Some people keep tools in their garage. Still others have bikes, sports equipment, broken appliances, old mementos. There're even a few odd people who have a car stowed in there. Me, I've got cassettes in the garage. About a thousand of them, actually.
Earlier this year, I wrote about researching old records made in Sonoma County, digging up copies of vintage vinyl, tracking down surviving band members, finding out the bands' stories. After the article was published, I figured that my local music-historian days were over. But shortly thereafter, I received a letter from longtime local promoter and former Magnolia's nightclub owner Scott Goree, offering me boxes of his old demo tapes from local bands. Would I be interested, he asked, in rescuing about 600 cassettes from the awaiting dumpster?
Archaeologist's panic kicked into high gear. I raced over and loaded them into my trunk, bringing them home to my understanding wife and already cluttered garage. We immediately rifled through and puzzled over these demo tapes, seduced by the undeniable charm of the obsolete format.
A demo tape, especially between the mid-'80s to the early '90s, was a crucial calling card for struggling bands. Since CD manufacturing wasn't yet affordably available, a demo tape often sufficed as a band's "album," sold in stores and sometimes containing a dozen or more songs. And since a four-track recorder, a double-deck cassette player and a photocopy machine were the only tools required to go down in high-bias history—and especially since Photoshop and ProTools didn't yet exist—a demo tape usually reflected a band's individual aesthetic with alarming clarity.
Fascinated by this era's once-dominant format, I picked out some band names that I remembered from the era, the bands that ruled the Sonoma County underground after new wave died but before Nirvana came along and kicked open the doors for every well-off suburban kid with an Ibanez—the bands that were either good enough or passionate enough to do it themselves and who invited the public in on their fun in the form of a Maxell XLII C-46 IEC Type II Dolby Audio cassette.
Take Abnormal Growth, for example, whose first recordings were multitracked on a cheap stereo console with a strategically placed ghetto blaster playing backing tracks from across the room. Guitarist John Crowhurst still remembers the exact date (Sept. 13, 1986) when he started Abnormal Growth with childhood friend Clay Butler. It marked the inception of a unique Santa Rosa band who opened for legends like NOFX, Bad Religion and GWAR, and who also existed, like so many others, solely on cassette.
"It was so anti&–the-whole-hair-metal thing, which was to try to get signed," explains Crowhurst of the band's demo-tape-only lifespan. "I was a big, fat, longhaired guy and Clay couldn't sing and we really didn't have a good drummer for the first couple years, so we just decided, 'Screw it! We wrote 20 songs this month, we can make an album!'"
Abnormal Growth's marketing was genius. They posted comic-book flyers around town for their third tape, Healdsburg, and their second cassette release, Let's Grow Some Crosses, began with a hilarious commercial for their first self-titled tape. Eventually, they were making 500 copies each, selling them to punks, metalheads and "rebellious LSD-taking preppies," while navigating the pesky crowd of skinheads who sometimes congregated around the band. During a show at a church in Santa Rosa, the meeting of one of these skinheads and a stage prop would prove immortal.
"We had a song called 'Preschooolers of the Beast,'" Crowhurst explains, "and when we were getting ready for the show, we decided to buy a Foster Farms chicken and nail it to a cross." During the song, a skinhead grabbed the fowl crucifix and brought it into the mosh pit, where it was shredded into tiny pieces and showered on both crowd and band. "I got hit in the head a couple of times, and there were chunks of [raw chicken] stuck in my guitar," laughs Crowhurst, "but the promoter, who also lived [in the church] at the time, was a vegan. Oh, my. She was so not happy."
In stark contrast to heavier hardcore bands of the day like Moto-Stillbirth and Vertical Urge, Abnormal Growth didn't take themselves too seriously. Still, the band called it quits exactly five years after the ghetto-blaster recording sessions, on Sept. 13, 1991, after a show with Sharkbait at Guerneville's River Theater.
These days, Crowhurst and Butler run a comprehensive website about the band, hosting songs, art and stories, and Crowhurst says he has no regrets about the band's analog-only alignment. "It was really hard to even comprehend having any record labels giving a crap about us," he says now, "so we figured we'd just do it ourselves and have fun."
