Blast From the Past: Really Red PART ONEThis originally ran in MRR #323/Apr ’10, which you can grab here
It’s Not Just Entertainment: The Legacy of Really Red
Although well admired during the 1980s, Really Red seemed to slip into the dustbins of punk history while Texas acts like the Dicks, MDC, Big Boys, and others maintained steady appeal. The Houston band’s mix of jittery art rock, furious and frenetic punk, and homegrown free jazz bursts were uncanny and unique. My own band the Texas Biscuit Bombs, with Randy “Biscuit” Turner formerly at the helm, still covers the chilling tune “Teaching You The Fear.” When Biscuit sung, “Try to love another man, get yourself shot dead,” the emotion was raw and heartfelt.
In Left of the Dial #7, I ran a lengthy interview with U-Ron Bondage, the detail-driven, roar-voiced singer. For this interview, I wanted to present a different point of view. People turned their heads down when I mentioned John Paul Williams, the politically conservative bass player. I thought punk was an umbrella genre big enough for Dave Smalley and Jello Biafra. When I asked Really Red drummer Bob Weber (who didn’t want to be interviewed) his opinion, he was upfront and unapologetic. Talk to him: the politics shouldn’t dissuade you.
The members of the band have been very generous, providing me vivid ephemera, which I made available to the public at: www.reallyredtx.wordpress.com. If you have materials that you could contribute, or would like a copy of Left of the Dial, please drop me a line at: leftofthedialmag at hotmail.com. In the meantime, rumor says that Alternative Tentacles has Really Red re-issues lined up!
Intro and interview by David Ensminger
MRR: John Paul, tell me about your roots in the Texas punk scene.
John Paul: We start with me being kicked out of Boys Harbor in LaPorte, Texas in 1969 for sneaking off and refusing to be disciplined. I had been on the boxing team and told the director that I would hit him back if he thought he would give me “pops.” The director was an ex-heavyweight boxer from Germany, and he could’ve have really kicked my butt. The form of discipline was to lean over his desk, and he would hit you as hard as he could with a paddle made of wood. Y’know, a custom job that had holes in it so it would make a wooshing sound before it hit your butt. It was not unusual to draw blood during disciplinary sessions there. I had spent most of my youth incarcerated but not because I was a juvenile delinquent. My family lived all over the world, including Iran, and my father walked away from eight kids.
I was sent to Mount Sacred Heart Military Academy in San Antonio in 1960. I thought, “What the heck did I do to deserve this?” I was also sent to St. Mary’s Orphanage in Galveston, Texas in 1961, the year of Hurricane Carla, and through Boy’s Harbor in La Porte, Texas until I was 17. I used to go to Christmas for a few days with a family I never met. I used to get socks and pajamas at Christmas. I slopped hogs every morning for nearly five years. After all of that, and the story could be much longer, I ended up in a one room garage apartment in Montrose with my very eccentric brother Tinker where I was exposed to all things nefarious and cool. The backgrounds of the individuals who were part of the early scene of Montrose are important because that is where it all started for me. Montrose was the Greenwich Village of Texas. The beatnik, jazz, pot smoking, LSD movement was alive and well.
Kelly and Ronnie lived in Bellaire during those years and Kelly went to University of Houston. Kelly was part of the Chenevert Street Gang and worked at “Freaky Foods” (aka Richwood Food Market.) where my brothers, sisters, and I would get our 2 a.m. munching food. Everyone went to Love Street Light Circus and downtown in the warehouse district and hung out at Market Square.
The MC5 actually played at a club named Of Our Own on University and Kirby Drive in the heart of West University. We hung out with them after the show. They were pretty wild and crazy guys and what a band. It was the only time I’ve ever seen two guitar players throw their guitars to each other mid-song without missing a beat.
