(In another exclusive for Che Underground: The Blog, Ray Brandes delivers the definitive history of a band that shaped San Diego music.)
On October 8, 1977, Santana and Journey played to a sold-out crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena. That same night, across town at the Adams Avenue Theater, a decrepit former cinema, the Zeros, Dils and Hitmakers were making history by playing what has since come to be considered a milestone San Diego concert: the first big punk show.
The audience was full of artists, musicians and poets, future movers and shakers who would go on to form bands, create fanzines, open independent record stores, and promote shows and galleries for decades to come. Among those in attendance were several young misfits who were drawn together by their love for early rock and roll and beat music and who would eventually change the local musical landscape as the Penetrators.
At the height of their popularity, the Penetrators were San Diego’s hometown heroes and media darlings, the local entry with the best chance to win the big-label sweepstakes. They took punk rock out of the downtown dives and brought it into suburban living rooms and car-radio speakers. In doing so they became bona fide local celebrities, selling out large arenas and hobnobbing with the Rolling Stones, Ramones and B-52s. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer or more deserving group of young men. They were kind and generous with their fans; supportive of local music; friendly, gregarious and fun. Most importantly, however, they were ever conscious of their roots and grateful for the opportunity to be the rising tide that would lift the boats of all of San Diego’s bands.
The Penetrators can trace their roots to the late ‘60s, to a group of kids who used to gather at the home of popular Emerald Junior High School English teacher John Kmak, whose sons Joel and Jeff would listen to and play along with Beatles 45s. Among the musicians who found themselves at one time or another at the Kmaks’ Grand Central Station were Scott Harrington; Steve Kelly (later of the Hitmakers); and Dan McLain, whom Joel Kmak described seeing for the first time in his living room: “He was a tall, whippet-like kid who was just beating the crap out of the drums.”
By the time they got to high school in the early ‘70s, drummer Joel Kmak; bassist Steve Kelly; Dan McLain (who had now switched to piano); and guitarists Brian Quinn and Brian Barto were already musically out of step with their peers. The band they formed, Queenie (named for the Chuck Berry song “Little Queenie”), was far more interested in Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Kinks, the Who, the Animals and the Stones than the progressive hard rock favored by the unwashed masses at Grossmont High School. They were led by popular ASB Vice President McLain and soft-spoken musicologist Brian Barto, who was so obsessed with tracing the Beatles’ and Stones’ roots that “the joke was that Barto was going to get as far back as the Big Bang and disappear,” says Kmak.
Queenie loaded Dan’s upright piano into his Ford Econoline van and traveled all over San Diego for gigs, even appearing several times at Jerry Herrera’s club JJ’s on Pacific Coast Highway. The band made sure to play obscure covers only, and often became antagonistic with the crowds who would clamor for the popular hits of the day. After playing “Bad Boy” or “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” someone might call out for a Beatles song, Joel remembers. “Brian would shout out, ‘We just played a Beatles song, you bitch!’ We had an aggressive attitude,” says Kmak, “and when punk came along, we could totally relate to it. “
The Big Guy
Eventually, Queenie’s plans to move to LA to record and make it big were dashed when Barto and McLain had a bad falling-out and McLain quit the band. McLain married soon thereafter; became president of the San Diego Kinks Fan Club; and began to collect the records he would eventually use to open his own store, Monty Rockers.
It was at Monty Rockers, out on El Cajon Boulevard, west of College Avenue, that McLain took on the role of den mother to a motley little collection of brilliant, funny, creative people. He was at home in his natural habitat, conducting impromptu rock-and-roll history lessons and sharing his favorite music with the clientele. McLain was the best kind of rock-and-roll mentor, encouraging kids to start bands; create their own fanzines; and of course, buy cool records. It’s hard to imagine a more important tastemaker in the early days of the San Diego scene.
Meanwhile, over at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, former drummer Scott Harrington was deciding to learn the guitar. “During my senior year I decided I wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix,” says Harrington. “I soon realized that’s a bad place for a guitarist to start. I started listening to Keith Richards, and through the Stones and Beatles, Chuck Berry.” After high school, Harrington and Kmak became reacquainted at Grossmont College and played together for a year or so at Harrington’s aunt’s house, sometimes joined by former Queenie bassist Steve Kelly. “At the time (1975-1976), there were no places to play unless you were a disco or Top 40 band,” recalls Kmak. “We’d put all our shit in our cars, go to biker bars and ask if they needed a band. A lot of the bikers wouldn’t be too happy because they’d have to stop playing pool!” Harrington adds, “At the time we were into British Invasion stuff, but speeding it up, making it faster and harder. I was scouring magazines like Creem and Trouser Press for new bands to listen to. It was all about not being Styx and Fleetwood Mac.”
