The Unknowns

(In another Che Underground exclusive, Ray Brandes provides the first definitive biography of a San Diego band that should have ruled the airwaves.)

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.”

At the age of six, Bruce lost his right eye. “I was walking home with a group of first graders when older kids started throwing dirt clods and debris at my classmates and me. When I tried to make them stop, one threw the broken top of a coke bottle that cut my right eye in half, leaving part of it on the ground and half hanging out of its socket. For years, I suffered from migraine headaches after my eye was destroyed.”

As Bruce grew up, he immersed himself in both music and literature, and in college nourished himself with the greatest works of art the American South ever produced. “I voraciously read every book I could get my hands on,” Bruce says. “William Faulkner inspired me as a writer, and Sidney Lanier framed poems of the nature of the South and shared my love for the swamps and marshes of South Georgia. Jim Thompson put my thoughts into stories I grew up to live and turn into songs. Poe, Lovecraft, and Baudelaire all spoke to my soul and my pen. As a singer I loved the voice of Roy Orbison, the energy of Gene Vincent, the craziness of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the darkness of the soul that Hank Williams sang about with his voice that seemed to come from somewhere in the night.”

In 1975, the day before final exams during his senior year in college, Bruce was a passenger in a car wreck near Valdosta State College that left him with a permanently damaged spinal cord. There were four people in the car, and Bruce had been seated behind the driver, who ran into a roadside telephone wire box, breaking both of Bruce’s legs, both arms, his ribs and his back. “I became a cripple,” Bruce says. “I don’t use the feel-good term ‘handicapped.’ There is nothing handy about being a person with an injured spinal cord but I don’t let my injury limit me at all. I have pain in my legs below my knees all the time, but I can tune it out most of the time. I let the pain help me feel the songs I sing.”

He was pronounced dead and tagged after surgery, but “I came back into my body when I saw my mother crying in the hallway during my out-of-body experience,” he reveals. Bruce spent months in convalescence, once again faced with challenges that would have stopped anyone with a more limited view of the world dead in his tracks. After coming out of intensive care, the first music Bruce heard was a tape he had ordered by mail before the wreck: David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.

Great Balls of Fire
Unknowns’ Mark Neill (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved) Although he was born at San Diego’s Mercy Hospital in 1961, Mark Neill’s Southern roots run deep. His father’s side of the family is all from Arkansas, and his mother’s side hails from Texas. For the first few years of his life, Mark grew up with his father in rural El Cajon, Calif., at the end of Broadway, near the legendary Bostonia Ballroom, which at various times played host to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Bill Monroe. In 1967 (“after Sergeant Pepper,” Mark says), his mother remarried, and they moved to Hahira, Ga., a small farming community best known for its annual Honey Bee Festival. According to Mark, “The move was completely random. They wanted to get as far away as possible from an urban environment, but had no idea Hahira was ten miles from Valdosta, Ga., a hip college town that had a thriving music scene.”

Unknowns’ Mark, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Mark’s earliest memories are centered around music. In the ‘50s, his parents collected R&B 45s, which were the typical fare on labels such as Imperial, Specialty and Deluxe. Some of his favorites were Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do”; Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw Michigan”; and “Let the Four Winds Blow” by Roy Brown, which he used to play so much that he drove his mother crazy. “Mom collected largely black music,” Mark says, “but the rockabilly she collected was very selective — only ‘56-’57 rockabilly like Carl Perkins, the first wave of rockabilly. So later on, when everyone else was listening to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” I was collecting Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Unknowns’ Mark Neill, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)His intense love of music, as well as his esoteric tastes, often put him at odds with his peers. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Mark says. “Having the old records since toddler age, and having so many of them and having such an affection for them that only kids can have for their stuff, I developed a very unhealthy sentimentality for the music, and the actual sound of the records, which were mono. They were very loud records. It made me, in effect, socially retarded. I founded myself behind the eight ball, socially. I distinctly remember in the early ‘70s, being asked to come to an ice-cream-social type of event, and being asked to bring my favorite records. Everybody else was playing the Partridge Family, and songs like “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks. I put on a 45 of “Great Balls of Fire” after that, and it blew a hole in the back wall. It was twice as loud as the LPs they were playing! Everyone looked at me like I was a leper — ‘What are you doing? You broke it!’ But to me it was like having a BB gun or an air pistol.”