We saw the 13th Floor Elevators, New York Dolls at Liberty Hall, the Kinks, Springsteen, the Who, the Stones, Genesis with Peter Gabriel. I was at the Dallas Pop Festival in 1969, which was nuts. I think my greatest influence was the Kinks. I’ve always loved songs that tell a story, and Ray Davies was a master at that. I also liked the Kinks because Ray and Dave Davies used to fight a lot and stayed together. There was a great band in Montrose called the Montrose Marching Band that was so good at covering Kinks songs that they got to play in front of Ray Davies at their hotel. Our band was a little like that. The musical influences of the day were a big part of our effort. The first incarnation of Really Red was a band named A Fine Madness. We were a bunch of young kids figuring out how to play and did some jamming and started learning some songs. I think we played a gig or two and cut our teeth back in those days. We then became China. I don’t know how that happened, but it was probably Ronnie who thought that up. He has always been somewhat of a Marxist, and I went along with a lot of that stuff because I really didn’t care. I guess I thought it was cool at the time.
MRR: I understand that you, Ronnie, and Kelly lived in a series of old houses in the heart of Montrose. I know even Gary Floyd was experiencing some seedy moments in the neighborhood during the early 1970s.
John Paul: Montrose was my home. We had fabulous and crazy times at our houses known as Crocker Street, Yupon House, and West Main. I walked those streets every day and night. I’d walk to Birraporetti’s and write lyrics while drinking Irish whiskeys and get free happy hour pizza. Montrose was my stomping grounds. My brothers and sisters went to school there, and I went to Lamar for one year. I was living in the middle of the whole thing—staying up all night, walking to Richwood Food Market also known as Freaky Foods (Kelly worked there) on the corner of Richmond and Dunlavy. Ronnie and my brother Tinker were pretty tight and both very radical in their political views. I remember Tinker and Ronnie both to be people who hated the establishment and were more inclined to be like the Weather Underground and into Che Guevera and Socialist/Marxist ideologies. Ronnie has been like that as long as I’ve known him. I had been raised in a very conservative and disciplined style, which meant getting up at 5:30, slopping hogs, being bussed to public school, coming back to the Harbor, doing farm chores, homework, go to bed, get up, and do it over again day after day, year after year. I guess I grew up much more conservative. I guess I actually lived the gulag life, and I was a farmboy thrust into a hippie world.
When I began my journey in music, it was with an old bass with gut strings. I never took a lesson. I put on records and learned how to tune and figure out chords. I actually wanted to be a lead guitar player, but everyone seemed to want to play guitar, and the egos were so big. I decided to become a bass player. My mentors were John Entwistle and Chris Squire because their styles were flamboyant. It was when Bob Marley happened on the scene that my bass tone and attitude changed. Where I thought I would be a lead guitar player on bass, I then decided I’d rather alter people’s heartbeat with my bass tones, like the Wailers did with me. I still liked playing fast but more in the lower register from then on.
Ronnie, his girlfriend Bonnie, and I were at the Houston Music Hall performance of Bob Marley. We were some of the only white people there, but it was a fantastic show with everyone dancing at the end. Back then codeine was in. Robitussin. There were Robitussin bottles all over the place after that show. It was a cultural thing, and I wasn’t used to that way of getting high. Montrose was where the action was.
As friends, we would hang out in Montrose and downtown at Love Street. You had everything from Liberty Hall, the Banditos, Urban Animals, parties, and craziness. It was the post free love Hippie thing. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman, and all those radicals were running around trying to tear down the government. It’s funny that people like Bill Ayers and Jeff Jones of the Weather Underground are buddies of Obama. A lot of the socialist, Maoist, Marxist characters of the time are actually czars in the Obama administration. Van Jones and Jeff Jones of the Weather Underground are getting millions of our tax dollars by their association with Obama. Jeff Jones, who heads the Apollo Project, actually wrote the stimulus bill, according to Harry Reid. It looks like we’re headed down the road to socialism, especially when you count Mao as one of your mentors. He only killed 72 million people in peacetime.