Then, according to Kmak, “Punk hit, and within six months it seemed like the whole world had changed. There were all these kids hanging out at Monty Rockers. Every day you’d see somebody new, and you’d think, ‘Now there’s someone else on the team!’ ” Harrington recalls: “I said to Joel, ‘There is some new stuff going on, and we really need to get with it.’ We didn’t want to get left behind in the ‘70s, so we put an ad in the paper for people who were into Beatles, Kinks, Stones.”
At the time the Hitmakers — Joseph Marc, Jeff Scott and Ron Silva — were running a nearly identical ad in the Reader citing the Beatles, Stones and Kinks as influences. Harrington answered the ad and spoke to Jeff Scott, who invited Harrington, Kelly and Kmak to a party in Oceanside. The Zeros were playing, along with an embryonic version of the Hitmakers (Silva, Marc, Jeff Scott, and Silva’s brother on drums). The Hitmakers were looking for some other members and ended up taking Steve Kelly for bass. That left a frustrated Kmak and Harrington looking for a new bass player. The solution to their problem, in the form of a tall skinny kid with a jet-black pompadour and juvenile delinquent sideburns, showed up for an audition at the Harrington practice space a few weeks later.
“Three chords and an attitude”
Chris Sullivan was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in a cross-section Italian and African-American neighborhood. He grew up in a household full of music — Johnny Cash and Duane Eddy were constantly on his older siblings’ turntable — and he started noodling with a guitar at age three. Sullivan remembers that “the lights came on for me in 1964 when the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show.” He tried to put a band together that same week. “I went to Flagg Brothers for Beatle boots, but my parents wouldn’t let me get them,” he says. His father, who worked in elevator construction on the World Trade Center, pitched in 15 dollars to help him buy his very first electric guitar, a $40 metallic-blue Norma with four pickups. “I used to walk the streets, playing that guitar all day,” Sullivan remembers. “It was all three-chords-and-an-attitude music,” he says.
Sullivan’s other love was baseball — he would later be drafted by the Kansas City Royals at age 16 — but recalls a turning point occurring on his 14th birthday. “I had to choose between a Rawlings Brooks Robinson baseball glove and a wah-wah pedal,” he says. “I went with the wah-wah pedal.”
Due to his father’s poor health, the family packed up and moved to the warm climate of San Diego, where Sullivan finished his senior year at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley. In 1972, he was sporting an Elvis haircut and long sideburns and was listening exclusively to old blues, country and British Invasion music. “I didn’t get along with or hang out with too many people — they just didn’t know what to make of me,” Sullivan says. “But I wasn’t picked on because I had grown up in some pretty tough New York neighborhoods. I learned pretty early on to fight the leader of the group first.”
Sullivan graduated in 1973 and began attending Grossmont College, where he became acquainted with Sam Sanford, former guitarist and singer with ‘60s garage band the Gants. The two played a few military bases and frat parties in a group called Thunderbuck Ram. In early 1977 he answered the Reader ad placed by Harrington and Kmak and ended up at his first-ever music audition. “We played six or seven songs, and right away we clicked,” he recalls. “They took me aside and said, ‘We’d like to make you an offer to join our band.’ ”
Just as Sullivan, Kmak and Harrington began to amass a catalog of songs, the Hitmakers again came calling. Kmak remembers: “After a couple of months, Joseph Marc decided he wanted to switch from drums to guitar. So one night, Steve Kelly came around to my house and said, ‘Guess what? These guys want you in the band. We got a gig in Hollywood. Are you in or out?’” Kmak was admittedly starstruck with the Hitmakers, who had some big shows lined up in Los Angeles. He joined without much thought. “The first gig I played with them was at the Masque with the Germs and the Bags,” he says. “Rodney Bingenheimer was sitting at the side of the stage.”
