reprinted from ThroTTle magazine (Richmond, Virginia)
by Mad Dog
1976-1977 THE FORMATIVE YEARS
X-Breed is a band with a future, but not by that name. The personnel changes start. Dennis Madigan (drums), Michael Maurice Garrett (vocals) and Frank Daniel (guitar) are joined by Gary Alan "Goober" Holmes (guitar) and Davey Wynn (bass).
The new band is named Single Bullet Theory.
1978 THE FIRST RECORD
Influenced by an English movement where bands are putting out their own records, they record at Alpha Audio in Richmond and Willow Mill Studios in Washington, DC. More personnel changes. During the recording Davey leaves, "Mudd" Herman joins on guitar, and Frank shifts to bass. Their EP on the Artifacts label has a cover drawing of President Kennedy's car on that fateful day in Dallas. It's drawn with an Etch-A-Sketch.
Changes come before the album can even be pressed. "Mudd" has schizoid musical interests, playing jazz with Child's Play and rock with SBT. The "Bullet Boys" want a committed band so they advise him to leave, bringing Keith MacPhee aboard on bass while Frank shifts back to guitar and keyboards. "Mudd"'s picture still shows up on the record jacket.
1979 GETTING SOMEWHERE
The record gets good reviews from Trouser Press and underground fanzines around the country. The band makes the Big Trek to New York City where they play at Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, and an opening slot for Patti Smith. They still have day-jobs, jumping in the van on weekends to play New York City and returning to Richmond on time to make work on Monday morning. "We're starting to get somewhere," says Madigan.
The Long Run picks up importance along with its companion, Getting Somewhere. The band needs that ultimate goal. To fool themselves, if need be, into thinking that they're getting somewhere. And to believe that they can do it. They need these dreams, this naiveté, to Make It, which is the grand finale that Getting Somewhere and the Long Run are leading to. Everyone must be in it for the duration, for the good of the band.
Tension builds between several band members. Keith isn't writing songs while Frank is, making Frank more important. Keith is asked to leave. This type of thinking is a mistake, Madigan later admits, "but at the time it made sense." Mark Lewis joins the band on guitar and Frank moves back to bass.
Dennis Madigan likes to appear gruff and hard. He's very opinionated, displaying the trademark Single Bullet Theory hard-headedness. It's apparent that he and Michael are the driving force behind the band. They work well together. One of them is always psyched enough to keep everyone going. But when The Buzz is on, the band stays psyched without anyone's help.
The Buzz has a mysterious way of travelling quickly and anonymously through the music world. You go to sleep one night and no one's even heard of you, then you wake up the next morning to discover that The Buzz is all over the street. One day no one will talk to you, the next day you're everyone's darling. And opportunities fall from the sky like manna when people hear The Buzz.
Thanks to The Buzz, Single Bullet Theory is asked to be on a compilation of new bands to be released by Planet Records and distributed by Elektra/Asylum. Called "Sharp Cuts", the album is subtitled "New music from American bands" and includes songs by Bates Motel and the dB's.
The band goes to Washington DC's No Evil Studios and records Garrett and Holmes' "Keep It Tight". The band thinks it sounds great, but the Powers-That-Be in Los Angeles decide that it's too "hot" to fit with the other songs on the album, so they remix it in LA. SBT thinks the new mix has watered down the song, but hell, they're on a nationally released album, aren't they?
The Buzz grows louder as reviewers, including Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone, pick "Keep It Tight" as the best song on the album. When Planet Records decides to release the song as a single, the band heads cross-country in a mobile home to remix the song and record one for the flipside.
1982 THE BIG CHANCE
Bill Schnee is a slick West Coast producer who's on a hot streak. And Paramount's Studio 55 has history: Bing Crosby recorded "White Christmas" there. Schnee bops in for the first session wearing a jogging suit and toting a backgammon board under his arm, telling the band that he wants to mix their song without them in the studio. You see, Schnee likes to work alone. Welcome to Los Angeles.
The band records the new song without Schnee. He sends an assistant to the studio who reads the newspaper while the band records. Richard Perry, president of Planet Records, never stops by either; he's busy taking photographs of the Pointer Sisters in his Art Deco living room. This studio's like an alien planet to the band, the producer and record company don't seem to care, and the band plays terribly. The tapes sound like, well, Black Christmas.