Around the same time, a Santa Rosa band called Insanity Puppets formed in 1985 and released two demo tapes: And Only the Insane Shall Survive in 1987, followed by the 1988 cassette When the Tough Get Going, the Weak Get Screwed. Both were recorded live, stuffed with photocopied lyric sheets and sold directly by the band at local shows opening for the likes of the Adolescents, Agent Orange and MDC.
When the Tough Get Going specializes in societal dissertations under a haze of pot smoke; no other band could so effectively rail against media deception with a song called "The Bong That Ate Tokyo." And though their rehearsal-space roommates Capitalist Casualties would last much longer (they're still around), Insanity Puppets created a definitive sound of Santa Rosa punk rock from the days of its famed downtown hangout spot, Anarchy Alley.
"We were always game to play anywhere, any club, any party," says guitarist Guthrie Lowe, "but we wound up playing with bands that we idolized—Bad Religion, SNFU and RKL." Lowe's not even sure if he still has a copy of the When the Tough Get Going demo tape. "I will tell you, it has lost its luster over the years a little bit," he admits, "but it was a good snapshot at the time, that's for sure."
Spearheaded by promoter Laurel Pine, an arts collective called Xcntrcx began bringing touring bands to the area during Insanity Puppets' early days, and lead vocalist Adolfo Foronda helped the band to get larger shows. But a major change was happening in the North Bay underground, one that would that would cripple the band and alter the local musical landscape completely: the infusion of—nay, invasion of—funk.
"We were very vociferous about that," insists Lowe. "Right after Primus appeared was the first time you saw a $10 door price on anything in Sonoma County, as far as local shows went. So we were displeased about that, and a lot of bands who we thought were cool, or were friends with, started doing the funk thing. Everyone was slapping bass. It got really annoying."
Lowe says that despite dwindling opportunities, Insanity Puppets never felt locked out by the funk explosion ("We were always out of place anyway"), and he has no regrets about sticking to a classic punk sound. "It's always been a diverse, underground, countercultural community around here," he says. "Everybody's had their own stamp and style, so we weren't really too worried about trends."
Insanity Puppets lasted on and off until 1999, surviving changing incarnations and occasional incarcerations. A 7-inch released in 1991 called Who Brought the Corpse? would be the band's only noncassette release, and it proves that they stuck to their guns; the thanks list includes "beers from around the world," "the inventor of the bong" and, of course, "all those who hate funk."
One band who fell disastrously under funk's spell was Wasted Morality, whose Stell's House tape was warped almost beyond recognition when I found it. But I'd seen their name on old flyers for hardcore shows, and, determined to hear some vintage Santa Rosa thrash, I carefully unscrewed the tape, transplanted its contents into a new cassette shell, put it in my player and pressed play. The shit that came out of my speakers was atrocious.
"We were a thrash metal band, mainly, from about '85 to '90," explains drummer Andy Rosa, "and then things started changing—Primus and Mr. Bungle were coming on big—and we made a mistake and tried to play our own kind of funk, which wasn't what we really were. We should never have done that, we should have just stuck with what we were doing. But thrash was dying out, and people weren't that interested."
While other local bands like Victims Family were able to assimilate funk elements without sacrificing impact, Stell's House is a weak, adolescent attempt at trend-hopping, evidenced by incessant slap-bass and lyrics like "Step on over 'cause you look real sweet / Shake your butt to my funky beat." An earlier demo tape ("Which is what we really were," says Rosa) called Stitches reveals the powerful band who opened for DRI and Suicidal Tendencies, but Wasted Morality weren't the best at playing funk, and Rosa says the opportunities for choice opening slots dried up. The band broke up in 1992.
What was this great threat called funk music, and how did it take over?
Look no further than Disciples of Ed, a local funk phenomenon whose self-titled demo tape sold over 1,000 copies, who straddled the worlds of punk and funk by playing with both Operation Ivy and Primus, and who commonly sold out the Phoenix Theater on their own before breaking up in 1992. Hailing from Cloverdale, where small-town life dictated the creation of fun from scratch, Disciples of Ed made a name for themselves by hosting annual "Ugly Clothes" parties on their large rural ranch—buying plentiful kegs, inviting bands like Mr. Bungle to play and locking the exit gates at 9pm to ensure a drug-addled rager with as many as 400 revelers until the sun came up.
