ARE YOU GONNA BE THERE WITH… The Chocolate Watch Band

 

Nuggetsapproved
garage-rock legends get latterday reissue resurgence via the archival wizards
at Sundazed Records. But is the legend justified?

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

As far as
1960s-era garage-rock goes, the Chocolate Watch Band was influential far beyond
the band’s meager commercial reach. Although they would become West Coast
musical heroes during the mid-to-late-1960s, with a handful of red-hot (and,
later, highly collectible) 45rpm singles to their credit, culminating in a
series of well-received full-length albums, the band suffered from a serious
personality crisis.

 

Their
management and producers would frequently bring in studio players to overdub
the band’s recordings, material would be released under their name that had
little or no connection to the band itself…not entirely heard of in mid-1960s
L.A. but not something that helped define a band identity, either. Regardless, on
the basis of a trio of odd studio albums and a reputation for holding their own
on stage with the likes of the Mothers of Invention and the Yardbirds, by the
mid-1980s, the Chocolate Watch Band (later changed to one word,
“Watchband”) would become bona fide Nuggets-approved garage-rock legends.

 

Formed by
a group of junior college students in Los Altos, California in 1965, the
original Chocolate Watch Band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion
sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, later, by the Pretty
Things. They were one of the first wave of what esteemed critic Lester Bangs
would call “punk rockers,” Vox-yielding young hoodlums roaring out of
their garage practice space and into the high school gyms and community centers
of California to make teenage girls swoon at the front of the stage. After the
usual shuffling of band members, the Chocolate Watch Band as known and adored
by collectors of 1960s-era garage-rock treasures included vocalist Dave
Aguilar, guitarists Mike Loomis and Sean Tolby, bassist Bill Flores, and
drummer Gary Andrijasevich.

 

It was
with this line-up that the Chocolate Watch Band recorded its initial singles –
four red-hot slabs o’ R&B-styled proto-rock cheap thrills – as well as
appearing and performing as themselves in the teen exploitation movie Riot on Sunset Strip. With all of this
high-profile activity to hype the band, you’d think that their debut album
would basically record itself and roll off the retail shelves and into the
hands of eager fans. In an era when the “serious adults” in the room
(i.e. managers & producers) often messed around with a young band’s sound
(see: Strawberry Alarm Clock, Electric Prunes, etc), producer Ed Cobb, with
engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, just couldn’t help but impose their
own agenda on top of the band’s considerably fresh and highly-rocking original
sound.

 

 

 

As such,
Chocolate Watch Band’s1967 debut album, No
Way Out
, although considered by many to be a classic of the garage-rock
era, is not nearly as great as it might have been. The band’s early singles
would have provided a solid foundation on which to build a debut album, but the
production staff saw fit to include only two of these performances – “Are
You Gonna Be There (At The Love In)” and “No Way Out” – in the
final mix. The former is a down-n-dirty R&B-tinged rocker with gang vocals,
an infectious rhythm track, and greasy overdriven guitars that only bolster
Aguilar’s Jaggeresque vocals, the latter is a rock ‘n’ soul hybrid with wiry
fretwork, a slight psychedelic edge (mimicking the fledgling San Francisco
sound), cool snarling vox lost beneath droning, hypnotic instrumentation, and
an overall dangerous vibe that was too cool for school in ’67.

 

The full
band line-up only appears on two other tracks on No Way Out, a meager representation on record that was curious even
by then-current standards. An inspired cover of Chuck Berry’s rollicking
“Come On” is a revved-up hot-rod of mid-60s rock, with echoey,
haunting guitar notes lingering like storm clouds above Aguilar’s rapid-paced,
1950s rockabilly-styled reading of the lyrics. The singer’s original “Gone
And Passes By” offers up exotic instrumental flourishes alongside a bouncy
Bo Diddley beat, Aguilar’s emotional vocals overshadowed by a lush mix that
includes squalls of guitar, bass, and drums creating a maelstrom of sound.

