Paying tribute to the late ‘70s Tarheel band that eventually bequeathed key musicians in NC legends Let’s Active and The dB’s—a story from the Editor’s deep archives.
BY FRED MILLS
“Now that I’m dead, I suggest you listen to the H-Bombs.” – Elvis (text appearingon a flyer announcing a concert, circa 1977, by the H-Bombs)
Chapel Hill’s H-Bombs may have only enjoyed a brief existence – roughly, from the start of UNC’s fall semester in 1977 to the end of the spring semester in ’78 – but the handful of highly memorable gigs they performed, and their helping to jumpstart the Triangle punk/new wave scene, meant that they left behind an influential and relatively sharp-looking corpse. Not only did the quartet inspire numerous other musically-minded individuals (including yours truly, who didn’t pick up a guitar but did embark upon a career as a rock writer that, for better or for worse, is still going strong), in the wake of the band’s demise several of the cadaver’s vital organs were ripe for harvesting: Guitarist/vocalist Peter Holsapple would move to New York and join Chris Stamey’s dB’s, bassist Robert Keely and drummer Chris Chamis would form the much-loved Triangle combo Secret Service, and guitarist/vocalist Mitch Easter would eventually go on to Let’s Active fame. (below: early shots of The dB’s and Let’s Active)
Veteran writer Sam Hicks previously authored a fairly solid, concise capsule history of the H-Bombs as part of his massive “How North Carolina Got Its Punk Attitude” in Perfect Sound Forever, March 1998. I see no reason not to steal from, er, tip my hat to him by excerpting a portion of his text here. Run, don’t walk to the PSF website (www.furious.com/perfect/nc-punk.html) and read Hicks’ entire, outstanding article.
In the fall of ’77, Peter Holsapple’s UNC-CH Neo-Punk group The H-Bombs formed (not be confused with Evan Johns & The H-Bombs). Peter, Mitch Easter, Robert Keely and Chris Chamis played at street festivals, around campus, The Mad Hatter (previously The Town Hall) or Cambridge Inn on the Duke campus. At the first H-Bombs show, Peter and Robert handed out 2-4 page “flyers” called Biohazard Informae, which began a long history of zines & music working together toward a common goal. The “Death Garage / Big Black Truck / 96 Second Blowout” single (crr-5) was recorded at Mega Sound Studio in Bailey, NC. This single featuring three H-Bombs’ songs was released in 1978 on Car Records after the band had already broken up. Peter & Mitch are actually the only people on the record, but since these were songs Peter had written & performed with the group, the cover says, “Peter Holsapple of The H-Bombs.” Although this band really can’t be considered 100% Punk either, they were pretty damned strange and would later play with Punk bands who said they could drive a crowd away with the best of them. In early 1978, with college over and nothing in Chapel Hill but “the same 40 people to play to”, Stamey, Holder, Rigby, Holsapple & Easter all moved to New York City to do various projects (later culminating into the dB’s).
Hicks has a good point – at times the H-Bombs were pretty strange. For starters, they looked more like four-ninths of a sandlot baseball team than a rock band. And while their aesthetic was clearly informed by the burgeoning alternative movement, rather than wear funny-looking sunglasses and run around the club like maniacs (something Raleigh’s Cigaretz, with whom the H-Bombs frequently shared bills, specialized in – throwing huge sackfuls of junk food at the audience was one favored antic) they’d express their rebellious-ironic side more cerebrally – for example, an H-Bombs stage would be liberally decorated with radios, televisions, settees and floor lamps to create a kind of we-are-playing-in-our-living-room effect. One show they put on at Duke University even featured a friend seated in front of the stage in a large stuffed chair; reading a newspaper throughout the entire set, he suggested nothing less than Ward Cleaver transplanted to the punk era, utterly unaffected by the sonic chaos taking place a mere five feet away from his lounger. The “punkest” the H-Bombs got was when Keely donned a full-sized gas mask for Easter’s apocalyptic-psychedelic ditty “Bomb Scare”; Keely would step to the mic to intro the song but all you’d hear was some muffled gurgling coming over the P.A.
Musically, too, while Holsapple and Easter could write incredibly catchy songs (Keely contributed a handful of memorable tunes to the repertoire as well), unless you were an adventurist with a deep appreciation for, say, earlier outfits like the Move and Big Star, and additionally attuned to the contemporary CBGBs bands and their ilk, anyone with more mainstream leanings probably dismissed the H-Bombs out of hand. As with his subsequent role as Chris Stamey’s foil in the dB’s, Holsapple tended to pen the group’s poppier material, although his hooks were frequently baited with poison. One of his best songs, “Money From England,” may have seemed to have a hopeful we’re-gonna-make-it message, but it really cast a jaundiced eye upon the music biz, and whenever he tried to write a straightforward love song his characters inevitably turned out to have so many flaws and hang-ups that happy endings were never in the cards – check the gallows humor in his suicide-by-auto anthem “Death Garage.” Easter’s tunes contained plenty of hooks (and then as now, the guitarist definitely knew his way around more than his share of killer riffs – the chugging intro to “’65 Comet,” for example, or the “Bolero”-like licks in “Wrong Kind Of Girl”), but his penchant for sudden tempo twists and unexpected chord changes painted his songs in fairly progressive colors. It must be noted, too, at this point in their careers, neither Peter nor Mitch were exactly the world’s greatest singers, although they made up for their vocal shortcomings by simply bearing down and winning you over with their sheer bloody-mindedness. And with spiky riffs and twin leads frequently careening in several directions all at once, the Chamis-Keely rhythm section was the perfect meat-and-potatoes back line for keeping that H-Bombs reactor stoked.
