Dream Sequence: The history of the Unknowns

(Excerpts from Ray Brandes’ epic account of San Diego’s first major-label band since Iron Butterfly. Read the full version in Che Underground’s Related Bands section.)

The Unknowns’ InvasionAnyone who had the opportunity to see the Unknowns play had an unforgettable experience. Crisp, staccato drumming and the dripping-wet reverberation of Mosrite guitars through Fender amplifiers was punctuated by the yips and howls of the legendary melodramatic lead singer, Bruce Joyner, who sang from a chair or aided by a cane, looking every bit like a down-home Barnabas Collins in search of fresh blood.

Their tight and powerful act upstaged every band with whom they played, including the Go-Gos, Madness, the Blasters, the Plimsouls, Wall Of Voodoo, the Romantics, Joe King Carrasco, Romeo Void, the Textones, the Suburban Lawns, Missing Persons and scores of others.

At times the band members themselves have lamented that their place amongst their peers seems to have been forgotten over the years, yet they were the first San Diego band signed to a major label since the Iron Butterfly in 1967. They were named one of the top four bands in California by the Los Angeles Times in the early ‘80s. They were the first band from the San Diego scene to perform live on a major syndicated television show, Peter Ivers’ “New Wave Theater,” which was picked up by Armed Forces Television and the USA Network’s “Night Flight.” And their Sire album “Dream Sequence” has sold nearly 100,000 copies to date.

Detail: The Unknowns’ second lineupThe Unknowns were the product of an unlikely collision between two powerful forces: the brilliantly eccentric Bruce Joyner and the single-minded guitarist and visionary Mark Neill. Their sound emerged from a primordial soup of ‘50s rhythm and blues and rockabilly along with ‘60s and ‘70s proto-punk, country and reggae, and the entire mixture was incubated in the vibrant art scene of Valdosta, Ga., a university town a few miles from the Florida border.

The Unvanquished
Unknowns’ Bruce Joyner (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved) Bruce Joyner was born in Manchester, N.C., in 1952, and his family moved to South Georgia nine months later. His parents divorced, and for months he and his mother lived a meager existence, sleeping in dairy barns, mill houses and windowless shacks from which they had to clear hay before they could rest. Bruce recalls, “Being poor shaped me, seeing other poor people shaped me, and living in the country certainly shaped me. I sing about all these things. I have gone without food because there was none. I lived the stories William Faulkner wrote about — the downside and the upside of southern living.”

Unknowns, Cathay (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)At age four, Bruce suffered the first in a series of unfortunate accidents that would ultimately shape both his personality and his world view. According to Bruce, “The little girl who lived next to us offered me some candy that I swallowed. It was from her dad’s and grandfather’s photography storehouse, where they kept chemicals to process pictures. After a wild ride courtesy of my stepdad, my life was saved, but my vocal cords and stomach lining were scarred.” His mother taught him how to speak again by playing her records — Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Bill Haley, Hank Williams and many more. For a year and a half Bruce lived and breathed singing: “I stood on a chair and entertained my relatives by singing the songs I learned from those records. I loved their attention and praise and their handclaps. I was hooked. From the age of six I knew I wanted to be a singer, but the only person that encouraged me was my mother and she never saw me sing for an audience except for my relatives. I also learned you can cry and give up, or keep singing through the pain of it all. If you never give up, you never lose.”

The Unknowns play “The Streets” on Peter Ivers’ seminal television show, New Wave Theater. Watch now!

Read the full Unknowns story!

Check out related bands, people, venues and gigs!
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The Penetrators

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56 Responses to “Dream Sequence: The history of the Unknowns”

  1. Dave Fleminger Says:

    Wow. An amazing chronicle of an amazing band.
    From the time I saw The Unknowns play at Clairemont High School (the lunchtime show that Dave Doyle booked, as mentioned) I have been an awestruck fan. Along with their legacy of classic, timeless music the band’s story is equally fascinating….now it can be told.
    Thank you Ray, this is a beautifully written article!

