Friday, March 17, 2023

Archive Review: The Chocolate Watch Band's No Way Out (1967)

Chocolate Watch Band's No Way Out
As far as 1960s-era garage-rock goes, the Chocolate Watch Band was influential far beyond the band’s meager commercial reach. Although they would become West Coast musical heroes during the mid-to-late-1960s, with a handful of red-hot (and, later, highly collectible) 45rpm singles to their credit, culminating in a series of well-received full-length albums, the band suffered from a serious personality crisis.

Their management and producers would frequently bring in studio players to overdub the band’s recordings, material would be released under their name that had little or no connection to the band itself…not entirely heard of in mid-‘60s L.A. but not something that helped define a band identity, either. Regardless, on the basis of a trio of odd studio albums and a reputation for holding their own on stage with the likes of the Mothers of Invention and the Yardbirds, by the mid-‘80s, the Chocolate Watch Band (later changed to one word, “Watchband”) would become bona fide Nuggets-approved garage-rock legends.

Formed by a group of junior college students in Los Altos, California in 1965, the original Chocolate Watch Band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, later, by the Pretty Things. They were one of the first wave of what esteemed critic Lester Bangs would call “punk rockers,” Vox-yielding young hoodlums roaring out of their garage practice space and into the high school gyms and community centers of California to make teenage girls swoon at the front of the stage. After the usual shuffling of band members, the Chocolate Watch Band as known and adored by collectors of 1960s-era garage-rock treasures included vocalist Dave Aguilar, guitarists Mike Loomis and Sean Tolby, bassist Bill Flores, and drummer Gary Andrijasevich.

It was with this line-up that the Chocolate Watch Band recorded its initial singles – four red-hot slabs o’ R&B-styled proto-rock cheap thrills – as well as appearing and performing as themselves in the teen exploitation movie Riot On Sunset Strip. With all of this high-profile activity to hype the band, you’d think that their debut album would basically record itself and roll off the retail shelves and into the hands of eager fans. In an era when the “serious adults” in the room (i.e. managers & producers) often messed around with a young band’s sound (see: Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Electric Prunes, etc), producer Ed Cobb, with engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, just couldn’t help but impose their own agenda on top of the band’s considerably fresh and highly-rocking original sound.

As such, Chocolate Watch Band’s1967 debut album, No Way Out, although considered by many to be a classic of the garage-rock era, is not nearly as great as it might have been. The band’s early singles would have provided a solid foundation on which to build a debut album, but the production staff saw fit to include only two of these performances – “Are You Gonna Be There (At The Love In)” and “No Way Out” – in the final mix. The former is a down-n-dirty R&B-tinged rocker with gang vocals, an infectious rhythm track, and greasy over-driven guitars that only bolster Aguilar’s Jaggeresque vocals, the latter is a rock ‘n’ soul hybrid with wiry fretwork, a slight psychedelic edge (mimicking the fledgling San Francisco sound), cool snarling vox lost beneath droning, hypnotic instrumentation, and an overall dangerous vibe that was too cool for school in ‘67.

The full band line-up only appears on two other tracks on No Way Out, a meager representation on record that was curious even by then-current standards. An inspired cover of Chuck Berry’s rollicking “Come On” is a revved-up hot-rod of mid-‘60s rock, with echoey, haunting guitar notes lingering like storm clouds above Aguilar’s rapid-paced, 1950s rockabilly-styled reading of the lyrics. The singer’s original “Gone and Passes By” offers up exotic instrumental flourishes alongside a bouncy Bo Diddley beat, Aguilar’s emotional vocals overshadowed by a lush mix that includes squalls of guitar, bass, and drums creating a maelstrom of sound.

Of the other material on No Way Out, there are a few gems that emerge in spite of the producer’s interference. “Let’s Talk About Girls” is a stone-cold R&B romp a la early Stones that would have benefited from Aguilar’s energetic vocal style; for whatever reason, studio pro Don Bennett’s voice was dubbed over the band frontman’s vocals. The band’s instrumental track rides low in the mix and features some tasty jolts of Mark Loomis’s guitar, helping to rescue the song from disaster. Ditto for a cover of Steve Cropper’s “Midnight Hour,” which succeeds regardless of Bennett’s flaccid vocals, as the band cleverly injects a soul-drenched Booker T & the M.G.’s sound with live-wire rock ‘n’ roll electricity.

Much of the rest of No Way Out is suspect, however, as two instrumental songs – the clumsy attempt at a psychedelic mind-trip that was “Dark Side of the Mushroom” and the equally spacey pastiche of styles (rockabilly, surf, psyche) that was “Expo 2000” – were written by engineer and future uber-producer Richard Podolor and recorded with session players. These songs are “Chocolate Watch Band” in name only, as they lack the band’s input and just provide a songwriting royalty for an interfering studio engineer. Another track, “Gossamer Wings,” was written by singer Bennett, and uses the basic instrumental track from the band’s 1966 B-side “Loose Lip Sync Ship” as a backdrop for Bennett’s dull-as-dirt, soft-psyche performance.  

In spite of its flaws, No Way Out offers around 60% of the cheap thrills one could expect from a recording of its era, maybe a C+ or B- grade that could have been a solid B+ had singer Aguilar’s charismatic voice not been removed from the aforementioned tracks in favor of the less-talented vocalist. At the heart of the problem was the fact that producer Ed Cobb had never even seen Chocolate Watch Band perform live, and didn’t realize the assortment of talents that he had in the studio. An otherwise talented songwriter and producer that would go on to work with artists like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, Cobb imposed his own vision on the band to mixed effect. (Sundazed Records, reissued December 3rd, 2011)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

Also on That Devil Music: Chocolate Watch Band's The Inner Mystique album review

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