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Collision Course 

The garage rock career of Russell Quan has been one long train wreck

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
According to the liner notes on the Dukes of Hamburg's Some Folks, the group was a German "beat band" that played in the early '60s. Like the Beatles, the combo performed anarchic covers of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley tunes in Hamburg clubs; in the musicians' off hours, they worked as decorators and film technicians. Of course, the notes are a ruse. Closer inspection of the album unveils the logo of Gearhead Records, a San Francisco imprint that specializes in modern, primitive garage rock, and the personage of local scene titan Russell Quan, here dressed in armor and holding a plumed helmet.

The LP's cheeky design shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows of Quan. This is a musician who wrapped himself in bandages and rode in a hearse during his time with the Mummies, and who appeared with the rest of the Flakes in a book called 101 Ways to Pick Up Women! (No. 67: The Deep Knee Blonde.) With the Count Backwurds he posed as a pirate on the back of a 7-inch; on the Bobbyteens' Web site (, he listed "nose picking" as one of his favorite hobbies.

But saying that Quan is just a yukster is selling him short. The 43-year-old Castro Valley drummer and singer has been playing rough-and-tumble garage rock for 20 years now -- long before it appeared in the pages of Time and The New Yorker, attached to the names of the White Stripes and the Hives. As for Quan's talents, "Peeping John" McDonald of the Flakes and the Count Backwurds says, "There's not a lot of drummers that can play like Russell does -- as loud and fast as he can."

Still, when the idea of his significance is brought up, Quan waves it off. "I was in no way the leader of any of these groups; I was always the follower," he says. "None of these bands were important except for us to have a few laughs."

History would suggest otherwise.

All of Russell Quan's friends describe him as happy-go-lucky. "Russell's all about fun," Phantom Surfers leader Mike Lucas says. "He's like a Sammy Davis Jr. who doesn't like seafood."

But the hints of gray in Quan's trademark black mop-top seem to hint that life wasn't always so carefree. Back in 1965, when Quan was 7, he moved from multicultural Oakland to cornfed Castro Valley, where he stood out like a flower in a field of weeds. "I think there was maybe one other Chinese family living there," Quan says, during an interview at a Mission District taqueria. "I got shit all the time."

Quan's one solace was music. He adored the songs of the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and, naturally, the Beatles. "When the Beatles came on TV, it seemed like the biggest thing in the word, an undeniable force. Me and this Filipino kid from across the street, we used to pretend we were in A Hard Day's Night. It was probably just a passing phase for him."

Oddly enough, the East Bay was a hotbed for garage rock in the mid-'60s. Big bands such as the Yardbirds, Them, and Love all played shows around East 14th Street, at the San Leandro Roll Arena and the Mother's Cookies factory. Unfortunately, by the time Quan was old enough to attend the venues, the scene had died out. Groups packed up their fuzz pedals and Farfisa organs and faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, Quan tuned his radio to other sounds. "In the mid-'70s I was listening to soul music because rock music was such a bummer," he recalls.

By the end of the decade, however, Quan had rediscovered garage, thanks to cool fanzines like Bomp and the area's numerous record swaps. He remembers in particular picking up an album by the Sonics, a Tacoma, Wash., group responsible for one of the wildest rock tunes ever, "Psycho," and having something like a religious experience.

Forming a band seemed like the next step, except that Quan didn't know anyone with similar tastes, either in Castro Valley or at Chabot Junior College, where he was taking classes. Through his job at a gas station, Quan met a few guys, and they began rehearsing covers of the Kinks, the Who, and the Yardbirds. Quan decided to be the drummer, even though he had no training. "It appealed to me because it made a lot of noise," he says simply. "And Ringo's a drummer. Who didn't want to be like Ringo?"

The band lasted a couple of years, although it never found a singer, played a show, or settled on a name. "It was hopeless -- there was nobody around who was remotely interested in the music we were interested in," Quan says.

By the mid-'80s, that problem had been solved to a small degree. While the majority of Americans were bopping along to Madonna and Prince, a number of underground acts began reviving the feedback-and-organ blitzkrieg of the '60s. Inspired by the Chesterfield Kings and the Lyres, Quan hooked up with guitarist Christof Certig and formed the Horseless Headmen in 1985. (The drummer, Steig Mantis, came from pop culture royalty -- his mom was Miss America in 1961, and his stepdad was Jim Lang from The Dating Game -- and the rhythm guitarist was a then-teenaged Bart Davenport.) Quan sang, belting out covers and "rehashed originals" of '60s garage and British R&B tunes. The band did well, opening for big-time revivalists the Tell-Tale Hearts and the Unclaimed, but the Horseless Headmen were still either far ahead of, or way behind, the times. "We had a hard time getting shows," Quan says. "There were no bands in S.F. like us, except maybe the Morlocks, who'd moved up from San Diego."

After the Horseless Headmen dissolved in 1987, Quan gave up being a frontman and became the Creeple Peeples' drummer. "You've got nothing to protect yourself except for a microphone," Quan says, explaining his retreat behind the skins. The Peeples lasted two years, playing the kind of distorto-punk found on the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations. When the act broke up, the band's organist, Trent Ruane, formed the Mummies, with Quan on drums, Maz Kattuah on bass, and Larry Winther on guitar. (Winther would go on to play in local indie pop act the Orange Peels.)

Mike Lucas remembers the Mummies' first show, which the Phantom Surfers played as well. "We had a song called 'Sandtrap Stomp,'" Lucas says. "We had golf pants and an exploding golf ball, and we asked Russell to wear the pants and hit the ball into the audience. He bit the ball instead, and it exploded in his mouth."

The Mummies' reputation for irreverence grew rapidly. But beyond the shtick -- the musicians played wrapped in gauze, drove a hearse to shows, and posed with topless chicks on their 7-inches -- the group made terrific music filled with surfy licks and blaring organ fills. English garage icon Billy Childish was so enamored of the band that he released Fuck CDs -- It's the Mummies on his own U.K. label, Hangman. The Mummies toured Europe twice, including an infamous 1993 jaunt with locals Supercharger, and opened for big-name '60s acts like the Syndicate of Sound. The quartet helped spur on the growing garage scene, which now included groups such as the Trashwomen, Vanilla Whores, and 8-Ball Scratch.

"It's funny how that stuff got kind of trendy; I never thought that would happen," Quan says. "In the '70s that music was looked down upon as trashy throwaway, which it was, but it's just the best fucking music ever made, as far as I'm concerned."

Following the breakup of the Mummies in 1993, Quan kicked his playing into high gear. "He was in something crazy like 10 bands at once," says "Peeping John" McDonald. "A lot of bands wouldn't have been around without him."

Quan joined the Count Backwurds, the Phantom Surfers, the Maybellines, and the Bobbyteens, along with other more short-lived garage combos, most of which played at the now-defunct Purple Onion, the heart of the S.F. garage rock scene. As for why he wanted to be in the Count Backwurds, Quan says, "I thought it'd be great to be in a band with 'Peeping John,' because he's such a great singer -- and such a little shit." He's equally saucy about drumming for the Surfers, a band that had already ridden the crest of the surf revival. "Before I joined, the Surfers were a good band, playing good music," he says. "But then they decided to make fun of everything, including themselves ... I joined in the Vanilla Ice period; I bought into the stock when it was worthless."

Quan's band with the biggest profile was the Bobbyteens, fronted by his longtime girlfriend, Tina Lucchesi. (Their relationship ended in 2000, but the pair continue to play together.) The outfit's mixture of bubble-gum raunch and girl glam-pop paved the way for the Donnas, who were shepherded by Bobbyteens producer and one-time Supercharger Darin Raffaelli.

But of all the groups Quan's been in, the Dukes of Hamburg comes the closest to realizing the sweet beat sound of the mid-'60s. The Dukes were conceived in 1996 by Thilo Pieper, a German native who had booked the Mummies' tours in Europe and had moved to the Bay Area to study at the Academy of Art. "The idea was to cover the Kinks covering Bo Diddley songs -- drink 10 cups of coffee and play them all too fast," Quan says, laughing.

Following three vinyl full-lengths on Dionysus, the Dukes recorded Some Folks with the lineup of Pieper on guitar, Steve Cirelli on drums, Benjamin Day on bass, Chris Imlay of the Hi-Fives on guitar, and Quan back out front on vocals. "That [record] was Thilo's opportunity to polish the turd," Quan says, somewhat ruefully. "There's actually a mid and low range to it. It sounds pretty good -- I just can't stand the sound of my own voice."

Quan's being modest. If Some Folks is certainly the clearest-sounding record of his bulging oeuvre, it is also the most authentic. You could easily throw the group's versions of "Little by Little," "Off the Hook," and "Boom Boom" in with the Rolling Stones' and the Animals', and no one would know the difference. And the Dukes' cover of "Hey Joe" features serrated guitar and vocals sharp enough to cut Jimi Hendrix in two. The one bad thing about the record: It is the Dukes' swan song; Pieper has now returned to Germany.

Quan has no plan to stop playing. Although he admits to feeling the ravages of time, he mentions five bands he's currently in -- the Bobbyteens, the Flakes, the Easys, the Maybellines, and the Phantom Surfers -- as well as a sixth he's been asked to join -- the Magic Christians, featuring Cyril Jordan of the Flamin' Groovies. In the end, though, Quan reiterates that he and his friends aren't doing anything important. "Some of the music is pretty listenable, but on the whole it's mostly a train wreck."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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