Perfect Sound Forever

The Pontiac Brothers

PB's on December 6, 1987, Los Angeles, California

by Tim Shannon
(October 2006)

The Pontiac Brothers are most known for having one of their records cameo in the Replacements' "Bastards of Young" video or as a footnote to the Liquor Giants and Gun Club's careers. They were often referred to as the Replacements' replacements (although the Stones meets Replacements tag is more accurate) in the press because of their similar sound. That phrase would hold some weight if the Pontiacs filled in for the Mats live- the audience would still go home happy and with a new band to uncover. It's easy to imagine both bands knocking back beers, laughing and shooting the breeze with each other. Although they did some shows together the Pontiacs never got the same following the Mats cultivated. They might play shows to 5-10 people sometimes. Their only mistake was bad timing as their type of music didn't fit with many underground fans taste in the late '80's. Now as decades have passed, it's time to stop seeing them as an also ran and give this band a thorough look.

In 1983, Ward Dotson guitarist for the seminal punk-meets-blues band Gun Club was upset with the band's direction. He stated he was tired of playing for people in black leather who never smiled and with that, he left the band. Deciding he wanted to play music for fun again, he got together with rhythm guitarist Glen Floyd, bassist Kurt Bauman and singer Matt Simon, all California scene veterans. Together they formed a Stones cover band called Gallstones to play bars. Neither Valdez or Simon had played this role in a band before and Dotson didn't hide to state "our singer was our drummer, our drummer was a bass payer and collectively we had the drive of a perpetual hangover." When the French label Lolita gave them the chance to record an album they jumped at the offer even though they were still evolving from a covers to a band doing original material. The Pontiac Brothers influences obviously included the Stones but also other hard rock bands as well as the blues and there's also a Westerberg-like personal songwriting style can be heard on the debut.

Since the Pontiacs are so often compared with the Mats, I feel a need to show some distinctions quickly between them so they aren't seen as some second rate version and that they have their own uniqueness. Simon even states he'd never really heard of them until the Pontiacs had been a band for quite some time. The first difference is the blues influence and Dotson's use of slide guitar in the Pontiacs, which was rarely used in the Mats. Also, while the Mats sound had its roots in punk, the Pontiacs didn't. They might have had punk ethics like 'play what you want, not what sells' and 'do your own thing and don't compromise your music.' Musically speaking though, the Pontiacs never went past mid-tempo. Lastly, just look at their different in choice of covers. The Mats covers were usually of their '70's rock influences or their pop aspirations while the Pontiacs showed a debt to the '60's, with lesser known songs by Dylan, Grateful Dead, McCartney and the MC5.

The Pontiacs' resulting debut record Big Black River (1985) shows a band who didn't have it all together yet. The title track and the cover of Dylan's "If You Got to Go, Go Now" are the only ones that sound fully realized. The band wasn't happy with the record and shortly afterward, they fired Glen Floyd for being inexperienced (not what you'd call a punk move) and replaced him with Jon Wahl. Within the year, they got signed with the L.A. indie Frontier Records and started working on a new record while dumping half of the material from the first.

This record became Doll Hut (1985) and was a step up from BBR with great simple melodies and evidence of their own determined style. "Straight and Narrow" re-establishes Dotson's mastery of the slide guitar matched with a jumping melody. Two stand out tracks {"Almost Human," "Out In The Rain") show that the band had real potential."Almost Human" is greatly improved from the debut's production and playing: it has a slow tempo, great acoustic melody and talks about an enticing, but hurtful woman who's "almost human when she steps up to you "and kisses you. A slide is used effectively in it that personifies the melancholic feel the singer feels about the woman. "Out In the Rain" has a strong melody, Simon's appropriate throaty vocals and lyrics that promise "I got a bottle babe, take my hand we'll get drunk in the rain." Other tracks show the band's interplay and Dotson's guitar leads have grown with time- "Keep The Promise," "Whole Damn World" which also adds humor ("I'm alright, it's the whole damn world") and the warning of apathy "While I Sleep." Doll Hut got featured in the Mats' "Bastards of Young" video that year (at the start, while flipping through records, before being thrown). When Dotson asked Paul why he did that, he joked "it looked like it needed flinging."

Jon Wahl left after Doll Hut to form his own band (Claw Hammer), making the Pontiacs a foursome and with this lineup they really hit their stride. Fiesta en La Biblioteca (1986) delivered and expanded upon the potential shown in Doll Hut boasting better melody arrangements, more diversity in the material, more heartfelt lyrics and a drunken sense of playfulness. "She Knows It" and "Doll Hut" are both up-tempo melodic rockers with the former's chorus simply stating "she's all to me , that's all that matters." "Look Out For That Train" talks about the sentiment of leaving your small town behind for the wide world and something more that everyone has felt at one time in their life. Sung from the view of a person leaving to someone staying he sings "look out for that train, don't know when I'll be coming through here again." Simon's vocals sound liberating when he says "it feels so good to be gone, can't wait to get away" and when he offers "would you like to come along?" The song has an inventive melody and some great one liners like "I woke up dying just before I was born." The album shows range with fun rocking filler ("She Likes To Rock") a beautiful rendition of a Grateful Dead song ("Brown Eyed Women") and regret from drinking the night before with an attitude of "I just do what I can and try my best not to give a damn" ("Can't Get Out of Bed").

