Numero Group: By The Numbers

Up All Night With The Vampire From Outer Space: Kim Fowley
January 16, 2015, 11:05 am
Filed under: Buttons, Obituaries | Tags:
In the early days of Numero, Rob and I were holding down day jobs at Groove Distribution, a small dance-oriented purveyor of import 12”s. It was expected that we arrive a little after 9am, which curtailed some of our more rowdy behaviors. That first year we were like drones, working 9-5:30, then heading up Milwaukee Avenue on our bikes to my old apartment on Hoyne where we plotted the future. I’d generally hit the phones as soon as I walked in the door, as it was crucial to catch Eastern Time Zone folks in that sweet spot between dinner and bed. For the West Coasters, I just stayed up later. The goal was to fall asleep no later than 2am.


I had been trying to get Kim Fowley on the phone for a few weeks but couldn’t trap him. We were in the process of building our fourth record: Yellow Pills: Prefill, and were hoping to license a few tracks from Fowley. The tracks in question appeared on the 1979 Bomp LP Vampires From Outer Space, the artists were Tommy Rock and Randy Winburn. Here’s what we had to say about the record a few years ago when we updated it for an LP issue:


Kim Fowley fever hit late-’70s Los Angeles like a tongue in the ear. The Runaways had done as their name suggested, leaving the original Mayor of the Sunset Strip battling a case of empty nest syndrome. Topping a mountain of tapes in his closet was the song “Phone Call For Frank Sinatra,” credited blandly to one Tom Johnson. A Long Islander with a comically thick accent to match, Johnson had come west for a shot behind the lens at UCLA’s prestigious School of Theater, Film, and Television. Enamored with the Fowley-penned “Cherry Bomb” and “Do You Love Me”—the second-to-last song on Kiss’s 1976 Destroyer LP—Johnson dropped a tape off at Fowley’s Hollywood Boulevard office. No name, no lyrics, no photo, just a 213 phone number scribbled on the J-card.  


Fowley signed the bespectacled Johnson to a songwriting contract in October of 1977 and immediately set to messing with Johnson’s boy-next-door image. “I thought Tommy Rock sounded kinda square,” Johnson has reflected, but the Fowley machine had already kicked into overdrive, producing quotes like, “Tommy Rock is an extension of Stephan Bishop with Paul Simon’s brain, John Lennon’s wit and John Sebastian’s voice… By the end of the year Jack Nicholson will be waiting to get high with him.” Rock’s wardrobe of faded dungarees and a coffee-stained raincoat did little to prove Fowley’s case. Over the next year, Tommy Rock would join a band (the Dreamers), record a demo for Warner Bros., and issue a 45 on England’s Spark label, all while holding down security guard duty at a West Hollywood Jack In The Box.   “Kim had all these lyrics on yellow pieces of paper, including some for a song called ‘Dream Rocker’ and I thought wow what a great title,” Rock recalled. “It’s like a song about somebody who’s been there and maybe it’s not coming together… kinda lost, and I liked that.”


In late 1978, he hit Glendale and cut the song with the Kessel Brothers—David, Dan, and Barney—backed by a legion of Fowleyites including Laurie Bell of the Orchids, Chris Dow of Kaleidoscope, David Carr of the Fortunes, and John Locke from Spirit. Gary Pickus, another Long Islander, got a co-writer credit on “High School,” and the pair of Rock tracks played fraternal twins on Bomp!’s 1979 compilation Vampires From Outer Space. Purportedly an elaborate asset offshoring ploy in anticipation of Fowley’s divorce, the album got flaccid Bomp! promotion that did nothing to refute such a theory. The album slid out of print about as quickly as Fowley’s divorce decree moved through the Los Angeles County Recorder’s tangled paper landscape.   Undeterred, Tommy Rock stayed on, doing double duty as Fowley’s chauffeur and fan mail coordinator while waiting for the next something, anything, to happen. That next thing was a name change and a Manilow-esque album recorded for Columbia. Issued in 1981 by the newly dubbed Tommy Knight, the self-titled LP made minor ripples in the AOR world, none of them big enough to avert a cut-out bin fate.


When Randy Winburn’s phone rang one evening a little past midnight, the 33-year-old A.D. for the hit-com Diff’rent Strokes couldn’t have known that his stalled recording career had placed the call. Recently spurned by his Runaways, Kim Fowley was on the rebound, sifting around in his ever-growing haystack of unsolicited demo tapes for the next needle. What he heard on Randy Winburn’s home 4-tracked reel was an unkempt Pet Sounds, mangy and missing a little corner of its ear.   By December 1978, Winburn had been out of the recording business for a decade and more, having taken his last stab with Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s “next Kingsmen.” 


During their sophomore year at UNC, the sextet of Winburn, Joe Mendyk, Phil Lambeth, Jim Opton, Cam Schinhan, and Bill Levasseur had morphed from a generically named cover band called the Shadows into psychedelic NC fuzz kings Nova Local. A choice opening slot for Chad & Jeremy landed the group at the William Morris Agency, who in turn hooked the group up with a young Elliot Mazer. Their 1966 demos resulted in a contract with Decca, who issued their lone album Nova 1 in 1968, to minimal acclaim, notice, or sales.   When Nova Local’s membership retreated back to more familiar locales, Winburn took a job at CBS Television, where he earned rent holding cue cards for Captain Kangaroo. Through five more years, Randy Winburn snaked around the CBS system, peaking when he helmed dozens of episodes of the long running soap The Guiding Light. In 1975, he was on the payroll at Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, A.D.’ing The Jeffersons, Good Times, and the aforementioned Gary Coleman starmaker. As for music, Winburn paid closest attention to theme songs that opened his sit-coms. If not for an in-studio contest over the writing and producing of a theme for the short-lived Joe & Valerie series, Winburn might never have recorded again.  


Joe & Valerie, slotted to premiere in April 1978 after Rollergirls, got NBC’s greenlight as a disco cash-in hopeful. To give its credit roll a touch of Saturday night fever, Tandem set their team of songwriters and studio rats to churning out plays-in-Peoria disco cuts. Winburn wrote his own entry and recorded it with the help of his off-camera crew. Lear’s chosen winner was Winburn’s track. This process and the win lit a small fire under Randy Winburn, who began taping songs nightly to his portable 4-track. Using a store-bought guide to getting a record deal, he mailed out few dozen cassette and waited for any response at all.  


Luckily, Kim Fowley listened voraciously to whatever hit his P.O. box, even going so far as to roll blank tape sides on the off chance of uncovering “genius stink.” “Most of it was garbage, but Randy was at the top of the can,” he said. Fowley and Winburn convened at a nondescript studio on Melrose, where Winburn met Tom “Tommy Rock” Johnson and his song “Somebody Else’s Girl.” Winburn’s version ended up as the lead song on Fowley’s sprawling Vampires From Outer Space pet project sampler LP for Bomp! With help from his own shaky demo, Winburn arranged the harmonies—all 11 parts—along with the skeleton version of “Sunshine USA.” Tracked in eccentric LA producer and former Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey’s backyard studio, “Somebody Else’s Girl” wears Holland-era Beach Boys on its sleeve. For “Sunshine U.S.A.”—Winburn’s entry for the Vampires flipside—Fowley convinced Spirit’s John Locke to drop by and tinkle the electric 88s, though Fowley opted to literally phone in for the session—auditing the tracking and mixing from the comfort of his living room courtesy of Ma Bell. He lavished a matching effort in promoting the LP, which failed predictably to justify more than its first pressing.


I adjusted my strategy and began calling him later and later. 7pm Pacific, 8 Pacific, 9 Pacific, 10 Pacific… 11 Pacific?  I made my last call of the night at ten to 2am Central Time, and he picked right up. For the next five hours, Kim Fowley went on one of the longest rants I’ve ever heard. He covered everything from “Alley Oop” to some song he had purportedly produced for Friends. I kept looking at the clock, watching as my sleep window got ever tighter. Just before 7am Central, he said to me, “You should feel lucky to have spent these last five hours on the phone with me. We’ll never speak again.” And then he hung up. The license was handled through his attorney and royalty payments were sent to his Redlands, California, PO box. We had discussed the idea of a Fowley box set, but as I could never seem to catch him again we moved on.


For the moment, he was right. But when the vinyl version of Yellow Pills was being planned in 2011, I sent an email to Kim asking if he could make time for an interview. I wanted to get deep into Vampires, and he was the only one who knew what the fuck was REALLY going on in 1979.  He set it up for, of course, midnight Pacific. The conversation was another epic, grinding on until nearly 5am Central. He told the Vampires story and a hundred others. Just before we wrapped, as the sun was beginning to poke over the horizon, Kim Fowley paid the only compliment he would ever pay Numero: “I like you guys,” Kim said. “You’re the only ones who ever send me royalty checks.”

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