Considered one of America’s first Synthesizer bands, Units were a unique force in the late 70s/early 80s San Francisco punk scene. They released one album (Digital Stimulation), had two shelved thanks to record label politics, had a hit on the disco charts (The Right Man) and are now about to release a retrospective record/book set. After some searching Rory managed to get hold of founder member Scott Ryser for a interview.
Can you tell us how Units started life?
The Units really started life in San Francisco in 1977 as a performance art group that my highschool pal Tim Ennis had somehow pulled together. We incorporated dance, music, sound effects, poetry, and signs with slogans on them that moved across the room on motorized wires. One of our pieces included props like garbage-bag hot-air-balloons kept aloft by hair dryers. At that time we called ourselves the Normalcy Roulette School of Performance.
There were a bunch of people in the group, including Randy Dunagan, Lori Lorenzo, Amy Weiss, Ron Lance, Jay Derrah, Tim Ennis and myself. We were working on some great projects but having a hell of a time finding places to perform them. One of the members of our group, Ron Lance, just happened to be the stage manager at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Philipino bar and restaurant on Broadway that had started putting on punk rock shows. It was the west coast equivalent of CBGB’s.
The club had become a huge success, and Ron was there every night. He’s a musician, sound engineer, and hard-core music fan with a great record collection. He does audio for network TV in New York City now. He kept telling us to come down to hear all these great new groups like Devo, The Screamers, Dils, and everyone. Ennis and I hadn’t been that interested in the British punk movement, but I have to admit that our minds were blown away by the early punk bands we saw at the Mabuhay.
Some of these “bands” were doing performances that were similar to what our “performance group” was doing. Only, they were calling themselves bands, and THEY HAD A PLACE TO PERFORM! It was really a no-brainer after that. The fucking stage manager of Mabuhay Gardens was in our performance group! We changed our name to The Units and started calling ourselves a band instead of a performance group and all of a sudden we had shows up the ass.
Somehow, by the end of ‘78 the Units had condensed down to the killer core of Ennis and I on synths, Richard Driscoll on Drums, Rachel Webber (who I’d met through TuxedoMoon) doing multimedia and Ron Lance doing sound for us.
In January of ‘79 Rachel somehow got us a 2 or 3 day show in the display windows of the JC Pennys store in downtown San Francisco. How in the world she pulled this off I have no idea.
But because of all the television, radio and newspaper attention it generated, I consider that event to the beginning of the relative success that followed.
Units seem like they were formed as an alternative to the boys-with-
guitars bands of the time. Did you have any musical background before
picking up a synthesizer? Had you been in any guitar bands?
Yes. Fuck the guitars. That’s what we were thinking. We were sick of the guitar formula. Guitar boy bands had been the norm for over 25 years when we started the Units. And that was in 1978! And even now, in 2008, 30 years later, we’re STILL having the fucking Rolling Stones jammed down our throats. Sure, I like the Stones, who doesn’t, but fuck, what the hell is this life? Groundhog day? Can’t we EVER have something new? Guitars had become a negative symbol to me. They represented “socially acceptable” dissent for young people with a great marketing track record. As long as you held a guitar and jumped around like an ape you could spout antiestablishment poems while selling tons of hamburgers, beer and T-shirts.
Back then I felt like I was a product on an assembly line, everything planned out and predetermined. You’re born, go to school, get in a guitar boy band, get a real job, get married, have kids, get a house in the suburbs, die.
I’m not all that smart. I’m the first to admit it. I know we all have to live, die and pay taxes. But do we all really have to live, die, pay taxes and be in a fucking guitar boy band. I was fucking sick of it. Don’t even get me started. Fuck guitars.
As far as musical background, yes, I’m guilty. I played the damn guitar when I was a kid. Piano too. All self taught. I started a band with my two younger brothers and some neighborhood kids when I was about 14. Bullied them into it. Called it “The Brothers and The Others”. We actually played a couple shows for a middle school. It was pretty funny because I remember we were like 2 feet taller than all the kids in the audience so it was easy to see the other band members walking around during breaks. We sounded pretty shitty but we looked good, all of us had matching blue mohair socks, pointy black shoes, striped blue button-down shirts and pegged white pants. Couldn’t decide if we wanted to be the Beach Boys or Herman’s Hermits, so we kind of mashed up both of them.
Then in highschool I lucked out and got into this sexually confused glam rock cover band called “Ace Jet”. Shag haircuts, high heel shoes, shiny tight pants w/cod pieces, sex and drugs and rock&roll, you get the idea. I played keys and synth. I think the movie Spinal Tap was based on us. We played the hell out of the US west coast high school prom scene. During the shows grand finale of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, I would set off home made smoke bombs and explosions I’d rigged up with some gunpowder and fuses made from shotgun shells and home electrical fuses. I remember this one daytime show we did at a big festival in the boondocks of Bend, Oregon. Following the usual routine, I set off the explosions as the bass player ran to the edge of the stage and threw handfuls of glitter (seriously). Only on this day, my electrical fuses bomb blew out the entire electrical system of the festival as the glitter flinging bass player slipped and flew off the stage. I clearly remember the silence that followed, the sunburn on my face, and looking down at the smoke bomb embers melting into the plastic keys of my minimoog. To this day, I can’t play my damn minimoog without thinking about it.
But don’t get the funny right-of-passage I went through in those bands confused with why I started the Units. Despite the humor, The Units band was, and remains, very serious to me. This will probably be hard to understand to all those well adjusted, self-satisfied consumers out there. But The Units, like many bands in our scene, came about as a last gasp effort of desperation. As kind of an alternative to suicide. I’m laughing as I say this, but it’s really not all that far off the mark. Up to that point in our lives, we pretty much felt like we had failed as fitting in as humans, like maybe we would have been better off if we had been born birds or something. And we wanted to sing a few of our alien bird songs and have some fun before flying off the Golden Gate. When Tim and I were living in that underground parking garage in SF when we started the Units, we were sincerely, mentally, in an underground state of mind.
I just wanted to point that out, because I see a lot of “electro” bands out there today that I love the sound of, but I really don’t think that they’re coming from the same hopeless mental state that we came from.
It was never our intention to make a lot of money off shows or records.
