A while back, I posted a 45 by a band called BOB and openly wondered what the story behind it was. I asked if anyone had any info on this obscure band or the Dumb Records label that it was released on in general. The only other releases on Dumb Records were a string of 7inches by this guy Novak who I believed was associated with the label and the Mi Ne Parolas 7inch by the band IXNA. I wanted to learn more because I believed I was looking at a treasure trove of late 1970s synth/punk weirdness.
Well shortly after this, Novak himself contacted me and informed me that Dumb Records was indeed his label. After some discussion, he agreed to let me interview him for Last Days.
This has been one of the big moments for me on this blog. Every music fan loves discovering new sounds and let’s face it, as we get older the chance that something completely unbeknownst to us will drop in our laps becomes more and more unlikely. I think Novak’s narrative is pretty damn fascinating (he produced Murder By Guitar!) and I hope you do too.
An Interview With Novak
In 1967, I was a 15 year old kid growing up on Long Island New York and the main music source for me was Top-40 radio. One day I went to a friend’s house, he had 2 brothers in college and they had just bought Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon which was the thing for the cool guys on campus. They had a turntable hooked up to 2 Fender guitar amps and put it on.
As they say, it changed my life. I didn’t know stuff like that existed. It made me seek out weirder music. I found Frank Zappas Mothers of Inventions Freak Out! it was great. On Zappas 2nd album I think, he had this quote in the liner notes, ‘The present day composer refuses to die!’ – Edgar Varese”.
So next, I bought Varese recordings. I read one of his essays where he said music was sound that you liked, and noise was sound you didn’t like. Now I understood what could be done, and the cuffs were off. This discovery led me to the hard stuff” like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen , Pierre Henry, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio, and a lot of other experimental composers.
I spent the rest of the 60s studying these guys hardcore and after a while I wanted to be a composer and make this academic-music where anything goes and the sky’s the limit.
In 1970 I entered the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY) as a music composition major because I landed a scholarship and they were the first university in the US with an accredited degree in Electronic Music Composition.
My composition professor (Joel Chadabe) had just gotten a Grant and had put together the largest Moog Synthesizer in the world at that time, in a studio with a Scully 4-track and 2 Scully deuces. It turned out the original Moog factory was in the next town over from Albany, and Robert Moog was a frequent visitor to the studio, bringing early prototypes of modules for us to experiment with and comment on. My visit to his factory was weird because I was expecting some high-tech laboratory; instead it was a room full of housewives sitting at card tables soldering printed circuit boards. This is where the magic started!
I became Director of the Albany studio, did lecture demonstrations with Robert Moog at area high schools, won a bunch of student composition awards- a lot of them were collages using all kind of found recordings sort of like what became sampling, was John Cages student assistant for a semester, produced a weekly series of new-music concerts for the likes of Phillip Glass when he was an experimental filmmaker, Alvin Lucier, Frederic Rzewski, Kenneth Gaburo, and a virtual who’s-who of the avant-garde new music world.
But by 1973-74 something happened, I became discouraged with the avant-garde scene. I got tired of spending days setting up concerts where 20-30 people showed up and half of them left after the first 5 minutes. I felt that the purpose of art was to communicate and it seemed like the music wasn’t communicating with hardly anyone. It seemed like a few people made music just for a few of their friends and that was it. I came to the realization that the modern composer had spent a better part of the 20th century alienating their audiences.
So I made a big change: I dyed my long hair purple and black and joined a glam-rock derivative, heavy metal freak rock band. I was never in a band before. The only way I got in was because the bass player had been to some of my new-music concerts and they tripped him out plus I had a bunch of weird tapes AND a synthesizer– it was the Sonic 6, which was the sequel to the original Mini-Moog. I had it on loan from Robert Moog; it’s what we used for the lectures. So for about a year I was university dude by day and freak-rock metal man by night We played obscure covers, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, Stooges, all with weird non-keyboard synthesizer stuff going on over the power trio.
We were the only band in Upstate New York with a synthesizer; it freaked a lot of people out and got us kicked out of a lot of clubs (these were the days when people couldn’t pronounce the word synthesizer let alone know what it was). It was fun except for the rednecks who wanted to beat the crap out of us because we looked like a bunch of fey girls. The drummer was friends with the local chapter of the Hells Angels who dug us, so they hung with us for security.
1974 I graduated and it sucked, for the first time in 4 years I had no studio, no synthesizer. The band was fighting, screwing each other’s girlfriends, out-of-control drinking, stuff like that, and it broke up. I got a lousy factory job assembling electronic smoke-detectors for $62 a week. I stole enough parts to build my own synthesizer. I etched the circuit boards in my bathroom sink. After a year I had 16 voltage-controlled oscillators, a few VC amps, a ring modulator and a 20 channel mixer. Big deal. I had no venue to do anything.
A former classmate suggested I go back to school; she was going to Mills CCM. So with a couple of good recommendations from BOB Moog and Joel Chadabe, I was able to get into Mills College in Oakland California in 1976. Mills was/is a well-regarded women’s college, but the campus is also host to the world-renowned Centre for Contemporary Music (CCM), which is co-ed; so I went there to get a Master’s Degree in Composition. The professors were new-music heavyweights: Robert Ashley, Terry Riley, David Behrman, BOB Scheff (aka Blue-Gene Tyranny), Paul DeMarinas, Bill Farley (film) Maggie Payne (recording studio director). I think it was originally started by Pauline Oliveros as the San Francisco Tape Music Centre in the 60s. Sometime later it moved to the Mills campus and became the CCM.
