(In a Che Underground exclusive, Ray Brandes offers the first comprehensive history of San Diego’s original retro-visionaries.)
The Crawdaddys have been called one of the most influential bands ever to come out of San Diego. When one looks at the groups its members have spawned, as well as the recurring popularity of ‘60s-style punk and rhythm and blues over the past 30 years, it’s hard to dispute that assertion. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history, an uncompromising commitment to artistic integrity, and a roster of musicians with unparalleled talents and distinct individual styles, the Crawdaddys single-handedly gave birth to the revival of garage music in the late 1970s in the United States. The reverberations of the first few chords they played are still being felt today.
The Crawdaddys’ story begins and ends with lifelong Beatles fanatic Ron Silva, who grew up on Del Monte Avenue in Point Loma. He and his neighbor Steve Potterf started listening to records together in the ninth grade, and while Silva would barely tolerate Potterf’s love for Kiss, Aerosmith, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, he gradually convinced his friend to appreciate his own tastes. “After a while Steve started getting into the music I liked — Beatles, early Stones. I remember sitting in his room playing guitars along to my dad’s Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley 45s,” says Silva.
Throughout high school, Silva, Potterf and Ron’s brother Russell spent many hours playing rock and roll in the Silva family garage, and it was during this period that Ron began his obsession with historical accuracy in clothing, shoes and hair, and in justifying what was considered cool as evidenced by a photograph in an album cover, an old magazine or book. He scoured his favorite albums for details, looking in thrift stores for similar clothing and traveling to Tijuana to purchase pointy-toed boots. He also developed a reputation as a bit of an oddball in high school for wearing Beatle suits and speaking in a Liverpudlian accent.
“In the final weeks of my last year at Point Loma High School, I knew that more than anything I wanted to get in a ‘real’ band,” Silva remembers. “I put an ad in the San Diego Reader that said that I was into the Kinks and Blondie!” The ad was answered by singer Jeff Scott (who had recently left the Dils) and drummer Josef Marc. “ I’d intended to start my own group but ended up joining Jeff’s and Josef’s newly named Hitmakers. Jeff had a few originals, but when we started playing together we mostly covered songs by the Kinks, Beatles and early Stones.”The Hitmakers became part of a growing DIY scene in San Diego that included the Zeros and the Dils. It was reaching a zenith in 1977, when the three groups played a show at the Adams Avenue Theater in October. “I guess that was the first big ‘punk’ show in San Diego,” Silva says. “Unfortunately it wasn’t a particularly majestic experience for me. I borrowed somebody’s black Les Paul Gibson that night. A Les Paul is a pretty heavy guitar, and I’d never played one before. On our first song, I did one of my Pete Townsend jumps, and the strap broke, dropping the guitar like a ton of bricks!”
The Hitmakers eventually replaced their drummer with Joel Kmak, and Potterf joined the band on guitar. Their popularity grew — not just locally, but in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco, where the band planned to relocate at the end of the summer of 1978. On the eve of their departure, however, the Hitmakers decided to fire Potterf because they “didn’t care much for his attitude,” according to Silva. “It probably took me about two days to decide that I would quit and start my own group. That was the Crawdaddys.”
Birth of the Crawdaddys
The Crawdaddys came together quickly as Silva met Mark Zadarnowski through Tim LaMadrid, a fellow Beatles enthusiast who had been organizing home showings of rare Beatles films. “I was just beginning to try and learn how to play bass, and Ron was looking for something more authentically ‘60s than the Hitmakers,” recalls Zadarnowski. “Ron brought up the idea of starting the Crawdaddys. We knew [drummer] Dan [McLain] from his record store, Monty Rockers, and asked him to play drums.”The first gig was at Abbey Road in September, 1978, with Silva’s brother (who was affectionately known as “Scuzz”) on drums. Local musician and eventual Crawdaddy guitarist Joe Piper remembers the Crawdaddys’ second show at Glorietta Bay Hall in Coronado: “One day Dan McLain told me he’d joined an R&B band. My first thought was that he meant something along the lines of Jackie Wilson/Ike & Tina Turner Revue … Shit! I don’t know what I thought! But he was really excited about this band, ‘The Crawdaddys.’ And they blew my mind! I was amazed! There they were: this brave, beautiful, perfectly realized anachronism! In my own backyard! Who knew there was anyone in the world, much less San Diego, hip enough to do what they were doing!” The lineup of Silva, Potterf, Zadarnowski and McLain was in place by their third gig at the Lions’ Club in North Park in January 1979.