Anyhow, Ronnie, Kelly, and I started off living together on West Main and Mandell where we started our band. We all had jobs. I started marking steel at the docks with Ronnie. I ended up working for that company for nearly seven years, clearing shipments through US Customs with hair down my back. I ended up cutting my hair when I got arrested for driving my Triumph 650 motorcycle with my license suspended and spent fourteen hours in the Houston Police Department drunk tank. The judge (Billy Reagan) told me the next day I would go to jail for three days unless I cut my hair. I saw a guy get beat unconscious right in front of me. I thought he was going to die. It was a scary moment in my life, and I realized at that time that jail was not going to be a place I would visit again and I haven’t (thank God). Prison isn’t my style. I’d already spent most of my life incarcerated, so that angle was not a good idea. I still suggest you angry young people realize that what you are angry about might just be your own reluctance to be self-responsible. You want to be part of some real change? Root out corruption and fraud and quit thinking the government will take care of you. They only want power over you and your money. Be a stand-up person and develop strong ideals. Stop whining that the world won’t take care of you. It’s just the way it is. Under a socialist system, you’ll never know true prosperity unless you are one of the “chosen few.”
MRR: By the time the Ramones ventured through at Liberty Hall, did you feel like this was a national kind of musical movement, or did it seem just like another rock ’n’ roll band with a twist?
John Paul: The Ramones were the first punk band. The great thing I liked about the Ramones is that they were uniquely American, New York, cool, and a very tight four piece band. They had the same setup with bass drums and guitar as Really Red. I actually think we were a Texas version of the Ramones except that Ronnie’s lyrical style was more like Johnny Rotten and anti-establishment ranting, but that was his style and his contribution to the band. He always had a lot to say. Anyone who know Ronnie knows that he can talk for hours, and you’ll sit there and listen. Regarding the music of our time, Ronnie was one of the most knowledgeable people in the country. How he is now? I wouldn’t know as we don’t communicate anymore. That’s another story. We went in different directions, and I’m very happy with the direction I went in. I still play guitar and occasionally sit in with some friends. I tell people that I am a professional doodler. I can play along with any band and an Ipod.
MRR: Tell us about China, the cover band that included most of Really Red and featured songs by Dave Clark Five and Roxy Music? This ended up being a link to meeting Bob, the drummer?
John Paul: China was an experiment in doing songs we liked. We were varied in our approach with Roxy Music but also King Crimson, Kinks, and other copy songs. We might have done Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which (I think) was on our first record and might have been popular for its hardcore treatment—the way we did it [ed: the song was released posthumously on a single]. I think we got tired of not doing our own material. We jammed a lot and started coming up with riffs. Yes, we had different drummers, but for some reason they were all not very reliable or had really great ideas about their own self worth. Bob walked in very different than the others. He had great technical ability, and we simply miked him to make his sound bigger.
MRR: Ronnie once told me, “We learned a lot from Legionnaire’s Disease’s (local notorious punk band) attitude and approach to self-promotion.” Do you feel this way as well?
John Paul: Sure, I thought they broke new ground when it came to outrageous behavior on stage and they deserve their place in Houston’s music history. I was not into the fact that they were into hard drugs and needles though. I wasn’t as much into their out of control stuff, but I was probably in the minority on that. Jerry Anomie was a nice guy, and I liked him, but was not that into the band as much as Ronnie. But they were an important part of the scene. The Butthole Surfers were just kids at that time and used to open for us at different gigs.
We definitely learned about self-promotion. Really Red was probably one of the early bands that realized that we could promote our own records by sending out 45s to college radio stations. We would get play lists back and design our tours around those schools that played our records. In today’s digital world it is very easy to cut your own CD’s. Back then it was a studio. We went from 8 tracks to 16 tracks to 32 tracks etc. We had a great time—we were all friends for many years, and some of us stay in contact once in a while.
MRR: Bob explained that the band played to the edge of its musical limits, which gave the band a unique sound. Who were the members pushing the sound into new areas?
John Paul: Actually, a good question. Ronnie brought attitude, lots of opinion, and lyrics. Since we were a three-piece musically, we jammed until we came up with riffs. Either Kelly or I would come up with a line, and we would play with it for hours. It was typical for us to be finished with a song prior to lyrics being added, so there was plenty of time to mess around. Kelly was an extremely good guitar player, reminiscent of Pete Townsend’s style. Bob was a very accurate drummer. He and I would concentrate on our beats so we had a tight mix. Bass and drums laid out the rhythm, and Kelly would come in on top and make it musical. Nobody better for my money. I wish we had video of some of our better shows.
