I had probably heard about the making of this film, by Colin Hanks [scion of Tom] a few years back and my wife came to mention it to me recently as she was buying films on DVD for the library where she works at. The order went out and we got it to watch this week. We wasted little time in giving it a spin in the antiquated DVD player.
I didn’t have the firmest of relationships with the music megadealer. Where I lived in the cultural wasteland of Central Florida, such stores were unknown. I first shopped at a Tower Records in their Foggy Bottom, Washington D.C. location, back in 1990. I was presenting a paper I had co-written at a conference back in those earlier days of my career, when it had some promise. As usual, I scoped out what record stores of interest were in D.C. and made sure to visit them during the down time. Now that I think about it, I can’t recall how I did this in the pre-internet era, but I suspect a phone book was involved! The first Tower experience was profound.
It was shortly afterward when I got in the habit of trekking up to Atlanta for some excitement, that I came to find that Hot-Lanta had its own Tower Records in the Lenox Square Mall outer zone. Every trip to Atlanta for the next five years involved a visit to Tower! The store was jam-packed with exactly the releases that I was buying in the era. Massive amounts of import CDs and an import CD single selection that would put many whole stores in Orlando to shame!
While I accepted the level of excellence that Tower records aspired to and maybe even took it for granted, I was in the dark as to how the particulars of the once-mighty chain had come together. The film revealed that it was down to one man, Russ Solomon who wanted to sell records out of his father’s Sacramento drug store; Tower Drugs. The elder Solomon had no time for that folderol so he gave that part of the business to his son and let him get on with it.
The film showed how Russ built his empire from the ground up, attracting record store types with a mixture of good cop/bad cop dynamic courtesy of his business partner who managed the finances offsetting Russ’ more lassiez-faire attitudes. As anyone who worked in a record store probably knows, a lot of behavior that would get you arrested elsewhere was usually fine at a record store. It was our good fortune that Russ aspired to run the best record store in the world.
A memorable scene showed how VP Heidi Cotler admitted that there was a euphemistic line item on an actual budget where almost $400 worth of cocaine was given the less transgressive nomenclature of being “handtruck fuel.” The crews would often perform re-stocking after hours. Sometimes into the wee hours. Peruvian marching powder was seen as a must. Most of the execs interviewed for the film reflected this casual vibe, of course. The gent who ended up in charge of the hugely successful expansion of the company into the eager Japanese market recalled famously how he was in the tree outside of one store smoking some powerful herb one afternoon when Russ called and wanted to know some particularly detailed information that his slack brain was having a terrible time processing.
But the Tower chain stood as a beacon to the music industry for decades. There would not have been a Virgin Megastore chain without their lead to follow. The film outlined how a handful of stores in California grew to be a worldwide presence of over 160 sites in over a dozen nations. Barring a small music industry recession like the one in ’78-’81, it was the nearest thing to a sure bet as generations of youth grew up to stoke their love for music in these temples of commerce.
The emergence of the CD market was depicted as both the apex of the music industry as well as the seeds of its doom. By the late 80s, growth was enormous as listeners sought to replace their record collections with the silver discs. The film cited the elimination of the CD singles market in the late 90s, coupled with greedy pricing by the labels as setting the stage for a huge fall. While CDs were originally $12.98 list price in 1982, when there were only three pressing plants in the world, they crept up to $17.98 over a fifteen year period where economies of scale shouldhave seen the product lowering in cost.
Young listeners didn’t have $17 to buy albums, and the singles trade was important in cultivating that market so that when it matured, the listeners were ready to enter into the album sales market. I had stopped buying [import] CD singles in 1993 or so, and I was unaware of how younger listeners could no longer buy the songs they wanted for a lower price point by the late 90s. So a perfect storm of rising prices, elimination of the singles market, coupled with the deathblow of Napster, meant that as the film opened, it revealed how in 1999 Tower Records had sales of $1,000,000,000 and five years later it was in bankruptcy.
It wasn’t all down to Shawn Fanning. The over extension of the Tower empire also had a lot to do with that heavy debtload. Then there were horrible retailers like Best Buy, who contributed to many a local record store death in the 90s with their aggressive, loss-leader business model that used cut-rate CDs to get warm bodies in store to buy expensive refrigerators! When management didn’t account for the cliff fall of sales post-Napster that was when the banker moved in and took control.
Was Russ Solomon naive? Maybe. He was a high-school dropout who couldn’t have been a CEO of a billion dollar organization at any other time since then, but while unschooled, Russ was no idiot. He built the Tower empire from the ground up and promoted from within. Every major player in the company learned the business from the ground floor as clerks and by the time they were VPs in charge of international marketing, they knew every part in the complex machine of music sales that was Tower Records.
Once bankers were in charge, the end didn’t take long. The locusts of finance can strip once proud companies down to a husk in short order. By 2006 it was all over. The last time I set foot in a Tower Records was the Foggy Bottom store in 2004. I was in D.C. for an Edward Tuffte information design seminar and made sure to stop in to visit the store I had last been to two years prior with chasinvictoria during our Scots Rock Weekender [where we saw not only Simple Minds, but also The Rezillos].
I noted how the in-store displays allowed the employees to curate and promote releases according to their passion and expertise. I noted a display of the then-current V2 DLX RMs of The Associates that warmed the cockles of my heart. I walked through the store aware that I didn’t have too much money to spend but wisely chose three discs that were important buys.
Altered Images third album had only just come out on CD from Edsel for the first time. Though the disc had errors, it was better than nothing. The Simple Minds DVD-A was a very far sighted buy! I would not have a 5.1 system to play it on for another seven years! But by then the disc was incredibly scarce. And I could enjoy the alternate 2.0 long, unedited [and alternate take] mixes that were unique to the format before then. I’ve never seen another. The same went for the godlike second album by Cristina, “Sleep It Off.”
Having these rare discs I can put down to Tower’s amazing depth of stock which was second-to-none. The stores surely pointed the way for the closest thing we have in America to it today, the Amoeba chain with their now smaller Hollywood store [recently downsized due to real estate hijinx] still holding the blue ribbon for sheer record store chutzpah in our fallen world. But at least the Amoeba Music chain [of three stores] has been avoiding the explosive expansion scenario that could not have helped Tower during the perfect storm of their demise.
Watching “All Things Must Pass” now puts a nostalgic frame around an era that is long since gone and will never return. Three years after the 2015 feature debuted, Russ Solomon died of a heart attack in 2018. So Hanks’ decision to film the tale when he did was clearly advantageous in that he was able to craft it while the relaxed fit mogul was still around to weigh in on the storied history of the chain. I’m just glad that I got to experience, however intermittently, the wonder that was a trip to a Tower Records. I’ll never forget my friend Ron Kane regaling me with tales of shopping at the Shibuya, Japan location. How each story of the store had a different emphasis with all of the original Blue Note Jazz albums bought from America now living on the top floor with all new pricing. Ron’s gone, and so is the chain, but Tower Japan was independent from the American company after a time and still exists, profitably, today. But if you want to visit, you’d better hurry. I suspect that even the Japanese market’s lingering embrace of the CD will one day be part of history. And when that happens, all we will have left are memories and films like this one.
So yesterday, we were discussing all of the loose appearances of Lene Lovich from the point of her own fame moving forward. We left off at 1989 and things were actually going to heat up during the wilderness period in her own career, which had a long break from her “March” album in 1988 until “Shadows + Dust” happened in 2006.
Pete Hammill: The Fall Of The House Of Usher • Some Bizzarre | UK | CD | 1991 | SBZ-CD 007
Holy mackerel! Van Der Graaf Generator Pete Hammill made a solo album that adapted Poe’s poem musically with Lene singing the role of Lady Usher. You might think “Prog!” But check out the label for this one! Her fellow vocalists were Andy Bell and Sarah Jane Morris!
Taxi Val Mentek: I Sleep On Your Tongue • Pointy Bird Music | UK | CD | 1994 | Pointy 001
Taxi Val Mentek? “I Sleep On Your Tongue??!” Has anyoneheard this…fundamentally odd release? Lene sings lead vocals on “We Fly high” and is the only vocalist listed in the credits.
Latz: The Wicked Witch • Angry Fish Music |Germany | 10″ | 2000 | AFM 010
This is a song that would show up on her 2006 “Shadows + Dust” album in perhaps an earlier guise, under the name…Latz. The B-side is “Home [album version] which is the old Lovich chestnut.
