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Feature: LA Times - A Nod To The Days of Glam and Gram...
Hard-rocking bands and their folky counterparts are finding themselves part of resurgent scenes at different clubs
By Natalie Nichols
In a city where the music "scene" is really a mosaic of subcultures that rarely overlap, the hard-rocking Pretty Ugly Club crowd and a looser contingent of folk-rockers couldn't be more different. Yet each evokes the spirit, if not the letter, of dynamic bygone eras on the Sunset Strip.
Ironically, neither of these cells is based on that storied street, whose clubs haven't been inclined to support, tolerate or even exploit local bands on any but the smallest scale since the late-'80s/early '90s age of pay-to-play.
Certainly there is almost no trace of the '60s scene that such current bands as Beachwood Sparks, Wiskey Biscuit and Minibar recall with their Gram Parsons-esque blending of acoustic and electric instruments, multi-part harmonies and trippy sonic atmospheres.
And the Strip is no longer teeming with teased-haired, spandex-clad, metal-riffing macho pretty boys the way it was in the latter part of the '80s. It's tempting to say that's because now they're all gathering at the Dragonfly every Wednesday for the Pretty Ugly Club, but such featured bands as Coyote Shivers, Betty Blowtorch and Texas Terri & the Stiff Ones don't really have that much in common with their so-called hair-metal predecessors.
Still, outsiders may regard the glam-rock and leather-intensive Pretty Ugly Club as some unpleasant revival of that time. After all, it's run by former Faster Pussycat frontman Taime Downe, who now leads the more industrial-sounding Newlydeads. But in fact, zebra-striped leggings and teased hair are not the fashion of choice. And the music is more reminiscent of such pre-punk acts as the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Sweet and David Bowie.
Singer Texas Terri Laird, a Pretty Ugly Club regular known for her flaming red hair and wild stage antics, notes that groups like hers had been floating around for several years, playing such underground bastions as Al's Bar.
"But Taime gave these bands a place where they can gather and be noticed," she says. "It's like rock 'n' roll 'Cheers.' Everyone gets so busy in L.A. with their own trip, but on Wednesdays they know where to go to see Norm and all their buddies."
Well, the laid-back patrons of Cheers were never quite as, er, extroverted as Pretty Ugly Club-goers can be. The sense of debauchery isn't as strong as it was at, say, legendary, late-'80s, sex-drugs-'n'-rock stronghold the Cathouse, but as Laird says, "The whole vibe of decadence is definitely still there."
The place is packed every week, with colorful patrons sporting looks you can't buy at the Gap (at least not yet): biker gear, glittery accessories, campy feathers and band T-shirts. Downe books a variety of hard-rock acts, from the fetish band Flesh for Eve to the Detroit-style punk of the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs to the bubble-gum metal of Lo-Ball.
As soothingly familiar as the music is to longtime scenesters, the Pretty Ugly Club isn't strictly a nostalgia trip for the twentysomethings who come in droves.
"Younger people who've heard about all this stuff now have found a scene that's carrying it on," Laird says. "A lot of them know more about what went on back then than I do."
While the Pretty Ugly Club has clearly helped to unite local hard rockers, the folk-rockers have coalesced more slowly and less definitively, perhaps because the acts aren't that similar, despite their common stylistic thread.
One emerging focal point is a free, Thursday-night gathering at the Three of Clubs, which features such groups as Beachwood Sparks, Wiskey Biscuit, Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Warlocks, and DJs such as Jimmy Hey spinning everything from the Byrds to Joy Division to Primal Scream.
"It definitely encompasses the music we like," says Beachwood bassist Brent Rademaker, 36. "People always talk about how we sound like old music, but we are contemporary artists. It's a lot more than just paying tribute to Gram Parsons. Dinosaur Jr. is just as big an influence, if not bigger."
This amalgamation of eras dominates at the Three of Clubs, Rademaker says. "It's a cross between people really into Badfinger, Big Star and maybe some George Jones," he says. "They like anything that has a good melody and is really heartfelt."
Although Minibar moved from its native London to Santa Monica in July 1999, the group quickly found local niches for its folky pop, which somewhat recalls '80s L.A. Parsons-worshipers the Long Ryders.
Among Minibar's favorite outlets, says lead singer Simon Petty, 29, is a loose monthly confab at the Fairfax pub Molly Malone's, where bands share equipment and camaraderie on the tiny stage. "It's a bit of a free-for-all," he says, "and it's a lot of fun."
The 5-year-old Minibar, whose T Bone Burnett-produced debut album will be released in March by Universal Records, came to the West Coast because members thought their three-part harmonies and pedal steel guitar would go over better than in their homeland, where Brit-pop was all the rage. Apparently they were right, because they scored a record deal at the end of their first two-week club stint here in 1998.
"We haven't played that much in London since we left, but now the pedal-steel is all over the place," Petty says with a laugh.
Like Rademaker, Petty also cites contemporary influences. He learned about Parsons through the Lemonheads, who performed his "Brass Buttons" on their 1990 album "Lovey," and he also admires such American alt-country icons as Wilco. But being in California has given Minibar an insight into the more cosmic aspects of its sound.
"When we first got here, it felt like, 'Oh, it all makes sense,' " Petty says. "Things are more relaxed here, to put it mildly."
From Calendar Live
© 2000, Los Angeles Times (L.A. Sounds)
Originally published December 3, 2000