“Mandatory The Best Of The Blasters” (Liberation Hall Records)

By Eleni P. Austin

Anyone lucky enough to come of age in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s experienced a musical renaissance that existed on the fringes of the local scene. Sure, Punk Rock was invented in the bowels of New York and exploded in England, but it thrived in L.A. Maybe all that smoggy sunshine provided an energizing boost of vitamin D.

Trailblazing Punk bands like X, The Weirdos, The Plugz, Fear and The Germs first started making names for themselves at unorthodox venues like The Masque, Cathay de Grande, The Starwood and Madame Wong’s. Some acts were inspired by the D.I.Y. ethos of Punk, less so by the nihilistic, primitive style. So, they began contouring a more nuanced sound.

By the start of the ‘80s, the scene was as sprawling as the city itself. From the skinny tie Power Pop of The Knack, The Nerves, The Plimsouls and 20/20, the Blues/Jazz/Psychobilly noir of The Flesh Eaters, the thrashy R&B of Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, the Post Punk/Cow Punk Blues of the Gun Club and The Blasters, who served up a Rootsy combo-platter of primitive Rock & Roll, Blues, Folk, Country and Rockabilly


The Blasters were fronted by Phil Alvin and his younger brother, Dave. The pair grew up in Downey, the L.A. suburb that’s best known as the hub of aerospace production, as well as nurturing the showbiz aspirations of another sibling duo, Richard and Karen Carpenter. Phil and Dave’s musical influences were slightly less clean-cut. As kids, their older (and impossibly cool) cousins Mike and Donna each had a hand in introducing them to Folk, R&B, Blues, Country and Rockabilly. These genres became lifelong touchstones.

Beginning in their teens, the brothers made weekly pilgrimages to legendary L.A. clubs like The Ashgrove. Although it was only 20 miles from Downey, it felt like another world. Soaking up the music of Rev. Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and actually meeting heroes like Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner, inspired Phil and Dave to begin playing music.

At age 13, Phil had started his first band with bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman. They honed their skills by playing their favorite Blues and Hillbilly songs. One weekend they were hired to play a wedding, but needed a lead guitarist to complete their line-up. So, they reluctantly allowed Dave to join their nascent combo. Thus, The Blasters were born. Pretty soon they were plying their trade at local biker bars, Country dives and the few remaining Blues clubs that dotted the city. Sometimes they were paid in free beer.

By the late ‘70s, the brothers had graduated from college and Phil began teaching mathematics. Although old haunts like the Ashgrove were gone, their passion for listening to, and making music hadn’t diminished. Dave heard about the burgeoning Punk Rock scene in England and realized a similar scene was taking shape in L.A. Pretty soon, he was checking out The Weirdos, the Skulls and The Screamers. Of course, Punk was the polar opposite of the Blues, but the raw intensity of the shows was contagious. Consequently, The Blasters began playing their songs louder and faster.

With the assistance of early champions like X and The Go-Go’s, The Blasters were soon sharing stages with The Gun Club, The Screamers and Black Flag. They basically invented a Roots Rock sound that was super-charged with a jolt of Punk energy. Phil was a natural lead singer, but when it became necessary to augment their repertoire of Junior Parker and Slim Harpo covers with original material, Dave emerged as an accomplished songwriter. Turns out, during college, he had become as captivated by poetry as he was with the Blues. His earliest compositions included “American Music,” “Border Radio” and “Marie, Marie,” cementing The Blasters’ place in L.A. music history.

Their 1980 debut, American Music, released on Rollin’ Rock Records, mixed favorite cover songs with a brace of Dave’s cutting original songs. Within a year, they had signed with L.A.’s homegrown Punk label, Slash, joining Punk progenitors like X, The Germs and Fear. Between 1981 and 1985, they three more long-players, and a live EP, The Blasters, Non-Fiction, Hardline and Over There: Live At The Venue, respectively. Critical acclaim was rapturous, commercial success was modest, and the band added to their ranks, enlisting pianist Gene Taylor, tenor sax legend Lee Allen and baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin. They even appeared on American Bandstand.