Hawkwind: Take Me To Your Leader • Hawkwind Records | UK | CD + DVD | 2005 | HAWKVP35CDSE
She’s sang in the 80s with Lemmy and years later Lene joined Hawkwind to sing “Angela Android” on their 2005 opus. Lemmy also showed up to sing on a liver version of “Silver Machine” on the accompanying DVD.
Thorne: Sprawl • Stereo Society | US | CD | 2005 | SS003
Thorne is better known as producer Mike Thorne, whom you all surely have some albums he was responsible for in your own collections. At the time he was producing the [supa-fine] last Lene Lovich album, “Shadows + Dust,” and en ran the Stereo Society label. Putting out his own project where Lene sang on most of the tracks in some capacity, with her own “Natural Beauty” getting covered.
Thorne Presents: The Contessa’s Party • Stereo Society | US | CD | 2005 | SS009
Mike Thorne also produced this sprawling effort with the band Betty and once again Lene sings vocalese on several of the tracks. When I look at the credits, I’m surprised that I’m not on there too! What was in the water in 2005? Lene was releasing her own album yet found plenty of time for other projects.
Judge Smith: Orfeas • Masters Of Art | UK | CD | 2011 | MASTER106
Chris Judge-Smith [a.k.a. Judge Smith] is a songwriter who founded Van Der Graaf Generator and had provided a couple of early classic for Lene Lovich to sing on her first two albums; “What Will I Do Without You” and “You Can’t Kill Me.” Lene sings the role of Eyrudice here in this musical retelling of the Greek tale.
Judge Smith: Zoot Suit • Masters Of Art | UK | CD | 2013 | MASTER107
Lene popped up on Judge Smith’s next album, singing a duet with Smith on “Weird Beard.” I do love that cover.
Mr. Averell: Gridlock • Equally Tuned « UK | CD | 2013 | ET20130101
Never heard of this guy, but Judge Smith plays euphonium and roped in Lene to sing “vocals and vocal effects.” Whatever that means. The titular Mr. Averell played almost everything else… save for the grand piano by… Mike Garson!
Lene Lovich came out of hiding about a decade ago with a new live band [but no evidence of longtime partner Les Chappell] and they released a DL of their version of “Savages” that your guess is as good as mine to figure out how to buy!
Morgan King: Old Skin • Accidental Music « UK | CD | 2019 | ACC58-CD
I don’t know this Morgan King, but he sings the song “Retrospective” as a duet with Lene.
Judge Smith: The Solar Heresies And The Lunar Sequence Masters of Art | UK | DL | 2020 | MASTER114
More Judge Smith? More Lene Lovich! This time Lene sings on the second half of the album; its “lunar sequence.”
So that’s all there is that’s out there, according to the oracle that is Discogs. Plenty to chew on while we realize that it’s been 16 years since the last Lene Lovich album! But if “Shadows + Dust” proves to be her last opus, then at least it was a high point to go out on! Did I ever review “Shadows + Dust?” No! That’s right! I was waiting to one day do a Lene Lovich Rock G.P.A.!! Once I make a REVO CD the firstversion of “Stateless” I think that will be possible.
I’ve already looked into the early pre-history of the iconic Lene Lovich. There’s a lot more where that came from if we instead turn our attention to, let’s say, the year 1978 when she was signed to Stiff Records. She’s got a lot of backing and guest lead vocals to keep us busy for years trying to track it all down. We have a lot of ground to cover so let’s get to it.
Rachel Sweet: Fool Around • Stiff Records | UK | LP | SEEZ 12
Sure, sure. We all knew that Lene did star turn backing vocals [as well as her famed blood-curdling screams] on the bizarre “Cuckoo Clock” but did you know that she also did much more calm BVs on “Just My Style?”
The Residents: Commercial Album • Ralph Records | US | LP | 1980 | RZ-8052-L
This one is a buried treasure treat as an uncredited Lene Lovich sings lead on the song “Picnic Boy!”
Thomas Dolby: The Golden Age Of Wireless • Venice In Peril | UK | LP | 1982 | VIP1001
Here’s a famous turn of her BVs. I hope that most anyone reading this has a copy in your own private Record Cell. Lene [and Les Chappell] sing in the chorus on “Weightless” and carry the conclusion to “Cloudburst On Shingle Street” all on their own.
Tom Verlaine: Postcard From Waterloo • Virgin | UK | 7″ | 1982 | VS 501
Lene had uncredited BVs for Tom Verlaine’s single A-side from 1982. Strangely enough, I have heard none of Tom’s solo material, though I have four Television albums.
Various: Tuff Turf Soundtrack • Rhino Records | US | LP | 1985 | 838 505-2
Here’s one I was blissfully unaware of until today. Did you know that Lene sings “Breakin’ The Rules (What Do You Do When Opposites Attract)” on the OST of the James Spader bad teens on rampage movie? Neither did I!
Various Artists: Animal Liberation • Wax Trax! Records | US | CD | 1987 | WAXCD 025
Here’s one I shamefully still need, though I have the 12″ UK single and the promo EP of remixes [different from the 12″] of “Don’t Kill The Animals;” Lene’s duet with the equally great Nina Hagen.
Nina Hagen: Nina Hagen • Mercury Records | GER | CD | 1989 | 838 505-2
Lene also sang on her buddy Nina Hagen’s 1989 album as produced by Zeus B. Held on “Where’s The Party.” A raucous number where Nina, Lene and Mr. Lemmy Kilmister all shared the mic! Now, how much would you pay?
I just got the terrible news that Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire had died today when Gavin Brick informed me a few hours ago. It’s always saddening to see a favorite musician die, but we really needed Kirk, especially now. Last year, he reactivated the Cabaret Voltaire name to apply it to his latest work. The name Cabaret Voltaire has always stood for a vigilant deconstruction of the Control Process that saw them predict, with soul-deadening accuracy, the directions in which human society was definitely moving. Control. Surveillance. Propaganda. Psy Ops. And we were the targets.
The roots of Cabaret Voltaire went back to 1973 Sheffield where electronics/Eno fan Chris Watson met fellow teenage malcontent Rickard Kirk who began constructing rudimentary oscillators and making experiments in sound, enlivened by their fandom of seminal Beat writer William S. Burroughs. Then, amid the stack heels of the Glam Rock movement, the duo linked up with bass player/vocalist Stephen Mallinder to form a power trio of a different kind. One which tore back the Veil of Maya to reveal power structures. Not construct them.
The band were pivotal to energizing and supporting the growth of the Sheffield music scene in those early years. They were the slightly older, wiser band that showed upstarts like The Human League how it could be done. They defined the indie furrow that others would plow more successfully in their wake. The also defined a technological Funk that was largely unprecedented.
While their early work was experimental and Dadistic cut-up music, there was always the hint of the dance floor to it all. They liked their Art, but they were not snobs. Their seminal single “Nag! Nag! Nag!” sounded like Daleks fronting The Seeds [while taking black beauties]. [Editor’s Note: When I wrote this description, a few days ago, I had not noticed that their 1979 debut album, “Mix-up” in fact contained a cover version of The Seeds “No Escape” from their classic eponymous 1966 album!]
1978 saw them signed to Rough Trade records for their fertile trio period. It was in 1980 when I heard tracks from “Voice Of America” on WMNF-FM in Tampa and I made a strong note of this band though the actual records had not yet filtered into my sleepy hamlet. It was a year or two later when I saw the “2×45” release and the adjacent “Eddies Out” 12″ [complete with bonus 7″] at Crunchy Armadillo and bought them. This was fascinating work on the cusp of noise but with hints of Funk beneath the surface. Then, about two years later, I saw this.
After seeing the “Sensoria” video on Night Flight, I immediately started collecting Cabaret Voltaire. I worked backward and moved forward. I got their latest album, “Micro-Phonies,” which featured the song below as a succinct précis of their ethos. I bought everything but everything was possible to buy, as the band’s records were widely available. Obviously, I was not the only one listening.
As the band had moved from Rough Trade to their more commercial Virgin Records period where Stevo was managing them, they eventually moved to EMI in 1987. At first the music was brighter and cleaner, if slightly sterile, but the same values were obviously present. Then the late 80s manifested and house music was sweeping through the UK music scene, and the album the band made in Chicago [“Groovy, Laid Back And Nasty”] was an experiment that lost my endorsement. Afterward, the band linked up with Les Disques Du Crépuscule for an transitional techno album that saw the contributions of Stephen Mallinder minimized severely. The album that followed this seemed to be mostly Kirk making the music, and then Mallinder was gone. This period did not stick with me, and 1991’s “Body + Soul” remained the last new CV album I would buy.
