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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sudden Death, USA

Sudden Death - Suddenly. 1972. (archival release on LP by Rockadelic in 1995)

Special thanks to former band member John Binkley for sharing these notes with us.

Like so many bands before and since, Sudden Death emerged from pure happenstance, in this case growing out of the local music scene in the Pasadena, California area in 1970. John Binkley from Altadena and Tim Lavrouhin from Sierra Madre had been members of the Pasadena High School marching band and orchestra; John played trombone and Tim drums. After graduating from high school, the two discovered similar musical interests and began fooling around with rock and roll in the basement of Tim's house in Altadena, with John on bass guitar (never a regular guitar player) and Tim playing a gradually expanding set of drums. Tim had a few friends who played guitar, and occasionally one of them would drop by and play along, but more often than not they just jammed on their own with no singer or guitarist. Early Hendrix, Doors, Cream, Blue Cheer and blues were their main interests musically.

Tim's next door neighbor happened to be the father of a local guitar player, Joey Dunlop, who was emerging as a musical presence to be reckoned with. Joey had just split from a Pasadena band that had enjoyed moderate success in the area and was looking for a new direction that would offer him an expanded role as a lead guitarist. His dad heard the rock and roll coming from Tim's house and put Joey and Tim in touch with each other, and from the first times they got together to just jam, the trio's music clicked. Sudden Death was born.

Joey's enthusiasm for the band was immediate and contagious. John and Tim had a talented guitar player in their presence, and despite everyone's relative lack of experience, mutual respect grew, the energy level began to develop, improvisation dominated the music, and the fact that a unique musical experience was possible began to ignite dreams of stardom. Now a quest began for a suitable singer. A round of auditions initially landed a blues-oriented female, Marci, and the band began working up a repertoire and booking forgettable gigs. Joey's wife, Cathy, was an ambitious British import who was a natural promoter. She began cultivating Sudden Death's potential in a more professional direction, and it wasn't long before the music had developed to the point where Marci's limited abilities had to be dealt with.

Cathy then engineered an ambitious move. At her urging, the band raised the money to bring a British rock singer to the United States to lead Sudden Death. Dave X arrived virtually sight unseen but with great expectations from everyone. He moved the band forward with a distinctly rock-oriented vocal style, but the pace at which the instrumentalists, particulary Joey, were musically maturing soon left Dave behind and the search was on, once again, to find a better match to the band vocally.

Enter Greg Magie. Contacted through the infant Musicians' Contact Service in Hollywood, Greg turned out to be the missing piece of the puzzle. His combination of free spirit personality, virtuoso voice, vocal range, and intensity, all coupled with an on-stage charisma that rivaled the current rock gods, now gave the band the front man it had needed. Joey was achieving a dazzling, spellbinding intensity with his leads and song-writing, John was writing songs and pounding out thunderous, moving bass lines to keep the rhythmic pressure on Joey, and Tim was anchoring the band with double-bass smothered by what was now a mountainous pile of percussion. Greg's vocals and dominating stage presence drove the final nail into the coffin for unsuspecting audiences, and the band began to acquire a following from their growing number of public performances, despite the fact that they consisted mostly of auditions and parties. Their music was a blend of hard rock covers and original songs which severely limited their marketability to local clubs who were mainly interested in mainstream Top-40 bands.

Then, without warning, Tim quit the band. Joey made it clear that he wanted the band to survive, so auditions for a new drummer began. At this point in time, the band was using a hillside house in South Pasadena as its base of operations. Occupied by friends of the band (no one in the band lived there), a spacious downstairs den set into the side of a hill was a perfect rehearsal studio, and as you might imagine the house had quickly earned a reputation as an unrivaled party venue with all night performances by Sudden Death as the centerpiece. A steady flow of potential drummers, however, yielded nothing that even came close to Tim's level of expertise.

Just as had happened with finding Joey, however, fate stepped in. After an audition session at the house, John stopped to offer help to a motorist pushing his VW beetle down a main street in nearby Eagle Rock. With the driver behind the Volkswagen's wheel, John eased his car up to push the bug to a service station when he noticed that the entire back window was blocked with drums. John recruited him for an audition, and Charlie Brown quickly became a member of Sudden Death. The lineup that would survive for the next 2 years and record the tape of interest was now in place.