"They want conformity," Michael says. "They want us to fit their mold." The band hears Schnee's mix of "Keep It Tight", which sounds more like an L.A. band doing a laid-back version of the song than Single Bullet Theory. Michael and Dennis hate it and don't hesitate to tell Schnee. He picks up his backgammon board, walks out, and tells Perry that this is the most difficult band he's ever worked with. So much for honesty.
Back at the hotel the band gets an offer to open for the Pretenders on their first Canadian Tour: one show in Toronto and one in Montreal. Starting in two days. Tired of fighting in L.A., the band loads up the mobile home and heads for Canada.
Their manager, Craig "Flash" Otero, calls Perry from the side of the road in Omaha, discovering that life in L.A. has been smoothed over. While Mark thinks they should go back, play the game, and finish the project, the rest of the band disagrees. They think that playing the two shows with the Pretenders will do them more good than a record that doesn't sound like the band. Besides, they were told that if they did well in Canada they would get some dates on the next American tour.
Their first single dies on a highway in Omaha.
A band needs something to keep it going. In the beginning it's dreams, later opportunities. If the dreams turn to nightmares, you can always find comfort in The Next Big Thing. And for Single Bullet Theory the Next Big Thing is never far away.
The Pretenders' booking agency is impressed by the Canadian shows, setting up a series of small tours opening for the likes of the Ramones and Simple Minds. Memories of L.A. slip away as the gigs get better. "We're actually getting somewhere," Madigan says.
The Buzz brings them a whole string of Next Big Things. Mike Curb, who's label is distributed by Warner Bros., wants to sign the band and re-record "Keep It Tight". The band wants the single released with a picture sleeve to increase its visibility, but Curb says it will cost too much. The band offers to pay for the picture sleeve out of their pocket, which for some reason insults the label. Say goodbye to Mike Curb Productions.
Next comes ex-Zombie Paul Atkinson at Columbia Records, who also wants to sign the band. Well-known English rocker Dave Edmunds agrees to produce the band, so SBT finds themselves in a CBS studio in New York with a staff producer to record five songs to send to Edmunds. "We're finally there," Madigan says, "This is it."
Signing a band to a record contract sounds simple, but few record company people have The Power. The Lesser People ask you to return to New York so someone with The Power can hear you, but then The-Man-With-The-Power's wife gets sick and he doesn't show up. Even those who do have The Power need just about everyone else's approval first. Atkinson has The Power, but has to clear it with The Ultimate Power. Label Vice President Mickey Eichner is going to check out the band in the CBS recording studio so he can give them Final Approval. If he okays it, the project's a go.
The CBS studio. Band members are isolated from each other by huge soundproof baffles. The sound in the control room has no effects on it, so everything sounds dead. No one, but no one, should hear a band like this. Eichner comes in and the band sounds terrible.
They're treated to a free dinner and sent home.
Now Patrick Clifford of Nemperor Records takes a liking to the band, as does label President Nat Weiss. The band plays some dates with the Romantics, another band Nemperor is interested in signing. The Romantics get the record contract.
There comes a time when the Little Things that keep a band going start to disappear. Like when creativity meets The Business. Like losing money driving back and forth to New York so you'll Be Seen. Like waiting. Like playing jobs where seven people show up because no one's ever heard of you. And each time, a little more of The Fun disappears until you start to lose sight of why you're doing it. You begin to lose faith in the Record Industry.
Mark Lewis knows what they need to do to get The Contract, but the rest of the band disagrees. Mark leaves the band to start The Dads, followed closely by Frank Daniel.
Mick Muller came to Richmond from New York with a degree in drama and a few years of touring the R&B circuit behind him. The stage is his first love; he just wants to perform. A tall bass player who looks like a rocker, Mick joins the band and Michael starts playing more guitar.
Until now the band has been largely a guitar band, but it's time to add a new dimension to the music. Barry C Fitzgerald has known the band for years, playing keyboards in the early art-band days with Titfield Thunderbolt and spending three years as a set designer at a local dinner theatre. He joins the band on keyboards.
