By Eleni P. Austin
Has there ever been a more self-assured debut than The Three O’ Clock’s Baroque Hoedown? This splendid and sublime five-song EP was released 40 years ago, and to celebrate that milestone, the cool folks at YepRoc Records have reissued an expanded edition on red vinyl.
The Three O’ Clock probably wouldn’t have existed and thrived had they not been based in Los Angeles. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the smoggy metropolis was home to a disparate (albeit inclusive) music scene as sprawling as the city itself. It was there that Skinny Tie Power Pop bands like The Plimsouls and 20/20 could peacefully co-exist with the primitive nihilism of The Adolescents and The Germs, the Punky Roots Rock of X, The Blasters and Los Lobos, the Rockabilly swagger of The Kingbees and the boho Jazz bonhomie of Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones.
In the midst of this symbiotic disharmony rose a musical genre wholly organic to the L.A. scene, The Paisley Undrground, a term coined by Three O’ Clock frontman, Michael Quercio (pronounced kwair-chee-o). It was an apt appellation meant to describe a loose confederation of like-mindedbands such as The Rain Parade, The Bangs (who became The Bangles) The Dream Syndicate, Green On Red and of course, The Three O’ Clock.
The common thread that tied these bands together was a sincere devotion to the Folk, Psychedelic and Garage sounds that coalesced in the mid ‘60s. The chiming harmonies, ringing Rickenbacker guitars of The Left Banke and The Byrds, coupled the fuzz-crusted Psychedelia of The Seeds and The Count Five plus the homegrown grooviness of Love, The Leaves, The Merry-Go-Round and The Electric Prunes informed their musical blueprint. The D.I.Y. aesthetic exemplified by Punk Rock made it all possible.
Born in the L.A. suburb of Carson, music was an early obsession for Michael. At age six he made his mother buy him the Diana Ross & The Supremes 45, “No Matter What Sign You Are,” from the May Company department store. He was also allowed to stay up late on a school night, to watch them perform the sitar-iffic single on television. By the time puberty hit, he was playing the viola, which is a tenor violin. A year later, he switched to the double bass.
Michael formed his first band fresh out of high school. After a couple of personnel changes, the line-up solidified around Michael on lead vocals and bass, guitarist Louis (Gregg) Gutierrez, drummer Danny Benair and Michael Mariano on keys. Originally known as Salvation Army (until they received a “cease and desist” order from the bell-ringin’ charity organization), they became The Three O’ Clock and began cultivating a loyal local following playing gigs all over L.A.
As Salvation Army, they recorded a double-sided 45, “Mind Gardens/Happen Happened” released via The Minutemen’s New Alliance label. They managed to slip a copy to Rodney Bingenheimer and the influential KROQ DJ tirelessly championed the nascent band. Lisa Fancher, founder of the respected indie label, Frontier Records heard the single on Rodney’s show and promptly signed the band. As The Three O’ Clock, they released their debut EP, Baroque Hoedown and quickly followed up with their first official long-player, Sixteen Tambourines in 1983.
Arrive Without Traveling arrived in 1985 through the auspices of I.R.S. Records. The indie label, which was distributed by A&M Records, served as an incubator to break-out L.A. talent like The Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo and Wall Of Voodoo. Later, the label would achieve massive success with R.E.M.’s first five albums. Ever After popped up a year later. The Psychedelic overtones were still ever-present, but each successive effort felt less organic and more polished. It felt like a meeting of the minds when the four-piece signed with Prince’s boutique label, Paisley Park. But their next album, Vermillion, awash in synthesizers, strayed too far from their Psychedelic roots.
By 1988, The Three O’ Clock were no more. Michael fronted two other bands, Permanent Green Light and Jupiter Affect, Louis hopscotched from Louis & Clark to Mary’s Danish to Battery Acid. Danny Benair moved to the production side of the industry and Mike Mariano left the music business altogether.
About a decade ago, their former manager, John Silva, informed the band that Goldenvoice had invited them to join the line-up for the 2013 edition of Coachella. So, Michael, Louis and Danny reconvened with the 88’s Adam Merrin subbing for Michael Mariano on keys. 30 years after their heyday, The Three O’ Clock was back. Following a couple of local warm-up gigs, they played Coachella and crushed it. They also released a numbered, limited edition “bootleg” live (vinyl only) concert set for Record Store Day and a couple months later Omnivore Recordings released a 20-track compilation, The Hidden World Revealed. Now, 10 years later, the cool kids at YepRoc have curated a 40th anniversary edition of Baroque Hoedown.
The opening three tracks unfurl much like they did on the original EP. “With A Cantaloupe Girlfriend” hurtles out of the speakers at a thrilling velocity. A pile-driving beat bookends rapid-fire guitar riffs, boinging bass lines and candy-coated keys. Michael’s impish tone belies cryptic lyrics that take a love-struck friend to task; “Sitting complacent, are you there where I’ve seen you with a cantaloupe girlfriend, the friends that you’ve had seem to last years since I’ve seen you, with a cantaloupe girlfriend you go everywhere.” On the break, sprightly keys sidle around windmilling guitars that flirt with feedback just before the song jangles to a close.
The relax-fit rebellion of “I Go Wild” is anchored by ringing guitars, thready bass runs, concentric keys and a cantilevered beat. Apparently, when mild-mannered Michael goes wild he shifts into Tasmanian Devil mode, leaving destruction in his wake; “Such a lovely home…lovely things can never be the same.” Muscular guitars are juxtaposed with trippy keys before the song shudders to a stop.
Meanwhile, “Marjorie Tells Me” opens with shivery violin notes (courtesy Will Glenn from Rain Parade). Plangent guitars, agile bass lines and insistent keys are tethered to a galloping gait. Michael’s diffident mien is matched by quiescent lyrics that will only reveal “She’s gone away.” Guitars twang and reverb on break, riding roughshod over the breakneck arrangement before the song powers down with tremulous violin.
For this expanded edition, a couple of cover versions, “Lucifer Sam” and “Feel A Whole Lot Better” dot the record. The former dates back to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Churning guitar chords, that share some musical DNA with the original Batman theme, connect with whooshy keys. Prowling bass lines and swiveling keys wrap around a Punky, pogo-riffic beat. Michael’s suitably sepulchral vocals spit out a succinct saga involving supernatural happenings; “Lucifer Sam, Siam cat, always sitting by your side, always by your side, that cat’s something I can’t explain.” On the break, guitars shapeshift from ooky to spooky, across spine-tingly keys, casting an inscrutable spell.
The latter is a sparkly rendition of The Byrds classic that opens with a bit of studio chatter before Danny clicks his drumsticks for an authoritative count-off. Guitars jingle and jangle in all the right ways, thanks to a superstar assist from Rain Parade architect, David Roback. Thrummy bass lines and muted keys are wed a sped-up tempo, giving the song a Punk-y edge. Michael seems to savor the bitter kiss-off of lyrics like “The reasons why, oh I can’t say, I have to let you go babe, and right away, after what you did, I can’t stay on, and I’ll probably feel a whole lot better, when you’re gone.” He spits out each verse with an angsty intensity. Originally a 7” 45, the song was recorded as a grateful thank you to Rodney Bingenheimer, honoring his early, indefatigable support. Only 27 copies were pressed onto vinyl, so, its inclusion here is ridiculously cool. The Three O’ Clock have also added a couple of tracks that were originally recorded at Ethan James’ Radio Tokyo studio in Venice. Ethan (ne’ Ralph Burns Kellogg), originally gained fame playing keys for Heavy Metal progenitors Blue Cheer. After opening his own recording studio, he graciously offered The Three O’ Clock enough studio time for three songs. Along with “Lucifer Sam,” the other two songs bridge the gap between the Baroque Hoedown EP and Sixteen Tambourines.
“All In Good Time” features manic, bagpipe-y keys, authoritative bass lines, shang-a-lang guitars and a knockabout beat. Buoyant lyrics like “all in good time, you will see our friends live forever” are mirrored by willowy piano notes and stacked sunshiny harmonies. A final Uilleann-flavored burst of keyboard pyrotechnics usher the song to frenetic finish.
Conversely, “In Love In Too” is the aural equivalent of lysergic bubblegum. Mind-bendy guitars wash over rippling bass, a tilt-a-whirl beat and chewy, technicolor keys. Michael’s cheeky charm is on overdrive as he petulantly scolds “you could answer me when I talk to you,” adding, like a mantra, “you could be in love in too.” Stuttery guitar riffs shimmy and shake atop blustery keys on the final instrumental outro.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Baroque Hoedown without The Three O’ Clock’s righteous take on The Easybeats’ nugget, “Sorry.” A surly slice of Garage Rock goodness, it’s powered by chunky, wah-wah guitar chords. dissonant keys, rumbling bass and a walloping back beat. Michael’s sneering vocals are matched by defiant two-timing lyrics; “Had a date this morning, with a girl named Fleur, then I just remembered that it was with her.” Snarling guitar on the break doubles down on the naughty nonchalance. Well-placed “na-na na-na na-na nahs” bring the song to a churlish conclusion.
Much like the original, this new edition winds down with the EP’s tour de force, “As Real As Real.” Swirly keys partner with a bludgeoning backbeat, tensile bass and swashbuckling guitar. While the melody and arrangement feels like a cosmic California cousin to The Beatles’ epic masterpiece, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the lyrics take a page from The Stones’ playbook, searching for a bit of satisfaction; “Oh, it’s hard to be with you, it’s hard cause you don’t seem to know what life is for/Show me it’s useless, you show me and I’ll show everyone, we live hard and we look toward the sun. On the extended instrumental outro, quavering keys feather atop vroom-y bass, hallucinogenic harmonies and kaleidoscopic guitars, shimmering like a musical mirage as it drifts off into the ether.
Baroque Hoedown was produced by former Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey, who made his bones as a producer recording legendary albums by The Quick, The Runaways and 20/20. Appropriately, it was recorded at Earle’s Psychedelic Shack. Listening all these years later, this record is jam-packed with crisp melodies, mind-expanding arrangements, tart harmonies hooky choruses and vivid, but opaque lyrics. “The Three O’ Clock take you on a trip without ever leaving your house.”