Even rock’s biggest names had to start somewhere. Flip through this (way) back catalog of stars’ early projects and you’ll find yourself in a topsy-turvy bizarro-world where Michael Bolton and Billy Joel fronted metal bands, Debbie Harry and the Cars were folked-up singer-songwriters, Madonna was a post-punk drummer and Ronnie James Dio was a Sixties teen idol. By the time you’re done there are more questions than answers. Did Neil Young and Rick James really play in a Motown band together? Did Lemmy really wear a priest’s collar onstage every night? Why were Radiohead so into saxes?
Read on to hear 30 fascinating early bands from future music legends. Brace yourself, because it might get weird.
Bruce Springsteen’s Sixties Garage Band the Castiles
In a tale later immortalized in his song “The Wish,” the Boss received his first electric guitar for Christmas 1964: a $60 Kent purchased by his mother, who took out a loan to get it for him. Springsteen promptly formed a band, the Rogues, bashing out rhythm guitar on tunes like “Twist and Shout” (the first song he ever played live) with some high school friends. Unfortunately his beloved solid body, which rarely stayed in tune, became a sore point. “I got thrown out of my first band because they told me my guitar was too cheap,” he later said.
A better opportunity would soon come knocking – literally. George Theiss, another neighborhood kid with rock & roll aspirations, was in the process of putting together a group. Named for Theiss’ preferred brand of Conti Castile shampoo, they called themselves the Castiles. The loosely formed gang set up shop at the Freehold home of Gordon “Tex” Vinyard and his wife, Marion, a big-hearted and patient couple who took fledgling local groups under their wings. The lineup began to coalesce in the spring of 1965, but they still needed a lead guitarist. “George Theiss, who was dating my sister, Virginia, knocked on my door, told me he had a band, wanted to know if I played lead guitar,” Springsteen remembered. “I told him that I did, which I barely did, and he took me over to Tex’s house and I met the other guys from the Castiles.” Skeptical of his soloing abilities, Vinyard told him to come back when he learned more tunes. Overnight he learned five off the radio. After returning the next day to demonstrate, he got the job.
Though accounts vary, Springsteen recalls his first gig with the Castiles taking place in the summer of 1965 at the Angle-Inn Trailer Park in nearby Farmingdale. “It was a summer afternoon cookout social for the residents,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run. “We set up in the shade under the overhang of a little garage and stood in front of an audience of maybe fifty souls. Our equipment was at its most primitive. We had Bart [Haynes]’s drums, a few amps, and a mic plugged into one of the extra channels of our guitar amplifiers. … We had only one option: to play. Play until they liked it, until they could hear it and, most important, until they DANCED!” They got them dancing, and over the next few years they played upwards of 120 gigs, performing everywhere from teen clubs, school dances and wedding receptions to supermarket openings, drive-in movie theaters, Marlboro State Hospital and even a converted stable.
On May 18th, 1966, Springsteen made his first studio recording at Mr. Music Inc., a low-tech facility tucked in a Bricktown shopping center that allowed customers to make what were essentially vanity recordings. Over the course of half an hour, the band completed two original songs – “Baby I” and “That’s What You Get” – written by Theiss and Springsteen in the back of Vinyard’s 1961 Mercury on the way to the studio. Given their hasty composition, the tunes are simple garage-rock fare, mixing Stones, Animals and Them poses with all the tough-guy bravado a bunch of 16-year-olds could muster. Four copies of these studio acetates survive today, as does a tape made of the band’s September 1967 show at a church-owned youth center in Freehold called the Left Foot. The earliest live recording of Springsteen known to exist, it offers a glimpse of the Castiles’ set list, which blended Top 40 covers with more obscure cuts (see Moby Grapes’ “Omaha,” the Yardbirds’ “Jeff’s Boogie,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and even “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix).
Late 1967 saw the band play a series of recurring gigs at the famed Café Wha in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but internal bickering began to take its toll by the following year. Relations were further strained when some of the bandmates were arrested for possession of marijuana, an apparent first in sleepy Freehold. “It was a town scandal, trouble all around and the finale of the Castiles’ great three-year run,” Springsteen wrote. “Our band was fraying anyway. George and I had begun to have some tension between us and the bust gave us all a final out. My epic elementary school of rock was closed forever.”
Elton John’s Sixties R&B Group Bluesology
“Beyond dreadful!” That’s how Sir Elton John describes “Come Back Baby,” the debut single released by his band Bluesology in 1965. Even though he was barely 18, the young pianist then known as Reginald Dwight was already an old pro. Having learned to plink out tunes by ear at age three, he began his classical training just a few years later. As a teen he earned money playing a weekly residency at the Northwood Hills Hotel pub in the London suburb of Pinner “every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a whole year. And during that whole period, I don’t think that I ever missed a gig,” he recalled. “I used to sing Jim Reeves songs, Cliff Richard songs, anything that was popular.”
Bluesology began as an offshoot of the Corvettes, a previous band formed with neighbor Stuart Brown around 1960. Brown and John composed the nucleus of Bluesology, which endured semi-regular lineup shifts but stayed loyal to the R&B sounds being spread across the capital by the likes of Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and John Mayall. Later, inspired by brassy soul records on Stax and Volt, they augmented the lineup with a trumpet and saxophone. Eager to pursue music full time, John dropped out of school in March 1965, just weeks shy of his birthday. “As a semi-pro group we got quite a bit of work, and we were ambitious and dedicated,” John recalled. Their rhythm & blues prowess earned them invitations to back American soul artists on their European tours, and much of the next 18 months was spent on the road accompanying acts like the Isley Brothers, Major Lance, and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells.
Back in London, Bluesology were signed to Fontana Records, and John’s “Come Back Baby” was recorded as a single. Despite repetitive lyrics, the song boasts a mature melody that floats over the moody piano chords like one of Smokey Robinson’s Motown laments. Though he doesn’t recall the song with any fondness (he once dismissed it as “beyond tragic”), John warmly recalled the momentous moment of hearing it on the radio for the first time: “I can remember sitting in the car and hearing the record being played on Radio Luxembourg and saying, ‘Hey, that’s me singing, folks!’”
Neither “Come Back Baby,” or its follow-up, 1966’s “Mr. Frantic” (which John later called “equally depressing”) saw much action on the record charts, but Bluesology continued to play the most exclusive venues in London, including celebrity haunts like the Cromwellian, the Speakeasy, the Scotch of St. James and Sibylla’s. “Everybody used to go to those clubs. I mean, we’re talking about the mid-Sixties, so you’d get the Beatles and the Animals coming in.” One of the notables was the groundbreaking British blues legend Long John Baldry, who had recently championed a young Rod Stewart in his group, Steampacket. Now defunct, he recruited Bluesology as his backing group.
Baldry’s arrival signaled a number of personnel and stylistic shifts, and John began to feel his passions drifting elsewhere. Instead, he focused on session work (he played on several recordings by the Hollies) and his songwriting. In 1967, he answered a Liberty Records ad in the New Musical Express searching for new songwriting talent and was paired with a young poet named Bernie Taupin. By the end of the year he had left Bluesology for good, taking with him a new name borrowed from Baldry and saxophonist Elton Dean. “It was done on a bus going from London Heathrow back into the city, and it was done very quickly. So I said, ‘Oh, Elton John. That’s fine.’”
Madonna’s Post-Punk Band Emmy
According to legend, Madonna Ciccone arrived in New York City in 1978 with $35 in her pocket and survived on popcorn, donuts and dumpster refuse as she tried to make her name as a dancer. Working odd jobs, including live modeling and a brief trip to Paris backing Euro disco star Patrick Hernandez, she eventually moved into an abandoned synagogue in Corona, Queens, with her new boyfriend, Dan Gilroy.
Through Gilroy’s influence, her attention began to shift from dancing to music. “He stuck a guitar in my hand and tuned it to an open chord so that I could strum,” she told Rolling Stone in 1984. “That really clicked something off in my brain.” Before long, she had written her first song. “It was called ‘Tell the Truth.’ It was maybe four chords, but there were verses and a bridge and a chorus, and it was a religious experience,” she recalled in 2009. Her sense of rhythm honed through dance classes, she took up the drums, teaching herself by playing along to Elvis Costello albums. Taking her first compositional steps, she would look back at the period warmly. “It was one of the happiest times of my life. I really felt loved.”
By 1980 Madonna, Gilroy and Gilroy’s brother Ed formed their own band, the Breakfast Club, so named for their habit of rehearsing through the night and getting a dawn meal at a local Italian diner. After a few months of solidifying their act they started playing downtown clubs, but Madonna’s time behind the drum kit would be short-lived. During a gig at the legendary CBGB, Madonna longed to get out front like her idol, Debbie Harry. “I begged them to let me sing a song and play guitar,” she remembered. “That microphone position was looking more and more inviting.” Soon she was competing with the Gilroys for vocal parts, later admitting that her friends “had created a monster. I was always thinking in my mind, ‘I want to be a singer in this group, too.’ And they didn’t need another singer.” Lineup changes contributed to the rising tensions, and within a year Madonna ended her musical and romantic relationship with Dan Gilroy.
Eager to form her own band, she recruited drummer Steve Bray, an old boyfriend from her days in Michigan. Together they assembled a group and holed up in a dingy Manhattan rehearsal space to fine-tune their material. First they called themselves the Millionaires, then Modern Dance before finally settling on Emmy (sometimes called “Emmy and the Emmys”), Madonna’s nickname. In late November 1980 they recorded a studio demo tape consisting of four tracks: “(I Like) Love for Tender,” “No Time for Love,” “Bells Ringing” and “Drowning.” Madonna assumed the role of a hard-rocking front woman in the Pat Benatar tradition, with some Lower East Side punk thrown in for good measure. “She was playing really raucous rock & roll, really influenced by the Pretenders and the Police,” Bray told Rolling Stone. “She used to really belt. If we’d found that right guitar player, I think that’s when things would have taken off … but there are so many horrible guitar players in New York, and we seemed to get them all.”
