It was 1979 in Jackson, Mississippi, and power pop—a loud amalgam of Beatles-esque melody and hard-rock crunch—was new to my record collection. A friend had given me an EP by the Los Angeles–based band Sneakers and a single by Chris Stamey & The dB's (from North Carolina), and I was digging the sound deep. I had never encountered music like this before: These records looked and sounded like they were homemade. They didn't involve glossy covers and high-budget photo shoots, and on the backs were shots of guys who looked like my friends. Somebody, you could tell, really had to work to make these things happen.
Jackson was a tough town for original music—mainly because there were no clubs that wanted bands who played their own material. At shows, previous groups I'd played in had thrown some of our own songs into the mix, but to make money, by God, you played cover songs: a healthy dose of British Invasion, early punk, and rockabilly.
We didn't live in a total cultural hellhole, though. There were some clubs and record labels that trafficked in original independent music, though they catered exclusively to African-American blues and soul groups.
Our hometown also had its share of musical hipsters and record collectors, folks who were into underground and obscure music. As early as the late 1970s, there had even been a few local, independent singles released.
The first one I remember was David Seay's infamous "Chrome Dildo" 45. While not necessarily punk or new wave, Seay definitely waded outside of mainstream thought. Although his sound was standard rock & roll fare, the song title tells you all you need to know about his mindset. The Oral Sox put out a 45 in 1980, and The Drapes (featuring loads of future roots-rock royalty) from down the road in Hattiesburg released an excellent 7-inch EP on their own Sharp Circle Records label that year.
In the surrounding areas, Alabama's Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits and Louisiana's Bas Clas put out their own 7-inch records. Even the notorious Shit Dogs from Baton Rouge had released the History of Cheese EP.
So there was some precedent when I started a band called The Windbreakers, with my pal Bobby Sutliff. Our name was unfortunate—a scatological joke that stuck around much too long. But the message was clear: Me and my friends wanted to make some noise of our own.
It was about this time that I first heard of a band called The Germans. I had met their guitarist, Sherry Cothren, years earlier, when she'd come into the guitar store where I worked wearing a leather jacket with a button that said, IT'S OKAY TO LIKE NICK LOWE. When I later heard she was in a band, at first I just thought they were a peculiar product of that time and place in Jackson: two girls (Sherry and Carla Westcott, the singer) and three guys (David Minchew, Joe Partridge, and John Wagner) who played cover songs by bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Pretenders. Yet—though we didn't realize it at the time—our bands were part of a burgeoning scene.
One day, my band, The Windbreakers, was offered a New Year's Eve gig at the Port Gibson Country Club down in the Southwestern corner of the state. It didn't sound like fun, but the cabbage was plenty green, so we agreed.
Come December 31, we suffered through the miserable show, introducing every song we played (including our own) as a Bad Company song while an inattentive audience couldn't have cared less who was playing what. They were simply there to dance and drink; we might as well have been a jukebox.
Four days later, with the $1,500 we'd earned, we were in a recording studio, the first of three evenings at Trace Recording Studio, a joint that catered to gospel musicians in Jackson's northern suburbs. They certainly weren't accustomed to young rockers, so let's just say it was a learning experience in that we figured out we didn't have a clue as to what we were doing. I don't think the engineer knew much more than us.
But we got four songs recorded.
The next lesson we learned was the same one every band must figure out when releasing DIY records: Artwork is always the holdup. You can write and record all the songs in the world, but until your artist buddy finishes the graphics, you're in hurry-up-and-wait mode.
At the time, I worked at a screen-print shop and talked my boss and our head artist into putting together a presentable package. Jeff worked at a print shop that could make the paper sleeves. Despite these cost-cutting measures, it took several months to complete.
In the meantime, we sent the tapes off to be mastered and replicated at a pressing plant in Ville Platte, Louisiana. By late summer, hands still sticky from gluing sleeves together, we at long last held a copy of our cheekily titled Meet The Windbreakers four-song EP. We called our little label "Big Monkey Records," in honor of a pal's euphemism for the act of sex.
Meet The Windbreakers had our picture on the cover, our names in the credits, and a smart-assed mention of the Port Gibson Country Club among the thank-yous.