One of the few albums he owned provided him with the impetus to play the guitar. “Believe it or not,” Mark recalls, “a picture of Chuck Berry on the back of Berry’s on Top — a picture of Chuck bending down listening to his hi-fi inspired me to play guitar. There was a synchronicity of intention between his holding his guitar and listening intently to a speaker. It made me ask the question, ‘What is this?’ I had been taking violin lessons, but it didn’t seem like music to me. I begged my father for a wall hanger, a warp-necked Silvertone archtop acoustic that he had hanging in his house as part of his groovy beatnik collection of décor. It took me about two years to get my hands on it.” Mark had been interested in electronics since he was about seven, experimenting with hobbyist toys like motors, speakers (“Basically just torturing electronic gear that was passed down to me,” he says), so he literally made a pair of pickups for the guitar using wire, magnets, some burned-out pickup covers and some cellophane tape.

He then set about teaching himself to play guitar. As soon as he started playing, a series of rapid events unfolded, one after the other. “You tended to meet people if you were holding a guitar on a school bus, or playing guitar in the school yard,” Mark recalls. When he was in the sixth grade, a teacher noticed that he was drawing a crowd playing guitar and talking about records to people, and he came over. He introduced himself as Mr. Irwin, a seventh grade counselor and vocational education teacher.

“Mr. Irwin said, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed that you are interested in this old music and that you play guitar, and you’ll probably have me in seventh grade next year, and I think there is something that I should show you. I have a weekend job at WVLD radio (the biggest AM radio station in Valdosta). On Saturday, have your mom bring you to the front and hit the buzzer, and as soon as I have a break, I’ll buzz you in.’ “ Mark remembers his arrival at the studio: “He let me in, and went to the booth and he opened the fader and said, ‘Rockin’ Ron Irwin, Top 40, WVLD, and here’s another one.’ This guy turned out to be Rockin’ Ron Irwin, the Wolfman Jack of Valdosta, a radio celebrity! I had no idea — I had been listening to this guy forever.” The radio station itself was a period piece — it was unchanged since the ‘50s, and there were several studios inside the building. “That was my first exposure to a recording studio. Over the next couple of years, he showed me how to run every bit of it, showed me how to treat it with respect and operate it properly. By the time I was 14, I had a full-blown FCC license, just by hanging out and soaking up everything with Ron. The license allowed me to own and operate my own radio station.”

At the same time he was gaining valuable experience in the recording studio, Mark was also becoming very well-acquainted with the stage. In those days, gospel quartets were a big business, making records and selling them throughout the south. One such group, the Harmony Quartet, was looking for a young bass player in an attempt to appeal to a more youthful audience. Mark was promised custom fitted suits, a Fender bass, and good times. So from ages 13 to 15 he traveled with the group and played revival meetings, held anywhere from huge churches to circus tents. “We played all different-sized congregations,” Mark says. “If there was ever any chance of my having stage fright, it was obliterated during that period.”

At 15, Mark was playing in the Telephones, a trio with drummer John Bennett and guitarist Don Fleming, who would later sing in bands such as the Velvet Monkeys, B.A.L.L. and Gumball, and who is now widely known for producing bands such as Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub and the Posies. According to Mark, “Don was a guitar player who wrote and sang very odd songs. He joined the Telephones and introduced me to punk rock through the Ramones and the New York Dolls. He was in the Air Force, so he’d traveled all over the country collecting records.” Mark moved into “the Apartment,” a Victorian home split up into three sections that was the center of the small avant-garde scene in Valdosta.

