Fort Worth A-Go-Go
New ’60s-era garage compilation revives local legends like the Gnats and the Nomads.
By KEN SHIMAMOTO
In the beginning, there was Nuggets. The brainchild of record store clerk/Rolling Stone scribe/future Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, the double-LP was a compilation of obscure singles by bands of snot-nosed kids who exploded out of the basements and garages of suburban America between 1965 and 1968, aping Brit invaders like the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Them, raising an unsubtle brand of ruckus that some would call the undiluted essence of rock ’n’ roll.
Nuggets died quickly after its 1972 release. But when it was reissued in 1976, as the second wave of punk was about to explode out of Bowery dives and London squats, it spawned a slew of knockoffs and imitators. Pebbles, Boulders, Highs of the Mid-Sixties, Back from the Grave — all were multi-volume collections of even more obscure singles from remote and far-flung locations, usually mastered from crackly vinyl sources. Such shaky sound quality wasn’t a problem; garage obsessives from Stockholm to Seattle to Sydney gobbled up these LP’s like candy. In 1997, when Nuggets was about to be reborn as a four-c.d. box set, Larry Harrison, a coworker of mine at a local record store, handed me a 90-minute mix tape labeled Cowtown Calamity!, which he and his friend David Campbell had compiled in the late 1980s while researching an article on the Fort Worth teen scene for the fanzine Kicks.
It was one of the finest examples of the genre I’d stumbled across, bearing such forgotten gems as “In and Out,” a blast of white-knuckled, Yardbirds-derived fury by Larry and the Blue Notes (who also recorded no less than three versions of a song about the legendary Lake Worth Goat Monster); “One Potato/Two Potato,” a manic take by the Paschal High School-based Elite on the “papa oom mow-mow” theme from the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”; and the Nomads’ “Be Nice,” which contains what must surely be the most unearthly scream ever uttered by a 14-year-old boy while his mother waited outside a recording studio in a station wagon. (At least according to local lore.)
Last year, Billy Miller, Kicks editor and head honcho at New York City-based Norton Records, told Harrison and Campbell he wanted to release their compilation. The project dragged on for months, as Miller pushed the duo to seek out ever-more-obscure slices of Cowtown garage glory. It seemed he wouldn’t be satisfied until the two had found every last non-hit wonder ever to emerge from the Fort. During their search, Harrison and Campbell unearthed a number of original master tapes, unreleased acetates, and singles so rare that even the musicians who recorded ’em didn’t own copies. Finally, Miller’s completist mania was satisfied, and, in early 2004, Norton will release Fort Worth Teen Scene, a near-comprehensive collection: 72 songs in three c.d. volumes, complete with spiffy digital remastering and extensive liner notes by the compilers. “I couldn’t believe how consistently great this Fort Worth stuff was,” said Miller. “In other parts of the country that are supposed to have great scenes, like the Pacific Northwest, you’d get maybe 30 percent good stuff, and the rest was dreck. That’s what made me want to release this music.”
Harrison and Campbell are, well, record collector geeks, the kind portrayed by John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity. They originally offered to do the Kicks article in exchange for a record — “a Back from the Grave volume with glow-in-the-dark lettering,” said Campbell. Children of the ’60s who came of age in the ’70s punk era, they were drawn to the primitive sounds of ’60s garage, according to Campbell, “in our search for visceral music to fill the void after punk petered out.” While researching the Kicks piece, they found resources in some surprising places. “I was working at Frito-Lay at the time,” said Harrison, “and there was a guy I worked with who turned out to be Dan Fletcher, the bass player from Larry and the Blue Notes.” Fletcher put Harrison in touch with Blue Notes frontman Larry Roquemore, a longtime Lockheed employee who’d reformed the band in the late ’80s to play the party circuit. (They only ceased activity last summer, when Roquemore had surgery on his hand.)
“All my life, I saw Fort Worth as a backwater,” said Campbell. He was surprised that a garage guru of Miller’s stature was interested in the Fort’s homegrown sounds. With help from fellow Cowtown record collectors Ted Tucker and Mike Buck (better known as the original drummer for the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Leroi Brothers), as well as national collectors Greg Prevost, Back from the Grave compiler Tim Warren, and Texas punk daddy George Gimarc, the two tracked down a wealth of material. While searching for photos of the Tracers (later renamed the Trycerz) — a ’60s band from Minot, N.D., that relocated to the Fort at the suggestion of a fan — Harrison found the widow of ex-Tracer Ron Thibert. She provided him with the master tapes for all the group’s singles and unreleased tapes that included an hour-long live show featuring a blistering version of Them’s “Gloria,” which appears on the compilation.
Bob Meek, once the teen-age manager of Haltom High’s badass Barons, turned up on a quiet farm in Jacksboro and offered Harrison all of the Barons’ master tapes, as well as a recording of the band’s entire live set that was made in his parents’ living room. While digging through a pile of records at a thrift store on Denton Highway, Harrison found an unmarked acetate, which he bought unheard for a quarter. It turned out to be a version of the Yardbirds’ “Evil Hearted You,” recorded by McLean Junior High pre-teen terrors the Mods (one of whom grew up to be blues guitarist Ed Lively of Movers fame). Campbell and Harrison’s research also led to several non-musical reunions of old bandmates, and the two also observed a few instances of “guys who hadn’t seen each other in years getting teary-eyed talking about the old days.”