At first I lived in a 500-room abandoned hotel in San Francisco where someone I knew from SUNY Albany was living. It was called the Reno Hotel on Harriet Street and was home to a bunch of squatting artists. Its where Greenpeace started, and in the 60s it was where they had the Trips Festivals with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and all those guys. It was quite the place. It’s not there anymore.
How did Dumb Records start?
Dumb Records happened because I was in a new place, San Francisco, no longer trapped in the shithole of Albany, and I had no idea what to do. I was 24 and I knew I had to do something godammit. Also, as a graduate student at Mills, I found myself surrounded by musicians and composers of all types and I also had access to a 12 track recording studio (that’s the studio on the cover of the RU21 7inch EP; the control room isn’t visible in the photo). Even though I was a graduate student for serious electronic composition, I didn’t want to return to the artsy-fartsy stick-up-the-ass snob world of the avant-garde and finally I yearned for the fun, the girls and the wild times of playing in a band.
At Mills CCM (1976) to pay for tuition I taught a few undergraduate courses in studio design, contemporary aesthetics, and synthesizer technique; these weren’t keyboard synths, they were strictly old school where you made your sound configurations with patch cords and knob twiddling. I supported myself during the next 6 years working 2 days a week as a waiter near Fisherman’s Wharf, more days during tourist season; my future bands gigs always lost money. I didn’t want to make academic music; I really just wanted to have fun. So I started writing songs during the first semester. In the music building there was a long hallway lined with dozens of practice rooms (a closet size room with a piano in it). Its where everyone practiced: flute, violin, drums, clarinet, sax, you name it.
Id stick my head in someone’s room and say something like Hey Danny you want to play drums on this song I’m working on? Id block it out on the piano to show him the song, then drag in a revox, set up mics, he’d put the headphones on, usually I started with a click track and piano chords on the tape to sync to, and he’d bang away. Id copy those tracks to the 12-track in the studio and add more instruments once I worked out the arrangements on the piano. In the late late night I’d do the vocals because I’d never sung before and I didn’t want anyone to hear me.
After about 6-8 months I had the recordings that became the first Dumb Record: the RU21 7inch EP. I sorta wanted to put together a band, but I figured it was no use having a band if there was no place to play so I started checking out the San Francisco club scene but there was no new-wave scene yet. At the time, bands had demo tapes they used to try and get gigs and there was a lame-ish bar band circuit (remember cassette tapes?). These bar-bands weren’t interesting at all.
There was a recording engineering magazine lying around in the studio and in the back was a small ad for a company in Texas that pressed vinyl records (this was way before CDs). So I figured, why not go one step beyond a demo tape and make a freaking record?!
I sent in that master tape and I think like $300, got a test acetate, then 500 copies of the RU21 vinyl. I never made any more of those. I didn’t have a driver’s license or car so I carried the big heavy box of records on the bus from the freight dispatch terminal to my apartment. The girlfriend of a grad student was into photography; she took the cover photos. I laid the cover out by hand and took it to a printer. I didn’t know that the printer could have scored the card stock in the printing press, so to make them fold with a clean, sharp edge; I scored each one by hand with a ruler and ballpoint pen. Without this scoring the card-cover would not fold cleanly. And I glued them together by hand, one-by-one.
I went around on foot to little bookstores and record stores to sell the records on consignment: Tower Records took 2. Books and Nooks on Polk Street took 3; this is where I first saw CRIMEs debut single Hot Wire My Heart, which I promptly bought. It was like hey, someone else is doing this too!
I knew my songs were sorta stupid and dumb, so the name Dumb Records seemed like a good name, sort of funny even. Early on in the punk scene, it wasn’t considered very cool but that changed after about a year when it became established. The scene was just getting started when I put out this record.
Little known facts about the first Dumb Record:
RU21: The father of a girl I went with in New York was a race car driver in the 1950s. He named his race car RU21. Unlike today, using letters and numbers like that wasn’t really done, or I didn’t know about it. I thought it was cool so I used it for my song about trying to get into a girls pants while worrying she might be jailbait.
HONEYDEW: In high school I worked produce in a grocery store in the summer. I was wheeling out crates of honeydew melons, past the manager of the meat department. He looked at the melons and for some reason sang out My honey do, your honey don’t! I used it for the chorus in this song about getting syphilis from a girl who do it; and used the word dew as a loose metaphor for the unpleasant goo that accompanies venereal diseases.
LOVE IS HOT: This was my attempt at doing a Bryan Ferry crooning type thing and I think I totally failed. After it was out it sorta embarrassed me. But there was a girl, Tessie, early on at the Mabuhay who booked bands for Dirk and Ness. Oddly enough she really liked it as the best track; she even sang it to me all the way through. It was because of this song that I got my first booking at the Mabuhay, because Tessie liked it. Weird huh?
SIGNS STOP: The wild, inspired synthesizer solo on this track was done by Gabriel Stern who also lived at the Reno Hotel. He was an older jazz saxophonist. He had an electronic engineer friend who wired a real sax somehow to output control voltages to control a synthesizer. The breath pressure on the reed bended the pitch I think, and all the keys on the sax did something. It was all plugged into an Arp 2600 (anyone remember that one?). So when he played it was like watching a guy play sax, but the sound was from outer space generated by the Arp. It was the most unusual control device for a synthesizer I have ever seen.
Bob Davis played guitar on the whole record. He was a fellow CCM composer and author of many guitar books. If it wasn’t for his enthusiasm, support, hard work and versatile chops I would never have pulled this record together. Same goes for Danny Sofer (drums), Danny could play anything and was always ready to help
I finished recording this record in the fall of 1976, but I really dragged my heels putting it out; if I hadn’t been so lazy I might have beat CRIME to market with indie vinyl, as they’re usually regarded as the first west coast band to put out vinyl at the end of 76. Even though I did it in 76, I didn’t want to put a 76 copyright on it, because I thought it would make it seem a year old when I released it at the start of 77, so I put a 77 copyright on it.
