The Moldy Dogs
Part 1 by Jack Partain
In a parallel universe, one that's actually cool, Wolf Roxon is a rock and roll god, Paul Major is a guitar legend who parties with Keith Richards in London on weekends, Paul Wheeler is one of the most sought after sidemen working today, and The Moldy Dogs, the band formed by Roxon and Major in St Louis in 1972, is preparing to embark on an already sold out, epic reunion tour of the world's biggest venues. It's their fourth reunion, but this one is not about the money, they swear, but about the fans. Their opening act is a reunited Talking Heads, who agreed to the gig not for the money or the fans, but for the chance to share the stage with their idols. They'll play Madison Square, Wembly, Red Rocks, Budokan, hell, even a headlining set at Coachella, but it all starts with a quiet, unannounced set at New York's CBGB's where a standing room only crowd of carefully chosen friends, acquaintances, and longtime fans gather for a warm up gig which consists of Roxon and Major jamming out on acoustic guitars, improvising riffs and solos, laughing, drinking beer, and telling stories about the old days when rock and roll wasn't created in dressing rooms and studios but in basements and garages. Friends like Paul Wheeler and Jeff Rosen are brought on stage to laugh and jam, tell stories of their own, and drink strange concoctions served by the quiet bartender named Jon who sometimes can be seen singing along behind the bar. Hell, they even thought about inviting the Human Wah-Wah on-stage, but he was drunk and pouting in a corner so 'fuck him anyway' they thought and played way too late, signed too many autographs, and stumbled to their limousines knowing they'd probably be too hungover in the morning to remember most of it but whatever. It's what legends do.
But that's a parallel universe. Here, in this universe, the one in which Buddy Holly got on that damned plane and the government went and killed poor Sam Cooke, Roxon, Major, and Wheeler have real jobs, and The Moldy Dogs are relegated to that vast purgatory of bands that, for whatever reason, never made it. More than just some obscure band waiting for their turn at being reissued and consequently forgotten again, The Moldies are one of the great rock and roll stories- a band that helped to bring the new revolution of punk rock to the city of St Louis, and cleverly bridged the gap between sixties pop and punk rock like few other bands could. And so what if their story ends in what can only be described as failure. Even the most successful rock bands fail more than they succeed, and some of the greatest failures in rock music have influenced some of its greatest successes. Failure is (and always has been) more attuned to the true spirit of rock and roll than success and for every great success story rock and roll has produced, there's a million other stories of failure that are infinitely more interesting than any success story. In many ways, the best thing one can say about The Moldy Dogs is that their story is one of those stories- a story not so much about how the band failed, but how rock and roll has failed.
Like the greatest rock and roll bands, the story of The Moldy Dogs can be told several different ways. In many ways, they were the quintessential rock and roll band. Social misfits who were at once ahead of their time and stuck in the music of the past, they were inspired by the same things that have inspired every important rock and roll band since Jerry Lee Lewis set fire to a piano.
"We were young men," says Paul Wheeler, who played bass for the band in 1976 when they were kings of the emerging St Louis underground. "We liked fun. We liked women. We liked music."
In other ways they were trailblazers that paved the way for punk rock in the American Midwest (in which the battles of punk rock were really fought, and eventually won). Today, they are one of those bands, like Rocket From the Tombs or The Micronotz, to which a great debt is owed that is never really repaid- a band that, at the time, everyone knew would be important, but whose importance is understood today by only a few.
"The Moldy Dogs are always brought up as a starting point of things in St Louis," says Jason Rerun, host of Scene of the Crime, an underground music show on St Louis' independent radio station KDHX 88.1.
"[They] were definitely there right before and during the first days of the late '70's punk explosion."
"They predated any sort of organized St Louis punk scene by a good year or two," says Brad Reno, a St Louis resident and frequent contributor to TrouserPress.com.
"They were so far under the radar that no word of them would've gotten much further than the people at their gigs," he continues. "I never really heard about them until the early-mid '80's, when the punk and new wave folks would be at shows all trying to prove how early on they'd gotten into punk. The cool kids could talk about having seen Max Load, BeVision, the Heels or the Oozekicks, but the really cool ones would trump everyone by saying 'I saw the Moldy Dogs!'"
And in other ways, they were one of the oddest miscalculations rock and roll ever produced.
"Our songs came from left field with weird subject matter and were littered with lyrics that we hoped would be intriguing enough to capture the listener's interest," says Wolf Roxon, who co-founded the band in 1972. "There was usually something out of the ordinary going on, not just a romantic or emotional problem over a lover. Likewise, we were under produced and raw by contemporary standards. You may not have liked us, but you would have to admit that no body on the radio sounded or wrote like us."