All we were hoping for was that some people would appreciate the creative and artistic way in which we said “fuck you” to the status quo.
What bands of the time did you rate?
It always annoys me that history is written and defined by the winning tribe, to the exclusion of the loser tribes. In this case, the winning tribe of “punk” turned out to be the tight black pants and leather jacket uniform guitar boys. The guitar team, you know, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash. Bands like that.
It’s the same old predetermined story that the tall, handsome, outgoing “cool kids” are the most popular, the one’s that look like they’re on a basketball team, and the 4 eyed, short, shy, artsy, weird ones are given wedgies and shoved into lockers to be forgotten.
Just like in High School, mob fashion and fun seem to triumph over creativity and brains, Why is that?
Even in my own flamboyantly gay and crazy San Francisco scene it turned out to be Jello from the Dead Kennedys “Guitar boyband” that turned out to be the equivalent of the Homecoming King of Punk High School. Sure I voted for him, who didn’t? But why is it that this running herd of lemmings that we call “humans” are so fucking predictable?
And now punk has been absorbed into our culture as if it were just some fashion statement that the clothing designer Malcolm McLaren had cooked up and punk music and the punk culture is interchangeable with pop music and pop culture. I don’t think kids today have any idea of how anti-conformity, individualistic and creative the scene was back then.
Back in the day, the wonderful beauty of the scene, was it’s antiestablishment ethos and it’s creative DIY approach to appearance, politics, advertising, art and performance. The breaking down of boundaries and the humorous pranks incorporated into protesting authority.
In our case, we wanted to de-emphasize the “front man formula” that most bands have. Where the artist is more important than the art. That’s half the problem in life. People idolizing some guy’s image. Putting all their faith into some front man’s glowing surface image instead of looking behind the wizard’s curtain and taking care of business themselves. That’s why we had funny fake names, projected the films and didn’t spotlight ourselves in the beginning. We were trying to break down the invisible barrier between the audience and the performers.
Because of all these things, you can understand why for me, the bands that rated at that time are the bands that were the most unique conceptually. Bands that not only played interesting music, but also had a good visual element AND in some way made it obvious that they were challenging preconceived ideas of acceptable dress, politics, gender, education, things like that. I know it’s a tall order. But you would be surprised how many bands in the scene were pulling it off.
There were so many good bands that rate, but for now, I’m going to limit it to 10 west coast bands that we actually played with, ones I consider to be part of the cultural revolution of punk, and not just in it for the drugs and sex.
(Not in order of preference)
1. The Dead Kennedys. I know Jello was the King of the Punk Highschool Prom and all, BUT, that band encapsulated everything good about creative, diy, political, prank driven cultural revolution. They would wear suits and ties on stage at a motorcycle jacket punk show, only they would spraypaint dollar signs over their ties. I’ve seen Jello being spit on and stripped naked and just keep coming back for more. Talk about breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, half the time you couldn’t tell who was who and which was where. Political as hell, Jello ran for Mayor of SF. Started their own label. The DKs would, and did, even play shows with synthesizer bands, like us. And back then, the audience didn’t seem to notice anything peculiar.
2. The Screamers. A lot of people compare us to the Screamers.
Because we both started out as all keyboard/synthesizer punk bands and played the same venues during the same period of time.
But although we had the obvious synth connection, we were actually very different. People, remember, this is not a competition! I’d like to think we were both good bands, just different. The Units played gigs with Soft Cell, Ultravox, Gary Numan, Sparks, OMD and other synth bands,
and I never hear anyone getting all worked up and going out of their way to compare us to them. We were different.
Now here’s a compliment for the Screamers, I think they were the best “live” punk band, period. Not just the best live “synthpunk” band.
They were the best live punk band I’ve seen. It’s hard to convey the exotic aura of excitement and enthusiasm their shows generated.
And while the Units tried to de-emphasize the “front man formula”, the Screamers had, bar none, the best front man ever. Tomata du Plenty, was amazing to behold. This wasn’t a follow the formula, off the rack, cute guitarboy assembly line punk band.
The Screamers were fuck-u-&-ur-mother real.
At least two members of the Units played for TuxedoMoon at one time.
And the members of the Units, that I know of, that met their future spouses through TuxedoMoon include Tim, Rachel and Scott. But that was not the only thing they were good for.
TuxedoMoon embodied everything great I was saying about punk. They expanded the definition and the artform of punk. They seemed to play every damn instrument you could imagine, and they had the balls to sometimes play music, in punk venues, that was impossible to dance to. One look at them and the word “counterculture” came to your lips. I liked them best when Winston Tong played with them. Patric Miller, the leader of Minimal Man, another great band of the time, had done an Obie Award winning film of Winston Tong’s “Bound Feet” puppet performance. Winston would occasionally do the amazing puppet shows during TuxedoMoon gigs that would blow your mind. A puppet show that would bring you to tears with its beauty (I’m serious!), accompanied by a “punk band” at a “punk venue”. You see what I’m getting at here, what I loved about the early punk scene, was that not only did we challenge preconceived notions of popular music and culture , a really good punk band like TuxedoMoon would challenge preconceived notions of what “punk” should sound and look like.
4. Noh Mercy
Two women with huge brass balls. I’m talking about the kind between the legs. Imagine you’re at a punk show with the usual cute-guitarboy-off-the-rack punk bands playing. Then these two women come out on stage in full evening dresses made of satin. One of them, Toni, I think it was, on drums, and Esmerelda on vocals. That’s all. A singer and a drummer. And they are so GREAT they just blow everybody’s minds.!
A whole club full of moshpitting ripped clothes spiky haired punks with their jaws dropped open.
I’m telling you, these two women had more balls and more talent than the Ramones, Clash and Pistols COMBINED! I’m telling you, that Noh Mercy could out-punk any of you motherfucking punks!
5. Voice Farm
You’re at a punk show full of punks. You know the drill, a couple bands with boys and guitars and leather jackets and spiky hair. Then this band comes out in their underpants, with haircuts out of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and plays kind of a weird gay club dance beat on synthesizers with all kinds of props that look like they came out of your mom’s kitchen. Nice harmonies too. One of my all time favorite live bands.