By 1986, Dave left the band and embarked on a richly rewarding solo career. Phil also released an intriguing solo album, Un Sung Stories, which included contributions from Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He then returned to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence. Under Phil’s leadership, The Blasters continued as mostly a live act, releasing one studio album, 2005’s 4-11-44.

Throughout the years, Dave has joined The Blasters periodically for reunions. Phil and Dave also recorded a couple of well-received duo albums, Common Ground, which was a tribute to the songs of Big Bill Broonzy, and Lost Time. Now, the cool kids at Liberation Hall Records have compiled a definitive Blasters collection, Mandatory.

The 21-song set starts at the very beginning, and to paraphrase The Sound Of Music, that’s a very fine place to start. The opening three tracks, taken from their 1980 debut, American Music, careen out of the speakers at a punishing pace. The title track is up first, an infectious blend of finger-lickin’ Country-pickin’ guitars, brawny bass lines and a hell-for-leather beat. Phil’s stentorian voice wrap around lyrics that splits the difference between humble homage and band mission statement; “We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta Blues, we got Country Swing and Rockabilly too, we got Jazz, Country-Western and Chicago Blues, it’s the greatest music that you ever knew, it’s American music, American music, It’s American music, it’s the greatest sound right from the U.S.A.” Over the boisterous rhythm of the instrumental break Dave unleashes a frenzied, slash-and-burn guitar solo that practically guaranteed his Punk Rock bona fides.

As the last notes linger in the ether, the band tucks into “Real Rock Drive,” a Bill Haley & The Comets’ chestnut that pre-dates the Rock & Roll progenitor’s signature hit, “Rock Around The Clock.” Dave’s fleet fretwork cuts the cornpone out of the original, replicating an amphetamine rush atop spidery bass and a rickety rhythm. On the break, his solo swaggers and struts with economy.

Rounding out the three songs, the band slows it’s roll for another nascent Dave original, “Flat Top Joint. Shang-A-Lang guitars match flinty bass lines and a ticklish beat as Phil waxes rhapsodic over “real gone little night spot” conveniently located next a freeway and a laundromat. The beer is cold, the women are hot and “The band starts rockin’ at midnight.”

The band’s self-titled Slash album receives the most bandwidth, which feels apropos, since the record became a calling-card of sorts. The staccato guitar salvo of “Marie Marie” is elevated by jumpin’ piano, vroom-y bass lines and a basher beat. Lovelorn lyrics find Phil trying to entice a sheltered farm girl with the usual temptations; “Marie, Marie, I got two weeks in back pay, there’s gas in my car, and your folks say I must go, I said-hey, pretty girl, don’t you understand, I just want to be your lovin’ man.” Even Dave’s rip-snortin’ guitar solo can’t loosen the ties that bind. But truly, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Downey?

Because the Alvin Brothers’ affinity for Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz was already baked-in, their original songs managed the neat trick of feeling fresh and familiar at the same time. From the jittery jump, jive and wail of “No Other Girl,” to the Big Easy strut of “Hollywood Bed,” and the fractious farewell of “So Long, Baby Goodbye,” the music is cloaked in a loose and playful patina, while Dave’s dense narratives echo writers like John Fante and Nathaneal West.

Meanwhile, “Border Radio” weds shards of Punky guitars, rippling piano runs and bristling bass to a stuttery beat. Dave’s prose is lean and unfussy, limning the loneliness of a forsaken woman waiting with the radio for her man to return: “She calls toll-free and requests an old song, something they used to know, she prays to herself that wherever he is, he’s listenin’ to the border radio.”

Arriving a little more than a year after the eponymous Slash debut, 1983’s Non-Fiction dialed back the Punky snarl and focused on crafting a wholly original set of songs that evoked Blue Collar dreams forever deferred. Three tracks from that album are represented here. On “Jubilee Train” wily guitars, thunking bass and a locomotive rhythm frame lyrics that conjure up images of freighthopping, Hoovervilles and the strivers looking for a New Deal during the Great Depression. Phil’s elastic vocals manage to inhabit each character, from Honest John and Broadway Eddie, to Betty Jean and Hometown Jimmy.

