by Kent H. Benjamin
(l-r) Bill Belknap, Ron Flynt, and Steve Allen
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
Twenty years ago, three twentysomething Okies living in Los Angeles released their first album as 20/20. In 1998, 20/20 are based here in Austin (founder Ron Flynt), in Nashville (founder Steve Allen), and in their original hometown Tulsa ("new" kid Bill Belknap has been playing with Flynt over a dozen years), and this fall they've released their best album, Interstate 20/20. Since relocating to Austin in '95 with his family, Flynt has become an active contributor to the local music scene, playing with various artists, producing albums, and doing sessions in his home studio. This is the story of 20/20 and Ron Flynt.
Tulsa natives, Flynt and Allen met at age 10 on a baseball diamond, the former on first base and the latter on second, and soon the two friends were putting their guitars and amps on their bicycles, and playing music. By the sixth grade, they'd formed their first band, written their first song, and already chosen a career path -- rock & roll. Allen took guitar lessons from Eldon Shamblin, but didn't know he was Bob Wills' original guitarist until he saw him on a Texas Playboys reunion on Austin City Limits. Flynt and Allen eventually went to college at OSU in Stillwater, but Allen dropped out and moved to L.A. to pursue a record contract, following the example of Tulsans Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour, who had just scored a hit in 1975 with "I'm on Fire."
By the time Allen scored his own record deal, for a single on Bomp Records, Flynt and a whole bunch of OSU/Tulsans had moved to L.A., so Allen got both Flynt and Phil Seymour to play on what became the "Giving It All" single (which can be found on Rhino's Shake It Up! -- American Power Pop II CD with 20/20 on the cover). By this time, Mike Gallo had been recruited for the live act, and the band was officially christened 20/20.
The band's first L.A. gig was at the Whiskey (with gear borrowed from Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos). 20/20 already had two multi-instrumentalists, but wanted an extra musician on stage, so they auditioned Peter Case, who had just left the Nerves; he opted out after a single rehearsal to form a band where he would be the only singer-songwriter, the Plimsouls. Chris Silagyi was recruited on guitar and keyboards instead. 20/20 soon started getting regular gigs at the Whiskey, Starwood, and Madame Wong's. In fact, 20/20 was one of the bands that started that whole scene in L.A.
"There were no clubs for new bands to play in," explains Flynt. "Gary Valentine talked Esther Wong, owner of a Chinese restaurant called Madame Wong's, into letting his band play on a Tuesday night, and we played there the next Tuesday. We got to be really popular, and one night we got to meet Brian Wilson and Tom Petty, who'd come down to see us play; that was the first time we met Petty."
Petty and Seymour were best friends, the latter musician having done backing vocals and arrangements on Petty's first two hits, "Breakdown" and "American Girl."
"Tom came down to the sessions, and we met him again," remembers Flynt. "He would often be working in the studio next door. In fact, when we were recording my song 'Remember the Lightning,' which was a bit of an homage to/rip-off of 'American Girl,' he walked into the room. He just looked at me, smiled, and said, 'Sounds good, keep it up.' Of course, he thought it was cool. After all, he'd nicked the riff for his song from Bo Diddley."
Having cemented their reputation as a formidable live act, 20/20 leased their eponymous debut in October 1979, garnering radio play around the country for the songs "Yellow Pills" and "Cheri," along with some isolated regional airplay for "Remember the Lightning" and "Tell Me Why." The synth sounds that were predominant on songs like "Yellow Pills" were something new and fresh to popular music; it was one of the first tunes to get radio airplay with synthesizer sounds. "We were big fans of Brian Eno and Bowie's Low period," recalls Flynt. "We were into weird sounds and always liked quirky noises."
The success of 20/20 led to an appearance on American Bandstand, which the group watched from an emergency room on the road; they were driving to a gig and remembered that it was almost time for their performance to air, and a hospital was the first place they could think of that would have a TV they could watch. Finding one close by, they raced into the ER and commandeered the TV, attendant patients being quite amazed to see a bunch of long hairs run into the room, watch themselves on TV with Dick Clark, change the channel back, and rush out!
Soon after, the band released a second album, Look Out!, which again received critical acclaim and regional airplay with "Nuclear Boy" and "Strange Side of Love." Unfortunately, disaster struck in the form of the Knack and an albatross hung around their necks that went by the name of power pop. "Power Pop" was a term coined by Pete Townshend in 1967 to describe the music played by the Who, Beach Boys, and the Small Faces. In the late Seventies, the term was resurrected by Bomp magazine, and in a manner similar to the spread of the term "No Depression," applied to the music of bands who ignored progressive rock, stadium rock, disco, and singer-songwriter styles that topped the charts. Badfinger, the Raspberries, the Nazz, and the Dwight Twilley Band all got retroactively termed "power pop." 20/20 was among the first "new" bands to get the label.
At the time, the band was merely puzzled. After all, they didn't sound like any of those bands. Maybe the Dwight Twilley Band in places; certainly they had a lot in common with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who, ironically enough, the label never stuck to, even though songs like "American Girl," "Breakdown," and "Refugee" were power pop to a T. Worse still, the whole of the L.A. pop scene had already become a single movement to the media and Bomp's power pop tag became the favored way to describe it. When the enormous backlash against the Knack hit, it virtually ended the careers of many far superior L.A. bands, among them 20/20 and the Plimsouls, who were undoubtedly the other two most popular bands of the scene.
"It was easy for writers to label the L.A. scene at the time," explains Flynt, "because there were a lot of bands coming from the same place with similar philosophies: the Knack, Paul Collin's Beat, the Plimsouls, Gary Valentine & the Know, the Rubinoos. We were all from L.A., playing three-minute pop songs. We weren't guitar heroes, or playing stadium rock. It wasn't Journey. It was the antithesis of that. All of us felt the same way, so it was easy for people to clump us all together even though we were all very different. There was a lot of other bands at the same time doing the same thing."
20/20's label could never translate radio play and sold-out shows into national chart success, so when the label wanted to do a third album, 20/20 declined; they reasoned that if Bomp couldn't sell Heart, either -- a band that had left the label and then immediately topped the pop charts -- they might have better luck elsewhere. A new deal with a major label fell through, leaving the band without a label and still in debt from the initial advance, so the band released their third album Sex-Trap in 1983 on their own Mainway Records. Spurred by more critical acclaim, the album was picked up by Enigma, but again, the band had signed to a label that would later become successful before the band had any hit records.
Discouraged and still in debt, Allen went to work for Warner Bros. Records, and eventually moved to Nashville. Flynt moved back to Tulsa, where he dropped out of the music business for a couple of years. Bill Belknap was still living in Tulsa where he co-owns a successful recording studio and works as an engineer (he was behind the board for Stewart Copeland's Grammy-winning soundtrack to Rumblefish). Flynt and Belknap did session work together, and played in a weekend band, later doing the soundtracks for two Saturday morning cartoon shows. In November of 1995, Flynt and his family relocated to Austin.
Soon, the idea of reforming 20/20 was discussed, and Belknap insisted that if they reformed, he had to be the drummer; still all the same age, they wisely opted not to update the name to 40/40. Nevertheless, the time finally seemed right for the band; far from being forgotten, 20/20 actually had the first nationally distributed power pop fanzine, Yellow Pills, named after one of their songs.
"Steve and I have been playing and working together for over 35 years," remarks Flynt. "And I don't mean just hangin' every once in a while, but working at it. From the time we started the first little band, we were dead serious about music. And remember, we only were apart for a few years in the Eighties. We never actually talked about breaking the band up. I just kind of got in my car and drove away one day."
Securing a record deal with Oglio Records in 1995, the band recorded its first release in over 10 years, 4 Day Tornado, at Belknap's studio in Tulsa. The band played South by Southwest showcases in 1996 and 1997, and headlined power pop festivals around the country, where they played to packed houses who were blown away at both their ability as a great rock band playing the old favorites and the new songs which highlighted their sets. 20/20 recorded their fifth album, Interstate 20/20, primarily via Federal Express, with basic tracks for some songs being cut at Belknap's Long Branch Studio in Tulsa, butmost vocals and hundreds of overdubs being done at both Flynt's Jumping Dog Studio in Austin and Allen's Blue Planet Studio in Nashville. Fans and writers alike agree that the new album is the best work the band has ever done.
Recently, Flynt also began work on his first ever solo record -- a natural when a musician has his own home studio. In only three years, Flynt's Jumping Dog Studio has been filled with local musicians on a daily basis. Like many of us, he's fallen for Austin.
"I love Austin," he gushes. "I've never been more at home anywhere. I like living in a lot of different places -- New York, L.A., Tulsa, Dallas, but I've never been happier anywhere than in Austin. The music scene is so great. A lot of times people talk about it as the 'Velvet Rut'; you can get into it and it's so comfortable here that you can just sorta let time go by and you don't work. But it's had just the opposite effect on me. I've never worked as much, since we got here and I got a little bit established. Since then, I've just been busy all the time. I've been so lucky to get to record with so many great people. My kids like it here. We're all just so happy!"
In addition to recording and producing Blue Cartoon's first local release this summer, Flynt has also been playing keyboards for Scrappy Jud Newcomb as part of the local guitar slinger's Southbound Monarchs. Flynt has also been doing a lot of songwriting with several local musicians.
"Troy Campbell and I wrote a song together called 'These Days,' says Flynt. "Monte Warden and I have written a number of songs together; 'Sentimental Girls' and maybe one more were supposed to be on his next album. ... The first time we met, we wrote that song, and the second time we demoed it at my house with me playing all the instruments and Monte singing lead. Then he broke a rib of mine playing basketball outside the studio -- that was the thanks I got! We went to see him open for Radney Foster, and he sang that song and introduced me from the stage saying I was 'the tall goofy guy out there whose ribs he had broken playing basketball.'"
Lest you think Flynt too diversified, however -- the other pitfall of the "Velvet Rut" -- he makes it clear where his sights are set.
"We're going to continue to work the 20/20 album for a year," he says. "We're getting radio adds like crazy in the last few weeks, and we'll continue to do more short tours. We're already part way into recording the next album, too. We'll probably bring in a fourth musician in the studio, and use some guest artists next time. I like being able to record in different places, but still have a very unified sound.
"One thing I would like to do the next time is cut the album quicker, and do less of it by myself. I'd like to be with Bill or Steve, or we're thinking about having another person come in and play, so that there's more bouncing around of ideas. There's something magical that happens when two people record something together. Something I've gotten from Scrappy is that you really can interact and make a moment better when you're together."
There is something magical that happens when Flynt makes music, actually. But in a final touch of irony, some radio programmers and writers continue to tag 20/20 as "power pop" and say it's not commercially viable. Try telling that to Tom Petty. You'd think Flynt and 20/20 would be called ahead of their time, not retro, now wouldn't you?