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The Chocolate Watchband

Back in the mid-'80s, the Chocolate Watchband were trapped in an odd paradox (which actually wasn't that bad a place to be for a band that didn't exist anymore). They hadn't played a note together in almost 15 years, but their original albums were changing hands for $100 apiece or more, and a series of vinyl reissues, first as bootlegs from France and later legit ones from Australia, were selling around the world, and in numbers that only increased as more people had a chance to hear them. What's more, the group's sound was starting to be emulated in the work of then-current bands, playing obscure clubs in places like New York's Chelsea district and other locales as far east as the District of Columbia, made up of teenagers who were too young ever to have seen or heard the Watchband play, and living 3,500 miles east of where the Watchband played out its existence, and most of its gigs, two decades before. The group had reached this paradoxical situation -- nonexistence juxtaposed with a burgeoning cult of admirers around the world -- simply by being the best garage band of the '60s, or, at least, the best one ever to have had a serious recording career. Indeed, they were a unique phenomenon -- based on their recordings, they were a world-class garage punk act, if that's possible, beating the Ramones to the punch by a decade, and showing more consistency than, say, the Litter, and more originality and range than the Shadows of Knight. While American bands of the period usually either detoured into folk-rock on their way to more elusive flights of languid psychedelia, or fell back on gimmicks and dumbing down their image (à la Paul Revere & the Raiders) to sell records, the Watchband retained an amazing purity of purpose and intent -- they owed a considerable (and undeniable) debt to the Rolling Stones for various elements of their sound, but they kept pushing the envelope, at least in intensity, and may even have matched the Stones in their psychedelic ventures when the time came to ante-up musically; they were like the Stones imbued with the more reckless and creative spirit of the Pretty Things. And in another reality, with their intensity and purposefulness -- lead singer David Aguilar could still stir listeners on his best records 40 years later -- the Watchband might've been America's Rolling Stones. They had the sound to do it -- and left behind a buzzsaw-textured rendition of one classic Bob Dylan song, and even gave the Kinks some serious competition with their cover of Ray Davies' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" -- but not the breaks. Indeed, no sooner was the group out of the starting gate when it was compromised and then done in by a combination of internal conflicts and managers and producers with their own agendas. So this world-class act didn't find a concert audience outside of California for 30 years, and never charted a record nationally, and if you ask most casual '60s rock fans about them, you'll probably get little more than a blank stare. In fact, most will probably remember their AVI Records labelmates the Standells more clearly, because they actually managed to chart a few singles, even though they were a lesser band. The Chocolate Watchband got its start at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California in 1965, when guitarists Mark Loomis and Ned Torney -- both ex-members of the Chapparals -- joined in a fledgling outfit that later included Danny Phay (vocals), Rich Young (bass), Jo Kemling (organ), and drummer Peter Curry (soon succeeded by Gary Andrijasevich). This early version of the Watchband emerged in 1965, just as the British Invasion was starting to crest, and, with their raw, lean sound built on British Invasion-style R&B and pop/rock, achieved great popularity at the college and the surrounding area. They never made any official commercial recordings, but a pair of demo tracks that surfaced in the '90s reveals a solid performing unit with some inspired playing -- especially on lead guitar -- and an attractive if not necessarily bracing overall sound, and a lot of potential. Most of the latter seemed destined to be unrealized when Torney and Phay took an offer from a rival group -- the Otherside, which had formed out of an earlier band called the Topsiders -- and abandoned the original Chocolate Watchband, with Kemling following their lead. Loomis found a temporary berth with a very busy surf band called the Shandells, but wanted to play to an audience older than the preteens who attended their shows; he also saw no reason why he couldn't take another run at success, especially as the exiting members had made no attempt to keep the Chocolate Watchband name -- he got Andrijasevich back, and recruited ex-Topsider guitarist Sean Tolby (who'd also been left high and dry by the personnel switch), and then grabbed the Shandells' bassist Bill Flores. That still meant finding a lead singer to replace Phay, and it was just about then that he discovered David Aguilar, who was (nominally) a biology major at San Jose State University -- Aguilar also sang like a punk god, had a stage presence to rival Mick Jagger and excellent musical sensibilities, and could even write songs. Thus was reborn the Chocolate Watchband in the spring of 1966, and what re-emerged was a much more powerful and impressive unit. They didn't play in front of people until they'd done some crash development of