Young, Loud, and Cheap
The Skunks, the Band That Broke Austin Out of the Seventies
Maybe you were actually there to see the Skunks at Raul's. Maybe you weren't hitting the local clubs then, but remember hearing their songs "Cheap Girl," "Earthquake Shake," and others in rotation on KLBJ-FM in the early Eighties. Maybe you're only familiar with their work through the Sons of Hercules' perennial cover of "Gimme Some." Or maybe you're just hearing the Skunks for the first time now, via the live performances at Max's Kansas City in New York and Austin's Back Room on the just-released Earthquake Shake: Live. Whatever the case may be, chances are if you like loud music and live in Austin, you've been influenced, at least in some small way, by the Skunks.
Formed in 1977 and disbanded after enough lineup changes to render the local trio all but unrecognizable to its earliest fans in early 1983, Austin's Skunks managed to straddle the then-important punk/New Wave fence without calling themselves one or the other. Talking to former band members today, genre classifications like punk or New Wave rarely get mentioned. Instead, they favor the simple adjective "loud." And anyhow, in 1978, the Skunks didn't have to explain themselves.
If they weren't as rough-and-tumble as local punk legends-to-be the Huns, Stains/MDC, or the one-two punch of the Big Boys and Dicks, they were there first. Actually, Randy "Biscuit" Turner, vocalist for the Big Boys, doesn't recall the distinction of punk vs. New Wave being all that essential. He just remembers being sick and tired of Austin's omnipresent cosmic-cowboy crud, hippie-dippie doodling, and hair-band hard rock that made up the local music scene in the Seventies.
While the low rents, smaller-town atmosphere, and general Texas friendliness of Austin back then is now seen as a veritable utopia in these days of traffic jams, sky-high housing costs, and a hovering cloud of dot-com doom, the sad fact is that musically, Austin (and in fact the whole planet) was in a bit of a rut. Sure, there was plenty of both types of music available -- country and western -- but if neither that nor bar-band blues nor bloated arena rock were your bag, you had a problem. Then again, at that point in time, a solution was not far off.
As it turns out, in 1976 a musical revolution was just beginning to change the face of popular music. First engulfing the UK, then spilling over onto American shores, "punk rock" hit and hit hard. As the Seventies crawled on hands and bell-bottom-draped knees past its midpoint, acts like the Ramones and the Damned started coming through Austin. Raul's, a small, unassuming little club on the Drag, opened its doors to this new, irreverent form of entertainment, just as young, individualistic types like Turner started cutting off their long hair and praying to the gods of rock for an end to the long drought. In 1977, when the Skunks formed, those prayers were answered.
"Thank God that dividing line of New Wave vs. punk hadn't affected us much in Austin at that time," says Turner. "I always loved the Skunks' Buzzcocks/Brownsville Station angle of attack -- I thought they were tough cool. They did 'Neat Neat Neat' by the Damned, which I always loved, and their own 'Earthquake Shake' was a great dancing booty manipulator. I always thought it was good, fat rock & roll, stripped down American-style, that matched the time perfectly, and I'm glad I was there."
So are the former Skunks themselves. Jesse Sublett and Eddie Muñoz met in Austin in 1975, just as both were turning 21. Sublett had already played in several local bands, including one called Nasty Habit, when the pair formed Jellyroll, a hard rock & roll/blues band that was among the prototypes for the type of music that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble would later be re-energizing. When Jellyroll disbanded in mid-1977, both Sublett and Muñoz were well-versed in hard rock and looking for a way, to paraphrase the liner notes from an upcoming compilation on Italian label Rave Up, "to blast Austin out of the cosmic cowboy era and put it on the rock & roll map."
