The Greatest Bands you've never heard of

Prudence Dredge
The New Age Urban Squirrels
The Smugglers
the Young Fresh Fellows

I've been wallowing knee deep in nostalgia lately. I guess it all started when I saw the 9th annual Squirrels reunion and christmas show in December of 1998. God, the memories that came flooding back! At one time, I had a rule for myself, that I'd only drive myself to Seattle a maximum of twice per weekend, just so I wouldn't go there Friday, Saturday, AND Sunday. Mostly it was to see the friends (who aren't my friends and were never really friends of mine then) who lived in Seattle, but also to see the bands that played there. I think of the late 80's as a golden age of Seattle music. The rest of the world discovered Seattle a couple of years after that, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and others erupting from the Seattle scene in the early 90's. Seattle chic hit real big about that time, with Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure cashing in on the craze. But for me, the really great bands and really great times came a couple of years earlier.

These are the greatest bands that you've never heard of. They never made it big, and for the most part, members of one could and often were members of another. And before there was SubPop, there was PopLlama, for my money, the greatest music label of any time and place. The PopLlama summer picnics, held late in the season, were drunken revelries for the employees of the label, and jam sessions for the many members of the many bands who played for Conrad Uno, leader of the band of motley fools. I actually attended the last two picnics, and was planning on going to the third when I'd heard that it wouldn't be held on account of the hosting picnic's grounds being worried about the "noise". Personally, I think that it was the fun times that caused the picnic's demise, as I remember a shit-kicking country band of some sort playing at the same time at the other end of the picnic grounds...

Prudence Dredge

Taking their name from some children's book about toilet training, this was the first band that I ever saw Joey Kline in. Playing guitar, and not afraid of writing some of the more literate songs in the set list, Joey went on to found the University Coffee Video lounge and Toast bar before moving on to later digs at University Coffee. (No videos and no toast.) Craig Ferguson on bass. Mark Nichols on keyboards and whatever else was at hand. (Mark is understandibly reluctant to associate himself with a musical group that he left over ten years ago, and now wishes to be known for his modern music mentor thing with a production of his masterful theatric work Little Boy Goes to Hell, roughly an update of the hero traveling to hell and back for some reason or another. It was a song, then a musical, now it's an empire!) I don't remember Wendi Dunlap in the Dredge, but if you believe her page at Wendy, then she was in for a while. Another gal named Ava LaBamba was in the band and on their first record before I discovered them. I remember attending a Dredge or a Squirrels show and hearing an opening band whose name escapes me now, and I commented to Joey Kline that the female singer in the band sounded a lot like one of the female vocals on the first record. He told me that, yes, that gal had actually been in the band before. Carl Miller was another guy who jammed on trombone, sometimes on guitar, but more often with a harmonica, and he did lead vocals on a couple of songs. Saxophone section too. Literate, R&B styling, and funny without trying hard. Long ago broken up...

Wendi Dunlap-Simpson has heard of all of these bands, and here's what she has to say:

>Craig Ferguson on bass.

That's a later lineup. An early line-up was only 5 people, including Joey and Mick Vee. The 5 person lineup was the one that released the "Problem Child" single. By the _Big Ellen_ release, they were up to 9 -- Joey, Mick Vee on bass, Dave Guinn on drums, Carl Miller on trombone and harmonica, Tom Vail on sax, Darren (? I'm spacing out on his name) also on sax, Mark Nichols on keys, Ava (Chakravarti) LaBamba on vocals, and Diane Behrens on vocals.

Diane quit (I guess, I don't remember the details) in about April 1987, not long after Big Ellen came out, and I joined the band at the end of May for a tour to the midwest. I mostly sang Diane's parts; we're both altos. I stayed with the band right through August; then right before Bumbershoot Ava and I were unceremoniously dumped from the band, though I think Ava was ready to go anyway. I was bummed, though, because I was having a lot of fun. They went with a really stripped-down lineup at that point -- I think Mark might have been gone for a while, at least, too, and Darren was also gone. Later Mick quit, but I don't remember when. For a while I was not on very good terms with Joey and so I stopped keeping track of who was coming and going. :)

Dredge was a lot of fun because they were spontaneous and immensely skilled. They could play just about any song without rehearsing it first -- they were *really* sharp. It was a privilege to sing with them; I wish I'd gotten some shows on video or good-quality tape.