 

Of the
other material on No Way Out, there
are a few gems that emerge in spite of the producer’s interference. “Let’s
Talk About Girls” is a stone cold R&B romp a la early Stones that
would have benefited from Aguilar’s energetic vocal style; for whatever reason,
studio pro Don Bennett’s voice was dubbed over the band frontman’s vocals. The
band’s instrumental track rides low in the mix and features some tasty jolts of
Mark Loomis’s guitar, helping to rescue the song from disaster. Ditto for a
cover of Steve Cropper’s “Midnight Hour,” which succeeds regardless
of Bennett’s flaccid vocals, as the band cleverly injects a soul-drenched
Booker T & the MGs sound with livewire rock ‘n’ roll electricity.

 

Much of
the rest of No Way Out is suspect,
however, as two instrumental songs – the clumsy attempt
at a psychedelic mindtrip that was “Dark Side of the Mushroom” and
the equally spacey pastiche of styles (rockabilly, surf, psyche) that was
“Expo 2000” – were written by engineer and future uber-producer
Richard Podolor and recorded with session players. These songs are
“Chocolate Watch Band” in name only, as they lack the band’s input
and just provide a songwriting royalty for an interfering studio engineer.
Another track, “Gossamer Wings,” was written by singer Bennett, and
uses the basic instrumental track from the band’s 1966 B-side “Loose Lip
Sync Ship” as a backdrop for Bennett’s dull-as-dirt, soft-psyche
performance. 

 

In spite
of its flaws, No Way Out offers
around 60% of the cheap thrills one could expect from a recording of its era,
maybe a C+ or B- grade that could have been a solid B+ had singer Aguilar’s
charismatic voice not been removed from the aforementioned tracks in favor of
the less-talented vocalist. At the heart of the problem was the fact that
producer Ed Cobb had never even seen Chocolate Watch Band perform live, and
didn’t realize the assortment of talents that he had in the studio. An
otherwise talented songwriter and producer that would go on to work with
artists like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, Cobb imposed his own vision on the
band to mixed effect.

 

*****

 

Although
the Chocolate Watch Band’s debut album No
Way Out
suffered from excessive studio tinkering by producer Ed Cobb, their
sophomore effort – 1968’s effervescent The
Inner Mystique
– was mostly created out of the ether in the studio by
engineer Richard Podolor. The band itself had literally imploded in mid-1967,
guitarist Mark Loomis leaving first to pursue his drug-fueled dreams of creating
psychedelic-folk music with The Tingle Guild, which featured original Watch
Band vocalist Danny Phay.

 

Drummer
Gary Andrijasevich would follow Loomis out the door, with singer Dave Aguilar
right behind him, leaving guitarist Sean Tolby and bassist Bill Flores as the
remaining members. The pair recruited new bandmates to fulfill live bookings,
but by the end of 1967 the band was essential dead in the water. That didn’t
stop Ed Cobb and Richard Podolor, though, neither of whom wanted to leave money
on the table, literally pieced together The
Inner Mystique
from whatever odds ‘n’ ends they found in the studio,
creating the rest, branding it “Chocolate Watch Band” and slipping it
past an unsophisticated, pre-Internet audience that didn’t know any better.

 

The first side
of The Inner Mystique – three of the
album’s meager eight-song tracklist – was entirely Podolor’s show. Using un-credited
studio pros, along with singer Don Bennett, whose unremarkable vocals had been
shoehorned into the grooves of No Way Out without the band’s knowledge or approval, Podolor approximates the
R&B-drenched psychedelic roots of the Chocolate Watch Band with mixed
results. The album-opening “Voyage of the Trieste,” credited to
producer Cobb, is a swirling, raga-touched psychedelic instrumental that stirs
a bit of jazz-rock fusion into the grooves…not entirely uninviting, but it has
nothing to do with the band whatsoever. The same goes for the Cobb-approved
five-minute psyche jam “Inner Mystique,” which offers up some inspired
playing, just not by any real Chocolate Watch Band members, and almost a year
late to catch the initial wave of psychedelic rock fervor.

