If true old-school rock ‘n’ roll is a dying art form, the Blasters were its last great American practitioners. Less revivalists than keepers of the flame, the California-based group’s passionate mix of electric blues, roadhouse R&B, manic rockabilly, and hard driving rock ‘n’ roll has won them a rabidly loyal cult following.
At the core of their sound is the shut-eyed, teeth-baring vocals of Phil Alvin and the working-class poetry of his younger brother Dave. Backed by an energetic rhythm section, the brothers’ roots-rock mastery and prickly interpersonal chemistry resonated with post-Elvis rockabillies and punk rockers alike. Yet, despite a deal with a hot record label, the band could not translate their artistic accomplishments into commercial success. Eventually, the brothers’ constant disagreements caused the dissolution of the original band, allowing the younger Alvin to achieve his full creative potential.
The Blasters were exposed to the basics of their style in Downey, California, an area that allowed them easy access to R&B icons Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker and the Bakersfield honky-tonk of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Bassist John Bazz told Rhino liner-note author Don Snowden, “The four guys that
Members include Lee Allen (died in 1994; group member, 1981–86), tenor saxophone; Dave Alvin (born on November 11, 1955; group member, 1979–86, 2002–), guitar, tenor saxophone; Phil Alvin (born on March 6, 1953), guitar, harmonica, lead vocals; Jerry Angel (joined group, 1995), drums; Bill Bate-man (group member, 1979–86, 2002–), drums; John Bazz , bass; Steve Berlin (group member, 1981–86), saxophone; David Carroll (group member, 1987–94), drums Hollwood Fats (group member, 1985–86), guitar; James Intveldt (group member, 1993–95), guitar, vocals; Gene Taylor (group member, 1980-86, 2002–), keyboards; Keith Wyatt (joined group, 1996), guitar.
Group formed in Downey, CA, 1979; signed with Ron Weiser’s Rollin’ Rock label, released LP American Music, 1980; signed with Slash Records, released self-titled LP, 1981; released EP Over There: Live at the Venue, London, 1982; released Non Fiction, 1983; released final Slash LP Hard Line, original members broke up, 1985; Phil Alvin released eclectic solo LP Un “Sung Stories” on Slash, 1986; Dave Alvin released solo LPs Romeo’s Escape on Epic, Border Radio on Enigma, 1987; Dave Alvin began recording/producing for High-tone Records, 1991; Phil Alvin and John Bazz debuted new version of the Blasters, 1993; Phil Alvin released Hightone LP County Fair 2000, 1995; Run Wild label released multi-artist tribute album Blastered: A Musical Tribute to the Blasters, 1998; five original Blasters reunited to record the live Trouble Bound for Hightone, 2002.
Addresses: Record company —Hightone Records, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607, phone: (510) 763-8500, website: http://www.hightone.com; Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-4900, phone: (310) 474-4778, website: http://www.rhino.com. Booking —Mongrel Music, 743 Center Blvd., Fairfax, CA 94930, website: http://www.mon-grelm.com. Management —Greg Lewerke, e-mail: [email protected] Website —The Blasters Official Website: http://www.mon-grelm.com. Management —Greg Lewerke, e-mail: [email protected] Website —The Blasters Official Website: http://www.theblastersnewsletter.com.
would eventually become the Blasters emerged from a pack of musicians that roamed Downey in the late 1960s. We were part of a small group of guys, 30 perhaps, that would get together at the drop of a hat and play music at a party or someone’s house, school dances, weddings.”
Inspired by thrift-store purchases of 78 rpm discs, Phil Alvin and Bazz started a blues band with pianist Gene Taylor called the Nightshift during the early 1970s. Coached by Marcus Johnson, Lee Allen, and T-Bone Walker, they learned the value of stage presence and short, snappy songs. After Taylor left to join Canned Heat in 1975, the Nightshift’s lineup varied until, in 1979, only Bazz and Alvin remained. Playing as a country duet, Bazz and Alvin had Dave join them at a wedding gig. The younger Alvin’s lead guitar work and song ideas added vital missing ingredients. Soon after, drummer Bill Bateman latched on. Rechristened the Blasters—a reference to Jimmy McCracklin’s Blues Blasters—the quartet began playing local clubs.
Although Elvis Presley’s 1977 death had renewed public interest in the original sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, only one label had been consistently releasing new music in that style: Rollin’; Rock. Founded by an Italian immigrant named Ronny Weiser, the tiny Van Nuys company specialized in recording fresh sides by such forgotten rockabilly pioneers as Ray Campi, Johnny Carroll, Jackie Lee Cochran, Mac Curtis, Charlie Feathers, Groovey Joe Poovey, and Gene Vincent. Rollin’ Rock’s philosophy was decidedly in synch with the Blasters’ rebellious record-collector sensibility.