Don't we all Wendy, don't we all...

The New Age Urban Squirrels

Another group recognized by Spin magazine columnist Andrea Enthal from a list of 1,000 Best/Worst Band Names in 1986, the New Age Urban Squirrels had more names than members. Actually, every new group line up had a new name, all with Squirrels in them somewhere. Led by certifiable maniac Rob Morgan, the Squirrels (in all of its permutations) read like a who's who of the Seattle scene in the mid to late 80's. The first recording had Rob backed up by the three guys who made up the Young Fresh Fellows, but later recordings had members of the Posies, the Tubes, Roy Loney, ReStyles and more. Built around Rob (of course), the best Squirrels groups had Joey Kline on guitar, Craig Ferguson on bass, Mark Nichols on keyboards and synthesizers (the man had samples for EVERYTHING!). I have memories of the following unforgettable shows.

Rob committing suicide:
The scene was Seattle's Woodland park (where the zoo is), where the Squirrels were performing a "free" concert as part of a food bank can drive. Rob always was best when he used a cordless microphone that allowed him free reign of the audience. In this case, his eye was caught by a watermelon with a large knife protruding from it. Asking (in mid song) if he could have a piece of the melon, he proceeded to whack off a slice of both the fruit and his hand. He never stopped singing, and the band played on. Later, dripping blood and melon juice, he proceeded to wear the shell of the melon rind on the top of his head like a hat. A picture of this was later immortalized on the back cover of the group's second album. Years later, Rob told me that "he really wanted a piece of that watermelon..."

As much as I like this version of the story, I must stand corrected. It turns out that the photo on the back of the second album was not, in fact, the incident described above. I'll let Rob tell the story himself:

Actually, that photo on the CD is from the 1987 PopLlama Picnic, yet ANOTHER watermelon incident! Dredge Saxophonist Tom Vail was playing the 'melon like a conga for the whole damn show, & I eventually smacked it open on a monitor, put half of it on my head, & began tossing the guts at the audience. Mark is seen rubbing a rubber chicken full of stage blood on my chest. (Now, THAT'S entertainment!) And the end of the set, we all put our gear down & jumped in the lake!

That must have been some set! Too bad I missed that one...

The Fishsticks 10th Anniversary Show at The Rendezvous on March 31st, 1989:
As Rob describes, "much to the amazement of about 15 happy & VERY LOADED people". Small venues didn't hold Rob very well, and the Rendezvous was about as small as they come. It was more of a small setting for some of the friends Rob had had throughout his musical career. One of the few times that I saw Eric Erickson before he died recently. Another time was at a PopLlama Halloween party, where he was John Lennon singing "Instant Karma" in Night of the Living Dead Rock Stars, a show based on the premise that Albert Goldman would rot in hell for telling stories out of class about Lennon and the King. A great show. Months later, I found out that there was a video tape of the show that had been available from PopLlama, but had been all sold out by the time that I found out about it. DAMN!

Green River Community College:
A lot of the shows where I saw the Squirrels were sparsely attended, and often because of baaaaaaaad weather outside. This was another show where there was enough snow on the ground to dissuade the casual observants. Some friends of mine had recently returned from their summer bicycling trip through western Europe, and were staying with me until they got their acts together. I insisted that they come to see this very local show, even though they were exhausted from the summer's activity, bad food for months, and jet lag. They never forgave me. I got to ask Baby Cheevers about an old joke that I knew. Highlight of the show? Mary K. the Slinky Queen, made her entrance wearing a leather jacket and smoking a stogie. As she arrived at her station, she hauntingly threw the cigar butt into the audience. It landed at my feet, and I've kept it ever since. Even though I've been happily married for longer than I've known about the Squirrels, there's a spot in my heart (and probably other places as well!) for the long cool woman in a black dress, a vision of woman that is Mary K. I'd heard that she left the group (or her minuscule part in the group, I mean, how much call is there for a slinky queen?) for a tour in the Peace Corps. Our loss was Africa's gain.