Record companies are in no hurry. As Greg Wetzel, ex-Good Humor Band and Nighthawks, once said, "Bands are like stagecoaches, there's another one coming along in an hour." After all, a record company's career doesn't rely on you, though yours may rely on them. Tired of waiting for the record companies, the band goes to Alpha Audio in Richmond with producers Carlos Chafin and Barry Gottlieb to record a nine-song demo tape. The band begins a cross-country tour opening for the Pretenders while the tape is taken around to nineteen record companies.
1983 THE ALBUM
Here's the deal: The band puts up the money for recording, while Nemperor/CBS presses, promotes, and markets the record. Rob Freeman, who co-produced the Go-Go's first album is hired to produce. He knows nothing about the band and has never even seen them live. "It's the biggest mistake we ever make in the music business," says Madigan.
Summer is spent recording the album at North Lake Studios outside New York City. The band is psyched, but that soon changes. Freeman starts playing mind games with the band, pitting member against member to get what he wants. The band decides to conform just so they can get the record out. About halfway through the sessions they know something's wrong, but as far as Richmond hears, everything's going great. The band decides that none of them will record without another band member in the room so they can't be played against each other. The sessions get better, but it's too late. Nemperor doesn't like the mix, so Tony Bongiovi, whiz kid from the Power Station in New York City, re-mixes "Keep It Tight".
The band isn't happy. "It's a pop album," Michael says, "but we're not a pop band." It's out of control.
The album is scheduled to be released in November, then delayed until January. They sign a booking deal with the DMA Agency in Detroit and go on the road with Adam Ant's first major American tour, playing 28 cities across the country. It should be great, but it isn't. Before this they'd always worked with bands that took them under their wing. But this time it's different. They only get to use two stage lights and half of the sound system. Midway through the tour they're bummed out, and it shows on stage. "The tour bus is starting to resemble a rolling bar," says Barry C. When fire ants attack their bus in Texas they take it as an omen.
Things are happening too fast. Until now they'd worked with people they knew and trusted; people who understood the band. Now their booking, promotion, and careers are being handled by people who see them as just another band. SBT doesn't take full advantage of the tour, and they begin to lose support at CBS.
1984 HURRY UP AND WAIT
The band tours by themselves to support the record, headlining clubs they swore they'd never return to. "We have an illogical passion to play music," says Barry C. But no one knows who they are without promotion, which is now handled by CBS. And CBS won't give them any posters or advertising until they start to sell records. It just doesn't make sense. The tour's a stiff.
Nemperor and CBS decide not to put any more money behind "Keep It Tight" as a single. Instead, they want to put out "Hang On To Your Heart", the only song on the album the band didn't write. They claim it's The Single. The band shoots a video of the song with Jon Parks of Mirage Productions.
But the single is never released. With no explanation. Is all the money going behind "new" projects like Culture Club or Michael Jackson's "Thriller"? "It must be politics," says Madigan.
The video gets on MTV and HBO anyway, but that's not enough. The Next Big Thing becomes harder to find. They're supposed to tour with Dave Edmunds but they'd lose money if they did. And they're all broke. Besides, there's no record to support anymore.
Gary Alan Holmes leaves the band, and music, because he's worn down. It gives him a head start on straightening out his life. Frank Daniel rejoins the band.
Brian Coffman spent nine years with a band in Springfield, MO which he felt had run its course. Through a friend of the band he's offered an audition with Single Bullet Theory, a band with a national release, a tour with the Pretenders on the horizon, and a second album coming up. A band with a future. Brian is very quiet, very nice and a very good guitar player. He moves to Richmond and joins the band.
Life is at a standstill. The Pretenders tour is delayed by Chrissie Hynde's pregnancy. The booking agency wants them to play clubs, but why bother if no one knows who they are? Shouldn't they be writing and playing music while their record company promotes them? "The hardest part is waiting," says Mick. "Waiting for the contract, the record, the cushy gigs and the tours. We're a band; we should go out and play no matter what."
Instead they decide to move on to the second album, which they are assured they can do. They work up new material which the label likes, but they need a good demo tape. They pay two producers to come down from NY and record the songs.