After Sublett's brief diversion playing bass as token male with the early riot grrrl band the Violators, featuring guitarists Carla Olson and Kathy Valentine (Textones and Go-Go's, respectively) and drummer Marilyn Dean, he and Muñoz started jamming with drummer Billy Blackmon, and the Skunks were born. Besides songs by the Stones, Who, Kinks, Yardbirds, Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and others, the trio soon began writing its own songs as well. After a "test drive" as the Tools on New Year's Eve 1977, opening for the genre-bending Uranium Savages at Soap Creek Saloon, the Skunks had their official premiere in early 1978, hot on the heels of Dallas' similar-minded Nervebreakers featuring T. Tex Edwards.
After leaving the Violators, who at one point were scheduled to open for the Sex Pistols at their infamous San Antonio gig ("That fell apart because the promoter wanted to fuck the girls in the band," says Skunks manager and Sublett's future bride Lois Richwine, now a Chronicle advertising account executive), Sublett began concentrating on the Skunks. Soon the band was recording in the basement of local radio station KOKE with producer Joe Gracey. The results, a long-delayed LP Sublett calls "The Black Album," marked the first in a series of studio-related setbacks the Skunks would face in their five-year career.
Actually, perhaps the word setback is too strong, excepting the case of "The Black Album," which was finally released in 1981 with what Sublett terms "a clandestine, car-trunk sort of distribution." In general, the band simply suffered from the fact that, in Austin at least, no one knew how to record a loud band.
"We played really, really, really loud," explains Sublett. "We would play the same way in the studio, and back then they didn't know how to record a band like that -- you put a mike in front of a loud amp and it just comes out sounding tinny. It would sound awful, basically. No one was there to take us by the hand and show us how it was done, and nobody cared. It was punk, and New Wave was just a cottage industry. We did everything on the cheap, and it's unfortunate."
The band's first single was a result of this way of doing things. Sublett describes "Can't Get Loose/Earthquake Shake" as "a guerilla production," recorded on two-track in a friend's garage on a Friday afternoon. The recently discovered material from Earthquake Shake: Live, on the other hand, was recorded on cassette and sounds better.
"It had the chance to develop the room sound," posits Sublett.
If the bassist has a special fondness for the cassette recordings despite their primitive nature (or even because of it), it's largely due to the fact that they stem from the band's next period, featuring what is almost unanimously considered to be the Skunks' definitive lineup, and a whirlwind time for the act. Muñoz, who would go on to fame with SoCal New Wave band the Plimsouls, left the group in early 1979.
"When Eddie quit, he thought that was it -- band's over," says Sublett. "That really energized me because I'm a very reactionary person."
So was guitarist Jon Dee Graham at the time.
"I was playing in a little band called the Whippets," remembers the former True Believer, now Austin's gravel-voiced answer to Tom Waits, "and Richard Luckett walked by and said, 'Why don't you audition for the Skunks?'"
Before you could say "Sister Ray," the teenaged Graham realized he and Sublett had a good rapport, and soon the band was recording its own singles -- still with questionable results -- and gigging like nobody's business.
Live, the second Skunks lineup of Sublett, Graham, and Blackmon, as heard on the formerly new CD, were something to contend with. Less raw and just a hair older and more polished than the Muñoz version, the Skunks were now at their peak, writing songs that would elevate them to the status of one of the "big three" songwriting bands of the time, along with the Standing Waves and Terminal Mind.
Within those three entities, says former Standing Wave Larry Seaman, "the Skunks were the classic rock band among the bands who played Raul's. We were more angular and arrhythmic and 'of the times,' and Terminal Mind was, I guess, in between us, because lyrically they were more angst-ridden. And both of those bands were just so great to dance to!" And as with most everyone you saw dancing to the Skunks at Raul's, you could rest assured that the next time you saw them, they would be onstage with a band of their own.
Of course there was the occasional dissident who found the Skunks' music misogynistic thanks to their best-remembered songs, "Gimme Some" and "Cheap Girl." Ironically, Sublett reveals that the former was originally written for the Violators; odds are no one would have complained if the song was sung by a woman moaning that she never gets any action from her always-gone musician boyfriend. Sublett liked the song too much to give away, however, and took it back for the Skunks, reversing its point of view to that of a thuggish male demanding sex from an unwilling partner.
