By Eleni P. Austin
If you are unfamiliar with Gleaming Spires, you are easily forgiven. Unless you came of age in Southern California when KROQ (the “Rock Of The 80s”) ruled the airwaves, you might have missed their near hit, “Are You Ready For The Sex Girls?” It later popped on soundtracks for movies like “The Last American Virgin” and “Revenge Of The Nerds,” but that’s just a part of the band’s story.
Leslie Bohem grew up Los Angeles, absorbing his parents’ Folk music records, learning guitar and becoming obsessed with both Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Just outside Chicago, David Kendrick began playing drums as a kid. Each of them knew early on that music would be a career path.
Fast-forward to the mid ‘70s and both were earning their keep as musicians. David was behind the kit in the band Continental Miniatures, and after an eye-opening trip to London, England, Les returned and formed Bates Motel. Dave’s band signed with London Records. They released a single and recorded a clutch of demos. But shortsighted label execs insisted they record an all-covers album. They extricated themselves from the deal and parted ways. Not long after, David became the drummer in Bates Motel.
Les and David bonded immediately over a shared love of cinema and musicians like Elvis Costello and David Johansen. Rather quickly, they began writing songs together. Bates was already pretty popular, but David’s protean time-keeping immediately upped the ante. They gigged all around L.A. and even played some shows in San Francisco. Things were looking up, they signed with a management firm and Cashbox magazine had recently declared their sound a cross between the Sex Pistols and Burl Ives. Then Les’ old grade school pal Andrew Gold (the musical polymath is best known for his ‘70s solo hits, “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You For Being A Friend”), offered to produce some tracks for them. Bates Motel briefly became Chuck Berry’s backing band, following his release from prison for tax evasion. That was an education in and of itself.
Bates Motel were gaining traction, but they just couldn’t get signed. Finally, Les and David approached Ron and Russell Mael, architects of the band Sparks, at L.A.’s Farmer’s Market and Les kind of blurted “Well, you guys are supposed to be the fathers of New Wave, why don’t you come see some of your children?” The Mael brothers actually checked Bates Motel out, and promptly asked Les and David to join Sparks.
Sparks, in case you aren’t familiar, was formed by the Mael brothers in 1972. Always a couple of steps ahead, or behind the zeitgeist, the L.A. natives created music that is best described as Art Pop, their sound remains quirky, catchy and acerbic. They settled into the niche of Cult favorite (not by choice) but ended up influencing everyone from The Sex Pistols & Joy Division to Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode and New Order. By the time Les and David joined their ranks, they’d just ended their association with German producer Giorgio Moroder.
In Sparks, Les handled bass and backing vocals duties, David, of course, played drums. Overall, the pair played on four albums between 1981 and 1986, Whomp That Sucker, Sparks In Outer Space, Pulling Rabbits Out Of Hats and Music You Can Dance To. Somehow, during their down time, they continued to create new music together, christening their new venture, Gleaming Spires. They connected with producer Stephen Hague (he later worked with OMD, Public Image Limited and Pet Shop Boys), who streamlined their rough demos. They ended up signing with a local label, Posh Boy. Best known for releasing Rodney Bingenheimer’s Rodney On The Roq compilations, they were also home to Punk bands like Agent Orange, Adolescents, Channel 3 and Redd Kross. Posh Boy owner Robbie Fields was so enamored with the demo, he put it out Songs Of The Spires as is.
“Are You Ready For The Sex Girls” was meant to be a b-side, but it was so catchy, it immediately garnered airplay on Rodney’s show, soon enough it went into heavy rotation on KROQ. In between Sparks commitments, Les and David made a couple of memorable videos for “…Sex Girls” and “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism.” They also realized they would need a bigger band to play live. Once they began recording what would become 1983’s Walk On Well Lighted Streets, they recruited former Bates guitarist Bob Haag and fellow Sparks member Jim Goodwin to man keys. Producer Greg Penny (who went on to work with k.d. lang and Elton John) came on board for Gleaming Spires’ 1984 effort, the Party EP as well as their final album, 1985’s Welcoming A New Ice Age.
Post-Spires, Les and David continued their musical partnership, drafting ex-45 Grave and Dream Syndicate guitarist Paul Cutler and forming Eleven Blue Men. But they only ended up recording a couple of tracks before calling it quits. Les went on to become a respected screenwriter and David started working with Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh, subsequently becoming Devo’s drummer.
Gleaming Spires music has been long out of print. But once again, the smart folks at Omnivore Recordings have ridden to the rescue, reissuing their original albums on CD and vinyl. Each one includes a plethora of bonus tracks, and deserves its own column. It’s a little like picking a favorite kid. When in doubt, begin with the first-born. “Songs Of The Spires” kicks into gear with the automatronic bliss of “Going Hey Hey.” Percolating synthesizers are shadowed by twinkly keys, slashing guitars, a labored inhale-exhale and a kinetic beat. Somehow inspired by “Loud Green Song” by the British proto-Punky Prog Rock band, Patto, chemically-enhanced lyrics insist that love is like a rocket ship. Dissonant guitars skitter and skronk throughout, but the track is ridiculously fun and danceable.
Although a heavily synthesized sound was de rigueur in the early ‘80s, a lot of Synth-Pop practitioners (looking right at you, Kajagoogoo, Naked Eyes, Taco!) sound glib and facile. That’s not the case with Gleaming Spires. Les and David present a pithy combination of musical muscle and sharply literate lyrics. Take “When Love Goes Under Glass” which weds static bass lines, stuttery synths and scratchy guitars to a kerplunky beat. Perspicacious lyrics like “Nights are made to wreck, to smash up and forget, and for a couple of minutes while we forget about our limits, love goes under glass, it never never lasts,” argue that when a relationship is put up on a pedestal, it’s doomed to fail.