My name is William Novak. For my NY band, we had Hells Angels as both protection and roadies (friends of the drummer), and the band all ended up wearing black Harley motorcycle jackets (see photo). When I got to San Francisco I had just cut off my long girl-hair into an extreme pompadour. With my New York accent, biker jacket and greaser hair, the other graduate students mocked me by doing 50s type greaser impersonations: Hey Novak, ya want some salad? while grabbing their crotch, ya know stuff like that. I started using just Novak, it stuck, and everyone I know to this day knows me as Novak. Sounds stupid but when I became better known and people started writing about me, the journalists went to great extremes to find out and publish my real name, so for kicks I went out of my way to keep it a big secret; it was good for press….
How did you get into punk/new wave music? Also, you were located in the Bay Area, but you seem to be a little separated from the San Francisco scene (Nuns, CRIME, Mutants). Is this a fair assessment?
Nope, I was right in the middle of it all when it first started, for quite a while. Early on (1977-78), I was pretty involved with The Nuns and CRIME; I produced The Nuns demo tape and CRIMEs second record, way before the heroin hit town.
I knew some of the other bands, like I knew Sally Mutant and those guys but never really got that friendly for some reason; they were nice enough. Other punk bands like the Avengers pretty much avoided me; I said Hi to Penelope a few times but she was really chilly; I got the feeling they didn’t like me one bit. It was later said that a whole chunk of the SF punk scene was put off by me being a dandy fancy-pants grad student at a hoity-toity college like Mills. Also, I wasn’t the fashionable flavour of punk, my stuff was definitely 60s garage-rock inspired. But also my attitude was fuck everybody, I paid my dues.
Anyway, The Nuns and CRIME seemed to respect my academia and what I could do for them. After I recorded them (more on how that came about below) I opened for both bands many times during 1977-78 (well, a lot of times for CRIME, just a few times for The Nuns). I think they liked having my band open for them as sort of a thank you for producing recordings for them for free and my bands material (cheesy 60s garage-ish) was so very much different than their songs and sound, there was no conflict. Also, my early bands were pretty crappy and sloppy, almost like comedy music. There was NO WAY I could ever upstage them.
My first encounter with The Nuns was in late 1976 or early 77: I had my first record in the can and was looking around for places to play. In the building I was living in then, there was a guy named Ginger Coyote (who later went on to found Punk Globe). I ran into her on the stairs one day and she said, There’s a new club on Broadway and they’re booking new bands. It’s called Mabuhay Gardens.
Mabuhay Gardens booked bands irregularly at that time, like one-two nights a week. The next show was The Nuns opening up for the Ramones (their 1st album came out like 6 months earlier) so I went. There couldn’t have been more than 40 people there. Jennifer the keyboardist started the set, onstage by herself playing this cabaret-type song, it was called Lazy or something like that, it was slow eerie dreamy stuff; really cool in a what the fuck is this? kind of way. When she was done, the rest of The Nuns hit the stage like a herd of buffalo, plugged in and took off.
They sounded absolutely fantastic. I mean like wild and noisy and out of control and HARD ROCK and ready to fall apart but they didn’t. It was quite the exciting moment. After the show everyone was hanging around onstage hauling their gear and stuff so I went up to tell them how great they were. My first contact was with Alejandro Escovedo (guitar); he was a real nice guy, we later became friends and he even played in my band for a few weeks when I got it together.
So I said hey man you are fuckin great! and we talked and Alejandro invited me to a party afterwards- I went, met everybody and got to know the band quite well over the next couple of months. I hung out with Jennifer quite a bit for a time, shed help me with my songs. In the book Punk 77, An Inside Look at the SF Rock n roll Scene Jennifer tells the story of how I introduced her to David Bowie. How did I know Bowie? I didn’t! After Iggy Pop did a show in Berkeley (Bowie was Iggy’s keyboardist on that tour) there was a party in SF and they were both there. I went there with Jennifer; we got in because she was in The Nuns of course. Bowie was just standing there alone and smoking so I went up to him and introduced myself and we talked for about 20 minutes, I figured he was really high to talk to a nobody like me for so long. I dragged Jennifer over and introduced her. Bowie kissed her hand. Jennifer said she didn’t wash her hand for weeks afterward.
Like 4 months later in 1977 after The Ramones show, The Nuns were by far the biggest hottest band in SF; they packed the places when they played. I was at the Mabuhay one night (I went there pretty much every night) and between bands they were playing the new Nuns demo tape over the sound system; it sounded different.
A little history: The deal with this demo tape was that Bill Grahams (who owned the SF mainstream music scene) right-hand man, I think his name was Jerry Pompili, took The Nuns into the CBS Studio on Folsom and spent something like $20,000 producing this tape of 3 songs (which was a TON of money to put into an underground band at the time). They were trying to get The Nuns on a major label.
Alejandro was leaning up against a wall so I went over and asked him what he thought about the demo tape. Alejandro said, I hate it. It doesn’t sound like us. He was kinda depressed. The thing that was wrong with it was that it was super OVER-PRODUCED- you could hear every instrument really clear, they were separated and clean. I mean it was too slick a recording, very professional high end stuff, more akin to Boston and totally wrong for The Nuns.
So I told Alejandro: Let me record you. I guarantee I will make you sound like you do when you play live. He was surprised; “Really?” I told him I’d do it for free, they just had to buy the blank tape (expensive) and that they’d get all tapes back at the end of the session, just like that. The band went for it, but their manager Edwin Heaven didn’t, at first. When he was convinced I was on the level and not out to rip off the band, the session was on. I never recorded a band before but they didn’t care.