6. The Offs
Loved this band. Yes, it’s true, they played the generic punk guitars, but they added a kind of ska element to the punk music. The actor (now) Richard Edson played trumpet for them. The down to earth lead singer, Don Vinil had a heart of gold and got us some great shows opening for them. Deep into the NY art scene, Don’s friends included Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat who created the artwork for “The Offs” First Record.
7. Pink Section (later turned into “the Inflatable Boy Clams”
Extremely colorful, wacky, girls and guys with synths, strings, accordions, pots and pans. Judy also wrote a fanzine. They came up with great flyers. They were all over the scene. Check out the Inflatable Boy Clams mySpace page to see what I’m talking about.
Creative and artsy as hell. One of the best.
Not from the west coast, but not from the east coast or Europe either.
Never played with them, but we played some of the same venues.
It would be hard to beat Devo live .
Try this, take any generic punk picture off Google “images”.
Now compare that picture to a picture of Devo. A little different, eh? But let me tell you something, back in 1978 at the Mabuhay Gardens punk palace, we ALL considered Devo to be a “stick it to the man – PUNK BAND”!
9. The Mutants
I see now that Wikipedia uses the term “Art-punk” in describing The Mutants. And that’s not a bad description. They were arty indeed, which I consider to be a very good thing. Not institutional ivory tower art though, The Mutants were falling on the beer soaked floor tangled in microphone lines arty. What I loved about them was that they broke the sacred rules of age and appearance when it comes to how a rock star should look. One of the 3 or 4 simultaneous lead singers was Freddy, who seemed to be about 50 years old at the time. It was seriously like watching your grandfather sing in a punk band, only imagine your granddad really getting down and dirty into it, Freddy’s singing style was similar to that of a drunken cowboy in one of those cowboy movie bar room fights where he’s throwing chairs and being tossed over the bar or out the window and always coming back for more. The other old grammpa guy that was always cruising the scene was the incredible filmmaker Bruce Conners. I bring it up because Bruce took some fantastic photos of the Mutants in action. Then, on top of Freddy, add in the other singers Sue and Sally. Sue was about 7 feet tall and Sally about 3 feet tall.
I swear to you that they both came right out of Lewis Carrolls “Alice in Wonderland”. Dressed in all manner of petticoats and such. You had to take a handful of dramamine in order to watch the Mutants play if you didn’t want to get seasick. The whole damn bunch of them, singers, guitar players, bass players, drummers, running around bumping into each other like they were playing on the stage of a ship in heavy seas.
10. Nervous Gender
NG gets lumped into the “synthpunk” thing with the Units and Screamers a lot too. Once again folks, this is not a competition. We’re allowed to be different and stll good in our own ways. I fell in love with Nervous Gender when I saw them play somewhere and whatever it was they were doing drove the entire audience out of the club. Can’t accuse NG of selling out. That’s for sure. Gay in your face. No American Idol voices here. This is the real deal, fuck you, fuck your guitars, fuck your gender, fuck your religion, music, that is the essence of the whole idea that started the punk movement in the first place. I think the singer Edward deserves the Punk Medal Of Honor for bravery in combat.
Minimoog, Moog Source, Moog Prodigy, Arp Axe, Arp 2600, Sequential Circuits Model 800 Sequencer, Optigan, Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno-106, Fender Rhodes, various Korgs and Casios that I forget the models of, Outboard gear included an Eventide Harmonizer, Echoplex, Space Echo, various Electro Harmonix and MXR effects and noise gates.
Having toured with analogue synths i know that they are temperamental, different from one night to the next, how did you find it?
Analogue synths are an incredible and never ending pain in the ass. The Sequential Circuits 800 Sequencer led the pack of my unruly kids. It was without question the most promising and at the same time most belligerent of the troublemakers. It had no battery backup and you could only program one song at a time. So I had to program songs like High Pressure Days and Warm Moving Bodies right before we played them. God forbid I was a little drunk. Or that my rhythm was off. Or that the crowd was so fucking noisy that I couldn’t hear myself think. If it got unplugged or if a fuse blew, ZAP! Everything disappeared. And then, even if I got it right, it was always a crap shoot that the rest of the band could play to it like clockwork. Sequencers are unforgiving sonsofabitches live. They can’t improvise like some top notch jazz musician. If the drummer speeds up the sequencer will not accommodate, it’ll just say “fuck you asshole, I’m the one in charge here, you gotta stay in time with me or I’ll fire your ass in a Spinaltap second!”.
When it was plugged in and programmed correctly, it was perfect, the problem was that nobody else in the band was perfect, even on a good night, the rest of us were a bunch of damn musical amateurs with a lot of distracting shit on our minds.
It’s not all that easy for a DIY-er, to Do It To The Sequencer.
We all felt like a bunch of damn retards when we played with it.
Part of the reason the Units sounded “experimental” when we played live, was that we were all desperately searching through the air with our ears, trying to hunt down the beat and then figure out what the hell part of the song we were playing. If they made sound searchlights, ear binoculars and beat-hunting dogs, we would have incorporated them all and used them in a second.
Next down on the list of trouble makers was my favorite instrument, the Minimoog synthesizer. This thing is the best invention ever. Better than the automobile and the electric dildo combined. Fuck Jesus, If I ever pray to a supernatural being, it will be to Robert Moog, for creating the Minimoog. For me, the Minimoog sounds like god and the devil singing in harmony. It’s that good. The only problem is that there is a sonofabitch of a ghost in the machine. Every now and then, usually when you’re in the midst of an opening set for someone famous like Gary Numan, in front of a big crowd full of people that you want to impress, the Mini will just start making howling sounds of protest, all by itself, that you have nothing to do with. I’ve tried everything to fix it, all to no avail, including sweet talking to it. I’ll say things like, “Mini dear, I know that Gary is a pretentious asshole, but we still have to get through this gig so we can go back to our broken down van full of exhaust fumes and drive all night to that godawful show in Boise, Idaho.”
On second thought, now that I’m thinking about it, maybe it was ME she was protesting against, and GARY that she WANTED!
You see, I just couldn’t figure it out, no amount of sweet talk, tech help or anything else ever solved the problem. Sometimes my Mini would sound incredible and sometimes she would drift in and out of tune like a drunken sailor, pulling me down into the gutter with her.