Curiously, Charlie had no experience as a rock drummer. His training was in country-western and pop bands. He later confessed that at his audition, he had no idea what was going on musically, but was inspired like never before to pull out every trick he could think of and to be absolutely certain that he kept a steady beat going. Playing on pure instinct, Charlie unknowingly fell right into the pocket of the band's intensity, and what he lacked in a percussive arsenal with his basic 5-drum kit he astonishingly made up for with sheer power. He and John formed an eclectic, overwhelming rhythm section, Joey was set up to tear loose with reckless abandon on guitar, and Greg's compelling vocals and stage antics now made the Sudden Death experience something to be reckoned with.

Joey ("Fugit Orchard", "The Zoo", "My Time Is Over"), John ("Crazy Ladies", "Lament", "The Road Back Home") and Greg ("Come Away With Me", "Leather Woman") all started writing new material for the band. Most of the songs were designed to exploit Joey's talent on guitar, and all but the slow ones had jams. In performance, leads would go on for 5 or 10 minutes, and every member would improvise. In rehearsal, the band would self-indulgently jam for hours in addition to polishing their originals or exploring covers of their favorites. Many riffs that formed the foundation for Sudden Death songs originally came from live jams in other songs. The band's philosophy was that songs born from jams would be good songs to jam to. It wasn't a bad approach. At the same time, Sudden Death devoted half their repertoire to covering their favorite songs by other groups, including Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Who, and Jethro Tull.

Cathy now stepped in to put Sudden Death in front of the public. The Southern California club scene did not have a lot to offer to acid rock bands at the time, and the band faced a daunting task. They performed essentially anywhere that would have them. The most promising venues were the handful of clubs that had a reputation as showcase gigs for aspiring local mainstream rock and blues talent. The band auditioned at these and others, including Under the Ice House in Glendale, The Corral in Topanga Canyon, Gazzari's in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip, and The Beach House in Venice Beach. In addition, they played high schools and colleges, and all the while kept partying at the house in South Pasadena.

Despite all the auditions, actual bookings were hard to come by. Bill Gazzari cut the power to the band's amps half way through an audition because of the volume. The Corral booked the band on Wednesday or Thursday nights a couple of times, but knew the locals wanted blues on the weekends. The feedback from the club owners was varied but consistently negative, running the gamut from the friendly "You guys are great, but that's not what my customers come here to hear" to the off-handed "Too psychedelic" dismissal from those who just didn't get it. And yet, something unusual was happening. Everywhere the band played, people became fans. They wanted to know where Sudden Death was playing next. An informal phone list was compiled (there was, of course, no Internet!), the word would go out whenever the band was going to be playing, and people, more and more of them, would show up.

On stage, the band was now backing up its music with an intensity and euphoria that was instantly absorbed by the audience. Joey was just under six feet with curly, collar-length, dark-blonde hair, moustache and goatee. Heavily influenced by Ritchie Blackmore, he was animated, twisting his body as he punched out chords on his Gibson SG, reeling backward with eyes closed during leads, and doing improvised spins and lunges unexpectedly throughout a show. John played a Gibson EB3-L bass, was tall with waist-length, thin, straight blonde hair, wore wire-frame glasses, and was more reserved than Joey, but he was constantly in motion, either on his own or interacting with Charlie, Greg, and Joey (when it was safe to get near him). Charlie Brown was taller and a bit more formidable than the others but sat behind his drums with an often-sheepish, almost shy demeanor despite his rather intimidating dark, shoulder-length, curled hair and on-again, off-again beard. In front of this trio, Greg had no problem being a captivating performer in his own right. He was tall and lanky, had thin, dark-blonde hair that fell in a shoulder-length shag, and a playful, flirtatious grin. His thin, Dickens-character's face lent him an eerie atmosphere that was softened by his boyish charm, but make no mistake about it…Greg could raise the intensity level by just walking onto a stage. With Sudden Death, he put on a show that borrowed from Robert Plant and Roger Daltry, but his distinctive voice and movements were always interplaying with the music being generated behind him, and you never knew what to expect. He played tambourines, cow bells, maracas, and other percussive instruments during leads as he felt like, and used these props to interact with the audience. This combination of intense music with honest, dynamic and dramatic movement, made Sudden Death a noteworthy, unique experience every time they played.

In 1972, the band came to the attention of Kim Fowley. Kim had been a fixture on the professional music scene in Hollywood for years. He was the voice on the classic '50s novelty song "Ally Oop" along with his cohorts who called themselves the Hollywood Argyles (after the intersection where the recording studio was located, by the way). He was buddies with Mars Bonfire, Iggy Pop, and a number of other coming-up-through-the-ranks musicians. Now he was a freelance producer who provided the invaluable service of uncovering new talent that he could bring to the attention of record companies who were hungry to carve out a share of the emerging hard rock era. Terry Brent, a Santa Monica-based drummer, had seen Sudden Death at The Beach House and brought Kim into the loop. Sudden Death's fortunes were about to take a turn for the better.

Kim was working at the time with Michael Sunday, a rock producer for Epic Records, which was attempting to become the hard rock label for Columbia Records. Michael was actively engaged in a fully-funded effort by Epic/Columbia to sign an American hard rock act. The project was literally referred to as "searching for America's answer to Black Sabbath." Kim came to the South Pasadena house and heard the band in rehearsal, and that was good enough for him. He brought Michael Sunday to hear the band the next time Michael was in town and just like that, Michael was on board. Sudden Death had passed its first test. Several weeks later the fateful call came. Michael Sunday had booked Sudden Death for a recording session at Columbia Records. The band was going to make a professional demo.

The demo was recorded in March, 1972, at the CBS Columbia Records studios on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. It was a night session in a spacious studio that ran almost 6 hours. The studios were on a lot that took up an entire city block and were protected by security guards much like a movie studio. The first hint of coolness came at the guard shack when, as each band member arrived, the security folks knew from their name their reason for being there, the name of their act, and provided guidance to parking and unloading their equipment. Joey brought an amp (his Vox Beatle), John brought his Ampeg bass amp (but wound up going direct into the mixing board), Charlie set up his drums, and Greg brought the home-built theremin of John's to play on Fugit Orchard.

The studio, which was large enough to hold an orchestra and had a high ceiling, was littered with risers, music stands, baffles, chairs, and other assorted gear. The band set up in a cleared area in the center of the room with about 15 feet between Joey and Charlie, who were also separated by sound baffles, John seated on a stool near Charlie, and Greg in a small, separate sound booth. Mikes were set up, headphones were handed out, levels checked, and everyone was ready to go. The lights were dimmed down to almost black, and the control room's subdued lighting provided most of the illumination in the studio through its picture window.

With Michael Sunday and Kim Fowley as co-producers for the demo, along with a sound engineer, the band went to work. The tape was made one track at a time, with a quick run-through of a song to be sure the production crew was familiar with the changes and to set levels, then going once or twice through the song to be sure that they got a good take before moving on. Other than the stop-start nature of a studio effort, the demo is essentially a live performance. Very little (if any) overdubbing was done…the tracks that ended up on the tape were simply the ones everyone agreed were the best take out of several on each song. One can't tell from the tape, but John was sick with pnemonia at the time and violated his doctor's orders to stay bedridden for 3 weeks in order to make the demo, hence his making the whole tape while seated. At the end of the session, no one knew what to think. It hadn't been as glamorous as expected, but clearly the band had taken a major step forward toward a recording contract.

Michael Sunday left with the demo to continue his quest across America, especially on the East Coast. Kim Fowley stayed in touch with the band and kept everyone's anxiety in check over the next few weeks. Excitement continued to build as positive feedback was relayed back to the band through Kim. Then, about a month after making the demo, Michael returned to California with news. Sudden Death was one of the final two bands in the Epic Records search. Michael was in town with other key players from Columbia who wanted to see the band at a live gig. It was Saturday, and they were leaving on Monday.

