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One-Hit Wanderer 

Since moving to the Bay Area a decade ago, Alec Palao has diligently tracked the history of local bands before the Grateful Dead (yes, such bands existed)

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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As life-changing events go, what happened to Alec Palao when he was 15 was relatively mundane: A classmate at his British boarding school in 1977 loaned him a record. The album was Nuggets, the 1972 double-LP compilation of American one-hit-wonder trash rock and early punk that's been an inspiration for many rock bands with more energy than talent. For Palao, it wound up changing the trajectory of his life.

Listening to Nuggets and the concurrent rise of British punk inspired Palao's ongoing fascination with rock history that, 10 years ago, landed him in the Bay Area and provided him with a full-time job as a music archivist. Just over 20 years after having his mind blown by Nuggets, he found himself writing an essay and providing research assistance for last year's release of the four-CD Nuggets box set.

"When punk rock came around, it was very exciting," says Palao in the work space of his home in the El Cerrito flats. "But at the same time I was discovering punk rock, I was starting to discover the cool '60s groups like the Stones and the Yardbirds and the Kinks. And when I heard Nuggets it was the same as that, but it was a kind of exotic American thing which was totally entrancing."

Palao, 36, has played in several bands: first in Britain, playing bass with the rockabilly-styled Sting-Rays, and then in the Bay Area with the '60s pop cover band the Termites, the trashy Cuban Heels, post-rockers Mushroom (a group that also features local keyboard experimentalist Graham Connah), and, most famously, the Sneetches, the esteemed power-pop trio that has been on hiatus recently. As a British expatriate, Palao has a decidedly different perception of what it means to play in an American band. "I try to explain to people that in England, they still picture America as milkshakes and Cadillacs, driving down the freeway with Chuck Berry on the radio."

That helps explain why, in 1996, Palao was utterly thrilled when the Termites had an opportunity to play what most musicians would consider the world's worst possible gig: a prom in Fresno. "That's a real classic American thing that we don't have in England at all," he points out. "I thought [the promgoers] were going to hate us, that they'd want to hear hip hop or Green Day or something, [but] they loved it. And it kind of flashed on me, while we're playing 'Louie Louie' or whatever -- they're dancing, trying to get onstage, and the chaperones are pulling them off -- that it's the same formal dress, and we're playing the same music in the same way as it would've been 35 years ago."

What happened in rock music 35 years ago is the focus of Palao's day job. He is the West Coast consultant for Ace Records, the British reissue giant that archives and reissues albums from the Stax, Fantasy, Vanguard, and Takoma labels, among others. Palao's own work is with the Big Beat imprint (for whom the Sting-Rays first recorded), and it's a relatively narrow swath of place and time he covers: the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-'60s. In other words, the time between the British Invasion and the Grateful Dead's formation.

Shortly after arriving in the Bay Area, Palao founded the fanzine Cream Puff War to document the semifamous likes of Mystery Trend, Vejtables, and William Penn & His Pals, taking the zine's name from a Dead song -- "It's a song on the first album, and you know it's a good album because all the Deadheads hate it." He's also responsible for last year's Zombie Heaven, a four-CD box set of the Zombies that proved the band's musical worth went far beyond "She's Not There."

His main focus, however, is "Nuggets From the Golden State," an ongoing series of reissues that focuses exclusively on the Bay Area and the pre-psychedelic San Francisco Sound. The number of CDs in the series is now nearing 20, and Palao has helped recover works from the likes of the Charlatans, Great Society (featuring a pre-Jefferson Airplane Grace Slick), Chocolate Watchband, Syndicate of Sound, Beau Brummels, and other groups whose moment in the spotlight lasted about as long as it takes to play their three-minute singles.

"Unfortunately, when people talk about the San Francisco Sound, they're talking about the tie-dye era, the very late '60s and early '70s," says Palao. "To me, already by then musically there wasn't that much interesting going on." What he found in the fertile period from 1965 to '68 was a confluence of folk (documented on Dan Hicks' Early Muses), South Bay trash rock (The Hush Records Story), pre-lysergic rock and pop (Mystery Trend's So Glad I Found You, Someone to Love: The Birth of the San Francisco Sound), and pure bubble gum (Beau Brummels' Autumn of the Years). None of the reissues can claim massive sales -- even the cult appeal of the Charlatans moved only about 8,000 copies -- but they meet their market. Palao is a diligent researcher, writing highly readable essays (no small point in the reissue world) as companions to the CDs, based on interviews with the actual artists involved. "The garage band guys are thrilled that anybody even remembers," he says. In the case of Dan Hicks' Early Muses, it was an opportunity to capture the drowsy-voiced blues-folkie just as he was beginning to plot his career path away from the Charlatans. "Alec contacted me and I said, 'Well, it's a possibility if you think it's worthy of doing,' " says Hicks. A collection of demos he made in 1967 before the formation of his Hot Licks, it captures early, spare versions of never-released material, as well as songs that today remain staples of Hicks' live shows, including "Canned Music" and "I've Got a Capo on My Brain." "It wasn't something I thought about doing," says Hicks, but he adds, "I like the idea of an archival kind of thing, especially since a lot of these tunes never did get recorded by me, the Hot Licks, or anybody."

In the course of his research, Palao has gone native: In 1993 the Sneetches collaborated with the Flamin' Groovies' Chris Wilson for an album, and after tracking down Beau Brummels singer Sal Valentino for his 1994 compilation, Palao helped re-form that band with Valentino singing again, doing old hits like "Laugh Laugh" along with new songs, at Lake Tahoe casinos. ("For me, I love that kind of thing," says Palao. "That's America: 'We're playing a casino!' ") He wanted to continue with the new group, but the state fair talent buyers weren't biting. "All they want now is clones," says Palao. He cites examples of just how ugly the oldies circuit can look: "Heartache Tonight: A Tribute to the Eagles" or "Empire: A Salute to Steve Perry and the Music of Journey."

It's a distinction Palao wants to make in his work, pointing out the difference between the world of moribund oldies radio and the excitement in uncovering music you've never heard before -- decades-old, maybe, but still sounding fresh. So Palao DJs around town, spinning obscurities both as Cherry Blossom Clinic and as one of the three DJs (including Pink Frankenstein and Brother Grimm) working "Bardot A Go Go" at the Cocodrie. And if you need proof of how wide-ranging the appeal of his music still is, glance at the clientele: second-generation mods and teddy boys, women in '60s vintage wear, tourists, and be-Dockered desk jockeys jockeying for pickups. Though "Bardot A Go Go" is technically French-themed, Palao selects '60s pop from both sides of the pond as well as Japan; samples from Japan's "Group Sounds" scene have appeared on a compilation he coordinated titled GS I Love You, with a second volume in the works.

But even within the Bay Area, Palao hasn't run out of subjects for future compilations in the "Nuggets From the Golden State" series. Later this month he'll release She Wants a Piece of You, a collection of songs by She, an all-female quintet from Sacramento that started as the Hairem and played a style of brash and tough-willed punk-pop that predates riot grrrl by a good two decades. And he speaks about it all with the enthusiasm of a music fan who's discovered something brand-new because, in the case of a band like She, it might as well be.

"I don't have nostalgia," Palao says. "I was 3 years old and on the other side of the world when all this stuff was going on. For me, it's living music.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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