Power pop has never been one of the more exalted musical genres, but there was a brief period during which it was possible to put a cool face on it. By this, I refer to the late-seventies, a time in which bands like the Jam and XTC were known to occasionally self-identify as power pop. By doing this, they were naming themselves as heirs to a tradition established by revered cult bands like Big Star, The Flaming Groovies, the Naz, and the Who (it was Pete Townsend, after all, who coined the term.) All of that came to a crashing halt with a little record called “My Sharona”. In the wake of the Knack’s success, the major labels sent forth armies of A&R people to find every fresh-faced group with a jangly, radio-friendly “new wave” sound they could. Many crappy top 40 bands were more than happy to put on skinny ties and Beatle boots to answer the call.
It was truly one of the most misguided gold rushes of the rock era. With their hastily released second album, the Knack proved that they could not write a song to save their lives, and interest in them dwindled accordingly. Under those circumstances, the last thing that anyone wanted was a second-rate copy of the Knack, and record store cut-out bins were soon literally overflowing with albums by pretenders to the power-pop throne. And thus power-pop earned the reputation it enjoys today of being a cynical record industry construct. Of course, within the power-pop canon, there were gems to be found. And, as any Jess Franco fan will tell you, there is no more surefire way to inspire cult-like obsession than to plant diamonds among the dross. It’s all about the digging, after all (except for when it’s all about the obscurity: a mediocre 45 by my high school band is a sought-after rarity among Japanese power pop collectors.) Even today, evidence of a robust power-pop fandom is only a simple eBay or YouTube search away.
And like fans of many types of music (or genre movies) power pop fans sometimes try to swell the ranks of their chosen obsession by widening their nets to include within it acts that are not necessarily deserving of the label. Take, for example, The Quick, a band that was a fixture of the Los Angeles club scene during the mid-1970s who today, when they are mentioned at all, are often cited as power-pop standard-bearers. There is some justification for this: their sound is melodic, catchy, guitar-based, and driving. Yet to try to place The Quick alongside acts like the Pez Band and the Rubinoos would be a musical exercise in placing a square peg within a round hole; for there was much about the band that was unique, and even exceptional.
The key component of The Quick’s sound was its guitarist and leader, Steven Hufsteter, a Jagger-esque figure whose playing combined a slashing Townsend style attack with a fussy, classically influenced melodicism. It seems that Hufsteter’s mission on Earth was to meld the Teutonic bombast of Wagner and Mahler with the power chord-driven sound of mod-era groups like The Move and The Creation. A trademark example of this is the band’s thundering cover of the Beatle’s “It Won’t Be Long”, into which Hufsteter worked melodic lines from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” Unlike more mainstream classical rock acts like ELO, however, Hufsteter wished only to incorporate classical music’s grandeur and drama, but not it’s gentility. His method was not to put a respectable face on rock, but to give classical music a much-needed dirtying-up.
Contributing further to The Quick’s uniqueness was its frontman Danny Wilde, a singer whose stratospheric range would garner the band frequent comparisons to Sparks. But while Sparks’ Russel Mael tended to sing that band’s songs in a warbling falsetto, Wilde sang in full voice, utilizing a piercing countertenor that sometimes made him sound like a child. When combined with the angelic backing vocals of keyboardist Billy Bizeau, Wilde’s voice often stood in discomfiting, if ironic, contrast to Hufsteter’s lyrical obsessions.
Suffice it to say that the mundane world of romance and heartbreak that is pop music’s bread and butter is one far removed from the lyrical universe envisioned by Steven Hufsteter. There, every relationship is a power struggle with sadomasochistic and authoritarian overtones. (The LA Weekly’s Falling James was right in pointing out that Hufsteter was years ahead of Elvis Costello in conflating romance and fascism.) “Hillary”, one of the band’s signature songs, is a pain freak’s groveling ode to his Germanic mistress, punctuated by the sounds of whips cracking and marching jackboots. “No No Girl” tells the story of a damaged girl who grows up to long for the punishing hand of her domineering father.
Both of these songs were on The Quick’s lone album, Mondo Deco, but there were songs in the band’s live set—the antic “Master Race”, and “Heaven on Earth”, with its “Dietrich in the bunker” air of doomed decadence—that took the Nazi imagery even further–further, apparently, than was considered appropriate for the record-buying public.