The Crawdaddys had now fully begun their assault on the eyes and ears of San Diego. Their next stroke of luck was aided by an unlikely source. “I got a call from Jeff Scott, who by then had forgiven me for quitting the Hitmakers,” recalls Silva. “He said he was going up to L.A. in a few days to play the Hitmakers’ new demo for this guy Greg Shaw and if the Crawdaddys could put a few songs on tape he’d take me and Potterf along.”
The band quickly assembled in the Silva garage and recorded Chuck Berry’s “Oh Baby Doll,” Bo Diddley’s “Tiger in Your Tank” and a couple of originals on a two-track machine. “In my opinion it would be fairly safe to say that Potterf and I blew Shaw’s mind that day,” says Silva. “We walked in, and Potterf had this absolutely devout Brian Jones thing going with the hair, and we both had the complete Downliners Sect ’64 look from head to toe. It was totally ridiculous and great at the same time. Shaw said, ‘Go back to San Diego and make an album, preferably for next to nothing, if you don’t mind.’ We didn’t.”
Watch the Crawdaddys play Bo Diddley’s “Cadillac”:
(It should be noted that the Crawdaddys’ “Cadillac” video was not only their first recording, but also groundbreaking in concept. It was filmed as a project for a Communications class Zadarnowski was taking at UCSD. As Tim LaMadrid puts it, “Who else was doing music videos in 1978?”)
Enter once again Tim LaMadrid, an unsung hero in the history of the Crawdaddys, whom Zadarnowski describes as “some sort of cross between George Martin and Mal Evans to us.” LaMadrid, who also took all of the original Crawdaddy photos, “provided untold schlepping, go-foring, driving and in general putting up with our crap for which he never received a penny,” says Zadarnowski. LaMadrid borrowed a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder from the school at which he was working and recorded the entire album in a couple of days. Since the Crawdaddys’ legendary obsession with authenticity also applied to the equipment used to play and record the songs on the album, every sound needed to be justified by a musical recording of the era, and this of course meant no instruments manufactured after 1965, and no round-wound bass strings, nylon picks or synthetic drum heads. LaMadrid’s keen ear was exactly what the band needed. The Crawdaddys’ first album, “Crawdaddy Express,” released in 1979, served as a primer on ‘60s British rhythm and blues, circa 1964. Inspired by the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, the Kinks, Them, the Downliners Sect and the Animals, the group covered classics like John Lee Hooker’s “Let’s Make It,” Willie Dixon’s “Tiger in Your Tank” and Chuck Berry’s “Oh Baby Doll.”
Cross Road Blues
While the Crawdaddys packed San Diego houses at the Roxy, the Adams Avenue Theater, the Skeleton Club and the North Park Lions Club as well as Los Angeles venues like Al’s Bar and Madame Wong’s, they were having to compete for both practice and playing time with two other successful San Diego bands with whom they shared members. McLain’s Penetrators were busy selling out Golden Hall and being courted by major record labels, and the Upbeats (Potterf’s project with Paris Trent) were growing disillusioned with San Diego and contemplating a move to Los Angeles.
Zadarnowski explains the resulting effects on the Crawdaddys: “I think Steve just got bored with the Crawdaddys as he got more into reggae, but you never really knew what he was thinking or feeling. In Dan’s case, as the Penetrators became more and more popular it was simply harder for him to find time for the Crawdaddys. For him the choice was easy, as his goal from the beginning was to go as far as he could playing music, so the more successful band would obviously take priority.” Potterf left the group first and was replaced by 16-year-old Wunderkind Peter Miesner, whom Ron knew as a fellow Point Loman and Beatles fan. McLain left shortly thereafter, and after a brief period of floundering (and a stopgap replacement drummer nicknamed “the Eskimo”) was replaced by the Hitmakers’ Joel Kmak. For a very short while, the group featured also featured a harmonica player named Jeremy whose last name has been forgotten by everyone.
Before the original Crawdaddys era ended, however, the band released two records that secured their reputation as the originators of the garage revival. Issued simultaneously by Bomp! in early 1980, the single “There She Goes Again”/”Why Don’t You Smile Now” and the EP “5 X 4” found the Crawdaddys at the height of their powers, their musicianship better than ever and Ron’s songwriting finally equal to those of his idols. These two records were a fitting final tribute to the Crawdaddys’ first era.
