For the record

New releases expose Fresno's rock 'n' roll roots

By Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee

(Published January 15, 2000)

Menace hangs in the air inside the Rainbow Ballroom like bad breath.

It's Tuesday night, and thundering metal band Megadeth is the headliner. But right now, opening act the Deadlights are leering through a defiant 45-minute set. Three of the four band members have stripped off their shirts and play bare-chested. The bass player keeps his shirt on but compensates with spiky black hair that makes it look as if he's got nails poking from his head every which way.

A couple of signs say "no smoking," but since you can see the haze across the room curling and shifting, this apparently is considered mere advice by the 1,500 or so fans packed into the place.

Tattoos and black T-shirts are everywhere. A clean-cut guy wears one that reads in white letters, "Just be glad I'm not your kid."

The Rainbow Ballroom always did attract a "fast" crowd, according to Philip Hollingsworth.

During the '60s and '70s, as a member of Fresno rock bands Kings Verses and Canterbury Fair, Hollingsworth performed at the ballroom and a ton of other places that until recently lived on only in memory.

Now those days have been brought to life by a series of albums released by a small New York label called Sundazed. For the first time, Fresno's rock 'n' roll roots are available on full-length vinyl albums and compact discs.

Canterbury Fair has a self-titled CD available. Songs from Kings Verses and the Road Runners have been released on high-grade vinyl records by Sundazed affiliate Beat Rocket.

There's also a live recording on vinyl of Salinas band the E-Types playing at the Rainbow Ballroom (subtitled, tongue only partly in cheek, "The sights and smells of Fresno.") Projects involving other Fresno bands are on the way.

Though the sound is rough in spots, and even the musicians involved admit many of the songs are second-rate, the Sundazed releases show how the Fresno music scene has changed - and how some things never do.

The ballroom has been a regular stop for big out-of-town acts, going back to Janis Joplin and the Turtles. The difference during the '60s was that local bands played every Friday night for dances. Hollingsworth remembers them as wild and woolly.

Elsewhere, slow dances had boys and girls properly stationed at arm's length.

"At the Rainbow Ballroom, the girls would just put their arms around you," Hollingsworth says. "It felt like a dangerous, interesting place to be."

As fans slam-dance Tuesday in front of the stage, the notion of a cuddly slow dance seems quaint. Later that night, two fans will be arrested for public intoxication after dozens of police arrive outside the ballroom near the end of the show.

Rock 'n' roll and danger have been joined at the hip since the start. That's what makes the music exciting, particularly if your family had ties to the local symphony. One of Hollingsworth's grandmothers was president of the Fresno Music Club during the late '30s. Another sang opera.

"Playing rock 'n' roll meant associating with people outside of your class," Hollingsworth says. "It also represented freedom and the ability to be sexy."

Dances meant live bands. Disc jockeys spun records at radio stations, not parties. What but envy could today's bands feel? Though Fresno has grown immensely, the opportunities for its rock bands have not.

"It's harder now," Hollingsworth says. "When we played, we had five places we could play as a nobody, undiscovered band. You can't do that now."

Besides the Rainbow Ballroom, there was at one time or another the Marigold Ballroom, the Crimson Castle, the Cinnamon Cinder, even the Memorial Auditorium and Mid-State Bowl. Rock bands played at high schools, graduations, holiday dances.

"You'd think with a dance every Friday night, people would get tired of it," says Dale Samuelian, who played keyboards for the Road Runners. "But no."

Musicians didn't have to compete with video games, the Internet and cable television for entertainment dollars. Gigs were so plentiful a band sometimes could book one before the band even existed.

That's how it worked for Raik's Progress, which will have its self-titled compact disc released by Sundazed in April. Tonio K, whose long career in pop music includes co-writing the 1993 chart-topping adult contemporary hit "Love Is," formed the band with classmates while walking home from high school during the early '60s.

They decided to play surf music and call themselves the Vibrants.

"We pronounced ourselves a band and booked ourselves a gig," Tonio K says. "Somebody's sister was having a going-away-to-college party. They were paying $25, and we took it. Now all we had to do was learn some songs and buy some instruments to play them on.

"We had a week, maybe 10 days to get ready. It was ridiculous."

They played all through high school, changing their name to Raik's Progress after the British Invasion took hold.

"The minute school was over, we moved to Los Angeles," Tonio K says.

That was typical.

If Fresno bands had anything in common - if they still do - it's that they couldn't wait to leave town, says Jud Cost, Sundazed's West Coast representative.

"They all seemed to like Fresno, but they seemed to realize they had no musical future there," Cost says.

Hollingsworth calls it the Away From Home Effect: "For every mile you got away from home, you had greater artistic credibility."