Fiesta also marked some firsts in the Pontiacs career that showed growth. Normally Dotson/Simon wrote most of the songs in the Pontiacs, but Valdez showed his first writing credit here collaborating with Simon and playing an acoustic guitar on "Girl From El Reno." It sounds like an authentic blues standard with sinister slide guitar recalling a desolate dusty road.

Fiesta also began showing more of their humor as well with the title, a liquor bottle casually posed on the cover and credits in the liners of excess vocals (credited to Sue Gorilla and Annette Vargas) and a guitar solo credited to "gnarly dude" (according to Matt, "I'm about 99% sure that was actually Randy Burns, our producer, but it might have been one of his heavy metal friends as well").

The album ends with their first real introspective song "Be Married" that is one of the Pontiacs best ever and is often referred to as the best song Paul Westerberg never wrote. The song has a contemplative mood as Dotson in a rare lead vocal sings a matrimony plea that paints a picture of both sides of marriage. He's idealistic when he sings "don't you think its time, we got a little place just yours and mine" and talks about the wedding cake and party, but is followed by pessimism, singing "it'd be alright then we could fight all the time." The bridge adds more depth to the song when he sings of alienation ("why am I the only one who feels this way") and fear ("you and I could mess this whole thing up") with a stretching slide in the background. Fiesta was their best record to date and had favorable reviews in the few magazines that heard it. Frontier liked it enough to release "Be Married" as its own separate EP in 1987.

Despite the achievement of Fiesta, they still weren't getting the attention they deserved. The band decided if their next record didn't do well they'd call it quits. Johnson (1988) was another classic by the Pontiacs showing them playing better than ever with cleaner production and bursting with crossover potential. Half of the songs on the record could have made great singles if they were given the right push. "Ain't What I Call Home" opens the record with tons of energy from piano (supplied by the Faces' Ian McLagan) and melodic guitar backed up with Beatles-esque harmonies and a heavy backbeat. "Creep" has a bright melody and guitar lines through it with contrasting lyrics of a girl who "will always be a creep." "Drop of a Hat" shows an opposite rough melody that matches with Simon's straight from the gut vocals about how money doesn't matter. The sad and introspective ballad "Doin' Fine Again" perfectly captures the feeling of being lost and confused with the line "I guess I maybe, sorta, kinda, gotta, wanna have something to do." There's a continued trend of diversity on this record while simultaneously boasting some of their best songs and most well written lyrics. The rocking cover of Paul McCartney's "Magneto and Titanium Man" shows they're still having fun and "American Dream" makes clear a feeling of being left out on the refrain "so this is the American dream, what's it got to do with me." "Comin' True" is an almost anthem with a tight catchy driving melody, drunken humor ("foots on the other shoe") and thoughts that "tomorrow we'll have better things to do." "Real Job" ends the record poking fun at the question ("why don't you get a real job?") that they must have faced numerous times with mentions of food stamps and their response of "I know what I should do, I know but I... I just don't want to."

Johnson was their biggest exposure yet. They even made a video for "Ain't What I Call Home." Unfortunately, this genius album went unnoticed like their others and even after "3 1/2 years of getting used to the world's general lack of interest," the band felt ragged and broke up around 1988. Dotson went off and formed the Liquor Giants with Valdez brought along on bass and recorded their debut You're Always Welcome. After the Pontiacs broke up and years passed by, they realized they missed playing together and in 1992 got together to record a reunion album for that very reason. Considering Fuzzy Little Piece of The World (1992) was recorded 4 years after the band had last played together and put together in a month, it's a great record but it doesn't completely hold up to their last two. A good number of the tracks on Fuzzy ("Cry," "Rock Music," "Suicide Note," "Being With You") have a reflective mood to it. It can almost be taken as a proper farewell from the group that they didn't get to say after Johnson for their own sake, if not the audience. That's not to assume this record is a downer, in fact it has plenty of up-tempo songs. "Clowns Join The Circus" shows they hadn't lost their sense of humor combined with loud ringing chords. "Feelgood" has a bashed-out melody and the title track has a good simple crunchy melody to it. You can also notice an influence of the Liquor Giants pop hooks on some of the tracks. They make a joke with their song "Last Saturday," which is a nice parody of Morrissey. Humor also pops up in the thoughtful songs too, like "Little By Little" stating "this is where the story ends, I'm back hanging with my yachting friends." The album ends with the touching and nostalgic "Being With You" played on piano and is one of the Pontiacs' best songs. Reflecting on their career Simon sings "OK so we didn't catch, we had fun not catching." and that "we were just young then instead of has-been, but I don't care I'm glad you were my friend."

The band sounded like they had a lot of fun making Fuzzy and both Simon and Dotson seem to favor it the most. Following the release of Fuzzy they did a small tour for it and when that ended, so did the Pontiac Brothers. Frontier Records re-issued Doll Hut and Fiesta onto one CD in 1992 with the Dylan cover from the first album added to it to coincide with Fuzzy being released. Dotson continued on with the Liquor Giants releasing records for Matador (including one with Simon on drums) and gaining a large cult following in Australia.

The Pontiacs appear to have no bitterness or grudges with their past. To quote a line from "Cry", "all they ever wanted was a good time" and it showed. It was common for them to ask when they first arrived for sound check "what kind of bar tab do we have?" Dotson sums it up simply as "all we cared about was getting wasted and that was accomplished."

Thanks to Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records for getting me in contact with Ward Dotson and Matt Simon, who were kind enough to share their thoughts and memories of the band.

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