We recorded at Mills CCM studio, 3 songs. Savage, Decadent Jew and I can’t remember their other big one, maybe it was Suicide Child. The whole band was very enthusiastic and a pleasure to record. I engineered it, microphone selection and placement, directed the band and then mixed down the 12-track songs to stereo, made cassette copies for everyone and gave them all the tapes. It sounded great, I mean it sounded like The Nuns did – – – I pulled it off, they were all really happy.
So 2 days later, these songs were all over the radio (mainly Savage). They were my recordings but the DJs were naming Jerry Pompili as the Producer! I never met the guy. Anyway, everyone on the scene knew the demo they ended up using was my work and it really put me on the map as far as being a producer; a lot of bands started giving me their cassettes but I didn’t like them too much.
Early in 1977, not too long after I first saw The Nuns, CRIME opened for Blondie at the Mabuhay. Blondie was touring in support of their first (great) album and were still playing small smelly clubs like the Mab. Maybe there were 30 people there. CRIME was as close to a noise band as I had ever seen live. They were great. But they were not the type of guys you just walk up to and introduce yourself like I did with The Nuns. They had this intense mystical violent vibe surrounding them when they walked into a club; silent and ultra-cool.
But after I got to know them, they were nice, funny, open but still real cool. Brittley Black even played drums on my Tention Hello record, the song Sixpack He was a real sweet nice guy and a real funny dude; I just learned last year he died a few years ago after getting his leg amputated (?).
I was at the Mab one night and it was packed. CRIME had just entered the front door. Their roadie/bodyguard was a scrappy guy named Rabbit and he always carried a short baseball bat, I think it even had a spike in it. Rabbit went to the table front and centre of the stage and slammed the bat down on the middle of the table and scared the shit out of the people sitting there. Drinks went flying as Rabbit said: This is CRIMEs table. The guys grabbed their stuff and quickly disappeared into the room. CRIME glided through the packed club and quietly sat down at the vacated table.
1978: One night, my girlfriend Tina (currently my wife of some 28+ years) and I were walking down Broadway toward the Mabuhay. Brittley Black (no longer with CRIME) pulls up driving this huge 1950s Cadillac with those big fins and all and yells hey Novak!. I yell hey, meet Tina! so he double-parks on the busy Broadway, runs over to the sidewalk and says Hey Tina hi! Come here I want to show you something. So we go to his car, Brittley pops the trunk and it is filled to the brim with boxes of women’s shoes (wtf?). Tina was and is a shoe freak and she recognized them as all being from the 50s and she said something like Wow! Brittley asked her size, rummaged around and gave her 2 pairs. All the cars stuck behind him were blowing their horns so he slammed the trunk shut and sped off.
Much later, toward the end of the 70s I was hanging out with Johnny Strikes wife at some bar waiting for him to show up or something. Anyway, she was really pissed. She told me that they all had gone to a lecture/seminar by author William Burroughs and Burroughs told them that one cannot be a writer without doing heroin. So Johnny and Frankie went out and scored some smack; she was really pissed at their new writing technique.
Not too long after I produced The Nuns demo tape I talked to Johnny Strike on the phone. I don’t remember if someone told me to call him because he wanted to talk or if he called me. He said that they wanted to do something a little different than their first record, something more professional that sounded more like their current evolving sound. I told him count me in, I wanna do it because I thought they were a great band. I told him it’s the same deal as with The Nuns, I’ll do it for free, they just buy the blank tape and I give them everything back at the end, ready to press onto vinyl. AND I asked to get Producer credit— it was no problem — they really liked what I did and put my producer credit on both the cover and the record label.
One small problem is that the band had to do everything really LOUD. Not just play loud but also during playback and mixing. It’s not that being so loud made it hard to mix (it did), I also blew out one of the studio monitor speakers, even though it had a big fat fuse on it. This made the studio director pretty pissed at me for quite some time; I couldn’t blame her. It was her studio and she kept it in tip-top shape.
The British magazine Ripped n Torn named Murder by Guitar as Single of the Year for 1977. It was good for me sorta; as more stuff was written about me, more bands wanted to be friends but also more bands started to hate me.
How did Oh Farrah come about?
The story with this song was that I’ve always been a pop-culture junkie into comics and TV, especially TV with a cheesy feel. These days I get all the info I need on the internet, but back then I lived at magazine stands reading every little trite thing I could before they kicked me out. Charlie’s Angels had just debuted in the fall of 76 at 10pm on Wednesdays. By the spring of 77 it was big, and Farrah Fawcett had that best-selling stupid poster and was the big star of the show. There was a time there when she was literally on EVERY magazine cover at the newsstands. I had my first Novak band by then and at rehearsals (4 nights a week) I guess all I could talk about day after day was freakin’ Farrah Fawcett, how she was just freakin’ EVERYWHERE. I didn’t even like her that much, that blonde squeaky-clean look.
My keyboardist at the time, a grad student at CCM, on the old Farfisa said Jesus Christ all you talk about is this Farrah so why don’t we do a song about her? One of the things we jammed on when we got drunk was 96 Tears (? and the Mysterians!) so she wrote some lyrics that went with that. I liked it so I re-wrote it to be not such a big rip-off of 96 Tears and she re-tooled the lyrics and we had a song: a masturbatory ode to Farrah Fawcett.
There was some radio DJs at KSJO in San Jose that for whatever reason really liked my band. When we started playing Oh Farrah live, they flipped for it and told me it would be a bona fide hit if I put it out. And they said put it out right away before the Farrah thing dies out. So I hastily recorded it (it was a very lousy recording which is why I re-did it a year later, more on that below) and put it to vinyl. KSJO played the hell out of it, it was on the radio a couple of times a day for a while there. It put me on the map as a band and sorta became my theme song, which made me feel good and also bad because, well, it was a rip of 96 Tears.