Richard Kirk released an abundance of solo projects under his name as well as the following list of aliases via his Wikipedia page:
Agents With False Memories
Future Cop Movies
King Of Kings
Nine Miles Dub
PSI Punky Dread Allstars
The Revolutionary Army
Robots + Humanoids
The Silent Age
Vasco de Mento
All of this is unheard by me as it represents an almost crushing amount of music to absorb. Cab Volt’s imperial period was already so fecund that I could just about keep up with the ceaseless array of 12″ singles and albums. In the 21st century, I’ have soaked up many of the compilations that collected both the band’s 12″ single material as well as the plethora of unreleased tracks and mixes that were shelved but not forgotten and ignored, thankfully. In the last 20 years, I have bought an additional eight CDs worth of vital archival material over five releases; much of it previously unreleased, that has a cachet with me akin to Prince fan’s relationship to The Vault material. If I was not getting new CV material of interest then this certainly made up for it.
And last year after years of teasing and even playing new concerts under the Cabaret Voltaire name, Kirk released the first new Cab Volt album in 26 years, “Shadow Of Fear,” A more Cabaret Voltaire name for a release I cannot imagine. I had wanted to buy this, but purchases in the pandemic environment have been much more scarce and that’s not changing any time soon, as we discussed yesterday. But I will still have an interest in getting that album, and one day, possibly years down the road, it may happen. As I might investigate the dozens of solo projects he’d released over the years that kept me at arm’s length due to his late-period Bill Nelson-like levels of productivity. When I look at the stack of Kirk releases in my Record Cell below, I am surprised but pleased by their large number. For me, Cabaret Voltaire was a Core Collection band who were seminal in their ability to hybridize an Industrial approach that gave Funk an eerie kind of menace that suited the zeitgeist. It was the sound of a resisting spirit that spoke to me. Now, more than ever.
It’s been 18 months now since the Covid-19 pandemic has spread like wildfire around the world. Impacting all cultures, if not equally. In most cultures, obeisance to the gods of capitalism have meant that flattening the curve of spread has failed. Given the choice between pretending that nothing is wrong, and keeping that money flowing into coffers – which seems to be the only value Western culture has. At least according to its gatekeepers. Western culture has opted for money over life itself.
Any attempt to counter this phenomenon has been met with organized resistance from a smaller, but very vocal minority with the media at their beck and call. The very idea of civic duty and responsibility has been attacked and mocked by those who would profit in the face of death. I’ve lived long enough to see the astonishing spectacle of disease prevention be attacked on a political basis. Meanwhile in the last 18 months, as of today, this disease has killed 673,985 Americans. Roughly one in 500 US citizens are now dead.
I got my vaccinations by May. And once the vaccines were flowing down to my tier [last] by that time, we supposed that things might start to be getting better. In June, my wife was thrilled to see that Khraungbin and Lee Fields; two of her recent musical investigations were playing a show together as a fundraiser for the Raleigh United Way to help revitalize the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. We bought tickets for us and our friends to attend the outdoor show at the Red Hat Amphitheater. We’d seen OMD there in 2016 and it was a large [6000 cap.] venue in the middle of the city. I felt that an outdoors show would be surely a viable thing by the end of October! We bought our tickets with confidence. And maybe a little spring in our step.
Then In July, Sparks announced their 2022 US tour and a date with our name on it was in Atlanta in March of 2022. They were playing a new 2,200 cap. indoor performing arts center that looked very nice indeed. And tickets were even priced below $50 each – a steal! But on the time between buying those tickets and now, the recent mutation of Covid-19, Covid-Delta, has spread like wildfire throughout the US. Especially the Southeast where I live. As we can see in the graph below, the amount of weekly deaths due to the much more powerful Delta variant has skyrocketed in two and a half months to eight times the nadir of the death curve [at roughly 1.6K death/week] from last July. We are currently having 13.2K deaths/week with no end in sight.
The Live Music Experience
In a matter of weeks, we have gone from being excited to see Khraungbin/Lee Fields with our friends and having another glorious Sparks show to anticipate to knowing that there’s no way in hell we will be traveling to see a show, even outdoors. The Covid-Delta strain is just too virulent for me to tempt fate.
As of tomorrow, it will be exactly two years since the last live concert I have seen: Les Filles de Illigahad at The Mothlight. It was at my favorite local venue which no longer exists, due to the pandemic. As a person who’s consumed by a love for music, and has spent a lifetime waiting long years to see my favorite bands, has this been a difficult time for me? That would be an easy “no!”
Given how much I love music, going cold turkey on concerts for two years has been so easy that I haven’t really noticed it being a problem. I have a significantly larger problem with
A] missing work due to quarantine due to catching a virulent disease or
B] dying because of it.
Maybe I’ll revisit these words with a steaming plate of hot crow, but if I never see another live concert again for the rest of my life I’ll be more than happy to have merely survived this pandemic without having a punishing bout of long-Covid symptoms that scientists will be studying for probably beyond the rest of my life.
In fact, the upside of the pandemic has been that I’ve seen several streaming live shows that, given the thousands of miles that have separated me from the artistes performing in them, I would have otherwise never experienced in any significant way! I really loved the Midge Ure 1980 show. Sure, it was weird seeing a hot show with no crowd feedback [in fact, no crowd…] but I coped somehow. What about the other side of the music lover’s coin? The purchasing experience?
Shopping For Music
After all, I am a person who actually blogs about traveling to other cities and buying discs from outside of the local hunting grounds. I carry within me the memories of some truly transformative music shopping experiences. How have I reacted to living in a time when this is not possible? Surprisingly well.
From March to December of last year, I still managed to spend $779.88 on music with only one purchase made in an actual record store. Technically, not even in the store. For the 2020 Record Store day event, I was able to send my request at a certain time on RSD 2020 via email to Harvest Records. I wanted the clear vinyl “Roxy Music” Steven Wilson remix LP and the clear vinyl “Sleepwalk” 12″ from Ultravox. Within minutes I heard back with a link to buy, which I did. I paid online and drove to their pickup area to have the discs delivered to my waiting car.
This was by far the kindest, most humane experience of Record Store Day I’ve ever had! Every other RSD event was like fighting a school of hungry piranhas for raw meat, dangled just above the tank! This year I have spent a lot less on music and I’m basically happy with this turn of events. As I am aging, I find this easier, and easier to do. My friend Mr. Ware is several years older than I am and he’s reported on the phenomenon of losing the obsession with building a collection and I’m here to report that I seem to be falling right into that trend, no matter how much I may have thought “no way” to myself as little as a decade ago.
This year I have been to Harvest exactly two more times for pickup of a previously bought disc. This year’s RSD was different. Eight people were allowed in the store to pick from the RSD stock at a time. I waited about eight minutes until it was my turn and was actually inside of the store for a few minutes to buy the Harold Budd album I wanted. It felt weird to do even that much, with everyone in the store masked, of course. It was still qualitatively better than the pre-2020 RSD experience. Far better.
One of my pet peeves is the practice of traveling to a distant city and shopping in a store. where I spend a lot of money on things I see there that are of interest, but not necessarily on my want list. My want list contains the title I actually obsess over. And spending $100 in a store on exactly none of them gets me nothing but cognitive dissonance that makes me $100 further from actually ordering any of those want list titles [which are generally never seen in American stores]. So the usual shopping circumstances normally bring me only more music anxiety. I am spending much less yet focusing on mail ordering things that I really want…if I deign to buy anything at all. The facts are that I have years worth of records bought that I still need to listen to. I’ve never spent less or been happier about it! So how are the rest of you reacting to the new and different circumstances? Discuss below.
Today we finish up with the interview with Gleaming Spires’ David Kendrick. Touching on the late history of that band as well as the group’s concurrent existence as Sparks live and studio band for the first half of the 80s.
THE SPARKS YEARS
PPM: They were definitely a band that had pockets here, and pockets there. At different times in the span of their existence, they had different pockets of support that see them through. It is amazing.
D: And because we were being Sparks as well as Spires, from the Spires point of view we didn’t always necessarily have the best time to do a whole national tour. Sparks took precedence in terms of scheduling. That was the drag with the last record. Where we finally had the chance to go all over the country and it kind of didn’t happen.
PPM: It’s so disappointing and soul crushing when something like that happens. [Lead guitarist Bob Haag abruptly went AWOL before the first national headlining tour by Gleaming Spires at the time of their third album, when their involvement with Sparks was tapering off] But that was the interesting thing in that you had this dual existence. You had your “day job” in Sparks which must be like the best compromised day job ever.
D: You know I really liked them before it became real. Honestly, in my professional life, Sparks and DEVO are both unique, iconic, inspiring acts. The fact that I’m in part of their history is something I’m really proud of.
