Why the Heck Aren’t the Blasters Considered Classic Rock?
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At a time when rock ‘n’ roll threatened to implode in a sea of synthesizers and subgenres, the Blasters came along as a rowdy reminder that there was still no substitute for the power of a solid four-piece combo with amps and attitude. So why the heck aren’t they considered classic rock?
The Blasters’ story starts in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when brothers Dave and Phil Alvin were bitten by the rock bug as kids on the streets of Downey, a California town southeast of Los Angeles. Like a number of communities in postwar America, Downey depended largely on defense contract work for its local economy, but the city had a strong musical history too — and the epicenter of that history, a record shop named Wenzel’s Music Town, was one of the Alvin brothers’ favorite haunts.
At one point, Wenzel’s boasted an in-house recording studio and label, Downey Records, which cranked out a series of recordings by a stable of artists that included the Chantays, who shot to stardom with their Downey release “Pipeline” in 1963. Surf rock was the order of the day when the Downeys were kids, but they were more interested in artists whose roots went a little deeper — like blues legend T-Bone Walker, a onetime Downey client.
It was at Wenzel’s that Phil happened to meet a guitarist whose mother had been a close friend of Walker’s — a chance encounter that led the Alvins and some friends to a local club where Big Joe Turner and sax player Lee Allen were performing. According to Blasters lore, it was that show (and not a little bit of booze) that convinced the teens to form a band and get up onstage themselves.
Not that they necessarily expected to make a living at it. The Chantays might have made it big, but the Alvins and their friends saw little in the way of actual evidence that a career in music was likely to mean much more than endless nights of playing in dive bars. Like a lot of young bands, the Alvins’ first outfit drifted apart slowly as various members got “real jobs.” While a couple of their confederates continued plugging away, the Alvins made what seemed like more sensible plans: Phil started working as a math teacher, and Dave enrolled in college.
The Blasters might never have come together in earnest if not for a wedding gig in 1979 that found the Alvins assembling a band on short notice. After hurriedly enlisting bassist Johnny Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, they did the show — and realized they didn’t want to stop. After most of their contemporaries had either died or left town, the group decided to give rock ‘n’ roll their best shot. (Pianist Gene Taylor, on the road with Ronnie Hawkins during the wedding, joined up later.)
Listen to the Blasters Perform ‘I’m Shakin”
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Like basically every other band that’s ever rolled out of someone’s garage, the Blasters didn’t have a terribly auspicious beginning. Group members later recalled their first gig being in a gay bathhouse, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to end up on bills between punk or metal acts — and although the Blasters were no strangers to volume and plied their trade with a wiry, punk-like energy, they really didn’t fit in alongside either spot on the spectrum.
The Blasters’ developing sound didn’t have much in common with anything that was going on in the late ’70s — in Downey or anywhere else. Although they’d been steeped in the blues, the Alvins and their bandmates were also exposed to a blend of sounds — some by choice, some by osmosis — that they distilled into a potent brew that ran the gamut from Dust Bowl balladry to straight-up rock ‘n’ roll (and plenty of spots on the map along the way).
“See, this is a real weird area out here,” Dave told New York Rocker in 1981. “Watts is right over there, East L.A. proper is right there and you’ve got all these crazed influences coming into Downey. The musician underbelly was more interested in the surrounding ethnic communities than it was in trends. Bell Gardens over here was like an Okie town. In the ’30s and ’40s, that was the edge of metropolitan Los Angeles, the shanty town or Hooverville. Up until 1959, they still had tethering posts for horses — and that’s where Eddie Cochran grew up.”
If the Blasters had any clear contemporaries on the local scene, they were part of the budding retro rockabilly fad that was starting to take root, and would eventually grow to encompass acts like the Stray Cats. But there’s a subtle yet tangible difference between a timeless sound and one that tries to turn back the clock, and that’s the dividing line that separated the Blasters from their pompadoured peers. They weren’t an oldies act, in form or in function; they were rougher around the edges, and rather than imitating roots rock, they wanted to tap into its raw honesty and live-wire abandon. It made them infinitely more interesting musically, but didn’t do them any favors on the professional front.
“No other bands were really doing it our way. There was Levi & the Rockats and Ray Campi and the Kingbees, and all that stuff was slanted towards a real hardcore popabilly sound,” Phil told Creem in 1982. “We were, like, real raw. And we were so raw, and the fact that we were also doing blues and didn’t know any contacts in Hollywood and we weren’t cute — it was just like, ‘Well, who the f— wants you?’ People tend to look at us as a ’50s band or an oldies band, like ‘How cute!’ A lot of people say we’re a revivalist band, thinking we’re something like Sha Na Na. Nobody thought we were commercial.”
Still, the Blasters steadily developed a following, racking up a string of high-energy live performances on the same L.A. circuit that included X, Black Flag and the Gun Club. Among their fans was producer Ronnie Weiser, who hustled the band into the studio for a 19-track debut LP, American Music, that trickled into stores in 1980. Yet even as the band’s profile grew, they found themselves at risk of being pigeonholed — even by champions like Weiser, a dedicated rockabilly fan who produced American Music as more of a retro endeavor than the band arguably deserved. Meanwhile, as the Stray Cats and their kin started taking off, the Blasters found themselves uncomfortably close to a fad.
“They just have their records of … Hepcats, Stray Cats, Johnnycats, Polecats, thiscats, thatcats,” Dave scoffed in a 1982 interview with Flipside. “I try to tell myself it’s okay because I will always love the music and it’s okay wherever it gets over. Be it American or English or African bands, it would be better than nothing. But people get hooked on the fashion, and that’s bad, because fashion is a temporary thing.”
