The Dark Prince of Garage Rock: A Tribute to Sean Bonniwell of the Music Machine

The singer-guitarist-songwriter died last month at age 71

Original Sound
The Music Machine, ‘Turn On’
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"It speaks of a timeless problem of teenage misunderstanding": That is how singer-guitarist-songwriter Sean Bonniwell of the Music Machine described the Los Angeles band's 1966 single "Talk Talk" to me in a 1986 interview. It was a pith worthy of the record itself, 1:57 of proto-punk severity that peaked at Number 15 in Billboard and went even higher in some markets, going Top Ten in L.A.

In "Talk Talk," Bonniwell, who died at 71 on December 20th of lung cancer, and his original lineup of the Music Machine – lead guitarist Mark Landon, organist Doug Rhodes, bassist Keith Olsen and drummer Ron Edgar – created a breathlessly compact garage rock: hog-snort guitar distortion, machine-gun drumming and growling paranoid despair, shaved and hardened with geometric precision. And although he was in his mid-twenties, Bonniwell nailed in his lyrics the hapless rage of white high-school males with similar rigor. "My social life's a dud/My name is really mud/I'm up to here in lies/I guess I'm down to size," he sang in a rusted-blade bark, carving that surrender into the black-granite crunch like haiku graffiti. When Bonniwell capped the bridge with an ironic drawn-out "Awwwww right!", he sounded like nothing was right – and still going downhill.

The Killers Beyond the Hit
"Talk Talk," which packed four different rhythms into those two whiplash minutes, was as good as it got, commercially, for Bonniwell and the Music Machine. "The People in Me," a '67 single and weirdly swinging crisis of desertion and schizophrenia, stalled in the bottom half of the Top 100. By 1968, Bonniwell was fronting an entirely new, short-lived version of the band. The Bonniwell Music Machine, released that year by Warner Bros., was a mongrel set of tracks from both lineups.

But Thomas Sean Bonniwell – a former folk-rocker born in San Jose, California, who became a Christian in the Seventies and was playing in a gospel-rock group when I talked to him in 1986 – left a bigger and deeper legacy than his place in The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders suggests. Formed in early 1966, the Music Machine evolved out of Bonniwell's previous band, the Ragamuffins, which included Edgar and Olsen. "All I had in mind was a Top Ten record and a good-selling album," Bonniwell claimed in our interview.

He was more determined than he let on. Bonniwell insisted that the Machine dress in uniform noir: jet-black threads and hair, the latter dyed if necessary, with a signature leather glove on one hand.  (That look became a secret but significant influence on Seventies punk wear.) And he wrote the Machine's original material with an elevated urgency, combining high language and stuttering-fury syntax like a doctor of philosophy with a switchblade. "I've got a masculine intuition/And it/Do/Not/Never be wrong," he sang in "Masculine Intuition," the knockout flipside of "The People in Me," streaked with Landon's corroded-treble lightning. "Wrong," tucked away on the Music Machine's 1967 debut album, Turn On, is "Talk Talk" with a winning vengeance ("Hear me world, I'm right!") and a quick, wild guitar break.

The Ultimate Turn On
There is enough of that torrid quality – the hard grind and organ rain of "Double Yellow Line"; the harpsichord-laced lust of "Absolutely Positively"; the low-road candor in "Bottom of the Soul"; the originally unissued nugget "No Girl Gonna Cry" – to fill two vital compilations. The Ultimate Turn On (Big Beat) is a two-CD set of the classic band's recordings for the Original Sound label, including demos and rehearsals, while Beyond the Garage (Sundazed) covers the Warner Bros. era, including non-LP singles. (There is some duplication between the two sets.)

By 1986, Bonniwell was playing some of his old Machine works with that Christian band, with some lyric changes (he confessed to me) reflecting his spiritual life. But when I saw Bonniwell live at a Cavestomp gig in New York in October 2001, backed by the Fuzztones and with Edgar on drums, he was in all-black, except for the long graying hair and beard, and sang the great stuff as he'd written it. Bonniwell had turned 61. But when he hit "Talk Talk," it was 1966 again in all of the right, enraged and uncompromising ways.

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