(How the other half lived: Jay Allen Sanford takes us briefly out of the underground to revisit a San Diego band’s dip into mainstream success.)
“To me, my whole life was just destiny,” says Eric Denton, one-time keyboardist for ’80s pop faves The Monroes. “I just felt I was destined to be a rock star, and there was just no doubt about it. And it all kind of came to a crushing end when The Monroes basically fell apart.”
Born in Lansing, Mich., Denton moved to Ventura, Calif., in first grade, beginning extensive piano lessons from the age of eight. By junior high, he already had a band that played school dances and then, in the late ’70s, his family moved to San Diego. He says he knew he wanted to be in the music business but was equally interested in the business of music.
“I’ve always been an organizer and an entrepreneur. In high school, I started my own booking agency, getting cover bands into bars and stuff. Plus, I had a bunch of lighting equipment from a band I’d been in, and I started renting it out to other groups.”
At the end of his high school career, he was listening to The Beatles, Styx, Uriah Heep and Deep Purple and playing in a band called Peter Rabbitt. “We put on makeup. Not like KISS but, you know, eyeliner, blue-and-silver stuff. I remember getting whistled at by guys. An older guy tried to pick me up in a bar in New Jersey one time.”
The musician in him enjoyed the gig, but his business intuition told him that much more was possible. “I figured out that the bottom line is you’re nowhere without a product, a tape. I vowed to go into the studio and hone that aspect so, when I came back to San Diego, I bought a recording studio, Accusound, on 42nd and El Cajon.”
His goal was to form a studio band that would never play cover tunes. He had a specific sound in mind, a mix of synthesizers and hard rock. “I really appreciated a finely crafted commercial song, with a heavy edge to it. A song like [Queen’s] ‘Killer Queen,’ that everybody can like but still has that edge to it.”
While recording other groups, he met several talented players and writers. He was particularly impressed with bassist Bob Monroe, who he says had “a strong personality. In essence, we were the start. You could argue whether it was ‘we started a band’ or ‘I joined with him.’ But it turned out to be a good combination.”
Would Bob Monroe say that he formed the band himself? “He might. As the band grew and grew and grew, so did the egos. When Bob was being interviewed through the years, it turned from us starting a band to Bob Monroe hand picking his group. But, anyhow, at the time I didn’t care because I just wanted to be part of a great band.”
Next to join was Rusty Jones. “He had several songs on [KGB FM’s] Homegrown albums that he’d recorded at the studio. Next we [hired] my old drummer from Peter Rabbitt, Jonnie Gilstrap. Then the quest was on for a very long time for a lead singer.”
They settled with Jesus Ortiz, a k a Tony Monroe. “[Tony] had one of the most beautiful voices, and could make any song, good or bad, sound great.” He notes that “Bob did a lot of the songwriting. I wasn’t very good at that part yet.”
At Accusound, they recorded several original songs. “Bob and I took our tapes and went knocking on doors up in Los Angeles. Bob had already been signed to a publishing deal and he had connections. A guy from a publishing company [MAM] up there named Jon Deverian took us on and became our manager. He was our Brian Epstein.”
Deverian got them signed to Alfa Records, a small label mainly based in Japan. “They gave us a lot of personal attention. We’d call up, and they’d have our music playing on hold.”
One of their newest songs was “What Do All The People Know,” written by Bob Monroe. “I had liked it from the first time Bob hummed the melody over his acoustic guitar, while he was leaning on my desk at Accusound. He didn’t even have the lyrics written yet. But soon we were arranging it. … I had a keyboard line throughout the song that was strong and felt good, and I remember suggesting we start the song with just it and the vocals. Bruce liked it and had the guitar play [the line] toward the end of the song as well.”
“And when I called you on the phone,
you said that I could be the one.
But here I’m standing all alone,
and you’re out lyin’ in the sun.”
(“What Do All The People Know”)
January 1982: The band entered Chateau Studios with one-time Doors producer Bruce Botnick and Stones engineer Alex Vertikoff. “Things were going so fast, we hadn’t even signed the recording contract yet. When we were starting to record, Jon plops this thick wad of paper on the table at the apartment they [Alfa] put us in and says, ‘Sign.’ While flipping through several pages and reading some nasty-looking legal jargon, I voiced my hesitance. Jon finally says ‘Look, I own a lot of real estate. If something goes wrong, sue me.’ ”
The label ended up preferring the original demos. “For ‘What Do All The People Know,’ we took the half-inch eight-track demo that we had done [at Accusound], and we transferred all those tracks onto a 24-track, re-did the vocals, put some guitar parts on it, put some hand claps on. What you hear on the radio is 80 percent the original demo that we did in a cheap little eight-track studio.”
The Monroes play “What Do All the People Know?”
The single came out late ‘81 and garnered immediate, and constant, airplay. Here in San Diego, it was inescapable. “We were No. One on a bunch of radio stations. We were No. 50 on the charts, but that’s just because the label couldn’t get the records out there.”
Within weeks, they were appearing on the Merv Griffin TV show as well as opening for Greg Kihn, The Motels, Rick Springfield, Toto and others. They were invited to record a song for a Yoko Ono tribute album; got listed in Billboard as a Top Album Pick; and, locally, they landed a tune called “Stones Against The Rain” on 91X’s “Sand-Aid” album (a benefit for African famine relief).
Recalling some of the high points, he says “I remember [playing] Bakersfield, and standing in front of 20,000 people. Warming up for Springfield, of course. We were looking down in the front row and seeing masses of girls singing the lyrics to our entire album! I remember going back to the hotel room, and the police are coming because there’s 50 girls crammed into the hotel room!”
Everyone in the group was convinced that they were riding a rocket straight to superstardom and quit their regular jobs. “[Then] we were all up at Alfa Records one day, storyboarding ideas for our videos we were about to shoot. Our girlfriends overheard the secretaries discussing what they were going to do now that Alfa was pulling out of the USA. We weren’t supposed to hear this. This was the beginning of the end for The Monroes.”
The label ended up selling The Monroes’ contract to CBS. “They offered us like five or seven albums, [and] we had $50,000 total upfront cash money from them, but that kind of money goes fast, especially when you’re out buying synthesizers and stuff. Then we came back to San Diego and suddenly everybody wants to be our friend. Especially drug dealers. … The heavy hitters around town walk up to you after a show and they’re, like, lining you up with all you can do. Pretty soon, some of the members started falling into that scene.”
Not that Denton is claiming to be an angel of sobriety. “Yeah, I got into it a little bit, [but] I never let it affect my life that dramatically.”
“Tell me am I getting in too deep,
every night I’m talking in my sleep.
Lately I am so confused,
I really don’t know what to do.”
(“What Do All The People Know”)
Denton says that CBS sat on their contract from 1982 to 1984 and did nothing. The group’s rep at the label had no incentive to push The Monroes since he hadn’t been the one to discover them. “He told us, ‘I’m assigned to you but I don’t like you.’ ” They recorded on their own, but they had to play with other bands to make money since the only checks coming in were issued to Bob Monroe.
“Here I was, a kid realizing that I had done all this work in organizing the band and being the organized one and realizing that the songwriter was going to get all the money, basically. Especially the writer of the hit song, he’s the one who’s going to make all the money. That came a a shock to me because, you know, junior high, playing in bands, everybody’s all for one, ‘We’re all a team.’ ”
“To Bob’s credit, he did try to give us publishing [rights], to split the publishing with everyone, but it never happened. I don’t know if there ever was any, but I never saw a dime.”
Money wasn’t the only problem. “Bob became increasingly harder to work with. He was hanging around the wrong crowd. And he was in the spotlight. I really miss the early days, when it was really Bob and I behind the controls at Accusound, staying up later than most of the guys could, dialing in the sounds that made the success we had. … Now Bob became more aggressive at rehearsals, yet he was late, didn’t look good and [was] indecisive.”
As more time went by with no new record, the band’s prospects looked bleak. They were even sued (unsuccessfully) over their name by another Monroes, temporarily forcing them to adopt the moniker “Man To Man.”
There was also a lack of new material. “Bob, for about a year and a half there, hit a songwriting drought. Here’s the guy who had written the hit song. … I ended up going to Bob’s house and saying ‘OK, you’re writing a song today.’ And I’d sit there with him, I’d bring coffee, I’d go down to [get] his bass out of hock, his amp out of hock. I would bring him cassette machines and blank cassettes.”
What does Denton think caused the creative block? “I know what it was, the partying and stuff.” Finally, he says, “I even started bringing in external songwriting. We actually cut a couple of songs from other musicians.”
I ask if that isn’t usually a sign of desperation for a band. “That’s an interesting thought [pauses and frowns]. I guess that could be. I always considered as long as you put out good music, it doesn’t really matter where the songwriting comes from.”
The group badly wanted out of their CBS deal so they could move to another label. “We signed an agreement with them that we wouldn’t have to pay back the $50,000 and we wouldn’t force them to put out any albums, which they weren’t doing anyway.” When Rick Springfield’s manager, Joe Godfrey, expressed an interest in them, they were pleased and decided that this would be very good for the band.
Their original manager, Jon Deverian, was not as pleased. Ultimately, the deal with Godfrey fell through, and they found themselves with no manager at all. “It’s a shame. [Jon’s] a good guy, and he did a lot for us.”
Rusty Jones was the first member to officially quit. “[He] was very frustrated. He really felt his song should have been the hit.” Then Denton got a note from singer Ortiz. “It said ‘I’ve got to go find myself, I love you guys, but don’t ever try to find me or contact me again.’ ”
Gilstrap was next to exit, though various versions of The Monroes still played out, even after Denton himself left the band. “I didn’t want to ever let go. … Even now, I want back there so desperately. We really did have a musical charm, we really did work together so well, we had musical magic. But as quickly as we came together, we lost it. Lost it like in a puff of white powder. Lost it in the success and the egos.”