The Stroke Band
A couple of years after his accident, Bruce was working as an English teacher in Echols County, Ga. “One day it dawned on me that I should make a record and make all my dreams come true, to be the first person to record a record of their songs in South Georgia – kick-ass stuff, not the lame crap on the radio at that time,” he says. “I loved the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, Bob Marley, the Damned and other bands just coming out. I wanted to make something new, different, rowdy.” Bruce enlisted the help of his good friends Max Sikes and Rusty Jones, who were invited over to make noise and listen to Bruce’s original compositions. “I had the melody to “Rat Race” and another song titled “Don’t Get Angry,” says Bruce. “They liked the songs, and after I showed them what I wanted to hear by playing keys and guitar parts of the songs, we recorded them and I put out a 45 single with an A and a B side of those two songs.”

Bruce was working with Robert Lester Folsom, the owner of Abacus Records, a small company Folsom had started to put out his own self-recorded gospel-rock records. Bruce began recording a collection of original songs at Track Master Studios on the weekends with a series of musicians that included Max, Rusty, and Don Fleming, who soon became good friends with Bruce. Another young musician would soon enter this circle of players who would eventually become the Stroke Band. Telephones drummer John Bennett was the catalyst that brought Mark and Bruce together. According to Mark, “John said, ‘I know this wild cat who crawls around on the floor and can sing like Brian Ferry.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve got to see that!’ And he took me over to his trailer, and there was Bruce, laying on his back, singing “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals through his stereo system. It was a David Lynch scene if there ever was one.” Bruce also remembers the event: “Mark came to my house and I recognized in him a brilliance and pure talent that is rare in this world as soon as he picked up his guitar and started playing. Mark was the only guitar player I would play with for the next five years.” Bruce soon moved into “the Apartment” and they began playing out as the Stroke Band.

The Stroke Band plays “Spaced” from the album Green and Yellow. Listen now!

Bruce placed his records in Wax ‘n’ Fax in Atlanta and began shopping material to labels such as Warner Brothers in Los Angeles. “I covered several states with my album and had my 45 placed in jukeboxes all over the south,” he says. “Bang Records turned me down but said, ‘You got potential, boy!’ I still have their rejection letter, which encouraged me to keep making music.”

The Stroke Band were having the time of their lives writing songs and playing at clubs like Joe’s Cellar in Valdosta; the Odyssey in Thomasville, Ga.; and at Valdosta State University, all of which they were thrown out of for rowdy behavior.

As the band’s reputation grew, Bruce was finding it difficult to hold down a job. He was fired from his first teaching job, then lost a second job as a police and fire dispatcher in the small town of Remerton, Ga. Bruce recalls how difficult it was to be seen as a punk in a conservative southern town: “I was invited around this time to a record burning by a local church where I had applied for a job as a substitute teacher. As I sat in the pastor’s office, I noticed a few of my albums in the pile that was designated to be burned that night! When he stepped out for a moment I sneaked out and drove away. I thought there might be more in store for me than seeing my records burn if I showed up that night. One afternoon I got a message from a whispering voice that said if I didn’t leave town, something bad might happen to me, like drugs put in my car and the local police arresting me, followed by a jail sentence.”

The move to San Diego
That night in mid-October 1979, Bruce, Mark and Max packed everything into a 1960 Bel Air sedan (Mark’s record collection, guitars, amps, drums and the spare tire were tied to the top of the car with a rope like the Beverly Hillbillies) and headed for Santee, Calif., where Mark’s dad offered them the possibility of a job at Pinecraft, a furniture-manufacturing company.

Max lasted two days, then left in the middle of the night when he thought the rest of the band was asleep. Mark and Bruce stayed wherever they could: Mark’s car, strangers’ couches, the motor home outside of the shop, even on the floor of Blue Meanie Records in El Cajon, Calif. One of the more depressing flophouses they endured was the pay-by-the week “Cozy Apartments,” where the two watched rats play with empty food cans just to amuse themselves and pass the time.