Fortunately, the band had a club owner who was a true fan. Steve Parfait, the owner of The Beach House in Venice Beach, loved the band. He still wouldn't book them on weekends ("You guys are great, but…"), but he let the band participate in the Sunday night auditions any time they wanted because of the following that came with them. The band wanted to book two sets, one consisting of covers to warm up with and then another with their concert material for the record company A&R reps. John called Steve on Sunday morning with the request and 15 minutes later Steve called back to say he had cancelled two bands for that night and the sets were Sudden Death's. The phone network went to work, word spread quickly, and Cathy and Michael coordinated the arrival time for the group from Columbia.

When the band showed up that night, two hours before showtime, the parking lot was already jammed with fans. The band was in a state of disbelief over the possibilities that loomed before them. They set up, did a sound check, relaxed on the beach, then kicked back to let another band take the first set of the night. Sudden Death then did their warm-up set. The atmosphere was electric and packed with a never-before-experienced intensity. Fans were jammed up to the nearly floor-level stage. The warm-up set was spectacular and Cathy nearly stopped the band in mid-set she was so worried that the band would peak too early and have trouble getting back up to speed for the critical concert set. They took a break and waited for the guests of honor to arrive. The crowd was restless, chanting "More…more" and "Sud-den Death" spontaneously, and the tension grew. Then Kim, Michael and their entourage arrived. Once they were settled, Sudden Death took the stage.

To give credit where credit is due is sometimes difficult. To say that Joey delivered the performance of his life is no exaggeration, or that Greg masterfully provided the visual focal point for the band's energy, or that John and Charlie clicked in that magical zone where each knew where the other was going with riffs and punches without as much as a glance, only tells part of the story. Sudden Death's songs were mere pretenses to jam, and the band annihilated the crowd with its 45 minutes of original material. But the fans really made the evening unforgettable. They responded with as much enthusiasm as I've ever witnessed in any musical setting, melding with the band into an insatiable beast that on one hand greedily demanded ever more intensity and on the other threatened to deliver more than mortal souls could bear. No one went away unaffected by the experience. For over 10 years, total strangers would recognize John (and presumably others) in convenience stores, movie theaters, airports, or on the street and talk about having been there when Sudden Death played The Beach House.

Kim Fowley, Michael Sunday and his crowd were no fools and they realized what they had in front of them. They left town with the band's shopping list for concert-level amps, guitars, drums, cars and cash. But fame and fortune were not to be Sudden Death's fate. When it came time to make a decision on who to sign, CBS executives went with the other finalist, an East Coast band that had tour experience and a following in several states. They released an album on Epic that went nowhere, Epic records never achieved its status as a major rock brand, and the whole project died.

Sudden Death continued to push forward and survived for the better part of a year after the Epic deal fell through, but eventually the band fragmented over the musical direction that should be taken. John, Charlie, and Greg formed Sky Fire with guitarist Keith Winnovich and keyboard master Dave Morgan and played the L.A. club scene for a little over a year. In 1973 they recorded a demo of their song "Heavy Metal Kids" for Kim Fowley. Sky Fire broke up when John joined up with Terry Brent to form Hammerhead along with Austin Addison and Woody Woods on guitars and Greg Sanford on vocals. They collaborated with Kim Fowley in 1974 to write "Summer Nites" and signed a contract with GNP Crescendo records to release it, along with "Jewels" (written by Greg Sanford), as a single which got airplay in several markets across the country, including Los Angeles. To this day, copies of that record are occasionally available on eBay and other music afficionado sites. John and Joey paired up in the late '70's to form Temper and recapture the Sudden Death intensity, but the effort only produced a very poorly recorded tape and an inability to find a quality singer, and the band fell apart within a year.

One final note of closure. Cathy Dunlop, determined to continue managing bands in the aftermath of Sudden Death's breakup, quickly came across a popular Pasadena party band, found them a rehearsal studio to polish their act and booked them in their first legitimate club gigs. The band was Mammoth, whom music buffs will recognize as the original name of the band that later became known as Van Halen.

So that's the story of Sudden Death and an Epic Records demo tape that has been floating around for over 30 years. There never was a label-released album and the name "Suddenly" was never suggested as a title. In fact, the informal working title for the tape at the time was "Overtime", coined by John so that sportscasters would provide free publicity for the band's album should it ever be released. There were such high hopes and magnificant dreams for those in and around the band over those 3 years. But in the history of rock and roll, the tale of Sudden Death is but a sentimental memento, like so many others, that has been sitting in a dusty attic all these years, with the demo tape being the only surviving evidence, other than lasting memory, of the band's existence. But what a ride it was. Rock on.

