On The Street With The Alley Cats

THE ALLEY Cats may play a bad set some night but I’ll probably be long dead and gone before it happens. Sure, some sets are hotter than others but there could be five people in the club and they’d still get their beer bottles blasted right off the table.

The Alley Cats do it with no gimmicks, no outrage, not even much movement onstage – just three people laying down a solid barrage of pure, heavy-energy rock ‘n’ roll fueled by no more exotic stimulants than coffee. One knowledgeable observer of the LA scene maintains it’s heavy metal played three times faster than the ponderous dullards inhabiting that genre could imagine; another says they’re a straight rock ‘n’ roll band playing to the wrong audience in the punks that have more or less adopted the Alley Cats as their own.

Me, I just call it the most propulsive invitation to dance music this side of the Ramones/Undertones blitzkrieg-pop axis and the skanking Jamaican connection. If pressed, I’d compare them to the Pirates sans the heavy ’50s orientation and Mick Green’s guitar gymnastics (though the Cats’ Randy Stodola is certainly no slouch in the brain-frying solos department).

There aren’t too many trios I’ve seen recently that wouldn’t benefit from a fourth instrument to flesh out the sound. But the Alley Cats are one of those self-contained units where another musician would be utterly superfluous. John McCarthy could well be the world’s most invisible great drummer – he plays high-speed fills with immaculate precision and an unerring sense of swing, but you can walk away from a gig without remembering what he looks like. It makes more sense when you consider that he’s stuck between bassist Dianne Chai, a striking Ronnie Spector lookalike of Asiatic descent, and Stodola, who would have been absolutely letter perfect for the role of Martin Sheen’s scrawny kid brother in Badlands, had there been one.

I talked with Randy and Dianne this summer shortly after they’d finished handing out flyers outside the Whisky advertising their next gig. The conversation began at the Powerburger across from the Whisky and ended in the international pickup Randy and Dianne have dubbed “God’s Sports Car.” Dianne deferred to Randy throughout – he speaks nervously and persists in saying, “I don’t know if that makes any sense” after making far more than in 98% of the bullshit you’ll hear in Hollywood on any given night.

“The first ten years I played alone, so I don’t necessarily do things the way other people do. We lived in North Dakota and upper Michigan and then moved to California when I was twelve. I was in a band called the Hubcaps, playing bars, and I was looking to start another band. I met Dianne while I was giving guitar lessons and we decided to form a band together. She switched to bass and six months after she started, we did our first job as the Alley Cats five years ago this March. We went through a variety of drummers and got John about two and a half years ago.

“We used to do a lot of Chuck Berry stuff, Doing Chuck Berry-type stuff was one way of getting to play in bars without doing covers and Top 40, because you could get people to dance. You’d have to be ten times as good as the cover band, but it you were good enough you could get a job.

“We did high schools, bars and whatever we could during the lean period. If we playing a high school it was okay, a couple of sets. If we played a bar, we’d play the same songs four times with different words. We’d just take some basic rhythm & blues thing and do it once every set, just a slight variation off it.”

After that seasoning period in the gritty, industrial South Bay, the Alley Cats arrived in Hollywood In ’77and became regulars on the Masque/Club 88/Hong Kong Cafe circuit. Every scene has its petty backbiting and squabbling but the Alley Cats have somehow managed to sail through all the politics with their popularity unscathed.

“It still mystifies us, because it seems like the punks are cliquish and have a really set idea of what everything should sound like. We never thought of ourselves as a punk band. I wasn’t even aware of what punk rock was. The first time we went to the Whisky was to see the Zippers, whom we’d just met. The second time was when we played there.

“Our problem was that it was a period of what I called hyphenated rock: folk-rock, jazz-rock, classical-rock, country-rock and all. If you played rock’n’roll but weren’t trying to be nostalgic, there wasn’t that much of an audience. It seems like when punk rock/new wave started, there was more of an audience for what we were doing.”