And by focusing on the superficial elements of the sound, Alvin went on to argue, many of the bands seeking to capitalize on the retro trend surrounding the Blasters’ early days risked missing the point of the music entirely. “The new bands all write about, oh you know — ‘Rock bop be bop bop bopmbop, my baby is so mean mean MEAN!,'” he continued. “There is a place for that, but there are other things to write about than be bop stip stop plop bop. When you listen to some of the good country and western and rockabilly and blues, the music and the words had depth.”
Listen to the Blasters Perform ‘Long White Cadillac’
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If casual listeners might have made the mistake of thinking the Blasters were just another retro rockabilly band, those who cared to really spend time with their music heard the depth Alvin was talking about. Fortunately for the band, that circle included execs at Slash Records, where the group signed for a self-titled effort released in late 1981. A mixture of new songs and re-recorded cuts from their debut, The Blasters offered a more accurate picture of their sound and included some of their best early songs — including “Marie Marie,” which had already been covered by Shakin’ Stevens (who’d had a minor hit with his version) and Matchbox. Along with fellow Slash artists like X and Los Lobos, the Blasters offered a stark, satisfying alternative to the ever-glossier sound prevailing in the mainstream.
“What Los Lobos and ourselves are trying to present is the real America. We’re getting killed, paved over and destroyed in America and this is almost like a last gasp,” Dave explained to Sounds. “At the same time it’s also a search for roots, a definition of who the f— we are and where we stand. Nothing against those electro-pop groups, but if you let that stuff wash over you too much, it’s almost like you become a new office building: faceless. To me, music is like the Woody Guthrie thing: Music is a matter of communication. I like to write lyrics where two plus two equals four. It’s not so much simple as direct.”
Initially, it looked like the Blasters might achieve a level of commercial momentum commensurate with their name. The Blasters broke the Top 40 amid a wave of positive reviews, and they found themselves on the road with an eclectic array of artists befitting their tough-to-pin-down sound — including, in one brief stretch, the Cramps, Asleep at the Wheel and Queen. The band, in turn, offered an early leg up to labelmates Los Lobos and budding star Dwight Yoakam, whose affinity for Bakersfield country made him a natural fit.
The group also picked up a steady stream of soundtrack cuts, appearing in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (a film best known for former Edgar Winter Group member Dan Hartman’s soundtrack hit “I Can Dream About You”) and landing songs on Miami Vice and Bull Durham. But they found it difficult to maintain momentum on the charts, where 1983’s Non-Fiction and 1985’s Hard Line failed to build on the promise suggested by sales of The Blasters. Meanwhile, the Alvin brothers found themselves increasingly at odds over the direction of the group, and in 1986, Dave — who’d penned the bulk of the Blasters catalog — departed for a solo career.
With their main songwriter gone, the Blasters effectively ceased to exist as a recording act. Although Phil soldiered on with a variety of shifting lineups and never really put a lid on the band, as the years wore on and the dates piled up, the Blasters’ window of opportunity as a radio presence creaked shut. As vital as their music may have been at the time — and as vibrant as their best records still sound today — the group’s relatively brief period of recording activity and lack of sizable hits doomed them to obscurity at rock radio, even after their albums aged into the classic rock format. For listeners tired of the same handful of songs and artists dominating the classic rock end of the dial, the Blasters’ catalog boasts a healthy number of treasures, but for many potential fans, they’re likely to remain undiscovered.
Listen to the Blasters Perform ‘Border Radio’
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However their sales legacy is ultimately defined, the Blasters did at least give themselves an unlikely second act. Long after Dave departed the lineup, the brothers re-entered one another’s creative orbit, joining back up for the odd reunion tour and live album. Phil continued to lead his own version of the Blasters in between, shepherding the band through a pair of studio albums (2005’s 4-11-44 and 2012’s Fun on Saturday Night), but it took a narrowly averted tragedy to get Phil and Dave back in the studio again.
In 2012, Phil was on tour in Spain when the discomfort from an abscessed tooth finally grew strong enough to convince him to go to the hospital — where his heart stopped twice while he was undergoing treatment. As Dave later explained, his brother’s brush with death offered a long-overdue impetus for new music from the Alvin brothers.
“He was dead somewhere around 10 minutes,” Dave told the Washington Times in 2015. “From the time I was told he had died I had about 40 minutes before they called back to say, ‘He’s gonna live.’ In that time I was sitting there going down my list of regrets in life. My major regret was that we didn’t record more together. I wanted to make up for that.”
The first fruits of the Alvins’ rapprochement surfaced in the form of their 2014 album Common Ground, a collection of covers from the Big Bill Broonzy songbook. Decades after delving into the blues as kids on the streets of Downey, Dave and Phil reconnected with their roots — and each other. And although they’ve remained vague about the prospects of a new Blasters record with both Alvins in the lineup, the brothers have continued to tour and record (another Alvin Brothers release, Lost Time, followed in 2015), and no matter what, their brand of American Music always remains.
“In some ways, this type of music doesn’t die,” Dave told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “It goes through bleak periods or droughts, but I think there’s always going to be a type of kids like us, who are looking for something else. We may not be in the majority, but there will always be a sizable minority of oddballs that find purpose in old music, find meaning in the older music, and then take it wherever they’re going to take it from there.”
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