By Eleni P. Austin
In the summer of 1984, I drove to L.A. with my best friend Kathy for a day at the beach and a Bangles concert in the evening at The Palace. The distaff four-piece had just released their major label debut, All Over The Place, which was receiving airplay on MTV. I had seen them open for The English Beat at the Hollywood Palladium in late ’82, so I knew we were in for a good time.
As expected, the Bangles were en fuego, along with their own ‘60s tinged original songs they offered up a sizzling cover of Love’s Garage Rock classic, “7 & 7 Is.” A shiver of excitement shot through the crowd when we realized that Prince was in the audience. (It was the beginning of his obsession with the band and the whole Paisley Underground scene). Even so, on the drive home, Kathy and I couldn’t stop talking about the raucous antics and the taut musicianship of the opening band, The Beat Farmers.
Two years later, when my mother, Irene, was Executive Director of the Leukemia Society Of The Desert, she was sick of the usual fundraiser events, ladies’ luncheons, fashion shows, etc. She wanted to have something that would appeal to the younger set. Thus, “Rock For Leukemia” was born. I was put in charge of finding a band that would play for free. The first band we reached out to, The Beat Farmers, were kind enough to accept our invitation. I asked two up and coming local bands to open, Across The River and Doted Swiss. The former was one of Mario Lalli’s first bands, it featured Mark Anderson and Mario on guitar, Scott Reeder on bass and Alfredo Hernandez on drums. The latter was a potent three-piece whose line-up included guitarist Jeff Whipp, bassist Mikael Jacobson and drummer Dom Picarelli. Thanks to the Beat Farmers’ gracious participation, it was a successful fundraiser, even the legendary (late great) Phil Liebert was on hand that night. It became one of those seminal moments in Desert Rock history. (Here’s a photo that includes me, Phil and the band, along with Jack Epsteen and Dave Field)
Part of the thriving San Diego music scene, The Beat Farmers formed in 1983. A super group of sorts, as each had paid their dues in popular local outfits. Singer/Guitarist Jerry Raney first gained attention in The Shames and Glory. Country Dick Montana (ne’ Dan McClain) made his presence felt as a drummer for both the Penetrators and the Crawdaddys, as well as front man for Country Dick & The Snuggle Bunnies. Both Singer/Guitarist Buddy Blue and bassist Rolle Dexter made their bones in The Rockin’ Roulettes.
The band quickly made a name for themselves almost taking up residence at the Spring Valley Inn, a dive bar that was close to the SDSU campus. Pretty soon they were playing L.A. clubs and opening for heavy-ish hitters like Los Lobos, the Long Ryders, Lone Justice, the Plimsouls the Blasters and the Bangles.
They signed a limited deal with Rhino Records and Tales.., produced by Los Lobos Sax man, Steve Berlin, recorded in a matter of days and released in 1985 to critical acclaim. They quickly followed with Glad N’ Greasy, a six-song EP they recorded in England. By 1986, they had signed with Curb Records. They recorded a string of well-received albums beginning with Van Go and continuing with The Pursuit Of Happiness and Poor And Famous.
Unfortunately, Curb couldn’t figure out how to break the band commercially. Established just as New Wave and Synth Pop were ruling the airwaves, The Beat Farmers’ sound was rooted in the more authentic music of Sun Records, Creedence Clearwater, Rockabilly, Country, a healthy jolt of humor and plenty of Punk Rock. The shorthand term was Cowpunk and contemporaries like The Blasters, Rank & File and Jason & The Scorchers mined traversed same musical territory all to limited success.
Finally, the band severed ties with Curb, and signed with the tiny Sector 2 label, releasing Viking Lullabys and Manifold. But tragedy struck when Country Dick died from an apparent heart attack while onstage, falling off his drum kit mid-song. Much as Led Zeppelin did when faced with similar circumstances, The Beat Farmers broke up.
