I’m always skeptical when bands reunite after 20 or so years. Nostalgia is great and all, but these reunions are usually hollow in nature with the band touring with no new material, or worse they release an album that is a pale imitation of what they once were. A few years back, the Woodentops reunited for some sporadic shows in their native UK, released a best of album (Before During After was complete with unreleased tracks and remixes) and then seemed to slip back into dormancy.
Back in 1988, sometime after the release of Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway and the making of their next album, front man Rolo McGinty put the band on ice. I don’t know how close they were to completing album number three, but I have a Columbia Records compilation with a song called People of Today that was slated for the record. A year or so later I saw House of Love when they toured in support of Babe Rainbow. Guy Chadwick had drafted Woodentops guitarist Simon Mawby to take Terry Bickers place. I remember briefly asking Mawby at that show what happened to the Woodentops. Mawby’s response was something to the effect that Rolo had gone acid house and just lost interest in what the Woodentops were doing.
So I assumed that we would never hear another Woodentops record. Well, well, well thankfully that was not the case. The Woodentops are back. McGinty, Mawby and bassist Frank de Fritas have reunited and it ain’t a nostalgia trip. You know it’s the Woodentops as soon as you hit play, though the band don’t come off as hyper as they did 25 years ago. There’s no Get It On, Stop This Car or Shout, but that’s fine because that was 25 years ago. Woodentops 2.0 are more measured, but no less intense. At first songs seem slower, but McGinty can dial up intensity in more ways than just tempo. Mawby’s guitar sounds pristine, McGinty’s voice sounds like he’s not aged a day and the subtle intricate touches of percussion on each song makes everything sound fresh. Third Floor Rooftop High is the song that sounds most like the band’s heyday, but they throw in some Rolling Stones or Beatles psychedelia into it to make it the same but different. What Was Taken I Don’t Want It Back may be my favorite song on the album and the most mellow, but its gentle beginning builds into breathless crescendo. Granular Tales is like a comedown record, something you would put on after a hard night out. It has the ability to you on the dance floor. Its strength is that it knows that it could, but it is just fine keeping you in your comfortable in your chair with a huge smile on your face.
I apologize in advance that this post comes too late. You see, there seems to be this contingent of fiends that are obsessed with 80’s post punk synth. Because of this, the first pressing of the Pow! debut album is sold out. If you remember and like the Bay Area Retrograde compilation on Dark Entries that came out a few years ago, then this record is right up your alley. Pow! being from the same place, I bet that they either have that compilation or original pressings of Nominal State, Los Microwaves and Standard of Living. They surely have some Devo, A-Frames and Intelligence records in their collections as well.
Hi-Tech Boom sounds like it was recorded in the 80’s, but it is a commentary on the current state of affairs in the Bay Area. High cost of living and high salaried tech workers pricing everyone out and vanillafying the place. Pow! sound robotic in their outrage. Like everyone these days they are desensitized to the absurdity of reality. They try to hack the mainframe, but the problem is that their are no mainframes anymore. It’s all in the cloud dude. Zombi faced young people walk around staring into their smart phones. These are the same kids that will probably invent Skynet. This world is fucked. Or maybe it isn’t. Pow! exist!
stream: Pow! – Cyber Attack (from Hi-Tech Boom on Castleface)
The 80’s done this well doesn’t happen too often, but this debut single from Andy Human will have you feeling like you weren’t even born yet (or 15 in my case). Andy Human is one of the current projects of Andy Jordan (his other being LENZ) who was in the bay area band the Cuts and Time Flys. The two songs on the single go for the Hughes jugular with their mix of The The, Microdisney, OMD and John Foxx era Ultravox.
In other Hughes/80’s/teen movie news, I saw that the 7 inch single that John Hughes sent to his fan club of Beat City by Flowerpot Men around the time he made Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is going for a cool $300 on eBay. No soundtrack for the movie was ever released making that single the only place you can find a hard copy of that excellent song. If you don’t remember the song, it was in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off after they get Sloane from school and are cruising on the freeway in Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari into Chicago.
When I bought the Art Museums‘ Rough Frame that came out on Woodsist a few weeks ago, the record store clerk asked me what it sounded like. I gave her a blank stare, a shrug and told her I had no idea. The record had caught my attention with it’s cover art. I plucked it from the bin and then saw that their name was the Art Museums and that it was on Woodsist. The stars had seemingly aligned for a purchase of something I had never heard before.
I brought it home, plopped it on the turntable and was aghast at my good luck. A band that seemed immersed in the Flying Nun and Creation catalogs from the early 80’s, some Television Personalities and the psych rock jems Tobin Sprout use to pepper Guided by Voices albums. This album was evidently designed specifically to make a nostalgia obsessed old guy like myself happy and content to know that they still can make records like they use to.
After doing a little research I found out that this record just didn’t appear out of nowhere. The duo Josh Alper (Whysp) and Glenn Donaldson (Skygreen Leopards, Blithe Sons, Teenage Panzerkorps) got together last year in San Francisco and recorded it using vintage 80’s analog equipment to keep the vibe totally authentic. The album is a short nine songs, but there are another two songs to come in the form of a 7″ single due on Woodsist later this year. Here’s to my good luck, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket.
Discovering new bands in this day and age is much different from how you went about it 25 years ago. Turn on a computer, open a web browser, click a link to an mp3 or a MySpace page and voila, instant discovery. One could argue that there are actually too many bands out there to discover these days. You name it, every style of music you can think of is being made and quite well and finding it as as easy as clicking mouse.
Rewind 25 years and finding out about music took a bit more effort. You actually had to tune into radio stations, read black and white photo copied ‘zines, and rely on your friends who were cooler than you. Even that was no guarantee you’d hear anything that really caught your ear. It was kind of left up to chance back then, you might see and an album cover looked super cool in a record store causing you to buy something sound unheard, or you might go to a gig and the opening band you never heard before would blow you away. It was that kind of random discovery that often times made the music that much more special.
What new music might an 18 year old kid find, arriving in a small college town in West Virginia? If it was the early 80’s there was a wealth of music to discover, especially when the drinking age was still only 18. Morgantown is the home to West Virginia University, so not your typical small town, but a small town nonetheless. The University had a college radio station that played the cool college rock of the day and Morgantown, thanks to it’s relative proximity to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Washington, DC offered a perfect tour stop for a lot of bands touring the east coast. The student population at the university was made up mostly of West Virginia residents had a fair number of kids coming from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other places on the more urban east coast. These factors combined for a perfect storm of influences at the time to create quite an impressive music scene in this small town of about 25,000 people.
The kids of university professors mixed with blue collar kids in the small confines of a little bit of flat space next to the Monongahela river providing the fertile turf for growing a music scene that transcended upbringing and any stereotypes you may have of a small town in West Virginia. One such band that exemplified all of that transcendence was Velez Manifesto. It was in the heart of the 80’s when bands like Joy Division, Depeche Mode, New Order, the Cure and the Smiths were the big names on the college charts. If you were a rabid music fan into those kinds of bands at that time, chances are you dug a little deeper to discover the less fawned upon and darker side of post-punk music like the Chameleons, the Sound, Comsat Angels, Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire and the Birthday Party.
That is exactly what the four guys in Velez Manifest did. Taking their cues it seemed from the dark, goth-tinged bands of the time Velez Manifest were born. Tom Moore, singer and guitarist of the band having grown up in Morgantown was heavily immersed in the music scene having cut his teeth in previous bands: Eddie Haskelll, the Excuses and Human Remains. In Eddie Haskelll, Moore played with Bob Cotter who later sang for th’Inbred and guitarist Robert Bowers. Moore tells the hilarious story of how even at a very young and tender age they had something going on: “One day Bob brings over some really stupid looking but scantily clad vixens. My mom pulls up to the driveway, and these silly chicks say, ‘We’re with the band'”
After Eddie Haskelll disbanded Moore formed the Excuses,with Owen Davis, Dan O’donnel, and Alan Blosser. The Excuses were a punk rock cover band that often played gigs at Mateo’s which at the time was a biker bar, but would later be rechristened the Underground Railroad and become legendary in Morgantown punk and post-punk folklore. When the Excuses decided that they wanted to start writing their own thrash-pop songs instead of covers they renamed themselves the Human Remains. Human Remains eventually broke up with Owen Davis going on to start another band Gene Pool and Tom taking a break from biker bars. West Virginia punk rock was not for the faint of heart, Moore mentions fights and fleeing into the night with instruments in hand to escape brawls, so a break was likely needed.
Velez Manifesto were born some time in 1983 when Moore hooked up with his long-time friend Sei Peterson. The two initially were more interested in just making music for themselves, but quickly they realized that what they were doing shouldn’t be kept in the basement and added Jimmy X (Matterer) on keyboards and Greg Carte on drums. Carte was also in Gene Pool and later Scott Fetty would take over the drums in the permanent Velez line-up.
By this time the biker bar Mateo’s was now the Underground Railroad and had gained a reputation as a good place for a gig if you were a touring punk or hardcore band. Kim Monday, owner and operator of Frozen Sound studios remembers bands like Chili Peppers, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Glass Eye, Husker Du, and New Potato Caboose playing the Underground. He also recalls the local sene being full of bands like Gene Pool, Swiss Army Tractor, Small Axe, The Larries (soon to become 63 Eyes), The Duty Brothers, th’Inbred and Velez Manifesto opening for these more known national bands. Moore says that there was really no competition or animosity in the Morgantown music scene except for when it came to opening for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flaming Lips or Husker Du.
Local rivalries aside, Velez set to making a name for themselves. The band began to build a significant following in town, doing packed shows at the Underground Railroad and garnering play at U-92, the University radio station. Back then a band didn’t send out mp3’s or a CD. You either had the cash to make a record or you resorted to cassettes. Velez Manifest relied on the lo-fi latter, but that didn’t stop U-92 from playing them. The station transferred their songs to tape cartridges in order to play the band’s songs on the air.
By this time the band were hitting on all cylinders, getting together with Kim Monday at his Frozen Sound studios out on Van Voorhis Road to record. Monday recalls:
The thing that really sticks out to me though was the recordings. You could tell there was something going on with those guys. I recorded the band live with a “scratch” vocal to capture as much energy of the band as possible. The reason I didn’t keep the vocal was that I didn’t have a good isolation room for Tom to sing in so the drums and guitar amp sound would be in the vocal mic as well. Almost every time it came to doing the “real” lead vocal…. I’m not sure I can express this properly. I would get as close to a final mix as possible and sit in the control room with the rest of the band, Tom would start to sing and magic seemed to happen. I remember “Heart of Steel”. “The Boys Are Coming Home”… it gave me goose bumps. I know the business of music is wacky but those guys should have been huge.
The songs were so good that without the band’s knowledge, the music director at U-92, Pat Ferrise sent one of their songs, Dark Clouds to Columbia/Epic Records for consideration to be on a compilation the label was putting together of the nation’s best unsigned bands. Dark Clouds ended up making it onto the compilation called Epic Presents the Unsigned Vol. 2 and for a time everyone held their breath that the band would make the leap from best kept secret in the Mountain State to major label band. Alas, nothing came of the opportunity with the label never pursuing the band any further. Moore reminisces, “We made no money, nobody cared, I got drunk for a year.”
He may be right about two of those three, but people definitely cared. At least people in Morgantown. They cared because the band were that good. I recently asked a friend of mine who lives here in Seattle who lived in Morgantown when Velez was around about the band. He immediately started singing one of their songs. That isn’t just an anecdotal occurrence, everyone I contacted for this story had fond memories of the band, 20 plus years later recalling what an amazing live band they were and how they seemed to be on the cusp of really making it. From their sessions with Monday, the songs just sound big, and you can tell the band were in a zone when they were playing together. The tight drums and driving bass reminds me of early Hunters & Collectors with that band’s juggernaut of a rhythm section. Combine that with Velez’s, judicious and effective use of keyboards, and the chiming guitar and you had a band that was able to create huge atmospheres of sound. Moore had a killer voice and a knack for dramatic melody which didn’t hurt and made the songs all the more memorable.
When nothing seemed to come of their major label dalliance, the band seemed to run out of steam and the inherent transience of living in a college town pulled the band apart with Moore and Peterson moving to Baltimore. Peterson and Moore would be in a few more bands together as well make music on their own. In the mid 1990’s they formed Plow and put out two shoegaze, dream-pop records on Hat Factory, one self-titled and the second called Ice Cream Flares and Rocket Sounds. Peterson currently plays in Hearts by Darts who have an album out on Peapod Recordings.
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in Morgantown for my freshman year of college Velez had left town. I remember playing their carts on U92 and thinking that they sounded way too good to be a local band. Looking back I think I can probably say this was the first of many eye opening experience I had at the University. Up to that point I thought great music was made in far away places like New York, Los Angeles or London. Velez Manifest and other Morgantown bands like Tooling For Bovines and Lack-a-Daisy were the pin pricks that burst my naive and insular world view bubble.
A big thanks to Tom Moore, Scott Fetty, Kim Monday, Pat Ferrise, and Scott Weimer for answering my questions. Additional thanks to Scott for the Velez photos and Perry Newhouse for the Underground RR flyer.
Underground Railroad Flyer listing Velez Manifesto playing twice in the same week.