 

 

 

The
stand-out of side one is a torrid cover of “In The Past,” originally by
fellow garage-rock pioneers We The People. Although Bennett’s vocals are
soft-pedaled in favor of the song’s jangly instrumentation, the result is
pleasant enough and would have been a solid single release at the time. Side
two, however, offers up some prized authentic Watch Band treasures, most
notably in the band’s wired cover of Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody
Else.” With Aguilar’s snarling vocals right up front with Loomis’s taut
fretwork, and with the rhythm section providing a big beat backdrop, the song’s
defiant edge stands among the best performances of the era.

 

The
album-closing “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” showcases the band’s
immense talents, Aguilar coming on strong like an American Eric Burdon on a
slow-burning, R&B-seared mid-tempo rocker with sneering, emotional vocals
matched by some elegant, Spanish-flavored Loomis fretwork and a solid rock ‘n’
roll soundtrack with large drumbeats and heavy bass lines. Two studio outtakes
– the soulful “Medication” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s
Go” – offer Bennett’s vocals overdubbed atop Aguilar’s voice. As for the
former, we should begrudgingly offer Bennett his due for not fudging up the
basic vocal track and delivering as strong a performance as he ever would under
the Watch Band name. He was helped, no doubt, by the spiky, punkish guitar
lines provided the song by Loomis, as well as a rolling rhythm track.

 

The less
said of “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” the better…Bennett’s hoarse,
charmless vocals are thankfully hidden low in the mix while the band slogs away
lazily behind him. The listener is never sure whether this is supposed to be a
traditional blues song, with Otis Spann-styled piano in the background, a big
beat R&B rave-up, or a rockabilly romp, and it fails on every level. Better
is the band’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” a
former B-side that seems to include vocals by both Aguilar (appropriately Memo From Turner period Jagger) and Bennett
(eh) riding atop a busy psychedelic swirl of instruments that reminds of  Flowers era Rolling Stones.

 

Although neither
the Chocolate Watch Band’s No Way Out nor The
Inner Mystique
sold in remarkable quantities, and were anything but
representative of the band’s high-voltage live sound, the two albums would
continue to increase interest in the band. In late 1968, the Chocolate
Watchband would reform with the first recorded line-up mostly intact, Aguilar
replaced by Phay, and with original Watch Band guitarist Ned Torney brought
back into the fold after his stint with the Army. This version, now known as
the Chocolate Watchband, would record 1969’s One Step Beyond, eschewing their earlier Stones-inspired R&B
vibe for a more mellow folk-rock sound similar to Moby Grape or the Charlatans.
Still, it represented the most original Watchband music caught on tape, even if
the band had evolved beyond recognition, and by 1970 even this version of the
band was done.

 

Still,
Chocolate Watch Band’s reputation as flamethrower live performers, along with reissues
of their first two albums, would find a new audience in the post-Nuggets and Pebbles 1980s, influencing a new generation of throwback
garage-rockers like the Lyres, the Chesterfield Kings, and others, while
original vinyl copies of No Way Out and The Inner Mystique would trade on
the collector’s market for premium prices. As a result, several band members,
including singer Aguilar, second line-up replacement guitarist Tim Abbott, and
the rhythm section of bassist Bill Flores and drummer Gary Andrijasevich would
reunite in the late 1990s and begin playing again.

 

This
re-formed Chocolate Watchband recorded a live collection of their original
material, At The Love-In Live! in
1999, followed by an all-new album of mostly Aguilar originals titled Get Away in 2000. They would continue
touring well into the 2000s, and in 2010 the band re-recorded a number of songs
from the first three albums, releasing it as Greatest Hits, the Chocolate Watchband story coming full circle and
providing a happy ending to a saga that began in 1965…

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply