Life in The Pills
We really wanted to be Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (and the New York Dolls). In fact, our version of their “All By Myself” mimicked the version found on Live at Max’s, complete with the between-song chatter with the audience. We nicked our name after the New York Dolls version of Bo Diddly’s “Pills,” and covered the Dolls version too. Blonde guitarist Robin Johnson looked more a kid Mick Ronson, was Johnny Thunders to my David Johansen (which was all Keef and Mick, only turned up a notch.) We were kids in ’79 and ’80, sparked by the trashy-god sounds few others in the country liked or understood, much less even heard before. And in sleepy, dusty Tucson, Arizona we were the Island of Misfit Toys, with kohl eyes, leather trou, booze, girls, and two-minute pop shout-outs for company. Remember, Tucson’s musical milieu then was a haven for aging country-rockers and Zep cover bands playing fading cocaine bars like The Embers and The Night Train to bikers, ex-cons, dealers, and the occasional true music fan.
We wanted to be the greatest live band on earth, and once or twice we were. Truly. Mostly we were a trainwreck.
Our rock’ n’ roll was internalized, it was who we were, and we wore it, all spindly, makeup and short rooster hair everywhere we went. That was subversive then. Journey and Foreigner crammed the rock-radio dial, and you can’t get much more musically right-wing than that. We were a loud, raucous reaction to all of it. That reaction was absolute, musically and aesthetically. Frat bros, suburban hillbillies, or basically anyone who frequented swap meets and Circle Ks, wanted to pound our heads in, everywhere we went. Couldn’t even go to a movie without getting shit.
We rose from a tiny little Tucson punk scene we helped create. We didn’t fit in there either. Those bands mostly mimicked the Velvets, Lou Reed and Television, we were something else entirely, a pure power-pop band into punk and glam. All wrong place wrong time. The New York Dolls were long broken up, and the Ramones had already worked with Phil Spector. Me, Johnson and bassist Fred Cross should’ve been in high school but we’d quit. See, we were mostly teenagers snorting black beauties and drinking Mickeys Big Mouth in the basement of the Night Train, or motoring out of control down Broadway at 2 a.m., or stealing musical instruments from music stores, sprinting straight out the front door, guitar in hand. We had managers and studio folks telling us we were going to rule the world, we were going to be the biggest thing out of Arizona since Alice Cooper. That’s heavy shit for a Tucson kid to ingest. We were told to brace ourselves. We braced ourselves, alright. We lost our gifted drummer Rex Estelle to a car crash. Poor guy nearly died after speeding head-on into a pole. It was already becoming a classic rock ’n’ roll yarn. Estelle was down, so we pulled Winston Watson out of one of those Rush cover bands, cut his drumkit down by half, had him play four-on-the-floor, and he was incredible too. Always had the best drummers. You have to.
Our first international press came when taste-maker magazine Trouser Press called us pure power pop, closer to The Shoes than The New York Dolls, and “puppy-dog junkies.” We tried to be something else but our recorded songs always came out pop. Couldn’t hide a Beatles adoration.
In those days you had to go into a real studio to achieve any kind of listenable sound, band-wise. And we did. Coughed up the songs. One, “DC-10,” got huge love on Tucson radio (daytime spins), with myriad call-in requests. If not for the trailblazing DJs (namely Dave Larussa, Karen Stern, Charlie Morriss and Bob Cook) at commercial rock radio station KWFM we would’ve been finished. (Also, Johnny D on Phoenix radio). But some accused us of calling in requests ourselves. We were too unorganized, too young, to even consider that. The four-song EP we made sold-out quickly. No second pressing because guitarist Mark Smythe bailed too. He was older (like 21 or 22) and he’d had enough of the kid stuff.
After the EP, gigs showed a line around the building, from all the radio play. There you go. We got to Phoenix and all the bars featured bands playing mostly cover songs four sets a night, four nights a week. We blew in playing a 40-minute set of take-your-head off, self-penned rock ’n’ roll. Then we became Gentlemen Afterdark, and madness (literally) ensued.
Brian Smith was the charismatic frontman for The Pills, Gentlemen Afterdark and Beat Angels. Fervor Records will release The Pills’ self-titled EP on Friday, September 14th.