While The Windbreakers plotted to make further recordings, we encouraged our friends to make their own records, too. Having learned how much fun being in the studio could be, I offered to "produce" a single for The Used Goods, another recently formed band of friends from Jackson, who played a blend of garage rock and ’60s pop. The Used Goods, I offered, could put it out on our label.
"Drive-In" by The Used Goods
About that time, another band formed—Radio London, who played a more modern British rock-influenced music from Jackson. When they released their own records, we gladly included them in Big Monkey mailings.
Not long after this, Robert Crook from The Used Goods discovered a little hole-in-the-wall beer joint called Sidetracks and talked the owner into hosting a Goods show. There wasn't much to the place, just a square wood building sitting behind a convenience store on North West Street, alongside the railroad line that gave it a name. A few beer neons and two pool tables constituted the décor.
Eventually, the bar was sold and the name was changed to W.C. Don's (short for We Couldn't Decide On a Name), but the old guy who bought it allowed us to occasionally bring in our bands.
I probably first saw The Germans at the short-lived Skidmarks in North Jackson, which preceded Don's. Although Sherry Cothren was the quietest member of the group, I felt she was the real catalyst. She grew up in a small town in South Mississippi, and I'd been quite fond ever since I met her at the guitar shop years earlier. She was the first girl I ever met who liked punk rock.
It says something about Jackson—something positive, I think—that a little while later, The Germans entered a local battle-of-the-bands concert at a T.G.I. Friday's–style restaurant—and they won. The prizes were $100 and a trip to a studio to record songs: they wrote and recorded two tracks, "Love Sick" and "We Get The...".
I remember thinking it was very Siouxsie & The Banshees influenced, although the jagged, arhythmic guitar parts reminded me of Gang of Four. It was very post-punk at a time when post-punk was just starting to happen. Carla's voice doesn't seem that odd to me now, but it does fall in line with the post-punk aesthetic in which one doesn't want to sound too nice or pretty. If my grandmother were still around, I'd probably tell her that Carla sings in a way that old people hate.
When Big Monkey decided to put out a full-fledged compilation album of all the independent Jackson rock bands, naturally, we planned to include The Germans. Having done the math, we knew how much money each artist would have to chip in to pull it together. Everyone agreed, but still, it was a logistical nightmare to pull all those disparate recordings together, especially considering the various personalities involved. Bands included the many groups that had sprung up in Jackson in recent years, including the Big Monkey family (The Windbreakers, Beat Temptation, The Used Goods, The Germans), as well as more pop-influenced fare like Bert Wallace and Joe Bennett. In between was a Whitman's sampler of garage rock, new wave, power pop, bar-band rock, and rockabilly, even a bit of improvised music in the form of Ars Supernova's "Shoats."
In the years that followed, lots of things happened. We wouldn't know it then but our compilation, Familiarity Breeds Contempt, was probably the most united the Jackson indie-rock scene of the 1980s would ever be.
"Fall Out Shelter" by Yardogs from Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Meanwhile, my band finished our debut album, Terminal, which was slated for a fall 1984 release. When it came out, Rolling Stone declared The Windbreakers one of the nine best unsigned bands in the country. Getting more ambitious, my wife and I moved to Atlanta, where The Windbreakers got hooked up with DB Records.
Sherry Cothren and Carla Westcott of The Germans moved to New Orleans and played in a band called Pregnant Men. They left behind just two original Germans songs, "Love Sick" and "We Get The...". This is all they ever recorded.
The strangest thing about The Germans to me is that here were these twenty-something-year-olds who came together for a short time to do something that was considered pretty radical in that time and place, although, in any bigger city, it wouldn't have been taken seriously, because they were primarily a cover band. But somehow, when pressed to write a couple of songs, they had the raw talent to come up with a musical style that was totally out of step with a time and place in which punk rock was still a novelty, let alone the post-punk approach they brought to the table.
To only hear these two songs, one might think they had an entire catalog of that material, and given time, they might have. But their brief history mainly consisted of them playing their favorite songs by other people.
Perhaps the "Love Sick" single is more of an indication of what might have been.