The Mr. T Experience
The Mr. T Experience
The unsung heroes of northern California punk music, the Mr. T Experience emerged from the same Berkeley/East Bay Gilman Street punk rock music scene that eventually spawned Operation Ivy and Green Day. However, they are often overlooked, failing to figure prominently into the punk rock genealogy. In truth, the Mr. T Experience—known as MTX to fans—has been playing their brand of pop-punk, inspired largely by the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and the Descendents, since the mid-1980s, nearly a decade before their Gilman Street peers Green Day and Rancid became mega-superstar acts. Although the Mr. T Experience never achieved the commercial success of their contemporaries, their extensive catalog of upbeat punk love songs influenced countless other similar bands nationwide. Not simply purveyors of the same punk style played by multiple bands before them, the Mr. T Experience fueled a new punk-pop sound with goofy pop culture references and catchy melodies.
The origins of the Mr. T Experience date back to the early days of the now-legendary Gilman Street music scene of Berkeley, California. The East Bay was, and still is, a mostly working-class, area located on the “wrong side” of the San Francisco Bay. Often referred to as “East Berlin” by the more upscale residents across the water in San Francisco, the East Bay was nonetheless poised to become the next breeding ground for punk rock. Beginning around 1985 and 1986, a small group of young people started performing in garages, basements, pizza parlors, and anywhere else they could find to play. These shows were an alternative to the violent, testosterone-driven tendencies of traditional punk and hardcore, and emphasized instead a lighter-hearted, upbeat variety of punk rock.
Eventually, such efforts would evolve into the Gilman Street Project, a Berkeley warehouse that would catalyze the careers of bands like Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, Soup, Corrupted Mortals, and Isocracy. But before these acts—their founders barely in their teens—the Mr. T Experience had already recorded the style of classic pop-punk the East Bay is now famous for. After a career that spanned well over a decade of pop-culture jokes, wistful stories about romantic complications, political satire, and grand schemes that fizzle into just stupid ideas, MTX mainstay member singer/songwriter/guitarist Dr. Frank (born Frank Port-man) continued to maintain his uncompromised enthusiasm for punk music, surviving near-breakups in order to record well into the late-1990s and beyond. In fact, Dr. Frank was the only original member of the group left by the time they released Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You in 1997, leading him to jokingly refer to the group as MTX “Starship.”
Dr. Frank, along with guitarist Jon Von, formed the Mr. T Experience in 1985 and self-released their first album in 1986. Recorded and mixed in a single day in July, Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion, went for tunefulness rather than overall quality. After changing drummers and enlisting Kent Steedman of the Celibate Rifles as producer, MTX returned in 1987 with a faster, harder, and more love-minded collection of 17 songs entitled Night Shift at the Thrill Factory. Two years later, in 1989, the Mr. T Experience released the seven-song Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood, which included the ode to “Gilman Street.” All of the band’s early recordings went out of print, but were later reissued by their long-time label, Lookout! Records.
After signing to their new home, the Mr. T Experience rose to national prominence with Making Things with Light, released in 1990. By pushing the vocals to the forefront and placing the rhythm guitars in a more supportive role, Dr. Frank was finally able to fully realize his melodic designs, exemplified in the leading track “What Went Wrong.” In addition to stronger musical design, the songwriter also moved somewhat away from characteristic punk, revealing some of himself in songs such as “I’m Breaking Out” and commenting on relationships in “She’s No Rocket Scientist” and “Parasite.” Another giant step forward in musical complexity, Milk Milk Lemonade, followed in 1992. Departing further from standard pop punk, the album enter-twined vocals and guitars with even greater skill, showing more diversity than MTX had previously displayed. Alongside the rootsy “Two-Minute Itch” and the hard-rocking “Christine Bactine,” Dr. Frank also invested in simple melodies with the catchy “Last Time I Listened to You” and “I Love You But You’re Standing on My Foot.”
Members include Aaron (left band in 1992 to join Samiam), bass guitar; Alex (left band in 1992 to join Samiam), drums; Jym (joined band in 1993), drums; Dr. Frank Portman, vocals, guitar; Joel Reader (joined band in 1994), bass guitar, backing vocals; Jon Von (left band in 1992 to join the Rip Offs).