They had no drummer, and they had no singer, but Harrington and Sullivan had a band name, courtesy of Mark Williams, a high school friend of Chris’ who suggested “Rock Jetty and the Penetrators.” They once again resorted to their Reader ad. This time, however, they tried a new tactic. “We would go around to record stores like Blue Meanie and stick flyers in the bins next to cool records,” says Harrington. The flyers read: “Do You Want to Be a Penetrator?”
In the months that followed, word had began to circulate around town about a wild-eyed singer named Gary who fronted a band called Monotone and the Nucleoids. Harrington and Steve Kelly had seen him in line at the Ramones, taunting some jock types by dancing on the ground like a fried egg. Later, Sullivan would remember him as the fellow Elvis fan he met while camped out for tickets at the Sports Arena in 1972. Encountering Gary would be another critical moment for the band.
“We had heard about this party in La Mesa where a group called Monotone and the Nucleoids were playing,” says Sullivan. “We went there specifically to check out the singer.” According to Sullivan, Gary was “flapping around like Daffy Duck.” Harrington recalls: “The band wasn’t very good, but the singer had an energy and a personality, and we said, ‘Let’s talk to this guy and get his number.’ ” “Gary jumped on it right away,” says Sullivan. The three began rehearsing nearly every day.
Gary Heffern’s early childhood in a Finnish orphanage was well-documented in John Caldwell’s 1957 book Children of Calamity. The youngest of eight abandoned siblings found in a barn, he was adopted and raised by a strict, conservative family in Solana Beach.
He has always been an outsider. At the height of the psychedelic era, when his classmates were growing their hair long and participating in protests against the Vietnam War, Heffern’s parents made him keep his hair short and refused to allow him to speak about the events happening overseas. His escape was music, and he says he sought out the “craziest album covers I could find.”
When Heffern was in the seventh grade at Earl Warren Junior High School, a confrontation with his parents galvanized in him a view of music as the ultimate form of rebellion. “One day I was going through the medicine cabinet at home and found a bunch of Nembutals that belonged to my mother,” he recalls. “Throughout the day I ended up taking eight of them and passed out at the dinner table. I woke up in the hospital having my stomach pumped by a doctor who also turned out to be my Boy Scout leader. It was then decided that I was no longer allowed to be a scout.”
Gary watched in horror as his parents went into his bedroom, collected about 50 of his albums, and shattered them into tiny pieces. They then burned all of the covers and inner sleeves in the fireplace. “The albums I watched burn,” says Heffern, “included the 13th Floor Elevators, the Blues Magoos, the Velvets, Love, the Monkees, the Turtles’ ‘Happy Together,’ the Mothers’ ‘Freakout’ and ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ by the Jefferson Airplane.”
In November 1968, at age 13, Heffern snuck out of his bedroom window and hitchhiked to the Hippodrome in downtown San Diego to see the Velvet Underground and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. “At the time you had to be 16 or 18 to get in, so I gave the doorman a joint to let me sneak in,” Heffern remembers. “I got to see the VU booed off the stage. I remember they were wearing suits and Beatle boots and were pissed at the audience.”
In March of the following year, Heffern saw Janis Joplin at the San Diego Sports Arena. “I think it was the first time I saw someone really emote in front of a crowd, and it mesmerized me,” he says. “I knew then — that’s who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”
Heffern’s family moved to Point Loma when Gary was in the ninth grade, and at Point Loma High School he continued to escape through music and drugs. “I would wake up in the mornings, smoke pot on the way to school, meet at the church across the street and get white crosses,” he says. “I would usually take anywhere from four to five daily, and then go play handball for two to four hours. At lunch I would go to the record store right down the street, and since I was always working jobs, I would buy whatever had come out that day. At this point I don’t think that I was really searching for anything musically, other than the way that albums would make me feel.”
After high school Heffern began writing songs for friends’ bands and began developing his rock and roll persona. “My style was straight-leg pants, striped shirts, Beatle boots and really old suits,” he says. “In the beginning, my attitude was just to stir shit up. I was no saint — let’s put it that way — but I also wanted to do music that would affect people.”
Another key moment in Heffern’s life came at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April 1977. Iggy Pop was performing his last encore, a cover of Them’s “Gloria” with David Bowie on backing vocals. Heffern remembers: “I was near the front and Iggy gave me the mic … so I sang! The next night I was in the second row at the San Diego Civic Theater, and he again he handed me the mic. I knew then that I had to start a band!”
The formation of Heffern’s first band occurred under unusual circumstances, to say the least. “Right after the Iggy show, I thought up the name ‘Monotone and the Nucleoids,’ put it on a T-shirt and wore it to a show at Montezuma Hall,” laughs Heffern. “These Mexican guys in suits came up and started asking me about that band, as they had never heard of them. I told them it was my new band and asked them if they wanted to join! We exchanged info, they called me and that was that!”
The search for a drummer
With most of the band in place, the search for a drummer intensified. Countless auditions were held, but Harrington, Sullivan and Heffern knew most of them would not work out even before their gear was fully unloaded. “These guys would keep showing up with massive sets with two kick drums,” says Sullivan. “We could tell by the haircuts with most of them.” Finally, out of desperation, they approached McLain at Monty Rockers. “I asked Dan,” says Harrington, “’Look — we need a drummer. If we put a kit together, could you come out and sit in with us?’ We put this ramshackle set together, and he started playing and it sounded great.” Sullivan remembers that first practice: “Dan wasn’t a great time keeper, but he had a great feel for the drums — he had rock and roll in his soul. We all generally accepted that since he had that feel, he was only going to get better.”
The now complete Penetrators began to write their own songs and develop a set list. “Early on we were doing as many originals as possible,” Sullivan says. “I wasn’t a very good cover player,” he adds. “It was easier for me to play what I had written. So I’d start with a bass hook, Scott would help me with the chords, and then Gary would write the lyrics.” Rounding out the set were songs like ‘Do You Love Me?’ by the Contours; ‘Don’t Lie to Me’ by Chuck Berry; and some Bo Diddley, Sex Pistols, Ramones, and Kinks.
The Penetrators’ debut took place in the recreation room of the Sea Colony Inn in Ocean Beach. Soon afterwards, they played their first club gig at Abbey Road, located on the 3100 block of University Avenue in North Park. The club was originally a small discotheque, complete with disco ball and strobe lights, but in the early days of the burgeoning San Diego punk scene, Abbey Road began opening on Mondays for “New Wave Night.” It wasn’t much, but at the time it was one of the few games in town.
Sullivan remembers the house bouncer used to give him a hard time, calling him “John Travolta.” Harrington laughingly recalls a show in early 1978 when he, McLain and Steve Kelly, playing in a side project called The Mondellos, opened for the group X. Somehow, the Mondellos’ onstage antics were insulting to the members of X. “They thought we were mocking punk rock,” Harrington says, “and became very upset. Exene and John Doe got in a fistfight with us outside the club!”
The Penetrators rapidly developed a following around town, playing house parties and shows at the North Park Lions Club; the VFW Hall in La Mesa (where the La Mesa Police showed up with their canine units); the Skeleton Club; and the San Diego Yacht Club.
Their popularity was due in large degree to their charming, unreserved personalities. They were natural public-relations representatives — friendly, outgoing and well-spoken — and it was easy to root for their success because they were such genuinely nice guys. They wanted to see other bands do well and were supportive of younger musicians and fans. Harrington, Sullivan, McLain and Heffern worked every room of every party they attended, and Chris, as de facto leader of the band, typed press releases and invitations to members of the local press. “My approach,” says Sullivan, “was the same approach I took with bullies. I pitched us to the very top. And one by one, these guys started showing up for our shows.”
In the summer of 1978, the Penetrators arrived at a small eight-track studio Harrington had found in Pasadena, Calif., called Hound Dog Studios. It was the first experience for any of them in a real recording studio. Sullivan remembers, “I was really impressed. They gave us books of matches with pictures of hound dogs playing cards — I was hooked right away. When we started to record, we were so excited that we were playing extremely fast.”
The band’s exuberance is evident from the opening drum beats of “Untamed Youth,” the first of three songs they recorded that day. The engineer shouts into the microphone, “Hang on. Hang on! HANG ON!!!” as the band barrels into the opening chords. Harrington’s guitar draws inspiration from the Sex Pistols and Exile on Main Street-era Keith Richards. Sullivan’s distinctive Rickenbacker bass sound is already developing, as is McLain’s brash drumming style. While Heffern is still finding his voice, his lyrics reveal the painful alienation that will later dominate so many of the Penetrators songs: “You walk into that room and you feel those stares/ and everybody wishes that you weren’t there,” he sings on “Vengeance.”
The EP they recorded, featuring the songs “Untamed Youth,” “Vengeance” and “Be American,” is youthful, energetic and aggressive, a perfect snapshot of an evolving garage band. It was released on M.R. Records (Monty Rockers Records) at the end of 1978. By that time, the Penetrators had a new guitarist.
Chris Davies and the changing of the guard
In fall of 1978, Harrington saw 17-year-old Paris Trent performing at Abbey Road. “Paris was playing mainly early ‘60s music,” he says. “I really liked what this guy was doing, so I started recording on the side with him and Steve Potterf. Eventually, I felt I’d be much more comfortable there.” For a while Harrington was conflicted, torn between the band he’d founded and the new players in whom he’d found kindred spirits. He called up the Penetrators to announce that he’d quit the band to join the Upbeats. The Upbeats ultimately went to Los Angeles, where they recorded an album’s worth of material that eventually made its way to Chrysalis Records in London. They were asked to move to England and tour. On the eve of their success, Trent and Potterf quit the band.
In December of that year, the Penetrators were hired to open for the Ramones at Montezuma Hall at San Diego State University. They had already turned down an opportunity to play at the Sports Arena with Bob Marley (who had specifically requested a punk band) because Harrington had not believed the group was ready. Sullivan remembers starting to panic. “We couldn’t not do the Ramones gig — it was going to be a huge show. I was worried that we were going to have to start auditioning people again,” he says.
Through his many years in the San Diego music scene, Heffern knew practically every band in town. He immediately thought of 20-year-old Chris Davies, a fellow Point Loma High School graduate who had been earning a living playing full time in a band called the T-Birds. “I saw him with the T-Birds, and you know — he’s just a really sweet person and a diverse player,” Heffern says. “I told them about him, approached Chris, and he said, ‘Yes.’ I think we only had a couple of rehearsals, and during those I wrote ‘Sensitive Boy’ and played it for the first time.”
When Chris showed up for the audition, he already knew all of the songs from going to Penetrators shows and taping them. “Chris just nailed it,” says Sullivan. “He was a fast study and a great fit.” The rest of the band members now identify the Ramones show as the point at which the band began to gain an unstoppable momentum. “Everybody showed up for the Ramones gig,” Sullivan says. Members of the local media the band had courted for months finally saw the Penetrators play. “They all came out to the dressing room, so we started working the room.” Jim McInnes of KGB-FM, who was arguably the most important rock DJ in San Diego at the time, and Steve Esmedina, a knowledgeable young writer for the San Diego Reader, became converts that night, initiating what would become long and invaluable relationships with the band. Esmedina gushed about the band in print, comparing them to the Clash.
Within months the Penetrators had a manager, Paul Sansone, who had met the band through his job at KGB. The East Chester, N.Y., native started hanging out with the band and came up with the idea of being the Penetrators’ manager Paul learned management on the fly, negotiating gigs and prices. “It was fun to let Paul do the leg work,” says Sullivan, “and that left us free to concentrate on the music.” Sansone’s efforts, coupled with their association with Jim McInnes and KGB, began to bear fruit. In 1979 the Penetrators gathered in a small makeshift studio in a converted spare room of a house on 54th Street that was the location for McInnes’ new record label, World Records. McInnes, along with partners Randy Feulle and Rick Bohlman, had started a company with the express purpose of promoting the Penetrators, and in this room, dubbed Hit Single Studios, they recorded their second single.
The band had come off of months of intense rehearsals with their new guitarist and a slew of increasingly large shows. They wanted their record to reflect their new sound, a high-energy amalgamation of surf, rockabilly and ‘60s garage punk, but they also wanted to flesh out the sound with a second guitarist or keyboardist. According to Sullivan, “Around the time we were preparing to record the new single, we met Jim Call, manager of the Fine Arts Theater in Pacific Beach, through Gary. He came around to add some atmosphere to the ‘Stimulation’ record, and he was such a great guy and he fit in so well that we asked him to join the band.”
Heffern remembers meeting Call in the elevator of the El Cortez Hotel in 1976, during the first Comicon. “I then saw him again and talked to him more at the Deadbeats show there. Jim has one of the most brilliant minds that I know. He turned me on to stuff like Cabaret Voltaire. And the girls LOVED that guy!”