PPM: Oh yeah, I’d say that Sparks and DEVO are possibly the premiere two American bands of their generation. Just from my perspective because this is the stuff that makes the most sense to me.
D: [laughs] I’m really happy that Sparks are having such a banner year. This year. I don’t know if you saw the documentary…
PPM: Oh yeah! Absolutely we saw the documentary and saw that you and Les were in it.
D: …It’s so great because they just look forward to their next thing. They are genuine artists. No “plan B.”
PPM: They are totally committed to their art.
PPM: They do not compromise and they’re here to show the way through a life of compromise.
D: Yeah, I mean they were a nice sort of lesson to learn from for me. When I was working with them, ’til now. They both live in the same place. Their needs are relatively modest. Everything about them is their craft. They’re dedicated to their work. To their art. Then that’s like…yeah. I respect that greatly.
PPM: Definitely. I’m a huge Sparks fan and seeing this year has been very gratifying to see these guys get their due. In more ways than one.
D: Yeah, definitely. And I’m happy for my personal taste for them, too. My first couple records I did with them I think is their first or second best period, so I’m really happy with those.
PPM: Right. The first Sparks I ever heard was “Tips For Teens,” right?
D: Oh, wow.
PPM: So that is your band in there. I remember at the time I thought I’ve been reading about Sparks for about two or three years…but you’d never hear them being played on the radio in Orlando, Florida. It’s just not going to happen. It’s a conservative…very conservative, radio environment. And Sparks was just so daunting back then. Because …“oh my god, ten albums…! Where do I start with this band?”
D: [David laughs]
PPM: I was frozen for nine years! And finally I saw a copy of “Interior Design” in a used bin, so I picked it up. Possibly the worst Sparks record… [David laughs] but that was my start. But the first that I heard was “Whomp That Sucker…” which I still don’t own. Which is sad. I’ve got a little over half of their albums now.
D: “Whomp That Sucker” and “Angst In My Pants…” I always think they’re worth it.
PPM: Oh yeah… “Angst In My Pants.” I have “Angst” and “Outer Space.” Were you still playing on “Music That You Can Dance To?” Or was that all…?
D: Most of that was done when I was still in the band at that point.
PPM: All that studio stuff was just them working with machines?
D: That was them mostly. I think there’s some tympani playing, but there wasn’t much. But I played up until then. I was with them longer than anyone else from Bates Motel. I stayed with them until they stopped playing live. And the very last thing I did with them was the Mael brothers and I went to Europe for like a month, just doing television. Right before I joined DEVO. So I was with them a pretty long stretch.
Yeah, it definitely had an effect on Spires in terms of nationally being know. We could only commit “x” amount of time in that period.
PPM: It was almost what I’d call a “walled garden” approach. Because you got all the nurturing and fertilizer you need to grow into a healthy Rock and Roll plant, but you didn’t get to go out of that garden too much. Sort of like “good, on one side, bad on the other” but ultimately you can say it was good because it worked for five or six years.
D: Yeah, yeah. And I mean they were supportive. They were fine. It worked. If one of us was available, we were all available to be Spires. It’s just a complete band. It made sense.
PPM: Exactly. It made a lot of sense, and of course Sparks’ liner notes to your first album were hilarious. [laughter]
One thing I like of course, which is a definite characteristic of The Spires is that Les really puts his heart on the line performing these songs. He changed his vocal delivery all of the time, but not the intensity so much. He’s always totally committed to communicating the depth of whatever the feeling is, and that doesn’t waver. And “Act Together” on “Well Lighted Streets” …that was performed with such a relentless operative intensity. It sort of reminded me of Philip Glass in a way.
And then on “Brain Button” he adopts what I can only call a Jaggeresque delivery a Zappa Funk track. As if the song wasn’t weird enough coming from a street person.
D: [chuckles] And then ultimately, the very last things…I don’t know if you got to hear the Eleven Blue Men…
PPM: Oh yeah.
D: That kind of did him in.
PPM: Yeah, it’s shredding his vocal cords… you can hear it in the song.
PPM: Les was such a committed vocalist.
D: I think that “Hypnotism” was one of the tracks where it’s just so… it’s like, “man, oh man!” I can see it being too much for some people.
PPM: I like dark things, but it’s almost too much for me. [David laughs]
The “Party EP” was where you switched to work with Greg Penny. Greg had produced the “Sparks In Outer Space” record. And going back on his CV I also noticed that he produced some tracks on the “Sharp Cuts” album you did on Planet Records, which had the only previous track from Bates Motel.
D: Oh, okay. Yeah, he worked with all those singer-songwriters later on.
PPM: He’s had a very interesting career. I’ve got some of his with k.d. Lang, but what I first noticed from him was when he produced the Martini Ranch album. That’s where he sort of came into my consciousness. I’m guessing he got jobs like that on the basis of stuff he did with you, because “Funk For Children” is just so delightfully bizarre I mean, you’ve got the kids doing emphatic grunts instead of James Brown. [David laughs]
D: Using real kids doing James Brown’s “hunh!” makes me laugh to this day. [laughs]
PPM: But you know, I can still hear about how you can talk about listening to The Gap Band and “Early In The Morning” and I can definitely hear traits of that in there, but The Gap Band doesn’t have toys on percussion.
D: I’m a collector of many things, including all of the drumming animals we used in the video. Percussion stuff from all my career, and so it’s great to be able to turn those things into a usable element now and then.
A LITTLE RESPECT FOR ABBA®
PPM: I absolutely love…I’m in love with the covers you put on the “Party EP.” I always felt that “Does Your Mother Know” was an overlooked ABBA® deep cut.
D: Oh man, yeah! I agree. It’s definitely the most rocking cut but it’s just undeniable. [laughs]
PPM: Yeah, but you took it to the next step. You’ve got Power Pop perfection on this.
D: Well, thank you.
PPM: I always thought that this song was their “answer song” to “Dancing Queen” from the “teased guy’s” point of view. But what made you think that “this was the one to do?”
D: I think for them it was like… you’re absolutely right, they’re actually doing like a Power Pop Rock song. Like we should just take that idea and just run with it. ‘Cause I really like, to me, their very last album …that was pretty dark. Both couples were divorcing and “The Visitors” was sounding Spires-esque. They were in a darker territory.
PPM: In their own way that’s for sure the truth. You listen to a song like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” isn’t that the most adult breakup song you’ve ever heard?
D: They are. There’s a maturity there. They had pap like “Fernando” that’s actually unlistenable for my tastes, but yeah. Knowing Me, Knowing You,“ absolutely that is like an adult song.
PPM: A very adult song.
D: A grownup adult song.
PPM: I liked it as a twelve year old, but I was absolutely nuts over it by the time I was thirty.
D: Well, I think that was one thing we saw in ABBA®. Their music can be extremely bubbly and light but lyrically, they could delve into real emotional pain.
PPM: They deliver on that level.
D: So I think that was one thing, plus the fact that they were so huge and most people didn’t take ‘em very seriously. We genuinely loved their craft and that lyric…adultness to them.
PPM: And the “Christine” cover, I swear, that’s been sticking with me like glue.
D: The Equals song?
PPM: I had to look that one up and I saw that was an Equals song. I thought, “this sounds vaguely familiar…have I ever heard another cover of it?” Or has it only been an Equals song?
D: I don’t think so.
PPM: I might have heard The Equals Song without knowing it was The Equals. For years the only Equals song I had ever heard was “Baby Come Back.” And that was it. it was the only thing I had ever heard. I might have heard “Christine” before as it sounded reeeeeeal familiar. I might have heard it playing on the radio. There used to be a weekly Ska show on the college station in Orlando. I might have heard it played there. Maybe.
D: I don’t think it ever was like big single. But we picked up on it. It’s infectious.
D: And the storyline is also kind of misbehaving people.
PPM: At first I didn’t realize it was a cover because the storyline is credible as a Gleaming Spires song. [David laughs] It’s not phrased in exactly the way you guys would have phrased it, but…it had a continuity there, somehow.
GLEAMING SPIRES AT THE MOVIES
PPM: It was also interesting hearing the hit soundtrack version of “Sex Girls” because we got to hear what the first album would have sounded like if your first plan had followed through.
D: Yeah, it was always the idea that it was kind of played like that. And that version got movie play, too. [In the “Revenge Of The Nerds” film]
PPM: It didn’t suffer for it. You guys had a lot of crossover with the movie industry, and when you’ve got the budget of a major film like that, it a whole different ball of wax from the finances of recording a rock album. So when a soundtrack offer comes through like that, “we need two songs for this soundtrack.” Is that like a real lifeline for the band, financially?