Within a few weeks’ time, they had made a lot of friends in the scene just by hanging out at Blue Meanie Records. “We met a guy who said he knew a couple of really good musicians from New Jersey who were living in Mission Beach and who played bass and drums,” remembers Mark. “This was Joe Foy and Jack Donahue from the Cardiac Kidz, who had been kicked out of the band. They were anxious to play with anyone they could. Joe was working as the stage manager at the Roxy Theater in PB, and he got me a job rolling up cords and sweeping.” Mark and Bruce first slept in the attic of the Roxy, and then when Bruce’s first disability check arrived, they rented a room from Joe in Mission Beach, above the Laundromat across from the Pennant. They began rehearsing 17 original songs with Jack and Joe, and each week earned 20 dollars’ food money winning the talent competition at a Mission Beach dive bar by performing the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

Southern discomfort
Mark and Bruce were both accustomed to going hungry and to enduring difficult living arrangements, but they were not prepared for the culture shock they experienced when they arrived in California. Mark remembers the prejudice they faced as poor white southerners: “When we moved out to San Diego, the rural thing was not cool at all, and Bruce and I smelled like a hay wagon. ‘Deliverance’ had probably ruined any sympathy for poor southern people. In fact, Bruce and I had to consciously mellow out our accents during the first six months of being here because people acted like they couldn’t understand us.” They were expecting everyone in the music scene to be open-minded and tolerant of outsiders, but their experiences taught them otherwise. Mark says, “Coming up through the same life experiences that shaped Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — we wear that like a badge of honor, but also like chip on our shoulder when its value is challenged. And nothing spits on that like punk and New Wave.”

One particularly hurtful stereotype — the white southern racist — was occasionally hurled at them, even by their fellow musicians. Bruce recalls, “As a child, I sat outside the African-American Baptist church behind my home listening to the joy in people’s voices. I listened to people play their instruments and sang along to them. My mother taught me to treat everyone the same, and as she said, ‘We all have the same hopes and dreams, and our blood ties us together because it is red in all of us.’ “

The birth of the Unknowns
Detail: Unknowns flyer, 1980 The group had to make some musical adjustments upon moving to San Diego as well. Apart from their originals, their set was heavily beat group oriented. They played the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me” and the Who’s “Substitute”; “My Generation”; and “Our Love Was, Is” from The Who Sell Out. According to Mark, “When we first got to San Diego, we realized that the Crawdaddys had cornered the market on the ‘60s sound. It was pretty depressing because we had been playing Vox amplifiers and doing Beatles and Hollies harmonies.

We met the Crawdaddys sweeping up after them when they played the Roxy — I thought they were the best band I’d ever seen. But one of the things we noticed was that when they would play — even though it would be brilliant, the best thing you ever saw — people would leave! They’d go and have a smoke, or just stand outside. It would break our hearts because we loved the Crawdaddys, but we knew we had to be careful with that ‘60s element, because a lot of people in the scene were not cool with it. We quit playing covers and focused on original material.”

Mark remembers the moment the Stroke Band was rechristened: “A 6’2” surfer named Clark, our biggest fan, lived down the hall. When we practiced with Joe and Jack, he kept telling us, ‘You guys need a new name.’ So Bruce says, ‘Like what?’ Clark says, ‘Like the Unknowns, man.’ “

At the time, Joe had a crush on Sue Ferguson, the keyboardist in a group called the Mature Adults, which was splitting up. According to Mark, “He told us one day that we were going to try out a keyboard player. Sue showed up about an hour later. She was a sweetheart, a really nice gal who played a ‘60s Fender Contempo organ, but she played only one show with us. She didn’t know the songs very well because we hadn’t practiced much with her, and she had an Ampeg V4 through an Altec 604 monitor — the loudest amplifier any of us had ever heard. It was so loud, it made your teeth hurt!” The Sue Ferguson gig was also the Unknowns’ first show ever, at the Skeleton Club. Shows at the Spirit and the Zebra quickly followed, but the Skeleton Club would become a second home to the band.