Another show, this time at the Central tavern in downtown:
The Smugglers had opened the show, and the lights were up a bit before the Squirrels came on. Some people came and sat down near me and asked me who were playing. I told them that the Squirrels were next, and proceeded to wax enthusiastic about PunkVaudville for a while, exclaiming for the world to know how Rob was, if not the world's most certifiably insane front man, than at least somewhere in the top ten. This couple looked at me, mentioned about how they were out looking for some hard core, acid rock, then they got up and left. Their loss. The Squirrels could do hard core, acid rock, and would do so several times that night, in fact often several times within a single song. The Squirrels always made it worth your while, playing more songs per unit time than any group ever known.

The Smugglers

The Squirrels released two tracks on a compilation album called "Oh, God! My Mom's on Channel 10", from Vancouver's Nardwar the Human Serviette label, on which the Smuggler's appeared on another track. Great sound. On the album was an offer for a T-shirt and membership in the fan club for a mere ten bucks. I joined, and wound up paying for Michelle and Michelle (see mention of friends who aren't friends anymore) to join the club. I've even got a badge to prove it. At the time, the Smuggs weren't even old enough to legally enter the smoky dive like establishments where they performed. They were just barely of age to drink in Canada, which allows 18 year olds to imbibe away the long cold winters. Once they played in Bellingham when the lead singer, Grant, had forgotten his ID. The club wouldn't let him in, so he sang, via a long cord on his microphone, from the alley, accompanied by the drunken Indians that habituate the alleys of my college town. I wasn't at that particular show, but I can imagine it just the same. I was at one joint Smugglers / Squirrels show at the University Sports Bar in the U-district where the opening opening act was a guy who sang the Canadian National Anthem before the Smugglers came on to play. Not as funny or as literate as the other bands mentioned on this page, but these kids could rock with the best. Still together after all these years....

The Young Fresh Fellows

Another band no longer together. An exception to the rule that by the time the newspapers discover a band, they're on their way out. I'd read about these guys (in the Seattle Times no less, not exactly a hot bed of Northwest musical innovation) in the paper, and then I saw a tape in a store. Picked it up and checked it out. It was MAGIC! Lead singer Scott McCaughey would write songs that he sang with tongue firmly in cheek. These guys were literate pop stars! No wonder they never got popular. On that disk alone, they made fun of Elvis, Karen Carpenter, Hank William's (senior), Amy Grant, and of course, themselves. In performance, Tad would dodge the wok on a pole that served as a percussion instrument on occasion, but more often as something to dodge instead of play. The original lineup was always my favorite, but Chuck quit after a few years, and was replaced by Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and countless other bands. The second guitar now played in what a criticism Mozart was presumably told by his Emperor, "too many notes". And without Chuck as a second vocalist, Scott now had to do all the singing. They all grew up, and got real lives, and presumably, day jobs. Scott may be the last to go, touring with R.E.M on keyboards and guitar. He'll have to come home someday...

I guess that's the theme of this piece, growing up, becoming what passes for "adult", or at least as adult as one feels comfortable with. Until the recent Squirrels christmas show and reunion, I hadn't gone to see live music in a club in about six years, or since about the last time the Squirrels had performed together. "Overweight and unrehearsed", as Rob put it. Nonetheless, it was a great show, and lots and lots of fun. But now we're all getting old, and it's time to move on. Fellow high school class of 1976 alumnus Rob now probably uses a magnifying glass to write that tiny print that he uses in his newly released series of zines called Pop Lust. I remember 2 katz and a toaster from the calendars, but that must have been 1989, and too many calendar pages have been discarded and thrown away in the intervening years. New hobbies, new groups, new friends. I may be getting older, but I refuse to grow up. And I have many fond memories of good times, featuring the Squirrels (in all of their many incarnations), the Smugglers, Prudence Dredge, and the Young Fresh Fellows. As the lost chapters in Animal House attested, There Were Giants In Those Days...

Copyright 1999 by Rich Webb, aka The Outsider.

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This document was last modified on Jan 20, 1999, and has been viewed countless times.