Monday, October 19, 2009

Song of the Week: The Tell-Tale Hearts -- Crawling Back To Me

For a brief blip in time, in a miniscule circle inside a small corner of the world, you would have thought 1985 was 1966. Some marketers called it the Paisley Underground. Those living it just called it "the scene". Whatever "it" was, it was a music, culture and style movement that stiff-armed the hair metal/MTV culture of the 80's and embraced -- with startling revisionist accuracy -- a mythical 60's culture.

But not in the peace, love and understanding way. In this 60's culture, there were no crappy bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers or The Union Gap. There were no flaky hippies dancing with imaginary butterflies or unseen unicorns. There was no Vietnam War or runaway inner-city crime problem or racial tensions. Nope. Instead, this culture was based on a very narrow, idealized sliver of time: 1964 to early 1967 to be exact. In this re-imagined world, bands like The Yardbirds, The Elois, The Mourning Reign and The Pretty Things won every battle of the bands. And every black eye-liner wearing, hairbangs-sporting, white patent-leather boot and polka-dot dress wearing girl, could drive a stick shift '64 Plymouth Valiant while spouting off intricate knowledge of Cuby + The Blizzards' record catalogue. Pretty ideal.

If there was a true epicenter of this imaginary world it was...wait for it...San Diego, California. Seriously. It came to be, perhaps, because of one Ron Silva and his talented cohorts who created a remarkably high quality, groundbreaking band called The Crawdaddys. But as quickly as they were created, they were disbanded. From those ashes rose many bands including one of the best bands of the worldwide 60's revision movement, The Tell-Tale Hearts. The Hearts were Dave Klowden, Eric Bacher, Ray Brandes, Mike Stax and Bill Calhoun. Stax had been a member of the Crawdaddys and published a kick-ass fanzine called Ugly Things out of a small, Grolsch Beer soaked apartment on 1st street in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood. (He is still publishing Ugly Things to this day!). Brandes came to the TTH from a stint in the promising band, the Mystery Machine.

In 1984 the Hearts went to Los Angeles to record their first record. Despite a production and engineering bungling that rivaled the work of Custer at the Little Bighorn, and some inappropriate album artwork by Voxx's crack staff artist, The Tell-Tale Hearts walked out with a pretty good album. The quality of their songs survived the production and in some cases thrived despite the production. The best song on that shot heard 'round the world album was the first song, Crawling Back To Me, written by the bands' singer, Ray Brandes. Brandes screams over his manic maraca work, "You've been stealing all my records and my clothes!". (This was an unforgivable infraction back then). Bacher's chop-chop effects-free guitar (I think he was playing a single pickup avocado green Gretsch Anniversary back then) comes to glorious life on his energy raising guitar lead. Calhoun's swirling Vox Continental organ work shines strongest on the time changes. Klowden's floor-tom heavy drum work and Stax's vrooming Harmony H22 bass show why this band had the best rhythm section in town. (dig on that crazy bass work under the guitar leads).

Unlike contemporaries like the Bangles, The Long Ryders or the Three O'Clock, The Tell-Tale Hearts never broke out of that miniscule circle in their small corner of the world. Truth be told the TTH were too spot-on and too doctrinaire to make it on MTV. But i think that's the way they wanted it. If they had "made it" by industry standards of the day, they would have failed. For better or worse, they were built to be big fish in a small, but cool, pond. Ultimately the water in the pond began to stagnate. Bacher left the band for personal reasons and was replaced by the extremely gifted Peter Meisner, himself a Crawdaddys alumnus. After recording just two stellar songs in this line-up, the band fractured with Meisner, Klowden and Brandes joining with bassist Tom Ward to form a Gram Parsons influenced band called the Town Criers. Stax and Calhoun continued on with a new line-up (and old, as Bacher made a small come back), but it never felt quite the same. How could it? In fact, the San Diego scene never seemed to be the same. Coincidence or not, I don't know.


  1. Nice post - you put a nice perspective on this period and this song, which I love. I always saw this song as some sort of composite of Shadows of Knights songs, such as I'll Make You Sorry and Oh Yeah!, and I think it was influential to my own songwriting at the time.

    Hey, I saw Ron Silva play recently with his band the Monarchs in SF covering soul songs - they were excellent! Oh, wait, you were there with me weren't you Mr. Flipside?

  2. Well put - the Tell-Tale Hearts were great. They did a little reunion tour in the mid-1990s and rocked the Purple Onion in San Francisco most mightily. I'd love to see them play again, I think most of the guys are still around. BTW there's an interesting blog about the mid-80s San Diego scene at:

  3. I think they did a show in San Diego about a year or two ago. I recall getting an email from record collector guru and all-round good guy Tony Sanchez to those regards.

    Jack, I recall Brandes playing me the song from which he drew his inspiration. However, I can't recall what the song was now. It wasn't the Shadows of Knight, but I get your point.

    Steve, it was great seeing the Monarchs on stage last month. Let me know if you want to do a Colorado tour. I can't get you a place to play but I'll give you a place to stay.

    Senor Flipalot.

  4. Did I say Oh Yeah!? Light Bulb Blues is what I meant, I think. It has a similar walking bass under the vocal part. The slower part to this SOTW has a Seeds feel to it. Never really noticed much before the bass-drum-maraca segue that comes before the guitar solo segment. It's gives a nice pause before the solo (which is doubled?).

  5. Thanks for cluing me in to the Tell-Tale Hearts' story. I had heard of them (and Mike Stax of course- love Ugly Things) but never really heard them. I saw a lot of the more nationally known 60's influenced SoCal bands you mentioned (Long Ryders, Dream Syndicate, Three O'Clock, Green On Red, Rain Parade) in DC in those days and liked them all at least in their early incarnations. This song, as you said, is a much more studied replication of the kind of snotty '66 45 that i can never get enough of. The production doesn't sound that bad to me, certainly not by 80s standards. The Vox organ rules.

  6. Mazz --

    Thanks for stopping by. The engineers messed up the mixing and the result is that the pressed record was missing entire guitar solos that had been recorded. I recall Bill Calhoun playing me a master tape of the versions of the songs they had recorded and the mix was much better than what came out on LP. I wonder if the issue was fixed when it went to CD a few years ago under the High Tide (Big Noses & Pizza Faces) name. Can anyone answer that for me?


  7. Jack and Morgan,
    Here are the answers to your questions. The song is a "composite" of the Animals' "I'm Crying" and the Pretty Things' "Honey I Need." The bridge was inspired by a couple of measures in the middle of the Kinks' "Did You See His Name?"

    As far as the mixing/mastering goes, the real issue is that that first album was terribly recorded. The guitar was recorded flat, with little or no reverb, as were the vocals. In any case, MIke and I did our best to give it a little life when we remastered in in 1994 for the CD.

  8. Thanks Ray. I recall the "I'm Crying" reference now. I have to say, I have never heard "Did You See His Name". How's that even possible?

    I just listened and hear the very small part of the cool song that gave you inspiration. Nice.

    Crawling Back to Me is a great one. Thanks.