Rock loomed large in the late 1960s and early '70s. Megabands played
megasolos through megawatt amp stacks to megacrowds, most of whom
were megawasted. Music itself was pummeled into oblivion.
But in the pastoral setting of upstate New York's Dutchess County,
one rock band was not sitting still for such nonsense. Now known
as musicians' musicians, NRBQ have also long been iconoclasts' iconoclasts,
who back then sought to buck the bombast which surrounded them by
daring to mingle rockabilly, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, country and a
bit of the blues with their own infectious brew of modern pop. To
hold their own while swimming against the sludgy tide of 1969, the
boys felt the need to somehow confront the überboogie onslaught.
With megasuccess seemingly available to, as one participant put
it, "anyone who could play loud and do ridiculous things and
be outrageously stupid," NRBQ's response was to give the kids
exactly what they wanted, and then some: they would send their road
crew out to play instruments they'd never played before, through
amplifiers set as loud as they could go. After all, what could be
more galling to a crowd of stoned hippies out for an afternoon of
mud-rattling megarock than to be confronted with a band "that
didn't know how to play, didn't know how to play at all," as
Dom Placco, road manager for NRBQ, characterized that band's hair-shaking
hellspawn, The Dickens. Intimates and observers remain divided as
to whether The Dickens' prevailing force was as a straight-up heavyrock
parody or as a loving evocation of musical recklessness. All agree,
however, that they could whip up a fly's-eye of fun. "We just
put everything on 10 and went wild, and it sounded great,"
says Placco, The Dickens' lead guitarist and guiding light.
In their time The Dickens also whipped up Scepter Records #12322,
"Sho' Need Love"/"Don't Talk About My Music",
a 1971 single that appears in both NRBQ-related and Scepter discographies,
yet, except to those willing to shell out three-figured sums on
eBay, remains utterly unavailable. Their one record was pressed
only in a small quantity of white-label promo copies, most of which
were apparently destroyed after its release was squelched, by executive
fiat, at the last minute. The episode is an apt metaphor for the
story of The Dickens, which is that of a spectral joke-band that
bumbled its way into existence, yet in so doing drafted plans for
two or three of the new rooms music was on the verge of inhabiting.
The Dickens was not the first mock band to alight from the NRBQ
camp. That honor goes to The Don Early Orchestra, which may also
have been the world's first lounge lizard parody act. With NRBQ
taking up horns behind them, the combo featured Donn Adams, NRBQ's
part-time trombonist and member of the road crew, as bandleader
Don Early, and Placco as bow-tied crooner Chance Wayne (motto: "give
Chance a piece"). Those who saw the Early Orchestra perform
insist that Bill Murray's later lounge crooner Nick was a dead ringer
for the act's approach.
GIVE CHANCE A PIECE.
Inspired by the growing trend of mindless riffing and endless
soloing as ersatz musical statement, sometime in 1969 Donn and Dom
took to NRBQ's rehearsal barn to begin cooking up a new schtick.
The immediate idea was to put on the heavyrock bobos who, following
Woodstock (which, ironically, NRBQ almost played at), had taken
rule of the rock roost. Complementing this motive, though, was a
more subtle attempt to edify listeners with a message of musical
emancipation, delivered with humor and tough, hairy love. (Placco,
for one, would cover his balding pate with a scruffy wig.) According
to Keith Spring, then NRBQ's tenor sax player, The Dickens "was
based on the premise that an E chord played loud enough on an electric
guitar was enough to satisfy a certain segment of the populace."
As Tom Staley, NRBQ's drummer at the time, elaborates, "Underlying
The Dickens was the lesson that if you fall for this shit, you've
been had. So throw away your Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly records
and start to appreciate good music with real soul and feeling. It
was," he adds, "a 'gotcha'."
The Dickens' early repertoire centered around drag-paced renditions
of "Wake Up Little Susie", "Wild Thing" and
The Beatles' "Rain". For the latter, the band would just
sing the chorus -- "Rain, I don't mind" -- over and over,
polishing it off with an epic feedback jam, highlighted by Donn
and Dom rolling around on the stage smacking and rubbing their guitar
necks together. Originals included "Everybody's Got A Bitch
But Me", "Charcoal", "Twenty Years Ago",
"Fire The Generals For Peace", "I Love The E"
(referring, of course, to the chord of the same name), "Big
Thigh Woman", "Pollution Revolution", "Whip
The Fly's Eyes" and "Woodstock, Stay Away From Me",
a Placco number in which he concisely adjudged the famous festival
as "Hippies, and mud, and all that stuff."
Like some sort of musical think-tank, The Dickens was a thicket
of concepts, most of them satirical in nature. Placco, Adams and
others in the NRBQ camp bandied about dozens of 'em, the fundamental
one being that band members could only play instruments they didn't
normally play -- or play normally. Thus, trombonist Adams took up
the bass (and would later switch to drums), road manager Placco
-- who eventual Dickens producer Marty Pekar says "had never
done anything more with a guitar than carry one" -- strapped
on a Gretsch solid-body, and roadie Phil Crandon -- who Spring says
"took a pass on the concept of drums as a metronomic thing"
-- became the first in a lineage of Dickens tubthumpers.