Emmy was not to last, but Madonna’s creative partnership with Bray would endure as she set about building herself as a solo artist. Together they wrote songs, including “Everybody” and “Into the Groove,” that would propel her to superstardom, as well as future smashes “True Blue” and “Express Yourself.”
Eddie Vedder’s Eighties Alt-Rock Band Bad Radio
When he wasn’t working graveyard shifts as a hotel security guard or a gas-station attendant, young Eddie Vedder could often be found at clubs across the San Diego area, tape recorder in hand, adding to his formidable collection of bootlegs. The avid music fan had no outlet for his own compositions until 1986, when he answered an ad in the San Diego Reader for a band in search of a new lead singer. Bad Radio had initially been influenced by New Wave bands like Duran Duran, but they hoped a new frontman would push them into a new alt-rock direction. Pleased with Vedder’s homemade demo, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” they called him in for a live audition. Three singers showed up; Vedder got the gig.
His voice had yet to acquire its singular husky resonance – and his stage fright was so severe that he reportedly wore blacked-out goggles during his first performance – but the Vedder-fronted outfit soon attracted a following with their funk-tinged rock reminiscent more of the Red Hot Chili Peppers than any of the singer’s grunge anthems to come. On top of his raw vocal talent, his new bandmates were impressed by Vedder’s collection of original material, which included an early version of the future Pearl Jam classic, “Better Man.” They never recorded it in the studio, but by 1989 the band managed to produce two tapes: Tower Records Demo (named for the record chain where it was sold) and What the Funk – the latter funded by winning a battle of the bands on San Diego’s 91X radio station.
Propelled by a relentless drive that could register as overbearing to his fellow bandmates, Vedder acquired a reputation as the fiercest hustler on the San Diego scene. In addition to writing the bulk of the music, booking the shows, and hawking their tapes to local radio stations, he designed cassette inserts, Xeroxed posters and networked with every promoter he came across. Still, he remained frustrated by their lack of progress. “We’d win ‘battle of the bands’ on intensity alone, but it was coming from me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I couldn’t get anybody else to give up their fucking bullshit.” The disagreements began to grow more serious and Vedder took the band to task for perceived laziness. “We got in fistfights, with me telling them they needed to work harder.” In February 1990, Vedder left the band for good. “We were on a different level,” bassist Dave Silva later admitted. “He had already surpassed us in terms of dedicating his whole life to music.”
Billy Joel’s Wild Heavy-Metal Duo Attila
Billy Joel and drummer Jon Small had spent the mid-Sixties playing together in a hard-working Long Island outfit called the Hassles. The band had released two LPs on United Artists showcasing their talent as purveyors of blue-eyed soul on the order of the Young Rascals and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, but by the end of the decade both Joel and Small wanted to make something weightier. “We wanted to be a heavy band and we decided we were going to get heavy … somehow,” Joel told biographer Fred Schruers.
Splitting from their longtime band in 1969, the pair holed up in the basement of Small’s parents’ wallpaper store in Syosett, New York to build a Frankenstein’s monster of amplification. Braving the occasional electric shock, they rigged Joel’s Hammond organ into a Marshall stack. “I got a wah-wah pedal so I could wow-wow-ee-oe like Jimi [Hendrix] and added a distortion pedal, which I figured would double the mangled noise we were already making. Then we just pinned the volume to the wall.” Using just drums, keyboards and Joel’s vocals, they set about cooking a sickly sonic stew that culled rancid bits of Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, the Doors and Led Zeppelin at their most indulgent.
Believing themselves to be “unstoppable,” they played the results to manager Irwin Mazur. Even though he privately thought the music was “the worst crap I ever heard in my life,” he managed to get them a $50,000 advance from Epic Records – and an epic record it would be. “We were going to destroy the world with amplification,” Joel told Dan Neer in 1985. “We had titles like ‘Godzilla,’ ‘March of the Huns,’ ‘Brain Invasion.’ A lot of people think [I] just came out of the piano bar. …” Doubling down on the whole death and destruction motif, they named the project Attila. “If you’re going to assault the rock world and crush it under ten Marshall amps, wouldn’t Attila the Hun, who plundered Italy and Gaul and slaughtered quite a few innocents along the way, work as a role model?”
Released in July 1970, the album was, by Joel’s estimation, “a colossal failure” that he later dismissed as “psychedelic bullshit.” The souped-up amplification that they had so richly prized proved to be their undoing during their handful of gigs, driving the audience away. “People went fleeing from the place. We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people’s ears,” Joel said in a 2012 interview with Alec Baldwin on NPR. “It was just horrible. Thank God it didn’t happen because I would’ve screamed myself right out of the business.”
Their partnership ended in a spectacularly dramatic fashion when it was revealed that Joel was having an affair with Small’s wife, Elizabeth Weber. Joel, believing the couple was on the verge of a split, felt that his bandmate was aware of his affections – but the discovery caught Small off-guard and led to a physical altercation. Weber promptly left them both, moving out of the communal home they shared. Despondent, Joel took an overdose of sleeping pills. His body was discovered by Small and taken to a nearby ER to have his stomach pumped. He would be back in the hospital within weeks after downing a bottle of Old English Scratch Cover. “I remember sitting in a chair waiting to die,” he said later. “I thought, I’ll sit in this chair and I’ll die here. I ended up sitting there, polishing my mother’s furniture by farting a lot.”
Joel eventually sought help for his depression, and survived to forge a new chapter in his artistry. “I decided I no longer want[ed] to be a rock and roll star. I got that out of my system. I was about 19 or 20. I want to write songs now,” he said. Many of the songs he wrote – including “She’s Always a Woman to Me” and “Just the Way You Are” – were inspired by Weber, whom he married (and divorced).
Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s Psychedelic Rock Band Fritz
Stevie Nicks was just a teenager when she first made music with classmate Lindsey Buckingham in 1966. “I was a senior in high school and Lindsey was a junior,” she recalled in a 1981 interview with The Source. “And we went to a Young Life meeting – which was a religious meeting that simply got you out of the house on Wednesday nights – and he was there and I was there and we sat down and played ‘California Dreamin’.’ I thought he was a darling.” Around the same period, Buckingham started performing in a group initially known by the unwieldy name of “The Fritz Rabyne Memorial Band.” Later shortened just to “Fritz,” they played talent shows at their alma mater, Menlo-Atherton High School, as well as student dances and family parties across suburban San Jose. When their lead singer dropped out, Buckingham remembered his brief Young Life duet two years earlier. “He called me up and asked if I wanted to be in a band,” Nicks remembered. “And so, I was in this band with him for three and a half years – a band called Fritz.”
Nicks, who had been writing more folk-oriented songs, initially found it jarring to be in this band of novice psychedelic warriors. Keyboardist Javier Pacheo penned most of the material, delivering bold and moody titles like “Empty Shell,” “Eulogy,” “Existentialist” and “Crying Time.” Nicks’ country bent, born out of her childhood in the Southwest, helped broaden the band’s sound. Soon she was contributing originals of her own, including “Funny Kind of Love” and “Where Was I.” Several years into her tenure, a student newspaper at Cañada College described Fritz as playing “quite a variety of music, mainly rock with no definite style. They play all types of rock, including country, folk rock and hard rock.” A demo cut at San Mateo’s Action Recorders in late 1968 offers a clear glimpse of their chameleonic abilities.
The group’s reputation continued to grow, and Nicks began balancing her speech communication courses at San Jose State with concerts supporting rock superstars including Santana, the Steve Miller Band, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and Chicago. “We opened up for all of these really big bands. We played up and down the Peninsula to Monterey and came down through the other side of San Francisco and all the way to Sacramento,” she said in a 1997 interview with BAM magazine. “Every Friday and Saturday we opened almost every big rock show that came through the area.” The chance to watch Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at close range would have a marked impact on her own performance style. “I saw him play once,” she said of Hendrix, “and I remember thinking, ‘I want to wear white fringe. I want to tie a beautiful scarf in my hair.”
Nicks and Buckingham had a platonic relationship throughout their time in Fritz, but as the group started to splinter they were drawn together by their mutual ambition – and budding romance. By 1971 they made the painful decision to head to Los Angeles and try to make it as a duo. “We had to tell these other three guys – that we loved – that we were going to break up the band, and that Lindsey and I were going to Los Angeles. It was very difficult.”
Not long after their arrival they began working with Keith Olsen, an engineer and producer at the famed Sound City Studios, and by 1973 they had completed their debut, Buckingham Nicks. Despite positive reviews, the record bombed upon release, and their deal with Polydor Records evaporated. For a time Nicks believed her dreams of stardom had also gone up in smoke. “Up until that point I had been thinking of quitting it all and going back to school because I was sick of being miserable and I hate being poor,” she told The Island Ear in 1994. “When they [Polydor] dropped that record, we were completely depressed. Then three months later Mick Fleetwood called.”
Simon & Garfunkel’s Teen Harmony Duo Tom & Jerry
A decade before achieving worldwide fame under their own names, high school friends Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel scored a minor chart entry in 1957 with a self-penned song called “Hey Schoolgirl.” The tune’s crippling debt to Everly Brothers was no accident – they inadvertently wrote the song one afternoon while struggling to recall the words to the Everlys’ “Hey Doll Baby.” The tune was catchy enough to become a favorite at early gigs across their home borough of Queens, and the enterprising Simon soon managed to convince promoter Sid Prosen to sign them to his label, Big Records. Fearing that their given names were “too ethnic-sounding” for showbiz, they took pseudonyms. Garfunkel chose “Tom Graph,” in honor of his passion for mathematics, while Simon dubbed himself “Jerry Landis,” the surname borrowed from his then-girlfriend. Together their act became known as “Tom & Jerry.”
“Hey Schoolgirl,” their debut single, was released in November 1957, backed by another original, “Dancin’ Wild.” Namedropped in the pages of Variety, played on DJ Alan Freed’s influential radio show, and even performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the song moved over 100,000 copies, enough to bring it to a respectable Number 49 on the Billboard charts. “You can’t imagine what it was like having a hit record at 16,” Simon said later. “It made me a neighborhood hero.” Garkfunkel, meanwhile, was less confortable with his new role as a burgeoning teen idol. “It was all over my head,” he recalled in Marc Eliot’s Paul Simon: A Life. “I never would have done it if Paul hadn’t pulled me along. I was too fearful of the competitive, adult world of rock ‘n’ roll.” For a time he stepped back from the industry and set his sights on Columbia University. Simon, meanwhile, had other plans. Having quietly signed a solo deal around the same time Tom & Jerry signed to the label, he began recording material under the name True Taylor. The name would prove ironic: Garfunkel took it as the ultimate treachery when he learned of Simon’s solo alter ego.
Tom & Jerry ultimately went on to release a handful of pop singles, including “Our Song,” “I’m Lonesome” (1959), “I’ll Drown in My Tears” (1961) and “Surrender, Please, Surrender” (1962), before deciding to part company for a time. They would eventually reunite in the middle of the decade under their most famous moniker, but the True Taylor incident sewed the seeds of distrust and resentment that would underscore their relationship for the rest of their lives.
Dave Grohl’s Adolescent Punk Band Dain Bramage
In 1984, 15-year-old Dave Grohl was playing guitar in a band called Freak Baby while attending a suburban Washington, D.C., high school. Six months into his tenure, they decided to rethink their lineup after witnessing Grohl’s fury behind the drum kit during a post-practice jam session. With Grohl now the permanent stickman, the newly rechristened Mission Impossible served as a support act for the likes of Fugazi and Troublefunk. “We were living our hardcore dream,” Grohl later recalled of the period, during which time he made his recording debut on a split EP with the band Lunch Meat.
They adopted the name Fast before finally imploding in 1985 when some of the elder members left for college. Grohl and Mission Impossible bassist Dave Smith recruited singer/guitarist Reuben Radding to become the punk power trio Dain Bramage – the name apparently borrowed from an SNL sketch about an oft-tackled football player. After coalescing in Grohl’s mother Virginia’s living room, they played their first show that December at the Lake Braddock Community Center in Burke, Virginia. Video of the show (seen above) was taken by Grohl’s mom.
Soon after their live debut, the young band recorded a five-song demo at producer Barrett Jones’ Laundry Room Studios, including the titles “In the Dark,” “Cheyenne,” “Watching It Bake, “Space Cat” and “Bend.” They would return the following year, laying down nine more songs, including a version of “We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad. “We were usually experimenting with classic-rock clichés, in a noisy, punk rock kind of way,” Grohl explained. In the summer of 1986, Dain Bramage crammed into the RK-1 Recording Studio outside of Annapolis to make their only album, I Scream Not Coming Down.
Around the time it was released the following year, Grohl learned that local legends, Scream – “The coolest hardcore band in Washington D.C.,” he later said – were looking for a new drummer. Just 17 in March 1987, he lied about his age and convinced brothers Peter and Franz Stahl to let him audition. Actually getting the gig was perhaps the last thing on his mind. “I thought I’d try out just to tell my friends that I jammed with Scream,” he admitted later. When he was ultimately offered the job, the Scream super fan was reluctant to leave his friends in Dain Bramage and initially turned them down, but the opportunity proved too good to pass up. He quit his old band – and high school – to head out on the road, and Dain Bramage folded not longer after. “After you’ve spent a couple years with Dave Grohl as your drummer it’s easy to feel like no other drummer exists,” Radding reflected.
Robert Plant and John Bonham’s Psychedelic Sixties Outfit Band of Joy
As a young blues belter growing up outside of Birmingham, Robert Plant first played with Led Zeppelin’s future percussion powerhouse in 1965 during their tenure in a short-lived band known as the Crawling King Snakes. “We grew up around the same things, and dated the same women,” Plant said of his early impressions of John Bonham. “John was very colorful to be around. We were both proud owners of unbelievably huge egos.” Bonham soon moved on to play in a number of groups around the English Midlands (Steve Brett and the Mavericks, the Way of Life, and the Nicky James Movement among them) while earning money by day carrying bricks at construction sites. Plant departed the Crawling King Snakes as well, making his recording debut in 1966 with a band called Listen before releasing two further singles under his own name on CBS. “I’d been singing with a lot of groups and I’d written a few songs about myself that didn’t really have the right amount of balls behind them that they should have. It really just went around in circles until I formed the first Band of Joy.”
It would be the first of three Band of Joys. The original incarnation suffered an acrimonious split due to a management conflict, and Plant’s attempt to form a rival Band of Joy failed to get off the ground. The third time proved the charm and Band of Joy Mark III played in local clubs and dance halls across the industrial West Midlands. While their soulful tunes were standard mod fare, their appearance was something else entirely, sharing more in common with West Coast psychedelic groups. One of the first bands in the area to boast a light show, they regularly appeared onstage in face paint, decked out in hippie-chic kaftans, beads and bells. By 1967, Plant asked Bonham if he wanted to throw in with this new outfit. “It was debatable whether he’d join because it was a long way to go and pick him up, and we didn’t know whether we would have the petrol money to get over to Redditch and back! We always laugh about that,” Plant recalled. “It turned out to be a really good group. It was a combination of what we wrote ourselves, which wasn’t incredible, and re-arrangements of things like [Jefferson Airplane’s] ‘She Has Funny Cars’ and ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover.’”
Having secured regular gigs at hip London underground venues like Middle Earth and the Marque Club, Band of Joy booked session time in Regent Sound Studios to record demos. The results were two covers, “Hey Joe” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and the originals “Adriatic Sea View” and “Memory Lane” – the latter written by Plant and Bonham about a street in their native West Bromwich. But the tape failed to garner any industry interest, and their low performance fees were an enormous strain on the group. By the summer of 1968, Plant accepted an offer to tour as a backing musician with visiting American singer Tim Rose, and Band of Joy folded … for a time. Between 1977 and 1983, the group carried on minus Plant, who revived the name himself in 2010 for a new album.
Radiohead Members’ Sax-Driven Collective On a Friday
When the future members of Radiohead first came together as classmates at Oxfordshire’s Abingdon School in 1985, they were bonded by pure, unbridled musical passion rather than virtuosic ability. “We were people who picked up their respective instruments because we wanted to play music together, rather than just because we wanted to play that particular instrument,” Colin Greenwood told The Irish Times in 2001. “So it was more of a collective angle, and if you could contribute by having someone else play your instrument, then that was really cool.” They gathered to rehearse on Friday afternoons in the school’s music room, leading to the group’s de facto name: On a Friday.
Though gigs were few and far between during their time at Abingdon, several demos from the period survive. The earliest is a 4-track tape from 1986, reportedly predating the inclusion of Colin’s younger brother Jonny. Songs like “Fragile Friend,” “Girl (in the Purple Dress),” “Everybody Knows” and “Fat Girl” recall a diverse list of influences including the Smiths, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and also every Eighties English New Wave band with gratuitous saxophone solos. Even more bizarre for a band famous for their overcast ruminations, a 1988 demo includes the ludicrously upbeat “Happy Song,” which is given an extra dose of pep with the inclusion of a marimba.
After the members graduated from Abingdon in 1987, On a Friday was effectively put on hiatus while the group – minus the junior Greenwood – attended university. For nearly four years they only got together on rare weekends and holidays. In the summer of 1991, the friends reconvened and threw themselves into music on a full-time basis. They rented a house together in Oxford and perfected their new material at the nearby Jericho Tavern, which would become their local home base. “We all wore black and played very loud, because we thought that’s what you had to do,” Colin later said of these early gigs. It was at one of their Jericho performances that they first drew the attention of Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge. The management duo produced a professional demo tape – including future Radiohead songs “You,” “Thinking About You” and “Prove Yourself” – which earned them a six-album recording contract with EMI in 1992. At the label’s insistence, they dropped the On a Friday moniker, which Thom Yorke retrospectively called “the worst band name ever.” In its place, they took inspiration from an obscure 1986 song by the Talking Heads: “Radio Head.”
David Bowie’s Sixties Mod Group the Lower Third
The Lower Third, a mod combo hailing from the London suburb of Margate, was seeking a new frontman in the spring of 1965 when an 18-year-old Davy Jones came to audition. Having honed his stagecraft with primitive R&B bands like the Konrads, the King Bees, and the Mannish Boys during the previous year, the future David Bowie belted Little Richard standards, even blasting solos on a saxophone he helpfully brought along. He got the job, besting his friend – and future Small Faces shouter – Steve Marriott. “We liked the stuff he was doing,” the band’s guitarist Denis Taylor later told author Marc Spitz, “and he really started to develop an image for us, as well.”
Davy Jones and the Lower Third played their first gig together that April, and during the next few months they shuttled back and forth to gigs in an old diesel-fueled ambulance. Their music was potent and raw – sometimes too raw. “We were too loud onstage,” Bowie later reflected. “We used feedback and sounds and didn’t play any melodies. We just pulverized the sound, which was loosely based on Tamla Motown. We had an ardent following of about a hundred mods but when we played out of London we were booed right off the stage. We weren’t very good.” The group took the bulk of their inspiration from blues heroes like John Lee Hooker (“We tried to adapt his stuff to the big beat – never terribly successfully.”), but Bowie tried his best to inject some original material to the group. “I didn’t know how to write a song – I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had no natural talent whatsoever … and the only way I could learn was to see how other people did it. … I was stumbling around.”
He eventually delivered the dour “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving Me,” featuring hissed lyrics underscored by an chaotic chord structure that borders on dissonance. Considering its enormous debt to early Who and Kinks, it’s fitting that the song was recorded with Shel Talmy, a producer who had previously worked with both bands, as well as Bowie during his tenure with the Mannish Boys. Talmy secured the band a distribution deal on Parlophone, the Beatles’ label, but the single failed to approach the magnitude of the Fab Four when it hit shops in August 1965. Neither did their follow up, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” released the following January and credited to David Bowie and the Lower Third – marking the first recorded appearance of that soon-to-be-famous moniker.