“It was like this meteoric rise and then it just went like this [points down].” Was there ever a specific moment that it occurred to him that The Monroes were a one-hit wonder? “Oh yeah, sure. Probably when CBS sat on us for two years. When we were no longer signed and the record contract was over.” The band finally dissolved completely around 1988.
Disillusioned with the record business, Denton decided to quit performing. He’d already bought into Music Power, a retail equipment store, starting as an employee and then buying the business outright when owner Don Hopkins moved to Denver in 1985. “I didn’t do it with Monroes money. There was none. I borrowed it from my grandfather.”
He saw a local demand for rentals and changed the focus of the shop, increasing profits dramatically. Within a few years, he also bought Guitar Trader, originally just for its location. “I couldn’t believe that anybody could do a million dollars a year just in guitars, but the place was a gold mine. Guitarists are funny; they can never have enough guitars.”
Soon after buying it, he had an idea for an in-store promotion at Guitar Trader. He’d played with a singer named Elaine who was now working for Chrysalis Records in L.A. “Here I am with friends working at a label, I own Guitar Trader. … Let’s bring these label people down to San Diego, and [local musicians] can bring their tapes in to be evaluated by an actual label rep! I can help the local scene, give local players a boost and, maybe if they come into my store, maybe they’ll buy stuff and I can continue to do this.”
He advertised the event with a mailer. “The store manager at the time was also an artist. He drew a picture of a musician holding a record contract and a bag of cash in one hand. The caption was, ‘What has your music store done for you lately?’ He’d first presented it as a front cover [for the mailer] and I said, ‘No, no, this is not about getting rich and getting a record contract.’ So we took that picture and shrunk it and stuck it in the back. … There’s not one word of print that said ‘Somebody’s gonna get signed [to a label] out of this.’ ”
Guitar Trader didn’t charge a fee to bring in a tape for review. “The whole idea was to have her play [the tapes] just like she does in her office. She’d listen to a couple of songs and say, ‘This is crap’ or, ‘I kind of like this.’ The funny thing was, she called back a couple of the bands, at least three or four. It was kind of exciting. … Then we brought her back down on a Saturday, and she took in like 200 tapes. She told my staff, ‘This time, ship it to my house.’ ”
“A couple of weeks go by, and people who’d given her tapes started calling up Chrysalis and they’re asking for her and they find out she doesn’t work there any more. The label said, ‘She hasn’t worked for us since the Friday before the day she came down.’ And the bands are mad at me, even though she never told me she wasn’t [with Chrysalis] anymore!”
I wonder aloud about what she’d get out of supposedly misrepresenting herself, not telling anyone that she no longer worked for the label. Why was she coming down at all, what was she getting out of the arrangement besides a box of demo tapes? “I can’t remember. I might have paid her. Good question, actually. I can’t remember now. Did I pay her money? I remember trying to treat them like stars. I brought them in a limousine.” He says he’d also spring for dinner and an overnight hotel stay.
“One of the bands she called back had quit their jobs. They got all excited, and when she didn’t work at Chrysalis any more, they were upset.” A reporter from a local paper called to interview Denton over the phone (perhaps tipped by a rival music store, he feels).
“The reporter said, ‘You know they quit their jobs’ and I go, ‘Well, they’re stupid,’ and that was what they put in big print, my comment, ‘They’re stupid.’ ” The article insinuated that Denton had not only soiled Guitar Trader’s reputation but had somehow ripped off San Diego players. Included was the drawing from the mailer that featured a musician holding a contract and cash.
“It said that the band had quit their jobs because of a misrepresentation from Guitar Trader. … It broke my heart. Here I was trying to do something for San Diego, and it turned around and bit me.”
I point out that the endeavor was also undeniably designed to increase commerce at his store. “I know that there is the ‘commercial’ aspect,” he wrote in a later e-mail, adding “[but] in my heart, [I] wanted to help San Diego musicians with A&R reps.” This is consistent with his history and background — a musician’s casual naiveté, operating in tandem with a businessman’s acumen for organization and goal reaching.
Denton went on to run Music Power and Guitar Trader. He also launched guitartrader.com online, which he says has been very successful. “What Do All The People Know” is still played often on local radio and college stations nationwide.
“I couldn’t bear to quit [The Monroes],” says Denton, “but I didn’t like what was left. It was a fraction of its former self. No magic, no class, no nothing. Bob continued on without me as it slowly faded into the pop and crackle of the needle against the record.”
Former Monroes members Jesus “Tony Monroe” Ortiz (vocalist) and Rusty Jones (guitarist) have formed a duo that performs around North County.
— Jay Allen Sanford