Dr. Frank and Jon Von formed band in Berkeley, CA, in 1985; self-released debut album Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion, 1986; signed with Lookout! Records, released Making Things with Light, 1990; released Milk Milk Lemonade, 1992; released folk-influenced Our Bodies, Our Selves, 1994; released Love Is Dead, 1996; released Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You, 1997; released Alcatraz, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Lookout! Records, P.O. Box 11374, Berkeley, CA 94712. Website— The Mr. T Experience at Lookout! Records: http://www.lookoutrecords.com.
Despite these accomplishments in intricacy and ambition, the Mr. T Experience failed to beak through into the pop mainstream, due in large part to a series of lineup problems. After the release of Milk Milk Lemonade, the band seemingly broke up; MTX co-founder Jon Von departed in 1992 to join the Rip Offs, and bassist “Aaron” and drummer “Alex” both left soon thereafter for Samiam. However, Dr. Frank, determined to forge ahead, regrouped as a trio to record Our Bodies, Our Selves. Released in 1994, the calmer, more folk-influenced album, compensating for a slimmed-down lineup, focused instead on Dr. Franks’s consistently improving songwriting. Critics noted “The Dustbin of History,” “More Than Toast,” and “Game Over” as evidence of his creative momentum.
Still, the Mr. T Experience remained in danger of disbanding for good after further personnel shifts. At a crucial moment in 1994, a then 17-year-old bassist named Joel Reader ran into Dr. Frank on Gilman Street. When Reader learned that MTX was in danger of breaking up for want of a bassist, he casually mentioned that he had been playing along with Mr. T Experience records since the age of 11, and it seemed as if the young guitarist was perfect for the job. Thus, MTX, in a sense, underwent a rebirth, with Reader playing bass guitar and singing backing vocals and “Jym,” who had replaced the band’s original drummer a year earlier, alongside sole original member Dr. Frank.
The trio, in 1995, released The Mr. T Experience !… And the Women Who Love Them, relaunching themselves as a pure pop-punk outfit. Highlights included “My Stupid Life,” “All My Promises,” and “Tapin’ Up My Heart.” That same year, MTX released a four-song EP entitled Alternative Is Here to Stay, a reaction to the rising mainstream success of East Bay punk rock acts. They then threw themselves into touring—including trips to Europe and Japan—like never before. 1996 saw the release of Love Is Dead, an album filled with loud, catchy singalongs such as “Dumb Little Band” and “I’m Like Yeah, but She’s All No” that won praise from critics. Dr. Frank’s “grimsmirk spirit infects the whole wonderful album,” wrote Ira A. Robbins in the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, “which mates spunk, hooks and insightful intelligence as if inventing a new musical form.”
The Mr. T Experience followed this with Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You, another bubblegum-punk album, in 1997. Alcatraz arrived in 1999 and included bits of roller-rink organ, the sincere yet paradoxical “Two Of Us,” and the ringing “We’re No One,” a song that “cops 1999’s trophy for most arcane songwriting influence,” wrote Jud Cost in Magnet. Also that year, Dr. Frank released a bossa nova-sounding solo album entitled Show Business Is My Life.
The Mr. T Experience
Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion, Disorder, 1986, reissued, Lookout! 1995.
Night Shift at the Thrill Factory,6th Int’l/Rough Trade, 1987, reissued, Lookout! 1996.
Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood, Rough Trade, 1989.
Making Things with Light, Lookout! 1990.
Milk, Milk, Lemonade, Lookout! 1992.
Gun Crazy, (EP7), Lookout! 1993.
Our Bodies, Our Selves, Lookout! 1994.
The Mr. T Experience!… And the Women who Love Them, Lookout! 1995.
Alternative Is Here to Stay, (EP), Lookout !, 1995.
Love is Dead, Lookout! 1996.
(With others) The Duran Duran Tribute Album, (contributed song “Is There Something I Should Know”), Capitol, 1997.
Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You, Lookout! 1997.
Alcatraz, Lookout! 1999.
(With others) Lookout! Freakout!, (contributed song “Tomorrow Is a Harsh Mistress”), Lookout! 2000.
Show Business Is My Life, Lookout! 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 23, 1997.
Audio, July 1996.
Boston Phoenix, September 25-October 2, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1996.
Magnet, October/November 1999, pp. 85-86.
Melody Maker, May 1, 1999.
The Mr. T Experience at Lookout! Records, http://www.lookoutrecords.com (June 9, 2000).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (June 9, 2000).
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