The song “Talk Talk” was a great blast of rocking energy in late 1966, a classic of garage rock from Los Angeles. The band’s organ player was Doug Rhodes, who later was in the Millennium and on several recording sessions including “Cherish” by the Association.
He eventually moved to my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, a fact I found out via the internet, so the next time I came home for a visit I looked him up.
Rhodes was born May 28, 1945 in Palo Alto, California. Like his older brother Robbie Rhodes, the pianist in the South ’Frisco Jazz Band, a dixieland ensemble that for decades carried on the two-cornet sound of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band of 1923 (featuring Oliver and his protégé Louis Armstrong) and Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band of the dixieland revival in the 1940s, Doug Rhodes is now a highly respected musician specializing in the jazz of the 1920s and ’30s. Rhodes plays saxophone in three different bands : The Belvedere Broadcasters (a jazz age dance orchestra), The Stomp Club (an early jazz band with gypsy, latin, and klezmer overtones), and CanUs (a dixieland band in the New Orleans style, so called because the members live in Canada and the US).
He also runs a piano servicing business out of his home. The interview took place there on February 24, 1999, next to a room full of partially dismantled pianos.
The Music Machine 1966-1967
Sean Bonniwell : rhythm guitar, vocals, horn
Keith Olsen : bass, vocals
Mark Landon : lead guitar
Ron Edgar : drums
Doug Rhodes : organ, tambourine, bass, flute, vocals, horn
Doug Rhodes : I met this guy Bob Priest, who’s [a professor] at UVIC [the University of Victoria], through his wife who’s got a piano, because I do a piano service. I didn’t know what he did for a living, I knew he was up at the university and he had a whole slew of CDs that were obscure modern music. About three years ago, after I had been up to the house about three times I said, “What do you do up there ?” He said, “I teach rock and roll studies.” He says it’s the first accredited rock and roll studies in North America. “I specialize in Jimi Hendrix.” He said he had Hendrix’s grandmother and uncle—or somebody like that, that he knows from Seattle—come up a couple of different times and do workshops with him at UVIC. I kind of swaggered a bit and said—because I thought he was a lot younger than me—“Well, I saw Hendrix.” He said, “Yeah, so did I, I saw him three times.” I went, “Three times ?” He says, “Yeah, I saw him at him at such and such, and such and such, and at the Hollywood Bowl in September of ’68.” And I said, “You saw Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl in September of ’68 ?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “So did I !” And we were just like “wow !” and we embraced, it was one of those moments.
Then I said, “Well, I played in a band in L.A. I worked in L.A. until 1970.” He said, “What band did you play with ?” “Well, I played with the Music Machine.” He said, “Shit, I saw you guys play, you came to my high school !” “High school, what high school ?” He said, “Out in Burbank, I was 17.” I said, “Yeah, I would have been 21.” “You came and played in our little auditorium.” I said, “Oh, I remember that.”
We had just come from taping a TV show, and I was arguing with Marc Landon, our lead guitar player, who said, ‘Don’t take off your make-up.’ I said, ‘No, no man I’m not into that show biz shit, I’m a musician.’ I was trying to rub the make-up off, and he and I almost got into a fist fight over this on the way to this high school auditorium. We were still arguing when we went through the door, and all of a sudden, there was a zillion kids all yelling and screaming and carrying on. We got shuffled up to the stage and played our show and got out of there. But this guy Bob Priest was there. So it was real neat.
Craig Morrison : I saw a couple of L.A. bands in the 1960s right here in Victoria : the Byrds at the Memorial Arena, and the Grass Roots, who played at my high school : Lansdowne Junior Secondary.
DR : Really ? Because during that same period of time the Music Machine had one tour that was based out of Seattle and we stayed at a hotel somewhere downtown, and each night the promoter loaded us into station wagons, and we drove to outlying towns. It was pouring down rain through the entire 10 days. I remember a couple of clubs that were kind of neat. I remember playing in an old, old community hall and somebody’s vehicle getting stuck and all of us going outside and helping push it out of the mud. I was thinking how quaint that was, then I ended up moving to Saltspring Island [close to Victoria] and lived there for seven years, and played with bands in halls exactly the same and had a great time. I thought, yeah this is actually the life.
CM : I was there yesterday. I interviewed Donnie McDougall, who now plays with Randy Bachman, and before that was in the Guess Who as a later member. I was there to talk to him about a band he was in in Vancouver in the 1960s called Mother Tuckers Yellow Duck.
DR : I’ve heard of them. I think I know guys in that band.
CM : There are a lot of musicians on Saltspring.
CM : I bought that first album when it came out, and then the Bonniwell Music Machine album when that came out. I liked that band right from the beginning because of the song “Talk Talk.” Lately I’ve analyzed a lot of chord progressions, and some bass lines and vocal harmonies, of West Coast records. That song is very unusual, so I’d like to have your opinions, being a musician of wide tastes and background. First of all, what do you think of that song from a musical point of view ?
