not to mention lucrative, before he skipped town, leaving a bunch of shrink-wrapped albums he’d cut with a local western-swing band in his wake. And what an album—every song is about (1) living in a mobile home, (2) vacationing in an RV, (3) fishing with the kids, or (4) exercising the necessary self-control to avoid hitting your wife when she complains about you tracking mud into the double-wide on your boots. The melodies might be a bit difficult to clear from a publisher’s standpoint, because they’re kind of uncomfortably close to existing melodies—e.g., “I’m Proud to Own a Mobile Home” sounds nearly identical to Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”—but the lyrics are something else.
“We don’t need guard dogs in a mobile home,” Schmeck warbles over a hard-kicking track that oozes 1970s country smarm, and we believe. And the album is Good Sam Club-approved, too, or so the decal on the front of the album jacket claims.
This brings us full circle to a world that is much less averse to what Sacramento has to offer—its future and its past.
And we’ve only scratched the surface.
Nowadays, people in San Francisco and Los Angeles may not be sporting their studied-rustic truck-stop caps like they were a few years ago, but Central Valley funk is nowhere near as unfashionable as it once was, and big-city people don’t sneer at us anymore when we say we’re from Sacramento. We have our own style, and we should own it.