Live, The Quick was a mix of smirky showbiz shtick and outright provocation, with the diminutive Wilde commanding the stage like a cross between David Bowie and Joel Grey in Cabaret. It was a tongue-in-cheek adversarial pose perhaps developed during the band’s early days, when they were often openers for local metal acts and their none-too-appreciative fans. Yet The Quick were gifted and charismatic performers, with great songs. They were also much harder and louder than anyone introduced to them via their recordings might expect.
Back in 1977, when I saw The Quick play at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco (their only show outside of Southern California, I’m told), their Nazi posturing never struck me as anything but pure camp. After all, the band existed in that brief heartbeat of a moment between the fall of glam and the birth of punk—both movements that traded in fascist imagery, albeit for different purposes. It just didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Also, as an angry teenager myself, that kind of mockery seemed like an obvious form of rebellion for alienated Jewish kids from the Los Angeles suburbs. All the same, in this current age of humorlessness and overweening concern, it’s likely that they would have been condemned for them—although, of course, by people who never took the time to actually listen to their music.
The story of the Quick starts in late 1974 at Van Nuys High School, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where friends and classmates Hufsteter, drummer Danny Benair, and Danny Wilde (then Danny Thomas) joined up with Ian Ainsworth, a younger kid from another school who played bass. Another Van Nuys student, a musical multi-talent named Billy Bizeau, wanted to be in the band, but did not have the money to buy a keyboard. Like most young bands, they started out playing covers, mostly by the mod-era groups that inspired them. The period was kind of a dark age for the Los Angeles club scene, so when it came time for them to gig, they had to take them wherever they could, often playing to hostile audiences as openers for bands like Van Halen. At one point, they even played a show at a Jewish Temple, where Wilde sang “Master Race” wearing a yarmulke. All the while, Hufsteter was honing his craft as a songwriter and composing the tunes that would make up Mondo Deco.
In the winter of 1975, Hufsteter met the notorious rock impresario Kim Fowley, who was fresh off of getting The Runaways signed to Mercury. Taking an interest in the band, Fowley decided to take The Quick under his wing. His first act as a mentor was to buy Billy Bizeau a keyboard, allowing him to join the band and complete the lineup. He then set about trying to get them a record deal. After a disastrous showcase for Chrysalis Records, Fowley set his sights on Denny Rosencranz, the Mercury A&R man who had signed The Runaways. Eventually, Rosencranz commissioned a demo, which the band recorded over a couple of days in April of 1976. Mercury signed them in May, at which point they began work on Mondo Deco, which was recorded at the Beach Boys’ Brother Studio with original Sparks guitarist Earl Mankey producing. (Benair recounts this experience as a music geek’s dream come true, with the band being granted use of everything in the studio except for Brian’s mellotron.) The album was then released in June. What this meant is that the band went from rehearsing in the garage to being major label artists within just a couple of months. The resulting vertigo would affect their judgment throughout the rest of their brief career.
“We were kids,” Benair told me. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Of course, none of this was apparent on Mondo Deco, which was nothing if not authoritative. The version of the Quick it presented was one with a distinctive, fully developed sound and a lot of bratty attitude. Hufsteter, furthermore, comes across as a songwriter to be reckoned with; of the 10 songs, there is not a stinker in the bunch. More impressive, his songs never become repetitive, despite their defining eccentricities –from arch morality tales like “No No Girls”, to those songs, like “Playtime” and “Hi Lo”, that come off as mischievously dainty paeans to aristocratic debauchery–like Aubrey Beardsley prints come to life. A couple of well-chosen covers—the aforementioned “It Won’t Be Long” and a deliciously mean-spirited version of the Four Season’s ”Rag Doll”—also serve to keep things varied. Indeed, Hufsteter and the band only takes two major stylistic detours over the course of the album. The first is “Anybody”, a balls-out, seven-minute-long rocker that might very well have been intended as a middle finger to the indifferent metal audiences the band faced early on. The other is “My Purgatory Years”, a straight-faced portrait of teenage alienation that might just be the album’s only song derived from lived experience.