Whiplash guitar riffs ride roughshod over roguish, Boogie-Woogie piano notes, nimble bass lines and a thundering beat on “Red Rose.” Gimlet-eyed lyrics like “Your father sat with the first night’s drink, your mother washed the dishes in the sink, you stood on the steps your best one red rose on a new black dress,” sets the scene for an assignation gone wrong. Dave’s stinging guitar darts around Gene Taylor’s rapid-fire piano run on the break.

“Long White Cadillac” signaled that Dave had truly come into his own as a songwriter. Spitfire guitar licks lattice revved-up rhythm guitars, slinky bass lines and a rat-a-tat backbeat. Phil wraps anguished vocals around an apocryphal first-person account of Hank Williams, Sr.’s last night on earth. Self-medication collides with mordant self-reflection as lyrics ponder where it all went wrong: “Sometimes I blame it on a woman, why my achin’ heart bleeds, sometimes I blame it on money, sometimes I blame it on me.” The arrangement accelerates on the break as Dave unleashes a rubber-neckin’ see-saw solo, ratcheting up the tense inevitable: “One time I had all I wanted, but it just slipped right through my hands, one time I sang away the sorrow, one time I took it like a man/Headlights shine, the highway fades to black, it’s my last ride, I’m never coming back, in a long white Cadillac.”

Hardline, released in early 1985, found the band changing it up. Their usual high-voltage attack was tempered by Phil’s deft arrangements of Dave’s finely-drawn narratives. Both “Trouble Bound” and “Help You Dream” received some superstar assists from Gospel quartet legends, The Jordanaires. “Trouble…” juxtaposes rumbly guitars, rubbery bass, pliant piano and a snapback beat with celestial harmonies. Phil fully embraces the unapologetic scoundrel role: “There’s a demon deep inside me sometimes I let the old boy free, trying to make a living, during the day, deep in the night I throw it all away.” coltish piano fills are buttressed by guttural guitar riffs on the break.

“Help You…” is a Doo-Wop charmer anchored by a tick-tock beat, shivery piano walking bass lines and subdued guitars. The Jordanires’ wordless Greek chorus bob and weave between Phil’s buttery croon, and conversational lyrics. This barroom Romeo is working every angle, hoping for a romantic sleepover: “You’re the prettiest woman, I think I’ve ever seen, and tonight if you let me, I’d like to help you dream. Gene’s sweeping piano solo effortlessly drifts from Honky-Tonk to Ragtime to Swing and back again.

While “Little Honey,” co-written with X frontman John Doe, shrouds themes of marital ennui in swoony Bayou fiddle, shimmering mandolin and plangent piano, “Dark Night” and “Common Man” tackle darker issues. On the former, broody guitars envelope a spiky melody punctuated by brittle bass, and a spring-loaded beat. The opening couplet offers a finely etched portrait of a Jim Crow town: “Hot air hangs like a dead man, from a white Oak tree, people sitting on porches thinking how things used to be.”

On the latter, distorto guitars partner with keening harmonica, knotty bass lines and a bludgeoning beat. Lyrics offer a stinging rebuke of an unctuous politician whose cunning machinations land him in the White House: “He knows all of your problems, he shares all of your dreams, when he laughs, his wife laughs too, as they ride in their limousine. Dave’s scorching solo on the break underscores (indignation)

The Blasters always dotted their records with their favorite cover songs and a few make the cut here. They basically claim ownership of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin,” which features one of Phil’s most lithe and acrobatic vocal performances, pivoting around a howling sax. Their rendition simply swaggers with authority. Leiber & Stoller’s “One Bad Stud,” takes it’s cues from Louis Prima and Carl Perkins, equal parts West Coast Swing and Rockabilly rave-up. They offer a more traditional take on the biblical Gospel Blues of “Samson And Delilah.” This collection is rounded out by two hard-to-find originals, the raucous “Blue Shadows,” which was originally available on the Streets Of Fire soundtrack and “Kathleen,” a barn-burner that should have been included on the Hardline record.

Listening to The Blasters for the first (or millionth) time, the eternal question persists: why hasn’t this essential band Los Angeles band been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame? Mandatory: The Best Of The Blasters confirms that their music has truly stood the test of time. Full stop.