The Moldy Dogs
Part 2 by Jack Partain
Roxon describes a typical month in the life of the band:
"During the month of December 1976, we rehearsed new band members for upcoming recording sessions, continually rearranged songs slated for recordings and recorded practice demo tapes, recorded four song in a real recording studio, worked day jobs (I was a teacher, Paul worked in a nut factory), wrote and arranged nine new songs, rehearsed The Moldy Dogs for the upcoming First Punk Rock Fest, rehearsed with a solo, guest performer performing at the First Punk Fest, prepared adverts, posters and publicity for the Punk Fest, called our friends to attend, dodged and purposely played phone tag with a gay record executive who claimed his major label was looking for a punk band and we could be it (provided I...), hung around with our new girlfriends, went to court with my landlord for raising our rent, moved out of my apartment, liquidating all of my furniture, assests, and car, to pay for the L.A. trip, prepared for our upcoming trip to L.A. by making contacts, had and attended various Christmas/New Years parties, played out as a duo and attended other friends' gigs, constantly studied Django Reinhart, The Dictators, The Stones, and Bowie on the turntable in an attempt to steal every guitar lick, cooked, cleaned, packed, drank, drove, ironed, doctored, changed guitar strings, attended film classes, and the list goes on..."
Roxon sums this all up with only a few sentences.
"We seemed to be surviving by giving every minute its sixty second run, gathering no moss, with things falling into place due to our naive energy. And that was fun. Why else would anyone live like this?"
"It was like we injected ourselves with a rare disease, the desire to create the next wave of rock and roll music, and hoped to find a cure, success, in time."
At the time they left for L.A., The Moldy Dogs were playing a sort of music that, still today, almost forty years after it was written, is hard to categorize.
"The songs were often tricky to learn, but fun to play once you had them down," says Wheeler, who did not accompany the band to L.A., opting instead to finish college at the University of Missouri.
"Many of the songs were gentle with a dark sweetness, or a somewhat clever slant," he continues. "I really hadn't heard anything like some of these songs before. There was a definite '60's pop influence, but it was twisted into new shapes, which reflected the punk attitude. The songs could be appreciated, both intelligently or simply for the sweetness of the pop hooks."
More than anything, it is the "sweetness of the pop hooks" that differentiates The Moldy Dogs from other bands at the time. Though they did write some kick ass barn burners that would have rivaled anything emerging from New York or London in terms of sheer punk energy ("Sat Chit Ananda", "Bongo Man"), they also produced songs like "Bring Me Jayne's Head" and "Baby Bones in the Basement", which were arty and dramatic. There were also folk elements thrown into the mix, and at times the band can sound like a strange amalgamation of David Bowie, Fairport Convention and Genesis. Indeed, listening to the their demo tapes leaves the listener with the impression that The Moldies were good enough that they could have mastered of any type of rock and roll they decided to follow. Part of the problem in figuring the band out may have been the fact that Roxon and Major were perhaps too eclectic, too interested in putting their own stamp on everything happening in rock and roll in the mid-1970s and claiming each genre as their own. Their most memorable songs, however, strike one chord in particular.
"Had they made bigger waves at the time, they'd probably be categorized as part of a Mississippi River states corridor Power Pop movement," says writer Brad Reno. "St. Louis is almost exactly halfway between Memphis, where Big Star was based, and the Chicago region, where you couldn't throw a rock in the mid-70s without hitting a band like Cheap Trick, The Shoes, Pezband or Off Broadway."
But, in the early days, punk rock was played 1,000 different ways in 1,000 different places throughout the world and it wasn't until much later that punk rock was played one way in a million different places throughout the world and the sound of punk rock would become immediately recognizable. Strongly influenced as children by the polite rebellion of the British invasion, and as teenagers by the impossible blurt of The Stooges and The MC5, Roxon and Major undoubtedly struggled to reconcile their influences with their expression. Punk rock, in the classic sense, was only just beginning, and The Moldy Dogs considered themselves to be in on the ground floor, actively participating in the creation of the idea and sound of punk. As a result, it was impossible for the band to be strongly influenced by the canon of classic punk rock because, at the time, there simply was no codified definition of what a punk rock band could be. The Ramones formed in 1974, two years after Roxon and Major began jamming together, and the Sex Pistols didn't hit The States until well after that, by which point The Moldies had already decided that they were destined for greatness under the punk banner, not because they were playing punk music, but playing music in the spirit of punk rock.