Laura Frasier and the Skeleton Club
Laura Frasier’s Skeleton Club looms large in the Unknowns story. Mark Neill explains: “If it weren’t for Laura, Bruce and I would have walked back to Georgia. Laura gave us our first gig, managed us and helped us out in unimaginable ways. We had no money, and I made more money in the first two shows I played at the Skeleton Club than I had in months at my day job. I quit right after that.”

The Unknowns also hold the dubious distinction of being the last band to play the Skeleton Club when it was shut down in February 1980. “The Unknowns were onstage the night the Skeleton Club closed,” says Mark. “We went onstage, and the whole street, the whole block filled up like a parking lot full of police cars. The doors swung open, and they all flooded in. There were more cops than audience members. They impounded everything, including the PA and lights, and hauled off as many people as they could for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, we didn’t know what. It was horrible, totally horrible. The Reader was there, taking pictures of everything, including the molestation and beating of teenage girls.”

The Unknowns appeared in court as witnesses to help Laura. When the police had arrived, the band had been playing “Rat Race,” a ballad. In court, the police testified that they had been playing “acid punk music.” Laura’s attorney played a cassette of the song for the judge and he laughed out loud. There was little humor to be found in the situation, however. The case and its aftermath left Laura with nothing in San Diego, and “she was essentially run out of town,” according to Mark. Tim Mays took over all of her duties, including managing for the Unknowns and running the promotion company.

The Unknowns play “Rat Race.” Listen now!

Steve Bidrowski and Dave Doyle join the group
Unknowns Steve Bidrowski (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved) The Unknowns played a solid three months with Joe and Jack at every club in town, and a host of high-school proms and dances. Competition between local bands was fierce at the time, and Mark remembers that many groups were not above stealing managers, gigs, even players. “We played one show with the Crawdaddys at the Skeleton Club,” says Mark, and what I had given Jack to play on the drums impressed Ron (Silva). Ron immediately set out to steal Jack from us. We found out about it from Tim LaMadrid (the Crawdaddys’ manager). I laughed at Tim and said, ‘You can have Jack,’ and so they did. Steve Bidrowski, who had recently left Four Eyes, was waiting in the wings to play with us. We had him in the band within a day.” Next to leave the band was bassist Joe Foy.

Unknowns Dave, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Midwest transplant Dave Doyle was a friend and partner in crime to David Fleminger, a fellow Clairemont High School student two years behind him. Dave was not as serious a musician as the young prodigy Fleminger, but the two spent a lot of time together, playing and recording music, and practicing at the Pacific Beach Community Center. Unknowns Dave, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Their career highlights at the time included taking an aggregation that included a rare appearance by a girl on drums to the Clairemont High School talent show, and playing a party for the parents of Fleminger neighbor and future San Diego County Assistant District Attorney John Bowman.

Detail: X/Unknowns/Reactors flyer; April 5, 1980 (collection Jason Seibert)Dave recalls the night he met Mark and Bruce: “I saw the Unknowns at a Skeleton Club gig opening for X. I liked them, talked with Mark during a break and got his number because I wanted them to play at Clairemont High School.” Mark adds: “That’s the night I met both Billy Zoom and Dave Doyle. Dave was still in high school and wanted to talk about the Mosrite guitar. Dave later played me some reel-to-reel tapes he had recorded with Dave Fleminger, some Who covers.”

The Unknowns were booked to play a show at the high school, and Dave became fast friends with Mark and Bruce. “Mark wanted to replace Joe Foy on bass,” says Dave. “Though I wasn’t really playing much on bass at the time and my guitar abilities were marginally passable, he figured I was an open book to groom into a bass player. He loaned me some ‘Play Guitar/Bass With The Ventures’ records and we worked on getting a decent bass for me to play. I had a Vox teardrop bass at the time, similar to the Wyman model, which was cool-looking but as useful for bass as a toilet seat. We traded a whole load of crap and some cash to Ed at Guitar Trader for the cool blue-sparkle Mosrite bass, and the rest is history.”

