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.

Early Don Early

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.


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.

Friendly confines

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.

Dickens discovered

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 the dark.


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.

Stalled at the gate

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 of us.

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 fitting.

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.



  Folly Farm and studio photos by Louis Giagrande. Reunion photos by Phil Milstein.

Thanks for assistance with this article go to Donn Adams, Terry Adams, Tom Ardolino, Earl Carter, Phil Collison, Louis Giagrande, Michael Greenberg, David Greenberger, Shirley Haun, Erik Lindgren, Karen Momme, Marty Pekar, Dom Placco, Sandi Placco, Mike Slizewski, Joey Spampinato, Keith Spring, Tom Staley and Chandler Travis.