John Binkley
October, 2007

(John added the following comments about each track, updated January, 2008)

Track Notes

Note: All comments are in the context of having heard the CD for the first time in at least thirty years.

First, some overall impressions. The performances are a bit rougher around the edges than I remembered (of course!). There are some flat out missed chords by both Joey and myself, Charlie is pretty much dead on, and Greg was really trying to impress and took it over the top in some of the wilder moments. But maybe that's just the way we were. We did, after all, set up, record 8 songs, and tear down in a matter of hours, and we felt compelled to do our best to convince everyone that Sudden Death was capable of going head on with the big boys, so we got what we got. What a genuine treat to hear all of these songs again!

Second, some overall notes. I'm trying here to attribute authorship correctly, but I may have it wrong. For instance, I had forgotten My Time Is Over, but upon hearing it again I am certain that I wrote the lyrics for Greg. I don't remember Joey writing words to any of the songs, but he was always coming to rehearsal with fairly complete concepts of a song's riffs and monster chord progressions. They could remain in that state, merely foundations for jamming, for weeks or months before they would evolve into performable songs. We would hammer them into arrangements collaboratively, but I give Joey sole credit here, and rightfully so. Still, I think that Greg and Joey did some work together (Greg played guitar a bit, but never in the band) and so Greg may be getting the short end of things in a few places.

Third, I don't remember the exact order of the songs on the tape, but it was definitely different from the order on the CD. We deliberately recorded the songs in the order we would have used to structure a set. To my best recollection, it went like this: Crazy Ladies; My Time Is Over; Lament; The Road Back Home; Leather Woman; Come Away With Me; The Zoo; Fugit Orchard. I am sure that there are several mistakes, but that order is much closer to the original.

Come Away With Me
Words by Greg; music by Joey. At least that's what I remember. We really dove into this as a counterpoint for our wildly improvisational jams and heavy riffs. It always astonished me to think that this band could shift gears into this mode on the spot. A real tribute to Joey's versatility on guitar, but Greg was equally unbelievable on vocals, and his vocal qualities are highlighted exquisitely well here. The girls loved this one. I think it made them want to pull Greg off the stage and cuddle up with him, right then and there.

The Road Back Home
Words and music by John. This was my attempt to get spooky and suggest that there were forces at work in the world that made you pay for your transgressions. Really influenced by Black Sabbath. I'm as proud as I can be of all three parts of the song…the intro riff that returns throughout, the riff behind the vocals, and the jam. Live, we could go on for 10 minutes with this one…we kept it short for the demo. This song was just too much fun to play. The lyrics were purely imaginative, not based on any real event, but I loved dreaming up scenarios for stories that were founded on lessons learned the hard way, and the agony of being underappreciated (the fate of bass players). This song I've remembered clearly through all the years…what fun to actually hear it again! I was never really happy with the ending, but it seemed to make a really strong statement when performed live.

Words and music by John. I wrote this on the piano at my parent's house not long after Greg joined. At the time I was in a funk over a girl who wouldn't give me the time of day, and I took it upon myself to spell it out in the lyrics, hence the title. Greg does all the singing except at the end. As in Crazy Ladies, we do a two part answering vocal line with me doing the first part and Greg the answering. They just set a mike in front of me on my stool so I could play and sing at the same time. No overdubbing!

The Zoo
Words by Greg, music by Joey. Greg had a refined sense of satire and a healthy contempt for the status quo, and he let it out in his lyrics here. Greg was actually a nice guy, a good friend, and a stunning performer, and you could always count on him for the off-beat perspective on life. One of our most danceable songs, this kind of plodding, deliberate rhythm was something we all reveled in. The guitar work is Joey at his best and the song exploits his strengths from start to finish. The bass line during the lead was inspired by Dazed and Confused but consists of two different licks. In fact, the first lick was the way we'd start off the lead and the second is how we would wind it up after jamming for a while. The licks were merely the bookends for the jam, and for the demo we just skipped the middle.