I think we had diverse tastes, but we also came together on a lot of musical styles. We would listen to George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon & Willie, David Alan Coe, and others. We also listened to the Ramones, Clash (I was never a Mick Jones fan though), Sex Pistols, and many other hardcore bands. We listened to English bands too numerous to mention. We listened to reggae. I always liked Van Morrison, Stevie Ray, Boz Scaggs, old stuff like Tony Bennett, Sinatra and many, many others. Ronnie would make some fantastic compilation tapes (yes tapes, remember those?) for our tours, so we had a great DJ in him. We all made them, but Ronnie probably had the greatest due to his record store collection and the hours he spent within the music record business.
MRR: The early tours seem quite a blur, I suppose, but I know the band played a store in Portland and the weird basement Tool and Die in Frisco, and might have been kicked off a bill by Black Flag. Did you relish such moments, in the very DIY/anything goes style of punk I suppose, or were you ever disappointed with such an odd assortment of places and egos of the underground world?
John Paul: For my part, I never concerned myself with being noticed by the “establishment” of the hardcore world. Ronnie was probably the closest to that group of punker business people. None of them ever mattered to what I did, nor did they ever show that in return. It was great meeting people and sharing certain bonds, but everyone did their own thing. I liked DOA the best out of all the bands we played with. DOA were great musicians and non-pretentious in my view. I don’t remember why we were kicked off a bill with Black Flag. If we did, it was more their problem than ours.
We played a lot of odd places and with different bands from Nick Lowe to SPK. We played bars in Louisiana. We played the Midwest, we played the American Legion Hall in Reno, and UC Davis after being up all night drinking at the casinos in Reno. We also had great gigs and held our own very well with the Dead Kennedys, DOA, and others. Bottom line is I relished all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nobody in Really Red was in charge. We all played hard, had our share of arguments, but when it came time to be on stage we were in agreement: do it the best you can, and take it all the way. We were a band that typically played for over an hour non-stop, and people liked that. I never really thought of us as punk. We were rockers, and we liked to play loud and fast. Everyone else called us punk. I think the most appropriate term for our style was cow punk.
Because Really Red was all four of us, the band could not exist without all four of us. The band died in 1984. Maybe that’s fitting now that the real Big Brother is watching over all of us. It turns out that the Marxists and Communists (aka Progressives of both parties) in our own government are destroying the American way of life. I was told once by a judge that I would go to jail for not cutting my hair by the time he left his chambers. I went ahead and cut that hair but swore that I would never let “the establishment” control my life. At that time it was the police and the corporations that were coming down on me, but the greed and thirst for power of this government is truly massive. The present thirst for power among “elitists” from music to politics crosses all boundaries. The leftists in power right now were probably supported by the “punks” out of their hatred for Bush, but in return they are having their rights and freedoms taken away by Obama. The days of big government and victim entitlement are upon us, and those jealous of successful people are choking the life out of this country because they think they “deserve” what other people have. The plan of redistribution will make us a Third World country. I stand up against that. Government should leave me alone to make it or break it. I don’t want what you have, and I want you to stay out of my way. Quit taxing the hell out of me and get off my back.
MRR: For me, one of the great themes of the band was puncturing the myth of rock, epitomized in tunes like “Entertainment” and “Prostitution.” But did you agree with the band not opening for the Clash, or was that, in hindsight, a lost opportunity?
John Paul: We did stand up for our ideals. However, it would have been awesome playing Hoffheinz Pavillion in Houston with the Clash. We were given a great opportunity for exposure and, in hindsight, I should’ve argued that we should play the gig for our own benefit and screw the Clash’s ego. We were also offered a pittance to play, but y’know, it would’ve been historic now that people are still asking about Really Red and what we did. Was it our own egos that got in the way? Maybe we should have kicked some ass just for the fun of it and taken names later.
MRR: Now that Alternative Tentacles may re-issue the back catalog, what do you recall about your gigs with the DKs, and how “Prostitution” ended up on the cornerstone Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp, quickly selling over 10,000 copies?
John Paul: I have no idea how “Prostitution” ended up being on that record but I would’ve picked a different song; something a lot faster like “Suburban Disease.” Our gigs with the DK’s were always awesome because we measured up well with them. In Houston, at least, we were a force to be reckoned with. I think the song was picked more for the lyrics than being representative of our overall sound.