  2. Ray Brandes Says:

    Thank you, Dave. I spent several months working on this, and am indebted to many who took the time to share their stories with me. The full story of the group is even much longer and more complex than this space allows for, and for the sake of “brevity,” I had to limit my focus to the band which recorded the albums with Bruce. I have had the honor and pleasure of being friends with the band for more than twenty-five years, and have shared the stage with them on numerous occasions. Craig Packham has been the group’s drummer for more than two decades. Craig, who played in the marching band in his high school with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, joined the group after Bruce’s departure. Aside from being an all around great guy (and my brother-in-law), he is in my humble estimation, the best drummer in San Diego, period. He can be heard on scores of recordings produced at Soil of the South Studios and elsewhere. The band’s style has evolved considerably, but the unmistakable qualities that comprise the Unknowns’ sound have remained constant.

    Here are some related websites:

    http://www.myspace.com/unknownssandiego

    http://www.myspace.com/soilofthesouth

    http://www.myspace.com/brucejoynerandthereconstruction

    http://popeyescorner.blogspot.com

  3. Mmrothenberg Says:

    While everything I’ve listened to in connection with this blog brings me great pleasure, not everything holds up as well as the Unknowns. I’ll confess my surprised delight that these heroes of my childhood still sound fresh and challenging today … Nary a hint of the “matching-towels” New Wave stylings that Mark Neill so wittily dismisses. The Unknowns were operating on a WHOLE other level.

  4. Dean Curtis Says:

    Thanks Ray for doing such a great job telling their story. I loved The Unknowns as well, and tried to see them as often as possible. They were a truly unique band. That is so hard to find these days.

  5. Todd Lahman Says:

    Wow! Great story Ray. I loved seeing the Unknowns live. I saw them at King’s Road a couple of times and each time it seemed like that little stage couldn’t contain them!

  6. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>I loved seeing the Unknowns live. I saw them at King’s Road a couple of times and each time it seemed like that little stage couldn’t contain them!

    Bruce Joyner was such an intimidating physical presence with the the cane and all — he kinda LOOMED!

  7. Eric Bacher Says:

    Great job on this Ray!

    A band I played in with Mike Stax and Bill Calhoun “The Barons” (post TTH) played with Mark, Dave and Craig when they were “The Fugitives” on the same bill downtown somewhere (I remember being left with the distinct feeling of getting blown off the stage). They seemed so connected.

    “Dream Sequence” is still played frequently at home to this day…

  8. Chris Iandolo Says:

    Ray,
    Great and well researched article. But you left out when you first heard these guys: their gig opening for the Penetrators in I think it was spring of 1980 at Point Loma High’s big gym. I think you wrote a review of it in the school newspaper. I’m not sure if our beloved Pointers appreciated what they were seeing at the time! But I remember being hooked by the time they played “White Trash Girl”. Still have my copy of Dream Sequence on vinyl, great record.

  9. Ray Brandes Says:

    Right you are, Chris. Pearls before swine.

  10. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>But you left out when you first heard these guys: their gig opening for the Penetrators in I think it was spring of 1980 at Point Loma High’s big gym.

    Oh! Oh! Yeah, my first Unknowns memory (I think) was when this same pairing played San Dieguito High School … Hands down our coolest high-school dance ever — Margarat Nee got physically carried out of the gym by security guards, we all jumped around like lunatics, total bliss!

  11. Ray Brandes Says:

    Tom,
    Thanks! Coming from you, that means a lot to me. I read your blog religiously.

    This would be an appropriate place to acknowledge the contributions of Tim LaMadrid once again. His photography is incredible, and I would love to see a book or gallery showing one day.

  12. Kristi Maddocks Says:

    Ray,
    This is an incredibly well-written and engrosing article-I couldn’t stop reading the story once I started! I hope a broad spectrum of readers get a chance to read this article, because it is deserved of national or international exposure.
    I don’t have a clear memory of seeing the Unknowns-but I must have seen them when they opened for missing persons, when I saw them at the Distillery East. I was super young then, and if the band played cool music, I was probably po-going or twisting it up on the dance floor.
    Thanks for writing such a substantial and interesting piece of rock history, Ray. Please write more articles like this-and teach me how to do the same! I am so glad to know more about this mind blowing group of musicians-the video of the Unknowns playing live truly blew my mind! Bruce Joyner was a compelling frontman, and having insights into his life hardships makes me even more impressed by his virtues, poetry and showmanship.
    Our blog needs more sories like this one!

  13. Dave Doyle Says:

    Kudos to both Ray and Tim.

    I’m glad that the story has been let out of the bag and with an able hand in control of the pen. Keep up the excellent work Ray!

    Tim’s photography I have always considered to be excellent, so much so that it influenced my own photog endeavors later in life. Some of those images I haven’t seen in decades.

    I don’t have a clear memory of seeing the Unknowns-but I must have seen them when they opened for missing persons, when I saw them at the Distillery East.

    The only gig I recall with Missing Persons was one up in Fresno in ’81. Dale Bozzio was a very cool person BTW. And the only Distillery East gig I can remember was one we did with a band called ‘Seraphim’.

    The singer pranced about the stage emulating Rod Stewart/Freddy Mercury. The best part was the big surfer dude in the front heckling him to the point they had to leave the stage! He was happy when we played (thank god!).

    Thanks again to Ray and Tim, and many thanks for the kind words and recollections from those of you that saw us back then.

  14. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>And the only Distillery East gig I can remember was one we did with a band called ‘Seraphim’.

    You know, wasn’t there something kind of fun about getting on stage with prancing bands named “Seraphim” at places like the Distillery East?

    By the ’90s, all the lame bands I got paired with were lame in the same quasi-alt way … Kind of a Counting Dave Matthews’ Hootie Phish kind of thing. It was very sincere and not very good for a laugh … just sort of a shudder. This earlier strain of all-out train wreck was a ton more entertaining!

  15. Ray Brandes Says:

    Dave,
    Someone needs to point out that in those studio photographs you look like you are about twelve years old!

  16. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    Ray,

    Wonderful bit, this.

    I waxed rhapsodic of the Unknowns, in my own anecdotal reply to a comment by Bruce Joyner.

    Much like Ray, I think, my 15-year-old universe attached itself to a new axis, who’s poles were fixed between The Unknowns and The Crawdaddys. There’s no way to overestimate the powerful experience it was, dicovering these guys. In the philistine wastes of 1980 San Diego, no less!

    If the punk and ‘new wave’ power pop bands were outsiders, these were the outsider’s outsiders. Really.

    Hearing “Not My Memory” in the big, hollow wooden halls of NPLC was nothing short of amazing -- hyperbole can’t do justice to the feeling.

  17. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    The Unknowns playing “Our Love Was, Is” !!??!!!

    My God. I wish I’d have heard that!

  18. Ray Brandes Says:

    “Our Love Was, Is”-- What an incredible song:

    Our love was famine
    Frustration
    We only acted out an imitation
    Of what real love should’ve been.

    I too would have loved to have seen them perform that, as well as any of the other songs listed above. The Unknowns have always been such good songwriters that there has been little room in their set for covers. I’ve seen Mark, Dave and Craig play a blistering version of Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone,” and their version of the O’Jay’s “Love Train” on the Southern Decay album is unbelievable.

  19. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    Ray,

    The whole “Who Sell Out” is such a great tribute and frendly jibe at all of mid-sixties pop music. The “Baroque Rock” psychedelia of “Was, Is” is such a great transposition for the Who’s 4-piece. It is close to bits on “Something Else”: Bach by the Kinks!

    The Unknowns take of this? Layers on layers. That’s also how I imagine this would sound.

  20. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    And,

    “Love Train” goes on the desert island with:
    “Unchain My Heart” and “Love and Happiness”.

  21. Ray Brandes Says:

    Without a doubt, the Who Sellout is my favorite Who album. “Tattoo,” “Odorono,” “I Can’t Reach You,” etc. What a brilliant piece of work. Want to hear something really mind-boggling? Mark tells me the Unknowns used to perform “Armenia City in the Sky” as well! Perhaps Dave Doyle can elaborate.