The flip side, Real Cool Guy, though, further alienated me from a lot of bands because everybody thought I wrote it about myself. It has this lyric:
I don’t have to say hi
All the girls sigh
Do you want to know why?
I’m a Real Cool Guy!
Yeah, fans dug it but everyone thought I wrote it about myself and was some big conceited fat-head. I thought it was a funny song. It was actually inspired by The Nuns drummer Jeff Raphael. Wed all go to parties after shows, and wed all get really wasted, and everyone would be the best of friends. So with Raphael it was like were best of friends at the party, but then when he sees me the next night at the Mabuhay, he’d ignore me like he didn’t know me, so I started messing with the line I don’t have to say Hi because I’m too cool for you. No one else in The Nuns was like that by the way, they were friends by day, friends by night. Plus there was The Stooges song from the 60s, Real Cool Time which I always liked.
When I listen to the Novak records, I hear a bunch of influences ranging from 1960′s garage rock to “Avant Garde” sound collages. Could you explain a little bit, where you were coming from with the Novak releases?
Now that you know a little more about my school background it probably makes more sense. But there was no deliberate design plan, I wish I had thought about it more at the time because I might have been able to be truly innovative with marrying the junk side of me (rock n roll) with the serious Avant Garde I studied so much. I was a purist at the time and felt it important to keep them separate.
I grew up in the 60s and loved that garage-y sound of songs like Dirty Water (the Standells), Wooly Bully (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs), I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night (The Electric Prunes), Psychotic Reaction (Count 5), Talk Talk (The Music Machine –The Nuns covered this one), Journey to the Centre of your Mind (Amboy Dukes) and pretty much anything on that first Nuggets album.
At Albany State in the early 70s I won a bunch of student awards for a series of collages I composed using found recordings. The series was called Strange Bedfellows and started out as a study in juxtaposition. As I got more and more into it, it became its own thing, earning me some notoriety on campus and in new-music circles.
I’d use anything and everything as source material (Led Zeppelin, McQuire Sisters, Guy Lombardo, Spoken word recordings, nursery rhymes, marching bands, symphonies, Balinese, Indian, all the world music etc. etc. etc. everything). I’d run this stuff all through the Moog, modulating it, filtering it, doing every which way to it and mix it together with segues cadences, bridges, phrasing, like a tripped out DJ mix-tape of today but super-weird. This precision mixing by hand helped out a lot when I recorded bands years later.
It almost seems like Dumb Records was a vehicle for the Novak releases except there are these two other bands; BOB and IXNA. What the hell was IXNA? What the hell was BOB?
Yup, I started Dumb initially for just me, me, me. But I heard other stuff I liked and had established some momentum with regular Novak-Dumb releases, so I thought I could broaden the Dumb catalogue and put out some cool stuff to boot. Hey, maybe I could become like a real record company someday.
IXNA was Marina la Palma and Jay Cloidt. Marina was a music-historian writer and the wife of Rich Gold, who was a class-mate of mine at Albany state (English Lit major with a Computer Science minor, a strange combo in those days). Rich was a writer and performance artist in Berkeley and ended up studying at Mills CCM also while I was there. Jay was a schooled musician and recording engineer who started studying at CCM a year after I did. For some reason these two got together and made these 2 songs. I heard them through the walls of CCM one day, and said hey what’s that? I liked it and told them I’d like to put it out. I’d pay for the release of 500, and if I ever got the $400 back from sales (I didn’t) Id split the rest with them 50-50.
The blue and white sticker-insert that where IXNA is spelled with alphabet macaroni was the original cover that they gave me. I didn’t like it too much. Tina had access to a Xerox machine (it wasn’t that easy in those days if you were doing things on the cheap) and created the finger logo and the whimsical finger puppets graphic (those are Tina’s fingers). Marina wasn’t too happy with the change, but it really wasn’t that big a deal in the end.
BOB was started by Bruce Zimmerman (aka Dewey Bruce) and Jim Lively (it’s his real name, no shit). I’m not sure when, I think around 1979-80? But I know they were playing together before that. They were seasoned jazz musicians who kinda thought they could make some bucks putting together some kind of punk band. Around this time it looked like punk could be actually something commercial. To me punk was already dead- there’s a Macys on Union Square in San Francisco, and at the end of 1977 they did punk window displays: you know, safety pins thru the cheek, torn fishnets, rainbow Mohawks, black vinyl pants. safety pins everywhere. I said to myself oh boy that’s the end of that! if freakin’ Macys is doing it.
Anyway they were accomplished musicians (which I respected because I couldn’t play very well) and they sort of prostituted or dumbed-down their chops to be punk and more commercial than the jazz they’ve been doing for years. This is my take on them, maybe they had totally different motives for going punk. Our connection happened at the end of 79 or early 80 when the Novak band-thing was gasping its last gasp. They had seen a few of my shows at Mabuhay.
My guitarist at the time was Maggie Goldman, who I met as an undergraduate violin student at Mills. When an earlier band broke up and I was desperate for a guitarist, I asked if she would be interested in learning how to play guitar. And she was. Maggie was talented and a really good-looking girl, and Bruce had the hots for her from seeing her play in my band. When my band broke up for good, Maggie became Bob’s bass player with the name Margaret Blanche.