"It turned into this big, ugly, polyester Woodstock thing," remembers drummer Chris Forsythe, calling the festivities "the most unappealing thing to eyeballs ever."
This wild atmosphere found its way onto the stage, and soon Disciples of Ed were showing up at punk shows dressed in neon, wielding stuffed animals and toting cans of Cheez Balls to pour all over the audience. (The artificial snack would grow to be the band's trademark; a famous "Cheez Ball Wrestling" show with bikini-clad girls is still whispered about, and Planters even starting giving the band discounts for ordering so many cases.) The crowds ate it up, whisked into blissful abandon by DOE's increasingly elaborate stage antics. "We always tried to out-do the last show, and we wanted every show to be different and more over-the-top than the last," says Forsythe.
Despite the asterisked obscenity, T-shirts with the inquiry "Who the F*ck Is Ed?" started causing administrative troubles at the area's high schools. The band sought to answer the question by introducing the public to their namesake: Ed "Aardvark," a Cloverdale character known for freaking kids out by eating ants. "We finally brought him out onstage, this old, funky, quirky, wiry dude with glasses," Forsythe remembers, "and said, 'Here's Ed,' and nobody believed us!" Despite widespread popularity, Disciples of Ed broke up shortly afterward.
Another funk band ruling the scene were the Louies, who made a live demo tape that captures a short-lived atom bomb of a band. Started in 1990 in Sonoma, the Louies soon annexed members from all over the county, swelling at one point to be a 14-piece funk juggernaut. The Louies were high on showmanship, costumes, antics and audience involvement—singer Blane Lyon often crowd-surfed while straddling a giant inflatable whale—and usually played to packed houses, either opening for Primus or headlining.
"We were starting off when we were young," says Lyon now, "so we all just gave love! It was never about the money for us back then. It was all about writing songs, performing—we totally believed in it. And that was a beautiful, beautiful thing that we shared."
Guitarist Lincoln Barr, who joined the Louies when he was just 15, remembers playing wide-eyed at the "Ugly Clothes" rite-of-passage parties with Disciples of Ed, building a huge skateboard ramp at the band's practice space, sharing the stage with a young Green Day and sporting ridiculous, tacky outfits onstage. "I try to convince my wife that it was cool then," he says now, "but she doesn't buy it."
What he doesn't completely remember are the songs. When I rattle off a few titles, he howls with laughter, since, like Lyon, Barr hasn't owned a tape of the band in years. Still, he misses the carefree pre-grunge atmosphere. "I have to admit—of course, my tastes in music have changed a lot and the things I want out of a show have changed and maybe I'm not as in touch as I used to be—but it would be refreshing to see people having fun a little bit more," he says. "At least every once in a while."
Perhaps one of my favorite demo tapes in the pile is from the decidedly un-fun Legion of Orb, an eerie goth-punk Petaluma band formed in 1988. The cassette is covered with a hand-cut label, and its plastic case, devoid of the usual insert, is labeled with a sword, a crown, some clouds and Old English lettering. One song, "Necrophiliac," says it all: "Burning candles! / Covered knives! / You're a necrophiliac, because I'm dead inside!"
With haunting leads, chromatic riffs and brooding vocals, Legion of Orb's cassette sums up the attraction to extreme psychosis that lures disaffected teenagers growing up in a hick town. Elusive frontman Dan Puskar proved impossible to immediately track down, but I found guitarist Phil Lieb, who confirms that the band once aptly opened for Neurosis at the Phoenix before eventually calling it quits. "I was a few years older than the other members," says Lieb. "There were a lot of lifestyle problems and such, and basically the band just ran its course."
Like so many other bands I've tracked down, no members of Legion of Orb have any recordings of their old band at all, and the surprise existence of their demo tape represents a small-scale holy grail.
Far from cultural detritus, there's a whole history in the cast-aside cassettes of the world, and in many ways, these old tapes are such personal documents—imagine losing a diary 20 years ago, only to have someone call up out of the blue wanting to talk about its contents—that it's no surprise to hear the recurring question from just about every band I speak with: "Oh my God, can you make me a copy of that?"
And really, after everything they've given me, how can I say no? I've got a lot of demo-tape dubbing to do.
Petaluma lore is a thick quilt of defunct bands, but Coffee and Donuts remain passionately in the hearts of most old-timers. Inextricably linked with the groundbreaking Jaks skateboard team, the band played a jazzy amalgam of punk, jazz, blues and reggae; played with Operation Ivy and fIREHOSE; shared a rehearsal space with Victims Family; and made the rounds of skateboard contests, parties and charity benefits.
Coffee and Donuts never officially manufactured a demo tape, but their practice tapes were passed around like secrets between friends and promoters, endlessly dubbed and cherished. Bassist K. C. Cordoza says he hasn't owned anything by the band in years except for a third-generation cassette that an old friend recently copied for him. The mangled tape that I managed to find had to be disassembled and untwisted in order to play at all.
Cordoza's the only member still in Petaluma, and when I ask why the band broke up, he replies with a short laugh. "The drummer slept with my girlfriend. And also . . . yeah, that was pretty much it. I wasn't really motivated to continue. I was mature enough to kinda deal with it, but at the same time, it was my two best friends in the world stabbing me in the back." Ouch. The band broke up in 1991.
The Garden may not have been too prominent around the late '80s, but their silk-screened, modern rock&–inflected demo tape holds up very well as an example of the diversity in the area; no local band sounded like them, except maybe Cast of Thousands. The band played Andrews Hall, the Studio KAFE, the Cotati Cabaret and the Palace Theatre, went on a Northwest tour to open for Alice in Chains and played with Faith No More at the River Theater. Before breaking up, the band clung to a thread by auditioning drummers for over a year, which frontman Michael Estes calls "the biggest hell I think I've ever gone through."
From Napa came the Bwana Devils, four oddball punk rockers from Vintage High School who released six different demo tapes during an unlikely career that began in 1983. Napa isn't exactly a rock 'n' roll town, and guitarist Pat Hazen tells of a Battle of the Bands at the Napa Fairgrounds gone awry. "It was pretty confrontational," Hazen, now 50, says. "People were screaming, I thought we were going to be killed in front of a thousand people, and we had to sneak out the back."
The Bwana Devils instead played mostly out of town, including a show with Jane's Addiction in Vacaville and a Davis frat party with the Replacements. Honing their unique brand of rollicking punk, a few nibbles from record labels came their way, "but nothing really panned out," Hazen says. The band split in 1991, and the demo tapes—plus 1,500 practice cassettes—are all that remain.
Metal bands including ICE, Stone Crow and Broken Ties abounded in the '80s, but none shredded as hard as Malicious, whose meagerly hand-drawn demo tape Addicted to Pain belies the fierce speed and volume contained within. Booking shows was hard for a speed-metal band in those days, and the band instead threw weekly parties at their practice space in Petaluma.
Drummer Matt McKillop points out that the band opened for Exodus, Death Angel and Vio-lence, and that the members goaded each other to dizzying heights of speed and volume. "When I hear that stuff, that was the baddest-ass drumming I will ever give to the world," McKillop says. "They pushed me to a level that I'll never get to again." The band broke up when guitarist Joe Miller died of cancer in the early '90s.
Originally a three-piece, Animal Farm at one point boasted over a dozen members on trumpet, sax, pedal steel, accordion, piano, mandolin and violin. "Certainly, it was a recipe for chaos," recalls frontman Preston Booker, who started the band in 1986. "We had a lot of hectic shows where it didn't come together, but now and then we had this huge ensemble and it would kinda work, and it would be pretty magical."
Animal Farm played with Cake at the tiny Old Vic before that Sacramento group got huge, and won a Battle of the Bands at Magnolia's, allowing them to record at Prairie Sun in Cotati. Like all of the band's other temporary cassettes, the tape I found is hand-labeled. Animal Farm never did put out an official release.
Echoing the experience of so many other bands of the era, Booker sums up the group's early-'90s demise. "We fell into anarchy at the end," he says.—G.M.