The union between Bowie and the rest for the Lower Third became uneasy after they took on a new manager whose interest in the frontman appeared more than strictly business. The resentment and rancor within the band was exacerbated by the lack of money and chart success, and they parted company that spring.
Chester Bennington’s Nineties Alt-Rock Crew Grey Daze
The late Linkin Park frontman nearly gave up on the music industry after the failure of his first serious band. Bennington began to take an active interest in music while a high school student in the Phoenix area. Initially he collaborated with his friend Sean Dowdell in the aptly named collective Sean Dowdell and His Friends in the early 1990s. “At the time we couldn’t think of a name so I shouted something stupid out and it we all laughed and used it for about a year or so as the name,” Dowdell later explained. They played upwards of 50 gigs around the Phoenix area, and even recorded a three-song demo before the band disintegrated.
In 1993 Dowdell formed a new band with bassist Jonathan Krause, and together they submitted an ad in the Phoenix New Times for a new guitarist and vocalist. They found the former in Steve Mitchell, but none of the singing hopefuls were a good match. Eventually they recruited Bennington back into the fold, calling themselves Lovelies Bleeding before settling on Grey Daze. They played their first gig in January 1994 at Thunder & Lightning Bar & Grill in Scottsdale, and within months they had recorded a professional demo at a local engineering school. By that October they entered the studio to record their first album, Wake Me, an independent release financed by their manager, which entered the rotation on local radio stations.
Grey Daze kept up a steady appearance at local clubs, restaurants, bars, warehouse, private parties and even the odd desert gig before returning to the studio to record a second album, 1997’s …No Sun Today. A third record was planned, but a discouraged Bennington, who worked at a digital services firm during the day to make ends meet, decided to leave the band in 1998. Resigned to a life of obscurity, he was approached by Jeff Blue, the Vice President of A&R at Zomba Music in Los Angeles. Blue suggested he audition for a group called Xero, who were looking for a replacement singer. Skipping his own birthday celebration, Bennington recorded an audition song and wound up getting the job in the spring of 1999 – taking his place alongside Mike Shinoda, Brad Delson, Rob Bourdon and Joe Hahn. Not long after, they took the name Linkin Park in honor of the Santa Monica greenery.
Neil Young and Rick James’ Motown Pop Band the Mynah Birds
Desperate to avoid the draft, a teenaged Rick James – born James Johnson – fled to Canada as soon as he was called up in August 1964. Adopting the name “Ricky James Matthews” to avoid the authorities, he arrived in Toronto, where he was almost immediately set upon by a gang of drunks. “A trio of three other white guys saw what was happening and came running to my aid,” he wrote in his autobiography, Glow. Two of them were Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, future members of the Band, then playing backup for Ronnie Hawkins. The men helped introduce their new friend to the local music scene, and soon he had joined a group called (appropriately enough) the Sailorboys. Eventually, they changed their name to the Mynah Birds, playing an unusual fusion of soul and folk-rock. Their distinct sound earned them a brief stint on the Canadian division of Columbia Records, but their solitary single, “The Mynah Birds Hop,” disappeared without a trace in early 1965.
Bassist Nick St. Nicholas (later of Steppenwolf) left the group soon after and was replaced by future Buffalo Springfield member Bruce Palmer. Looking for a new guitarist, Palmer spotted a local scenester named Neil Young strolling down Yorkville Avenue clutching a 12-string guitar. Young’s attempts to establish himself as a solo artist had met with limited success, and he was happy to accept steady work in a gigging band. “I wasn’t a driving force behind the Mynah Birds – I was the lead guitar player, Ricky was the front man,” Young admitted to biographer Jimmy McDonough. “He’s out there doin’ all that shit and I was back there playin’ a little rhythm, a little lead, groovin’ along with my bro Bruce. We were having a good time.”
Young and James hit it off and soon became roommates, living together in a bombed-out musicians’ crash pad and surviving on the baked goods that James stole off of early morning delivery trucks. “Neil was cool. He had a quirky sense of humor and a quick mind,” James wrote in his memoir. “His singing was a little strange, but his facility on the guitar was crazy.” Young had similarly warm memories decades later. “Ricky was great. He was a little bit touchy, dominating – but a good guy. Had a lot of talent. Really wanted to make it bad,” he told McDonough.
In early 1966 they were signed to Motown and invited to record at the famous Hitsville Studio in Detroit. As part of the induction the band were enrolled in the label’s legendary finishing school. “We didn’t to too well in etiquette and chorography – how to be cool, how to move,” Young recalled. “I thought we fit in pretty good, considering.” In addition to recording four tracks – “It’s My Time,” “I Got You (in My Soul),” “I’ll Wait Forever” and “Little Girl Go,” the experience brought James face to face with his hero, Stevie Wonder, who took exception to his lengthy “Ricky James Matthews” stage name. “That’s too long,” said Wonder. “Ricky James sounds more like it.”
“It’s My Time” was poised for release, and a full Mynah Birds album was planned, but James’ past caught up with him. The band had fired their manager amid accusations of financial improprieties, and he informed Motown of James’ status as a military deserter. The singer was taken to prison, album plans were scrapped, and the single was withdrawn – destined to remain unreleased for decades. Young and Palmer bought a hearse and drove down to Los Angeles, where they eventually formed Buffalo Springfield. James was released after five months, but he would have to wait significantly longer for his second chance at Motown fame.
Steven Tyler’s Sixties Pop Group the Chain Reaction
“English Sounds, American R&B”: thus read the business cards dispensed by the Strangeurs, the first group fronted by Steven Tyler. Then known by his family surname Tallarico, the teenage mod wannabe led the band from behind the drum kit on stages throughout Long Island, Greenwich Village and rural New Hampshire, sometimes performing entire sets with a faux British accent. It was a rock star act he perfected while still a student in Yonkers, New York, in the mid-Sixties. “My way of avoiding being beaten up at school was to play drums in a band,” he wrote in his memoir, Does the Sound in My Head Bother You. “We would set up in the cafeteria and do a mixer after school. I played ‘Wipeout’ and sang ‘In My Room.’ I was skinny and big-lipped and pinheaded. I grew my hair and played the drums in a band, and that was my key to acceptance.”
The band originally called themselves the Strangers, but the existence of another New York group with that name forced them to get creative with the spelling. After gigging around the area, they signed with a manager who booked them as openers for acts like the Byrds and the Kingsmen. Their support set at a Beach Boys show in July 1966 earned them an audition at CBS. “We got into some guy’s office and he says, ‘OK, boys, you can set up in the corner.’ So we set up the drums and I sat down and this guy’s sitting at his desk, talking calls. He finally looked up and said, ‘All right, play,’” Tyler wrote. “He stopped us halfway through and said, ‘I’ll sign you up for six grand. How about it?’ Me, I’m just this stupid, defective kid from Yonkers. I go, ‘All right, uh-huh.’ And we had a record deal just like that.”
The CBS legal team felt their name was still too close to the Strangers, so they opted for Tyler’s latest brainwave: the Chain Reaction. “Steven told me that ‘chain reaction’ meant a continuous flow of high energy, and that’s what they were all about,” recalled Peter Agosta, the band’s early manager in Aerosmith’s autobiography. In August they entered the studio to record their first single, “The Sun.” At the controls was journeyman producer Richie Gottehrer, who had previously scaled the charts with “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels and “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys. “How excited I was about being in an actual recording band,” recalled Tyler. “It was a total dream come true. The other side of it is that it’s a pretty lame song. I never got a cent.” According to Acosta, the fastidious Tyler significantly delayed the sessions: “‘The Sun’ took three weeks to record because Steven was a perfectionist and drove everybody crazy. He demanded his own mic, which no had heard of before.”
The song, backed by another original called “When I Needed You,” failed to trouble the charts. Neither did their follow-up, recorded a month later, “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday.” They played a few high-profile gigs, including a spot opening for the Yardbirds at a Connecticut high school, but by June 1967 the Chain Reaction had fizzled out. However, the band’s repeated trips to Sunapee, New Hampshire, brought Tyler in contact with a young, long-haired dishwasher working at a local ice cream shop: Joe Perry.
Alice Cooper’s High-School Beatles Parody Act
In 1964, a 16-year-old named Vincent Furnier – later known as Alice Cooper – was hard up trying to book acts for the talent show at his Phoenix-area high school. “Nobody had any talent,” he said later in his memoir, Me, Alice. “Nobody even deluded themselves.” Instead, he recruited fellow members of the cross-country team to form a fake group spoofing the Beatles, who were still dominating the charts in the wake of their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show earlier that year. Donning Beatle wigs, they took to the stage in the cafeteria-cum-auditorium as “the Earwigs.” Only one member of the group – Glen Buxton – could actually play an instrument, so the others merely mimed to Beatles songs, rewritten as paeans to track-and-field. One of the better examples, “Please, Please Me,” opened with the line: “Last night, I ran four laps for my coach.” The rapturous response from the crowd propelled them into first place, persuading the “band” to seriously consider dumping their track cleats for guitars. “People complimented me the next day for having the guts to do it,” Cooper wrote in his memoir, “and girls started talking to me who never before would have anything to do with the skinny guy with the big nose from the track team. It stimulated my entertaining chemicals like never before. I got hooked on the limelight.”
Having purchased cheap instruments from a local pawnshop, the band changed their name to a different kind of insect – the Spiders. Over the next year they performed at small clubs around Phoenix, toting an enormous black spider web backdrop. Although the Fab Four had provided inspiration, their musical influences lay in the grittier, blues-oriented sounds of bands like the Yardbirds. “We weren’t interested that much in the Beatles, but we were more interested in Jeff Beck’s guitar sound like on ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ or the Pretty Things doing ‘I’m a Roadrunner,’” Cooper told Sounds magazine. “All those early, really rotten, raunchy things. [Like] the early Kinks when they sounded like they were gonna break your eardrums.”