a proper stage act in Loomis' garage. They hit the ground running, playing the best white R&B-based rock heard anywhere this side of London, with a stage act that rivaled that of the Rolling Stones for excitement (and wasn't hurt by the presence of Brian Jones-lookalike Sean Tolby on rhythm guitar). The fact that they played Vox instruments only helped, making them look incredibly cool and their music -- already very potent -- sound like little else that was being heard around the Bay Area. They secured the services of a manager who, in turn, got them signed to Green Grass Productions, a company co-founded by ex-Four Preps vocalist Ed Cobb, which had a recording deal with Capitol Records by way of the latter's Tower Records subsidiary. They played gigs with the early Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother & the Holding Company, and looked to be headed for the same level of possible success that those acts were already seeing. There was one false start, however, in the form of their debut single, "Blues Theme" -- an instrumental written by Mike Curb and originally cut by Davie Allan & the Arrows for the movie The Wild Angels -- it was getting radio play, but the original label had declined to issue a single on it, so Cobb and company jumped in with the Watchband, rush-releasing their version to try grabbing some sales and attention -- the record was credited to the Hogs, owing to the tune's being associated with a biker movie, and the presence of the sound of a Harley on it; though they couldn't have known it, this wouldn't be the last time that the Watchband's identity was an issue on their records; and for reasons that seem bewildering, it came out on the kid-oriented Hanna-Barbera Records label, home of soundtracks to The Flintstones and other cartoons. The presence of the delightfully bizarre, satiric Zappa-like "Loose Lip Sync Ship," credited to Aguilar and Loomis as composers, on the B-side, only added a final piece of weirdness to the puzzle of that first release. The single never charted, but it was still a good record, and not a bad beginning. The band was playing locally to bigger audiences and for larger fees than ever by the fall of 1966, and it was around that time that events around them were to help create ripples in their career. That summer, the district in Los Angeles known as the Sunset Strip -- renowned in the '40s and '50s for nightspots like Ciro's and, later, Dino's (owned by Dean Martin and immortalized in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip), but more recently home to clubs featuring rock & roll, including the Whisky a Go Go -- saw a massive influx of teenagers and younger twenty-somethings, with long hair and attitude; they were a long way from the '50s habitués of the area's nightspots, and their presence led to a decision by the police and L.A. County Sheriff's office to crack down on nighttime activities. That, in turn, led to a series of escalating conflicts between cops and teens throughout the fall of 1966, culminating in a violent confrontation at a club called Pandora's Box, where rocks and garbage were thrown, people on both sides were hurt, and property was damaged. That incident made the news and led to the closing (and bulldozing) of the club -- whose luckless owners probably hadn't paid enough money to the right local officials -- and the whole event made it into song and popular culture in the context of protest music, Stephen Stills penned his wryly ironic, vaguely ominous "For What It's Worth," which was duly turned into a hit by Buffalo Springfield, and on a cheesier but more visceral level, American International Pictures generated the film Riot on Sunset Strip, an exploitation movie par excellence rushed out to theaters in early 1967. The Standells (who were also managed by Cobb and Green Grass) provided the title song, and the Chocolate Watchband turned in a couple of excellent numbers, "Don't Need Your Lovin'" and "Sitting There Standing," and managed to appear in the movie, which has since become a '60s cult classic. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction, including a second single, "Sweet Young Thing" b/w "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," that oozed excitement and punk defiance. The A-side, authored by Ed Cobb, was as salacious as anything that the Rolling Stones or Them had ever issued, and even had the temerity to half-quote the central sitar riff from the Stones' recent single "Paint It Black," while Aguilar seemed to sum up the searing passions of the Stones' 13-minute "Goin' Home" in just three minutes, and mostly the last 30 seconds of the song -- with every instrument on the record seemingly cranked up to 11 and over-miked, it was a larger-than-life performance issued on Tower's subsidiary Uptown label in December of 1966; the A-side was supported by a rendition of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" that used Them's arrangement as a jumping-off point but pumped up the wattage and gave Aguilar a great vocal canvas to work with. They followed this up in February of 1967 with "Misty Lane" b/w "She Weaves a Tender Trap," which was a somewhat more lyrical, melodic song than they'd been working with. It had a great beat and was a good showcase for Aguilar and company, and was also perhaps a bit closer to the sort of records that Loomis hoped to be making. The B-side, authored by Cobb, was a piece of soft pop balladry, complete with an overdubbed reed and horn accompaniment