Unsung Heroes of LA Rock & Roll: The Quick's 'Mondo Deco' is Reissued
The Quick, Mondo Deco (Radio Heartbeat Records; www.radioheartbeat.net)
In this nostalgia-mad music era, when seemingly everything worthwhile has already been rediscovered and fully explained a long time ago, it's more than a little ironic that a band called the Quick had to wait three decades for its debut (and only) album to get back in print, with a recent vinyl reissue on Radio Heartbeat. It's even more surprising because Mondo Deco, originally released by Mercury Records in 1976, is more than just a great lost rock album. It's a great rock album, period -- and certainly the most perversely intelligent power-pop record from the L.A. scene in the 1970s.
Despite the Quick's long, slow slide into semi-oblivion following their breakup in 1978, the quintet's initial rise to legitimate near-stardom was, indeed, quick. Not long after forming in late 1974, the San Fernando Valley teenagers made a demo and drew the attention of Runaways manager Kim Fowley. At the time, in the dead zone between the end of glitter and before the start of punk, there were only a few nightclubs -- mainly for cover bands like Van Halen -- so the Quick had to literally create their own scene from scratch.
Their short, snappy name -- which seems so plain and ordinary now, especially compared to the flashier, bloodier names of the punk groups that would soon follow them -- was clearly an homage to such early influences as the Move and the Kinks. But not even Ray Davies had a worldview as wickedly sarcastic as Teutonic-obsessed Quick guitarist Steven Hufsteter, who was penning Randy Newman-type satires like "Master Race" and "Hi Lo," where the hero tries to seduce his girlfriend with pickup lines like "We can pretend that you're Miss Braun," cleverly conflating fascism and romance several years before Elvis Costello did much the same thing in "Two Little Hitlers."
The son of the legendary trumpeter Steve Huffsteter (whose last name is spelled slightly differently), Hufsteter was the Quick's answer to Pete Townshend, playing slashing guitar and writing most of the songs, while the angelic-voiced Danny Wilde (who'd go on to more fame with the Rembrandts, singing the theme to Friends) was the front man. Hufsteter was so prolific that most of his best songs didn't even end up on Mondo Deco. He had at least two albums' worth of brilliant unreleased demos and live originals by the time the Quick broke up, only about half of which were released in 2003 on the similarly essential collection Untold Rock Stories (on the British label Rev-Ola).
In fact, the Quick's most famous song, "Pretty Please," was never officially released during the band's existence. Available only on a 1978 fan-club single -- and, much later, on Untold Rock Stories and the early-'90s Rhino Records compilation D.I.Y.: We're Desperate: The L.A. Scene (1976-79) -- the relentlessly compelling "Pretty Please" received heavy airplay on Rodney on the Roq and was later covered by Redd Kross and the Dickies (the latter of whom started out as the Quick's roadies, took some of their songs, sped them up to hardcore tempos and became much more popular).
The Dickies weren't the only ones who noticed that the Quick were up to something unusual and potentially profitable. In the liner notes to Untold Rock Stories, Quick drummer Danny Benair (who played in the '80s with the Three O'Clock) points out that Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos used to bring a tape recorder to Quick sets, which isn't that wild of an accusation when one compares Hufsteter's solos and chord changes on certain mid-'70s live Quick recordings to suspiciously similar Cheap Trick tracks that came out later. Of course, Cheap Trick were notorious plagiarists ("Taxman, Mr. Thief"), but usually their borrowing worked as tributes to their acknowledged heroes the Beatles and the Move. What hasn't been acknowledged, however, is how much the Quick may have directly inspired some of Cheap Trick's famous arrangements.
With Fowley's help, the Quick were signed to Mercury by A&R man Denny Rosencrantz, who'd previously signed the Runaways. Mondo Deco was recorded at the Beach Boys' Brother Studios by producer Earle Mankey (Concrete Blonde, the Runaways, Possum Dixon), the founding guitarist of Sparks, one of the Quick's chief influences. According to Benair's new liner notes, none other than Carl Wilson was impressed by the Quick's harmonies. Fowley was given co-production credit, although he reportedly spent little time in the recording studio since he was apparently preoccupied with chasing the Runaways around.
Perhaps out of sheer chutzpah, Mondo Deco starts with an astonishing, super-sugary and super-glittery remake of the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long," where Wilde's insanely high vocals make Lennon & McCartney come off like Barry White. Some of his high-flying acrobatics were doubtless the result of studio trickery, such as speeding up the track, but there's no denying that Wilde was a powerful singer onstage and in the studio, with a soaring, seemingly limitless upper end.
In the next song, "No No Girl," we meet the first of several of Hufsteter's cracked paramours and disturbing/disturbed lost little girls. "She tries to be shocking, but nobody cares/She tries to be dangerous, but no one's aware," Wilde declares, as keyboardist Billy Bizeau taps out an idiotically repetitive nursery-rhyme-like pattern. "She's still after her lost first relation/A classic case of father fixation." Then Hufsteter launches several loud, open-ended Who-like power chords, and the poppy chorus harmonies come back teasingly, chidingly like a playground taunt: "no no girl."
The subject of "Hillary" appears to be closer to Hufsteter's ideal, a perfect blonde German vixen who's as "strong as a Valkyrie." But, on closer inspection, this sunny goddess turns out to be a cruel dominatrix: "You show me that there must be bad with good/Salt & sugar, pain & pleasure/Old tricks, well as new." Meanwhile, "In My Room"-style backing vocals hover in the reverb mist like a celestial choir, Hufsteter twists up the song's uncanny repeating guitar figure, dishes break and records are scratched, while Benair stomps through the flowerbed with a loud, jack-booted beat.