DR : Well, it is an oddball tune, there’s no doubt about it. [Vocalist] Sean Bonniwell had come from playing folk music, and other than the fact that he definitely put an ear to early blues and rhythm and blues and had grown up in the ’50s when all that doo wop stuff was happening, I think he was always more interested in just realizing whatever he heard in his own head, rather than going to other sources and saying “I want to sound like this or I want to sound like that.” He’d pick up things that he thought were essential to making his own artistry have some impact. “Talk Talk” was a tune he had written some months or a year or two prior to us putting it together for recording. I will, with no immodesty, attempt to take credit to some extent for the arrangement, for the compactness of the arrangement. Not that the tune was much looser than that, but some of the elements in it and the way we put it together and the tambourine hits and where we injected the two- or four-bar bits with the bass, the fuzz bass, and things like that, those were collaborations between me and Sean, in the formal concept of the piece before the whole band got together and started playing it. But beyond that, I think a lot of what made that thing work just tremendously was Ron Edgar’s drumming. He was an absolutely superb drummer. One of the things that we heard over and over again when we were touring and we’d run into other bands that liked playing our material as covers, they’d typically do one of our later tunes that got some regional play, down in the South for instance : “Double Yellow Line” and “The People In Me.” Most bands didn’t want to tackle “Talk Talk” because their drummers couldn’t hack it. They hadn’t also figured out that Bonniwell had gotten into this thing of tuning the guitars low.
CM : It’s a minor third ?
DR : Yep, and he had originally done it when he and [bassist] Keith Olsen and Ron Edgar were playing as a trio [the Ragamuffins]. They were working six nights a week in some sleepy club down in, I forget if it was in San Pedro or just in L.A., and he didn’t want to blow out his voice doing tunes at full pitch all week long, so he’d wait until Friday or Saturday, and they’d tune up [to concert pitch]. What I remember Keith telling me was that at first they would tune up on the weekends, but later on he liked the sound, the grungy sound of the lower pitch. They were tuning down, I think, a full tone. Then when the five-piece band was put together, he went to a minor third and we just left it there. Which meant I was playing in really oddball keys. I was playing in [concert pitch] C sharp [while the band would be playing the de-tuned guitars in E] and B [the band would be in D] a lot of the time.
CM : Right, “Talk Talk” is in concert E flat [which the guitarists would think of as Gb].
DR : It has so little to it that to play it as a keyboard player was no big deal. But it sure confused other people who wanted to play the tune, because they didn’t know that they [the guitars] were tuned down. It was interesting, [but] it caused a lot of odd problems. It was harder to keep the instruments in tune until the guys figured out, “Well, we’re going to have to use heavier gauge strings,” which was a bit of a set back, because Sean liked to play on strings that were real light and he liked it even better that they were real loose. So it was problematic, and Keith was playing a short-neck bass, which, to me, they don’t have a lot of jam at the best of times and you tune them down a minor third and it was a “ba-ba-ba” [floppy string] kind of sound.
Just about the same time that Sean had negotiated the deal to have some records cut, somebody who was associated with us in management got us a sponsorship from Vox. I think that happened just before we recorded, because it seems to me that “Talk Talk” and the flip side [“Come On In”] were the only things that we recorded at RCA Victor studios. I remember going into RCA, the very day that we got this Vox equipment, and we set it up in there thinking “We’ll record with this.” We had a hell of a time with it, we couldn’t handle it, and before we actually put anything down on tape, we went back to the Fender equipment. We had it all with us. I think we only did one session at RCA, the “Talk Talk” session, because I know it was at RCA that that whole thing went down.
CM : Did you later get used to the Vox equipment ?
DR : Yeah, but we hardly ever used it for recording. It was really crude. Some of the very last things we did, we might have used it.
CM : Did you use it on tour then ?
DR : Yes. It was real loud, but it wasn’t very dependable. Keith and I pulled one apart one day to see how it was built and it was very poorly built. All the stuff we had was the brand new line of transistor amplifiers built in Van Nuys or some place, and they were pretty crude.
When we went into RCA, the engineer was Dave Hassinger, who also worked on a lot of the Rolling Stones stuff which we didn’t know at the time. “Come On In” was recorded at RCA too and that was intended to be our A side. A real deep, slow, dramatic tune which I like. I like that tune a lot. I think it was really very interesting. When we got back acetates a few days later and played “Come On In,” we said, “Wow, that sounds great.” Then we played “Talk Talk” and we all knew, it’s not just hyping ourselves, we knew that record was going to be a hit. We were blown away at how good it was.
CM : It explodes with energy.