By 1965 they had recorded their first single, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (originally done by an obscure English group called the Blackwells), backed with a cover of the Marvin Gaye hit, “Hitch Hike.” After graduating high school the following year, they released an additional song, an original called “Don’t Blow Your Mind,” which became a local hit. Emboldened by the success, they moved to Los Angeles in 1967 in pursuit of fame, renaming themselves the Nazz after the Yardbirds’ song, “The Nazz Are Blue.” Once they discovered that Todd Rundgren already had a band by that name, they chose a new name: Alice Cooper.
Grace Slick’s Sly Stone–Produced Experimental Rock Band
The privileged daughter of an investment banker and descendant of Mayflower settlers, Grace Slick spent the early Sixties earning a living as a model at San Francisco’s I. Magin department store. “I was on the third floor, the couture department, wearing $10,000 dresses,” she recalled in a 2015 interview with Forbes. “You wear one, wander around. All the rich people come up and feel the material, ask how much it is, and then you go change.” The job brought in money while her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Slick, an aspiring filmmaker, studied at San Francisco State, but she found the work dull and uninspired. “Modeling is something you can do if you don’t know how to do anything else,” she drolly noted of her early career.
Jerry’s short films provided an outlet for some of Slick’s first songs, but she never seriously considered pursuing music until she saw the newly-formed Jefferson Airplane – then featuring vocalist Signe Toly Anderson – performing at the Matrix, a creative hive for the nascent psychedelic scene. “I went to see Jefferson Airplane play and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s way better. I could do that,’” she recalled. “My mom was a singer. They only have to work a couple of hours a night, can drink and hang out and hustle people. So I stopped modeling and formed a group with my husband and his brother [Darby] called the Great Society.” Their name was a sarcastic nod to President Johnson’s sweeping plans for liberal social reform, signaling their high-minded ideals. “It was way more interesting to sing rock & roll than to wander around changing clothes every 10 minutes.”
The band rehearsed throughout the early fall and developed a distinctive sound, fusing Indian modes and free-jazz experimentation with straight-ahead garage rock. Slick contributed a song called “White Rabbit,” owning debts to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and jazz pianist Gil Evans – plus LSD. “I took acid and listened to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album for 24 hours straight until it burned into my brain,” she once said of its genesis.
Following the Great Society’s debut at a North Beach coffee house that October, they scored a deal with a small independent label, Autumn Records. For their first single they were paired with a young producer named Sly Stewart (later known as Sly Stone) who rapidly grew frustrated by the 53 takes it required to complete the recording. The result, 1966’s “Someone to Love” backed by “Free Advice” was ignored outside of San Francisco. Despite their loyal local following Slick started to feel constrained by the group’s limitations. “She wanted to sing with a tighter band and better musicians,” Jerry said in Barbara Rowes’ Grace Slick: The Biography. “She wanted to work with other vocalists to weave intricate harmonies into the fabric of the songs.” Specifically, she wanted to work with Jefferson Airplane, which had evolved into the chief San Francisco group.
The feeling was mutual. Jefferson Airplane often shared a bill with the Great Society, and its members were aware of Slick’s immense talent. When Anderson opted to retire from performing in September 1966 to care for her newborn child, Airplane bassist Jack Casady approached Slick to see if she wanted to be their new singer. Intrigued by their major label deal with RCA, it didn’t take long for her to decide. Slick brought her operatic contralto, elegant good looks and forceful charisma to Jefferson Airplane, as well as two songs from her Great Society days. “Someone to Love” (retitled “Somebody to Love”) and “White Rabbit” would become the band’s first Top 10 hits on the national charts.
Michael Bolton’s Hard-Rocking Hair Band Black Jack
Though Michael Bolton began his recording career in 1968 at the age of 15 when his band, the Nomads, were signed to Epic Records, their singles stiffed and he spent most of the Seventies trying (and failing) to make it as a solo singer under his real name, Michael Bolotin. Encouraged by Steve Weiss, a legendary attorney who worked with Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, he set about putting together a new group. “Steve thought my new band should follow the pop-rock track taken by Foreigner and Journey,” Bolton wrote in his 2013 memoir, The Soul of It All. In 1978 he tapped Bruce Kulick, a guitarist who had just completed a recent tour with Meat Loaf promoting Bat Out of Hell. The pair began writing songs together, and recruited drummer Sandy Gennaro and bassist Jimmy Haslip. With Weiss as their manager, they signed to Polydor Records under the name Blackjack.
Impressed by their hard-driving songs and Bolton’s rock-radio–friendly rasp, the label had high hopes for the outfit and paired them with super-producer Tom Dowd (who had worked with Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Diana Ross and Otis Redding, among many others) at Miami’s Criteria Studios. Despite his astonishing track record, Dowd didn’t exactly see eye to eye with the band, and asked them to “take a little edge” off their sound. “He wanted us to turn down Bruce’s amp, declaring, ‘What do you think this is, Kiss?’” Bolton wrote in his memoir. “That was the sound Bruce was looking for and would fully realize several years later, when he became the lead guitarist for Kiss.”
The union was not a fruitful one. Blackjack’s self-titled 1979 debut only reached Number 127 on Billboard. Lead single “Without Your Love” floundered at Number 62, despite the help of an early music video showing a permed Bolton & Co. lip-syncing atop a skyscraper. Lackluster sales compelled the label to put their resources elsewhere, and the band spent much of the next year earning money by opening for other artists, including Peter Frampton and the Marshall Tucker Band. Reviewers (including one in Florida’s Lakeville Ledger) praised “the torchy vocals of frizzy-headed Michael Bolotin,” but the band never caught on. When their sophomore album, 1980’s Worlds Apart, was met with nearly total indifference, Blackjack folded.
Before embarking on his second, and far more successful, venture as a solo artist, Bolton may have attempted to join another band: Black Sabbath. According to Tony Iommi’s memoir, Bolton auditioned to fill the role recently vacated by Ronnie James Dio: “We had a million tapes sent in from different singers and most of them were horrible. One of them was from Michael Bolton. I didn’t know him at the time. We had Michael come in and we had him sing ‘Heaven and Hell,’ ‘War Pigs,’ and ‘Neon Knights.’ He was quite good, but he wasn’t exactly what we were looking for then.” Bolton, however, insists that this was just a rock myth. “We opened up for Ozzy Osbourne and really hard bands. But that rumor about me auditioning for Black Sabbath was only a rumor,” he said in 2014. “I don’t know how on earth it started.”
Iggy Pop’s High-School Garage Band the Iguanas
Long before he was known as Iggy Pop, Jim Osterberg took his first musical steps as a teenager, taking up the drums after his friend Jim McLaughlin got a guitar. Together the two jammed informally on 12-bar blues and R&B hits of the day. “We practiced playing ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles and something called ‘Let There Be Drums’ by Sandy Nelson, which was my idea because it was a drum solo,” Pop told Rolling Stone in 2016. In March 1962 they entered a talent show at the Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, performing as a proto–White Stripes drum-and-guitar duo that Pop dubbed “the Megaton Two.” Their two-song set – “Let There Be Drums” and a self-penned Duane Eddy–Chuck Berry amalgam – brought the young audience out of the seats and dancing in the aisles. This earned them the contempt of the teachers, but utmost admiration from the student body. “Immediately, y’know, I took a level up socially in my encounters in the hallways,” Pop later explained with a laugh. “The chicks were a little nicer and the guys were – ‘Hey, that was pretty cool, Osterberg.’”
After entering high school the following year, the pair augmented the group with sax player Sam Swisher, guitarist Nick Kolokithas, and bassist Don Swickerath. No longer a duo, the expanded band called themselves the Iguanas, named by Pop after “the coolest animal.” Landing gigs at school dances, frat parties and clubs around Ann Arbor, they climbed the ladder of local fame with a steady diet of British Invasion stompers. In 1965 they made the trip to Detroit’s United Sound Record Studio to record their only single, a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Mona.” The band clashed over the B side, opting for Kolokithas’ “I Don’t Know Why” over “Again and Again,” one first songs Pop ever wrote. A thousand copies were printed up on the band’s own label, Forte Records, and sold on the door at their gigs.
That summer the Iguanas were hired as the house band at Club Ponytail, a venue in the nearby resort of Harbor Springs, earning the princely sum of $55 each to open for headliners like the Four Tops, the Shangri-Las and the Kingsmen. However, according to Pop, their tenure came to an ignoble (and premature) end: “[I] started getting wild, grew my hair to my shoulders and dyed it platinum, got arrested and took my first mug shot. Got fired from the Ponytail.” He left the band the following year – joining the Prime Movers before eventually settling in the Stooges – but the Iguanas provided crucial part of Pop’s legacy: the nickname Iggy.
Duane and Gregg Allman’s Ill-Fated Psychedelic Soul Outfit the Hour Glass
Thirteen-year-old Gregg Allman spent the summer of 1960 working as a paperboy, using the $21 he saved to purchase his first guitar, a Silvertone from Sears. Before long he had “proceeded to wear that son of a bitch out. I wouldn’t eat or sleep or drink or anything. Just play that damn guitar.” His older brother Duane also became fascinated with the instrument, leading to some tension in their Daytona, Florida, household. “Pretty soon we had fights over the damn thing,” Gregg told Rolling Stone in 1973. “So when it came around to our birthdays – mine was in December and his was in November – we both got one.” Duane dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and music became his all consuming passion. Together they spent the early Sixties playing in local groups with names like the Shufflers and the Y-Teens. Their first proper band, the Escorts, played Top 40 hits and R&B at local clubs – even opening for the Beach Boys – and recorded a demo in the back of an old cottage on Ormond Beach.