“We had read a story about Ronny in a local newspaper,” Dave Alvin recalled in an interview transcript published in the Blue Suede News. “We called him up and we had nothing going on at all. We were playing biker bars for free beers and audition nights for country bands and stuff. We called him out of the blue and my brother sang him ‘Lovesick Blues’ and something else over a payphone at a Denny’s because Ronny said, ‘How do I know you’re any good?’ Then we went over to his house and handed him our little homemade demo tape. It had things like a Junior Parker song, a Carl Perkins song…. Well, this truck-driver was coming by to pick up boxes of Rollin’ Rock records to ship somewhere and he walked in just as we were playing the tape. He said, ‘Who is that? Where can I get a copy of that? You don’t find music like that anymore.’ Then the guy left and Ron said, ‘Well, now we make a record.’”
Recording a high-energy mix of rockabilly obscurities, R&B standards, and originals in Weiser’s garage studio, the Blasters hammered out 18 songs in two days. Out of these sessions came two genuine classics, the Dave Alvin-penned “American Music” and “Marie, Marie.” The latter became British rockabilly revivalist Shakin’stevens’second United Kingdom hit—number 19 in 1980—and the song most associated with the Blasters.
Their debut LP American Music helped make the Blasters one of the hottest new groups on the Los Angeles scene, but the band was unhappy with the finished product. “We were never happy with the way our records sounded,” Alvin explained in Blue Suede News. “[Rollin’ Rock’s] Ray Campi records sounded great, they were good clean recordings and they had nice bottom ends on them and all that. Ours were very dark and muddled sounding. It’s one of the reasons we neof the label.”
When contacted by the author, Ronny Weiser responded, “They never expressed these sentiments to me. All I got was threatening letters from $300-an-hour Century City lawyers with all kinds of absurd demands, trying to take total control over my tapes. Of course there was no basis for these demands. The reason Ray Campi was getting a deeper fuller bottom is because he was using a standup bass. I always felt that the bass was somewhat weak [on previous recordings], and I tried to boost it up a bit for the CD [Hightone’s 1997 reissue of the Rollin’ Rock recordings].”
Without much warning, the Blasters departed Rollin’ Rock for the more lucrative environs of the Warner Bros.-distributed Slash label. However, many years later, Alvin still marveled at Weiser’s passion: “I don’t think that Ronny gets enough credit. In some ways he was the only guy who really kept that music alive,” he said, as quoted in the Blue Suede News. “I look on those times with Ron and it was a thrill! There are people out there who say, and maybe they’re right, ‘Well, that’s the best those guys ever did!’”
At Slash, which had a roster including punk luminaries X, Rank and File, and the Violent Femmes, the Blasters found themselves in an enviable position—working for a hip, small label with major-label distribution and promotion. To bolster their sound they added the returning Gene Taylor on keyboards along with Steve Berlin and their former mentor Lee Allen on saxophones. Allen, a rock pioneer in his own right, played on all the great Fats Domino and Little Richard sessions cut during the 1950s and scored a hit with his own 1958 recording of “Walking with Mr. Lee.”
Armed with a fatter sound and better recording facilities, the Blasters rerecorded “Marie, Marie” and “American Music.” They also crafted fresh classics such as the New Orleans-flavored “Hollywood Bed,” the pre-alt.country of “Border Radio,” and the blues-drenched boogie of “So Long Baby Goodbye.” Eventually the latter tune would find fame on the Bull Durham film soundtrack, but at the time, the band’s self-titled Slash debut was regarded as a commercial failure.
The band’s stellar live shows were cathartic experiences for their growing fan base, but transferring their onstage chemistry to the recording studio proved frustrating. “When the Blasters went in to the studio, we went in with fear and trepidation,” Dave Alvin told the Blue Suede News. “It took us forever to find an engineer who had even a vague idea of what we were talking about.” Although working in an industry based on rock ‘n’ roll lineups exemplified by the Blasters, Alvin found that their sound was considered archaic. “When we started making records, most recording engineers had grown up listening to [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon or some Yes record. [M]ost recording engineers don’t sit down and listen to a Sun record or Chess record. Because of that, they don’t know how to record rock ‘n’ roll.”
Despite their studio difficulties, the Blasters’self-produced albums Non Fiction and Hard Line stretched the limits of roots rock, showcasing the younger Alvin’s songwriting to great effect. However, their artistic growth did not translate into commercial success, much to the band’s chagrin, “[W]e didn’t see why we couldn’t be on Top-40 radio,” recalled Alvin in the interview published in Blue Suede News. “We didn’t see why we couldn’t have hit records the way E.L.O. had hit records or Cheap Trick.”