DR : Yeah, it really does. And it was only a minute and 56 seconds long and the programmers in the radio stations loved it because then they could say that they had played five or six or seven tunes in an hour, but they still had another full minute for advertising. Yet it didn’t seem short, it seems very complete. As a form, it does what it has to do. It introduces, it’s got the intro. It’s got the first two verses and the little interlude between, and then it changes key and it goes into the thing that bashes you over the head. Then it goes back to another verse or chorus, and then that out bit, and the drum things. It couldn’t be more compact and still have that structure. To me it’s still as fascinating. The funny thing is, we probably played it on stage two or three hundred times, and virtually ever single time we played it, it was an energy peak. People were absolutely blown away, they had no idea that touring bands could sound the same or better than their records. That in itself was apparently unusual. I don’t have any way to gauge that because I didn’t go out to dances and hear performing groups play prior to that time. But that was a comment we got over and over again, and that partly was because we were loud and the visual thing with the black hair and the glove and all that other shit. But that particular tune was great one to either open or close with.
CM : Which did you do most often ?
DR : Sometimes we’d play, just your usual showbiz bit, we’d play at least part of it at the beginning of the show and we’d segue into one of the other tunes and then we’d do the whole thing at the end. For a while there, toward the end of the association with the band, we were playing a non-stop kind of show. We did a whole set with musical transitions between tunes that was 45-50 minutes long.
CM : It must have taken sometime to work out.
DR : It took a lot of time to work out, the only other band I ever heard do it was James Brown. I don’t know if he was doing it at that time or not. I didn’t get a chance to hear him play live until 1980.
CM : So it wasn’t an inspiration : James Brown does that so we should do that ?
DR : No, it was just something we cooked up. It was hard to do and I don’t know if it was that effective. I think what was more effective was something we had got into doing fairly early on, which I thought was really good and I still like to do it in any bands that I play with : you find out what two or three tunes work well together and you always play them as a group of tunes. Finish one tune and bang, you’re into the next tune, right now and just seamless. If they’re paced properly, the audiences go “wow” and the dancers love it. But the non-stop show, I don’t know that we performed it more than three or four times.
CM : So it was quite at the end then ?
DR : Yeah, toward the end. I remember we did do it once in L.A. We had lots of time on the road to work these things out. We’d sit in hotel rooms with the guitars not plugged in. But those first two tunes, I thought were awfully good efforts for what was essentially a brand new band. Most of the guys were pretty experienced players, but nonetheless, a fairly young new band.
CM : Can you tell a little more about the drumming in “Talk Talk” ?
DR : It’s just characteristic of the very precise, but hot drumming that Ron Edgar did. Ron’s big hero was Buddy Rich, and unlike any other musician that I knew at the time, Ron practiced. All the time we were on the road he had a big gum-rubber practice pad, and later on, after the group busted up and we were doing other projects, he bought himself a so-called silent drum kit that he could fit his bass drum pedal to, and he practiced in his apartment. He’d play along with Buddy Rich and big band records. He was a jazz drummer, which, ironically, is very similar to the background of [the Rolling Stones’] Charlie Watts, who loved jazz, and just played rock and roll because he could make a living.
CM : He brought in, then, this jazz background and very strong, energetic drumming.
DR : And technique. He had technique to burn, which was not that common.
Before the five-piece was put together, when Sean, Keith and Ron were doing their trio bit, they were doing some original material and a lot of cover tunes. Sean leaned heavily toward some of the punchier tunes that Paul Revere and the Raiders were doing, and the Animals. He liked the Animals stuff because it was dramatic and he liked the drama. Sean Bonniwell’s a Leo, he liked the dramatic stuff. And the Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds was particularly of interest to me and Ron Edgar and Mark Landon, the guitarist. I had seen the Yardbirds perform in Los Angeles, before I moved to L.A. It would have been in the fall of 1964. Jeff Beck was playing with them then. They were just phenomenal, one of the best bands I ever heard. They really were incredible, and there were about eight people in the audience that night. The amazing thing about them was that, here it was six or eight months after “I’m a Man” had come out, and when they played “I’m a Man” it was almost unrecognizable. They were evolving so quickly as a blowing band. For Ron and me, one of the things that conceptually we constantly were trying to bring into the band, was the idea that the band, even though we were playing rock and roll and rhythm and blues kind of stuff, that to the extent that we were capable it should be a blowing band like a jazz band. That you create forms upon which you can improvise, as if they were set pieces.
CM : Which pieces did you that with ? Not “Talk Talk” because that is so structured.
DR : No, “Talk Talk” is a very tight format. There were some of the very later things that we did that were pretty wide open, though I don’t think that they were recorded to advantage. But there were certain tunes that we would do on stage that we would open up more for solos. Some of the stuff we recorded in New Orleans. “Something Hurtin’ On Me” was one, kind of a funky number, and “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly”—which I don’t like they way that finally came out—but we had a number of things we did on stage that I don’t recall if they ever even got recorded.
part 2 is here
part 3 is here
I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.
you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5