Interestingly enough, in both cases there wouldn't have been a song at all if Sublett didn't have a tin ear -- the songs resulted from his failed attempts to learn the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'" and the Rolling Stones' "Stupid Girl," respectively. And then there was "Telewoman," perhaps the best Borscht Belt schtick/punk rock song ever made, courtesy of the old chestnut "What are the four fastest methods of communication in the world? Telephone, telegraph, television, and 'tell a woman'!"
With local crowds growing in size and loyalty, the band realized it was time to take their act on the road. It turned out that the Velvet Underground's John Cale, for whom the band had opened a couple of times, had taken a liking to the Skunks. Armed with that knowledge and a demo tape, Sublett and Richwine flew to New York with a vague plan of getting gigs. At first, however, what they got was nowhere. Then they went to the Mudd Club accompanied by a friend who worked with Stiff Records, and things took a quick turn. They were cheerfully and immediately admitted into the club.
"And all these people you only read about in Creem magazine were there," says Sublett, "Andy Warhol and Deborah Harry, and there was John Cale, who goes, 'Hello, Texas. I'll call up my manager Jane Friedman and she'll help you out.'"
And she did just that. Friedman first called Hilly Crystal at CBGB, announcing, "I see you've got John in there in two weeks. I've got the Skunks here, how about you book them three weeks from now?" Continuing through her little black book, within five or 10 minutes she had gotten the band off to a strong start in the Big Apple. For the band's first trip to New York, the trio packed themselves into a $300 International Harvester van hippified by a mural of a giant armadillo leaping through a Texas flag.
"We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies," cracks Sublett.
The journey was more than a little scary thanks to the truck's steering continually going out, and the band kept getting pulled over by the highway patrol whether they were drunk or not.
"We usually were," admits Sublett, "but that was beside the point. We were all small-town guys, but Jon Dee was the smallest; he was a bit more tender than he is now -- 19, fresh -- when we corrupted him. We pull into New York rush hour and he says, 'I think we should just leave,' and then the truck breaks down. Right there. We're in midtown rush hour 10 minutes and the truck breaks down. We were afraid the city would eat us alive."
Outside the city, there were more tense moments. In Virginia, the band stopped and bought fireworks at a gas station -- a situation that should spell danger in the first place. As they were leaving, the station owner yelled, "I don't know about Texas, but here in Virginia, we like women!"
"We didn't figure out that was an insult until 20 minutes later, because we were so tired," laughs Blackmon. "Besides, Jon Dee looked so great with his little miniskirt. I don't know why they had to go and say a thing like that anyway."
Things were going wonderfully for the band until 1980 rolled to a close. First there was the trouble with "The Black Album." Against the Skunks' wishes, Gracey had finally pressed up 500 copies of the two-year-old disc. Claiming the album didn't represent their current sound, the band boycotted the project and brought legal action against Gracey. Interestingly enough, since Muñoz left the band before the tracks were completed, various other guitarists -- including Stevie Ray Vaughan -- completed some unfinished tracks. Vaughan later told Sublett he cut loose with some "wild and crazy" playing, but when the LP finally came out, his lead guitar break was nowhere to be seen. Its absence remains a mystery.
Later in 1981, a major lineup change hit the band -- Graham left the band over a late-night disagreement about an out-of-town gig that fell on the same day as his sister's wedding. Like Muñoz before him, he would hardly fade into obscurity, becoming a member of Austin's fabled True Believers and later an acclaimed solo artist and bandleader.
Graham's replacement was Doug Murray, formerly of Terminal Mind, and the following year original drummer Blackmon also departed and was replaced by Murray's brother and Mind-mate Greg. This version of the band signed a contract with a new Texas label, Republic Records, and issued an album commonly known as "The Purple Album" (the Skunks had a way with naming their projects). The band's popularity continued to grow, but today, that fact seems to annoy Sublett more than please him.
