The first time that singer Stephen Burns ever crossed the dank threshold of New York's famed CBGB was in 1978, when both the club and his band, the Scruffs, were at the apogees of their careers.
CB's, a narrow, gritty hole located at the heart of the rough-and-tumble Bowery neighborhood, had earned itself world renown for breaking early punk acts such as the Ramones and Patti Smith and new-wave bands such as Talking Heads. The Scruffs had garnered accolades as the great hope of the American power-pop scene, and Burns was their 23-year-old leader, a Southern gentlemen in college-boy clothes.
It was, as Burns recalls, not the most well-suited of pairings.
"We were from Memphis [Tenn.] -- the first time I walked into there, I said, 'You're kidding me,' " Burns said. "The place smelled like a sewer. There were people in there who could kill you."
That Burns and CBGB mixed like oil and water may well have been a portent of things to come. While the Scruffs' debut, Wanna' Meet The Scruffs? -- which included "My Mind" (RealAudio excerpt) -- was being hailed as one of the best releases of 1977 by respected rock critic Robert Christgau, the band's anticipated follow-up never materialized, despite interest from major labels in New York.
Like their friends and fellow Memphians Big Star, the Scruffs (Burns, drummer Zeph Paulson, guitarist Dave Branyan and bass player Rick Branyan) brandished a style of infectious Anglo-pop centered around girl-frenzied angst that seemed destined to hit big with American radio. And, like Big Star, the Scruffs, inexplicably, never caught on. Their lone album appeared destined to carry the mantle of rare cult item.
Now, however, thanks to Burns' drive and the archivist interests of Paulson, the Scruffs are forging themselves a new lease on life. Wanna' Meet The Scruffs? has recently been issued for the first time on CD by Burns' own Northern Heights label. In addition, Burns has released the heretofore unheard follow-up, Teenage Gurls, plus a disc of early demos called Angst and a series of later recordings under the title Midtown.
Burns, now 43, said that there has always been a community that hungers for high-energy guitar pop, even when such Beatles-derived material has been ignored by radio and record labels. "There's an entrenched group of people who like that Big Star, Badfinger sound. I think the Big Star stuff and our stuff brought a Southern extraction to the Anglophile sound."
Lifelong Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who worked with Big Star, remembered hearing the Scruffs' demos in their earliest stages, recorded back when Burns would shrug off communications classes at the University of Memphis to set up shop in the local Ardent studios. Back then, people on the local scene expected the Scruffs to take radio by storm -- including, at times, Burns himself, who was writing two songs a day and exploding with anticipation.
"I remember Stephen telling me, 'Man, I've been doing this six months, and I'm tired of waiting,' " recalled Dickinson, who, as a musician, played with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. To Dickinson's ears, it's the demos on Angst, including the song "So You Want To Be A Big Star" (RealAudio excerpt), that show the Scruffs in top form. "If there's going to be a Scruffs history, that's it," he said. "It really does represent, if not the end, then the beginning of the end of something in Memphis music. After that, nobody even tried to do that again."
Over the years, it was drummer Paulson who maintained a bulging collection of Scruffs tapes and memorabilia. Now a guitarist with the band Trash Cadillac, Paulson chalked up the excitement inherent in the early recordings to the band's inexperience.
"We'd rehearse in this warehouse at Shoe Studio, and when we got enough songs, we'd go over to the studio and start cutting," Paulson, now 40, said enthusiastically. "The rawness of not really understanding what we were doing really came forward on that."
In 1978, the Scruffs moved to New York to work on the album Teenage Gurls -- which includes the song "Teenage Girls" (RealAudio excerpt) -- in hopes of landing a contract with Warner Bros., which had expressed interest in the band after Wanna' Meet The Scruffs? was released on Memphis' Power Play label. When the deal never came through, Burns, Paulson and two new members slagged it out for three more years (a time that Burns recalls as being "zero fun") before heading back to Tennessee and eventually calling it quits.
For a time, Burns turned his back on recording altogether and moved to France. He's since returned to his hometown and started the Scruffs-ish band Messenger 45, who released Signs & Symbols last year. Though he's often contemplated why the Scruffs -- as well as Big Star and Tav Falco's Panther Burns -- never found their sought-after audience, he has yet to reach a satisfying conclusion.
"We all have gone through out bitter stages," Burns said. "We've let that go a little bit. Memphis is a strange market. It doesn't recognize its own."
For Paulson, there's satisfaction enough in giving the work, especially the unheard Teenage Gurls, the opportunity to reach a new audience of power-pop aficionados.
"I can't tell you how long it's been since I heard any of that stuff," he said. "To listen to the second album again, I thought, 'We actually were pretty good,' which was something I'd forgotten completely about."