The Rubinoos: Proto-Pop Punks – SF Weekly
It wasn’t just punk that emerged as an alternative to what many saw as the overkill and fragrant excess of 1970s rock. With punk, a sort of proto-indie pop was brewing, and a notable laboratory for these efforts was Beserkley Records.
Founded in 1973 by Matthew King Kaufman, Beserkley introduced artists like Earth Quake, Jonathan Richman, and Greg Kihn to the pop music landscape. Another flagship was The Rubinoos. The group would become famous for their cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & the Shondells, released in 1977 as punk took hold.
But that shimmering slice of pop only displayed one facet of the versatile band’s musical personality. A new archive version shows the Rubinoos had a lot more on the collective mind. Recorded as a sort of demo in 1976, CBS bands shows the Berkeley band exploring their love not only for AM Gold style pop, but also southern soul, surf rock and other styles. And it all comes with a bratty sneer suggesting that – just maybe – the Rubinoos weren’t that far from punk after all.
The Rubinoos played their first concert at Bay High School in 1970. From the start, the band’s sound was characterized by a strong emphasis on vocal harmonies. A pivotal moment for the band came in 1975 when Earth Quake guitarist Gary Phillips saw the Rubinoos on stage.
“We were playing a grand opening for Grand Auto at the corner of Grove [now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way] and college, âsays guitarist Tommy Dunbar. “We were playing ‘Sugar, Sugar’ and he was like, ‘Are you doing this because you’re serious, or are you kidding?'”
The Rubinoos were serious, but their approach to playing the song – as well as other covers of their set – balanced an appreciation of the originals with an interest in charging them, playing them in a more rocky way. And that’s the reflection they brought to a session at CBS Studios in San Francisco in November 1976.
The Rubinoos had already made their record debut in 1975, with a cover of “Gorilla” by The DeFranco Family, appearing on the (deceptively titled) LP of various artists. Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1. While their reading of “Gorilla” was a creamy, unmoved candy pop, the group’s session as documented on CBS bands is much more brattier. There is a lack of flexibility and a lack of sophistication in the performances that make them as appealing as the more polished official versions of The Rubinoos of the time – albeit in a different way.
Part of that vibe came from the circumstances in which the recordings were made. Sessions were already underway in Berkeley for the band’s debut album, but The Rubinoos took a break to play a few local gigs. “Or maybe Beserkley is out of money,” says singer and guitarist Jon Rubin, half-jokingly. When producer Glen Kolotkin started hosting additional album sessions at CBS, Dunbar says he invited the band to perform. âGo ahead and play whatever you want,â Kolotkin told them.
Unlike the years 1977 The Rubinoos, an album dominated by songs by Dunbar, this mostly impromptu session features the band going through an 11-song set that includes just three original tunes. The covers – and the band’s approach to them – reveal a lot of their musical state of mind.
A song like “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” – another DeFranco Family song – is often considered throwaway pop. But on CBS bands, The Rubinoos uplift it, spinning it in a way that suggests how a band like Redd Kross might have approached it a few years later. And just as the band’s signature harmonies pull them back into pop territory, Dunbar lashes out with a flood of curses taking the place of a guitar solo.
All four of the band – Rubin, Dunbar, bassist Royse Ader and drummer Donn Spindt – let their guard down completely as they ripped through the songs. However, there is a consummate professionalism, a desire to do the songs well, which belies the young age of its participants.
As the group played and joked, Kolotkin rolled up duct tape. With the producer mixing in real time, the entire session was recorded directly on a two-track machine. In the process, Kolotkin captured a high-fidelity version of what one might have seen if they had stopped by Ader’s. “We [usually] had our equipment installed at Royse’s mother, âsays Dunbar.
Bay Area punk garage band Psycotic Pineapple released Tommy Dunbar’s “I Want Her So Bad” as their first single in 1978, but CBS bands presents the previous version of the Rubinoos on the song. And unlike the pure pop of âI Think We’re Alone Now,â their performance is snotty punk. Dunbar laughs when asked how he thinks the Psycotic Pineapple version compares to his band’s impromptu recording.
âWell, the wheels don’t come off like they do in our version,â he says.
However, the good faith of Rubinoos punk and new wave should never have been questioned. The presence of Jonathan Richman’s âGovernment Centerâ on CBS bands is a reminder that the band already had a strong bond with the pioneer of proto-punk. âWe were Jonathan’s rescue group when he first came from Boston,â says Dunbar.
Just to tie it all together, Dunbar notes that the opening riff of Richman’s song bears a similarity to the Rubinoos’ debut hit. He says his band played “Government Center” before Gary Phillips presented them with the 1966 single “I Think We’re Alone Now”.
The Rubinoos were certainly out of step with mainstream business trends when they cut live-in-the-studio. CBS tapes. That month, the most popular albums in the US charts included The song stays the same, Boston’s debut album, Frampton comes to life!, the live double LP of Lynyrd Skynyrd and that of Steve Miller Band Fly like an eagle. âBut on the 4 minute drive to Royse’s house to practice,â says Rubin, âwe were listening to alumni compilation tapes.â
“The CBS bands”
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Bill Kopp is a contributing writer. Twitter @the_musoscribe