Call, older than the rest of the group by several years, added another sonic layer to the Penetrators. He also added an inestimable new visual element. “We used to call him the Reverend, because he looked so stoic,” says Sullivan. “As we were running around like lunatics, he looked like he was embalming a body.”
With the single “Sensitive Boy”/”Stimulation,” released in 1979, the Penetrators firmly established a winning formula that would make them local stars for the next few years. Sullivan’s trebly bass hooks formed the heart of the Penetrators’ songs. Davies’ guitar, recalling the sounds of ‘60s television themes like “Peter Gunn” and “The Munsters,” bobbed and weaved around McLain’s relentless drumming and Call’s atmospheric keyboards.
The real revelation, however, was Heffern, whose newfound confidence practically jumped off the turntable. Frenzied and hyperkinetic, Heffern sounded like Boris Karloff had discovered a stack of Gene Vincent 45s. His clever and modern-sounding lyrics reflected his growth into a mature songwriter who had developed a unique style of his own. “Most of my writing was done downtown,” Heffern says. “I used to take a bus every day to Horton Plaza and just hang out there. I’d go see triple bill movies for one or two dollars and go to the dive bars, be anonymous and write … and watch … and smell the smells of the city. I loved those days.”
Following the release of its second single, the band was asked to record a song for the latest installment of KGB’s Homegrown series. Sullivan explains: “’5th and Bop’ was a favor to KGB — they had a window of opportunity for songs to be submitted, and the submissions they received were not very good. They needed some material and asked the Penetrators to write a song, which the group recorded the following day.” Sullivan came up with the basic structure, and in less than an hour, Heffern had written a Tom Waits-style invocation for the lyrics. The song, like all Penetrators songs, was credited to the entire band. “Everybody got writer’s credit for everything,” says Sullivan. “We were a band, so everything was equal.”
The band’s associations with radio station KGB would soon be called into question by a rival station. In the months following the Ramones show at Montezuma Hall, Sullivan had been hired by KGB to work in the promotions department. He got to know a lot of local radio and television personalities who also helped to promote the band. The station noticed that Sullivan possessed the smooth, deep voice of a radio personality, and he was given his own show, on weekends from midnight to six a.m. Local station KPRI called KGB on the apparent conflict of interest, however. They demanded that either Sullivan be taken off the air or that KGB stop playing Penetrators records. Sullivan lost his late night show, but the station continued to promote the band.
In May 1980, as the band entered Western Audio to record its first 12-inch record, the “Walk the Beat” EP, they were profiled on a local television station, CBS affiliate KFMB. In the interview, the band discusses recording, as well as their aspirations for musical stardom. “I’m a firm believer in dreams,“ Gary tells reporter Jesse Macias. “ I think dreams come true, and my dream — ever since I’ve been a kid — I always wanted to be onstage and play, and it’s happening.”
Watch the Penetrators on KFMB-TV:
Sullivan has fond memories of their recording sessions at Western Audio. “It felt like a real studio, with dimming lights, headphones, and clean carpets,” says Sullivan. The “Walk the Beat” EP continued the successful formula the band had developed with its previous recordings. Five songs — the title track, “Nervous Fingers”; “I’m With the Guys”; “Currently in Currency”; and an instrumental, “I-5” — were released on the Penetrators’ own label, E&M. According to Sullivan, the initials stood for “Eggs and Mice,” after a band tradition of ordering eggs and mice at truck-stop diners while on the road.
The label featured a mouse chasing its tail, but it was printed backwards, so when the record plays the tail actually chases the mouse. The band began to get its business in order as well. They started a music publishing company called Heaven 17 and formed a corporation, Passion Inc., in order to keep their taxable income down.
The Penetrators Live
Over the next few years, the Penetrators racked up an impressive series of high-profile shows, playing alongside the Ramones twice more; Robert Gordon three times; the B-52s; Iggy Pop; David Johanssen; the Dead Kennedys; the Go-Gos (whose guitars they had to help tune); Berlin; the Waitresses; Missing Persons; and surf-music legend Dick Dale. The reviews of many of these shows, which were attended by upwards of 8,000 people, highlighted the Penetrators over the headliners.
In Los Angeles, Ron Wood and Mick Jagger and actress Marisa Berenson attended the second of two shows the Penetrators played with Robert Gordon. “We were doing the song ‘Take This Heart,’ ” remembers Heffern, “and I was singing, and the audience was turning away, row by row from the back. I looked at Dan and we both had a look of fear like we had just completely had a meltdown as a band. So I just fell to the ground and sang as hard as I could. The audience went nuts.” Following the set, Heffern complained to the stage manager that the audience did not seem to be enjoying the show. Gary says, “The stage manager replied, ‘Well it was only when Mick Jagger and Ron Wood came in.’ ‘WHAT?’ “Yes, they are upstairs in your dressing room.” Heffern returned to the dressing room to find Dan McLain on one knee, kissing Berenson’s feet and offering her a permanent spot on the band’s guest list. “I was pretty much in a surreal haze and don’t recall talking to any of them. I just didn’t know what to say.”
Their sudden rise in status led to some mixed feelings within the members of the group. The worst part was dealing with fans who equated success with “selling out.”
“It was weird,” says Heffern, “when right after the Ramones show we started selling out venues. I was amazed, but also carried a lot of guilt in me because our base — our original fans, and punks — felt that just because we were getting some radio play and press outside of fanzines, that we had sold out as people. That really hurt at the time. A few years later I remember running into Marc Rude, and we had a long talk and settled up differences. He basically just apologized for all the stuff that he stirred up.
“I also recall being at the Roxy in L.A.,” Heffern continues, “seeing Laurie Anderson on her ‘Big Science’ tour. I was in the bathroom taking a leak when I heard someone say, ‘The fucking Penetrators are sell-outs!’ And I’m at the urinal thinking, ‘CHRIST! I can’t go anywhere’ and my heart sunk. I turned around and it was John Doe from X, and he was laughing. We had a long talk about getting bigger and the resentful fans. I love that guy to this day. I also remember having along talk about this with Jack from TSOL in front of the Spirit.”
They played the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco circuit frequently and toured west of the Mississippi three times. Typically, these tours would start in Phoenix (where the band was huge) and then visit Denver, Ft. Collins and Boulder, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; and then head back to the west coast. Local writer Steve Esmedina traveled with the band in 1979 on a six-day California junket, the facetiously named “Penetrators 1979 World Tour,” and covered it in a now-famous Reader article called “The Two Dollar Tour.”
The most memorable of the Penetrators shows, however, took place in their own backyard. In 1980, they played the California Theater with 20/20. The bouncers started beating up a young man, and Gary intervened to help. According to Heffern, “Kids started pulling up their seats and throwing them at the bouncers.” The police arrived with dogs and full riot gear, attempting to arrest Heffern for inciting a riot. “We finished the show, and Paul took us down through the theater tunnels and out back into waiting cars like the Beatles in a ‘Hard Day’s Night,’ ” remembers Sullivan.
At the San Diego Community Concourse show with Dick Dale opening, fans began hurling rocks and trashcans into bank windows from the upper parking lot, and the police again arrived with the dogs and riot gear.
The Penetrators sold out two straight nights at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas, and the orchestra pit collapsed from the weight of the fans.
Another riot occurred at San Dieguito High School after a vice principal shut down the show because he suspected one of the band members was drinking on campus. The students went crazy and threatened to tear down the gym. Ultimately, the students prevailed and the band continued. Years later, former student Eddie Vedder, who would later go on to prominence with Pearl Jam, cited that show as the reason he decided to start a rock and roll band.
The Penetrators were gaining popularity and were frequently played on Rodney Bingenheimer’s influential radio show. In 1981, they were voted by KROQ listeners one of the top 10 bands of the year. They found themselves on a Los Angeles A&M soundstage, recording videos for some of the songs on the “Walk the Beat” EP. On the set, a young Irish band called U2 hung out and watched the sessions. The singer, Paul Hewson, would later cite the Penetrators as an early, important influence upon him.
According to Sullivan, “At the time, we were being courted by IRS, who were trying to make a decision between putting their money behind us or the Police. Obviously, they went with the Police.” Geffen, Atlanta, Capital all looked at the Penetrators, but they all turned down the band on the basis of their lack of a “hit-single sound.”
A Sweet Kiss From Mommy
By 1982, the five members of the Penetrators had been playing together for four years. They had grown substantially as musicians, and the music that influenced their writing and playing was more diverse as well. When they entered Western Audio to record their second album, they brought with them a group of new songs that reflected their love of soul, ska, country and ‘60s garage punk. The album opens with the fuzz guitar and Vox Continental organ sounds of “Standing in Line,” which recalls the psychedelic pop of the Castaways and the Blues Magoos. Before the needle takes its final rest, the group samples gospel music with “There is a Light” (featuring guest vocalist Joyce Rooks of the Trousers); surf music with “Cozy Cool”; rockabilly with “All Somebody”; good old fashioned punk rock with “Jimmy Don’t Do It”; and ska with “Nothing Town,” on which Heffern wails, “Living is dying in this nothing town!”
A Sweet Kiss From Mommy, released on the band’s E&M Records label, sold well enough to necessitate a second pressing. This was in spite of the fact that due to the album’s cover, several local stores refused to carry it. “We were at Jim’s house,” recalls Sullivan, and he had all of these Polaroids of people’s butts he had taken at parties. Someone thought it would be a good idea to use them as the album cover.”
The Penetrators continued to tour as well as to play shows in San Diego throughout 1983, but the atmosphere around town had changed considerably since the band’s inception. Punk shows had become increasingly violent, and many of the smaller venues had shut down. The Penetrators’ early fan base was growing older, too. McLain, who had been playing in a number of side projects including Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies, left the group mid-year to start the Beat Farmers with his old friend and mentor, Jerry Raney. McLain immersed himself in his Country Dick personality and the Beat Farmers went on to become quite successful purveyors of what has since come to be called “roots rock.” McLain passed away in 1995 doing what he loved best: performing.
Joel Kmak, one of the band’s founders and certainly one of the most prolific drummers in San Diego music history, was brought in to replace his own replacement. “The band played at least a year or more with Joel,” says Sullivan, “and going into 1984, we still had a lot of juice.” But Sullivan remembers that “at this point we started to lose our vibrancy, our zest. I had the feeling that we had missed our window of opportunity.”
Behind the group’s sunny public disposition, there were darker issues. For the first time, Heffern explains the circumstances surrounding his quitting the group. “I was a mess by that period,” he says. “I got down to less than 100 pounds. I saw a picture of myself during that time with my shirt off, and I remember asking my friend, ‘Why didn’t anybody try to stop me?’ His answer was, ‘We were just used to seeing you this way.’ ”
Heffern awoke one day to find himself in Logan Heights in a strange apartment with people he didn’t recognize passed out all around him. He confided in his good friend, Mojo Nixon, upon whose couch he was living at the time. “We had a talk. I told him that I was getting really afraid of what was happening to me,” says Heffern. “He said, ‘If I was you, I’d quit the band and go somewhere and take care of yourself!’ ” Mojo pulled out a map of the United States, Gary closed his eyes, and his finger landed upon Seattle.
“I called the band and gave two weeks’ notice, gave everything I had away,” he says. We did one last show at the Spirit. I had a duffle bag with me and caught the train the next morning. I owe Mojo big time for that.”
While Heffern blames himself for the band’s ultimate demise, the other members are much more forgiving. Sullivan and Kmak both recall the Penetrators’ breakup as a group decision. “The rest of us just weren’t too interested in continuing,” says Sullivan. A few months later Jim Call would end up in prison, and famed Penetrators’ roadie little Brian would die of an overdose.
Gary Heffern’s recovery and return to music make a beautiful coda to the Penetrators story. Gary has recorded several albums, including Bald Tires in the Rain, Askew, Painful Days and Consolation. His current band, Beautiful People, is currently recording a new CD. He lives in Rovaniemi, Finland, near the Arctic Circle, and remains one of the kindest and most genuine people this writer has ever met.
Chris Sullivan and Joel Kmak currently play in the Farmers, with Jerry Raney and Corbin Turner. Jim Call is a DJ and the musical director for San Diego’s incredible Zirk Ubu Circus. Chris Davies runs one of the last of the great independent record stores left in San Diego, COW Records in Ocean Beach.
— Ray Brandes
Photos and flyers used courtesy of Chris Sullivan and Joe Piper.
The Penetrators Discography
“Untamed Youth”/”Vengeance”/”Be American,” M.R. Records, 1978.
“Stimulation”/”Sensitive Boy,” World Records, 1979.
“5th and Bop,” KGB’s Homegrown VII, 1980.
Walk the Beat, E&M Records, 1980.
A Sweet Kiss From Mommy, E&M Records, 1982.