In the day, Harrison says, Fort Worth was a hotbed of garage band activity with its own infrastructure. There were impresarios, like the club-and-record-label-owning Beard Brothers, record producer and Colonel Tom Parker wannabe Major Bill Smith, and DJ Mark “Mark E. Baby” Stevens. There were teen clubs, like the Box, the Candy Stick, the legendary after-hours Cellar, the Jolly Time Teen Hop, and a multitude of converted skating rinks and rec centers with “A-Go-Go” appended to their names, where kids flocked by the hundreds every weekend to cheer on their local heroes in battles of the bands. And there were even tv shows dedicated to the infernal racket (Teen-A-Go-Go, Panther-A-Go-Go). Local teen bands opened shows for visiting out-of-town heavies who would know better than to try and put a lid on what Fort Worth was cooking — not like the Rolling Stones, who dropped all the local opening acts from a ’66 show at Will Rogers Coliseum and wound up drawing fewer than 1,000 fans. Elite frontman Rodger Brownlee, who was backstage, gleefully recalls Mick Jagger vowing never to play Cowtown again after seeing the receipts and being fed a meal of cold hot dogs sans condiments.
Many garage band vets went on to build lengthy careers in music and attain fame either locally or nationally. O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett started out as Terry Burnett, the 18-year-old co-owner of Sound City studios on Camp Bowie Boulevard, where lots of Beatles wannabes took their lone shots at vinyl immortality. He produced the Loose Ends’ “Free Soul” and the Cynics’ “I’ll Go” on the compilation and did the original engineering on a dozen more tracks. Ace jazz guitarist Bill Ham once cringed when I approached him at a jam session and mentioned his late-’60s band the Yellow Payges; his head probably would have exploded if I’d raised the specter of his earlier outfit, the “Be Nice” Nomads. Future Alice Cooper axeman John Nitzinger got his start in the Barons — represented on Fort Worth Teen Scene by seven tracks. Jazz Café restaurateur Nick Kithas was once known as “The Creep” of Creep and the Deacons, whose “Betty Lou Got a New Tattoo” closes Vol. 1. Blues guitarist and Robert Ealey sideman Freddie Cisneros, now living in Arizona, learned his chops in bands like the Torquays and the Chaunteys (whose self-explanatory “Baby” made the Norton cut). Current Keys Lounge blues jam fixture, bassist-singer Bobby Counts, was in the Coachmen, whose instrumental “Splash Day” appears on Vol. 2.
Most of the players, however, receded into total oblivion, like the Gnats, a TCU band that played a half-dozen gigs in as many months in 1966 and were long forgotten until Campbell and Harrison picked the group’s incredibly rare single B-side “The Girl” for inclusion in Fort Worth Teen Scene. “We looked better than we sounded,” admitted ex-Gnats frontman Jay Langhammer, who now lives in Austin and remembers that his closest brush with fame came when he refused to sell his tambourine to Mitch Ryder at the penultimate Gnats show.
The Fort Worth teen combos could be every bit as colorful and exciting as their British inspirations. The Elite’s stage act included a fake fight in which the other bandmembers would tear off bassist Bob Barnes’ clothes in the manner of the early equipment-smashing Who. The Elite also had the unique idea of appearing as their own opening act, the Slobs, decked out in biker regalia, Nazi helmets, and shades. After their frontman Brownlee had to trim his shaggy locks when he joined the Army Reserve in 1966, they started wearing wigs onstage, which became a trend among other local bands. (Today, besides managing an Austin roofing business and playing occasional club gigs, Brownlee is the command sergeant major of the National Guard’s 49th Armored Division. It’s almost shocking to hear this old soldier recounting tales of getting hassled for having long hair and “fruit boots” back in his Elite days.) The Cynics, another bunch of Paschal High punks, were known for carrying a coffin onstage (courtesy of their soundman’s dad, a mortician) from which a guest guitarist would occasionally “rise from the dead” in the middle of a set and start rockin’.
Important touchstones for the Fort Worth teen titans included Freddy King, the Yardbirds, and ... Dr. Pepper! Blues guitarist King became an inspiration for many a young white rock ’n’ roller after some marketing genius at his label got the idea of promoting him as a surf musician. (The Blue Notes’ Roquemore recalls being floored when King asked to sit in with the teen outfit one night at the Cellar.) The Yardbirds’ penchant for fuzz-tone-and-feedback-laden mayhem was widely imitated by Fort Worth teen noise-merchants. After opening for the Yardbirds and driving their guitar star Jeff Beck back to his Dallas hotel, the Elite paid homage by clearing the room at a subsequent Dallas gig with a feedback-heavy rave-up on the Yardbirds’ hit “I’m a Man.” Actually, one of Harrison and Campbell’s most amazing discoveries is a four-minute version of the Yardbirds’ “Mister You’re a Better Man Than I” (from 1965, the era of the three-minute radio single), by a Cowtown band called Jinx, that culminates in an orgy of feedback more over-the-top than anything the song’s originators ever waxed. Campbell attributes at least some of the Fort Worth bands’ manic energy to the local popularity of original, Dublin-bottled Dr. Pepper — “a pep pill of soda pop” loaded with caffeine and Imperial Pure Cane Sugar.
“We were good in spite of ourselves,” said Roquemore of his garage contemporaries. “It was a fairly creative time. Unlike young musicians today, we didn’t have much to go by. There was an essence that was magic that emanated from the feel more than it did from the lyrics or the mechanics of performance.” Compiler Campbell agrees. Fort Worth Teen Scene, he said, represents a flickering moment when “kids could grab on and do something fresh without thinking about making money — just grow your hair, buy a guitar, and go out and try to get some tail.”
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