Unknowns Bruce and Steve, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)

With Joe out of the group, Mark and Bruce moved into Chris Davies’ garage. “Many nights of Carl Buddig and Wonder bread ensued,” says Dave, “with record marathons into the morning on the Garrard plugged into the Mosrite Amp we found at Apex Music downtown consisting of The Ventures, The Shadows, Beatles and God knows what else. I think this was 1979 and 1980. I graduated in 1980 and moved out of my mom’s place in December, and by this time I was doing gigs regularly with the group.”

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

Unknowns’ Dave Doyle (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)One characteristic of the group set them apart from quite a few of the bands with whom they played: The Unknowns were straight as an arrow, vehemently abstaining from both alcohol and drugs. As a result, surrounded by total debauchery, they often found humor at the expense of the incapacitated. Dave Doyle recalls a show at the Country Club in Los Angeles, where the Unknowns opened for Del Shannon: “Tom Petty made a cameo appearance on stage with Del, singing and playing guitar for a few songs. Backstage we were given a tiny room and some soft drinks, chairs and little else. Del, Tom and the band got food, liquor and who knows what else. So, as we sat commiserating about our lot in life after the show, Bruce, ever the genius with spur-of-the-moment frivolities, looks over at me and says: ‘Squag (Bruce’s pet name for most anyone), ‘Why don’t y’all get down on all fours and bark like a dog at Tom Petty?’ Well, me being young, full of myself and fueled by sugar and little else, I obliged Bruce’s dare.

“With little fanfare I proceeded on all fours, found Tom and barked like a crazed poodle up his leg! He stared back in complete disbelief! The drug-addled look he and his woman gave me is burned into my memory. They could not move away fast enough and were in complete horror at being disrespected by such a lowly creature as the opening act’s bass player. Gold! I scrambled back into our room, and we all laughed our asses off.”

The Unknowns play “Pull My Train.” Listen now!

Another memorable event occurred the night Ray Manzarek of the Doors approached the band after an Unknowns show with words of encouragement. “He told me to keep emoting, and be true to what I did,” remembers Bruce, who was shortly thereafter invited to sit in on the mixing sessions for X’s Under the Big Black Sun album.

Dream Sequence
Detail: Unknowns flyer, 1981The Unknowns were being courted by several record companies, but high on their list of ideal labels had always been Warner Brothers Records, the label that had given the Everly Brothers the first million-dollar contract in history in 1960, and had released some of Mark and Bruce’s favorite Everlys recordings, including A Date With the Everly Brothers and Two Yanks in England. Their route to Sire, a Warner Brothers subsidiary, was circuitous. Liam Sternberg was a partner in the Stiff Records group but was doing free-lance scouting on the West Coast. He would later become famous as the man who wrote the hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” for the Bangles. He was sent down to San Diego from Los Angeles in early 1980 to scout a band called Audio Bop, “a prog-rock band parading as New Wavers,” according to Mark. “He had told Audio Bop he would stay at their house, and the Unknowns were playing with them at the Spirit. When we played, we were about four times louder than Audio Bop, and we had a one-eyed paraplegic as a singer. Game over. I proceeded to try to convince Liam that he needed to get a hotel or come stay with us because he was trying to find an excuse to not go back to the Audio Bop house.”