"We never wanted to sound like anyone else, even when the punk movement exploded in 1977," says Roxon. "We loved it primarily because these punk/New Wave outfits were influenced by the same groups as us, but we never wanted to emulate their sound. We had already been there."
The simple truth is that The Moldy Dogs never sounded like a punk rock band, and today wouldn't be considered one even if they had released an LP or a single. It may have been in their blood but it wasn't in their heart. They were songwriters, craftsman who had more in common with Lennon and McCartney than Rotten and Vicious, and their songs came about through careful consideration and countless hours of rehearsal rather than the great momentum of the social rebellion taking place around them. Their music wasn't political like The Clash, wasn't nihilistic like The Sex Pistols, nor was it part of a larger artistic scheme like that of Richard Hell or Patti Smith. The brilliance of The Moldy Dogs was that, while their songs possessed as much energy and nihilism as any other punk band out there, they insisted on holding their songs in check with a strong backbone of '60s pop, and they didn't see a great deal of difference between "I wanna be your dog!" and "I wanna hold your hand!" In short, the band was creating a form of punk that wasn't a violent reaction to the course rock music had traveled, but a natural development from that course, part of the endless riffing on the basic idea of rock and roll that has fueled every innovative band from Buddy Holly, to The Pixies, to Nirvana, to Arcade Fire.
"There was a demand for anything different from the prevailing commercial product," says Paul Major. "This opened the door for lots of people to make widely divergent styles of music, but it all got lumped into punk and then new wave. The same thing had happened in the sixties under the name psychedelic, and like then, everything seemed up for grabs. We did do punk styled aggressive stuff, but had also done unusual, experimental things that would be termed acid folk if an LP existed and collectors discovered it now."
In addition, The Moldy Dogs played their particular brand of punk rock in St Louis, which, though it was a large city, was still locked in the heart of the Midwest. It's easy to forget, or simply ignore, that what was considered 'punk' in New York or London would have been considered very possibly illegal in the Midwest in the 1970's, and The Moldy Dogs, in many ways adapted to and worked within those confines. The music they created was both rebellious and, if not socially acceptable, at least not socially objectionable. It was this approach that allowed to the band to help create a punk scene in a city that really shouldn't have had one, and later attempt to create a career in music that shouldn't have been attempted, that no kid from the Midwest should have ever considered. The point was that people were excited about their music, which was the main attraction to punk rock in the first place - it was music that was exciting, exhilarating, interesting, and original. The band also had a different approach to their music than the majority of the classic punk rock bands who, more often than not, seemed to write music for the crowds of misfits and journalists that had gravitated to the scene rather than the masses. A story from Roxon an early gig is perfectly illuminates their approach.
"At an early gig at The Grove, we played at lunchtime and opened our first set to a crowd of little old ladies with the tinted blue-gray hair and pant suits. We panicked and paged through all our set lists searching for something to play. We launched into The Kinks "Well Respected Man" then some Velvet Underground and some originals. They loved it and were unbelievably responsive to every song. It had to be our sound, because no little old lady back in the mid-1970's was going to get a kick out of hearing The Velvet's "Heroin," The Stones' "Parachute Women" or our own "Bring Me Jayne's Head."
"The central premise of punk was to be crude, loud, and obnoxious," says Major. "The less technical skill the better. We were trying to be as skillful as possible in arranging our songs so they could appeal to a large variety of people."
Wheeler believed very strongly in both the talent and vision of the band. "Paul Major and Wolf Roxon could play. They were well versed in all the folk chords, which previously I hadn't had much contact with. Their songs were intricate, and yet had some wonderful hooks. The lyrics were often vague enough to let you read your own stories into them, as well as containing dark images entwined in their recesses."
When the band left St Louis, they left thinking that if they couldn't make it in St Louis, they could probably make it anywhere. Opting, perhaps mistakenly over New York in January 1977 for L.A., they seemed to be walking into a paradise compared to St Louis.