The simple reason is an excellent collection of songs that haven’t paled despite the fact that the Alley Cats’ set has changed only minimally over the past two years. Any number of them are firmly embedded in my mind: straight adrenaline thrashes (‘Black Haired Girl’, ‘Just An Alleycat’) built on utterly simple but extremely effective rock dynamics; the berserk roller coaster cum runaway freight train riff of ‘Nothing Means Nothing Anymore’, the evil stomp of ‘Nightmare City In A Nightmare World’. ‘King Of The Street Fights’, a long, loping electric Dylan/Reed urban travelogue, is the first song I can recall in ages that you could actually slow dance to. And the live transition from that into the first rampaging chords of ‘Black Haired Girls’ is positively deadly. The songs wear well because the band has honed its ensemble tightness to a fine edge.

“Going back to the days when we used to make up songs just before we did ’em, we’ve always done things on signals. I hate to say it but I guess it’s sort of like a jazz band. We’ve gotten to the point where when John does a roll, I know when he’s going to finish it.”

The one conspicuous weak spot is Randy’s vocals – the local consensus is that Dianne should sing more. She tears into her vocals, teasing and toying with the words, particularly on ‘Too Much Junk’.

Unfortunately, the vocals do tend to obscure the lyrics and Stodola’s words add an entirely new and unexpected dimension to the Alley Cats’ music. I couldn’t track down some lyric sheets I loaned out, so I can’t cite verbatim examples. Suffice to say that it’s the urban street-poet division tales of losers and dead-end survivors filtered through a neon haze and vivid quasi-surrealistic imagery.

“I was sort of mentally ill in my younger days and I started writing poetry as sort of self-help therapy. I’m an incurable insomniac and I’ve spent most of my life staying up all night so I end up playing guitar or writing words. I’ve been writing for a long time now and I’m not quite sure where reality and fantasy end and begin.”

There are a lot of paradoxes to the Alley Cats. They’re one of the most innocent, even naive, and idealistic (they still do everything in their power to keep ticket prices at their gigs in the $4-5 range) bands I’ve encountered – yet their music is as ferociously energetic and demon-riddled as the most self-consciously alienated punk band. Their audience has largely been punks, but there’s no reason their music wouldn’t find favor among mainstream hard rock crowds. They could well be signed shortly, but they don’t appear to have any burning desire to be stars.

“We’re pretty much up in the air. We’re not in a real big hurry to record anything. I’m not sure whether it does that much good. The best thing is to play what you like yourself and hope that other people will like it. It’s a matter of not compromising.

“I don’t know anything about record companies but I don’t think that we’re what they really want, or maybe they’re unaware. The social circles they travel in are more oriented towards The Pop, 20/20 and the Motels. They probably have friends who go see the Motels and tell them about it. I doubt they have friends who got to the Elks Lodge to see us.

“It’s frustrating and it isn’t. A lot of bands started up a couple of years ago and thought they were going to get a big record deal and be the Sex Pistols or something, so their expectation level was probably higher than ours was. We had two years to acclimate ourselves to never being successful and just doing what we did because we wanted to do it.

“It’s frustrating in that we have to struggle every month to pay the rent and we never have any money. The neck of Dianne’s bass is broken, my guitar is falling apart, I always have to borrow people’s cords when we play, the car’s permanently dead or semi-dead but aside from that, It’s not frustrating.”

The Alley Cats might have the best scam on earth going, one expressly designed to deflect the suspicions of us cynical sorts, but no one’s been able to find a crack in the facade for two years and I don’t believe they’re anything but sincere. There’s been a change in the Alley Cats’ fortunes of late – they regularly headline the Whisky these days and are currently recording with the Kessel brothers. They have one single on Dangerhouse (‘Nothing Means Nothing Anymore’ b/w ‘Give Me A Little Pain’) and one song on the Yes L.A. compilation (‘Too Much Junk’| and if you like basic, no-bullshit, high-energy rook ‘n’ roll, you’re advised to pick them up. You won’t be disappointed.

© Don SnowdenNew York Rocker, March 1980

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