The years spent toiling on the Sunset Strip gave Les and David permission to draw on conventional and esoteric inspirations. That is especially true of both “The End Of All Good Things” and “While We Can.” On the former, a metronomic beat is supplanted by a wash of keys, wiggly synths, loose-limbed bass and saturnine guitar. The cinematic arrangement is matched by a vivid lyrical tableau; “The hot of midday heat wearies the eyes with its sting, and the theatre will empty the streets, but the show it will finally cease and the spell of black is broken/Patrons sigh leaving their seats, the night outside’s no relief, stars in the sky make them sad, they all hear the cry as they pass and remember the one from the screen, it reminds them of one of the scenes.” Robotic vocals kick the song into a terrifying, technicolor dreamscape.
On the latter, the wistful melody splits the difference between Elmer Bernstein’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” theme and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Meandering keys, slinky bass lines and slithering guitar are anchored to a busy signal beat. The lyrics offer a caustic carpe diem; “It’s arrogant to laugh about blood when you haven’t bled, pitiful to worship a life that you haven’t led, I watch out, I don’t take enough chances, makes me a criminal in the eyes of romance.”
The album’s best tracks line up back-to-back on side two. The mechanical crunch of “Watch Your Blood Beat” is achieved through a blend of cascading keys, squinchy synths, snappy bass lines, swirly guitars and a clanky, serve-and-volley rhythm. Lyrics lament the vagaries of love, bitterly concluding “It can blanken any dream, you stammer on a thought, holds you down ‘til you give up, and when it turns you inside out, it turns you inside out, it’s a rut, it’s a rut, it’s a rut, it’s a rut, love will kiss your mouth while it hollows you out.”
Just the title “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism” conjures up the kind of Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Specs and Garlic Gum offers that were found on the back cover of old “Archie” comic books back in the day. The space-age melody is powered by blippy-bloopy synths that hang fire atop thready bass and a clunky anvil beat. Although the lyrics don’t promise to, Charles Atlas-style, kick sand in the face of any beach bully that steals your date, they include some mesmerizing pick-up lines; “How to make ‘em do whatever you want: ‘I’m very good looking, I drive a Mercedes, I’m built bedroom perfect, designed for the ladies.’” But the façade quickly slips away, revealing an angsty, confused kid; “But I know that’s a lie, I can see that I’m shaking, and I’m not hypnotized, that’s my confidence breaking.” As the song winds down, ambient chatter is displaced by dissonant discombobulation until a disgruntled voice peeks through the calibrated chaos, insisting, “We need to get some decent guys on this campus.”
Meanwhile, “Talking In The Dark” executes a stylistic 180. The action slows and fluttery keys ping-pong through a sibilant thicket of fizzing synths. Lyrics jettison the arch cynicism and instead, insert some heartfelt romantical-type feelings; “This love is big and real, it doesn’t feel like something born at night, in this moment that we own, I would trade each restless hour for its spark/In the dark, all the love we need is there in the dark, all the safety we can share, for a promise no one keeps is our promise.”
The record’s calling card still remains their kinda-sorta hit, “Are You Ready For The Sex Girls,” and it’s managed to retain its sardonic buoyancy. Snarly vocals connect with snarky synths, effervescent keys, razoring bass lines and an oscillating beat. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics that prepare the listener for “Hot, hot, lean hot, big hot girls” who “…play pool in your house, take off their own clothes” and “talk about love cause they know where it goes,” feel a little iffy when viewed through a 21st century (#metoo) lens. But it’s all too irresistible to be taken seriously.
The original 1981 album closed with the lush and Beatlesque “Big Hotels.” But 40 years on, the cool kids at Omnivore have unearthed 10 bonus tracks, beginning with a five-song set of Bates Motels rarities.
From the opening jangle of “The Way Marlena Moves” to the spiky close of “Unexpected Overnighters,” it is mystifying as to why the Bates Motel has been relegated to footnote status all these years. On “Marlena…” chunky power chords collide with spiraling acoustic riffs, angular bass lines and a crisp backbeat as lyrics pay homage to a girl who’s “So clean, so precise.”
Another four songs unfurl, from the muscular stop-start of “Real Time,” the frenetic pogo of “Only The Young Die Young,” which matches strangulated vocals to boomerang bass lines, ricocheting guitar riffs and a pummeling back beat. The instrumental athleticism nearly overpowers lyrical smartassery like “Only the young die young, they disappear while I live on/It’s never any better, every day is worse, the young stay young and they still die first.”
“Dedication” is a misanthropic rant camouflaged by tilt-a-whirl guitars that sync up between verses, flickering bass, call-and-response vocals and a walloping beat. Punctuating the five-song set, “Unexpected…” juxtaposes slashing guitars, boinging bass and a rollicking rhythm with a pithy instruction manual for those times when a random one-night-stand turns into a sleepover.
This music is positively thrilling and stacks up next to anything that reigning Power Pop kingpins like The Knack, The Plimsouls, or 20/20 ever recorded. So, how is it they never got signed? It all feels like a vast tight-wing conspiracy! The remainder of the record is given over to five mostly unreleased Gleaming Spires songs. They include the mechanized vroom of “Walk Right,” the tribal twitch of “Life On The Lawn,’ the slippery “Somewhere” and the cathartic noir of “Passion Pit.”
Back in 1981, “Are You Ready For The Sex Girls” presaged Punk provocateurs like Oingo Boingo’s “Little Girls,” “Grace Jones’ “Warm Leatherette,” Killer Pussy’s “Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage” and Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never.” Smart, sly and subversive, they were always a little ahead of the curve. Turns out, they still are.