“We were busy kids,” drummer Danny Benair says about The Quick, the legendary mid-1970s L.A. band who helped usher in the punk era; at the time they seemed poised for massive success before they seemingly vanished into obscurity just as fast as their sudden rise from out of nowhere.
By 1978, the San Fernando Valley quintet had broken up after releasing just one album, Mondo Deco, despite being championed by notorious Runaways producer Kim Fowley as power pop’s brightest new hopes. The Quick played with The Ramones and headlined over numerous early punk groups, and their reputation as one of this city’s great lost bands stubbornly continued over the decades as such acolytes as The Dickies and Redd Kross covered their songs and kept their music alive.
On Thursday night at Beyond Baroque, four of The Quick’s original members — joined by Star Wars actor and longtime fan Mark Hamill, producer Earle Mankey and their former fan-club president and Frontier Records founder, Lisa Fancher — gather together for the first time in years to discuss the bizarre circumstances surrounding Mondo Deco, which was out of print for decades before it was recently released on CD by Real Gone Music.
“We formed in 1976, had our first show in 1976, put out our album in 1976, and we were already considered a failure by the end of 1976,” guitarist Steven Hufsteter says by phone from his home in Phoenix.
“We formed around January ’76,” he recalls. “I remember it was the holidays when I ran into Danny Wilde at a Genesis show at the Roxy. I said, ‘I still can’t find a singer.’ He said, ‘I’ll do it.’ A few weeks later, we met Kim Fowley. Everything from that point went very fast.”
After opening for The Runaways at a Catholic girls school and playing a party in the South Bay, The Quick made what Hufsteter calls their “official debut” at the Starwood in March 1976. Within six months, the teenage band — which also featured keyboardist Billy Bizeau and bassist Ian Ainsworth — were signed to a major label, Mercury Records, and released Mondo Deco. At the time, most of the groups in the Hollywood nightclub scene, including such rivals as Van Halen, were virtual cover bands. It would be another year before the explosion of punk and new wave around the world inspired other local musicians to write their own songs and release them on DIY labels.
“We should have some great therapy moments as the band members reveal their darkest secrets,” Benair jokes about the Beyond Baroque gathering in a phone interview from his home in Studio City. “There might be blood.”
“It’s stressful but exciting,” Hufsteter says about tonight's discussion, which is titled “The Making of Mondo Deco: The Quick.” “This is like a high school reunion.” Most of the band attended Marilyn Monroe’s alma mater, Van Nuys High School, whereas Ainsworth went to North Hollywood High.
“I dropped out so early, and Billy dropped out early, too,” Hufsteter says of high school. “I wrote songs from the get-go but not to the quality that Billy was back then. He was one of those guys who peaked when he was 17 and was writing such brilliant songs,” he says of Bizeau, whose health problems will prevent him from appearing at tonight’s discussion.
“He was making all these amazing four-track demos before anybody else,” Benair says.
“That’s where I went wrong with The Quick. We had three great songwriters,” Hufsteter says, but at the time he was the band’s leader and insisted on writing most of the material himself. After the group’s breakup, the guitarist went on to play with Benair in R&B-style combo The Falcons before ending up in The Cruzados (as well as its spinoff, Tito & Tarantula), touring with Del Shannon, John Hiatt and The Dickies, and forming a hard funk band called Shrine.
Benair followed up the short-lived Falcons by joining Choir Invisible and later drumming with mid-’80s Paisley Underground band The Three O’Clock, who have reunited and are currently working on a new album with producer Earle Mankey. “I’ve known him a long time. I really adore him,” Benair says about Mankey, a former guitarist with Sparks who has recorded numerous bands, including The Runaways, The Cramps, 20/20, The Dickies, The Weirdos, Concrete Blonde and El Vez. “I’m a professional dancer,” Benair jokes, but he really makes his living these days by running two music-publishing companies, Burger Music Publishing and Natural Energy Lab, placing songs on television and in advertisements.
Bizeau wrote the title song of The Runaways’ second album, Queens of Noise, and later worked with The Ringling Sisters before dropping out of public view in recent years. Ainsworth and Wilde were part of local power-pop band Great Buildings, but it was Wilde who ultimately had the most success when he formed The Rembrandts, who are best remembered for performing “I’ll Be There for You,” the theme song to Friends. As much as Hufsteter was the architect behind much of The Quick’s sound, it was Wilde’s soaring vocals that really elevated the band into the power-pop stratosphere. Wilde’s vocal range was already pretty high-pitched before Hufsteter strangely decided to speed up most of the recordings on Mondo Deco and make the singing sound even more ethereal.
“A lot of songs were sped up, and Danny Wilde has hated me ever since — and rightfully so,” Hufsteter admits. “We were exposed at too early of a stage, in my opinion. I wanted to be like Kimono My House–era Sparks, and I had a whole band doing it. But I wasn’t good at copying, so it came out different. … It took us a couple years to really find ourselves.”