So I guess the connection was: I was friends for years with Maggie and intrigued by Bruce and Jims drive to do something, which I sorta had kinda lost by that time. By 1980 I was burned out on keeping a band together, but still wanted to put out records to keep the momentum going. Their first drummer was Pons Marr, a performance artist who did all their graphics. He went on to be a film actor, and I heard he was the voice and animation actor for the Zoid (sic) which I think was the mascot for Pizza Hut or something (ed — The Noid, for Domino’s Pizza).
You were also behind two other releases, SURVIVORS – The SURVIVORS Have Fled The Country on Peoples Records (a subsidiary of Dumb Records) and Other Music – Prime Numbers on nth Records (a subsidiary of Dumb Records). Why did you create these subsidiaries?
I used the word subsidiary to ride on the coat-tails of Dumbs momentum in the market (indeed a very, very small market). I wanted to do things that didn’t belong on Dumb because, well Dumb was for pretty frivolous stuff, I should have done something different for IXNA but it didn’t occur to me earlier. Peoples Records was created to release The SURVIVORS which is a thing I felt I could not pull off effectively under the Novak/Dumb banner. More on this below.
Nth Degree was started to release more serious academic music and I was exposed to a lot of cool stuff in San Francisco and Mills. I wanted to branch out, but unfortunately could only get it together to release this one thing from Other Music.
When I look at The SURVIVORS record I think it’s going to be a hardcore punk release due to the overt political aspect of it as well as the collage style graphics. Instead it sounds like musique concrete. Who really are The SURVIVORS?
The SURVIVORS are me. The A Side is 2 tracks of drums with 10 tracks of my voice. (Drums were played by my drummer at the time, he had no idea what I was going to do with it; I just tapped out the beat on a table and recorded him for 20 minutes). The B Side is Side A played at twice the speed, plus overdubs of more of my vocal lyrics and me playing guitar. I can’t play guitar but I wanted something really bent with electric guitar that no real guitarist would ever play and I figured I was the only one to do it. One 2007 reviewer called it fucked up guitar which is spot-on.
The goal was to make one fucking weird-ass record and I didn’t think I could pull it off as Novak, the guy who made all those cheesy records like Oh Farrah!.
In the 70s, the coolest record store carrying obscure independent releases was a place in Berkeley called Rather Ripped Records. It was just outside the Berkeley campus. The local darlings of the weird-arty records were The Residents (who I admire and love by the way, I actually met the head guy years later and have the greatest respect for their work). Anyway, it seemed like every time I went into the store they were playing the goddamn Residents. Maybe I was jealous or something but I wanted to Out-Resident The Residents.
Around that time, the mass suicide of the Peoples Temple members at Jonestown happened (November 18, 1978); the stories in the newspaper were just unbelievable; I became completely obsessed with the whole thing it was so bizarre. I avidly collected every snippet of news. It was so far-out and horrible and disconcerting. I could not believe it. It got a lot of coverage because the Peoples Temple church started out in San Francisco.
It was a weird time in SF, a week and a half later (November 27) ex-cop Dan White walked into City Hall and shot the mayor and Harvey Milk to death because he wanted his job back. So I put everything I knew about psycho-acoustics and musique concrete into it to make SURVIVORS as unusual and unsettling as I could.
The voice work ranged from primal groans to spoken words where I recited pieces of the published transcripts of actual tapes of Jim Jones in Jonestown (put the poison down the back of their throats; I’ve been so betrayed). The sounds of little kids playing and fighting that starts Side A was recorded by Tina. She was an undergraduate at Mills and did an internship at a day care centre. I gave her a little cassette recorder ($20 at radio shack) and she put it on top of the refrigerator in the day care room and just let it run and record.
The Front Cover is an un-doctored front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and I wrote The SURVIVORS across the photo. The title We died because . . . I handwrote in a cursive script that I imagined to be how one of the suicide victims would write. The SKU #: Peoples Records #913 was the reported death toll at the time. Reports now place it closer to 909 people who died. I named the label Peoples Records with the fantasy that it might seem the record was made by someone who was THERE: The SURVIVORS of the mass suicide.
The Back Cover is a page straight from the San Francisco Telephone book. In the upper right hand corner, to the right of the phrase The SURVIVORS Have Fled the Country is a small white X that I placed to mark the real listing for the Peoples Temple on Geary Street in SF. About 400-500 bodies in Jonestown were unclaimed. I read that they were buried in a mass grave in an Oakland Cemetery which was about half-a-mile from where I recorded The SURVIVORS in the Mills CCM recording studio.
When I got the record done I anxiously brought it to Rather Ripped. The guys who worked there flipped out over it and loved it and they played it in the store. Success! But it was short lived. The record freaked-out the people who were shopping there and caused them to flee in terror. The store manager BANNED it from ever being played in the store!
Other Music is very academic and non-rock. Was this your last release? How did this come about? What was the story with this?
I’m pretty sure the BOB album was the final release. Henry Rosenthal was one of the co-founders of the Other Music group. I think the other founders were David Doty and Dale ; hope I’m not leaving anyone out. I don’t remember how we met, it feels like I’ve always known Henry. He was an enthusiastic follower of the new music concerts at Mills and a big fan of my early bands. Maybe I met him at CCM or through a mutual friend. We became friends I think as early as 1976; he owned an industrial 3-4 story building south of Market in SF and it became something of an artist enclave where they’d hold book readings and performance art-things. I’d go there for lunch or to hang out and talk.
When I first saw Other Music play, I just loved them. Here was a group of people who spent like 7-8 years building their own instruments with these odd micro-tonal tunings. The title Prime Numbers refers to some methodology they used to tune their scales and the relationship between the pitches. They were inspired by American composer Harry Partch who I had been listening to since high school in the 60s.
I don’t remember how it came about to hey let’s do an album! I think it was the groups desire to get their music out there and my desire to branch out and release serious music. Dumb Records was somewhat established in a very small underground kind of way, but this music wasn’t dumb so I created the Nth Degree label: music to the Nth degree.