The mainstays adopted Dickens names. Donn was Dill Spears (after
the pickles), while Placco became Sundance Clover. Phil Collison,
another roadie who came in a bit later to play keyboards and bass,
would be Son Of The Richest Man In The World. Spring, the final
Dickens bassist, was Rodd Fudd. Another Dickens concept had the
band entering from above, suspended on cables like Peter Pan, while,
according to Placco, "big theatrical fans would blow us out
over the audience, and would blow the audience out of the theatre."
Shows were to be brief: "Half a song, or one song, or just
no song at all," he continues. "We might blow up the equipment
before the audience even got there."
Making light of the fact that the rockbiz was then in the throes
of a trend (from which, come to think of it, it has yet to emerge)
whereby marketing took precedence over music, yet another Dickens
concept was to franchise the group nationally - "like McDonald's,"
according to Pekar, "where anybody in a given area who had
the money could become the official Dickens of that area."
Accordingly, there would be more discussion of logos than of music.
Not many people ever got to witness The Dickens. By logistical
necessity, their appearances were mainly limited to short, spontaneous
sets following NRBQ performances, sometimes as punishment meted
out to an unresponsive audience. Most of their gigs, in fact, were
more like private parties. Headquartered at the time in upstate
New York's bucolic Hudson Valley, NRBQ spent the summers of 1970
and '71 playing regular Sunday afternoon outdoor gigs at Folly Farm,
a lovely estate, replete with free-roaming Great Danes, in the hamlet
of Clinton Hollow, near Poughkeepsie. It was in such friendly confines
that the bulk of The Dickens' performances took place. Similarly,
they were also a staple at NRBQ's legendary annual Halloween party.
Anecdotes of Dickens ignominy abound. There was, for instance,
the radio remote broadcast from one of the Folly Farm performances,
during which a listener phoned in to complain about the godawful
racket, causing the station to cut the rest of the feed in favor
of dead air. There was the recording session through the entirety
of which their organist, Son Of The Richest Man In The World, soundly
slept. There was the version of "Wild Thing" at a rainy
outdoors show in Vermont, during which their drummer, Dill Spears,
reached back for a big downbeat, only to fall off the back of his
stool and clear off the drum riser, dragging Sundance Clover down
on top of him in the process. There was, finally and ultimately,
the gig in the basement of a church in Red Hood, New York, during
the very first song of which a member of the audience got sick and
threw up, setting off a chain reaction of retching throughout the
room, leading Placco to assess, "You could never hope for a
bigger success than that."
One Dickens show in 1970 remains a defining moment in the band's
history. NRBQ was booked to play Ungano's, a cozy showcase club
on W. 70th Street in Manhattan. Arriving so fashionably late that
most of the other patrons had already left for the night was their
upstate neighbor and friend, Jimi Hendrix. Noting that the guitar
god was in the house, it occurred to the members of NRBQ that the
opportunity to trot out The Dickens for his edification was too
perfect to pass up. Following the last set, though, Hendrix himself
was readying to leave. Pianist Terry Adams urged him to stick around,
puckishly informing him that there was one more band left to play,
a group that may well change the face of rock as they knew it. And
so Hendrix and his date returned to their seats in eager anticipation
of this musical epiphany. Like most things Dickens, what happened
next varies a bit in the telling. In Donn Adams' version,
We started playing, I guess we did "Wake Up Little
Susie" or something, and I didn't want to look up at
Hendrix. I was embarrassed and didn't want to make eye contact
with him, but I couldn't help it because the audience was
so small -- it was like the rest of the band and Hendrix.
We were just blaring out this shit, and then we went into
our big finale. We started to roll around on the floor, with
the guitar necks rubbing. He had a date with him, and they
had checkered tablecloths at Ungano's, and he took one off
and was waving it around, kind of like a white flag of surrender.
After a while he got up and started giving peace signs and
ran out of the room.
After that he went to Europe, and that was his demise. [Hendrix
died in London that September.] I always felt like maybe we
just crushed him, like he thought we were making fun of him,
'cause we'd been rolling around on the floor rubbing the bass
neck and guitar neck together and feeding back. But it was
never meant to be that -- we weren't making fun of him.
It was also in 1970, at one of their Folly Farm appearances, that
The Dickens were, in essence, discovered. NRBQ was signed at the
time to Columbia Records, where they had a fan in staff copywriter
Earl Carter. A regular guest at the Folly Farm shows, Carter was
blown away by The Dickens -- and not with theatrical fans. Between
their over-the-top stage show and their tales of conceptual glory,
he was sold, and was deputized as manager. Getting into the spirit
of the thing, he made the band sign their management contract in
WITH RODD FUDD ON ORGAN.
Carter returned to New York determined to help The Dickens become
the Next Big Thing. (Carter reports that around this time NRBQ's
lead singer Frank Gadler, the closest thing to a careerist in the
group, asked how he could get into The Dickens.) He assigned his
friend and Columbia colleague Pekar to take the band into the studio.
Pekar first tried to pique the interest of NRBQ's (and Hendrix's,
and later Kiss's) producer Eddie Kramer, but, as Placco reports,
"He was appalled, and thought we were just making fun of rock'n'roll."
Pekar next turned to Michael Wright, a friend who was a staff engineer
for Scepter. After an amazing run of hits in the 1960s, by the early
'70s Scepter was flailing around in search of some way to sustain
their streak. They were anxious to move into rock, and so Wright
allowed Pekar to record The Dickens for the label on spec.
In December 1970 Pekar hastily summoned the band to Bell Sound
on 54th Street (above what would become Studio 54) to glom some
session time off the back of a cancelled Jim Nabors date. Augmented
by Joey Spampinato of NRBQ (playing under the Dickens name Cosmic
Fields), The Dickens quickly cut two of their more typical songs,
"Pollution Revolution" and "Don't Talk About My Music".
The latter features inane bashing on a basic, two-chord riff, with
minimalist drumming, dive-bombing bass, a pointlessly swirling Hammond
organ (which Donn Adams refers to as "Steppendickens")
and, sounding about a football field away, Donn's defiantly shouted
lead vocals. But at least the thing rocks. Shorn of undertow, and
with a honking saxophone replacing the organ, the anti-ecology
"Pollution Revolution" merely lurches and plods, like
a two-step hoofed with a couple of left feet. Splattering lines
of guitar feedback in and out, hither and thither across both numbers
is Sundance Clover -- who, for added rock attitude, recorded them
with his girlfriend chained to his leg. Were this inglorious mess
released in its intended form, it would stand today as a cherished
artifact of early '70s rock eccentricity, a loud testament to the
long-neglected fact that buried beneath the sludge of the megarock
era was a wealth of individualistic musical statements.
But, after completing these sides, the session took a sudden swerve.
With some time left over, Spring and Spampinato went to work constructing
a mandolin-based piece they had recently composed. Four voices (including
that of Donn's wife Susan), double-tracked, unite in singing an
ultrasimple love lyric, with but one word altered from verse to
verse; the title, "Sho' Need Love", is formed from those
variant words. Delicate and ethereal, with an insistent piano figure
running down its spine and arcs of Clover's guitar hovering overhead
like a protective hand, the song sounded more like Terry Riley scoring
a Dario Argento horror flick than it did anything by The Dickens.
"We wanted to do one pretty song, just to make people wonder
what in the world was wrong," Donn Adams semi-explains.
Scepter A&R director Stanley Green fell for "Sho' Need
Love". Dumping "Pollution Revolution", he assigned
A-side status to the last-minute recording, relegated "Don't
Talk About My Music" to the flip, and ordered up a batch of
promo copies. At that point, however, the machinery behind The Dickens'
improbable record ground to an abrupt halt. Those in and around
the band heard nothing more about the thing for months. Eventually
word trickled down to them that when label president (and Green's
mother) Florence Greenberg first heard the record, at the last sales
meeting before its release, she hit the ceiling, and killed the
thing dead in its tracks.
The carnage, in fact, was apparently even worse than that. With
Fat Frankie Scinlaro - NRBQ's manager and a backroom legend in the
annals of New York rock -- in tow, Placco visited Scepter's offices
some months later on a mission to discover the record's fate. He
recalls conferring there with an A&R exec:
The expression on his face was so great. He said, "You're
The Dickens?" He was nearly trembling. And we said, "Yeah,
what's the problem?" He took us into his office, so that
no one else could talk to us or see us, and he brought out
the single. That was the first time we ever saw it. We had
no idea that it actually existed, a 45 with our name on it.
We asked what happened to the guys who OK'd it for release,
and he said they were no longer with them. The vice president
had been fired, and the guy made it sound like it was because
In a perversely Dickensian way, this was a moment of überrock
triumph. "We thought it was great!," Placco concludes.
Since the whole thing had been a lark to begin with, the band
was hardly crestfallen over the non-release of their record. "We
never believed it in the first place," Donn says. "We
were surprised that somebody actually pressed the thing."
Oddly, the pressing on "Sho' Need Love" sounds significantly
sped up, producing unnatural tones and cadences, an occurrence that
everyone involved is at a loss to explain, and not everyone agrees
is even the case. Again, for a band that was designed to be wrong
from its very inception, such ultimate wrongness seems perfectly
The members of the band walked away with one or two copies of
the 45 apiece. Pekar received a 50-count box, from which he has
been guardedly doling out copies ever since. If any copies beyond
those were manufactured, they were apparently destroyed by Scepter.
With this final, nonexistent triumph behind them, there was little
more for The Dickens to accomplish, and they vanished from the land.
It was all about the idea anyway, and the idea had played its hand.
SUNDANCE CLOVER AND DILL SPEARS, SPRING 2004.