D: I would say sure. Les and I have made far more money from film usages than sales of the actual records. Live things did fine, but film and television rights are a lifeline for sure. To that point, doing a lot of “teen comedies” in the 80s, “Revenge of the Nerds” became a huge deal. It was a big, great budget for us. They didn’t know they had a huge hit on their hands. They were happy to accept that.
PPM: It was the zeitgeist for “Revenge of the Nerds.”
D: Yeah, oh for sure.
PPM: Just ahead of that curve ever so slightly and then “bam!’ it hit. And really, “revenge of the nerds” was almost a subtext for Gleaming Spires as well.
D: Well yeah. Part of The Spires thing was “we’re at the wrong party.” [laughs]
D: It’s like, “hey, wait a minute… maybe we’re hosting this one!” [laughs] It was good to do that song for that movie, too. That seemed to be apt. And then oddly, also in “Revenge Of the Nerds” they even dressed up like the DEVO guys, the other outsiders.
PPM: Oh they did? I’ve never actually seen the movie.
D: In the context of the movie.
PPM: Oh, wow!
D: It was kind of funny.
PPM: Well, DEVO is nerd-rock. Let’s not beat around the bush here. [David laughs] This is why I listen to them. This is why it spoke to me. These guys have a very strong point of view and they’re doing art. And oh my gosh, it’s also pop music. How lovely.
THE THIRD ALBUM [Welcoming A New Ice Age]
PPM: So for the third album, “Welcoming A New Ice Age,” so you self-financed that record? That was a very smart move.
D: Essentially, we had ups and downs with Robbie. I really don’t like to dwell on that stuff. We never had really accurate accounts of how much stuff really sold.
PPM: It’s so hard. It’s hard to get from anyone. It’s hard to get from the majors much less a guy running a small business out of Southern California.
D: The second album did get more distribution because it went through PVC to other countries.
,PPM: With PVC having much bigger distribution, for sure.
D: So the third album we did we had some money, and kind of financed it. We always got to use decent studios, and when we tried to do as good as we could. And it was still in those days of 2” tape. It was expensive.
PPM: It was not cheap in those days before the desktop revolution. So Greg Penny produced the “Party EP” and you worked with him on “Sparks In Outer Space?”
D: Yeah, we knew him. He lived close by. The “Party EP” was supposed to be lighter. A quick one-off thing. And “Funk For Children” we thought, again, this song was super catchy, and even though the lyrics were kind of grim… if people like it for the wrong reason…fine. It sounded like that could have been some kind of popular radio song, too. By mistake.
PPM: “Whip It” was a hit. That’s the thing that astonished me because I remember when “Freedom of Choice” came out, it was very weird. Because I was at my high school, which had a radio station, and I was one of the DJs on the high school radio station. And when that record came out, I started playing “Whip It.” Immediately. I’m not staying I’m the guy who broke it out with ten watts of power. [David laughs] It sounded like a hit to me. And six months later, there you go.
You’re always moving in new directions on each record. On “Ice Age” you start out with “Mercy” and it’s like optimism coming from Gleaming Spires. And you pointed to Big Country as an influence here. How did it feel to switch gears in the songwriting to that degree?
D: I don’t know if we consciously felt that it was really that different except that kind of stretched out a little more. Again, we were in service to the song. Some of that was maybe reactive to touring and how grim Top 40 radio actually was. Driving around the country and stuff. Big Country we just sort of like the fact that this sort of optimistic thing could exist on Top 40 radio. It was just pretty grueling to hear what most people were listening to. But that got tethered immediately to the dystopian “Welcoming A New Ice Age!” [laughs]
PPM: Like you said. You didn’t take up a whole new leaf because the very next track was anthemic music with typically grim Spires lyrical matter. As you say, I think you pointed out to J.G. Ballard…yeah. Dystopian.
D: Yeah, I was a big fan of his 60s disaster novels. “The Wind From Nowhere.” All the different ways that the end could arrive.
PPM: Unlike the one we’re having now. [sardonic laughter all around]
D: I don’t take any particular joy in thinking I was ahead of the game.
PPM: “No One Coming Over” again, I like how you pulled Jagger, Bowie, and Ferry into reconciling the distance between the projections of your heroes and the fragility of your own ideals.
D: Right. And kind of trying to impress anyone with your own set of stuff. It’s like “they are not coming over…I’m sorry.”
PPM: And way back going to the early demo of “Real Love” from Bates Motel with “The Secret Room” and “Blowing Up My Life” here it is. Three years later we’ve got country music and with your penchant for emotional misery, it almost made perfect sense to hear Spires producing country music. [David chuckles] Did you ever think about maybe writing for Nashville, or was that swimming against the tide too much?
D: I think Les might have tried a song or two. That was never my mode.
PPM: I didn’t know how far you would have felt about that, but it could have worked because that’s the material.
D: At a point, yeah. Very depressing songs, pre-Bro Country.
PPM: But I loved that song. “Your Secret Room” was great! If you did a whole album of that, I’d be signing up for that. On the first note I expected to hear a melodica solo but after the second note, that’s when I realized, “oh my god… they’re using bagpipes!” That’s crazy! [David laughs] And then I read about how you were using your friends recording because he could not make it to the session.
D: It was a drag because we didn’t know, never having worked with bagpipes before, that there was just one key that they could play in. And so we figured that out and modulated it at the point that we could do that.
PPM: Even I didn’t know bagpipes only had one key. [David chuckles] My musical knowledge on planet earth is still that limited. That’s news to me as well. But it worked out pretty good, though.
D: Yeah, it did.
PPM: You got more new features. “Bigger Than Life” was your Motown pastiche. There was a lot of things happening like that. Like the fourth album of The Undertones. That would fit right in on that, if you’ve ever heard that. The Undertones started out playing like Ramones punk rock, but by album four they had the full brass section. It sounded pretty good and you had the brass section as well. By the mid 80s, when you started revisiting your musical past like that, did you feel that it was somehow more acceptable? Or was it more like something new?
D: I think it was kind of more something new. The third album kind of stylistically jumped around more than some. And then “Harm” was…[sardonic laughter]
PPM: Oh my god…
D: …About as far away from pop music as we could get.
PPM: You’ve got the varispeed backing loop and you’ve got the frayed nerve cello playing. It’s like a bad Ingmar Bergman nightmare soundtrack. And we don’t care. That’s the beauty of this album is that you’re really sprawling all over the place. The first one’s pretty tight and coherent. The second one spreads out a little more, and the third one really spreads widely. And I’m a guy who likes eclectic music. I’m not one of those people who says “oh, it’s too bad it’s mort more coherent.” I’m always interested in hearing a much different stuff as I can.
D: I don’t think everyone appreciated how diverse we were. I guess the one thing that worked with this group is that, it’s the old axiom, but a successful, good band is more than the sum of its parts. It becomes something else and it absolutely worked with Spires. It was like whatever was going on when we were all involved, even though it jumped all over, it was something else.
PPM: It’s the “third mind” process. You’re creating something larger than the individual. And man, do I love “Unprotected!” If Les was trying to do a “Roy Orbison” he hit it smack on. I’m a big Roy Orbison fan and I could easily imagine that making the song list for “Mystery Girl.” Unfortunately, that never happened. It would have really worked.
PPM: I also liked “The Things I’ve Done To Our Love” which was fantastic. To me that sounded like what The Smithereens were just getting ready to do.
D: We did get that song placed in a film.
D: A movie called “The Horror Show.”
PPM: I saw reference to that [in the press kit] but I wasn’t able to find a soundtrack so I couldn’t tell what was in it.
D: That was one of those where I don’t think there was a soundtrack, but they played the entire song.
PPM: Well, that’s not bad. But “Harm” was so disturbing. [David laughs] That’s how the record ended. Fortunately on the CD you’ve got a little more. So you’ve got the Eleven Blue Men stuff. It’s actually sympathetically painful to listen to Les singing on that one. [David laughs]
D: I think some of out angst was showing by the end. Stuff wasn’t really working out. On the Eleven Blue Men few things it was us pushed about as far as we could go, I guess.
PPM: I would have thought that even before that was the breaking point with your guitarist going AWOL like he did.
THE DEVO YEARS
D: Yeah, that turned us towards trying something with Paul Cutler, but he ended up joining Dream Syndicate pretty much right after that. And then I ended up joining DEVO pretty soon after that.
PPM: And I loved the “Total DEVO” album. I thought that was a fantastic record. In fact, one of my big regrets was that I did not buy that record immediately when it came out, because I thought that “Shout” was so poor. I never owned “Shout” until only recently. Because now I’ve got to the point where I have to have everything, right?
D: When I joined, the reason why Alan was gone was the drum machines. For me as well, I did not want to be in the group that did “Shout.” The thing that was amazing about DEVO the first time I saw them was just these five guys in uniforms just doing the job. And it wasn’t a huge show, it was just committed to playing. The period I was with them, they weren’t large stage productions but it was back to actual playing. There’s real drums. “Smooth Noodle Maps” is all drums. There’s one track with some drum machine parts, but it’s all playing. That’s what I liked about them. I’m glad they came back to it.
PPM: Unfortunately, the one chance I would have had to see DEVO was the tour for “Total DEVO.” [Editor’s note: This is not strictly true… your scribe had forgotten that there was a 1990 appearance at Disney’s Pleasure Island on New Year’s Eve that was skipped out of sheer horror at the night and venue – and the high two figure ticket price.] It came to club called Visage in Orlando [where yours truly saw the bulk of any live Rock shows in the 80s] and I was 25 at the time and felt that I thought I knew everything. And I thought, “awww, DEVO… I missed them when they were on their game and I’ll pass this one up!” And I’ve subsequently learned that this is a bad move to make. [David laughs] Every time I’ve almost had a chance to see them over the years, it has never worked out. They were going to come to Moogfest in 2010, in my town so, great. Then I can’t remember which Bob it was, cut his hand on a broken bottle.
D: I think Bob 1.
PPM: And then they could not play so it was like “aww, geez…” I will never see this band and I’m just doomed here. I really should have seen them in 1988, and the irony was two years later whenever I got a copy of “Total DEVO,” I loved it. I thought the songwriting was fantastic. I thought that was some of the catchiest songwriting they had since “New Traditionalists.” I love that record and the deluxe remaster on Futurismo was… I wanted to get that but it’s so expensive ordering things from overseas.
D: They’re expensive but both of those sets… “Smooth Noodle Maps” and “Total DEVO” as objects, are beautiful.
PPM: Oh yeah, you’ve got all of this gloss varnish printing that presses all of my graphic designer buttons big time, I’ll have to admit it. [David chuckles] But paying as much for the shipping as the product slays me these days.
D: I guess that’s one thing I’m happy about with these Spires discs. A lot of people are getting all of them, but they’re individual and these aren’t ridiculously priced.
PPM: Omnivore run a tight ship. I very much love the stuff they’ve done with all of the L.A. New Wave bands. The Three O’Clock were another favorite band of mine and I was very happy when they put out that collection of rarities [“The Hidden World Revealed”]and I need to order that when I order all the new [Gleaming Spires] discs in one fell swoop. And I’ll be giving copies of these as birthday presents to my friends in the upcoming year. When I find a reissue label that’s doing great work, I definitely support it.
D: Oh good. Yeah, I’m happy the Bates Motel stuff is existent, and all of the movie work is getting out. Each record has as much bonus stuff as the regular stuff.
D: And there was a lot floating around.
PPM: I mean. if I were compiling these things and I knew all of this material was out there, this is how I would have it done. So all I can say is that this was absolutely done to the Monasticstandard. [David laughs] I can’t ask for anything more than that. So I’m very impressed. All I had before was the “Hypnotism” single.
D: All right. Well, yeah. This was something new, so thank you.
PPM: And thank you for the great work. Not only of course with Gleaming Spires, but also a tip of the hat for Sparks and DEVO as well. Like I said, two of the premier American bands for me.
When I was contracted last month by the PR agent promoting Omnivore’s CD reissue program for the works of Gleaming Spires, it was like having my wish granted by a genie. When they offered an interview with Spire David Kendrick, who was happy to talk about the years spent making Gleaming Spires music and was also the drummer for Sparks and DEVO for a run of their canon… well how could I say anything but yes, please? So recently, one afternoon, I had the pleasure of talking with Kendrick and we get started “below the fold.”
THE REISSUE PROGRAM
PPM: I’ve got to say I’m real excited about the reissue program because here I go writing about the notion of making this stuff on my own. Buying the vinyl. …denoising it and whatever, and all of a sudden…
David Kendrick: I know. I did see that.
PPM: Yeah, here you go…bang!
D: Yeah, and it’s kind of fortuitous. We’ve been kind of working on doing this for quite some time and we finally got all of our rights back to our whole back catalog. And Robbie Fields, the Posh Boy guy, not that much new got done to anything. I just continued on in many bands, other projects. My main personal writing thing has been this ongoing studio project, called The Empire Of Fun that keeps making, for want of a better word, concept albums dealing in science fiction and crime, fictitious islands. Anyway, we meet all kinds of people on there. We actually do handmade things. I guess like you, I still like the object. I like an object in my hand. I like lyric sheets. That kind of stuff. It’s kind of crucial.
PPM: The joy of tangible things may be a generational divide but I’m on the other side of it.
D: Yeah. Dare I say on the right side. [laughs] “The joy of tangible things,” that would be the essay title. I mean in one sense, even with everything kind of going onto the internet and emailing…I think a lot of stuff is kind of lost and everyone assumes that technology is going to grasp where stuff is.
I found out that early on, in my time in DEVO, we did remixes of some of the tracks from “Smooth Noodle Maps.” There were several versions and the label, Enigma, which lived up to its name in a way, they were marvelous distributors. They had Mute, they had all kinds of great stuff. Anyway, not that many years later, stuff was just gone. Digital copies went into somewhere. And wherever it was stored it was gone. I don’t think that’s super rare, and even a company like Universal …things get lost. There’s no guarantee that digitizing something is for the ages because all of those formats have changed.
But a handwritten letter or an illuminated manuscript on parchment might be done with berry dyes that are still bright after 500 years…I like that kind of longevity. I’d like to find that whoever’s combing the planet later on to dig up a [laughs] CD boxed set! Instead of digital files. So anyway…
PPM: So anyway, I’m guessing it was Chaim [O’Brien-Blumenthal] who was behind spearheading the push to get this done? Or was it from the band’s side?
D: No, actually, originally this was going be…I don’t know if you ever saw about five years ago there was a vinyl reissue on Futurismo. That guy, Delaney, had a company in London he also had a great art director and was an objectophile. His are gorgeous. The DEVO stuff. Originally, he was going to do the whole set…everything. As a boxed set. That company was such a niche thing, they did not survive the pandemic.
D: Very sadly. So suddenly it was up in the air. I don’t know if you know Chaim. I met him through DEVO connections.
PPM: No I don’t know him. Actually I’ve never heard of him until this project. Which is strange, because guys like him, I usually know about.
D: Yeah, He’s written some of these boxed set things. Writing for magazines and that. Anyway, he contacted me and said he might have an in at this label, and at least he could offer them the whole thing. And when they said “yes,” it just kind of went from there. I’m in Los Angeles, as is the label. I keep files of articles and that kind of stuff. Posh Boy had of course lost all of those tapes of most of them. And we had a few things, so I ended up being very involved in getting everything mastered. It took a while but I’m quite pleased. I actually have physical copies of the three releases. Which are separate but I think a lot of people are getting them all. The whole thing. Maybe down the line next year there may be some kind of vinyl version.
PPM: It’s nice to see the CD happening first as a “CD guy.” Because these days it’s almost a shock when they produce a CD. Especially something that’s never been on CD before.
D: Yeah, true enough.
PPM: In many cases I already have the vinyl. What I want is the CD.
D: Right. And then for me it was a nice process of going back and there was some other cuts, and frankly a lot of film stuff we did where the soundtracks never came out. We did a little bit of recording afterward with Paul Cutler playing on some stuff for us [Eleven Blue Men]. We did two other tracks and they’re on the last album. So there’s a lot of addendum stuff on each of the records.
PPM: It’s very well curated. It’s the kind of stuff that I live for.
D: And it’s got very extensive liner notes and we talk about influences. I’m a musician playing all of my life, but I’ve never stopped being a fan and I love searching out stuff, you know? I love reading certainly about what was going on in the studio and what was going on in people’s heads at the time. I find all of that fascinating.
Spires was a lot about cultural appropriation and digging into what was going on at the time. It was fun to relive.
PPM: I’m glad you enjoy it so much because in every band there’s usually one guy who’s like the “archive guy” who keeps tabs on the whole process from start to finish. Then years after, keeps it under wraps, so to speak.
