The world that one-time Blasters' co-leader Dave Alvin first made music in nearly 20 years ago was a much different place than today.
When the band's rockabilly debut American Music first hit store shelves in 1980, it was received as something of an oddity, out of step with the punk and dance tunes of the times. But times have changed, and so have musical styles and tastes.
Hightone's new reissue of the Blasters' rare album (complete with a half-dozen extra tracks) is now being greeted like a long lost relative.
"The general music world was nothing like it is today," the 42-year-old
Alvin said recently by phone from his Los Angeles home. "We were all
working day jobs -- we never had any idea that there was a way of playing
this kind of music and making a living."
At the time the Blasters -- which in addition to guitarist Dave Alvin, included his brother Phil on vocals, bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman -- launched their debut, the local music community
was marked by burgeoning Southern California punk bands as well as disco
acts on the wane. Back then, the record sounded like it had been dug up
from an era the country had long forgotten: Full of twang and earthy excitement,
the disc had all the giddiness of a hick in the big city on Saturday night.
The recent reissue of the album -- only 2,000 copies were pressed the first time it was released on the obscure L. A.-based Rollin' Rock label -- now places it squarely in the middle of post-Nirvana rock and the rising tide of
techno -- and still it sounds like it's from another world.
Included on the reissue are six covers that were left off the original 13-song collection. "These were no better or no worse than the ones that were on the original record," Alvin said. "Rockin' Ronnie Weiser decided what songs got on the album and what songs didn't. '21Days in Jail' was one of my favorite Magic Sam songs. I think Willie Dixon wrote it, but Magic Sam did a great version. We did it for a couple years in live shows. 'Lone Wolf' was a very obscure rockabilly cut by a guy named Ray Harris. That was part of our live show for a long time."
Also among the extra tracks is a spirited run-through of Howlin' Wolf's "So
Glad." "Every record should have a Howlin' Wolf attempt on it," Alvin
said, stressing the word attempt. "You can't top the Wolf."
Although the Blasters were eventually recognized as fine purveyors of an
American tradition, when they began performing, few venues would play host
to rockabilly acts. It would be another two years before the Stray Cats would introduce millions of '80s teenages to the sound of rockabilly. "It wasn't cool," said Alvin, who was the group's chief songwriter. "When we did
that record, it was really in a kind of a void. We hadn't even played
That would soon change with American Music's release, after which the band began to establish its reputation.
Before long, they were a staple on the L.A. scene, and became friends with
the punks in X, another local band with roots in American traditions (and a
group Alvin joined for a spell during the mid-1980s).
"I was very taken by the whole punk rock thing," Alvin said, "but because
my background and roots were in blues and R&B, I knew I just couldn't go
and play punk rock. It wouldn't be quite honest, even though I was the
same age as Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten. I liked that energy, but I
knew that the music had to have more to do with the music I grew up
Alvin recalled that several of the songs on American Music that are
now considered roots rock classics were actually composed on the fly just
to fill out the album. "We had some original songs like 'Marie, Marie' and
'American Music' that I wrote maybe like two weeks before we recorded the
record. [Producer] Ronny [Weiser] was like, 'We can't have all covers. We
have to have some originals.' I had studied poetry in college, so all of a
sudden I was deemed the songwriter."
In 1986, Alvin split from the group he founded to pursue a solo career.
These days, the guitarist struggles to find the proper description for
their earliest record. "It's a real... I don't know if the word is
primal... It's a real innocent record. It's untouched by anything."
For the Blasters' self-titled follow-up --released on the then-cutting edge Slash label (already home to X) they added to their line-up pianist Gene Taylor, as well as R&B veteran Lee Allen (Fats Domino, Little
Richard) on saxophone. "It wasn't quite as crude," Alvin said of
The Blasters album. "We did rockabilly songs, but we were always more
of an R&B band." [Sat., Sept. 27, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]