The Moldy Dogs were formed in the fall of 1972 when Roxon met Paul Major while attending Webster College in St Louis. Roxon was a St Louis native who had cut his teeth as one half of the basement freak out duo Wolfgang and the Noble Oval, the self described "First Punksters in St Louis." The band, which included Jon Ashline (who would become one half the notorious Screaming Mee Mees) didn't make it further than the stairway outside of Ashline's bedroom door (and then only to toss a drum set down the stairs as a drum solo), but it did reinforce Roxon with the drive to pursue music, and several of their songs he'd written would follow him into his work with The Moldy Dogs and later projects.
Paul Major was a loner from Louisville, KY who spent his teenage years messing around with the guitar and had come to Webster looking to start a band.
"I became passionate about music as soon as I heard fuzz psych guitars as a kid," says Major. "They took me beyond my head and I felt connected. I had heard some Top 40 Beatles and Stones songs but when guitars went Hendrix, I knew I had to be part of that and the cultural shift they represented to me changed my life. I had to get a guitar, I had to, and ever since, it's been central in my life in many ways."
Roxon's insights are a little more revealing.
"Paul did come to college armed with a few originals he wrote for his senior high school project the year before," says Roxon. "One, entitled 'The Moldy Dogs' obviously became our namesake. He had a couple others that were equally strange and provocative, so much that, after he performed these tunes at his high school assembly, the school principal apologized to the students for having to sit and listen to the songs!"
The pair met through mutual friends on campus and the band actually formed from the good graces of a member of the farer sex.
"My girlfriend had split up with me and I had tickets to see Neil Young. So I just asked Paul if he wanted to go," Roxon says. "Incidentally, Neil Young kinda sucked but Linda Ronstadt, the warm up act, literally blew him off the stage. She really rocked back then. After the show, we returned to the dorms, borrowed a couple guitars and jammed all night. We actually recorded it and Paul still has the tape somewhere. I heard it a few years ago and while our playing is not entirely impressive, it does demonstrate that we were able to "read" each other from the very start. We could improv amazingly well considering it was our first time playing together."
The duo began jamming and collaborating in dorm rooms, experimenting with the classic sounds of '60's pop, and delving into the murky underground of The Velvet Underground and The Stooges.
"Our major influences were any mid-1960s British band," Roxon says. But especially The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and The Rolling Stones. We also loved The Velvet Underground, The Doors, Bowie, and The Stooges. To a lesser extent, we played Dylan, surf rock, and various off-the-wall Top Ten hits, often tongue in cheek, from one-hit wonders. Basically, if we liked a song for whatever reason, we played it. We never played a song we hated unless we were trying to destroy it, which was easy for us."
"We played very loudly, through my Fender Concert Amp," he continues. "Most of our rehearsing took place in the dorms and once we burst into a song you could literally predict within ten seconds how long it would take to hear a knock on the door from some dazed dorm student, begging us to stop playing. We tried various locations on campus--the stairways, weight room, basement bathrooms, but nothing muffled our sound from the sensitive student's ears."
Using only electric equipment, the band was limited, both temporally, by the complaints of their neighbors, and creatively by, well, the complaints of their neighbors. At the time, they were just two guys blaring fuzz at each other, a true garage band without the solace of a garage. They nomaded around campus, occasionally trying out guest musicians while fumbling to find their own sound, until one day when Roxon wandered into McMurray Music and picked up an Epiphone acoustic.
"I was amazed at the rhythmic bite I was able to get out an acoustic," he says. "The natural harmonics and overtones seemed to 'fill the holes' in my strumming and added those percussive thumps that only an acoustic instrument can provide. I also realized the benefit of not having to lug my electric gear over to Paul's dorm room. Since I had graduated from Webster College, I had an apartment about ten miles away. So that Epi became mine."
This acquisition proved to be a watershed moment in the development of The Moldy Dogs sound.
"Our sound was immediately transformed," says Roxon. "My rhythm playing sounded tighter which opened up some new sonic space for Paul to wail. We were no longer competing. Our guitars complemented each other and, sort of by accident, gave us a signature sound. Strong acoustic, percussive rhythm became our solid base while Paul's electric not only provided distorted and edgy leads, but also cut through on fills and bass lines. We didn't change our playing style all that much, but you could now distinguish what we were attempting to do. And once we could hear each other, we became better listeners, then better arrangers. Shortly after the arrival of the Epiphone, we were having our Sunday session in Paul's dorm room. And, as usual, about ten minutes into the rehearsal, there was the proverbial knock on the door. I sighed, opened the door, and yelled , 'OK, we'll quit.' Outside, in the hallway, stood a very confused underclassman. 'No, no', he stammered. 'We don't want you to quit. We were wondering if you could turn up a bit--we can barely hear you down in the Quad.' When he sensed my confusion, he added, 'Look out your window. There's a bunch of people really diggin' you guys. Could you come outside and play?'"
The new arrangement didn't just give the duo a few fans, it also gave them a shot of self confidence.
"The most important effect of switching to acoustic and recruiting a few listeners was that Paul and I realized we can play live as a duo and no longer needed to depend on other members," says Roxon. "And, in turn, by playing out regularly, we came into contact with others on our wavelength. Not only did we learn four or five hours of sets, but we also began writing and arranging more. Within a year I was writing 6-10 songs a month and Paul was churning out about the same number, but of higher quality."
As the pair worked to hone their skills, and role players continued to drift in and out of the band, they began to attract a bit of a following among local weirdos and social outcasts.
"Truthfully, only the gay students thought we were cool because we played The Velvet Underground, The Kinks, the New York Dolls, and Bowie," says Roxon. "There were a couple of occasions when a lone student council member went out on a limb and pushed for us to play at a major dance. We would recruit some new members and rehearse intensely, but the powers that be would inevitably get us scratched from the show."
"We really banged our heads against the wall by trying to get gigs at clubs and bars," Roxon continues. "We were usually rejected before we auditioned due to the fact that we didn't look 'country' enough or hippy enough. We were once thrown out of a folk club because Paul played an electric guitar."
But what a band considers frustration, fans and writers call persistence and that persistent frustration eventually paid off. And though dividends may have been miniscule in terms of fans, they were influential.
"Wolf and I were cranking out lots of crazy songs and playing our first shows, a key one being a run at a place called the Pastrami Joint where a following developed," says Major. "We met other locals who were into what we were. The buzz was 'There's this duo with acoustic and fuzz guitar who do Stooges and Velvet Underground songs - somebody else in St Louis is into those bands besides us!' and a little scene started."
One of the people that migrated into the scene forming around the band was Paul Wheeler, who played bass in a cover band called The Dizeazoes.
"I heard about this duo that played some of the music I was into including David Bowie and The Stooges, along with lots of old '60's classics and a friend and I went to see them" says Wheeler.
"During the performance Wolf would ask rock and roll trivia questions between some of the songs," he continues. "My friend and I always seemed to be the ones who knew the answers."
Wheeler, who was disgruntled with the direction The Dizeazoes were headed, took a chance and asked Roxon and Major if they were looking for a bass player and was a full-fledged member within a week.
"Wolf and Paul were nice guys," Wheeler continues. "They were the best musicians I had played with up to that point and probably some of the best I ever played with. Even better, the material they wrote was really something special. It was exciting to be in a band that was creating new music, and I thought what we were doing was some of the best stuff I was hearing at the time. Punk rock was just starting to explode then, and I thought we had something that might really take us somewhere."
"The chance of success was unlikely, especially in St Louis," admits Wheeler. "But it was damn good fun to make a lot of noise and be involved in something that previously you had only dreamed of doing. St Louis was a pretty boring place to grow up in the '70's. Being in a band, even if it only amounted to making noise in the basement, held a promise for the future."
That promise turned into what would be described today as a scene but at the time was just like minded friends hanging out. It wasn't that bands began to pop up around The Moldy Dogs, but bands that already existed began to gravitate together, hanging out, jamming, hooking up, and sharing ideas and members.
"I remember once in the summer of 1976, my family went on a summer vacation and I chose to stay behind," says Wheeler. "Paul Major, Wolf, and I hung out in the house rehearsing or playing records and one night we took an acoustic guitar on out on the front porch. Paul and Wolf passed it back and forth and we just improvised stupid songs - the stupider the better. It was good fun, and impressive that we seemed comfortable enough with each other to be bouncing silly ideas off each other and just chatting and drinking beer. No, they weren't very good songs, but they were good fun and very silly."
"For fun on a Friday night we'd all go over to KWUR, the Washington University radio station where there was a weekly punk program," Wheeler adds. The show was DJ'd by David Thomas who would later be a part of the influential Chicago band DA!
"It became quite a group of us, and most were in one band or another," Wheeler continues. "We'd just hang out there, listening to the music played on the program and socializing. It was the place to be if you were into the St Louis punk scene."
"He featured an entire show of punk rock," says Roxon. "Among the many imports fresh from the U.K, he also featured our demo tapes. It was a hip place to hang out and talk shop," recalls Roxon.
"Everyone was fresh and excited," says Major. "I was playing in a band for the first time, what I knew I had to do ever since I first heard fuzz guitars on my little transistor radio. Playing in a band with people who were into the same stuff I was, realizing something special and original was happening. I could be creative, have fun, and feel a sense of purpose."
In true rock and roll fashion, things began to happen quickly and the friendships the band would form eventually morphed into The Punk Out Show, the first organized showcase of punk rock in St Louis. Held in the "party room" of an apartment complex in June of 1976, the event was organized by the Toler Brothers, owners of Akashic Records, a local record store that catered to the emerging punk scene. The show included bands like The Back Alley Boys, an early incarnation of The Cigarette Butts that was fronted by Norman Schoenfeld who was as important to the development of punk rock in St Louis as The Moldy Dogs. It's also memorable, at least to music geeks, for the performance of Bruce Cole, the other half of The Screaming Mee Mee's, who performed a solo set. During his performance, Jon Ashline, the other half of the Screaming Mee Mees was tending bar. According to legend, Ashline sang along for a song or two from behind the bar, which is the closest the infamously agoraphobic Mee Mees ever came to performing live. But, as is typical with all developing scenes, there were complications. Paul Wheeler's recent departure from his previous band, The Dizeazoes, who had been booked to headline the show before The Moldy Dogs, was still smarting, and the remaining members of The Dizeazoes tried to get The Moldies booted from the show.
"The Dizeazoes were pissed at Paul for leaving the group right before a major show and, in their minds, stealing their gig, so they went to Toler and got us booted off the bill," says Roxon.
"Norman Schoenfeld went to the Tolers and told them 'If the Moldy Dogs don't play, then we don't play'," Roxon continues. "That would have cancelled the entire show, since some members of The Cigarette Butts were also backing Mike Shelton, lead singer of The Dizeazoes, who was doing a solo act thing with The 'Butts and others. So Toler gave in and we got back on the bill. Norm did us a big favor. The night went incredibly well musically. Everybody gave a stellar performance."
The show was a bit chaotic.
"About all I remember of that show is that our drummer, who had played with The Dizeazoes for a very short period at one point, had happened to run into me, and, as we needed a drummer, we got him to play drums for us at that show," says Wheeler.
"He was drumming so damn hard the bass drum was moving forward with each beat," Wheeler continues. "He had to chase after it, and play, and move his drum stool along as he did. I probably didn't notice it at first, and apparently no one else did either. Once I did notice, I made a point of putting my foot in front of the bass drum to keep it from sliding forward. So, I had to spend a good deal of the show there with my foot holding back the bass drum, which was a shame, 'cause I like to move about when I play, but I guess it gave me something to accomplish besides just playing the bass lines." There was also drama outside of the stage.
"Our drummer that night got the shit beat out of him in the bathroom," says Roxon.
"A friend and I drove him to the hospital, against his wishes," recalls Wheeler. "He really needed it and I never heard from him again after that."
"People thought Ashline did it but that's highly doubtful," says Roxon.
Ashline had previously been considered as a potential drummer for The Moldy Dogs but was rejected for whatever reason.
"Ashline was really pissed at Wheeler because he knew I wanted him in the Moldy Dogs and he blamed Wheeler for being the one who blackballed him," says Roxon. "So a drunk Ashline walked up to Wheeler, grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth, threw it on the floor and stepped on it. Wheeler picked up the cigarette, examined it, nodded, and looked at Jon and said, 'Got a light?' Ashline pulled out his lighter and, after that, they got along."
The scene was beginning to establish itself - there were places for bands to play, people to attend the shows, a friendly radio program, even drama between bands and a great mystery for historians to discuss (to this day, no one knows who attacked the drummer).
"It was a lot of fun," says Paul Major. "In those days, I couldn't wait to get a guitar in my hands, so I loved the rehearsals and jams. It was at a time when I was leaving college and supposedly walking into a job world and I did music instead so it was liberating."
Soon after came The First St Louis Punk Fest, a small gathering of local bands that took place January 11, 1977 at a club called Fourth and Pine, which was meant as a farewell to the scene that the group had helped create.
"Wolf was very secretive about a few things for this show," says Wheeler. "I was out enjoying the rest of the show when I finally saw Wolf's costume. I could see why he wasn't out in the club socializing. He had chosen to wear cut-off blue jeans and red tights. I remember shaking my head, leaving the dressing room and returning to the main room."
"Our set was good with very few flubs," says Wheeler. "We rocked it and really took things up a few notches. Lyla, who was our guest singer that night for three songs, got a good reception from the crowd and Wolf threw out posters at the end of the set which the crowd grabbed for. Were they disappointed or happy to find out they were Olivia Newton John posters?"
By that time, The Moldy Dogs had decided that they could make it in the music business. Roxon had decided to quit his job teaching school, he and Major moved in together, and the band decided to move to Los Angeles, figuring that the small successes of St Louis would translate into larger success on the West coast.
"A little early scene was developing in L.A. and the weather was a plus," says Paul Major.
"Around 1975, The Moldy Dogs began to consider themselves more than just some recreational players filling their lives with music," says Roxon. "There was very little doubt in my mind that we would become household names and achieve the ultimate fame reserved for the very few. We were totally committed and literally everything we did was focused on this highly elusive goal."
See Part II of the Moldy Dogs article
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