  22. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    Armenia -- if you follow the theme and meter of the lyric for the Answers “You Are There”, you can tell I was O.D.ing this tune.

    Is Entwhistle’s voice saying “D-O-G spells dog” at the end? :-)

    Another thing that I’d blow my top, hearing by The Unknowns. Thanks, Ray!

  23. Dave Fleminger Says:

    Armenia?? Yowza!!
    Please elaborate Dave, make the rumors in my head all turn to facts!

    I’m trying to imagine where the Unknowns would have taken that song (to the sky, baby!), but I’m sure like everything else they did it would have been unbelievably great.

  24. Craig Packham Says:

    Ray,

    Excellent story, well done! Wish I’d been down here to see some of the early shows mentioned in the responses! All of your band profiles are great, love ‘em.

    Tim’s fotos are equally fantastic. I’ve seen some of the shots over the years, but not the extra frames/outtakes.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and archive!

  25. Ray Brandes Says:

    Interesting fact: “Armenia City in the Sky” was written by Pete Townshend’s chauffeur, John Keen who went on to form Thunderclap Newman. He co-sings the song with Roger Daltrey.

  26. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>Without a doubt, the Who Sellout is my favorite Who album.

    Yet more evidence that Ray and I really should’ve spent more time together in our youth. “Sell Out” drops the ultimate Who Zoo … It’s possibly the most formally subversive album ever to make it onto the classic-rock shelf and I’d say the best “concept album” of that first wave, before the Who themselves and other bands overinflated the medium.

    Sgt. Pepper’s is always held up as the Sgt. Pepper’s of concept albums, but I dunno. I think Sell Out is actually the Sgt. Pepper’s.

    The Unknowns playing “Armenia” … How much would I give to experience that? I have two kidneys …

    PS: Criminy! A capella version of “The Who Sell Out.” Here’s video of “I Can See for Miles” (embedding disabled, alas).

  27. Craig Says:

    Sell Out is brilliant -- song writing, musicianship…Moon in top form.
    I’d play any of those songs any day…

    Brian Wilson’s original “Smile” might’ve been the Sgt. Pepper’s of concept albums, had it been released as intended. Again, brilliant (and pretty far out). Pet Sounds ain’t too shabby, either.

  28. Bart Mendoza Says:

    Ray! Brilliant work as usual, this is a great, great read-
    Cheers!

  29. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>Much like Ray, I think, my 15-year-old universe attached itself to a new axis, who’s poles were fixed between The Unknowns and The Crawdaddys.

    The Undaddys!
    The Crawknowns!!

  30. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>Much like Ray, I think, my 15-year-old universe attached itself to a new axis, who’s poles were fixed between The Unknowns and The Crawdaddys.

    The Undaddys!
    The Crawknowns!!

    Weird question: Did the two bands ever gig together? Not in my recollection, but I didn’t get out nearly enough.

  31. Ray Brandes Says:

    I just got off the phone with Mark Neill, who sends his regards from the studio, where he’s been holed up for several days. I asked him about the “Who Sell Out” covers, and he explained that at one time they must have played half of the record! This would have been fairly early on, when they were playing with Joe Foy and Jack Donahue. According to Mark, they would customize their sets according to the venue, so that if they were playing a high school they might do a few more covers. He thinks he remembers playing “Armenia, City in the Sky” at Golden Hall, and perhaps even at the Clairemont High School gig mentioned in the article. The good news--Mark’s got a bunch of cassette tapes of the band playing live, including the Clairemont High School show that he’s going to go through when he gets a chance. There may even be something “post-worthy.”

  32. Dave Fleminger Says:

    AWESOME!! Can’t wait to hear some live Unknowns tapes!!!
    I have a recording of the Clairemont High show also, and have always been really bummed about it because like some other unlucky cassettes from that era it did it’s time on my car dashboard in the SD sun. As a result the volume sweeps wildly up and down every couple seconds (full to zero)…glad to hear there is another recording and I’m guessing Mark’s was probably made on a better deck than my FedMart special.