My Time Is Over
Words by John, music by Joey. I had forgotten all about this one until I saw the title, and still didn't recall the song. The music is all Joey…this was his bread and butter…a great combo of riffs, chord progressions, and unexpected changes. Wow. But the real surprise upon hearing this is realizing that these are lyrics I wrote. I remember now that we had been playing the song as a jam for a while but there were no words, so I put something together and showed it to Greg, hoping to get the ball rolling on putting it into our performance set. To my surprise, he loved what I had written and never made a change. I always interpreted the lead in this song as our attempt to get "jazzy", but that was more me than Joey. Joey thought up the great transition out of the lead into the introduction, something that I always enjoyed in our music. Charlie came up with the triplets toward the end on his own…nice touch.

Leather Woman
Words by Greg, music by Joey, as I recall. Greg wrote the lyrics targeted at biker chicks. I think that Greg and Joey wrote and arranged this at Joey's house…Greg may have even had the basic music written. This one didn't go through the band's usual evolution of starting out as a jam and becoming a song later. Instead, it just sort of sprang into existence quickly. I came up with the bass lick that formed the introduction and then stuck with it for the verses. Another song you could dance to, with Joey showing admirable restraint during the vocals, but with two leads he had plenty of time to make up for it. Greg loved the Theremin that I had built as an electronics project and made sure that it found its way onto the tape. The ending was fun, with the lead dissolving into total chaos. Given that this was one of the more commercially palatable songs that we had (just take out the middle lead and this could have gotten airplay), distorting its ending was just our way of letting our true colors show through.

Fugit Orchard
Words and music by Joey. This is the only song that pre-dates Sudden Death, as I remember it. Joey taught it to us back when Tim was on drums and we had no singer, and I'm pretty sure he had either been keeping it for the right situation or else he wrote it early on. We considered this to be one of our heaviest songs, and usually closed our show with it. When performed live it always began with me grinding my bass at maximum volume against my amp in an extended atonal bass feedback solo, then the whole band breaking into the opening chords on a cue. The lead could go on forever. I have no idea where Joey got the title Fugit Orchard, but the song was never called anything else by us. Greg's slightly off-color lyrics raised eyebrows in those days.

Crazy Ladies
Words and music by John. An ode to groupies. This was one of the few high-energy songs we ever wrote that had a fixed structure from start to finish. The riff and the chord progressions all came together in a 20- or 30-minute jam that the band did one evening at the house in South Pasadena. We were just fooling around with a fast-paced tempo, and I suddenly came up with what would become the riff behind the vocals, which Joey quickly picked up on. Then, without stopping, I just started to shout out chords. Some worked, others didn't. As a continuous jam, we kept going back and forth between the vocal riff and trying out chorus chord progressions until we had settled on a sequence that made sense. By the end of the jam, most of the song was in place. Later on, I added the introductory riff, then wrote the words, which were mostly a bunch of machismo wishful thinking. I sing the opening lyrics on each verse with Greg coming in with the answering vocals and then taking over for the remainder of each verse. There is no overdubbing on the tape…this is how we performed the song, and for the recording session, as on Lament, I sang into a mike while playing bass on my stool.

Priority: 3


Anonymous said...

I'm looking to get a hold of John Binkley. Know how? Here's my email, Buddha6792@aol.com - Greg

Tom said...

I'll send John a note!

Greg & Debra Magie said...

Hi John! I've been trying to get ahold of you--don't know your email address. I really enjoyed your blog about Sudden Death, and so did my wife. We hope to hear from you soon. We hope everything's going great for you! Please get ahold of us soon---we'd love to hear from you! Rock 'n Roll forever!!! Greg & Debra Magie GregDeb34@juno.com (760) 770-8034

German Zapata said...

Hi, you know were can I find the lyrics of this album? I really appreciate any help.

Tom said...

Hello - no sorry, I'm not sure if there are any published lyrics.

Klemen Breznikar said...

We at It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine would like to do a big article & interview with John Binkley regarding Sudden Death. Please let him know.

Our email is:

Thanks for sharing and best regards,

Klemen Breznikar