Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
Just Sing the Hits - When Bands (Barely) Reunite
Plus local Buffy screening earns an axe, more Beatles In San Diego!
JUST SING THE HITS, AND THE CROWD IS HAPPY – When Bands (Barely)Reunite
Nostalgia is a bread and butter business. San Diegans are regularly afforded the chance to see bands whose last chart hit was in the Stone’s age, whose heydays may date back further than the first moon landing.
The Grass Roots, the Turtles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Guess Who, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Shirelles, and dozens more “revival” acts seem to be perpetually on the road, like contemporary Flying Dutchmen, often performing together on oldies package tours. In some instances, there are several versions of a single group touring at the same time, each with few if any original members.
This controversial practice has resulted in lawsuits initiated by controlling trademark holders, disappointed patrons, and by hoodwinked promoters who’ve been forced to issue refunds. Bogus tours have been launched by groups calling themselves Badfinger, the Byrds, Spirit, the Grass Roots, the Supremes, and others, with lineups completely unrelated to the best known and most legitimate versions of those bands.
Locally, several groups with few original members have aroused audience ire. One band billing itself as the Alarm hit the stage at 4th & B without key singer and guitarist Mike Peters, causing customers to demand their money back. The Catamaran issued dozens of refunds to angry patrons when Ambrosia, advertised with a photo of founding duo Joe Puerta and David Pack, came to town without Pack, the band's chief composer, guitarist and lead singer. Last week’s Blurt column covered the debate over the Dead Kennedys continuing to tour without former frontman Jello Biafra.
And take a look at the recent Blurt about dueling Sugarhill Gang tours, one of them ineptly promoted (and then canceled) by local village fool Willie Psycho, a man in dire need of spellcheck software. Psycho's epically failed attempts to play promoter proved to all that just slapping the word “Original” in front of a bandname is no guarantee of getting anything akin to the real thing, even/especially when you spell it "Orginnal."
In summer 2004, Tobey Tenuda spent several few weeks planning a multi-band showcase called “Bands Reunite: Rockin’ All Night,” a traveling revue of 70s and 80s bands with their original (or most pivotal) members reuniting to perform for the first time in upwards of 20 years. Tenuda freely admits the idea came from watching VH1. “They had a series a few months [Bands Reunited] back where they gathered up guys that used to be in Flock Of Seagulls, Dramarama, all these 80s hair bands, and they put them together to rehearse and do a one-night performance. I thought ‘brilliant,’ I have a lot of contacts, I could do this myself, but make it an actual tour!”
Tenuda, who has promoted shows for Orange County and L.A. venues like Fat Freddy’s, the Palomino Club and Sunset Strip mainstays like the Viper Room, says his lawyer instructed that he could legally use the words “Bands Reunited,” so long as they’re “slightly changed or interspersed with other words, so it’s not an exact copy. So all our press releases and contracts, we called the show ‘Bands Reunite: Rockin’ All Night.’”
He signed up several classic hard-rockers including Mountain, UFO, Nazareth, Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash and says he was already booking into venues across America, including a few prospects in San Diego (he declines to say where – “this may still happen and I don’t wanna f-ck it up”) when he got a tersely worded notice from VH1.
He read me the VH1 warning, and it’s clear from the threatening language (“immediate injunction,” “seize all profits,” “confiscate your firm’s financial records and any mailing lists”) that VH1’s lawyers disagree with Tenuda’s. “But I’m doing a tour, they do a TV show, it’s two completely different things, there should be no ‘market confusion’ and there’s certainly no appropriation of their trademark. Besides, ours is 'Reunite,' present tense, theirs is ‘Reunited,’ past [tense]. I should be Teflon [from lawsuits].”
He says VH1 considered acceptable alternatives. “I’m willing to take a major financial hit and change everything to ‘Rockers Reunited’ if they’ll sign something basically giving me their blessing and agreeing not to sue me.” UFO is already off the tour, not due to VH1 but to immigration problems.
“Their lead singer couldn’t get a work visa permit to come to the U.S.,” informs Tenuda. “After 9-11, it’s really hard to get visas. It turns out he was once fingerprinted in the U.S, twenty years ago….he wasn’t even arrested and he’s been here [in the U.S.] a dozen times since then but, nowadays, if you’ve ever been fingerprinted, they don’t let you in.”
He also tried to talk the members of San Diego’s own Iron Butterfly to take UFO’s place on the bill, even though one original member is dead. However, his plans for "Bands Reunite" were ultimately scuttled entirely, once VH1 went balls-to-the-courtroom-wall with their opposition.