Unknowns Mark and Dave, Annex (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Sternberg had a working relationship with both Seymour Stein of Sire/ Warner Brothers Records and Greg Shaw of Bomp Records. Sternberg persuaded Shaw to give the Unknowns an artist-development deal with a promise of a recording-deal option and was given about $8,000 from Shaw to record an album at Western Audio in Kearney Mesa, Calif. Mark remembers that “Liam really wanted us to sound like a cross between Devo and Sparks. It was horrible. He was trying to make us over like a cutesy, B-52s, matching-towels sort of band. Liam played the test pressing for Seymour Stein. Liam asked me, ‘So, do you want to sign with Bomp?’ I said, ‘No! I’ve told you all along I wanted to sign with Warner Brothers.’ I had been telling people that for six months anyways.” Sire was finally brought on board, and a deal was negotiated that allowed the Bomp label to be on the album alongside the Sire logo. Neither the band nor Seymour Stein wanted the Western Audio version of the record released, so upon signing with Sire the group demanded to get completely out of town and record elsewhere. They ended up at Crystal Studios, which had recorded both Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye throughout the ‘70s. The Dream Sequence EP was re-recorded and released on Sire in 1980, much to Mark’s disappointment. “Liam disappeared about halfway through the recording,” he says. “The engineer was high out of his mind and the record didn’t ever really get mixed. The way it came out is the way it was. We were not really happy with it. Based on that experience, I decided to become a record producer.”

Unknowns on stairs (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Despite Mark’s modesty, however, Dream Sequence is a classic, groundbreaking record that reintroduced tremolo and reverb to the musical vocabulary of punk and New Wave. The songwriting on the album is brilliant, creating a near-perfect blend of surf, rockabilly, reggae and ‘60s beat music that reflects the tensions between the group’s two creative forces. Above all else, the musicianship is incredible, from Mark’s ferocious guitar playing, Steve Bidrowski’s bombastic drumming and Dave’s articulate bass playing, to Bruce’s frenetic vocals. Since its release, it has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

The Unknowns play “Gun Fighting Man” from their Dream Sequence album. Listen now!

Unknowns group shot (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved) Upon the release of Dream Sequence, Sire put the band on a cross-country tour that started in San Diego and ended up in New York. The rigors of touring, however, were taking their toll on Bruce, who to this day still suffers from complications due to the injuries he sustained in the car accident. Bruce got sick in Milwaukee with blood poisoning and renal failure and was hospitalized there for four weeks while the rest of the band waited in Akron, Ohio. He was not expected to live, and some great doctors in Wisconsin saved his life. Incredibly, Bruce resumed the rebooked tour, which was ultimately completed.

Detail: The Unknowns publicity shotAfter returning from the tour Sire made an attempt to have the Unknowns record an album with Ed Stasium, who had produced Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” The Talking Heads’ Talking Heads 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food, and every Ramones album from Leave Home through End of the Century. Mark was not impressed: “We recorded a whole album with him, which was a complete disaster. Stasium couldn’t find his butt with both of his hands and would not quit complaining about our Mosrite guitars, which he loathed because they were not Fender Strats. Again, they tried to make the band sound New Wavey — quirky and robotic.”

Immediately after the experience with Ed Stasium, Greg Shaw released The Unknowns LP on Bomp, which was a collection of demo tapes not approved by the band for release. The band was again extremely disappointed in the record; it was not pressed from a master tape, and the band itself did not approve of its release. The distribution company, Greenworld, pulled the album because of the band’s objections. The album, however, contains some of the band’s best songs, including “Pull My Train,” “The Streets,” “Rip Tide,” and a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

The Unknowns play “Rip Tide.” Listen now!

The end of the Unknowns
The four members of the group had experienced some incredible highs and devastating lows over the past two years, and Mark and Bruce had spent the past five years writing songs and playing together, but by the end of 1982, the era of the Unknowns was drawing to a close. Mark and Dave were living together in Culver City, while Steve and Bruce were in Hollywood. Bruce and Dave differ on some of the details, but the essential facts about the unraveling of the group are certain. The Unknowns played a show Dec. 12, 1982, at Rissmiller’s, and then a final show at the Country Club in Reseda, a Toys for Tots benefit sponsored by the Marine Corps. According to Bruce, “A day after this show we were asked by our management, the Barbara Reilly Agency, not to play for the month of January. She was preparing a tour of California colleges that required us to be dormant until the tour started. She was finalizing the last few dates and all the paper work.” Mark, Dave and Steve played a show at the Anti-Club on Dec. 28 as a three-piece called the Jazz Mofos — without Bruce.

