Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cindy on the Late Seventies Denver/Boulder Music Scene

I didn't live there, I never went there, and I was just a spunky pre-teen sprog at the time. But I still feel nostalgic about the late seventies Denver/Boulder underground music scene probably because of its connections to San Francisco where I grew up. Well I guess I should start by mentioning Jello Biafra, who is originally from Boulder. But the real bridge and the only reason I know anything at all about this scene comes from the Varve, who are one of San Francisco's own. But not really. They have Boulder roots. Denver too. Another young sprog in the late 1970s, Dalton Rasmussen, and another San Francisco transplant, Joseph Pope, have compiled a vinyl/CD/booklet release called Rocky Mountain Low that documents this period of the Colorado music underground. Included are the Varve's roots, and some cool bands like the Jonny III and the Front. And oh yeah, Jello.

Jo Ann Gogue of the VarveFor me Denver's Guys and Boulder's Profalactics rule the Rocky Mountain Low compilation. The Guys were the Shangri-Las mated with the Ramones minus the Queens accents. All crazy energy and fun. I wish I had been there. The Profalactics are hard to describe. Kinda scratchy. In late 1979 both groups exploded and a Varve was formed. Jo Ann from the Guys and Sue and Carolyn from the Profalactics grabbed LA transplant and super cool blond Kelli Kozak (my true sister), and proceeded to quirk up Boulder. And then they moved to San Francisco. I was way underage, but I was able to sneak into two Varve shows in the early eighties. I remember sweating. I remember squawks of color.

Leroy Smith of the Jonny III
It was Jo Ann Varve, with her cool pink cowboy boots, who told me about the Denver/Boulder scene. She kept talking about this band called the Jonny III. She was president of their fan club. Aleta from the Guys wrote "God of Rock and Roll" about the band's singer and guitarist, Kenny Vaughan. The Jonny III never made a record, but they have two songs on the Rocky Mountain Low compilation, the punky "Cardboard Bachs" (oh such clever spelling) and the poppy "Hey Baby." But these tracks barely hint at the band's legend. Jo Ann played me stuff, showed me pictures, described the endless late night dance parties in Denver and Littleton. It was the energy of Eddie Cochran and the Ramones combined. Plus they had a string of classic songs written by Kenny Vaughan and the band's drummer, Leroy X. And stinging guitar work from Kenny, who now lives in Nashville where he's a highly regarded studio and live musician. I want to be there.

Kenny Vaughan and Kristine Oliver, Sweethearts of the Rodeo
Beyond the Jonny III and roots of the Varve, I'm really liking two other bands on Rocky Mountain Low, Boulder's Transistors and Denver's Front. The Transistors had groovy Asian goddess Karen Nakai (called Karen Sony here) on bass, who Autumn just adores. ("She's my long lost Japanese sister. I have their single." -Autumn). Later Karen would sing in Boulder's China Breaks and then she ran away to Southern California where she disappeared in the LA haze.

Karen Nakai
I'd never heard of the Front before, but their one track here, a Stooges cover, has the right spirit, all punk tension and teen nerves. More of this please. Lead singer Steve Knutson now works for Rough Trade, who used to have a store here in North Beach that later moved to Haight Street. But, like the kind of music on this compilation, it's gone now.

Get yourself a copy of Rocky Mountain Low at: Rocky Mountain Low - the Front, Jonny III, Roots of the Varve, and Jello!

Get it now. You'll wish you had been there.

Photographs by Joe Beine
top to bottom:
Jo Ann Gogue (Varve), Mercury Cafe, Denver, 1982
Leroy X Smith (in a post-Jonny III band with Kenny), Mercury Cafe, Denver, 1982
Kenny Vaughan and Kristine Arnold (Sweethearts of the Rodeo), Auraria Campus, Denver, 1987
Karen Nakai (China Breaks), Blue Note, Boulder, 1981


Larry said...

Hey -- love the review, thanks!! Keep listening -- it will grow on you. Just a friendly aside...I was born in '68, so was too young to be around in the late 70s (is that what you mean by "sprog"), and I live in Colorado. Joseph Pope, who I worked with to put out RML, was the one who was intimately involved in the 70s punk scene here and he's the one living in SF today.

Thanks again!

-dalton rasmussen

carolyn said...

thanks fort the props.
carolyn from the profalactics

it is a great compilation, some really good songs

Carolyn said...

just want to mention that I am still playing music, in San Francisco, in a band called The Insufferables...not as cute as when I was in the Profalactics and the Varve but still playing. Haven't gotten much better but I think my songwriting has!