For all of the foppish, elegantly melodic frilliness of songs like "Playtime," "Hi Lo" and a decidedly unhip (for the time), caffeinated remake of the Four Seasons' "Rag Doll," the Quick were ultimately a hard-hitting rock band. The throbbing, six-minute cry for attention "Anybody" could have, theoretically, crossed over to classic-rock radio (assuming such things were possible at the time), with its surging, menacing guitars and pulverizingly hypnotic drums. Mankey makes Benair's snare drum crack so wise and loud that it booms with its own internal melodic drive during the song's momentous rave-up, a thing of beauty when combined with the humming overtones from Hufsteter's muffled ax harmonics.
Mondo Deco's emotional peak is "My Purgatory Years," a punky San Fernando Valley equivalent to Quadrophenia, boiled down into one magnificent multi-part glam-rock epic told from the point of view of an especially bored and cynical teenager who can't stand his high school: "Give me an answer," Wilde cries out into the canyon roar of Hufsteter's guitar. "I think I've been institutionalized ... I used to belong to the scholastic society/But now I'm busy with my notoriety ... I'm not prepared for the real world/All I know is school and girls." The guitars don't care and continue crashing like waves against Wilde's pleas.
Unlike the demo version of "My Purgatory Years" on Untold Rock Stories, the Mondo Deco version features an extended coda that's unexpectedly beautiful. The song appears to end, with one of Hufsteter's power chords fading away. There's a moment of silence, followed by a brief, distant scraping sound, like a large metal door sliding shut or a massive power system being switched on. The sound is ominous, inexplicable, scary, foreboding -- it could be anything. Then, Hufsteter and bassist Ian Ainsworth begin slowly exchanging big, thunderous, doomy chords that tower like rows of massive columns over Wilde's ethereal hallelujahs, which flutter downward like leaves cycling airily in the wind. It's seriously one of the grandest, most majestic rock & roll fadeouts of all time.
Naturally, Mondo Deco was a commercial flop. The Quick may have been on a major label, but they were only on Mercury, which probably didn't know what to do with a band like them. The Quick were too ahead of their time for their own good, breaking up before they could fully take advantage of the power-pop resurgence that was going on. And with punk rock taking over much of the Hollywood scene by the end of the 1970s, the last thing young, macho audiences (of either gender) wanted to see was five sissified guys licking ice-cream cones together (to this day, Benair can't stand Mondo Deco's cover photo). Even more hated were Wilde's ultra-fey vocals, which made Queen's Freddie Mercury seem as butch as Paul Rodgers in comparison.
Although the Dickies later got away with telling some of the same jokes and operating under a similar irreverent show-business-as-parody aesthetic, the Quick were reviled by the more dogmatic, serious early punks. While the Quick were never as contrived and theatrical as, say, the Tubes, there was always an element of unpredictable hilarity at their shows, which was perhaps the biggest reason they weren't taken seriously by the dour tastemakers of the time. Beyond playing insensitive Hufsteter originals like "Blackout Boy Scout," the Quick essayed rudely hilarious covers like "Born to Offend," which was a literal mashup of two surprisingly similar songs: Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Blondie's "X Offender."
In the end, the Quick offended too many people, including each other, leaving behind only the "Pretty Please" fan-club single and the Mondo Deco LP. For several years after the breakup, until the early 1980s, marked-down copies of Mondo Deco could be easily found in the cutout bins at Licorice Pizza and Music Odyssey (alongside most of the Sparks catalogue), until they disappeared completely, eventually becoming rare, expensive collectibles.
Ainsworth and Wilde would go on to relatively more success with the Great Buildings, with Wilde eventually hitting pay dirt with the Rembrandts. Bizeau wrote songs for the Runaways, including the title track of their second album, Queens of Noise. The ridiculously talented Hufsteter was either so burnt out or bitter about the whole Quick experience that he didn't write any songs in his next group, the rootsy R&B cover band the Falcons (which included Benair). Hufsteter composed several particularly bewitching spaghetti-Western-style instrumentals on the Repo Man soundtrack, and he played with the Cruzados, the Dickies and the hard funk-rock '80s band Shrine before relocating to Europe. Perhaps in keeping with his contrarian nature, most of Hufsteter's music is hard to find or out of print (although you can hear a few tantalizing selections on his MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/stevenmedinahufsteter).
There's not much real proof that the Quick ever existed, beyond their direct influence on the Dickies and '80s glam-punk bands like Redd Kross and Celebrity Skin (whose entire oeuvre sounds like it's based on just one Quick song, "Teacher's Pet" -- not that that's a bad thing). Though the Quick never toured outside of California, they did have a lot of curiously loyal and zealously passionate local fans, including members of the stylistically dissimilar Germs.
There have been rumors in recent years about the band reuniting in unlikely places like Berlin or New York, but so far it hasn't happened. The plain reality is that Quick weren't quite big enough to be a proper cult band, and who knows how many of their old fans are even alive today? Nonetheless, some fanatics are trying to rally support (http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/we-want-the-quick-to-play-live-again) for a dream reunion of the original lineup, who are, after all, all alive. Perhaps the new reissue of Mondo Deco on vinyl (along with an upcoming version on CD planned by Radio Heartbeat) will stir up some long-overdue interest in this unfairly overlooked and weirdly wonderful band. Not that there's any hurry or anything.
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