According to Mike Stax, who would later join the band as a bass player, “‘5 X 4’ is one of the greatest records from the post-’60s era. I think the original lineup was important, as they were one of the first bands to operate on such a purist level. Had they been able to maintain a stable lineup, pursued more original material, and continued to release records on the same level as ‘5 x 4,’ they would have been much more well-known today than they are.” Zadarnowski had this to say about the original Crawdaddys’ influence: “There is an article in which Peter Buck says that their version of ‘There She Goes Again’ was inspired by the Crawdaddys. Considering the impact on music that REM had, I think that’s enough right there. But I also think the Crawdaddys influenced other roots rockers in that we were the first to really try to duplicate the look and sound down to the letter with period amps and guitars as well as clothes and haircuts. When the Crawdaddys arrived, the other groups were more of a caricature of the ‘50s & ‘60s look and the music derivative rather than replicated. Later on it became de rigueur.”
For a brief period the Crawdaddys consisted of Ron Silva and Pete Miesner on guitars (with Pete playing the occasional saxophone); Mark Zadarnowski on bass; and Joel Kmak on drums. But an early 1980 interview in Dan McLain’s Snare magazine found the Crawdaddys (particularly drummer Kmak) frustrated with the paltry support from Bomp! and with the lack of local attention they were receiving: “That’s the thing about San Diego. Here you have a band that’s known worldwideâ€”it’s been mentioned in trades throughout the world . . . I just don’t understand why a band with an album, EP and single out on a legit label doesn’t even get local press,” says Kmak in the interview. He left soon thereafter, creating a void behind the drums and initiating what would become a recurring problem for the band throughout the rest of its existence.
Silva switched to drums, and the Crawdaddys added keyboards courtesy of Keith Fisher, a brilliantly talented eccentric who had grown up with Peter and had also attended Point Loma High School. A saxophone player, Steve Horn, was added, but petty personality conflicts and internecine feuds between Fisher, Silva and Zadarnowski threatened to end the group and ultimately led to Zadarnowski’s ouster from the band in the summer of 1980. Guitarist Miesner surprised the rest of the Crawdaddys by quitting out of loyalty to Mark. Zadarnowski remembers: “I don’t know what to say more than what a great guy Pete is. That he quit in protest when I got kicked out to this day impresses me and is a good example of Pete’s integrity. He was still quite young then, and it would have been much easier for him to go alone with the group. Especially since we had very slim prospects of starting anything up ourselves.” Miesner and Zadarnowski tried for a while to start a band with Evasions guitarist Tim Griswold, but this project went nowhere without a drummer.
On the other side of the world, in a little village in West Yorkshire, England, 17-year-old Mike Stax was wearing out his copy of “Crawdaddy Express,” which he had bought on a trip to London after hearing “Oh Baby Doll” on John Peel’s radio show. Stuck in Bramham, halfway between Leeds and York, Stax had been learning to play the bass and unsuccessfully trying to start a ‘60s-style rhythm-and-blues band for months. “I think I must have written to the Crawdaddys through Bomp Records in the early summer of 1980,” Stax recalls. “Ron wrote back pretty quickly with the invitation to join the group. It took a few months to work out all the details and get enough money together to fly out to San Diego, and I arrived in the USA on November 3, 1980.”
Following Stax’s arrival, the Silva-Fisher-Horn-Stax lineup played several gigs. It’s difficult to imagine a band whose bread and butter is Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley lasting long without a guitarist, however, and it soon became apparent that they’d need to audition one soon.Joe Piper, longtime Crawdaddys friend and supporter and guitarist for the Decagents, remembers his audition with the group: “Somehow, I found myself at Keith’s parents’ house for a practice, and (after proving that I really knew what it meant to ‘play like Ike Turner’ and promising I would never wear a short-sleeve shirt on stage) I was asked to join. They gave me a tape to take home to familiarize myself with the set list. We had one more rehearsal, and then it was full speed ahead! They wanted to play out as much as possible, and it seems like we did play a lot, even as we never rehearsed.”
Watch the Crawdaddys perform “Wade in the Water” at the Spirit Club in December 1980:
This so-called “Graham Bond Organization period” of the Crawdaddys lasted only a few months. Over the years the band had already developed a not-undeserved reputation for arrogance and cruelty towards outsiders, and once again the endless bickering amongst themselves began to cause problems. On the way to Los Angeles to play a show at Madame Wong’s, Piper informed the group that he was leaving: “I guess I left out of frustration. I’d always understood that The Crawdaddys were inherently self-limiting, but I’d really hoped that they were finally ready to deal with, maybe, actually achieving some sort of popular success outside of a very small scene of hipsters and cognoscenti. I really believed that incarnation of the band could have appealed to a much broader audience. And I wasn’t at all concerned with how old the people who came to see us were, or how they were dressed or cut their hair. If they liked us, that made them cool.”
Too Much Monkey Business
The comedy of errors that followed was breathtaking in its absurdity. Players came and left, some fired for wearing the wrong clothes or getting on a particular band member’s nerves for a night, and others refused to take the endless criticism or conform to the behavioral norms of the group. Mike Stax provides a brief history of the farcical period from the departure of Joe Piper in March of 1981 to his own departure from the band a couple of months later: “This was the most frustrating and ridiculous period. First, Keith was dead-set on having a three-piece horn section (I didn’t even want a one-piece horn section!). We rehearsed with two sax players: one was a 40- or 50-something Mexican guy called Pete (dubbed ‘Pete the Killer Mexican’ by Ron, who was terrified of him); the other, a Swede called Bjorn or Lars or something like that. This idea soon fizzled out due to lack of enthusiasm from Ron and myself, something that I’m sure frustrated Keith and was probably the cause of some residual resentment towards me.”
Stax continues: “We had Mojo Nixon on guitar in for a while. He was a nice guy but didn’t fit in personality-wise. For a while, we were also trying to get Steve Potterf back into the group — I was a big proponent of this, as Potterf was such a vital part of the original Crawdaddys. He played harp on some recordings, and there was also one gig with Potterf and a drummer from Escondido whose name I have forgotten — except the drummer quit between the sound check and the show! He was upset because we all went to get food without him — a typically thoughtless snub on our part. We played the gig without drums, stamping our feet on the stage. Another fiasco. We eventually got Jack Donahue (former Unknowns drummer), and he brought in Mike Moran on lead guitar, a blues player with a walrus moustache. This lineup was actually pretty good musically, but the walrus moustache was distracting.”
As the summer of 1981 drew near, the Crawdaddys found themselves at their lowest point. Through a series of erratic performances and constantly changing lineups, they had squandered their reputation as one of San Diego’s best groups and were close to breaking up for good. Stax found himself on the outs with both Silva and Fisher. “I was still a beginner on bass, and that was a source of frustration to Keith in particular, who was quite musically advanced,” says Stax. Fisher, still harboring bitterness toward Stax over the group’s direction, convinced Silva to send him back to England. So just like that, after a mere six-and-a-half months in the United States, Stax packed up and left for home. Silva spent the summer on a break from the Crawdaddys, playing in the Hedgehogs with Ray Brandes, Carl Rusk and Paul Carsola, while Keith nursed his wounds in his Mission Beach apartment. By the time fall arrived, Fisher and Silva (the last remaining members of the band) realized that if they were ever going to revive the group, they were going to need a solid guitarist and bass player. They began a series of conference calls and behind-the-scenes machinations that ultimately lured Miesner and Zadarnowski back into the group.
It’s Gonna Work Out Fine
It was during this period that the “mod” movement in San Diego began to spread rapidly. The International Blend had become the Kings Road CafÃ© in a concerted effort to appeal to this growing demographic, and the Crawdaddys were the perfect band to play weekday afternoons and weekend nights to scores of sweaty teenaged mods in fur-lined parkas and three-button suits. Silva was anxious to take advantage of this new cultural development — and to get out from behind the drums and out in front of the stage, where he could show off his strong voice and charismatic stage presence. The Crawdaddys found Brian Clark, a young Keith Moon devotee from El Cajon, to play drums. Clark quickly proved himself impervious to group’s biting sarcasm and sartorial restrictions and made his debut at a party at Larry Nadler’s parents’ estate in La Mesa. In San Diego at the Headquarters, the Adams Avenue Theater and the Kings Road; in Huntington Beach at the Golden Bear; and in Los Angeles at the Lhasa and the On Klub, the Crawdaddys quickly regained their reputation as brilliant musicians who could give the performance of a lifetime on any given night.
Fisher’s influence on the group was most strongly felt during this era, and the band’s repertoire increasingly relied less upon Chicago blues and more heavily upon soul and rhythm and blues, like Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” The Impressions’ “You Must Believe Me,” Irma Thomas’ “I Did My Part,” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” Local club owner and promoter Peter Verbrugge became the group’s manager, and it began to seem like perhaps the Crawdaddys would at last gain the recognition that had for so long eluded them.
Like all the others before it, though, this brief period of stability was short-lived. Ron and Keith began plotting another lineup change. Mike Stax explains: “After I returned to the UK, Ron and I resumed our correspondence by mail and phone. Before long he was inviting me to come back. I wasn’t happy back in England after my first California adventure, so I didn’t need much persuading.” Stax’s return to San Diego in May 1982 marked the final departure of Mark Zadarnowski, the group’s original bass player and perhaps the group’s most steadfast and stalwart member. To this day, Zadarnowski holds no bitterness about the time he spent with Silva and the Crawdaddys and considers these times some of the best in his life: “Ron at his best was an absolute blast. He would feed off of my jokes and make them crazier and physical. He would show such childlike, unrestrained joy at the simplest things, it could really be fun to be around him. After all, we all like a good thrift store find or a great meal at El Rancho Grande, but Ron would simply exude joy in these situations. Activities that you would consider just killing time could turn into quite an adventure with Ron.”
The Howling Men
Stax intended to make his next visit to the United States different from the last. He arrived this time with an agenda. “I returned with lots of tapes of obscure ‘60s beat, R&B and garage stuff, and we began to learn a lot of new covers, stuff like “Chicago” by the Phantom Brothers, “She Just Satisfies” by Jimmy Page, the Boots’ version of “Jumpback” and the Sorrows’ “You Got What I Want,” says Stax. “The rest of the band was finally open to doing stuff like this, which I’d been advocating all along, rather than being a purist R&B/blues band who only did songs by the original black artists.”
Alongside their new openness toward mid- to late-’60s garage music, the members of the group also began to grow their hair longer and sport the kind of fashions seen in films like “Riot On Sunset Strip”: medallions, wide belts and paisley. For the remainder of 1982 and the early part of 1983, the band’s popularity grew, and they seemed quite unified in their musical direction. Silva even began to compose original material again, which he had for a long time been reluctant to do. The group even adopted a name change. “We became the Howling Men, named after an episode of the Twilight Zone,” says Stax. It felt like a fresh start.”
Veteran Gordon Moss was recruited to replace Brian Clark as the group’s drummer and became a major stabilizing factor. A decision was made to relocate to Los Angeles, where Moss resided, and where they were invited to sleep in the storage room used by Moss’ TV repair business. The cramped living quarters were at first helpful in establishing a band camaraderie, but the band unity soon began to deteriorate yet again. Stax remembers this period: “In retrospect that was probably a mistake. With four of us living together in poverty in a TV storage room with no windows or hot water, there was soon friction, and before long I was on the outside again. Friction and factions: That’s the way things always went in the Crawdaddys.”
As Stax tried to push the band even further toward American garage music, tensions grew, which led to the proverbial straw, the camel and the broken back. “Keith hated that kind of music, and my suggestions that we cover We the People or other ‘60s punk groups were met with scorn and even hostility by him, especially as he sensed Ron was open to that idea,” says Stax.
Fisher became nearly obsessed with irritating Stax to the point of anger. On Stax’s 21st birthday, Fisher produced an extremely rare Zakary Thaks single he had found in a thrift store and threw it across the room at Stax, cracking it in the process! Stax, who had been spending an increasing amount of time back in San Diego in the company of another set of friends, had finally had enough. “I was planning to quit in the late summer of 1983 after one last gig,” he says, “but they beat me to the punch, firing me just hours before the gig. Guess they wanted to teach me a lesson of some sort — admittedly my attitude was probably out-of-control at the time.” Ron Silva played bass for that show, so the band was able to split the proceeds by four, rather than five.
Further On Up the Road
The Crawdaddys eked out a few last months with a new lineup featuring the addition of Jack Lopez (former drummer for the Los Angeles punk group the Stains) on lead guitar. Taking advantage of Lopez’s brilliant musicianship and uncanny Keith Richards impersonation, this final group roster featured Fisher on bass in a near-perfect re-creation of the 1964 Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, the gigs came fewer and farther between. By 1984 Silva had abandoned the Crawdaddys and taken up full time with the Nashville Ramblers. Lopez formed the Berry Pickers, and Stax of course went on to found the Tell-Tale Hearts with Ray Brandes, Bill Calhoun, David Klowden and Eric Bacher. Miesner and Zadarnowski would later play with Brandes in the Town Criers, and Fisher took part in a number of musical endeavors, including his own record label, Spun Records (1993-1997).
As a final insult to the Crawdaddys’ legacy, Bomp! Records posthumously released “Here ‘Tis,” a collection of tracks recorded from 1982-1984. While the album itself is fantastic, the circumstances surrounding its release seem a fitting epitaph to the band’s tumultuous history. There was, of course, bickering among band members over the cover artwork and the song selection. Silva and Moss, in possession of the master tapes, decided to release the album without the consent of the rest of the group. Fisher threatened a lawsuit to prevent the album’s release, so his face was blacked out and his name changed to “Fred Sanders” on the cover.
– Ray Brandes