What kind of reactions did you get as a live synthesizer band?
Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Because so much of the reaction we got when we started performing live probably had more to do with the openness and enthusiasm of the new punk scene in SF rather than the fact that we were a live synthesizer band. It was a scene that seemed to embrace innovation and originality on all levels.
While it’s true that we were the first punk band to perform in S.F. using just synths, and we were in fact anti-guitar, and you would think that might be controversial, nobody in the scene at that time seemed to raise an eyebrow over it. Had we started playing shows anywhere else, I mean, any other city, people probably would have been pissed and thrown bottles at us.
But I think because it was pre-aids, gender confused, sex & drugs San Francisco, where there were lots of people doing much weirder things than we were, that people didn’t seem to react any different to us than anyone else.
Here’s an example. In San Francisco, in 1978, when Ennis and I were looking for a new drummer, we went to check out this great drummer, Richard Driscoll, that eventually joined our band. Richard was playing in a gay cowboy club in some seedy district of SF.
This club looked exactly like something off the movie barroom set of Blazing Saddles, only with a transvestite playing the Madeline Kahn role. The club was packed full of super buff men wearing butt-less chaps, cowboy boots with spurs, big cowboy hats, handlebar mustaches, and, well, nothing else. They were all topless cowboys. And I can imagine that these cowboys were riding more than horses that night. It was as if the photographer Bruce Weber’s best ever homoerotic cowboy dream had come to life in downtown SF.
This wasn’t some one time Halloween Ball kind of event. This club had been open every single night of the year for years! Just imagine, at that time I was in my prime, I was tall, and buff from mixing and carrying buckets of cement all day as a tile setter, so if this tall, blonde, buff guy is up on the gay cowboy stage playing a synthesizer. What do you think all those tall gay buff cowboys are going to be thinking about, the synthesizer? or ME?
Now I think if we played at a real cowboy bar in Wyoming at that time, I might still be trying to put my Minimoog back together. But at this exposed buttock cowboy bar it was a different story.
I’m telling you, at that time, there was this kind of shit, and even BETTER shit, going on all over the city! People had way too many lusty and evil things on their minds to bother thinking about synth vs. guitar.
On top of that, when we performed we often had other things happening on stage, things that probably distracted the audience from focusing on the synths. For example, the first time we played with the Dead Kennedys, we set up this big movie screen we made from the metal hood of a Cadillac car on the stage, on a tripod made of wood 2x4s. We set our synths to play a factory drone sound all by themselves, . then we projected images of hated politicians, products from obnoxious advertising photos, irritating authority figures and the like, we projected these images on the car hood, and then beat the hell out of them and the hood with lifesize guitars that we’d cut out of plywood. We made the guitars so that they would shatter, the metal car hood sounded like a gong as we pounded it with the guitars, the guitars would shatter all over the audience, and they’d throw them back at us, and we pick up another guitar and go at it again, we had a whole stack of guitars.
Then we’d go back to our synths and play our set. But I think the audience was just as focused on the politicians we were beating up as they were on the synths.
And then the capper. Except for a few musicians on the cutting edge, in 1978 most people didn’t even know what synths were! When the SF Examiner did a story about the Units playing in the downtown JC Pennys display windows, the reporter called us a “punk band playing keyboards”.
We were extremely lucky that when we started performing as a live synthesizer band, we did it in a time and a place that was open to absolutely anything! We could have just as easily been an accordion band … or a band of tubas.
What were your audiences like back then in S.F.?
Before I moved to SF, when I played small town shows, in my cute-guitarboy cover-band days, there was:
1. the polite audience, dressed like conservative suburban kids
2. the invisible wall between the audience and the stage
3. the stage
4. The band being allowed to do their pretentious bullshit thing on the stage with their guitars.
5. The show ended and everyone went to Denny’s for a soda, and then it was back home to their parents house to jerk off.
In pre-punk days, the audience was obedient and polite. They would stay on their side of the stage and we, the band, would stay on our side of the stage. The audience would say things like “Excuse me sir, but would you mind playing “Smoke on the Water” please? In the rare circumstance where someone from the audience came up on the stage, they would ask permission first, before announcing the Prom Queen over the school PA system. There was a complete division between the band and the audience.
Whereas, in the early punk scene, I swear that everyone in the audience was also in a band, and half the time they’d jump up on the stage as if they were in YOUR band. It was the same 300 people at every show, supporting and razzing each other, even our own fans that loved us would say “You fucking faggots, play High Pressure Days” and throw shit at us, in fun, and people seemed to wander up on the stage at will, like they were shopping for synths at Macys.
People in the SF art punk scene delighted in making fun of each other.
We were all snobby intellectual art faggots and we didn’t ever let each other or anyone else forget it. In fact we loved it! The only competition was who could be the weirdest, or who could come up with the best “smart ass” remark.
That’s why we all loved Dirk Dirksen, the announcer at the Mabuhay club. When he came out to announce the band, he would also insult the band, and the audience, but he would insult us all in the most clever, intelligent and sarcastic way, THAT WE ALL LOVED. We all knew that we were a bunch of snobby intellectual art faggots, we all knew that we deserved to be insulted, and we all took great pleasure and pride in who was most worhty of insulting! It’s kind of like a celebrity WANTING to be insulted by a Don Rickles joke. If he left you out of his insults, you would be NOTHING! You would be invisible!
Sure, music counted. A good tune counted for something I guess. It sweetened the pot. But it was definitely not everything. In fact, you could get by without any music at all and some did.
What were some of the other popular acts like in the scene?
I think popularity depended on a bands creativity. The best reactions were reserved for the bands that had the best ideas. Boundaries were being broken and preconceived notions of what a band should sound like.
There was a synthesizer element that was developing in the scene. Bands like Voice Farm, Red Asphalt, Los Microwaves, Tuxedo Moon and a few others.
We did a show with Karen Finley where she came on stage naked and stuffed canned peaches up her ass. But in a good, thought provoking way. No musical instruments involved at all.
I was at another show with the Puds where the lead guy came out with his only clothes being a 7” record with his dick sticking out the hole. And then the next night we’d play a show with someone a little more “serious” like Group 87, guys that actually could read music, I think, consisting of Patrick O’hearn and Mark Isham on keyboards, both of whom make major motion picture soundtracks now and even though they are amazing musicians, for me anyway, it seemed a little old fashioned and dreary.
Then there was Zev. Who played pots and pans.
And Noh Mercy with only vocals and drums.
You see, I think it was the peaches-up-the-ass, the pots and pans, the penis-in-hole-of-records, the smashing politicians on a car hood, that took the attention away from synth vs. guitar. We seemed to be the least of people’s worries.
Suicide often talked about the hassle they would get for playing synths in a guitar dominated punk scene, did you get any ill will or violent reactions?
At a lot of the places where the Units played there were no stages.
Just us on the floor with the audience. I don’t know what the hell we were thinking. We had people in the audience holding our electrical wires and projectors, and playing at those shows was playing synth while surfing on a wave.
I remember playing shows at the Deaf Club in SF where people were yelling and spitting on us, and the thing was, that we knew most of these people, they were all in bands that we liked, and we were all friends ! that’s just what people did then. When I saw the Sex Pistols the first time it looked like Johnny Rotten was Gene Kelly, Singing In The Rain, of spit. I know it’s impossible to imagine now, but a lot of this verbal and liquid abuse was encouraging, and FUN!
It wasn’t always fun though. The boundaries and rules of performer and audience member were being broken, and sometimes things got out of hand, There were no rules, and some of the damn tourists didn’t understand the irony and fun of our insults and shenanigans, I saw one of the members of the band “The Toiling Midgets” slam a guys head on the stage that wouldn’t stop fucking with the band. The bass player of the D.K.s, Klaus, hit a guy over the head with his guitar after too much serious abuse. I had a few similar experiences that I’m glad I didn’t get arrested for. Luckily for everyone, I don’t ever remember seeing cops at any of the shows. But in SF and LA, the bad experiences never had anything to do with being a “synth band”. It just had to do with assholes out of their element or fucked up on drugs.
The only time it got a little testy was when we toured outside of SF & LA, like in Texas, and at a show in Boston where I had to let loose on some asshole that had come up on the stage fucked up on PCP.
But once again, by then we were pretty self-confident and cocky. Sometimes, like in Texas, just out of sheer arrogance, we would fuck with the audience. The first show we played in Texas was in some shitty little small town bar. I’m sure what they wanted was Black Flag or the Dead Kennedys. I don’t blame them. When we came out on stage we just played white noise, you know, the wind sound you can get with a synth, with a few cow “moo” sounds , while we played some cowboy movies that we had made with plastic cowboys. And we just stood there on the stage and stared at them, giving them a stare like, “fuck you, you fucking rednecks, one of you says a word and I’ll fucking come down there and kick your fucking ass”.
You see, I grew up in a redneck lumber mill town, and I’m quite willing to mix it up at the slightest invitation. My problem isn’t with standing up to assholes. My problem is being the asshole. No one raised a hand or said a word for a good 10 minutes. A few dirty looks, that’s all. In retrospect, I feel bad. We really deserved to get our asses kicked. Maybe the friendly spitting and joyful confrontation scene hadn’t quite arrived there yet. After an uncomfortable silence we kicked into our hardest punk songs and blew the roof off the place, (although, after the show we still had to threaten the club owner with violence to get paid).
So in answer to your question, it’s weird that I hadn’t really thought of it before, I’d have to say that I really didn’t notice any ill will or hostile feelings towards us just because we played synths instead of guitars.
On the other hand, if you toured in any kind punk band at that time, things could get a little testy at times. We got a little extra confidence boost at the end of our career when we added on this new drummer, Marc Henry, who had been an Israeli commando, whose day job was that of a bodyguard for the novelist Danielle Steele, and who packed heat, even to our shows.
How did you come to be involved with 415 records and then Uproar?
Ennis and I were living illegally in our little rehearsal studio that was located in the underground parking garage beneath the Venetian Bakery in North Beach, SF. It was within walking distance to the Mabuhay punk club where our sound guy Ron was the stage manager. It was also within walking distance to City Lights Bookstore, a cultural hub of sorts, the Art Institute, where Rachel and other artists we collaborated with were going to school at the time, and many other places that we could play shows or go to shows. I was living off unemployment at the time and Ennis was on SSI. So we spent pretty much all of our time either rehearsing or going to shows. It was a fairly small scene, and you’d see the same people at many of the shows. People helped each other out with flyers and moving equipment and there was a lot of collaboration between bands. Somehow or other I ended up being friends with this one guy that seemed to be at every event I went to. He was really funny in a sarcastic kind of way, and extremely knowledgeable in all matters related to, everything!
I always had a great time when we hung out. He did a radio show once a week on the college radio station KUSF in which he played the new “punk” music. It was the only place you could hear punk music at the time. The Units had a couple self released 7” records that he liked a lot and he’d play them on his show. He was also one of the only people I knew that wrote articles in various publications about the new music.
College radio was the only place our records were getting airplay, and since this guy knew more about college radio than anyone else I knew, I’d go over to his stinky little apartment and he’d give me lists of the addresses of stations and DJs he thought would play our records.
We, the Units, were in the middle of recording our first album, Digital Stimulation, at that point. We intended to release it ourselves, like our two previous records. But my DJ/writer friend that I’ve been talking about, Howie Klein, asked me if I’d consider having him put it out. He was just starting a little record label with an underground record store owner, Chris Knab. I knew Chris too. He operated Aquarius Records, the only record store in San Francisco that sold the Units first records.
So, it was really a no brainer. I had already been working with both of these guys. Being on their label just formalized what we were already doing. I thought it was a little weird because we didn’t have a written agreement. So Howie told me that if it would make me feel better that I should just type something up, which I did. Of course Howie went on to become president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records.
It made me pretty sad when 415 sold out to Columbia Records in 1981. We had just finished recording our second album with Bill Nelson producing and David Kahne (now VP of A&R at Warner Bros.) as engineer. Nelson had flown out to SF at his own expense to produce the record and he slept on our couch for several weeks in the little apartment Rachel and I were living in. The contract Columbia offered us was so lopsided in their interest that we decided not to sign it, even though it meant that that whole album, which was done, would never see the light of day. I didn’t talk to Howie for years after that. Finally though, we reconnected in NY. I’d have to say he’s probably one of my best friends now.