D: I’ve done that for the most part. This was…[laughs at the notion] forty years ago. The beginning of that and my god, the technology’s just… In the early days there in Bates Motel, I was taking a cassette player to shows and I have a lot of those things taped. It seemed like later on that became more difficult. I stopped finding as much live stuff but then, in the world, there was someone at every single show, if you’re looking for it they had a tape player. So stuff exists. That’s for sure.
PPM: Were you able to find safety copies for first generation masters?
D: There were a few safeties. The actual tapes for the very first album were flooded out. I had a test pressing and they literally mastered from that vinyl. For that one. We had quarter inch for the third record. A lot of the Posh Boy catalog all disappeared. And he’s been all over the world since. So I don’t know if he knows where anything is, really. [mirthless chuckle] Anymore. But I will say that the mastering is pretty good. I went over there several times with him and a good job was done by Osiris [Studios].
PPM: [looks at credits] Michael Graves was the guy who mastered it. Wow, he did a fantastic job.
D: The label Omnivore has done some blues releases. He’s worked from pretty dodgy sources.
PPM: He did a fantastic job because I opened these up in my wave editor and I can say this is very nice work. And there’s not a lot of it these days as you may be aware. Sometimes it can be very badly botched in the mastering stage.
D: I have to say at that label…everyone involved in that that I’ve met…they’ve all been around in the Los Angeles scene for a long time. The art director even worked on one of the DEVO videos. So everyone, they’ve kind of been around and know the scene and our place in it. The booklets and everything were respectfully done. I’m pleased with the thing.
PPM: Oh yeah! There’s been a treasure trove of information. So much so that I’ve had to really dig deep to find good questions to ask. [laughter]
D: Where are you at? What part of the country?
PPM: I’m in North Carolina. I live in Asheville.
D: Oh yeah.
PPM: But I grew up in Orlando, Florida, which is where I first heard of Gleaming Spires. I’d seen you guys advertised in Trouser Press magazine, which was my window to the world back then. I always thought “wow, this is strange…synth pop guys on Posh Boy? What’s up with that?” [laughter] That must have been strange because they had that reputation for hardcore back then.
D: They mostly were! Robbie Fields, the “Posh Boy.” The English guy. He was a little bit older and he kind of made a point of standing out. He actually dressed like an Eton school attendee, and he always wore a tie and a jacket with leather patches. He kind of affected that look. Though his roots went back a little further into psychedelia and Mods. And he liked Sparks, so I think that’s kind of how he knew of us as well
When he got the tape he was very good friends with Rodney Bingenheimer. You know, Blondie and poppy stuff was fine with him. He launched “Sex Girls” on his radio show as an individual song and I think that helped Robbie when he finally met us in 1980. We did the first album which we thought was demos and then we were going to get the record deal, and then take lots of money and make the record. And Robbie was like “No, no no, you don’t understand. I like this.” And he’s like holding this cassette and he said, “and what’s more, I will put this out in like, a month. This can exist. This is great as it is.” And that was frankly, pretty new to us. So we just went for it, And it literally came out when we were overseas making the Sparks record [“Whomp That Sucker”].
So it got on the radio here in Los Angeles, big time on this station. And we weren’t around initially in the first success.
PPM: And how frustrating was that?
D: In one way it was you know, like, “oh damn,” but in another way it was like, well, people like this song and it was becoming popular. It was kind of nice to see that could happen.
PPM: Especially when you weren’t there to push it, really. You weren’t even promoting it!
D: Yeah, it was not payola. It was not a huge industry machine making it work. It was places playing it and people saying “hey, what was that?”
PPM: Organic. The interesting thing about the first record is that as you say, it was intended as demos. I call it unintentional technopop. It’s just like what Pete Shelley did when he did the “Homosapien” record,” if you’re familiar with that. Those were demos for the next Buzzcocks record that never happened. And then they said, “hey, this sounds great, let’s just put it out.”
D: I know, I agree. I mean we were lucky Stephen Hague had a lot to do with the sound of the record. He ended up being quite a known producer afterwards. A constant career. He was great with sound. He was as much a sound designer as much as a synth player. I mean he could make his own sounds. And then the whole conceit of it was he came out of the guitar/bass/drums band [Jules + The Polar Bears] and frankly when I stared doing that with Les [Bohem] we wrote a couple of what I’ll call Power Pop songs, that honestly, could have been hits.
PPM: Oh yeah! I mean the first song you wrote, “The Way Marlene Moves…!”
D: Have you heard that song?
PPM: Oh yeah, I’ve heard the entire set.
D: Oh, oh… I mean to me that’s like really…
PPM: That is what Pop/Rock is all about! This is it!
D: Yeah, and it was kind of like, “well if that’s not getting us a deal then we’re just going to write whatever’s kind of going on in our heads. So that was kind of the thing. It wasn’t necessarily for a specific guitar/bass/drums format. I do a lot of writing besides just lyrics. And I don’t consider lyrics any kind of dead end at all. It could be the beginnings of short stories and anything else. A lot of time I think of lyrics as characters.
It was great and so conversely, the sounds on that, were kind of all over the place. There could be one that’s just accordion sounds.
D: No drums at all. And that was fine, yeah.
THE EARLY YEARS [Bates Motel]
PPM: I find it interesting that you came from Chicago and the Midwest and found yourself out in L.A. when Kim Fowley called on the phone, like Destiny. That must be pretty weird, but you said you had your friend working for him so it makes perfect sense. But still, Kim Fowley is like one of those notorious, almost Satanfigures in pop music! [laughs]
D: Yeah, I mean, I’m actually one of the few people who that he invested in… he sent me $150 bucks to basically get there, and he never really got that personally back [laughs] out of me so I feel…
PPM: You came out on the right side of the deal then?
D: Yeah. I would run into him all the way. Really throughout the rest of his life around town. He had this dark side for sure, but he’s an absolutely fascinating character.
PPM: Fascinating… I’d have to agree with that.
D: Between him and Rodney Bingenheimer… I owe aspects of my career to those…scenesters. Who had as much to do with the 60s in Los Angeles as the 70s so it was pretty cool.
PPM: I also find it fascinating that you started out working in early lineups of Cheap Trick, because one I hear Bates Motel, I think “oh my god, this is nirvana Power Pop here.” I can’t believe that all of those songs have only now been released because they would have been ideal for pumping into the Yellow Pills series. Even thirty years ago.
PPM: When you’re trying to “sell out” in the best possible way, and failing, it does give one pause. How did Andrew Gold come into the picture? Because I associate him with the whole “Stephen Bishop, late 70s singer-songwriter L.A. thing.”
D: Actually, I think Les and he went to high school together.
PPM: Oh really?
D: And Les played in, before my time, right before I knew him, he was in kind of a house band that he floated in and out of.
PPM: Right. He was in the Troubadour house band, playing with Stephen Bishop and Jules Shear.
D: Yeah, Jules Shear. And Steve Hague was also working with Jules Shear. Steve Hague was a totally different, kind of more Eno-y vibe than the California singer-songwriter thing. So it was really fortuitous that we ended up doing this with him. He was just kind of able to bring a landscape to the songs…
PPM: True, true. But I have to say I thought that Andrew Gold did a great job producing those demos.
D: Oh, he did!
PPM: They sound fantastic.
D: They’re exciting songs, I still like them.
PPM: I’ve got to say that “Only The Young Die Young” and “Unexpected Overnighters…” I can’t believe that those songs weren’t written ten, twenty years earlier. Those are just genius song titles and concepts. How come no one’s written a song called “Unexpected Overnighters” before? Why, momma, why? [David laughs]
I was really impressed thought that you even tipped your hand towards country music with “Real Love” back then. This thread would show up years later, on the “Welcoming A New Ice Age” record where you’re actually doing country songs. And I thought “wow, it’s amazing…this band is not letting anything hem them in here. They’re just exploring everything.”
D: Well, I guess that the idea of Spires was to be in service to the song. Which maybe didn’t necessarily help a certain version of band coherency. I kind of route by that ethos a little bit since, in my Empire Of Fun and stuff where the subject or whatever little tangent I’m on, I’m going to see that through. If this song needs a cello, and that song – no drums. And this song we want real strings, then so be it. That’s how it’s going to be.
THE FIRST ALBUM [Songs From the Spires]
PPM: It’s interesting that I was reading in the liner notes on “While We Can” Les says that writing that song was this take one “Heroes.”
D: Yeah, I never really got that at the time. It was trying to be epic… it’s got a gorgeous melody.
PPM: I can hear a little bit of “Heroes” in that, but it’s interesting that he said that, because when I listen to “Sex Girls,” I noticed that the “Heroes” bass line pops right up in that one. [laughter] And he’s the guy playing the bass, so there you go.