that had the bandmembers playing at midtempo with an acoustic instrument or two in evidence, and Aguilar in an almost languid performance; it was pretty enough, and a credit to everyone involved, but it wasn't what the Watchband was about. In retrospect, the members might've become concerned about precisely what was going on behind the scenes and what the thinking of their management was, but they were busy playing lots of gigs, not only in the Bay Area but all over California, and whatever their feelings about some of the music on the singles, those at least represented the group's work and the records were getting played on the radio locally. Soon after came the two songs for Riot on Sunset Strip, which ended up on the movie's soundtrack album, and a fourth Watchband 45, "No Way Out" b/w "Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-In)" -- and after the seeming digression of "Misty Lane," the band seemed to be back in its own bailiwick, with a double-sided piece of garage punk gold. "Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-In)," which ended up being used in the exploitation movie The Love-Ins (in which the band was supposed to have a major role but mostly ended up on the cutting-room floor, as a result of some sort of havoc they created on the set), still resonates in the 21st century as a moment of triumph for everyone, and the Cobb-authored "No Way Out" wasn't far behind, a shimmering piece of full-blown psychedelia with a killer performance by Flores and Andrijasevich in the opening, and Loomis' guitar laying down a jagged psychedelic blues lead line, while Tolby's instrument chimed and crunched away in the background while Aguilar intoned the spaced-out lyrics; even the tape effects and distortion at the end were handled with restraint and class. That record came and went in June of 1967, heralding the Summer of Love. The Watchband set to work cutting their first LP, which duly showed up in September of that year with the title No Way Out, and to the shock of the members, they discovered that only a pair of tracks, "Come On" and "Gone and Passes By," had made it onto the album intact. The vocals on almost half the record (including the opening track) had been given over to Don Bennett, a singer and songwriter (and co-author of "Are You Gonna Be There [At the Love In]"), and two of the tracks were by an entirely different band altogether, a studio group put together by engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper. The album's flaws seemed to lead to the exposure of fissures just beneath the surface of their success. The first to go was Loomis, who could play practically anything but whose taste ran to more lyrical sounds -- he was getting tired of the Watchband's high-energy, blues-based sound on-stage -- and he cut out for the Tingle Guild, a folk-rock band, with Andrijasevich in tow. Their exit prompted David Aguilar to split, leaving Bill Flores and Sean Tolby as the sole active members of the Watchband. This is where the band's history gets confusing. Flores and Tolby managed to put together a temporary lineup to fulfill the group's upcoming gigs -- Tim Abbott on guitar, Mark Whittaker on drums, and Chris Flinders as vocalist -- and they were good enough so that, as a live act, the Watchband barely skipped a beat. Flinders and Abbott left before the end of 1967, however, and once again the group was reduced to half a band. Aguilar came back for a short time, but by December of 1967 the Watchband, in terms of what it had started out to be or any of the original participants, was essentially history. That didn't dissuade their management or their label from exploiting the name -- Podolor assembled a group of studio musicians and put Don Bennett at the microphone once more, retrieved some outtakes from the original group's sessions, and a pair of songs completed by the band, and delivered The Inner Mystique. With its splashy collage cover and spaced-out digressions, it was a slightly late psychedelic release in February of 1968, but the content actually bridged several musical styles; the pure psychedelia was mostly Podolor's ex post facto creation in the form of the instrumental "Voyage of the Trieste" and the ornate, shimmering interpretation of "In the Past" (a track originally done by the Florida-based We the People). Speaking for the real Watchband, in defiant, sneering punk tones, was a glittering remixed version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," a beautifully conceived and executed rendition of "I Ain't No Miracle Worker" (authored by Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz, of Electric Prunes fame), and Aguilar's greatest musical triumph on record, his fiercely defiant rendition of Ray Davies' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," where he and the band proved that they could hold their own with the Kinks as easily as the Stones. The irony of No Way Out and The Inner Mystique is that, while they weren't fully (or, in the case of the latter, remotely) representative of the group's sound, they still constituted superb pieces of psychedelic garage punk. In later years, Tolby would explain that the group's albums were always a bit more psychedelic than the group was on-stage or on its singles, and didn't truly reflect the Watchband's real sound. Cobb and Podolor wanted a certain kind of sound on the LPs that the band, even when it was intact, wasn't always prepared to deliver -- in an interview conducted in the