Even the standstill begins to unravel. The Pretenders tour goes on without them because they don't have a new album to promote. They work on new songs and rarely perform in public. The record company stops talking to them, not even giving them an opinion of the new tape. Believing has always gotten them through before. Believing in the band and believing in the music. But now they don't know who or what to believe. Frank departs again.
The record company gives them an offer: They will pay for the recording, but the band has to pay the producers and match the promotion budget. It's a small step ahead of the last deal, but stacked against the band. They still have to prove themselves to the record company.
The band used to have Confidence, but that was before several producers tried to change them into something they're not. Now the band has to pay the producer, but the record company won't let them choose who they want to work with. Not if they want a guarantee that the album will be released, anyway. They like their new-found producers, but CBS wants a Big Name.
They talk to other record companies, trying to find someone who likes them for what they are. But they've come too far for that. They're now in direct competition with acts like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. With a major label, their new album will get three weeks to either sink or swim. If the record stiffs it's over, history, "next band!". They can't face ending like that. They want it to end under their control.
They've finally lost the ability to dream, to believe that they could make a record so great that it couldn't be denied. When they lost their innocence they also lost their inspiration. They don't like the new record business, yet their only choices are to become a part of it or start over.
After a year with the band, Brian has yet to tour or record an album. He's starting to drift, losing the desire to play. He tells the band that he intends to leave, but will stay with them until they find a new guitar player.
Three days after Brian gives his notice they hold a band meeting to discuss the record company's offer. They each realize that they have other interests which have been on hold. "There are a lot of things I still want to accomplish with the band," Michael says, "but everyone's worn down. I never realized how much everyone wanted to call it quits."
The second album is never recorded.
1985 THE NEW STARTS
Mick Muller spent some time performing with The Bopcats, playing on studio sessions, and recording demos of his songs. He's now working full-time and has joined a band which plays R&B cover songs. "I saw what it was like to be in the Big Time," says Mick, "and I enjoyed it. Personally, it was a total success."
Barry C Fitzgerald is an art director and set designer for advertising, film, and video projects. He's assembled a home recording studio and is taping his songs. "I want to play music for fun," he says, "but not as a career. Going Big Time almost killed the fun and enjoyment, and I won't let that happen again." Since Single Bullet Theory broke up he's put a stop to his drinking problem.
Brian Coffman, who joined late and "missed all the fun", spent several months working a nine-to-five job in Richmond before moving to Los Angeles to form a new group with several of his old bandmates from Springfield, MO.
Gary Alan Holmes dropped out of both the music scene and general circulation. He recently graduated from Key Business College where he studied Computer Science. From time to time his friends get mysterious messages from him in the mail.
Dennis Madigan put together a new band, She Said, which has since disbanded. He's now working with Barry C on set design and construction as well as crew work for advertising and film productions. "I ended up with the same goals, dreams and attitudes as when I started, but I've learned a lot," explains Madigan. "I feel like I'm in the same place I was in 1973, except I know a lot more."
"Dreams, naiveté and belief are important," Madigan continues, "because the record business will change all that for you quickly. You can't survive on dreams. You've got to be realistic. But that's exactly why Single Bullet Theory broke up. We got too realistic. We got to the point where we couldn't dream anymore."
"But I'm just about fed up enough at the current state of music to try the dream all over again."
AFTERNOTE: A lot has happened since this article appeared in ThroTTle in the late 80's. Several years ago "Keep It Tight" was released on Rhino Records' "New Wave Hits of the 80's, Volume 9" and has generated more in writer's royalties than the band ever saw from CBS, not to say it's a lot.
Michael Garrett is a freelance artist who plays music with friends purely for fun.
Dennis Madigan left Richmond and is co-owner of Get Set, a set design and construction company.
Mick Muller is playing with the Janet Martin Band. He produced her newest CD and wrote many of the songs on it.
Barry C Fitzgerald moved to Key West where he works as a photographer and set designer.
Gary Alan Holmes is working in the health industry and living with his fiancee, Ginger, in Midlothian, VA. He won a blue ribbon for having the Best Green Peppers at the 1995 Virginia State Fair.
Brian Coffman is living in Los Angeles playing with Judy Judy Judy and working as the controller for a radio station.
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