Like today, Fresno was close enough to San Francisco and Los Angeles to be influenced by what was happening there yet isolated enough that local musicians could put their own twist on what they heard.

"The interesting thing about Fresno bands," says Cost, a self-described music archaeologist, "was that they were on the cusp between garage rock, kind of that Rolling Stones R&B thing, and the psychedelic music of the Bay Area."

"Bands in Fresno were followers, not originators," Hollingsworth says. "When you start in a band, you play what's on the radio. But you eventually learn that if you want to hit the big time, you've got to play your own music."

Rock radio in town was limited to a couple of stations. Until KFIG came along during the early '70s and began playing album cuts, playlists were limited to the hits heard on Los Angeles airwaves. Then as now, there was little radio support for local bands.

But Samuelian says the Road Runners had the No. 1 song on KYNO a couple of times. He says one of the band's tricks was to buy up its records at stores to convince the station it was hot-selling.

Best-sellers are pretty much the last thing on anyone's mind at Sundazed.

The label is renowned for the quality of its releases, particularly the job it does improving the sound of old recordings. But Sundazed has carved its niche among collectors and audiophiles, admittedly a small slice of the pop music audience.

As a member of the Road Runners, Samuelian performed before a lot of big acts, most famously the Rolling Stones during a daylong Ratcliffe Stadium festival. But that was a long time ago.

"When I got the call from Sundazed, I thought, 'Who's gonna buy this? Who cares?' " Samuelian says. "There were a million bands from those days throughout the country. I figured it wasn't any big deal."

Samuelian hasn't opened his copy of the Road Runners album.

"I look back, and I think, 'Geez, why did I think this was so neat?' " he says.

Tonio K had a similar reaction after listening to old Raik's Progress tapes: "I don't know who the hell we thought we were. It wasn't bad for kids, I guess."

Hollingsworth is excited about Canterbury Fair's compact disc. But he admits the music was flawed.

"The singing was horrible," Hollingsworth says. "We sang just because you needed that to break up the instrumentals. The lyrics were sketchy.

"When I listen now, I just laugh at the stuff we did."

Hollingsworth says Canterbury Fair's sprawling musical concoctions had no market value.

"We had top people come out to see us," Hollingsworth says. "But they all said they couldn't imagine our music played on the radio. The songs weren't three-minute tunes with strong choruses. ... We hated writing songs about love. It was just not in us."

But he believes those flaws are what attracted Sundazed.

"We're not like anyone else," Hollingsworth says. "We don't have three-minute songs with obvious lyrics. We're a crazier, fringe group with all these weird time changes."

But if it weren't for Neil Hopper, Sundazed never may have discovered Canterbury Fair or the other Fresno bands.

Hopper is a video engineer these days, maintaining the equipment used to edit television shows like "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice."

But before he moved to North Hollywood 30 years ago, Hopper spent four years recording bands in Fresno, sometimes on equipment he had built himself. He wanted to become a recording engineer, but Fresno's studios were one-man operations in those days.

Nevertheless, Hopper amassed 50 reels of tape, which sat on his shelf for more than three decades. Several years ago, he sold them all to Sundazed.

Sundazed's Cost says Hopper "is either a genius or lucky or both. The stuff sounds amazing."

The Fresno musicians and technicians of yesteryear have one piece of advice for today's bands: Don't do it.

"If you want to do it bad enough to ignore my advice, you'll do it anyway," Hopper says.

"It's an ugly business," Tonio K says. "I know lots of people who are talented who haven't made it."

"It's a terrible culture, jobwise," Samuelian says. "You're up all night, then you sleep in, you miss the good part of the day, you have no motivation to do anything else. It doesn't lead anywhere."

Hollingsworth says that if your goal is to make it big, "you either have to be extremely lucky and talented, or you can't be talented at anything else. The odds are so stacked against you that it doesn't take much to pull you away from music, and you never get back to it."

That's what happened to him. For a decade, he and his older brother, John, chased their pop music dreams. They operated a Culver City recording studio, built from scratch. Then Philip Hollingsworth started a family, got an accounting degree and a day job in Los Angeles.

Several years ago, after moving back to Fresno, the Hollingsworths began an education consulting business that Philip Hollingsworth says is booming.

But he still sounds frustrated at Canterbury Fair's inability to break through the bottleneck that record companies, with their vast distribution networks, represented.

"We used to get standing ovations, so we knew there were people out there who liked us," Hollingsworth says. Finally, he feels as if he's getting his shot.

"I'll be satisfied if enough people heard it and said, 'I didn't like that,'" Hollingsworth says. "I could get closure. ... I can say, 'At least people got to hear it.' "