"We left for L.A. around the time of a blizzard in January in St Louis," says Major. "L.A. and warm beaches seemed like a tastier move at the time. The punk bands were just forming, only a few shows were happening, but the beaches were great. We sang on the beach for change in February. It was so cheap there at the time, and that was a plus. But it turned into a surreal vacation."
Though the weather was great and the opportunities may have seemed endless, L.A. proved to be a lot like St Louis. In L.A., the band made contacts, played the occasional show, tried their best to ingratiate themselves into the music business, and basically lived the same life they had in St Louis, "real jobs" and all.
"In Hollywood, I worked at an all-night news stand," says Roxon. "You may think of L.A. as being balmy, but in February at 3:00AM on the street, it feels frigid, especially when you left your coat back in St. Louis.
"Paul made low-cal desserts in a restaurant that catered to incredibly overweight ladies. He also worked in a glitter factory but alas, the glam scene was on its way out, so all that free glitter did nothing for us. We both worked in a bubble bath factory. They marketed bubble bath in plastic containers the shape of a squirrel and a poodle, the cap screwing on the top of the body. On the assembly line, the women would place the head of the squirrel or poodle on the cap and Paul or I would pound it down with a mallet. You had to hit that head just right to knock it in place. Those critters came fast, so bam! bam! bam! one after another, smacking those heads as fast as humanly possible.. We were the best headbeaters in the place and nobody started any shit with us. We worked many other awful jobs too, just to support ourselves since the group barely made enough to buy guitar picks."
Despite such distractions, creatively, The Moldy Dogs were still riding high (collectively, between Roxon, Major, and Wheeler, Roxon estimates the band has a catalog of 1200-1500 songs), and the band was convinced that success was waiting just around the corner. Brimming with self confidence and an impudent determination to not compromise their vision, the band would make several decisions which in retrospect would be considered mistakes. During their stint in L.A., Roxon and Major were offered a job backing drummer Sandy Nelson at an oldies themed show in Las Vegas, which they rejected.
"A friend turned me on to Sandy," says Roxon. "He called him on the phone, introduced me, and we had a pleasant conversation. When I asked about the nature of the musicians he was seeking, Sandy replied 'Look, do you know three chords?' I answered that, between Paul and I, we only know two, but 'give us a week and we'll figure out another.' He loved the answer though my friend was shocked. We were so sure that our big break was just around the corner that we decided not to be tied down to Vegas."
But all of their impudence and self confidence couldn't hide the fact that the freedom in which the band had reveled inside the confines of St Louis didn't jive with the complicated world of major labels and marketing the band had wandered into. Major and Roxon found themselves lost in a veritable sea of rock and roll nightmares that defined the mid-1970's. Their sound was unique enough to be interesting, but somehow, not interesting enough to be unique. They needed work, they needed band members to stick around in order to form a cohesive unit, they needed studio time, they needed to make good decisions, they needed luck, and they needed a chance.
"Making it in any aspect of the entertainment business in New York City or Los Angeles was like playing musical chairs with 100,000 people and just two chairs," says Roxon. "What were your chances of even getting close to a chair when the music stopped?"
"I spent countless hours of literally every day taking our demo tapes to the big record labels, then, eventually the small ones," Roxon continues. "In the mid-1970's, the record companies would, for the most part, listen to your demos, or at least a song. We were rejected by all. They simply could not imagine a market for our music and they realized we were about as far as one could be from disco or even the over produced rock they promoted."
"I visited one small label in 1977," Roxon continues. "It was a two person operation - the A&R person at the front desk screened the tapes and passed her top choices on to the president of the label. When I went back to the office a few days later, she greeted me warmly but had a hurt look on her face. She explained to me how excited she was after hearing the demo. She thought we were the most unique songwriters who ever crossed her desk, passed the recording on to the president with her highest recommendation. But he rejected the tape. The reason: we needed to work on our overall sound. We were competent musicians but we needed to discover a standout, defining sound that usually comes through finding the right members and devoting countless hours to playing and experimenting. In other words, we were simply too bland.