Our switching to Uproar Records was also an easy and natural move. Uproar Records was owned and run by Rachel Webber’s (of the Units) brother, Joel Webber. Now, people might ask why we just didn’t do this in the first place. There’s a few reasons. Uproar was out of New York, and Joel was kind of a big shot in the music scene there. He did independent promotion for many of the major labels, had his own label, and was one of the 3 founding members of the New York Music Seminar.
The punk music scene was very regional at that time. Although some people on the West Coast had heard of some of the most popular East Coast punk bands (due to the prevalence of the media on the East Coast I think), I don’t think you could say the reverse was true.
Although the Units were known in SF and LA, nobody really knew of us in NY. Joel really had bigger fish to fry. I don’t think he took us seriously at first. But after our album Digital Stimulation came out and it started getting really good reviews, he started to pay closer attention. And then he started getting impressed with the gigs we were getting opening for big name acts from Europe.
On top of this, there was this weird rivalry going on between Howie and Joel. Joel really knew how to promote a record. Many big labels paid him a lot of money to do it. We (the Units) would be stupid not to get free advice from Joel, but Howie didn’t like it. And, I think Joel was a little jealous of the relative success Howie was having with his new 415 label.
So when we decided not to continue with Howie/Columbia, Joel and Uproar Records were there waiting. When we told Joel that we had this great song that we had just done with Michael Cotten, the synth player for the Tubes, producing, he was excited and finally ready to put the Units out on his label.
‘The Right Man’ was a minor hit in the US dance charts. Did you ever
think Units would cross over into the mainstream like a lot of the UK
synth bands (Soft Cell, Ultravox etc) did around the same time?
I think, for a few minutes anyway in 1983, we gave that a thought.
It was hard not to consider, because we were already playing the opening slots for shows with Soft Cell, Ultravox, OMD, Gary Numan, BowWowWow and others.
They were making a living off of their music, and we still had day jobs.
The truth is, that our relatively quick music-biz success kind of caught us by surprise. I think of it like that cruel Chinese curse: “may you get what you ask for”. Somehow, in retrospect, it seems like we were also the victim of that old corporate tactic of promoting the troublemaker to a higher position, just to get them the hell out of your way.
In 1983, when CBS/Epic signed us, Rachel and I were thinking that punk and the punk scene was dead, it had already been defined, commercialized, and sold down the river , it’s time had come and gone, that now it was every man/woman for himself, and because we had been blacklisted by the Bill Graham organization from playing any significant venues on the West Coast, we thought, “what the hell, we’re sick of our day jobs, now that we’re on a major label we can play shows on the East Coast and in Europe with big acts, why not try and make some dough off writing some shitty pop songs , so we can finally quit our lousy day jobs”, . The problem was, and we found it out really quick, that we just weren’t any good at writing shitty pop songs, our hearts just weren’t in it, fact of the matter was, we were much better at being antiestablishment than we were at being “establishment”.
The hard truth was that the world just wasn’t ready for what the original Units had to say at that time! They wanted “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!” (Cyndi Lauper was on our label at that time), not “this is a generation of cannibals”. Believe me, it wasn’t that big of a letdown, because we never intended to be a big pop band in the first place, That kind of commercialization was what we were railing against!
When we first started performing, we thought of what we were doing more as something like cultural revolution. I’m serious. Through our music and performances in the late ‘70’s we were trying to heckle our culture. I guess that’s it in a nutshell. We were really nothing more than cultural hecklers, like some obnoxious guys way up in the balcony , yelling at the president during his inauguration speech, and we were having a great time doing it!
The early punk scene in SF was very conducive to that but America wasn’t, and the USA has an uncanny way of absorbing, redefining, and repackaging any kind of dissent, and then re-presenting it as entertainment and fashion. And the sad thing is, I think that is exactly what happened to us.
They repackaged us and presented us as some mediocre shiny bullshit.
You eventually ended up on a major label (Epic) and had two whole
albums shelved, what were the label’s reasons for these never seeing
the light of day? Will they ever be released?
No. I don’t think they will ever be released. I guess that I just have to think of those as the Nelson Mandela prison years. Years wasted. Good intentions leading to bad results, for the Units anyway. We were told they weren’t released because they weren’t “commercial” enough. You know something, they were probably right. It’s still hard for me to think about it, and it still makes me sick to think about it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
I’m really very excited about this new Units compilation. I know it’s hard to believe, but this is something that I’ve been working on, in one form or another, for the last 7 or 8 years. It really came about due to a website about the Units and some other synthpunk bands that a fan, Damian Ramsey, made. The site is at www.synthpunk.org. Wikipedia now considers this website as the origin of the word “synthpunk”, and the Units as one of the pioneers of this genre.
At synthpunk.org, Mr. Ramsey, with the help of many contributors, put together a huge historical document about every aspect of the Units, including dates of performances, flyers, interviews, photos, etc.
Because of it, there was renewed interest in the band. Anything associated with The Units became an expensive collector’s item, and I started getting calls from record companies wanting to reissue our catalog.
At the same time I started seeing all these shitty sounding bootlegs of Units records, CDs and tapes on Ebay. It really started to piss me off. It was bad enough that nobody had bothered to contact me or pay me for any of this illegal merchandise, but what really pissed me off was how bad the quality was, and that I had nothing to do with the presentation of any of it. It also bothered me that if a fan of electronic music wanted to check out The Units, they’d have to pay $50 or more for a phony Units record.
It became clear that for all these reasons it would be nice if I released an affordable, definitive, legitimate compilation of our music, accompanied by a book that conveyed the idea behind the Units, something that I think the music alone fails to do.
The book part was very important to me. I started to realize that for a lot of Units fans, their only experience of the band was that of our dreadful major label period. A period that was very short and painful, and in which we had very little artistic control over what was released. It was good that we had the opportunity to open for big bands, but at the same time we were always restricted from doing our slides and films when we did those opening slots.
In fact, the major label experience left us feeling so disgusted with the music business that we quit playing music altogether. Hopefully the book will give these fans a glimpse into our politics, the early punk scene on the West Coast and what motivated us to be a part of it. I also wanted to voice my opinion, that punk was not, and is not, a coffee table book that’s just about four cute boys wearing tight black pants and leather jackets, and playing fucking guitars.
I ended up choosing Community Library Records because they were recommended by Damian (Synthpunk website), they have an eclectic mix of electronic bands (so as not to pigeonhole myself down the road), and because they were willing to go the extra mile with me as far as the size, the scope and the quality of this new release. They were also willing to put it out on vinyl, for serious collectors, and in relatively inexpensive CD form.
What bands/acts do you rate in 2008?
What I liked about the early punk scene was how it challenged preconceived notions of what music should sound and look like.
That still holds true. I like an eclectic mix of synth genres, from synthpunk to synthpop. You don’t have to yell and scream like look like Tomata of the Screamers to challenge authority. You can make fun of your culture like Devo does so effectively, or you can chop it up and serve it back to The Man in a really intelligent, synthpop way, like Tom Ellard of the Severed Heads does so brilliantly in his videos.
Some of my young hard core fans give me shit for liking synthpop bands that were my contemporaries like The Human League or The Eurythmics.
What they don’t understand, is that when those bands first came out, their instrumentation and sound was original and unique, and challenged the status quo of popular music. Even in 2008 I can listen to early rehearsal tapes of The Human League made in the late 70’s, that sound every bit as synthpunky as young bands playing today.
The best thing about 2008 is the availability and diversity of synth music.
I’m constantly listening to the hundreds of the dedicated “electronic” internet radio stations on the iTunes site, checking out synth bands on Myspace, and reading about synth bands on music blogs. I just love it!
It’s so funny, when the Units started, it was PRE-INTERNET!
It’s so hard to imagine not being able to take advantage of all the music and music services the internet has to offer now.
The Units were very lucky that a young fan from the Midwest, Kara, started a Units Myspace page a year or two ago. She lets me put up some of my favorite current synth bands as the “top friends” on her page. It’s worth checking them out, they’re all great in their own ways, and they all have really interesting top synth friends of their own worth checking out. I know the trend right now seems to be the one man band kind of thing, but when I go shopping for new bands I still give priority to the ones that are a group of synth players with a drummer.
Here’s a few of the new (compared to me) synth kids on the block that I really like right now:
Electronic junk punk from LA. They’ve got it all. Great punk, great pop, great lyrics,, their music just keeps getting better.
• DIGITAL LEATHER
Synthpunk from Arizona. Not only is Shawn Foree the main guy behind Digital Leather, he’s also a moving force in several other really great synthpunk style bands, including: Destruction Unit, Devon Disaster, The Cutters and We Aren’t Friendly. I love ALL of these bands!
Shawn is a fucking multitasking musical genius. There, it’s said.
Always challenging normality, his songs can be funny, serious, beautiful and brutal. This dude is amazing.
He labels it Electronica out of the United Kingdom, but I beg to differ.
Uses this Oscar Wilde quote on his Myspace page:
“most people are other people. their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
The sound, the production Whitey gets, I would love to get this sound.
His gigs, while the rest of us are playing shows at the local Holiday Inn Lounge, fucking Whitey is playing in fucking Moscow! And then blogs intelligently about it.
While the rest of us have our lame ass pot smoking low life friends play keyboards for us on a tour, Whitey teams up with another incredible keyboard player in his own right, DJ and London club scene creator, Rory Phillips. When the two of these dudes are together, the rest of us may as well just throw in the towel. It’s like trying to compete against a Soviet gymnastics team. (I didn’t put him up to this! – Rory)
Whitey writes really great pop songs and just makes it seem so elegant and easy. He makes it seem so easy, it just drives me crazy! Do you know how hard it is to write a good pop song? I’m telling you, it’s damn near IMPOSSIBLE!
And yet Whitey somehow, oh fuck it, I don’t even wanna think or talk about it, just go listen to him so I can share my jealousy with you.
• BLACK BUG
They call it Electronica Punk from Sweden. Fuck that. This is just flat out killer synthpunk if you ask me. On my favorite Black Bug song (on FDH Records), the absolutely beautiful Lily McBeth sings “ I know I’m not the prettiest girl, but you don’t need to say that, in my head you’re already dead, in my head you’re already dead”.
She’s screaming at this guy, and all you can think of while you’re listening is, ” shit, I wish I was that guy that she is screaming at!”. This is as good as Iggy Pop with sex appeal. You gotta check this out.
• FDH Records
I know this is a label, not a band, but they have so many good bands that it’s just easier to list the whole label.
Eric, the guy that runs FDH Records deserves the “Synthpunk Medal Of Honor”. Not only does he have his own great band “DOCTOR SCIENTIST”, but I swear we somehow share the same ears, because I tend to love every single band on his label, including some of my favorites:
The Black Bug
Earthmen and Strangers
El Diablos Bloncos
Humans Are the Worst Invention
We Aren’t Friendly
and my current FDH fave: Terror Visions
You know, as much as I love the living-in-the-moment rage, energy, intimate honesty and joy of diy punk, and synthesizers, you have to remember, I take this shit very seriously. When I sold my pickup truck so I could buy the first Minimoog that came into San Francisco, the only cool electronic guys around, the ones I was listening to, were John Cage, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Walter Carlos (pre-Wendy) and maybe a little Morton Subotnick.
Sure, I know rock guys like Emerson, Wakeman and even Pete Townsend had synths, but those guys may as well have been fondling their organs. Carlos set the standard for me, with the Clockwork Orange soundtrack and the beautiful Sonic Seasonings. In fact, when it came time to record Digital Stimulation, it was W. Carlos that was my first choice to produce it.
I keep saying this, because it’s important, What I liked about the early punk scene was how it challenged preconceived notions of what music should sound and look like. You know who was doing that better than anyone else in 1977? I’ll tell you who: John Cage, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Meredith Monk and on the pop side of the fence; Iggy, Jonathan Richman (with Jerry Harrison from the soon to be Talking Heads on keyboards) maybe, and yes, I’ll throw Suicide a bone here, also Patti Smith and Lou. They were starting to break the mold a bit.