Following Gregg’s high school graduation in 1965, the group changed their name to the Allman Joys and hit the road, playing six straight sets, seven nights a week throughout the Southeast. “We had our own sound system, amps and a fucking station wagon,” Gregg recalled. “Big time. Our first gig was in Mobile, at a place called the Stork Club. Boy, it was a nasty fucking place. I was homesick and the band had broken up about 14 times before we got there.” After their multi-week residency, they moved on to Pensacola, Florida; Nashville; St. Louis; and beyond. According to Gregg, “We would rehearse every day in the club, go have lunch, rehearse some more, go home and take a shower, then go to the gig. Sometimes we would rehearse after we got home from the gig too, just get out the acoustics and play. The next day, we’d go have breakfast, go rehearse, and do it all over again. We rehearsed constantly.”
Their gigging earned them label attention, and in 1966 the Allman Joys recorded material for Dial Records, including a single, which Gregg later described as a “terrible psychedelic” version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” Despite the song’s dismal chart performance, the band was persuaded to travel to Los Angeles the following year to chase national stardom. Signed to Liberty Records, the label rebranded them as the Hour Glass – “a pendulum of psychedelic and soul” according to the liner notes of their debut – and cherry-picked songs for them to record. While these included tracks by the likes of Carole King and Jackson Browne, the commercial pop makeover didn’t suit the Allmans. “We were misled,” Duane later said. They released a pair of albums, which Gregg later referred to as “a shit sandwich.”
Effectively broke after the records didn’t sell, the Allmans were despondent. “Duane got fed up and when my brother got fed up, he got fed up,” remembered Gregg. “‘Fuck this,’ he kept yelling. ‘Fuck this whole thing. Fuck wearing these weird clothes. Fuck playing this goddamn ‘In a Gadda-da-Vida’ shit. Fuck it all!’” By 1968 the elder Allman left town, venturing to the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to try his hand as a session man. While Gregg remained out west to fulfill contractual obligations to Liberty, Duane set about sowing the seeds of what became the Allman Brothers Band. In March of 1969, Gregg drove east to rejoin his brother in this new venture, remembering it as “one of the finer days in my life. I was starting to feel like I belonged to something again.”
Brian May and Roger Taylor’s Sixties Power Trio Smile
In the fall of 1968, Imperial College classmates Brian May and Tim Staffell placed an ad on the student notice board looking for a “Ginger Baker–type” drummer to join a new group, formed from the ashes May’s previous endeavor, 1984. Roger Taylor, freshly arrived in London to study dentistry, answered the call. The former leader of an R&B combo called the Reaction in his native Cornwall, he immediately impressed the pair. “We thought he was the best drummer we had ever seen,” May later said. “I watched him tuning a snare – something I’d never seen done before – and I remember thinking how professional he looked.”
They tapped an Ealing Art School student named Chris Smith to play keyboards, and in the peaceful and loving spirit of the times they dubbed themselves Smile. “Smile was really a semi-professional outfit. We had not made the big jump to go professional. I guess we couldn’t because we were all still at college,” May reflected in the documentary, Champions of the World. They made their debut on October 26th opening for Pink Floyd (or the Troggs, in Smith’s recollection) at Imperial College, and soon became the unofficial support act for visiting headliners. “Mostly we were playing adaptations of other people’s material,” said May. “We did a heavy version of ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ and a lot of more or less pure jamming where we’d start off with a riff and build on that. I think we did a couple of adaptations of Motown things, and we did a couple of Cream songs like ‘N.S.U.’”
Smith was displeased by the band’s song choice, which veered too far from the purity of American blues for his tastes, and by February 1969 they had agreed to part company. They remained friendly enough for Smith to bring along his art-school friend, Freddie Bulsara, to watch the newly minted power trio. Bulsara was immediately smitten with the group and desperately wanted to join. He took to offering his unprompted, and often very strong, opinions. “In my mind’s eye I remember him very much dressed like a rock star,” May says of his first impression of the future Freddie Mercury. “But the kind of rock star you hadn’t seen before – really androgynous. He was flicking a pompom around and being very flippant, saying, ‘Yes, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, but … why don’t you present the show better? Why don’t you dress like this?’ He was very full-on from the beginning.” Instead, Bulsara bided his time in short-lived bands like Ibex (later called Wreckage) and Sour Milk Sea.
Smile rose through London’s rock ranks, playing at the exclusive Speakeasy club, and even a fundraising gig at the Royal Albert Hall (where Queen’s post-Mercury vocalist Paul Rodgers opened with a nascent Free). Eventually they were given a one-off recording contract with Mercury Records, affording them a chance to record three songs at SoHo’s Trident Studios that June. Staffell’s “Earth,” a folky sci-fi rock song distantly related to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” was marked for release as a single, while “Step on Me,” an old one of May’s from his time in 1984, was the flip. Issued only in the United States, it sank without a trace. Though it would surface in a reworked form on Queen’s debut album, the third song from the Trident sessions, a May/Staffell collaboration called “Doin’ Alright” was due to remain in the vault. So were three additional songs recorded that September at De Lane Lea Studios.
Staffell left the band in the summer of 1970, and Smile began to circle the drain. May and Taylor welcomed the newly renamed Mercury into the group and on July 18th, 1970, at Imperial College, they played for the first time as Queen.
Future Doors Members’ Surf-Rock Band Rick and the Ravens
The otherworldly jazz-rock of the Doors had significantly more earthbound beginnings in Rick and the Ravens, a Santa Monica bar band specializing in surf and blues. The group was fronted by Ray Manczarek (as he spelled it then), who assumed the persona of “Screamin’ Ray Daniels, the Bearded Blues Shouter.” Together with brothers Rick on guitar and Jim on organ and harmonica, as well as other assorted school friends, he spent early 1965 playing regular weekend gigs at the Turkey Joint West, a dive for “swingin’ young people” located just blocks from the beach. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just having fun,” Manzarek recalled later.
Rick and the Ravens were often visited at the Turkey Joint by Manzarek’s UCLA film school classmates, including a young Jim Morrison – who was already displaying a penchant for booze. “When Jim got loose he would shout out song titles at the band, mainly ‘Louie Louie,’” Manzarek wrote in his memoir, Light My Fire. “We could always hear him barking from the back of the room.” One night Manzarek decided to teach his drunken friend a lesson. Leaning into the mic, “Screamin’ Ray” invited Morrison onto the stage to help him sing a “special version” of the Kingsmen classic. Though he’d never sung for an audience, Morrison wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. “Jim let out a blood-curdling war whoop, and the Turkey Joint West went Dionysian,” he continued. “The fucking place exploded! He was good. And he loved it. He hopped around and sang himself hoarse.”
For a time, Morrison’s drunken stint as a frontman seemed destined to be a one-off event. Upon graduating UCLA in May 1965, he planned to move to New York, leaving Manzarek to seek his fortune as an aspiring filmmaker when he wasn’t playing the Bearded Soul Shouter. Ultimately the future Lizard King decided to stay on the West Coast, and one day that July he bumped into Manzarek while strolling Venice Beach. It was a meeting that would change both their lives forever. “I said, ‘Well, what have you been up to?’” Manzarek told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been living up on Dennis Jacobs’ rooftop, consuming a bit of LSD and writing songs.’” After some convincing, he persuaded the shy Morrison to sing him one. “He began to sing ‘Moonlight Drive,’ and when I heard that first stanza – ‘Let’s swim to the moon, let’s climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide’ – I thought, ‘Ooh, spooky and cool, man.’” Then and there, they decided to start a band.
With their passé name and tired sound, Rick and Ravens were far from the ideal vehicle for Morrison’s far-out lyrics, but Manzarek was in no position to be picky. The group had previously released three promo singles – “Soul Train,” “Henrietta,” and “Big Bucket T” – on Aura Records, a subsidiary label of World Pacific. The tunes had tanked and by the late summer the group were, in Manzarek’s estimation, “going nowhere. Nothing was happening. No record sales, no gigs. Dissent descended on the Ravens.” The rhythm section had departed and the remaining members were not especially receptive to Morrison’s mysterious poetry, which they viewed as the height of pretension.
Sensing Manzarek’s existential malaise, the label’s ultra-hip chief, Dick Bock, suggested he take a class on transcendental meditation. It was there that Manzarek first crossed paths with a drummer named John Densmore, who was welcomed into the fold. Though they owed Aura Records one more single, Manzarek convinced Bock to let the newly outfitted Rick and the Ravens cut a demo disc instead. On September 2nd, Morrison, Densmore, Manzarek, his brothers and a bassist named Patricia “Pat” Hansen spent three hours cutting six original tracks: “Moonlight Drive, “My Eyes Have Seen You,” “Summer’s Almost Gone,” “Hello I Love You,” “Go Insane” and “End of the Night.” While the compositions were undoubtedly strong, the execution felt lackluster, weak, almost timid. Record execs agreed, and a discouraged Rick and Jim Manzarek quit both the band and the music business that autumn. In their place Manzarek recruited another acquaintance from meditation class, a guitarist named Robbie Krieger. He had briefly played with Densmore in a band called the Psychedelic Rangers, and this new group would also draw inspiration from mind expansion. Taking a cue from a William Blake line (by way of Aldous Huxley) they called themselves the Doors.
Debbie Harry’s Sixties Psych-Folk Group the Wind in the Willows
The future Blondie frontwoman doesn’t exactly think highly of her earliest recording efforts with the spaced-out, folky collective named for Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic. Reexamining kid-lit through an acid-tinged lens may have been a crucial pillar of English psychedelia, but such preciousness was doomed to fail in 1967 New York City. “It was pretty awful. That was baroque folk-rock,” Harry later said. “I didn’t have anything to do with the music then. I was just a back-up singer.”
The Wind in the Willows was largely the vision of singer Paul Klein, who was married to one of Harry’s school friends. Klein happened to live on the same 7th Street block as music journalist (and future “Dean of Rock Critics”) Robert Christgau, who helped introduce them to a manager, which led to a recording contract with Capitol Records. Their self-titled debut was released to little fanfare in 1968. “A sweet, saccharine kind of thing,” Harry described in the book Blondie: Parallel Lives. “I wasn’t really a writer on that. That record is very childlike to me. I didn’t have a great deal of input. I was a backup singer doing high harmonies with the lead singer. It was his trip. He envisioned himself as this folk guy with a teddy bear aspect.” When asked a decade later if the record could be classified as “easy listening,” she offered a different term: “depressing listening.”
The public agreed, and the album failed to manager more than a feeble Number 195 on the Billboard charts. While their producer, Artie Kornfeld, met with greater success the following year when he co-organized a festival in upstate New York that would become known as Woodstock, the Wind in the Willows were dead on arrival. A second album was recorded, which reportedly featured more of Harry’s vocals, but the tapes went missing and it has yet to surface. Harry made her exit from the band soon after. “I wasn’t turned by the music anymore. I thought we should make certain changes, but Paul didn’t agree, so I told them I was leaving,” she recalled.
In the early Seventies she joined a group called the Stilettoes with guitarist Chris Stein. Within a few years she and Stein departed to form a new band, Angel and the Snake, which later became known as Blondie.
Ronnie James Dio’s Dreamy Fifties Pop Group the Vegas Kings
As a high school student in Cortland, New York, Ronnie James Dio (then still known as Ronald James Padavona) formed his first band, the Vegas Kings, in 1957, featuring himself on bass and trumpet. “I started playing the trumpet when I was five years old, which was great training for me as a singer,” he explained to Extreme magazine. “It taught me the correct way to do it, because I’ve not taken singing lessons from anyone.” For strictly practical reasons, he quickly assumed the bulk of the group’s vocal duties. “No one else wanted the job,” he later admitted. “It wasn’t my plan at all to lead the band.”
After a spell as the Vegas Kings, the friends changed their name to Ronnie and the Rumblers – named after their favorite Duane Eddy song, “Rumble,” which became their theme tune. They filled weekends performing at local dances and American Legion Halls, but in 1958 they had the chance to play a much larger hall in nearby Johnson City. However, organizers were nervous about their name. “Rumbling” in the Fifties was slang for fighting, so the group quickly transformed into Ronnie and the Red Caps. It was this name that appeared on their debut single that year, a Ventures-style instrumental called “Conquest.” They followed it up with “An Angel is Missing,” backed with a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” It was this record that first bore the surname “Dio,” though how he came to chose it remains the source of speculation. Some believe that it was a nod to his Italian grandmother, who always said he was a gift from the heavens (“Dio” being Italian for God), but Dio’s widow has disputed this. Others have theorized that it was a tribute to infamous mobster Johnny Dio.
Throughout the early sixties the group released a string of singles as Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, and even a live album purportedly recorded at a pizza shop called as Dio at Domino’s – featuring covers ranging from “Great Balls of Fire” to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” In addition to the his work with the band, Dio released a number of extracurricular singles in a baffling array of styles, trying to see which musical mask might launch his career as a solo artist. “Mr. Misery,” a heavenly 1963 tune complete with angelic choir, is a gentle teen lover’s lament that would have done Ricky Nelson proud. Two years later, “Smiling by Day (Crying by Night)” sees Dio doing a killer John Lennon impression with a hard driving garage stomper, whereas the B side – “Dear Darlin’ (I Won’t Be Coming Home)” is a less convincing pastiche of Nashville shuffles, punctuated by Floyd Cramer–style honky tonk fills. “[We] tried everything with Ronnie,” his manager at the time, Jim Pantas, later said. “However we tried to position him, it didn’t come off.”
By 1967, the Prophets had morphed into a group called the Electric Elves, later shortened to just Elf, which would see Dio jettison his teen idol ambitions in favor of heavy-metal immortality.
Dusty Springfield’s Early-Sixties “Family” Folk Trio the Springfields
A teenage Dusty Springfield – then known as Mary O’Brien – began her musical career alongside her older brother Dion in the family’s garage before graduating to the London supper club circuit. In 1958 she answered a classified ad in a trade paper for an “established sister act” seeking another singer. Having passed her audition, she became the newest member of the Lana Sisters – not actually related – a sugary pop vocal trio in the mold of the Andrews Sisters. They released a string of middling singles, but television appearances and stints as openers for artists like Nat “King” Cole, Guy Mitchell, and Cliff Richard brought them notoriety. By 1960 the Lana Sisters earned the dubious honor of being named the “Seventh Favorite Female Vocal Group” in Melody Maker, but O’Brien was becoming disenchanted by their outdated act. She left the group later that year, straining relationships with her ex-bandmates in the process. “I hated it when they implied that I was letting them down, but I had to move on,” she later explained. “Sometimes you have to let people down in order to get on, particularly in show business.”
She rejoined her brother Dion and his friend Tim Feild, who had been performing as a duo called the Kensington Squares. Taking inspiration from folk groups like the Weavers, and Peter, Paul and Mary, they incorporated Dion’s skills as a writer/arranger, O’Brien’s powerful voice, and their shared love of world music. An alfresco rehearsal in a Somerset field one spring day inspired the trio’s name: the Springfields. To complete the transformation into this fictitious family, Dion became Tom and O’Brien became Dusty.
Striking the right balance of acoustic folk and cheery pop, the group quickly became one of the best-selling acts in the U.K., scoring chart entries with “Breakaway” and “Bambino.” Even after Feild’s departure in 1962 (Mike Hurst would take his place) their run of hits continued with “Island of Dreams” and “Say I Won’t Be There,” in addition to their own BBC TV music series. “The Springfields happened at the right time,” Dusty Springfield told Rolling Stone in 1973. “We were an extraordinary mixture of pseudo-country, folk … indescribable, I would put it. There were two guitars and me, in the middle, trying to find room to move my arms. I felt like I was directing traffic.”
Their version of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” cracked the Top 20 in the United States, becoming the first single by a British group to ever do so. The achievement earned them an invitation to travel to Nashville to record an album with veteran producer Shelby Singleton. It was while passing through New York City in 1962 that O’Brien first became exposed to the sound of American R&B groups. “I was deeply influenced by black singers from the early Sixties,” she recalled. “I liked everybody at Motown and most of the Stax artists. I really wanted to be Mavis Staples. What they shared in common was a kind of strength I didn’t hear on English radio.”
Feeling hemmed in by their folky good-time image, O’Brien decided to go solo as Dusty Springfield, and the group split in late 1963. For all the stardom and heartache that was to follow in her tumultuous life, she always maintained uncharacteristically fond memories of her time in the trio: “We’d had such fun being the Springfields, ever since that idyllic sunny day when it all began.”
Peter Frampton’s Teen-Idol Pop Group the Herd
Somewhat of a rock prodigy, Frampton got his start at age 12 in the early Sixties playing in a band called the Little Ravens at Bromley Technical School, where his father taught art to fellow student David Bowie. After a brief stint in a group called the Trubeats, he played in a band called the Preachers, produced and managed by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. But by 1965 he set his sights on a local group called the Herd, who had a large local fan base and a handful of unsuccessful Parlophone singles under their belt. “I used to come see them play when I was aged 15, way before I joined,” Frampton said in a 2006 interview. “They were the number one beat group in West Wickham and I got to know them by being the precocious pest that hung around saying, ‘I can play guitar.’” When vocalist Terry Clark left the following year, they invited him to join. Frampton eagerly accepted, much to the chagrin of his parents, who, in a tale as old as time, urged him to pursue his college studies.
Early in Frampton’s tenure, the band hired the songwriting partnership Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who had penned a succession of hits for the British pop collective Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. The duo provided the Herd with a selection of heavily orchestrated, high concept singles steeped in sanitized flower power. In August 1967, the band scored a hit with “From the Underworld,” perhaps the first chart entry inspired by the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The song’s commercial success was a mixed blessing, publically casting them as a bubblegum band unworthy of serious consideration in rock’s coterie of cool. “Ken and Alan were wonderful songwriters. They helped us get a record deal and we weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. But it wasn’t everything that we wished for,” Frampton said. “We were a much more musical outfit and yet we were becoming a pop group.” Frampton’s status as “The Face of ’68” in the trade rag Disc rankled many in the band, who resented that the singer’s good looks were eclipsing the music. They continued to release a string of singles – including 1968’s excellent uptempo gem “I Don’t Want Our Loving to Die” – and a full-length album, but the failure of the self-penned “Sunshine Cottage” further soured Frampton on the group. Frustrated by his unwanted journey into teen-idol–dom, he left the band by the end of 1968 to form an altogether harder outfit, Humble Pie, with Steve Marriott.
Lemmy’s Costumed Sixties Band the Rockin’ Vickers
Lemmy Kilmister may not seem like man of the cloth, but the Motörhead frontman spent much of the Sixties donning a priest’s collar as a member of the Rockin’ Vickers. “My old man would have hated it, seeing me in a band that – shock, horror – took the piss out of being a vicar,” he later told author Mick Wall. “At the same time he’d probably have loved seeing me having to wear a fucking vicar’s dog collar onstage.” His interest in rock & roll began young – he once hitchhiked to Liverpool at age 16 to catch one of the Beatles’ Cavern sets – and his tenure in low-profile Manchester bands like the Rainmakers and then the Motown Sect prepared him well for his invitation to join the comparatively professional Vickers in 1965. Initially a covers band working the cabaret circuit along the Blackpool pier, they had released a single, “I Go Ape,” which met with scattershot success on the European mainland.
“He was a fan of our band before joining forces with our two road managers and setting our gear up for us,” bandmate Harry Feeney told Wall. “We didn’t pay him a wage, we just fed him and kept him. Then the band had a big bust-up and we were left with only three of us. Lemmy turned round and said, ‘I can do this,’ and he got onstage and he was brilliant.” The group played to 10,000-seat arenas in Finland and, according the legend, were the first rock band to break through the Iron Curtain following an offer to play Yugoslavia as part of a cultural exchange program.
The band secured a recording contract with producer Shel Talmy, famous for working with the Who and the Kinks (plus a young David Bowie). Perhaps because of this, the Rockin’ Vickers’ next two singles owed a serious debt to the two bands. “It’s Alright” was such a blatant steal of the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” that Pete Townshend apparently threatened to sue (though Lemmy says the Who became “great mates” during his Motörhead days), and their follow up single was a cover of Ray Davies’ “Dandy.” It didn’t chart in their native country, but Lemmy insisted they were living large from live bookings. “We didn’t have hit records but you didn’t need ’em. We were making, in those days, quite a lot of money. We had this big house we lived in and three fucking Jaguars and a speedboat on Lake Windermere. We used to go water-skiing. That was the heyday, if you ask me.”
By 1967 Lemmy decided wanted to get a piece of the London action and subsequently quit the band. He shared a room with Noel Redding, and briefly served as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, but within a few years he’d be topping the bill himself – first in the psych rock band Sam Gopal, then Hawkwind and finally Motörhead.
Bon Scott’s Australian Teen-Pop Band the Valentines
AC/DC’s manager Michael Browning once described the Valentines as “a satin-clad, bell-bottom–wearing teeny-bop band.” In other words, not the kind of group in which you’d expect to find Bon Scott. But the future metal god spent the late Sixties as a co-frontman of the Perth-based pop group, sharing the spotlight with singer Vince Lovegrove. Formed in 1966, the Valentines were a fusion of Scott’s first band, the Spektors, and Lovegrove’s the Winstons. Scoring their first local chart entry with a cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Every Day I Have to Cry,” the band capitalized on their success by recording a number of songs co-written by George Young and Henry Vanda – previously members of the Aussie rock outfit the Easybeats and future AC/DC producers.
Moving to Melbourne by the end of 1967 to pursue national fame, the group became an in-demand act on the touring circuit, drawing hoards of teenage girls eager to get a look at the twin heartthrobs out front. Even at this early stage, Scott was not suited to the life of a teen idol. His friend, former AC/DC bassist Mark Evans, recalled seeing the uneasy truce between Bon Scott the Rock Outlaw and Bon Scott the Pop Star in his book, Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside AC/DC. “I was sitting in front of the PA on the side of the stage and I could see him disappear into the wings during solos and after songs to slug from a bottle of Johnnie Walker,” he writes. “As the set progressed he built up a descent sweat and I could see something strange going on under the sheer chiffon sleeves. Tattoos were starting to appear – he had tried to hide them with makeup but the sweat was making it run. The guy was turning into Bon Scott before my eyes.”
As tastes shifted from lightweight pop towards heavier rock cuts by the end of the decade, the Valentines struggled to shed their image and their popularity waned. They promoted their 1968 single “Peculiar Hole in the Sky” with an advertisement bearing the comically desperate copy: “Please buy a copy – we’re starving.” It was barely a joke, as the group had taken to sneaking bites in the middle of supermarket aisles while on tour. “We were very poor, almost starving, driving down the highways, absorbed with rock ‘n’ roll, stealing people’s front door milk money … living on boiled potatoes, the dreams of success our mantra,” Lovegrove later wrote of those difficult days. “[But] when he sang, Bon took off into charisma-land.”
Their circumstances deteriorated further on September 20th, 1969, when authorities raided the group’s lodgings at the Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club and discovered marijuana. The legal repercussions of this, the first major rock & roll drug bust in Australian history, exacerbated personality clashes within the band. “Bon and I have often come really close to punching the shit out of each other,” Lovegrove told Go-Set that same year. Even worse, the music wasn’t selling. The failure of their February 1970 single, “Juliette,” sealed the band’s fate.
Carole King’s Progressive Folk Trio the City
Though Carole King’s status as one of pop’s premier melodists was still strong, by 1967 her marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin was in a state of collapse. Desperate to start over, she took her two daughters and went West – trading New York City’s industrial-style songwriting factories for the comparatively laid-back and groovy Los Angeles clique. “Southern California was the center of everything fresh, young, and current,” King recalled in her memoir, A Natural Woman. “The beautiful people, the gorgeous weather, the burgeoning music scene, and the free and easy lifestyle were a siren call.” She settled in Laurel Canyon, a bucolic artists’ enclave inhabited by the hippest musicians in town, and soon fell in with two other NYC transplants: bassist Charles Larkey and guitarist Danny Kortchmar.
Larkey, who would later become King’s second husband, had been a member of a pop-rock group called the Myddle Class, which were signed to Goffin and King’s label imprint, Tomorrow Records. Following the dissolution of the band, he joined Kortchmar in the provocative proto-punk collective known as the Fugs. Kortchmar, known far and wide as “Kootch,” was also a veteran of the Flying Machine, fronted by a talented singer named James Taylor. Both Larkey and Kortchmar had migrated to Los Angeles to seek their fortune, but so far fame proved elusive. To stay sharp they practiced at King’s Wonderland Avenue home, running through old Goffin-King numbers in addition to fresh compositions she had written with new collaborators, Toni Stern and David Palmer. For King, whose confidence as a performer lagged far behind her confidence as a songwriter, these loose sessions were a revelation. “Playing with Charlie and Danny was not only fun, it greatly enhanced my jamming skills,” she later wrote. “As the number of licks in my kit bag went up, so did my confidence and understanding of jazz. And Kootch had a gift for exhorting other musicians to play, write and sing beyond what they believed was the edge of their ability.”
King’s track record as a recording artist in her own right was sparse, but Kortchmar and Larkey persuaded her to venture into the studio and cut an album of these new songs. As a nod to their shared East Coast heritage, the trio decided to call themselves the City. “Even though we had a group name, this was Carole’s record all the way,” Kortchmar wrote in 1999. “She would sing or play parts to Charlie and me, and once we got it right, we could hear how great this record was going to be.” For a producer King approached her friend Lou Adler, a onetime songwriter who had graduated into full-blown impresario by producing hits for the Mamas and the Papas, Scott McKenzie, and Barry McGuire on his own labels, Dunhill and, later, Ode Records. With Adler on board, they augmented their lineup with pro session drummer Jim Gordon, later to serve Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos.
The 12-tracks that make up Now That Everything’s Been Said, the City’s sole release, are a bridge between the precision pop assembly line that King was leaving behind, and the highly personal singer-songwriter era she would define in the early Seventies with her seminal 1971 LP Tapestry. The centerpiece is the ethereal “Snow Queen,” coupling King’s earthy voice with spacey instrumental arrangements and Gordon’s jazz rhythms. But changing times didn’t diminish her skill at crafting hits; the jaunty gospel of “That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)” would reach the Top 20 in 1970 with Blood Sweat and Tears, the Byrds’ version of “Wasn’t Born to Follow” was a highlight of the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider, and the Monkees later delivered a stirring cover of “A Man Without a Dream.”
Despite the strength of the songs, and significant industry attention, the album didn’t sell. “I was 26 when Now That Everything’s Been Said was released in 1968,” King wrote in A Natural Woman. “[We] expected it to zoom to the top of the charts within, at most, a few weeks. Individually and together, we optimistically imagined the album’s success as if it had already happened. Danny and Charlie kept telling each other, ‘It’s a great album. The City is gonna be Number 1 with a bullet!’ The album didn’t get above 500 with an anchor. It never even charted.” King has since admitted that her reluctance to tour due to extreme stage fright may have doomed the record, although label distribution snafus likely didn’t help matters. For decades the disc remained out of print, largely at King’s request. The City would not issue another album, but the project would embolden her confidence and cement the creative relationships that helped pave the way for her reinvention as a solo artist.
Sammy Hagar’s Sunshine-Pop Duo Samson & Hagar
Little appears to be known about this unusual early chapter in the Red Rocker’s history. After fronting a Southern California band called the Fabulous Castilles (not to be confused with the similarly named group featuring a young Bruce Springsteen), Hagar joined forces with fellow vocalist Pete Samson in 1967. Together they recorded the self-penned song, “Reach Out to Find Me” (backed by Samson’s “Read My Thoughts”) for Ranwood Records. For a backing band, producer Dan Dalton called in the Peppermint Trolley Company, thus melding the future Van Halen shouter with the voices behind the Brady Bunch theme song.The single’s chart failure later that year spelled the end for the short-lived duo. Hagar continued performing in a pack of other SoCal groups – the Johnny Fortune Band and also the Justice Brothers among them – before achieving mainstream recognition in the hard-rocking early Seventies outfit Montrose.
The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr’s Mellow Early-Seventies Trio Milkwood
The future brain trust behind 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Cars first crossed paths in Cleveland back in the mid-Sixties, after Ocasek saw Orr performing with his group, the Grasshoppers, on a local television program. They soon became close, playing both as a duo and in bands at local venues across Columbia, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, before winding up in Boston. While there they teamed up with guitarist Jas Goodkind to form Milkwood, a laid-back vocal trio in the Crosby, Stills and Nash mold. The group’s honey-soaked harmonies and gentle acoustic picking caught the attention of audiences throughout the Cambridge club circuit. “We were playing around town and somebody asked us if we wanted to make a record,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone in 1979. “In two weeks we recorded that Milkwood thing.”
Work on what would prove to be the band’s one and only album took place at Aengus Studios in Fayville, Massachusetts. The sessions marked the first collaboration with future Car Greg Hawkes, who played saxophone and provided brass arrangements. “He had the simplicity concept,” Ocasek later said, “but he wasn’t afraid to do interesting things. I knew he’d be the keyboard player I wanted.”
Ten original songs by Ocasek and Orr (credited to their real names, Otcasek and Orzechowski) were released on Paramount Records in 1973 as How’s the Weather. The comically banal title gives some impression of the overall sound of the album, which is mellow to the point of narcolepsy. The wistful, confessional singer-songwriter material, flecked with the occasional “jazz-odyssey” breakdown, is light years away from the robotic New Wave anthems that would make the Cars famous later in the decade. The record-buying public, presumably believing that one CSN was enough, stayed away and the album sank without a trace.