All in all, Mondo Deco is a perfect distillation of the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry that made The Quick so unique at that time. Sure, there are the obvious Sparks echoes—but, hey, how many bands in 1976 were borrowing from Sparks? And where Sparks was often goofy and endearing, The Quick are defiantly, wickedly sardonic, taking an attitude that was punk at a time when punk was still going through its birth agonies. Sadly, the commercial success of Mondo Deco can be gauged by the fact that no one to this day has bothered to release it in digital form (though a vinyl reissue was released by Radio Hearbeat in 2010.) This is an especially sobering state of affairs when you consider that Robin Lane & The Chartbusters debut album can still be downloaded from iTunes. It might have been that The Quick were too hard to pin down—not pop enough, not punk enough, not rock enough—for, if not audiences, then for the marketing department at Mercury to get a handle on. In any case, it’s a shame, because, as we now know, Mondo Deco was a document of a band in transition, and its failure denied us the second album that would have shown us the band they were to become.
The period after recording Mondo Deco was an especially prolific one for Hufsteter, with the guitarist penning literally dozens of songs over a period of a few months. Over the course of these songs a new version of the Quick emerged. Gone were the harpsichord runs, cutesy harmonies, and effete melodies of Mondo Deco, replaced by raw, guitar-driven songs powered by Hufsteter’s angular, rockabilly-inspired riffs. Even the lyrical content is more raw and immediate: “Jimmy Too Bad” chronicles a suburban everyman’s violent meltdown (“Jimmy got his gun/Put his good suit on/The kids to bed/The gun to their head/And they died/Sat there thinking and he cried…”), “Big Chance” the pipedreams of a man serving time in prison, and “Take My Life” a paean to suicide.
The above songs were all documented on a demo that the band recorded for Elektra Records—with David Campbell (father of Beck Hansen) producing—after being dropped by Mercury. Fortunately for us, these demos were included in a compilation titled Untold Rock Stories that, as of this writing, has just been re-issued by Burger Records. This set not only includes the Electra demos but also those for Mondo Deco, which include a couple of great songs—“Teacher’s Pet” and “Touch Control”—whose omission from the final album is baffling. There are also live versions of “Master Race” and “Blackout”, a song about a pedophilic scoutmaster.
All this aside, the inarguable centerpiece and highpoint of both the Elektra demos and Untold Rock Stories is Huffsteter’s “Pretty Please.” If power pop has a Guernica, “Pretty Please” is it. The chaotic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics depict a nightmare world in which animal gods and Manson victim Jay Sebring wildly carom off one another against an anxious litany of fever dream imagery. Meanwhile, the band pumps out a blistering eighth note roar that is both savage in its simplicity and the most punk thing they have ever attempted. And then there is Huffsteter’s guitar solo: a panicked, key-defying musical screed that sounds like a trapped animal desperately trying to claw its way to the light. You might think that such a song would be an odd fit for the band that was described in the first part of this article, but it instead sounds like that band giving birth to the kick-ass rock and roll band that it was always meant to be.
It is almost impossible to imagine a band breaking up after making as epic a musical statement as “Pretty Please.” But, perhaps, having proved what they were capable of, the Quick felt it was the appropriate time. And so, in April of 1978, they went their separate and varied ways. Danny Wilde eventually joined The Rembrandts, who found fame with a TV theme song about friends who are always there for each other and never engage in bondage play. Billy Bizeau penned “Queens of Noise” for the Runaways. Danny Benair became a member of the Paisley Underground group The Three O’Clock before taking a job in the industry. And Steven Hufsteter? He got in touch with his Latin roots, became Steven Medina Hufsteter, and now plays with the Chicano rock band Tito & Tarantula, who I doubt have any songs about Nazis.
As the above litany makes clear, the members of The Quick have taken such disparate paths in the years since that it’s difficult to imagine them ever reuniting. They are about as gone as a band can be. That does not make it any less criminal that there is such a scant record of their existence. Here’s hoping that some sympathetic soul at one of the reissue labels (Ace? RPM? Are you listening?) will follow Burger Records’ lead and anthologize them in the manner they deserve. After all, while it may be a music industry truism that five great bands fall through the cracks for every mediocre one that makes it, it’s bands like The Quick that make the cracks the far more interesting place to be.