It was while reading an issue of the Brittish music magazine Wire some years ago I stumbled onto a review of the first Figuers Of Light 7” reissue from Norton. As I remember, it was described with references to primitive, early Modern Lovers, early Half Japanese and proto punk. I thought it sounded really cool. Fortunately my brother had the 7” and it sounded quite like the description! It’s not often these days you’ll hear something good and unknown from that era. Raw and primitive proto punk from 1972, totally unheard of. Then some time later a fullength came with both old and new recordings (also on Norton) and suprisingly it sounded great! We gave it a nice review and a while later got a thank you mail from the singer Wheeler Dixon. Cool I thought and figured I might as well ask him some questions while I had him on the line. He said he wouldn’t mind answering my questions so I mailed him a bunch and here it goes:
Ok, first of all I'd like to know how you got into music and when it first seemed really important in your life.
I got into music in my early years, with many years of piano and also a stint at the American Boychoir in Princeton, NJ as a young boy; ages 9-11. I attended a lot of classical and jazz performances in the NYC area; the Metropolitan Opera, the Blue Note jazz club, and gradually, as rock and roll took off in the mid 1950s, I picked up on that. The major radio station was WABC, New York, which played a very adventurous mix of top 40 tunes for the era, and then, of course, the British Invasion happened in 1964.
Were most teens into music back then?
Yes, I was into pop, even as a young boy, and so were my friends.
Did you hear about most rock'n'roll from the radio or from records?
Rock came to first through AM radio, when I was about five and six, and then records, when I got a few years older.
Did you get to see any of the bands live?
Listing the bands I DIDN'T see would be a shorter list that the bands I did see! Artists and bands I saw live include Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Velvet Underground at least 50 times, The Rolling Stones in 1964 when they were still good and Brian Jones was alive, The Kinks, Chuck Berry, The Count Five, The Music Machine, The Troggs, The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and later Television, Talking Heads, The Ramones about 50 times. I first saw them in 1974, and was convinced they would never get a record deal. Too many bands to mention. Oh, and Jerry Lee Lewis, of course, and Elvis.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and had a very happy childhood. I was interested in filmmaking from the age of six, and have made many, many films.
See this link:
archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/27/wheeler_winston_dixon.html for more on that.
Was it a lot different to come from NJ as opposed to New York in terms of culture or were you part of the New york scene?
Not really. New Brunswick NJ is about 40 miles from NYC, and so the radio signals carried well, and I would jump on the bus ($2 round trip until 1970) and spend days there with friends and associates. I was a part of the NYC scene from about 1964 on, as you can see from the interview link I sent you; by 1966, I was practically living there, and coming back to New Jersey only to finish up high school, sleeping on the bus, doing homework in study hall, the usual teen stuff. But I was very involved in the New York underground film scene in the 1960s from 1966 on, and made numerous films during the period.
It was really interesting to read about your films! Is there any way to see any of them today?
No, they are all in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and are not distributed to the public.
I read in the aforementioned interview that you made some films at the Factory and hung out with that crowd (Gerard Malanga etc.). Were you friends with the Velvet Underground at all or were they just an inspiration?
I saw the Velvets many times during the Warhol era at the "Silver Factory," from 1966 onwards, and Gerard and I became very good friends indeed. In fact, when I moved out of New York City finally, Gerard took over my apartment! The Velvets were just the "house band" at the Factory, and their records, at the time, didn't sell, and no one thought they were an important band. But for those of us on the scene, The Velvets were one of the few bands that mattered.
Do you think it would have been different if the band would have been from NYC?
No, because we were so close to NYC that it didn't matter. Futhermore, after we cut the single, we shopped it to every single label and producer in NYC in 1972, including people like Clive Davis and Danny Fields, and in person, by going right to the offices of the record companies, meeting with the A&R men, and trying to get a record deal. But we got turned down flat everytime, which led to the eventual dissolution of the band. Looking back, I feel very strongly that we were just about four or five years ahead of our time; if we had been coming up during the Punk era, we probably would have gotten a label deal. But we predated punk, and that made all the difference.
You say on the sleeve to your record, "Smash Hits", that you were living in a run down apartment in NJ. Was it easy to find these places back then?