The guys all continued to play music in different configurations that sometimes included adjunct Beat Farmers like Paul Kaminsky and Joey Harris. A year after he bit the dust, the Bar None label posthumously released The Devil Lied To Me, Country Dick’s solo album. Early in the 21st century Jerry, Buddy and Rolle reunited, with the addition of drummer Joey “Bongo” Kmark and began playing around town as The Flying Putos, but they switched to The Farmers when they decided to record an album of new material. As The Farmers, they released Loaded in 2005. Sadly, a year later Buddy Blue had a fatal heart attack at his home. These days, Jerry still leads an incarnation of The Farmers, who consistently win the “Best Band” designation in annual San Diego polls. The line-up includes Joey “Bongo” Kmak, Chris “Sully” Sullivan on bass, vocalist Corbin Turner tackles Country Dick’s signature songs and Jerry’s guitarslinger son Nathan occasionally sits in. The remaining Beat Farmers assemble at The Belly Up Tavern every January for Hootenanny, an annual celebration of the life and death of Country Dick. Their mission statement is “If it ain’t Country, it ain’t Dick.”
So, you can imagine my delight (go ahead, take a minute to imagine it, you’ll thank me), when I heard that the cool kids at Blixa Sounds were reissuing a deluxe version of Tales Of The New West. Here was a chance to revisit an ‘80s classic that never really got it’s due.
Tales kicks into gear with “Bigger Stones.” Shivery electric guitars collide with sugary acoustic licks, growly bass lines and a crashing hi-hat beat. The rough and tumble instrumental tangle nearly camouflages melancholy lyrics that yearn for halcyon days gone by; “The music takes me back to my old past, when I was young and feelin’ mean, as I stare into the spotlight, it’s like driving my car/We had the girls and the will and a bill on a stolen card, sayin’ someday we’d be stars, Joe..” Jerry and Buddy trade verses and their vocals intertwine on the chorus. Souped up guitars whip through melodic switchbacks on the break, jangly riffs crest over chunky power chords, before the song stops on a dime.
Because the band made their reputation as an incendiary live act, their sets were always peppered with trenchant cover songs, that the Beat Farmers managed to reconfigure and make their own. Three of those pop up here. In its original incarnation, “There She Goes Again” was one of the lighter moments featured on the Velvet Underground’s dissonant debut. The Beats’ kind of give it the once over twice, injecting a loping rhythm and substituting urgent, slightly garbled vocals for Lou Reed’s laconic croon. Lean, mean, guitars, tensile bass and an insistent thwacking beat complete the picture. The guitars are equally Countrified and cyclonic on the break, before the whole enterprise takes flight, speeding into a frenzied Cowpunky, triple-time tattoo that shudders to a halt just behind Jerry’s mighty yowl.
Stripped-down and somewhat elegiac, “Reason To Believe” was part of Bruce Springsteen’s lo-fi, mostly acoustic album, “Nebraska.” The Beat Farmers excise the down-home Woody Guthrie feel, opening with electric, chicken-scratch riffs, bookended by trip-wire bass and a see-saw beat. The raucous rave-up kind of sidelines the Boss’ sad-sack lyrics, landing somewhere between Johnny Cash’s patented chick-a-boom, John Lee Hooker’s boogie, and traditional West Coast Swing.
The lesser-known “Never Goin’ Back” was a minor hit, written by ex-Kingston Trio Folkie, John Stewart. The melody is powered by breezy electric riffs, chunky rhythm guitar, slapping bass lines and a bulldozer beat. The sanguine arrangement nearly camouflages the desperate tale of a guy trying to outrun his demons; “Oklahoma City yes, I know that she won’t treat me cruel, Denver, Colorado, never made me feel like such a fool/But these are only cities, but they’re cities without you, so I’m never going back, never going back to Nashville anymore.”
The best tracks on the record effortlessly fuse the “aw shucks” sincerity of Country to the snarling anarchy of Punk. Take “Lost Weekend,” which weds brawny Rockabilly riffs, sinewy rhythm guitar and hot-wired bass to a jackrabbit beat. Sly lyrics limn the selective amnesia that typically accompanies boozy misadventure; “I wish somebody’d tell me what I did, why is this ring on my finger, and who’s that screaming kid?” Careening guitars shake and strafe on the break prompting a hollow promise of abstinence; “I’m praying to the porcelain god on my knees, said I’ll swear off if you’ll only help me please/And as my guts run down the drain, I sing one last refrain, I’ll never have a lost weekend again.”
Reverb-drenched guitars ride roughshod over galloping bass lines and a hell-for-leather rhythm on “Lonesome Hound.” The lyrics unspool the saga of a restless drifter driven refusal to accept authority; “There aren’t a whole lotta things in this world that mean too much to me, just a beat-up old guitar and some clouded memories/Well, you I’ve searched for something, but that something can’t be found, and I don’t believe there’s nothing that can tame this lonesome hound.”
Meanwhile, “Goldmine” owes as much to Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions as it does to the Sex Pistols. Jerry’s stung and sneering vocal delivery is matched by rollicking guitars, garrulous bass fills and a rattletrap beat. Romantic betrayal is never funny (or is it?) and revenge is a dish best served cold; “Well, there’s plenty of women that can keep me satisfied, and I don’t need your cheating or your foolish lies/Well, I ain’t gonna miss none of your embrace, so go shake that thing is someone else’s face, Baby, you lost a goldmine when you lost me.” A swivel-hipped guitar solo is unleashed on the break before the final bon mot; “Well, folks have got to reap just what they sow, and you got some things a-comin’ to you don’t you know/You’ll get no more loving or sympathy from that lonesome fool that you thought was me, Baby, you lost a goldmine when you lost me.”
Finally, there’s a lean economy to “Selfish Heart” that toggles between early ‘70s Stones and late ‘70s Clash. Skittery guitars partner with caffeinated bass lines and a pummeling beat. Snotty lyrics like “I’m like a fish on the line over you, you just come and go, I fill one brief hole in your life, I’m just your entertainment you come and play with awhile/The complication with you, is that I know you’ll never be true, you’re like an act of treason, no rhyme or reason for you,” offer a bitter and brutal post mortem of still another romantic entanglement gone awry. Guitars shred at warp speed on the break and the outro is a jittery kick.
Other interesting songs include the slow-cooked, cautionary tale,“Showbiz,” which features smoky harmonica, Bluesy guitars and a wailing sax solo from producer, Steve Berlin. Then there’s “Where Do They Go,” which offers up a snapshot of the angst and ennui in ¾ time; “Then they go to a friend’s house and watch MTV, where all of the bands look alike, and they might even like some of that dumb stuff they see, then dress up in leather and spikes.” Not unlike Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” the lyrics note growing up and growing old is not for the faint-hearted; “But where do they go when they start to grow old, they go home to bed every night, ‘cause when they start workin’ they get tired and old, get married and start a new life.”
Ultimately, Country Dick has the last word on “California Kid” and “Happy Boy,” respectively. Once described as a cross between Waylon Jennings and Johnny Rotten, he wraps his basso (not so) profundo around the former which spins a twisted and apocryphal Wild West tale that echoes those old outlaw ballads Marty Robbins made famous in the ‘50s. The latter closes out the record with a bit of jabberwocky anchored by wily guitars, barb-wire bass and a thumpy backbeat. Naturally there’s a kazoo solo. Happily, the infectious insanity doesn’t end there. The Bixa kids include a second CD that features an infamous Spring Valley Inn show (circa 1983), in its entirety. The rambunctious and muscular 21 song set includes soon-to-be Beat Farmer classics like “Assembly Line Rock,” “Big Ugly Wheels,” “Jump Right Back,” “Mondo,” “Sunday Morning” and “Upsettin’ Me.” It also features a brace of cutting covers such as Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover,” Elvis’ “Trying To Get To You and Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke And Loud, Loud Music,” plus a pair of Johnny Cash classics: “Big River” and “I Still Miss Someone.”
The package is made complete with exhaustive liner notes from Dan Perloff, the guy who discovered the band as a SDSU student (and nascent Rhino Records rep). Packed with classic photos, gig fliers, a homemade band bio and testimonials from Bangle Vicki Peterson, Plimsoul Peter Case and Long Ryder Sid Griffin,(each added backing vocals to “Tales..”), as well as Rank & File’s Chip and Tony Kinman, Farmer insiders Paul Kaminsky and Joey Harris, and memories from the surviving band members, Jerry and Rolle. It’s a treasure trove of good, unclean fun. It also takes a moment to pay homage Rhino Records’ shining light, the late Gary Stewart. He championed the Beat Farmers, along with many other unsung bands and was a legend in the music business.
Sure, The Beat Farmers never made a dent commercially, too Punk for Country the Ryman, too Country for the mosh-pit. They did, however, influence a generation of Americana/alt.country musicians. There probably couldn’t be a Social Distortion without Jerry, Buddy, Country Dick and Rolle. More importantly, they definitely made an impression on any lucky music fan who got the opportunity to see them live. For a minute, in that moment, regardless of gender, we were a roomful of Happy Boys… Hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba.