LAST SUMMER, holed up in Sound City Studios in the industrial pits of the San Fernando Valley, four musicians known collectively as 20/20 were deep in work on their first album.
Recorded in a crazed midnight-to-noon, three week schedule under the quietly expert guidance of producer Earle Mankey, the foursome (all in their mid-20s) exuded a confident, heady zeal about the project. Listening to the playbacks, guitarist Steve Allen grinned, “I didn’t know we sounded so good!” Bassist Ron Flynt, as tall and amicably soft-spoken as Allen is short and amicably cocky, deemed the record’s success an inevitability. The same enthusiastic vision was shared by drummer Mike Gallo and keyboardist/guitarist Chris Silagyi.
After all, they knew they were good. Prior to signing a hefty contract with CBS, the group had been approached with an unusual deal by Radar Records. The British label wanted popmeister Nick Lowe to choose and record an LA act for an album to be released only in the UK. 20/20 was his choice. The band passed on the offer and went instead with Epic, among the first batch of LA-based aggregations to be snatched up on the platinum heels of the Knack.
20/20 had been infected with that cocksure certainty that hits young bands in the middle of making a good album with a good producer. Stooped intently over the Kiss pinball machine outside the soundbooth, Gallo and Flynt discussed the LP’s sequencing and whether ‘Cheri’, ‘Jet Lag’ or ‘Remember the Lightning’ would be the first single. Hollywood dreams of fast women, fast cars, fame and fortune rolled across their eyes like the numbers rolling up on the pinball scoreboard.
Six months later, only a relative handful of record buyers – most of them in LA – could tell you what group sings ‘Cheri’ or ‘Tell Me Why’. 20/20’s self-titled debut – unlike the Knack’s first album – wasn’t released in a veritable vinyl vacuum. It was shipped amid a mass of fall/Christmas product, within weeks of long-awaited LPs by Cheap Trick, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. 20/20 received a modicum of FM airplay but garnered next to no AM action. It didn’t sell well. It got buried.
Cut-out bin oblivion is an unfair destiny for 20/20. Like much of the new pop emerging from LA nowadays, 20/20 combines elements of British ’60s rock with the feverish, frenzied abandon of the post-punk era: snapping drums, crisp, crackling guitars, syncopated synthesizer rhythms, bountiful hooks and Beatlesque harmonies. (Allen, Flynt and Silagyi all sing; all four wrote and/or co-wrote their material.) Although Allen and Flynt hail from Tulsa, Oklahoma, much of their phrasing is Anglofied, and the band’s harmony arrangements repeatedly recall those of the Fab Four. Beyond that, there are overt references (what Allen calls “Beatles clues”) running through the LP – someone whispering “Paul is dead” during the fade of ‘Tell Me Why’, for instance. “We’re not trying to be a Beatles renaissance, though,” Allen insists. “I dig the Beatles too much to think we could possibly be compared to them.”
One stigma attached to many of the new LA bands like 20/20 is their heavy reliance on and rehashing of musical ideas from the mid-’60s. “We’ve gotten a lot of ’60s rap,” Flynt says, “which I can understand, because we gave off that image.” He’s alluding to Monkees covers in 20/20’s early club repertoire, their mod looks and 1978 Bomp single which reeked of ’60s stylings. But Flynt adds that the group’s attitude is forward-thinking. “We’re very much an ’80s band.”
Allen and Flynt’s musical partnership goes back over a decade, to their first junior high school band. As high school seniors they began touring the same Midwestern bar and college circuit travelled by acts like Cheap Trick. Some of their incarnations through the years included Time Machine, Sergeant Rock, the Knack (that’s right), Velvet Morning, Big City, Sweet Virginia, Mondo Combo, the Gamma Band and the Dead Johnnies. “We played covers of Vanilla Fudge songs,” Flynt recalls. “We did ‘Gloria’ and ‘Louie Louie’,” Allen adds. “We played in country clubs doing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. We’d play places where we’d do a 20-minute version of ZZ Top’s ‘La Grange’.”
Like fellow Tulsa-ite and friend Phil Seymour (who sings backing vocals on ‘She’s an Obsession’), Allen and Flynt eventually headed west to Hollywood. “When we first got here,” Allen says, “the scene was real punk. Friends from Oklahoma were getting their hair cut and doing these punk things. A guy from our high school was the drummer in the Screamers. We felt pressure to be punk, but we didn’t. Then the scene just gradually turned our way. The punk thing became less. We started playing places like the Troubador, Madame Wong’s, the Whisky. We did the Troubador the night the Knack got signed, when they had girls paid to scream!”
“It’s turned into a real community here,” Flynt says. “All the bands that people have rated high, that are getting signed, are all bands where the musicians have been playing for a long time and everyone knows everyone else: the Motels, the Knack, Code Blue, the Know, the Plimsouls.”
20/20 did most of their LA club internship as a trio. A few months before they signed with CBS, Chris Silagyi joined on. Originally from Brooklyn, Silagyi spent his high school days in Santa Barbara, where he met Lance Loud (of the Mumps and TV’s An American Family) and played in some local bands.
20/20 has had its share of ups and downs. The elation at having landed a big recording contract has obviously been damped by 20/20’s relatively poor showing. Mike Gallo departed the group soon after the album’s release to form his own unit, Radio Music. He was replaced by Joel Turrisi, formerly of the Know, and the new quartet embarked on a limited national tour. They plan to re-enter the studio soon (late February/early March) to record a second album; whether with Mankey or a new producer has yet to be decided.
The band is a little older and a little wiser. Allen: “We’ve learned that it’s not as simple as just making a good album and then going out on the road to support it. But if we stick with it we know that eventually it will pay off.” 20/20 won’t be complaining if that “eventually” comes when their second album hits the stores this summer.
© Steven X Rea, Trouser Press, March 1980