I actually saw the video once for “Are You Ready For The Sex Girls.” It was 1983 and I was watching MV3. That was the one time I remember seeing the video for “Sex Girls,” which I thought was amazing the way it subverted the male role into domesticity! [David laughs] It was a beautiful role reversal that sold the irony of the song even better. I mean, I can’t imagine a better video for it.
D: Oh, thanks. The predictable video would be excruciating to think about.
PPM: Oh it is excruciating to think about and the odds were that a predictable video would be out there. So, congratulations on avoiding that.
D: We shot the “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism” and the “Sex Girls” video pretty close together. The same director, Doug Brown. I frankly like making pies, so it just seemed like slapping no sex, no girls in the video and just dressing the thing all up. Then Les and I are really big Film Noir buffs, and that seemed to be kind of what we were trying to angle at in the other one.
PPM: Whose idea was it to put “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism” out as a single? Because that’s got to be one of the darkest songs on the record?
D: Yeah, no kidding!
PPM: It’s genuinely disturbing. The video takes it into Travis Bickle territory.
D: Very much.
PPM: Whose idea was that?
D: It’s self-hypnosis.
D: The hilarious thing in those books…You could actually buy if you sent away for “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism.” You are fooling no one but yourself.
PPM: There’s an old issue of Mad Comics from the 50s where they do a parody of Mandrake The Magician and he’s hypnotizing himself, in a mirror, the whole time to make himself think he’s living this glamorous lifestyle where he’s living squalor, actually. The point of view pulls back and you actually see he’s sitting on a pile of garbage. And that was the first thing that came to mind when I heard this song. I said “oh my god, that is… wow.” [David laughs] That is strong stuff. Whose idea was the shaving of his head in the video” Did Les say “let’s do this…?” Or was it the director?
D: I think at a point we were kind of trying for the sort of doppelgänger effect where one kind of became the other… The curtain reveal…
PPM: There’s a certain point where he’s looking onto the mirror and we see you looking back, then he turned around to address the camera.
One thing I’ve got to ask you then, since you are of course, a drummer. What was it like working with rhythm boxes on what you thought were the demos where you thought you’d be recreating this on drums later. Was that difficult for you?
D: No, it was fine. I mean like we didn’t think that this was like the final end-all, be-all, necessarily but the beats weren’t played exactly as they would have been on my drums but tempos and everything, we all set all that stuff up. I mean it was still a little bit pre-Linn drum machine time. When everyone thought they were a drummer, which was utterly not the case.
PPM: I have real problems with the Linn drum era.
D: Me too.
PPM: The digital drum era, I mean… I hate ‘em. I like the original early rhythm boxes, and I liked the crude, analog drum machines. That didn’t quite sound right? They’re the ones that have character to me. And grain.
PPM: It sounded like in some cases, like “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism” it sounded like you were using only modular synths on that.
D: There was some… yeah. It was done different kinds of ways. There were even some pads. On the first song, “Going Hey Hey,” I played a garbage disposal!
PPM: I heard that! Because that’s in the liner notes and I thought “wow, that’s great!”
D: We had all kinds of stuff. Little hand-held things and rhythm generators. And Steve [Hague] played a lot of the keys. That was kind of him, a lot of it. He could add textures, so when we got to do the second record, we cut tracks with drums, bass, and then he was kind of able to add some keyboard stuff over it. So it was not that far away of a process that I could embellish a little bit.
I guess as a drummer, I think the thing that maybe makes me different than a lot or stand out or whatever is that I’m a lyricist too, so I’m really thinking in terms of playing to the song.
PPM: You’re thinking about emotionally selling the song itself rather than, you know…”just watch me do these fills.”
D: Having a groove going. So I like telegraphing changes and I like herky-jerk stuff. There’s songs where I’ll roll over to the next bar. I guess that’s kind of my thing.
PPM: Well, the fact that you wrote lyrics as well as Les was what I found fascinating about this because I tend to assume that “oh one guy writes the music, one guy writes the lyrics.” It’s a common band dynamic. And it’s very unusual to find the “lyrics baton” being passed back and forth as it did in Gleaming Spires, but you had such a coherent artistic point of view between the two of you it really worked out well.
D: Well, thanks. I think Les and I were both big fans of a lot of other art forms. We were avid novel and short story readers. Big film people. Les ended up being a screenwriter essentially. So there were a lot of other things going on that we wanted to address. And we both respected each other as writers. So thanks for noticing that. That was definitely a distinctive thing. I’d say we each had some obsessions… [laughs] that kind of dealt with Les in maybe more of a personal way and me in more of a covert way. Les was great at singing my words.
PPM: And the end product didn’t have any rough joins, which is great.
D: Yeah, thanks.
THE SECOND ALBUM [Walk On Well Lighted Streets]
PPM: Moving onto the second album, I have to say that when I saw the Mark Kostabi “Bed of Nails” cover I thought, if that’s not the quintessence of Gleaming Spires, what is?
D: Oh my god, yeah!
PPM: It’s just like a minefield of sex and relationships and the tortuous path through it and that’s what the band is basically about as far as I can see. And you just picked that one miraculously well.
D: I saw that painting at this gallery, I think it was even in the window, and it just immediately…oh we have to, have to, have the rights to this. I saw in something you’d actually written that you actually knew a little about him as an artist.
PPM: I’m a graphic designer. [Mark Kostabi famously used a “factory” approach where he decided what his assistants would paint as his work in a particular period.]
D: He did the Andy Warhol thing where he didn’t even paint all of his stuff later. That one was definitely him.
PPM: I figured as much.
D: Everything about that… the pre-doom. It’s like you know this is coming. You’ve set this all out. Every element of it speaks volumes.
PPM: Then you’ve got songs like “You’re Right” which is just also painful and raw emotion set to the most convivial music possible. Which is one of my favorite things in the world, by the way.
D: Yeah, we were big fans of chipper music and dark lyrics.
PPM: I think you guys mastered it here, better than I’ve ever heard. And I’ve listened to music for 50 years. You even surpassed it on “Big Surprise.” That is just amazing. I’ve never heard depression described in such an upbeat, jaunty fashion. [David chuckles] Almost like a disease that you can catch through proximity. Which, of course, it is. [laughter] It’s amazing songwriting.
D: Well, thanks.
PPM: The stylistic range is always so broad, and then you start bringing in the Funk with the title track, “Walk On Well Lighted Streets.” And that’s not the only time that Funk is going to show up in this work. No matter how many stylistic changes the group goes through, it could be eight different bands but there is a consistent artistic point of view. Which is what gives it the thread of artistic continuity no matter how eclectic it gets.
Going back to Trouser Press, I remember we had the flexidiscs since I was a subscriber.
D: That was a great feature of that magazine. I had that magazine myself at the time, and we liked it. I think Sparks was in there a couple of times. The flexidisc was a marvelous invention. I liked that a lot.
PPM: That’s where I heard “Fun Type” and “Happy Boy.” I’d almost forgotten that they had done that until I heard it again. “Fun Type” was so atypical with that oscillating two note riff that was sort of like “Friday On My Mind” at a really fast tempo. I think it’s the only time you ever went that fast.
D: Yeah, I think that was probably our quickest.
PPM: So yeah, that was the one track that fit the Posh Boy brand. [David laughs]
D: It was a big jump. I mean, the first album was definitely a different side of Posh Boy. Right when he started off.
Almost every Punk band in Southern California at the time, did at least one thing with Robbie. Robbie was kind of notorious for… you know he was not the most record-keeping person and top payment kind of person. But you know, he launched a lot and was happy about that. But everyone has some little tale about Posh Boy.
PPM: If I heard about it in Orlando, Florida, something must have been happening, right? [David laughs] “Christian Girls Problems…” that’s another song title… oh my god. It’s hard to believe that it didn’t exist for years prior to you actually recording it. The downbeat intro was deceptive, but the song had so many ideas and vibes coming together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s almost hard to believe that I only heard it now in the 21st century. I can’t believe that this song passed me by back then. It’s a crying shame [laughter] …because it’s the kind of thing that screams “Hit! Hit! Hit!” to me.
D: The second album got a little more national radio play and it officially came out in Canada through A+M Records there, so there was a little more play on that one. There were certainly pockets where nothing happened at all. We were essentially unknown in England, although we had a record deal in France and Germany. In France we had a little bit of notoriety because of our Sparks connection. Stuff came out there and we did press and stuff there. Like Sparks, they would have one or two places where they were known, and there were pockets here and there.