    Were Joe Foy and Jack Donahue also the rhythm section for The Evasions?

  33. Dave Doyle Says:

    Weird question: Did the two bands ever gig together? Not in my recollection, but I didn’t get out nearly enough.

    Yes I count 4x in 1981, I don’t have a calender for 1980 but I know that the band (in some form) played several times with them. It should be in the flier archives, right?

    As for Jack and Joe playing with the Evasions, not that I’m aware. Possibly Joe played drums later. We did a gig with them at the Box Office (someone mentioned a gold painted girl in the mission gorge area…The Box Office, a strip club… Girls… Box… Doh!), but I don’t remember who was on bass or drums.

    Brainiac er ah Skid um Richard Banke played guitar as did one of the Griswold bros. I find thru a G-search the Evasions’ drummer and bass player are currently in some band called the Legendary Mighty Raw Tones Experience…

  34. Dave Doyle Says:

    …Possibly Joe played drums later.

    Rather Jack Donahue, not Joe Foy…

    BTW Joe was last seen in ATL by a guy we knew back in Valdosta. Small world…

  35. Ray Brandes Says:

    Tim Rutherford, another Point Loma High School alumnus, was the Evasions drummer. Joe Foy was last seen here on the Che Underground, on December 8 under “Our Family Tree” :
    >>Just came across this site and thought I’d throw in my 2 cents. My name is Joe Foy and I played bass in the Unknowns when they (Bruce and Mark) first moved to SD from Georgia. My roomate Jack Donohue (later drummer for the Crawdads) and I had recently moved from New Jersey to an apartment above the “Beef in a Sack” deli in South Mission Beach. Bruce and Mark moved in and the Unknowns rehearsed there. Trivia note: I ripped off the band name “Unknowns” from a defunct Paterson NJ band that played CYO dances in the 60’s. I first played bass in the Cardiac Kidz after moving to SD and was working at the Roxy on Cass St when the Unknowns formed. I also worked as stage manager for Laura Frasier at the Skeleton Club. Tim Mays and Tim LaMadrid were instrumental in promoting the early Unknowns.
    Got a lotta great memories from those days. I’m now living in Atlanta and have been in touch with Bruce. Hi Bruce! His new stuff is killer.
    Thanks,
    -Joe

  36. Angelo Victor Mercure aka Sonny Cisco Says:

    I met Bruce Joyner when The Unknowns were playing a gig at The Spirit on West Marina Boulevard in San Diego.
    He was quite a gentleman and a great musician.
    Wherever he is now and whatever he is accomplishing, I wish him the very best.

  37. dave ellison Says:

    Ray, this is a great story…

    I saw the Unknowns at Fairmount Hall in (I think) 1982. Dave D., do you remember that show? It could have been with X.

  38. Dave Doyle Says:

    I saw the Unknowns at Fairmount Hall in (I think) 1982. Dave D., do you remember that show? It could have been with X.

    It was in August ’81, we played with them, Brat and Los Negativos so the entry reads. I recall hanging out in back with Billy.

    I also show a gig there in July ’81 with the Penetrators and a very early gig of what would become the Paladins: The Topcats. Dave Gonzalez had a moustache. We gave him hell about that!

  39. Dave Doyle Says:

    Hahaha, concerning the above -- thanks Flem:

    Hobogue!

  40. dave ellison Says:

    August ’81… then that’s definitely the show I was thinking of. It was really hot out, even though it was night. As you came in off the street into the little entryway, you could immediately feel how much hotter it was in there… then you went in the main room and it was even hotter still…like ridiculously hot. During X’s set, someone got hold of the fire extinguisher and started spraying it in the air, so I went outside. It was so hot inside, it felt like it was freezing cold when you went out until you adjusted to the temperature, which was actually still hot.

    X was great though…I remember them doing mostly songs from Wild Gift, which had either just come out, or was about to come out.