My ultimate goal was to introduce change into POP music the way Cage, Glass, Riley & Reich did with experimental/classical music. How does all of this gigantic lead up tie into Strategy? I’ll tell you, Reeds University art history graduate Paul Dickow, aka Strategy, comes as close to pulling off this goal of mine as anyone I know. And is really one of the only ones I know who’s music is so full of great ideas, and who is somehow successful at getting his music played on commercial stations back to back with the likes of Ladytron.
I absolutely LOVE talking to this guy about the composition of music.
If that wasn’t enough, Paul does great remix work for the likes of the DFA Label, and has his own label, shared with another one of my musical heros (for his cultural mashup work) David Chandler (aka DJ Brokenwindow). Their label, Community Library, impressed me enough with it’s excellent eclectic electronic mix of bands, that I chose it for the Units release over many other labels that had approached me.
• Ch. 3X4
What’s going on in Canada with all these fantastic synth bands?
Well, one of the things going on is Jesse Nobody, who along with playing synth in my fave, the wonderful Ch. 3X4, also plays synth in Twin Crystals, Channels 2+3, Cheerleader Camp, and god knows what else. And then he’s friends with all these other great Canadian synth/Electro bands like Dandi Wind, Ice Cream and You Say Party We Say Die.
On top of the Jesse bands there’s those other great synth bands from Canada that I love, especially We Are Wolves, Duchesssays and the superstars, The Wicked Awesomes.
Labeled Ghettotech / Minimalist / Concrete. I just call it experimental electronic. Blood has one bloody, evil looking, disturbing Myspace page. Over a period of months I would add and subtract them from my “top friends”. The music is experimental and can make you feel uncomfortable. Like watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I couldn’t get them off my mind and had to keep going back just to see what it was, why was it that this music was so GOOD !
It really got me to thinking about good and evil, something I don’t do all that much. I’m not into organized religion or anything. But it kind of made me realize the potential and depth of emotions music could convey. Probably nobody reading this will agree, but I think this is conceptually and artistically more interesting then any of the bands i’ve mentioned so far.
The band Enedometrium Cuntplow out of Nebraska loosely fits into this genre too. Conceptually and artistically amazing. If you play a synth, and you want some ideas for your pop song. You’ve absolutely got to check out these bands and steal their ideas. I swear, it’ll be like picking apples off a tree.
• BIT SHIFTER
We’ve all heard of synthpunk, well Josh Davis, aka Bit Shifter, is the king of BlipPunk. Operating out of NYC, Josh does electronic music making using a Nintendo Game Boy and the Little Sound DJ and Nanoloop homebrew software cartridges. This is no joke. It’s really fucking good and if you’re not aware of it, get this, they already have Blip festivals!
Some 30 years ago I thought analog synths were the newest spaceage instrument and that they would revolutionize music. And Bit Shifter comes along and really drives it home to me, that I am ALREADY a fucking dinosaur. Aced by software and controllers I couldn’t even imagine.
• BLANK DOGS
O.K., I guess I’ve saved the best for last. If you are going to check out just one of the bands I’m listening to now, you should probably start here. I’m a little pissed at him right now because this sonofabitch, who prefers to stay anonymous, owes me a trade. But, Dog, if you’re listening, consider us even, because I’ve been turned on to so many good bands from the Blank Dogs site that I could never repay this asshole. His shit is so good, that I can’t help but think that he’s somebody that’s already famous and that this “band” is just his incognito alter ego.
He reminds me of a lot of great bands like early TuxedoMoon, Absolute Body Control, The Proximate Force, and others, only at their best, and if they were consistently good.
I don’t know if he plays synth, or if he plays a guitar that sounds like a synth, but whatever the fuck he plays, it sounds fucking great. And my favorite part, the vocals. I just love the slightly off key harmonies. If I was going to add a guy to my band, I’d start with Mr. Anonymous here.
What are you and Rachel up to these days? Any new music? Plans for any more Units shows?
Rachel and I are still married, with kids. Still as passionate about art and music as ever. We continue to live and work together, only we’re in Downtown Brooklyn now instead of SF. When we moved to NY in ‘84 we started a fashion design business that became very successful, keeping us busy as hell all these years. We’ve done private label design along with our own label, and designed and sold a range of wacky products ranging from jewelry to dog bowls. We’ve sold our items to every store you can imagine, from Harrods, Bergdorf’s, Bloomingdales, Macys, Nordstroms, Ann Taylor, Paul Smith, The Limited, etc., etc., and we’ve even knocked our own designs off and sold them to Costco and Target.
Things we have produced have appeared in all the major publications like: Vogue, Elle, Mademoiselle, Harpers, Brides, The New Yorker, NY Magazine, New York Times, NY Post, etc., etc.
Because of this we were able to buy a big building where we live, have a studio, a garden, and tenants. Between our work, family obligations, tenants, and constant building renovations, and what little music I’ve been doing, I’d say without hesitation that I’m booked pretty much 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Now that our kids are getting older I’m starting to get a little time to write and play music again. I still have all the old synths and a nice recording set up. I’ve been recording stuff on Logic software and sending the tracks to our old drummer, Brad, who still lives in SF. He puts his part on and sends them back. As far as more Units shows, I don’t know, I guess I’ll wait and see if the new release generates any interest in people wanting to see the Units again. Rachel and I loved writing and playing music. But we also wanted to have a decent family life. And back in the day that just didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t just the obvious obstacles like living in hotels while touring, the drug culture, and pressure from the label to dumb down our artwork, music and lyrics. Right before we quit and went underground our manager (Rachel’s brother) died of a drug overdose and several of our close friends died of aids. The Units were always more of a cult band than a financially popular one, we had some really weird “cult type” fanatical fans that I have say, could be a little intense at times. And then the last nail in the coffin was when a detective from the S.F. Police department called to inform us that one of our old roadies they were looking for had committed a series of murders.
So you can see that when we moved from SF to NY that we didn’t exactly want a high profile or our phone number and address to be listed.
I often think of it as Voltaire’s great novel Candide, where at the end of the book, after the characters have fought off social diseases, floggings, slavery, and other unspeakable horrors, they come to the simple conclusion that it’s best to lead a simple life, and the best way to stay out of trouble “we must tend our gardens”.
All these years later, I feel like maybe it’s safe to leave the house again.
Units on Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/warmmovingbodies