"That was less satisfying performance-wise," he confesses, "but we started making more money, more people, bigger clubs to play for -- we sort of cashed in."
Before things were over, the band would open for punk/New Wave genre superstars like Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and the Police, as more and more bands began opening for them. A couple featured Frank Pugiliese, who would later form the Sons of Hercules and keep the Skunks' progeny "Gimme Some" alive.
With the Sublett/Graham teaming now split, the duo's shared vision was gone, as was much of the Skunks' early energy. A couple of years truly made a difference. The new Skunks lineup was an earnest band, but it lacked vitality. Though he says picking a personal favorite lineup would be tough, Larry Seaman remembers the latter lineup being more diverse.
"They were experimenting with their sound more," says Seaman. "I can see where in retrospect that wouldn't hold up as well. It wasn't as classic, it was more 'of the times.'"
If there were questions about whether the band should continue, fate nearly made a very final decision for them. Returning from playing some shows in Dallas, the group's van hit some ice, rolled over, and ended up sailing down the other side of the highway with the window busted out. When the van skidded to a halt, roadie Pat Costigan was hanging upside down in his seatbelt, he and the band members staring at each other in shock. Luckily, nobody got even a scratch.
The band members themselves may have survived, but the Skunks, after crawling from the wreckage, were roadkill. In the spring of 1983, Sublett fired the Murray twins and, citing personality clashes and a desire to pursue a different musical direction, announced he was retiring the Skunks name. He went on to form the bands Secret Six and Flex before moving to Los Angeles in 1987 and becoming a published crime novelist and screenwriter. Sublett reunited briefly with Violator/Go-Go Kathy Valentine in a band called World's Cutest Killers, then played and recorded two albums with the Carla Olson/Mick Taylor Band before returning to Austin. The better part of two decades later, the Skunks' legacy lives on.
"It's amazing how five or six years later, all these bands in Austin sounded like us," snaps Blackmon. "Like those two twin guys? The two guitarists that are twins that are real cute? With the cheekbones? I saw them at Steamboat one night, and they sounded just like us."
Sextons aside, the Skunks are regularly covered by Austin-area acts, with the aforementioned Sons of Hercules' version of "Gimme Some" especially favored by Sublett and his former band members, while bands like Fastball have grown more or less directly out of the Skunks' style of rock. Plus now, for posterity, there are recordings, both studio and live, that offer varying degrees of evidence of how the Skunks did indeed rock.
A re-release of "The Black Album" could be imminent, since Gracey's current plans call for issuing his label's back catalog on CD. Sublett, who along with his old bandmates isn't opposed to this, is far more interested, however, in the new Earthquake Shake: Live, as well as the Rave Up disc of both live and studio material. He's banking on people being able to listen beyond the limitations of the old cassette recordings and hear the Skunks as they really were: loud.
"I think that our old fans, the ones who still send me e-mail and stop me in public wherever I go, I think those people will be happy to get these newly released products, because they do evoke the sonic qualities of our live performance -- the thundering bass, the slashing guitar, the crashing cymbals -- especially if turned up loud," concludes Sublett.
"And that big ball of noise also communicates the unique chemistry that we -- Jon Dee, Billy, and I -- had when we played together. And I think that's important, to address that gap. "The Purple Album" has a couple of the same songs, but I really do prefer this lineup of the band, and the sound that we made. For better or worse, I think the CD sounds more like we always wanted to sound like -- live and on record. And if you turn it up real loud when you listen to it, I think you'll get the idea."
Fortunately, despite the age of the live tapes and primitive equipment involved in their recording, the Skunks come through loud and clear on Earthquake Shake: Live, blasting through originals and the occasional Velvet Underground cover. If you were there, it'll bring back some memories. If you weren't there, it'll make you wish you had been. And who knows -- it may still inspire you to start your own band.