  41. dave ellison Says:

    I remember seeing The Brat too… they were a power pop band from east LA with a female singer.

  42. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>I remember seeing The Brat too… they were a power pop band from east LA with a female singer.

    … As opposed to the Bratz, a San Diego concoction mentioned in passing in this article about vintage SD vinyl.

  43. Jeremiah Cornelius Says:

    Dave,

    The show with X at the Fairmont. That was incredible. It was one of the Dead or Alive productions. We were aghast at a $5 cover, when shows were $1-$3!

    The Unknowns were why I was there. There was quite a Fairmont ‘mosh’ -- which ended up with the fire extinguisher in X’s set. I think they did a break and came back for part 2.

    The extinguisher was loosed by Chris Jarhead -- more impishly than destructive. What I also recall was how Chris and Jeff “The Mod” Mummert turned the mosh pit into a mock skating rink -- hands behind backs and sliding on the wet, waxed wooden floor like Hans Brinker in surplus combat boots…

    X had Ray Manzarek with them on keys. They did a cover of Soul Kitchen, which perked me up a bit -- but I was never really a fan of their big, droopy sound. At once, both leaden and shrill.

    The Unknowns! Mosrite! Echo tank! Yeah, they were fantastic! “Running from the Shadows” is STILL something I haven’t heard in 28 years. God bless you guys, if someone digs up the archive, it’ll give me respite.

  44. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>I was never really a fan of their big, droopy sound. At once, both leaden and shrill.

    Jeremiah: This is the first time … ever, maybe! … I find myself in strenuous disagreement with you on an aesthetic question! X was hands-down my fave LA band of the era (in case I haven’t abundantly telegraphed that fact). I did love their “Soul Kitchen” cover, but boy — “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”? “Los Angeles”? I dunno; they always got the lead out for me!

    Of course, your ringing endorsement of the sublime Unknowns restores the world to its proper balance. :-)

  45. dave ellison Says:

    Yup, the shows were only a few dollars and always started at like 8:00 (at least that’s how I remember it). How did everyone get there so early?

  46. Dave Doyle Says:

    Dave: No kids, no job, no responsibilities! You slept in and therefore you could be ready by 7 or 8!

  47. MadMike Says:

    lots of people back then were still up from the night before

  48. dave ellison Says:

    Dave, you’re right. Nowadays I get up at 6:30 and still dont have time to even eat dinner until around 8:00 sometimes…haha.

  49. Bruce Injection Says:

    I’m digging the idea of a “forthcoming cache” of our stuff! They’re so old that “artifacts” is a great designation.

    Bruce

  50. Dave Doyle Says:

    I have the M.R. (Dan McLain…) review somewhere and remember it well, mostly the remark about Jack Donahue’s drumming lol

  51. zeke Says:

    i was the original bass player for bruce joyner and the plantations see my blog at http://www.squidoo.com/Bruce-Joyner I have a tape someone might be interested in

  52. Ray Brandes Says:

    This was just posted to YouTube! Ultra-rare stuff:

  53. eddie mars Says:

    Ah, I remember the insane overkill of the SDPD cuffing club hostess Laura Fraser onstage at an Unknowns Skeleton Club gig. What a night, lit by red and blue lightbars- 20 of ‘em-as the cops pounded my friend Kendra’s head into the sidewalk. Resultant court procedings had Steve Esmedina on the stand, trying to explain the new musics to a jury of retired Navy and inbred Okies. Guess the outcome.

  54. Mmrothenberg Says:

  55. Ray Brandes Says:

    Bruce Joyner has a great new album out, one which will be previewed here in the coming weeks. Bruce, how ’bout coming out to San Diego for a few shows?

  56. Teresa Says:

    I have heard Bruce Joyner and the Reconstruction’s new album “ELEMENTS” -- it is incredible. Thank you for this amazing article and all of the older footage of such a magnificent creative force such as Bruce Joyner--I can’t get enough of “Elements” -- and highly recommend it. It has been given rave reviews, one recent excellent review in the “Shindig Magazine”, a magazine from the UK! Kudos Bruce!!

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