While the hardcore punks slug it out on L.A.’s dance floors, another fight is going on in record-company conference rooms across town. It’s a battle to get this city’s new mainstream rock bands back on the radio and the charts — to give a commercial boost to an area that hasn’t seen any homegrown product live up to expectations since the first Knack album.
“It’s pointless, but lots of people have defined the L.A. scene as the 30-plus bands that came out after the Knack and didn’t sell any records,” says Peter Jay Philbin of Columbia Records’ talent acquisition department. “This year, they’ve decided that the scene’s not making it, the same way they decided the scene was making it last year when they signed all those bands to begin with.”
Those who lump L.A.’s new pop groups into a scene have found a few reasons for optimism lately: for one, the respectable success of the Motels, the Kingbees and Phil Seymour. But the real hope lies with the Plimsouls and Great Buildings: if neither band has the next “My Sharona” up its sleeve, they do have enough across-the-board appeal to raise a lot of expectations.
In a review headlined PLIMSOULS: L.A.’S SAVIOR?, Los Angeles Times critic Richard Cromelin summed up the industry mood: “As the leading mainstream band on the Los Angeles rock circuit, the Plimsouls are being counted on by many to restore the good name of L.A. rock. Their debut album must atone artistically for the universally reviled Knack and compensate commercially for the dozens of failed contenders.”
The Plimsouls know of these expectations, and they don’t like them. Sure, the four musicians have confidence in their urgent, R&B-laced rock & roll songs, and in the blistering live show that makes their case more forcibly than their self-titled debut album. As lead singer and chief songwriter Peter Case says with matter-of-fact cockiness, “People just want to see a record come out of Los Angeles that’s good and sells a lot of copies. I can see how they think our record will do that, because it probably will.”
Case, fighting off a killer cold he caught while going home from a concert in sweat-drenched stage clothes, sniffs and shakes his head. “But it’s not my job to be the savior of L.A. rock, you know what I mean?” he continues, gazing out the window of an Elektra/Asylum conference room. “Sure, I love L.A., but when we were rehearsing in a garage, we never said, ‘We’re gonna save L.A. in the eyes of the country.’ We never gave a shit about that”
And when the Knack is mentioned, Case bristles. “Now look, man. I fucking hate that. We don’t have nothin’ to do with them. You’re talking apples and oranges.”
Case is a veteran of one of California’s original protopunk bands, the Nerves (whose members also included Paul Collins of L.A.’s Beat and Jack Lee, who wrote Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone”). He met Lee in San Francisco after leaving his hometown of Buffalo, New York, in his late teens; although Case says it was “kinda inspiring to be as much out of it as we were,” the Nerves broke up and he headed south.
In Los Angeles, Case met drummer Lou Ramirez in a San Diego Freeway traffic jam (he swears it’s true). The two went to Ramirez’ studio, a rented Masonic lodge in what the drummer calls “the worst ghetto of Long Beach,” and when Ramirez’ longtime friend Dave Pahoa joined on bass, the Plimsouls were formed.
“We never tried to hype ourselves at all,” Case says of the band’s slow progress. We never solicited a club gig. We just went out and played parties all over the place, and when people asked for us, then we’d go into a club.”
During the summer of 1979, the Plimsouls put 20,000 miles on Case’s car playing nothing but Southern California shows; they also released an EP on the independent Beat label. That fall, they signed with Richard Perry’s Planet Records, an Elektra subsidiary, after adding guitarist Eddie Munoz; fresh from a “dead-end” band in Texas, Munoz had previously auditioned for the Plimsouls but instead became a roadie with Elvis Costello and, later, Rockpile. “The band didn’t seem like it was going anywhere,” he says. “So I took the roadie job, and when I got back, the Plimsouls were headlining the Starwood. I thought I’d give them a break.”
Sales figures aren’t in yet on the band’s LP, but Case says he “definitely wants hits. But I’m not gonna write stuff just to have hits. What I really want to do is write something original. It’s hard sometimes…. Who was it, man, somebody like Keats, in these letters he wrote to his girlfriend, he goes, ‘How could anybody write anything original after Shakespeare, man?’ And then this guy turns around and writes ‘Grecian Urn’ or whatever it was. It’s the same thing with rock & roll. There’ve been a jillion songs written, and to write something original in E, A and D is challenging.
I guess it is up to us and the Plimsouls, now that you mention it.” Ian Ainsworth, bass guitarist and a songwriter for Great Buildings, sits back in a chair at CBS headquarters and laughs. “It’s not up to us to save L.A. I don’t look at rock music that provincially. But it is up to us to show that young groups can start selling records. It’s time to put rock music back in the hands of responsible young people, where it started out. Hopefully, kids are getting tired of guys with beards.”
With their seamless harmonies and carefully constructed, classically styled pop tunes, Great Buildings are probably the L.A. band with the best shot at wide AOR and Top 40 radio play. Lead singer Danny Wilde, the group’s other main songwriter, sums up their appeal succinctly: “Our songs are good, we’re not that bad to look at, and we’re probably the only band in L.A. with three-part harmonies.”
Wilde and Ainsworth met in the Quick, Kim Fowley’s early glitter-punk outfit. Both now view that band with distaste. “We were singing good melodies about ridiculous things like Nazis,” says Ainsworth of the Quick’s one album, Mondo Deco. “We were on the verge of being signed to another major label when we realized we didn’t want to be stuck in that band for another three years, so we quit. We both had horrible jobs, and we just sat around writing songs. Then we thought, ‘Well, maybe we should play our songs with a group,’ so we got Richard Sandford to drum. We figured we needed a lead guitarist, so we found Phil Solem. Then it was, ‘Oh, I guess we should play live now.’ Nothing was planned. When the record companies got interested, we said, ‘Oh, fine. Next.’ “
From the start, the band kept a relatively low profile on the local club circuit. “L.A. is so deceiving,” Wilde says. “You can have a circle of 300 or 400 people who think you’re the greatest but who cares? Who’s gonna buy the album? It’s like X, the Dickies, etc., etc.; they can pack places, but when are the big record deals?”
Great Buildings got their big deal with Columbia and recently released Apart from the Crowd. “Some people are kinda perturbed that it’s so slick and well produced,” Ainsworth says “Those are the people who are looking at us to save Los Angeles rock. They wanted a vital rock statement, and we just tried to make a good record.
“We’re trying to avoid the ‘art’ approach. It’s like when Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life in the Forties, the critics said, ‘This is populist entertainment, it’s crap.’ And now people call it art. We’d joke around in the studio: ‘Is this art? Art who? Art Carney?’ After all, rock & roll is good-time music. You spend your ten bucks and have a good time. And to me, anyone who doesn’t fulfill that obligation is a jerk.”
Back at Elektra/Asylum, the Plimsouls are talking about the perception that local rock is faltering, that it needs a best seller to redeem itself. “This scene’s real good,” says Dave Pahoa. “Especially compared to somewhere like New York. What’s New York putting out now? The Plasmatics? They stink.”
“That’s not what’s really going on in New York,” sighs Case. “The Fleshtones….”
“Yeah,” agrees Eddie Munoz. “The Fleshtones are really good, but they’re like the best New York band I’ve ever seen. When I was there last time, the scene was really dismal. They had stuff like James Chance.” Munoz pauses. “He really stinks. He was sickening. Sure, L.A.’s got a better scene than that going.”
“It’s like those guys who say rock is dead,” spits Case. “They never look in L.A. Oh, yeah, rock is dead. What’s ‘My Mistake’ by the Kingbees or ‘We Got the Beat’ by the Go-Gos or ‘Marie Marie’ by the Blasters? Those are fucking great rock & roll records.”
Munoz sneers. “And people talk like we’re supposed to be the fucking saving grace of the whole goddamned scene. They’re nuts.”
“L.A. don’t need to be saved, man,” agrees Case. “It ain’t L.A.’s fault that people haven’t listened to the good stuff. Man, it’s the rest of the country that needs to be saved.”