Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Unknowns – Dream Sequence & The Unknowns

The Unknowns were a fantastic group transplanted from the south (Georgia) to San Diego (that’s where their car broke down so they stayed!) and later Los Angeles who came to the attention of Bomp Records and were strong contenders in the early 80’s LA scene for their short career.

The back up band were a trio heavily influenced by surf (they played Mosrite guitars through Fender amps) and 50’s rockabilly, while the singer was far more new-wave-y and sang in a quirky voice while adding some keyboard parts.

Guitarist Mark Neill had a fantastic, reverbed, clean tone and a superb style – very Ventures-meets-James Burton – quite distinctive at the time. The 60’s revival was just barely starting at the time so this was still pretty unusual. Dave Boyle on bass and Steve Bidrowski were a terrific rhythm section – Dave playing around Mark’s guitar lines and Steve’s snapping snare keeping it all together. Bruce Joyner, while walking with a cane due to a car accident, was still frenetic on stage, even when sitting down and playing the keyboard.

Dream Sequence starts with the title track which has a pseudo-reggae beat, but the reverbed guitar and tight band betray their obvious surf influences and Joyner’s vocals and keyboards give it an extremely unique sound.

Lot of dynamic accents highlights “Gun Fighting Man”, an up tempo number with a cool, “galloping” section. Even faster is “Actions-Reactions”, with clear, rockin’ riffs and keyboard driven breaks. “Suzzanne” is a frantic, 50’s styled pop with a very-Ventures-esque bridge.

Mark comes up with a slithering lick for “Not My Memory”, ironically one of their most memorable tunes. Cool lyrics and melodies and Bruce’s vocal outbursts really make a great song!
“Tax Deductible” is like a 50’s pop hit played at 78 instead of 45! Super fast to the point of almost – but not quite! – removing any nuances. Overt sexuality oozes from “Pull My Train”, which coming from these unlikely sex symbols is almost twisted! A very rockin’ number though!

Lyrics are a little more clichéd in “Crime Wave”, but it is another hyper take with more reliance on catchy dynamics and vocal oddities. “The Streets” is truly dark and Bruce’s tale is evil and moody and the music matches this feel. They put an almost Caribbean style on “Rat Race”, a quiet (comparatively) ballad, with their compulsory surf inflections.

Channeling Dick Dale’s staccato attack for “Rip Tide”, this has more superior riffage and fine melodies. Mark is never afraid of minor chords, which add an interesting feel to many of the songs. This record closes with “White Trash Girl” and its powerful chord progression sets the stage for a tough number with biting lyrics.

Their first release, though, was a self-titled mini-LP on Bomp Records. This 6 song record sounds virtually identical to Dream Sequence and the songs are all in the same style.

“City of the Angels” follows their standard “formula” – reverbed guitar, surf riffs, Joyner’s vocal acrobatics and nice melodies. There is a spooky, whistled intro to “Common Man”, which sounds like movie mood music for some other-worldly scene with a great, strong chorus (“you don’t mind the pouring rain”) – really strong song writing.

They pay their homage to Buddy Holly with their pretty accurate take on “Rave On” before moving on to “She Never Says No”. Starting with truly pretty harmonies, this is an eerie love song with more minor key backing and interesting vocal and guitar melodies.

“Modern Man” is a bit more of a throw-away to my ears – not bad, just nothing to make it really stand out. Sounding like an ultra-frantic dance song, “The Bounce” is wild to the extreme! This is what the Ventures would sound like as a punk rock band!

Similar in theoretical style to the geographically close B52s, the Unknowns still have their own identity and wrote some terrific tunes! I don’t know if these records are still available but they are well worth hunting down!

Mark, Dave and Steve did split for Bruce at one point and had their own band, which was also fantastic, but that was short-lived. Apparently, they have all gotten back together on a couple of occasions, though I have not heard or seen any of the reunions. I’m sure they are still cool and all are nice guys, so check ‘em out if you have a chance.

Just as an aside, in the mid-80’s Mark and Dave collaborated on a studio and I recorded the first track with my band, Thee Fourgiven, with them (“Spiders in my Sink”). Unsurprisingly, they were not afraid of using their great reverb units!!

You Tube even has a hip video of theirs.