I think about half of the group was studying or teaching at the San Francisco Music Conservatory where John Adams was teaching, or the Berkeley campus, etc. The group did everything: recording (which is why it sounds so much better than my stuff!) and the graphics. I just really put up some money with Henry and got it into the stores where I already was.
Henry Rosenthal also became Hank Rank who was CRIMEs drummer sometime after I recorded their Murder by Guitar record. Looks like Henry is still handling some CRIME business.
Toward the end of 1978 I got a letter from a guy in Switzerland named Hans who had this distribution company called BAHP Records. He wanted to buy a thousand Oh Farrah’s, and a thousand copies of the Too Many Girls record. Originally I had only printed a thousand of each of these, which meant I had to press some more records. Since I had to re-press I saw it as a great opportunity to fix the original crappy Oh Farrah recording. I had rushed the original to market at the urging of some KSJO radio DJs. To do it fast, the only studio time I could get was 9AM on a Saturday morning. Trouble was, the band had done a live performance on some radio station the night before. By the time everyone got into the studio the next morning, everyone was pretty hung-over. It was sloppy, the tempo was all over the place, it sounded bad but I put it out anyway.
Now over a year later I had the chance to re-record it with my current band who played it much better anyway. For christsake, Oh Farrah! was my big hit! For Real Cool Guy I wanted a different sound so I played the drums (I’m not a drummer) by recording each drum and high-hat on a different track, one at a time. I read that was how Stevie Wonder recorded his drum set, one drum at a time.
I was finishing The SURVIVORS at this time so I sent a mix of it to Hans; he liked it and said he would take a thousand of those also. So I made a thousand SURVIVORS for the States and a thousand for distribution in Europe. I thought the Swiss connection made the record even more mysterious.
Hans sent me an international money order to get things going; it was a LOT of work because I assembled each record by hand, one by one, and there were thousands of them. I hired an import/export company to pack them up for shipping and do the customs stuff. The crate that went out was about the size of a Volkswagen. I don’t remember the wholesale price I got per record, it was a lot less than the $1 each that I sold to the record stores.
This deal with Hans & BAHP was the one and only time I made any money from selling records, they had been a money-losing venture. I made something like $1,000 on the deal, not bad, but it represented about 2 and a half years work. At the time, a lot of the grad students at Mills CCM were building their own computers to control custom-made synthesizers. The computers they were building were called the KIM-1 . . . it was a small circuit board with only a hexadecimal keyboard for data entry; you entered a program by punching in the op-codes in hex!
Well, that was too heady for me. PCs didn’t arrive till many years later, and I wanted a computer. I didn’t know what I would do with it, but all I figured was that everything I had done up to that time involved manipulating electricity; whether with voltage controlled synthesizers or in the studio recording bands. And that’s one thing I knew that a computer did, was to manipulate electricity.
So I used the $1,000 I made on this deal to buy an early Apple II computer. I didn’t have enough money to buy a disk drive until a year later (they were $600! and I was financing everything else from my waiter job) so I had to load and save programs with a tape cassette. I thus embarked on what became a 3 year journey to teach myself programming that led me to the 80s when I attempted to replace my backup band with the Apple II. It didn’t work, but it led to something even better.
I think the BOB album was the last Dumb release but I’m not sure, maybe BOBs Super Bingo 45 was put out last. The 45 has a 1982 copyright, and I don’t have the album handy to look at its date (ed — 1983) When I was putting out my Novak 45s, they seemed to take forever to do so the length of an album put me off. My band line-up and sound and direction kept changing, and I felt like I had to put stuff out regularly to stay fresh and in the public eye. Plus I always liked the 1960s notion of the hit single. I just liked 7-inchers.
We recorded the first BOB 45 (Thomas Edison) on a TEAC 4-track in Bruce’s bedroom; he was living in a warehouse in an Oakland industrial area. The band wanted better recording gear and to do an album . . . I had graduated from Mills so I no longer had access to that studio. From time to time there were gunfights outside, and a few bullets made their way into Bruce’s studio bedroom. So Bruce and Maggie, my former guitarist and BOBs bass player, (they were living together) moved to San Francisco. They got the 3rd floor of what was known as the Target Video building in the Mission district. Joe Reese had his Target Video operations on the first floor; he’d been there for a couple of years.
The 3rd floor was big. I think it was where Damage Magazine used to be. Bruce and Maggie lived there, built a bathroom etc. With no access to a recording studio, we decided to build one right there. It was to be called NZL Studio for Novak-Zimmerman-Lively. Truckloads of sheet rock later: Jim and Bruce had done some construction before so they built the walls and that crap. I wired the mixing console, wired the patch bays, the mic feeds into the room. I think it took the better part of a year to build the damn thing; a day here or there for me when not working at the restaurant.
We finished it, bought a used 8-track, a used board, etc. And recorded the BOB album there with me at the controls. We all made production decisions. Like one time, I think it was the song Joe, Bruce said he wanted it to sound like it was outside; we all figured out how to do that, because there’s a big difference between being outside and sounding outside. The album itself was received just OK; I don’t remember it selling very well but by 82 I was distracted by another job.
After 80-81 you stopped recording records. Why?
In a nutshell: In 1982 I got a real job as an assembly language programmer and sound designer for SEGAs coin-op (arcade) division making video games. After getting into the Apple II in 79, I quickly became COMPLETELY OBSESSED with computers and software. In the early 80s I tried to program a comprehensive sound synthesis system– it was way beyond the Apples capability but I didn’t know it; I thought it could do anything.
I learned programming from a guy in Berkeley named John Draper who was very interested in the synthesis I was doing (waveform interpolation, inverse Fourier transforms, stuff like that). He was also known as Captain Crunch because his legacy was that he could make free, illegal phone calls to anywhere in the world by using the whistle from a box of Capn Crunch cereal. I later learned he didn’t need the whistle- he could make free/illegal calls just by whistling with his mouth— he had perfect pitch and knew the telephone audio codes. He was also famous as one of the original Phone Phreaks in the early 70s. Those were the guys who broke into the Nixon White Houses phone system: he went to the federal penitentiary for that one, I met him after he went straight.
So after I graduated Mills CCM in early 1980 I had less and less energy to keep a band together as all I wanted to do was mess around with computers and program sound synthesis routines. In the prior 3 years I had played Mabuhay 50+ times and the best I could do was headline on an off-night like a Wednesday. Putting out records and paying for the band (truck rentals, gas, posters, and much time) was all paid for with what I earned as a waiter; it felt lame after a while. So I stopped playing around 1980; but I still needed that excitement and working with BOB was my outlet for that.
The Mab scene changed a lot in 81-82. The early excitement of The Nuns and CRIME in 77-78 went away; they were sorta getting stale too. New bands arrived and it seemed like the audiences then were all kids from the suburbs.
What ever became of NOVAK? What have you been doing since then?
Around 1981 I dedicated my life to doing weird things with computers. Unfortunately doing weird things doesn’t pay very well. Fortunately though, a Mills classmate was lucky enough to land a job at SEGA, and when they needed a guy to program their new digital-sound boards, he called me and I got the job after I showed them what I had done on the Apple II.
I started working for SEGA in 1982 and have been making video games ever since. First I worked as a programmer then I became a designer. I left music for video games and never returned to writing music. Sega moved me to Los Angeles where I’ve been with wife Tina ever since. I met her at Mills 30 years ago. We now live in the Hollywood Hills.
My first big hit game as a designer was Super Glove Ball when I was at Mattel Toys. It was a game for the Power Glove (anyone remember that thing?) and the old Nintendo NES. It was the first mass market cybernetic device and the game was the first consumer virtual reality software.
I owned a game developer company in the 90s which lasted almost 14 years. I did a lot of SEGA Genesis games in the 90s. My biggest seller during that period was X-Men 2 which was based on the popular cartoon; they hadn’t made XMen movies yet. The last couple of years I’ve been designing MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) for a few tech start-up companies. A mini Novak resume is here.
What ever became of IXNA and BOB? Other Music?
IXNA: Looks like Jay is still actively making music in Oakland. I haven’t seen Marina in years. Rich Gold died a few years ago and she dropped out of sight.
BOB: Pons Marr is in Los Angeles still acting and doing weird art stuff. We were exchanging emails a year or 2 ago. He told me he heard that Maggie has settled down and has 2 kids somewhere in Los Angeles, and is not with Bruce. Bruce had moved to LA in the mid-80s but he moved again and I haven’t seen him in over 10 years.
I don’t think I’ve seen Jim Lively since I left San Francisco.
I can’t find anything on googling OTHER MUSIC, which I find very odd. (ed — I found this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_B._Doty)
Anything else to add?
I did produce another record in 1978 that we haven’t mentioned. It was for The Readymades. The band was started by Jonathan Postal; I had become friendly with him when he was hired to shoot photos for magazine articles about me in BAM and New West Magazine. He said he was putting together a band and would I want to produce a record for them? I liked Jonathan so I said, Yes! after only hearing a few rough rehearsals.
My first impression of the Readymades was that they were sorta like the Monkees in the sense it felt like they were manufactured by a marketing guy. Jonathan dressed the band, picked out the clothes and told them how to wear them. He made sure that just enough cuff was exposed from the sleeve, or that the collar was turned up just right when posing for band photos. I kinda got a kick out of it.
I produced and recorded the songs Electric Toys, Supergirl and Terry for their first record. They didn’t want to put it out on Dumb, instead they went with some guy in Los Angeles. I wasn’t too pleased with the final vinyl . . . the songs sounded pretty thin. I don’t know if something was done during mastering to do that, or what. I had no idea about sales or anything like that.
Anybody have any questions, send em to Joe (ed — or post them in comments) and I’ll do my best. Thank you Joe for letting me blab on about an ancient time!
Dumb Records Discography:
NOVAK – RU21 7inch EP (1977)
NOVAK – Oh Farrah / Real Cool Guy 7inch (1977)
NOVAK – Too Many Girls / Yummy Yummy 7inch (1978)
NOVAK – Oh Farrah / Real Cool Guy 7inch (1979)
NOVAK – Tention Hello 7inch EP (1979)
BOB – The Things That You Do / Thomas Edison 7inch (1980)
IXNA – Mi Ne Parolas / Ina Portal Exo 7inch (1981)
BOB – Super Bingo! 7inch (1982)
BOB – Backwards LP (1983)
Other Novak-related releases:
SURVIVORS – We Died…7inch (People’s Records – 1979)
OTHER MUSIC – Prime Numbers LP (nth Degree Records – 1980)
Novak Production Credits
NUNS demo tape (1977)
CRIME – Frustration / Murder By Guitar 7inch (1978)
READYMADES – 7inch EP (1978)
Received this from Henry Rosenthal (aka Hank Rank):
I really enjoyed the article and thank you for getting this important story preserved for the good of humanity. I do not, however, appreciate having Other Music’s copyrighted material made available for download. I am respectfully requesting that you replace that link with the information that people can still order the original vinyl album from: Other Music, Inc., 535 Stevenson St., San Francisco, CA 94103 for $15, postage included (in the US). Thank you for your attention to this matter.