Several of the songs on Mondo Deco, such as “No No Girl” and a brilliantly twee arrangement of The Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long,” reflect the witty and madcap influence of Sparks, but there were also heavier and harder tracks, such as “Anybody” and the epic “My Purgatory Years,” which presaged the raw, hard rock– and punk-influenced style of The Quick’s later period. Ironically, what turned out to be the band’s most popular recording wasn’t released by a major label; the incendiary power-pop classic “Pretty Please” (produced by Beck’s father, David Campbell) was issued in 1978 as part of a humble fan-club EP as the band were breaking up. It nonetheless received a lot of airplay on Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show on KROQ and was later covered by both The Dickies and Redd Kross.
Although “Pretty Please” and some of The Quick’s early demos and live recordings were compiled on the collection Untold Rock Stories, Mondo Deco was out of print for many years. Mondo Deco briefly resurfaced as a vinyl-only issue on the tiny label Radio Heartbeat in 2010, but that version, which was dubbed from an old LP, quickly disappeared. The new CD version on Real Gone Music was transferred from the original master tapes and was expanded with some of the demo recordings.
In many ways, the version of “My Purgatory Years” that appears on Mondo Deco stands alongside “Pretty Please” as one of The Quick’s greatest moments. “It’s the mini rock opera on the record, the shiniest moment,” Benair says of the track, in which Wilde’s narrator laments about his empty life in high school before the song culminates with a majestic climax that fuses Benair’s monumental, thundering drums, Wilde’s angelic vocals and Hufsteter’s piercing guitar melodies into one of the most stunningly beautiful fade-outs in rock & roll. “There’s a lot of things we’re doing on that song. I can’t wait for the Broadway musical!” Benair adds.
“Even when I was trying so hard to be like Sparks, I’d write something like ‘My Purgatory Years,’ baring my teenage chest,” Hufsteter says. “It was definitely a stylistic choice to make it feel vulnerable and authentic, as opposed to ‘No No Girl’ and ‘Hillary,’ which were very sarcastic. Those were not life-experience songs [like “My Purgatory Years”]; that was just me trying to be sarcastic and clever. It’s taken me a lifetime to figure out why [“My Purgatory Years”] sounds so amazing. I remember yelling at Danny Benair, ‘B.J. Wilson!’ [in a reference to the propulsive drummer of Procol Harem], and Danny got it and knew what I meant. Danny Wilde came up with the great vocal part at the ending where we have a dialogue between his vocal and my guitar.
“I’ve never been interested in playing with people unless I’m writing the material,” Hufsteter continues. “I learned a lot from touring with John Hiatt and Del Shannon.” Before forming The Cruzados with The Plugz’s Tito Larriva in 1985, Hufsteter rehearsed for a spell with Bob Dylan’s band. “We would go out there and jam for hours,” he remembers. “And he would never say anything to us. He’d just sit in the corner. I was a Bob Dylan fan — I learned chords from the Bob Dylan songbook — but I didn’t care. It was a waste of time, and I finally walked away from that.”
He’s more excited about collaborating with The Dickies’ Leonard Graves Phillips. “Leonard and I are going to get together and write what he calls ‘the last Dickies album,’” Hufsteter says about his ongoing collaborations with The Dickies. Many of the tunes on the first three Dickies albums were co-written by Hufsteter, Wilde and Ainsworth, and Hufsteter used to perform onstage with the black-humored punk group. “I’ve always been the extra member of The Dickies. It was really fun to play with them. My most important contribution was as a friend and songwriter.”
As the son of noted jazz trumpeter Steve Huffsteter (who spells his last name slightly differently), the guitarist had an early exposure to a wide range of jazz and classical music. “I think it pleased him a lot that I could do something,” Hufsteter recalls about his efforts with The Quick. “It never seemed that I could get a job, so I think he was glad that I had a band. He’s not very expressive, so I have to take it on other people’s word that he’s very proud of me.”
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Despite The Quick’s breakup after just three short years, the group did have its brushes with fame, due in part to what Benair calls “dartboard luck.” The band opened for The Ramones and The Runaways at a legendary concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1978, in a musically liberating time when it still seemed that commercial success was a real possibility. Just two years earlier, Benair says, “We were living in a smoke-filled San Fernando Valley, trying to be a band with no music scene … when The Ramones came to see us.”
They also had an early fan in Mark Hamill. Benair’s older brother, Jonathan, was friends with Hamill even before the actor found success portraying Luke Skywalker and kept urging him to check out Danny’s new band. When Hamill finally saw The Quick in concert, he told Benair, “I didn’t know you were going to be great.” The actor has agreed to be the moderator for tonight’s discussion, bringing the story of The Quick full circle.
“You can’t take the Valley out of the kid,” Benair says about himself, but he could be speaking for the whole group. The Quick might have once dreamed about finding success on the other side of the hills in Hollywood, but in the end they’re now regarded as one of the most influential and quintessential San Fernando Valley rock bands of the era.
“The Making of Mondo Deco: The Quick” occurs at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thu., June 14, 8 & 10 p.m.; $10. (310) 822-3006.