"She went on to tell me the story about her friend from Florida who, for thirteen years had been recording demo tapes all winter then coming to L.A. in the summer to shop his tunes. Every year he faced rejection and every year he returned home and recorded or reworked another batch of song, then bounced back to L.A. for another round. She asked if I'd ever heard of him. His name was Tom Petty and he called his group The Heartbreakers. He just signed a contract this year and his first album was in the stores."
It didn't take long for Major and Roxon to sour on the Sunset Strip and the duo decided to move their pop hooks and dark images back to St Louis for a brief stint before heading off to New York where Roxon and Major would enjoy more success but still face many of the same problems.
"The music business is, by far, the most corrupt business on this planet," says Roxon. "Nothing else even comes close - banks, oil companies, or political parties.
"Connie Francis once said: 'When I started in the 1950s, the music business was run by a group of people who knew a lot about music, but nothing about business. Now they know a lot about business, but nothing about music.' Believe me, in the late 1970s and early 1980's, the music execs knew nothing about music or the business. And they could have cared less. So dealing with them was a challenge which we tried to ignore and hoped it would go away or someone else would do it on our behalf. For The Moldies no one stepped forward.
"You can do everything right in your rock group and still fail miserably," Roxon concludes.
At some point during the transition from Los Angeles losers to New York near darlings, The Moldy Dogs effectively broke up.
"At first, we picked up where we had left off in 1976," says Roxon. "But as the summer wore on, our disappointments mounted. The live gigs we had were scarce, and the contacts we had were not delivering. Paul Major and I were slowly coming to the realization that we were still very far from achieving our destination. I remember Paul lamenting that we may still need four to five years of development at the rate we were moving. He was right, and the fact is, we simply did not have that much time."
Though it was a difficult, and still contentious, decision, Wheeler was kicked out of the band over creative differences before the band left for New York.
"Paul Major and I had sacrificed a lot for The Moldy Dogs and hoped other members would do the same. But when arguments began to surface over what we considered minor requests for cooperation, well, let's just say the seeds were planted."
Wheeler has a different version of the events which led to his departure.
"Wolf principally booted me out of the band," says Wheeler. "I suspect that it was because I was under the illusion that it was a democratic band, and though I recognized that Wolf was the front man, and that if anyone was, he was certainly the leader of the band, I didn't feel that gave him the right to make all of the decisions, and regularly argued with him. That didn't sit well with Wolf."
The Moldy Dogs left for New York in autumn of 1977 and, as in L.A., couldn't quite find their place.
"Paul and I tried our best to find future members for The Moldies," says Roxon. "But when it became apparent it was going to take a while we decided to throw a group together with Peter Mathieson and a twelve year old drummer named Ralph Grasso."
The new band was called The Tears, but it was all in the spirit of The Moldy Dogs.
"We were shocked by how musically primitive the New York scene was in late 1977," says Roxon. "So we filled our sets with old Moldy Dogs songs, even some Wolfgang and the Noble oval and Screaming Mee Mee's tunes. Of course, this was not the group Paul Major and I had in mind to form when we split The Moldies in St Louis. We also played the Bleecker Street club/bar scene calling ourselves The Imposters."
Eventually, The Tears would dissolve as well, and Roxon and Major would drift their separate ways, though neither strayed far from the other. Major formed The Sorcerors ("a rather heavyish metal band ala the future Guns and Roses," says Roxon), for whom Roxon filled in on bass for a short time. The duo regrouped in 1980 under the name Walkie Talkie and would enjoy a modest amount of success. Wheeler, who had moved to New York at the same time as Major and Roxon, had joined The Outpatients and would gig around New York with The Metroes, the band Roxon formed after The Tears.
In 1998, Major and Roxon reformed The Moldy Dogs and experienced a small renaissance.
"In the late 1990's, we reunited The Moldy Dogs in New York and once again played various clubs as well as recorded extensively. During this period we recorded more songs than all of our prior history together," says Roxon.
"Unfortunately both Paul and I were approaching our late 40's and other commitments now took precedence. Those years of being young kids with no strings attached were long gone. So The Moldy Dogs were shelved once again. No doubt, we reached our highest musical achievements during this period, but we just ran out of time. Or maybe time ran out on us."
Also see Wolf Roxon's MySpace page
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