That said, the H-Bombs were probably never “punk enough” on a simplistic three-chord level to fully click with your average Sex Pistols devotee either. Holsapple and Easter could get all garage-aggressive with the best of ‘em (e.g., Easter’s “’65 Comet” or Holsapple’s psychobilly classic “Big Black Truck”), but as each man had been weaned upon classic pop of the ‘60s and hard-edged psych of the early ‘70s, their tunes tended to be far more complex than punks were willing to tolerate. So Hicks’ note about the band playing to the same 40 people over and over is accurate. I should know; I was one of those 40 faithful, showing up in Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill whenever the band played (and frequently taping their shows as well).
All that aside, if you ask anyone who was on the Triangle scene at the time, they’ll undoubtedly cite the pioneering efforts of the H-Bombs – along with Th’ Cigaretz, Butchwax, the Fabulous Knobs and a handful of others – as helping to bring the regional independent rock scene to maturity. The H-Bombs took their cues from the earlier work of Arrogance (whose Don Dixon, of course, would become a studio cohort of Mitch Easter) while at the same time building upon the lessons they’d learned as teenagers before migrating from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill. By the time the H-Bombs came into existence both Easter and Holsapple were veterans of numerous W-S outfits; for some reason, that city was able to nurture very early on an underground rock scene to a far greater degree than pretty much any other city in North Carolina. And both Easter and Keely had been in the legendary Sneakers, the pre-punk mid ‘70s outfit formed in Chapel Hill by Chris Stamey. So even if the H-Bombs’ tenure, on paper, amounts to little more than a blip on the rock ‘n’ roll radar, in the larger picture the band forged a legacy that goes well beyond footnote status.
Sadly, the H-Bombs never got a true studio recording into circulation. As Hicks points out, any studio tracks bearing the name “H-Bombs” that one comes across are probably just tapes that Easter and Holsapple made by themselves. Something on the order of 12-15 songs are known to exist that qualify as de facto H-Bombs “demos” from the pair.
There is, however, the little matter of The Great Lost H-Bombs Double EP. In 1979, over a year after the breakup of the H-Bombs, Triangle fanzine Biohazard Informae – the same one referenced in the Hicks article above, by this point a full-on rock mag helmed by Keely and yours truly – published a nearly 1,000 word article that told the story about a nine-song, 10” H-Bombs EP. Originally slated for official release on Chris Stamey’s Car Records and tentatively titled Nuclear Waste, with the assigned stock number of CRRL-100, the project was ultimately scrapped in the wake of the H-Bombs’ demise and all copies were destroyed – with the exception of this lone acetate. Clearly, a valuable, key, artifact of the underdocumented N.C. punk era, right?
Just one little hitch. The review was a hoax that Keely and I came up with, and I executed, just to have a reason to have an article about the H-Bombs in Biohazard one last time. Granted, there was plenty of factual information in the review, and the song descriptions were painstakingly detailed. But it was still a hoax. Considering some of the more ludicrous elements that appeared in the review, it’s incredible that anyone was duped. For example, I wrote how each side of the platter contained a pair of parallel grooves a la Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief, so you’d never know which song would cue up first when you put the stylus down on the record; while such a strategy was theoretically doable, it was probably just a bit out of reach for your average independent rock band the late ‘70s. Yet a lot of folks took the review at face value, and to this day, urban legend-esque rumors periodically resurface to suggest that the H-Bombs did make a record. Fans of bands, and obsessive record collectors, sometimes just wanna believe.
(There’s actually a minor tradition of hoaxes as it applies to the Winston-Salem/Chapel Hill rock axis. When Sneakers appeared on the Chapel Hill scene, Peter Holsapple – under the pseudonym “Bo Oswald” — wrote an article on the band for the UNC student paper The Daily Tar Heel. A few years later, former Sneakers/future dB’s drummer Will Rigby was able to get an article on the H-Bombs published in the DTH – utilizing the bulk of Holsapple’s original Sneakers text but subbing the word “H-Bombs” for “Sneakers” throughout!)
Just the same, if the H-Bombs lasted, they might’ve made a killer album. They had the tunes and they had the talent. True students and acolytes of rock ‘n’ roll history, they brought a lot of wit, wisdom, vim and vigor to the Triangle scene precisely when it was needed.
And they were generous to a fault as well: The final public statement issued by the H-Bombs read, “Now that we’re dead, we suggest you listen to Elvis.”
This article originally appeared a decade or so ago at NC Music History Dot Com (www.ncmusichistory.com), but the site appears to be currently inactive.