By 1985 the band’s lack of mainstream success compounded tensions between bandmates. “We used to always fight, but we tended to keep it offstage,” explained Alvin in Blue Suede News. “Occasionally something would happen with my brother and I onstage where some fireworks would fly, but in general we kept it semi-professional. By the end? No. Everybody was going at each other.” There was also the question of the younger Alvin’s songwriting abilities outpacing the interests of his brother. “I had to write songs about things my brother could sing and about things I knew my brother and I shared,” Alvin said in Blue Suede News. “Then it just got to a certain point where I couldn’t write songs anymore if the only reason was to put words in his mouth.”
After a particularly vicious onstage quarrel at a Montreal gig, Dave Alvin left the Blasters to join X, replacing guitarist Billy Zoom, who in turn subbed with the Blasters for a short time. Phil Alvin and John Bazz kept various Blasters lineups working until Phil put the band on a back burner during the late 1980s so he could study for his master’s degree in mathematics. By 1996 he had earned his Ph.D. in set theory mathematics. Consistently hailed as one of the great white blues singers, the older Alvin brother recorded solo discs for Slash and Hightone. When not touring with the Blasters, he has also dabbled in jazz with a side-project band called the Faultline Syncopaters.
Perhaps the most successful ex-Blasters sideman is Steve Berlin, who became a regular member of another great California band, Los Lobos. Berlin has also become a respected producer, working behind the glass for such acts as the Beat Farmers, Faith No More, Leo Kottke, the Paladins, and even former band-mate Dave Alvin.
Yet it was Dave Alvin whose career truly blossomed after his departure from the Blasters. At first unsure about his vocal abilities, the songwriter developed an expressive, gravelly baritone. “I don’t encourage nobody to smoke,” quipped Alvin in Blue Suede News, “but I know it gave me a voice.” Besides collaborating on side projects with X, the Knitters, and the Pleasure Barons, he has crafted a series of acclaimed roots-flavored albums for the Oakland-based Hightone label. Recording and touring with his own band the Guilty Men, Alvin earned a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album for Public Domain —Songs from the Wild Land.
Equally notable is Alvin’s work as a producer for other roots acts such as Tom Russell, Christy McWilson, Red Meat, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, the Derailers, and rockabilly pioneer Sonny Burgess. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, and X. Additionally, Icommunicado PR has published two books of his poetry, Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You in 1996 and Crazy Times in 2003.
Rhino Records’ compilation of the Blasters Slash-era recording provided an avenue for the Alvins, Bazz, Bateman, and Taylor to regroup for some high-profile shows in 2002. (Lee Allen died in 1994.) Encouraged by the response, the band decided to document the reunion on the live Hightone disc Trouble Bound, which features the band rocking with surprisingly youthful intensity. “It’s the way the five guys play together,” Alvin explained in Blue Suede News. “I was a little nervous when we decided to do these dates. I wondered, ‘Can we live up to what we were?’ About mid-way through the first song on the first rehearsal I thought, ‘No problem.’”
The Blasters may be able to summon the mighty rhythms of old, but don’t look for anything more than occasional reunion shows. Phil Alvin told Jon Johnson of Country Standard Time that his loyalties reside more with current bandmates Jerry Angel and Keith Wyatt than with former Blasters members. By contrast, Dave Alvin prefers the genre-skipping flexibility of working with the Guilty Men. Yet he was quick to point out, in the Blue Suede News interview, “Where my artistic interests are is another thing now. But in my heart, I’m still a Blaster.”
American Music, Rollin’ Rock, 1980; reissued, Hightone, 1997.
The Blasters, Slash/Warner Bros., 1981.
Over There: Live at the Venue, London, Slash, 1982.
London, Slash, 1982.
Non Fiction, Slash, 1983.
Hard line, slash, 1985
The Blasters Collection, Slash/Warner Bros., 1990.
Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, Rhino, 2002.
Trouble Bound, Hightone, 2002.
Brown, Tony, Jon Kutner, and Neil Warwick, editors, The Complete Book of the British Charts: Singles and Albums, Omnibus Press, 2000.
Crenshaw, Marshall, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies, HarperPerennial, 1993.
DeCurtis, Anthony, and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren, Rolling Stone Album Guide: The Definitive Guide to the Best of Rock, Pop, Rap, Jazz, Blues, Country, Soul, Folk, & Gospel, Random House, 1993.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide & Directory, Dowling Press, 1999.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, second edition, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Guterman, Jimmy, The Best Rock ‘’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love!, Citadel Press, 1992.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Poore, Billy, Rockabilly: A Forty-Year Journey, Hal Leonard, 1998.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Blue Suede News, Spring 2001.
Country Standard Time, October 2002.
Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2002.
No Depression, May-June 2002.
“The Blasters,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 23, 2003).
The Blasters Newsletter, http://www.theblastersnewsletter.com (January 23, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes to the above-listed Blasters retrospectives and the author’s own interviews with Dave Alvin in February of 2001 and August of 2002, which were published in Blue Suede News.
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