Monday, January 18, 2010

The Imperial Dogs and an Interview With Don Waller (Part 1)

This Ain't the Summer of Love.

Nor is it the mellow of winter. I received a copy of The Imperial Dogs Live! In Long Beach (October 30, 1974) in the mail a few days ago, and upon watching it three times now let me describe it to you in one word: BLISTERING.

If you don't like smack you in the face with a two-by-four, teeth-shattering music... Do not purchase this DVD. Don't even think about it... In fact, cease from reading this post, and forget that it even exists. Live your pseudo-hippie existence within the feeble walls of your peace loving comfort zone... Whatever you need to do... But don't tempt this tainted canine, because while his bark is loud, his bite will bleed you to death.

We are not talking about death metal here... far from it. Instead I am referring to the childhood days of loud electric rock and roll when the genre' was still in its teenage years... Before corporate America turned music into the money factory that would become the mockery of all that was once sacred... Before Disco wielded its ugly sword. I am referring to the early '70s... When the scene was just getting over the groovy trip of the '60s and the flower children were starting to realize that there was quite a bit to be pissed about, and were evolving into raging and angry teens... Or at least their big brothers were... And those who knew better.

It was the birth of the atomic age of rock and roll, cliched as the pre-punk era. In this concert The Imperial Dogs blast away with their own unique sound, even incorporating a few covers from the likes of The Kinks, Mott the Hoople, and The Velvet Undergound. The audience stands still like a robot army for the most part, as if they are unsure what they are witnessing is pure unadulterated genius, or just filthy mayhem. I would tend to venture that it is both.

Sure, the MC5 and the Stooges were doing their thing in Detroit, and Television and The Velvets were integrating New York City, but nobody was doing it in L.A. in 1974 except for The Imperial Dogs.

It was a time for primitive guitar riffs, fat and heavy bass lines, bull in a China store-style drumming and incoherent but yet wonderfully audible vocals. It was a time for the Imperial Dogs, who incidentally (and unbeknownst to them) were way ahead of their time.

This DVD is a must buy for anyone who considers themselves a fan of raw unfiltered music. Never mind the ancient quality of the video itself, with its primal footage and incurable VHS style tracking, the music on this DVD is... Let me think of it again... Oh yeah... BLISTERING.


That stinky uncooked loaf of hamburger in your fridge that you threw away yesterday because it was turning green isn't as raw as this concert footage is. What Don Waller and the boys were serving up that fateful October night in 1974 wasn't your mama's meatloaf... Just a heaping helping of soul bending, trash kicking, guitar infused, spine knuckling music. The fact that it was recorded in mono (directly into the microphone on the video camera) is the only indication you need to know to turn it up as loud as possible.

And to think that you could have been there too, for only a dollar...

I contacted Don Waller, the front man for the group and he was gracious enough to take the time to let me ask him a few questions. This is unwarranted... Currently as a professional writer he has his own deadlines to meet, so for him to take the time to converse with an amateur such as myself, it says quite a lot about Don Waller the man, and the spirit he brings to his passion, which is music.

This will be a two part series, if not forever ongoing. Through our correspondence, Don and I have covered a lot of ground... Not just in music, but in a number of various topics, and each time I would get an email from him responding with his answers, I would marvel at his knowledge of not just music, but the other fine things in life. Most of all... And perhaps best, I feel like I have a gained a new friend throughout this entire process.

What follows are some excerpts of our conversations regarding the Imperial Dogs DVD. I HIGHLY suggest you buy it...

(BD:) Don... Seriously... When is the last time you went streaking? Based off of the DVD, during the intro to Lizard Love it seems that your trousers are having a hard time staying at the waist level... Furthermore, you didn't seem to mind at all, even appeasing the crowd by bending over and giving them a shot of a full moon. Was that "shock factor" you were going for, or were you just too blitzed to notice, or did you just not care?

(DW:) Never been streaking in my life. Although a pal of ours used to throw parties where everyone had to get naked when you came in the door ...

Truth is, I was sweating like a toad 'cause every got-damn light in the room had to be burning as brightly as possible so the primitive (pre-Betamax) video camera could record anything, which made the stage hotter than the proverbial seventh circle of Hell. Plus, leather trousers tend to s-t-r-e-t-c-h when you're jumping around like a baboon in heat. This combination results the the "wardrobe malfunction" that you see on the DVD, which was entirely accidental.

It was also extremely distracting, annoying, and inhibiting -- in that it kept me from doing all the moves that I would've normally done onstage. This is one of the things that I personally hated about watching the videotape when we saw it for the first time (and made me throw it in a box where it sat for 35 years ... )

So, it had nothing to do with any "shock factor." (And, for what it's worth, neither myself nor anyone else in the Imperial Dogs were high on anything when we were on stage that fateful night. You'll notice that none of us are drinking so much as a glass of water between songs.) We're simply trapped on stage, in the middle of a gig that's being videotaped, and everything is going wrong (constantly battling feedback, the audience's non-reaction), so we're just fighting our way through the problems.

I had no idea that I was mooning the audience, but then I didn't care either. We were just trying to do the best show we could under some very difficult circumstances.

For example, when we took the stage we were stunned to learn the lights were going to have to stay on and that there were so few people there. (Actually, there were 250-plus, but we'd put out at least two thousand flyers, covering every high school and record/music store within 20 miles of the college, so we were ... disappointed to say the least.) And ... right after I chain Tim the bass player to his amp, my chain belt breaks, which requires everything to halt until I can hammer it back together (this is why there's an abrupt stop in the filming here), which -- in my mind, at least -- wrecks all the momentum we're trying to create right from the start ...

(BD:) Tell to me about the space of time that led up to this Imperial Dogs gig, or any other for that matter... From about an hour before you hit the stage, walk me through your typical 1974 pre-gig ritual.

(DW:) We didn't really have a pre-gig ritual. If you weren't a Top 40 cover band, gigs were almost impossible to get. In fact, this was only our second gig as the Imperial Dogs (and the first since we'd made our debut under that moniker at Gazzari's seven months earlier). We'd spent the interim finding a place to live (where we could also practice),soundproofing the garage with fiberglass insulation and carpet remnants, writing songs, and practicing -- 90 minutes a night, four or five nights a week. We all had day jobs.

Basically, we put on our stage clothes, drove to the gig, set up our equipment ourselves -- although we had some help from Danny Bruch, who was Bill's best friend and a fellow drummer (and who can be seen climbing down from the stage at the top of the tape) and Tom Gardner, who stood out in the middle of an empty room and helped us balance the sound before the audience was allowed to enter. We then went into a tiny room across the hall from the "multi-purpose room" where the gig was going to take place until the people who coughed up the one whole dollar to see this insanity (and got a free "Imperial Dogs barf bag") had been admitted, tuned up, and hit the stage.

That's how we did it when we played Rodney's English Disco in Hollywood two weeks later, too. 'Cept there we didn't even have a "dressing room" ...

Before we were the Imperial Dogs, we were Sugar Boy (1972), then White Light (the first half of 1973). We did about 15 gigs as Sugar Boy and about five as White Light. They were all the same. We showed up, set up, "soundchecked," and tried to rock whoever was there as hard as we could -- given that they had never heard 90% of the songs we were playing ('cause they were either our original material or obscure covers). We did our partying after the gigs ...

(BD:) While watching the DVD I noticed several influential aspects of your live show that seemed to be cutting edge in 1974, that evolved into what is now condidered mainstream live rock and roll, both musically and visually... For instance on the DVD after Loud Hard and Fast you seem to be spitting into the crowd. I have seen this several times through out the years at concerts perhaps most notably by Greg Steele of L.A.'s Sleeze Metal act Faster Pussycat... I know this is a lame example, but I can't imagine it was being done in 1974 by too many performing bands. I guess my question is this... What other influences would you attribute to The Imperial Dogs, and in 1974 and before, who was influencing The Imperial Dogs?

(DW:) Spitting into the crowd? No way. I never did that. Spitting onstage to clear the phlegm outta my throat, yeah. (Hey, we all were -- and still are -- smokers.) I used to chew up a bunch of blood and foaming capsules during the instrumental break in "This Ain't The Summer Of Love" and simulate a puking O.D. -- and I'm spitting the residue out of my mouth as I'm trying to sing the next verse, but again, I'm spitting onstage.

As for influences, have you got three or four hours? Or days? I started playing piano when I was five and the next year was forced to pick a band instrument (on the theory that if I got drafted I could carry a horn instead of a rifle), so I played trumpet all the way though high school, which is where I met then-fellow trumpet player Tim Hilger and then-alto saxophonist Paul Therrio, who was two years younger than Tim and was already a sort of child prodigy, playing in a local big band that performed at Elks Lodges, etc. After high school, we all went to various colleges (UCLA for me, El Camino JC for Tim, UC Irvine for Paul) to avoid Vietnam and fulfill our parents' dreams of us being doctors, lawyers, whatever.

None of us enjoyed our college experience. Paul dropped out almost immediately;

Tim and I stuck it out -- Tim had transferred to UCLA after two years. But we all kept in touch.

Now, to rewind several years ... Beyond the music that I was exposed to in band, I started hearing things on the radio (the Beach Boys, surf music, etc.), but it wasn't until the British Invasion that I got really interested in this other kind of music. Seeing the Rolling Stones and, especially, James Brown on "The T.A.M.I. Show" at a local movie theatre in 1964 was a life-changing experience. Same goes for seeing the Who on TV's "Shindig," playing live at the Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival in England and breaking up their equipment. It just made me want to be up there with them wrecking everything ...

The Stones -- as I quickly learned from reading the backs of their records in the bins at the local grocery store ('cause I couldn't afford to buy records) as well as this "Their Own Story" paperback biography -- were doing all these songs by "R&B" performers that I'd mostly never heard on the radio. And I found that the music on the radio that I really liked was done by self-contained bands who were mostly drawing from this R&B tradition (the Animals, Them, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, etc.). The blues boom of the late-'60s (everybody from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Blues Project to Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jeff Beck Group to Albert and B.B. King) intensified this. Same for the soul music of the times (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Temptations, James Brown -- again-- and a hundred other similar acts.) A lot of blues-oriented jazz, too.

I started going to concerts in 1969 -- I didn't have a car or even friends with access to a car -- before then -- and I saw Jimi Hendrix, the Doors with Jerry Lee Lewis and Sweetwater opening, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (with Mick Taylor in the band), and the Stones with Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King, and Terry Reid opening that year. (Before that, all I saw were bands on TV or local acts playing custom car shows or high school dances, etc.) But after that, I started going to as many concerts/club shows that I could afford -- and was really interested in seeing.

One night, I went to see what was then still called the Small Faces (Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood had just joined the band) on what was their first U.S. tour. After that, I never went back to my Spanish class again.

Since Tim and Paul and I all liked the same sort of stuff -- and Paul had started playing guitar -- we decided to form a rock 'n' roll band. Tim somehow got hornswoggled into playing bass and I volunteered to jump around and do the shouty bits. Paul's surf buddy, Ron Vaselenko (he went to high school with us, too) was playing a little guitar, so he came in on rhythm. Our original drummer was another ex-trumpet player from our high school, but he wanted to play more Grand Funk Railroad-type material, so we put up ads at local music stores. Bill Willett, who was a year younger than Paul and came from neighboring Carson -- we were all from north Torrance -- answered. He came over to Vaselenko's garage, where we practiced, and we started playing the Faces' "Had Me A Real Good Time" -- which is a shuffle -- and he just played it perfectly! We couldn't believe it. None of the other drummers that we auditioned had a clue as to how to play that groove. We asked him if he wanted to join on the spot. Thankfully, he did.

This was 1972. We called ourselves Sugar Boy, after the redneck chauffeur character in Robert Penn Warren's "All The King's Men" novel. Good blues name. And we played -- besides the songs that Paul and I wrote ourselves (and we always did original material from Day One) -- a lot of blues-oriented material: Muddy Waters's "Don't Go No Further," Chuck Berry's "Down The Road Apiece," Earl King's "Come On," Free's "I'll Be Creepin'," Z.Z. Top's "Bedroom Thang," Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman," Savoy Brown's "Tell Mama" and "Flood In Houston," the Climax Blues Band's "Reap What I've Sowed," Black Pearl's cover of the Sandpebbles' "Forget It," the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and the Faces' "Had Me A Real Good Time." Paul could play harp and slide, so we took advantage of that.

But we also played Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," the Move's "Hello Suzie," the Blue Oyster Cult's "Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll," the Who's "Baba O' Riley," the Yardbirds' "For Your Love," Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "As I Went Out One Morning," Them's "Mystic Eyes," Randy Newman's "Gone Dead Train," and the Small Faces' "Afterglow."

We wore a lot of velvet and scarves, dressed "flash," and did stuff with bullwhips and a nasty straw hat 'n' cane routine on "Hello Suzie" ...

At the beginning of 1973, we got tired of the "Stones clones" comparisons and jettisoned the rhythm guitarist as well as most of the blues-oriented material. We started doing things like the MC5's "Sister Anne," Detroit's version of the Velvet Underground's "Rock And Roll," David Bowie's "Suffragette City," Fleetwood Mac's "Station Man" and "This Is The Rock," and the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." (The Move, BOC, and Who tunes stayed in the setlist).

Part of this was just playing music that we liked. Part of this was just figuring out what we were good at. Hey, I WISH I could sing like Stevie Marriott ...

During this time (1969-73), I can remember seeing Z.Z. Top, the J. Geils Band, Mott The Hoople, the Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Slade, Black Oak Arkansas, Free, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Lou Reed, the Who, the Jeff Beck Group (the second version), Sparks (with the Mankey brothers), Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, Elton John, Van Morrison, Derek & The Dominos, the Kinks, Aerosmith, and the New York Dolls.

But the act that really turned our heads around was seeing the "Raw Power" incarnation of Iggy Pop & The Stooges. I personally saw them play the Whisky a Go Go nine times!

After that, we got more stripped-down and darker and came on more like a street gang, although when we played Gazarri's were still doin' stuff like the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" and the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" as well as the Kinks' "Till The End Of The Day."

I realize I've kinda digressed myself into the ozone here ... The short version of who/what were the Imperial Dogs' influences is this: mid-'60s British bands -- the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, and, especially, the Kinks ('cause Paul's a huge Kinks fan) -- and all the things that influenced them (blues, R&B, soul, '50s rock) ... All the "garage-rock" bands that're on Lenny Kaye's original "Nuggets" compilation ... All the Detroit rock bands (the Stooges, the MC5, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, etc.) ... the Blue Oyster Cult (for their thinking-man's approach to metal) ... the Doors and the Velvet Underground (the darkness) ... the New York Dolls ... girl groups ... the British "glam-rock" (T. Rex, Slade, Mott The Hoople, all the Chinn & Chapman stuff).

To me, our influences seem kinda obvious. We were way into the pure sound vs. notes of the Yardbirds, the sophisticated metal of the BOC, the Kinks and "Shazam" -"Looking On"-"Split Ends" era-Move, the darkness of the Velvets & the Doors, the pure energy of the MC5, the song structure of the New York Dolls, etc. and a whole lot more "R&B" -- in terms of groove as well as the sock-it-to-ya showmanship that, say, James Brown or Tina Turner had goin' on. Very physical, muscle and sweat SHOWS. We saw ourselves as part of one long chain that stretched back to the '50s. We were just trying to take it further. And, of course, we believed in SONGS.

Well, we were also into being outrageous, giving people something to talk about. Showing people we were different as well as sounding different. Hence the chains, riding crops, and the blood/foaming capsules. Showmanship. We also got more aggressive to combat the combination of apathy and antipathy that we faced from clueless audiences ... We didn't try to create a "good time" vibe. We wanted to smack people upside the head and shock them into reconsidering their musical and social values.

Towards the end, we realized we'd painted ourselves into a bit a of a corner musically, and we started trying to figure out a way to get back to our roots by playing things like Earl Vince & The Valiants' "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite," Eddie Cochran's "Nervous Breakdown," and the Leaves' version of "Hey Joe." 'Tis a shame we couldn't have held it together ...


As you can see, Don Waller has a lot to say, and isn't afraid to take the long route to make his point. I tried to stay away from typical questions, but my fascination with this band is so much that I found myself having a hard time not coming across as a typical fan at times. Thus, my question about influences, which actually based on his answers, seems pretty obvious to me for the most part. Still I'm glad I asked it, because there is so much more in his answer than what was obvious... Which is the beauty of talking to Don who has such a vast knowledge of the subject-at-hand based off of his own experiences.

There are more questions and more answers, and I will post them soon, hopefully within a few days. There was so much material to read through to piece it together as one glorious piece, but I don't want to over-do it and lose the potency of some of Don's answers...

So stay tuned to the Bigfoot Diaries for Part Two. Meanwhile go to The Imperial Dogs' site and buy this DVD... I assure you that it will be one of your favorite purchases of 2010.

(Unless of course you are that pseudo-hippie I spoke about above... 'Cause this ain't the summer of love.)


Essie said...

This is GREAT! stuff.. WOW!

Jenny Lens said...

I met Don in spring 76, photographed him for about the next 4 years, when I'd see him at a show or party. I've asked him and Phast Phreddie to PLEASE republish Back Door Man, their seminal rock fanzine. I'm very happy he is finally getting recognition for his music. Good questions, cos while you and I might be able to figure out his influences, a lot of people can't. Good stuff!

Back Door Man published my first shot. Lots of history, but this preceded me. Thanks!

gooseneck said...

Thank you Jen... I am very happy you stopped by. I have seen your photographs before, just didn't know who took them necessarily. After buying the I-Dogs DVD and conversing with Don, I just kind of started poking around and seeing who else was out there. I am so happy to see that the counter culture not only survived, but has maintained itself!

I too would love to see BDM get republished...

Thanks for the kind words. =)

Dave said...

Absolutly brilliant piece! Rock writing of the first order. Waller is cool and I've said before, the classic front man. Many would say Robert Plant, but they're wrong. Think about it, in the Iperial Dogs DVD the band is fighting all kinds of problems from feedback to "wardrobe malfunction"; not to mention a crowd that for the most part doesn't seem to be getting it, and they are still able to pull things off with intensity and high energy. Most bands I see or hear now days can't do half as good, and that's with everything going right and a salivating audience, that have been brainwashed into believing that the current corporate sell out is the next big thing. Anyway, great piece Man. Here's hoping for a return pf BDM and a reissue of Unchained Maladies.

Robby said...

WOAH! How you became a kick-ass cook and did not end up a music journalist is beyond me.

When can we expect the book version? Maybe a collaboration between you and Jenny - your writing and her photos.