The accepted lore of San Francisco punk in the late '70s revolves around bands like the Avengers, Flipper, Crime and the Dead Kennedys, with their common ground at the Mabuhay Gardens, but an entirely separate scene flourished at the same time across the Bay in Berkeley. Artists like the Rubinoos, Psycotic Pineapple, X-Ray Ted, the Jars. and J.D. Buhl & the Believers gigged regularly at the International Café on the corner of Dwight and Telegraph. The Berkeley scene remains overshadowed by the groups that were simultaneously active in San Francisco, but not for upstart local group Dancer, who included a faithful cover of J.D. Buhl's 1981 single "Do Ya Blame Me?" on their new EP this month.
On Friday, Nov. 29, Buhl steps on stage for a one-off performance as Dancer's vocalist at the Hemlock. We caught up with him earlier this week to hear about the East Bay scene, balancing music with teaching, and getting back in the spotlight.
"Starting a band...was something I was ready to do. It just came of the times," says Buhl. "You were just ready to begin as soon as someone said, 'Hey I've got these lyrics that need a melody.'" Buhl cofounded the Jars in 1978. When the group split in 1980, he assembled the Believers and self-released the single "Five O'clock World" with the old Jars tune "Do Ya Blame Me?" on the b-side via his own Driving Records imprint. He produced another single, plus an album in 1984, but left full-time music for a career in education by the early '90s.
Reflecting on Berkeley's late '70s scene, Buhl says, "We were writers, painters, journalists, but of a generation that strove for autonomy and not anarchy." He continues, "There was still a sense of continuity with rock 'n' roll history. The Sex Pistols declared that they were out to destroy rock 'n' roll; we were just trying to scrounge up gigs." Years before the first issue of Maximumrocknroll magazine and the establishment of East Bay punk institutions like 924 Gilman Street and Epicenter Zone, the Berkeley scene produced many enduring power pop singles, one of the very first punk albums in the Bay from Psycotic Pineapple, and a commercial success with the Rubinoos.
"Do Ya Blame Me" sets Buhl's narrative of unapologetic infatuation to handclaps, an infectious chord progression, and an absolutely saccharine chorus, replete with cooing backup vocals. Each part exceeds the gushing melodic value of the one that came before, rendering a pop song of such economical charm that it simply can't be forgotten. Dancer's rendition honors all of its assets.
"Over the years, I did feel as though my music was lost to history," Buhl says. "It never entered my mind that some kids would cover my single in 2013 and learn it right off the record!" Led by vocalist Dee Dee Robbins, Dancer's second EP, My Car Drives Fast is indebted to both punk's flippant urgency and the hook-laden power pop of Buhl and his peers, a synthesis of past genres that looks beyond the usual Bay Area torchbearers of the late '70s. Eran Yarkon, founder of East Bay imprint Guitars and Bongos, released Dancer's record this month and put the group in touch with Buhl. As the collaborative performance at the Hemlock is imminent, the introduction has proved fortuitous. J.D. Buhl and the Believers' debut single is 32 years old, but Dancer is among the faithful.