early '80s, Cobb said that the group couldn't work in the studio without first indulging in the contents of "the box," which, like a psychedelic-era dessert tray, contained every popular controlled substance (including hallucinogens) then circulating, and he gave that as the reason behind the reliance on Bennett and the "ghost" band put together by Podolor. To be fair, some of the Bennett-sung material, such as the cover of Wayne Proctor's "In the Past," may not sound like the real Watchband, but they were great records and shimmering examples of psychedelic punk with a great beat and memorable hooks. Additionally, the bandmembers have never corroborated Cobb's account, and it is difficult to believe that a band that was as tight on-stage as they were known to be, and with the reputations for brilliant shows, could have ever indulged too much in that kind of decadence; it would have shown up on-stage, and in the music, and they cut great singles. Neither of the first two albums ever sold in huge numbers, as none of the singles connected to them ever charted nationally, but they did well enough so that Green Grass and Tower saw no reason not to go for a third bite of the apple. The company started with Sean Tolby, who had taken over lead guitar with the Watchband before the end, and he recruited Bill Flores into what became a kind of cross-generational Chocolate Watchband, featuring Loomis and Andrijasevich and original, 1965-vintage lead vocalist Danny Phay (who'd ended up, after the Otherside, in the Tingle Guild alongside Loomis and Andrijasevich). The resulting album, One Step Beyond, was -- with the notable exception of the driving rendition of Ashford & Simpson's "I Don't Need No Doctor" -- far more laid-back than any of the group's prior releases, reflecting the folk-rock sound that Loomis, Andrijasevich, and Phay had been generating. The songs were all originals and not bad, if not as exciting as the best work on the two prior LPs, and among those participating in the sessions was Moby Grape guitarist Jerry Miller, who played on "Devil's Motorcycle." With an album out and a lineup intact, the revived Watchband began getting bookings, and while Loomis was forced to back out for health reasons (replaced by Phil Scoma of the Hydraulic Banana), the group did endure after a fashion until the beginning of 1970. That probably would have ended the Watchband's story, but for the fact that their records were too good to ignore. They were mostly forgotten during the '70s, except by film cultists who discovered Riot on Sunset Strip from its frequent television showings and started seeking out their music. By the early '80s, however, the psychedelic punk revival and the burgeoning interest in '60s garage rock (fostered by the release of the original Nuggets and other, similar, subsequent compilation albums) had gathered enough momentum so that their original LPs started changing hands for $100 or more per copy, and it wasn't too long into the decade before the rising demand led to the re-release of the Watchband's music, initially from Eva Records in France in pressings of dubious legality and quality, and later under actual license from genuine master materials, by an Australian label. The Inner Mystique, in particular, proved popular in this edition, which proceeded to sell by the gross to wholesalers and retailers on four continents. David Aguilar had moved onto a university professorship in the natural sciences, and other members were scattered across the map, but suddenly their music was in demand -- and newer bands, such as the Tryfles, began drawing on the Watchband for inspiration and source material. The reissue of their material on CD only raised the ante and the interest, as a best-of from Rhino Records was followed by Sundazed and Big Beat label re-releases of the original LPs on CD, complete with bonus tracks during the early to mid-'90s and beyond. There was enough activity surrounding the group so that one bookstall worker in Union Square Park in New York used to brag of having been a member of the Watchband -- and people listened. By the middle of the '90s, ex-members had discussed the possibility of a reunion, but no such event ever materialized until 1999, and by that time Sean Tolby was gone. With Aguilar, Tim Abbott (subbing for Mark Loomis, who pulled out), Bill Flores, and Gary Andrijasevich back together, and Michael Reese filling Tolby's spot, they played their first gigs in the spring of 1999. Those shows culminated in November of that year with their appearance at Cavestomp in New York, which resulted in the concert album At the Love-In Live! (2001); in between the Cavestomp gig and the CD's release, the Watchband issued the first studio album made up entirely of their own work. It was a long wait, but it was worth it, especially the live album, as the band ran through its entire core repertoire in excellent form. The event also got the group -- who seldom got much coverage outside the West Coast -- their first ever coverage in The New York Times, 30 years after their last regular gig. And they were still at it, as of 2005, playing gigs in Europe and finally getting the worldwide recognition and fan adoration that should have been theirs in 1967. They even returned to the recording studio, with Aguilar and Abbott leading the group for I'm Not Like Everybody Else, a set of new recordings of some of the Watchband's best tunes.
© Bruce Eder /TiVo


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