(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.)
Anyone 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.
The 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.
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.”
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!
Tags: Bruce Joyner, Craig Packham, Dave Doyle, Dave Fleminger, Don Fleming, Jack Donahue, Joe Foy, John Bennett, Laura Frasier, Mark Neill, New Wave Theater, Peter Ivers, San Diego music, Steve Bidrowski, the Stroke Band, the Unknowns, Tim LaMadrid, Tim Mays