Are you kidding? Life was very, very cheap, unlike now. You could actually rent an apartment in Manhattan on the lower east side for about $50 -100 per month!! Imagine that now. Impossible!
You were also living in London in 1968. Did that influence your music in anyway?
Naturally, as I went out to as many clubs as possible, and saw The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, a forgotten but great band named Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera, The Small Faces, and numerous other bands. I went back in 1971, and met The Pink Fairies, a great hard rock band, and toured with them making a film entitled "1964," which unfortuantely is now lost (like much of my film work, I'm afraid). I love their use of feedback, and their onstage style; they were a great band.
How did you find people to play with who were into the same music?
Friends, especially Michael Downey, my partner in the band, who were into the same music.
When did you start the band?
Spring, 1970; we just rented the amps, guitars and drums and went at it.
How old were you?
I was 20 when I formed the band with Michael; we were the nucleus of the band, and still are.
When you first started out is it true you couldn't play a note?
Absolutely true. Piano, yes; guitar, no.
Where did you rehearse?
In our apartment at 42 Remsen Ave in New Brunswick; I was the superintendent of the place, and Michael and I lived on the top floor; we set up the equipment in my bedroom, and jammed 24/7.
How come you decided to destroy 15 television sets and a bunch of mirrors on your first show?
As a protest against the Vietnam War, and the way it was being presented on television.
Wasn't it expensive?
The TV sets were donated free; we spent the summer collecting them. Cost nothing.
There was also a motorcycle involved...
Yes, we drove a motorcycle down the main aisle of the concert hall to the stage, and started the show by smashing a record player playing Gershwin's An American in Paris.
How did you get this show?
We just found a room at the university that would take us, and set it up. It was free to all.
It must have been a pretty remarkable thing to. What were peoples reactions?
The reaction was insane, as you can hear on the record. People went nuts in the audience, and yet, despite the incredible energy in the room, the whole thing was very positive, and had a good vibe throughout. People saw this as art, as a performance piece. That's what it was.
To me it seems pretty bold to play basically two chord punk, destroy television sets as a protest against the Vietnam War in 1970. did you feel like you were cutting edge or just having fun?
I knew, frankly, that we were cutting edge, and that the concert would be a total assault on the senses. I also thought, as did Michael, that our music was the next direction of pop, and we turned out to be right. The concert was a statement, in all honesty, of our feelings of anger and frustration with the unending Vietnam War, and the enslavement to the Boob Tube that most Americans were addicted to.
Were people very politically active in those days?
Absolutely; marches, demonstrations, politcal theatre all proliferated.
How would you describe those times? Do you think people were more open minded with these things?
Absolutely, though right now, with Barack Obama and the recession, I think that we may be entering a more positive phase in the next eight years or so. People in the 1960s in the New York metro area were very interested in all kinds of culture.
Did you get more shows after this? How often did you play live?
We did a bunch of gigs after this one, including one that was nothing but feedback. We performed pretty regularly from 1970 to 1972.
You mention a few times that your gigs were more performance pieces with feedback and smashed tv sets. Was that something you intentionally incorporated into the band being into films...
Yes, rock and roll and film certainly went together; two of the 60s most dynamic art forms.
How did you feel when punk music came a long a few years later?
Like I had been right all along. Punk was the future of rock and roll.
Tell me abot the 7" you put out? Was it easy to do?
Yes, it was. Jeff Travers was a superb engineer, and we cut the single in two days. The whole thing cost maybe $100.
What was your reaction when Miriam from Norton records wanted to re-release it?
How do you feel about playing this stuff 35 years later?
Ecstatic; much of the stuff is new, and we'd love to play more gigs.
What have you been doing since the demise of the band?
I made a huge batch of films, wrote many books and articles on film, and for many years, music was just something from my past. But now, we're back, so watch out!
JACK OBLIVIAN & THE SHEIKS (us)
April 22 @ Vielle Montange
FLAMIN GROOVIES (us) + MAHARAJAS
May 7 @ Fritz's Corner/Nobelberget
DEN BÄSTA SOMMAREN!
Ran + Moon City Boys + Holograms + Hey Elbow! + Snake + IBV + Lady Banana
June 24-25 @ Skå Festplats
The new Savage Forum is online, check it out now!