One act which does turn up from time to time, in alternating versions, is the Box Tops, a white soul group originally formed in Memphis in the mid sixties around vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton. “The Letter” topped the U.S. chart in 1968 (“Gimme a ticket for an airplane, ain’t got time to take a fast train...”), and they hit number two the following year with a sitar-soaked piece of psychedelia called “Cry Like A Baby.”
By 1969, the band was down to only two original members; Chilton and bass/piano player Bill Cunningham. Their last top twenty hit was the now-forgotten “Soul Deep.” They disbanded in 1971, with Chilton going on to form the cult pop group Big Star.
An alternate Box Tops was put together 1974 by one of their producers, Tommy Cogbill, to record “Willobee And Dale,” however the LP was a commercial flop.
In the late seventies, groups from the Woodstock era became dependable draws on the nostalgia circuit. Jason Mershon, former owner of the Harbor Nights nightclub and restaurant in Point Loma, was a show promoter in Colorado at the time.
“I was in the entertainment promotion business,” he told me in a lengthy interview, “and they [The Box Tops] were one of the bands I promoted. Alex Chilton wasn’t with them anymore, and they were going through different singers. I was booking a lot of similar acts. Cory Wells from Three Dog Night, I was booking him. We didn’t call it One Dog Night or anything, but we promoted him as their original singer.”
“There was a version of Steppenwolf going around without John Kay, just with Nick St. Nicholas [bassist on one Steppenwolf LP] and Goldy McJohn [keyboardist on the first five albums]. People would complain about Steppenwolf. They were upset that John Kay wasn’t in the band. And I’d say ‘John Kay isn’t with the band. This is Steppenwolf now and he isn’t with them anymore.’ ”
At that time, 1977, the only member of the Box Tops who’d recorded with Chilton’s original group was Tom Boggs. Boggs had replaced original Tops drummer Danny Smythe in 1968, playing on “Cry Like A Baby.”
“They asked me to join them as their singer,” says Mershon, acknowledging that his experience as a promoter was a factor in his assignment. “I hadn’t really been in any bands before, but I could sing in that gravely voice like Chilton had used. I was also able to promote them, so I sort of did double duty that way, getting them gigs at the same time.”
Mershon claims there was never any resentment, from audience members or club owners, over Chilton’s absence from the lineup. Unlike with the Steppenwolf tour he’d promoted. “He [Chilton] was never a well-known lead singer. It wasn’t like Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, or Steve Tyler. When I did the tour in ‘77 and ‘78, it wasn’t like people knew who Alex Chilton was. He wasn’t a household name, so there was no problem carrying it off. It’s funny; after the shows, people would come up and say ‘Wow, you sound just like you do on the record.’ They didn’t care, they didn’t know, like I say.”
I ask if there had ever been a single complaint relayed to him. “No.”
“You can rationalize it in some way,” he continues. “They want to hear the music of the groups. People want to hear the Temptations, they want to hear the Coasters and the Drifters. I mean, how many of those members do you think are originals? None. Zero. But the thing is, they still have the licensing. I don’t know how many Drifters or Coasters or Shirelles are floating around the country, but they’re all doing the same thing. People are happy. As long as you put on the show, just sing the hits in the same style, the crowds are always happy.”
What about obtaining licensed permission to sing the songs of the Box Tops? “That was no problem,” says Mershon, “because that falls under ASCAP and BMI. Any band can perform those songs if the venue you’re playing at is licensed by ASCAP and BMI, so those are all covered under that.”
Still, not all concert goers are happy when they find out that they’ve paid to see what is essentially a cover band, with few if any founding members.
“I know this one agent who promoted a lot of bogus bands,” says Mershon. “He had a group on the road called Bread, without David Gates, which I thought was completely ridiculous. He had all these names like Steppenwolf. There’s a million Temptations. Even the ones out there now, there are no originals. They’re all dead. I mean, the Guess Who are making a lot of money right now without Burton Cummings, their lead singer. It’s mainly a nostalgia thing. Look, Rob Grill of the Grass Roots [bassist and vocalist] owned that name, and he rented it out to different groups. There were a lot of Grass Roots going around.”
Would Mershon would be willing to seek out, say, Pete Best, early sixties drummer with the Beatles, and book him on a tour with a group they'd call the Beatles?
"No,” says Mershon, “because the Beatles were four well-known individuals. That's not the case with all bands."
So were there ever any legal threats over the use of The Box Tops name?
“Oh no,” Mershon insists. “What happened with a lot of bands that were big in the sixties, even with Steppenwolf, the copyright of the names became, uh, not defunct but it wasn’t copyrighted anymore. So a lot of agents bought up the names. They owned them and they put all these different groups on the road. The Box Tops thing, the name was floating around. They stopped having hits in 1971, so actually there’s very few people who remember them. Joe Cocker’s version of ‘The Letter’ is probably played on the radio more than the Box Tops’ version.”
Chilton’s alleged obscurity is open to debate. He still sometimes tours with Big Star and as a solo act, and he’s released several critically acclaimed (if commercially unsuccessful) albums such as 1979’s “Like Flies On Sherbert.” In 1987, the Replacements included a song called “Alex Chilton” on their record Pleased To Meet Me. He’s fronted a reconstituted Box Tops for the past several years, and new generations know his Big Star song "In the Street" (1972) as the theme song to That '70s Show!
Certainly many rock aficionados, myself included, consider Chilton the definitive - and only - voice of the Box Tops. I mention this to Mershon, which – unsurprisingly – results in a distinctly more defensive tone and posture.
“We had every right to use the Box Tops name legally,” he insists, “because Alex Chilton didn't own sole rights to it. And ethically, because I WAS a former Box Top. Maybe I wasn't the ORIGINAL singer, but Phil Collins wasn't Genesis' original singer, and his version [of the band] is considered legitimate."
I mention that Collins was a member of Genesis before founding vocalist Peter Gabriel departed for a solo career. "Okay then, Van Halen was still Van Halen with Sammy Hagar, even though he came from outside the band. I'm not Alex Chilton but, in the late seventies, I was the lead singer of the Box Tops. And that legacy has currency value.”
When Mershon was again asked to join the Box Tops for a five month tour in 1991 and 1992, no members remained who’d ever been in Chilton’s Box Tops.
Inevitably, such a “revival” would be characterized by many as plundering the bottom of a nearly dry well, an attempt to squeeze a few last drops (and pennies) from the name recognition. Mershon opted this time for a more subject-specific and safeguarded approach, especially since Alex Chilton was touring around the same time with a unit called Alex Chilton’s Box Tops.
“I called myself J.J. Breeze then,” says Mershon, “and we called the group J.J. Breeze and the Box Tops. We had that name so there wouldn’t be any confusion. I copyrighted the new name to make sure that everything was legal, and so that nobody would think we were misleading them.”
Mershon - aka Breeze - also wrote several new songs for the group, including a humorous ditty about condoms called “Protection,” which was released as a single under the name “J.J. Breeze.” The song became a staple on Dr. Demento’s Funny Five for several weeks.
So was the inclusion of new original songs an attempt to further distance this new Box Tops from other versions of the band? “Absolutely,” says Mershon.
When not with the Box Tops, Mershon was throwing beauty contests like Miss Legs America, in bars and clubs across the country. “I called myself Jason Legs Hunter and spent about ten months a year on the road doing that, from 1980 to 1985.”
By 1994, he’d written a musical play called Heaven Rocks. “It’s about what Heaven is like now, with all the different rock stars. Elvis, Morrison and Hendrix are taking over everything, things have changed a lot, and Moses doesn’t like it. Everybody you can think of that’s dead is in the play.”
The production premiered in Palm Springs in 1994, moving on to Boston, L.A., and elsewhere. The show even utilized some of the songs he’d written for the early ‘90s Box Tops tour, along with other tunes co-written with Jerry Corbetta, former lead singer of one-hit wonders Sugarloaf (“Green Eyed Lady.”). “We had a lot of the top [rock star] impersonators in the country,” says Mershon. “It was quite a production.”
One thing the show did NOT have was any songs by those original artists.
“We did all original music, but in the style of the stars. We couldn’t get permission to use the hits. The lawyers said we’d be infringing on the copyrights. In fact, one of the subplots of the play was about copyright laws, and how the estates won’t let you have the rights to the music. In the play, the Devil is disguised as a lawyer and he goes up to Heaven to tell the stars that they can’t play their own songs anymore because they’re now owned by the estates.” For several runs of Heaven Rocks, local crooner Jose Sinatra played John Lennon.
(Mershon & friends brandishing awards, as seen at rnrheavenrocks.com)
While the show was between productions in the mid-to-late ‘90s, Mershon reflected on the Legs contests he’d thrown in San Diego, at venues in places like Escondido and Pacific Beach. “I always liked it here, and knew my way around. When I came down in 1997, I was looking for a business venture to invest in.”
Point Loma’s Quality Inn had a restaurant and nightclub built onto it that was closed at the time. Mershon purchased the business and fixtures outright, also agreeing to pay lease fees to the hotel for use of the club venue; he called it Harbor Nights, and then Jason’s. “For the first seven months, we had live bands six nights a week. We probably had a hundred different local bands come through.”