Unknowns triptych (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)

“We wanted some cash,” Dave says, “and so we let the word out, but we played instrumental music and covers and we were not playing as the Unknowns due to the possibly that we figured we still had a career as the Unknowns (with Bruce) as well as pending obligations. We created the Jazz Mofos as an adjunct to the Unknowns and played several shows as such. To us, the Unknowns was still a viable entity at this point.”

See more Unknowns photography by Tim LaMadrid!

Bruce recalls, “My bandmates were desperate for money to pay their bills and rent. I had saved mine, so I was prepared for the layoff for a month. After they played, Barbara called to tell me she had to give back a substantial check to the people helping to set up our college tour, and she hung up on me.”

A day later Mark, Dave and Steve arrived at Bruce’s apartment to confront some rumors they had heard about Bruce’s reaction to their playing. “They wanted to see if I was still on board with the band,” says Bruce. I said “No,” and asked them to leave. “The tension was high,” says Dave, “and it was at this point I seem to recall the two parties effectively called it quits.”

Shortly following Bruce’s departure, Steve left the group. Mark dove headlong into recording projects, eventually buying and constructing recording studios in Los Angeles; Dulzura, Calif.; El Cajon; Valdosta; and finally Soil of the South in La Mesa, Calif., which he operates today. Over the years, Mark has recorded artists such as the Old 97s, Billy Zoom, the Black Keys, Deke Dickerson, Los Straightjackets, the Lucky Stars, Smith’s Ranch Boys, Big Sandy and the Flyright Boys, and the Tell-Tale Hearts. He is renowned all over the world for the unique sound his studio produces; his vintage and state-of-the-art equipment; and his knowledge of music, instruments and acoustical engineering. His reputation as a music producer with unshakable integrity continues to grow.

Unknowns Dave, Mark, Craig (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Mark and Dave regrouped as the Unknowns in the late ‘80s with Craig Packham (formerly of the Unclaimed) on drums, and since then have backed many artists, both on stage and in the studio, including Billy Zoom and Rick Nelson. In 1991, they briefly reformed with Bruce for an album (“Southern Decay”) and a European tour.

Unknowns reunion (photograph by Tim LaMadrid; all rights reserved)Since 1983, Bruce has had considerable success in both the United States and Europe. From 1983 to 1986 he released three albums as Bruce Joyner and the Plantations, culminating in the album Swimming With Friends, which featured John Doe, Ray Manzarek, Steve Wynn, Stan Ridgeway and Sky Saxon. This was followed by four solo albums between 1987 and 1993, the last of which was produced by Peter Buck. He has also released albums with the Tinglers; Out of the Fire; and his current project, the Reconstruction, whose “Hot Georgia Nights” Stomp and Stammer magazine affectionately says “sounds like Captain Beefheart and Flannery O’Conner in a moonlit collision on 1-16.” “What I am most proud of,” Bruce says, “is that I have been playing music for over 30 years.”

The Unknowns play “Flip Your Switch” from the 1991 album Southern Decay. Listen now!

The Unknowns Discography:

  • The Stroke Band: Green and Yellow LP (Abacus Records, 1978)
  • The Stroke Band: “Rat Race”/”Don’t Get Angry” 7” (Abacus, 1978)
  • The Unknowns: Dream Sequence EP (Sire, 1981)
  • The Unknowns: The Unknowns LP (Invasion, 1983)
  • The Unknowns with Bruce Joyner: Southern Decay LP (New Rose, 1991)
  • Bruce Joyner and the Unknowns: Bruce Joyner and the Unknowns CD (Marilyn Records, 1994)
  • Bruce Joyner with the Unknowns: Bruce Joyner with the Unknowns 10” (Marilyn Records, 1994)

— Ray Brandes