The club went on to host various late night raves and events, such as Vortex, which Mershon describes as “a really outrageous fetish ball.” The club also regularly booked “tribute bands,” groups which specialize in recreating sound-a-like sets of music by performers who are either defunct, dead, or far too famous to play an obscure Point Loma hotel bar.
Mershon acknowledges that this sort of endeavor has been a recurring motif in his entertainment career. “It’s a nostalgia thing,” he repeats. “The music is timeless, and people want to hear it, even if the original bands aren’t out there any more.”
(Art: Bob Camp)
He’s optimistic about the local scene, at least the bands themselves, even if the audience for live music in San Diego is as fickle and mercurial as any he’s come across in his travels. “In L.A., people will drive for a half hour to see a good band, and they’ll go see that group everywhere they play. Here, it’s hard to get them to walk across the street to see a top act. I could offer free limo rides, and the club would still be half empty, no matter how much promotion I do. That’s why the all-age raves seem to do so much better sometimes.”
Would Mershon be interested if a group with the Box Tops moniker asked him to hit the revival highway with them one more time? “I don’t know,” he says. “The last time I did the tour with them, I had spent so many years on the road. I think I finally burned out on it. I realized I wasn’t missing anything. It just wasn’t as fun as it was when I was 25 years old.”
Note: In 2002, when the original Box Tops reunited with Alex Chilton at a German recording studio to cut several new tracks and re-record a few others for a planned box set compilation, Mershon was not invited.
The current version of the Box Tops, which toured in 2003 and 2005, includes Chilton, Gary Talley, Bill Cunningham, and Danny Smythe.
BUFFY STAKED AFTER KEN CINEMA EVENT
I confess ---- I once broke up with a girl over Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the few months we dated, we watched episodes of the series together, and she seemed to enjoy the show as much as I did (and still do).
Then, I put on a video of the musical “Once More With Feeling” episode, which I consider one of the all-time coolest hours of television – just brilliant stuff. My girl didn’t even get through the second song before she stood up and announced, with disdain on her face and poison in her tone, “This is stupid. I hate this,” and she left the room.
I knew at that precise moment that this was not a girl I could ever respect, let alone love…
That was a couple of years ago. Last month, I heard that the Buffy Musical episode would be screened in my favorite surviving single-screen theater, the Ken in Kensington, in an October 5th audience-participation blowout.
Though attending fans didn’t know at the time, that Ken event was the final curtain call for the traveling show based around “Once More With Feeling.” 20th Century Fox, which owns the program, has demanded all future audience-participation screenings be shut down.
"Notice for this was very sudden and unexpected," says event founder Clinton McClung on the Buffy Musical website. "Basically, the idea of presenting television shows in a theatre is so new that there are a lot of details that still need to be resolved around payments of residuals, deals with the guilds and unions, etc.”
McClung says he did arrange licensing authorization through Criterion Pictures, the theatrical distributor for Fox's television shows. However, Fox says Criterion had no authority to license the sing-a-long screenings, which have also taken place in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Michigan, Maine, and Hawaii.
Chris Alexander at Fox says in a press release that "significant payments" should have been tendered before the musical Buffy episode got its Rocky Horror-style theatrical makeover. "We have to protect our interests, and that's what we're doing…There are plenty of legal ways for fans to enjoy Buffy, but this particular event is not going to be possible at this time."
Event organizer McClung says “Both Fox and Criterion need to fix some of these issues before [we] can continue to do any theatrical screenings." A three-night St. Louis screening has been cancelled, as was a proposed NYC event. “For now, it looks like San Diego was our swan song.”
I wonder if my ex is now working for Fox Television?
Locally-based comic book publisher IDW holds the license to publish comic books based on the Buffy TV show, and on its companion series Angel. They’ve released several titles based on characters from both series, as well as official canonical sequels, in editions fully authorized by series creator Joss Whedon.
YOUTUBE GEMS OF THE DAY: THE BEATLES IN SAN DIEGO!
The Beatles: 8-28-65, Balboa Stadium For the Beatles’ one and only local appearance, the band played around forty minutes, with some of the show surreptitiously recorded by KGTV chief photographer Lee Louis, who smuggled in a 16mm film camera.
Local guitarist Fred Benedetti performing "Eleanor Rigby" at Dizzy's 10-8-06:
UCSD student filmmakers with their Poloroid/video for "Norwegian Wood," performed and produced by Trevor Muzzy, with visuals (including Polaroids) and editing by Hillary Elder (2007):
The Fab Four tribute group performs "Here Comes The Sun" a few weeks ago at the annual San Diego BeatleFair, 6-13-07:
Another local cover band, 921, performing "Day Tripper" 7-28-07:
And a snippet of a member of the all-Marine band American Hitmen performing "Golden Slumbers" at the Del Mar Fair:
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford