Rock Rolled With the Punches in ’91 : 1991: ORANGE COUNTY, THE YEAR IN REVIEW : Attrition Crashes O.C.'s Club Scene
This was the year when we all learned a new verb, to attrit.
The music business certainly learned its meaning well. Major record companies folded or laid off staffers as sales fell. Across the country, some big-name acts played to seas of empty seats, and others called off tours entirely as recession-wary fans saved their money for a few hot attractions.
Attrition hit the Orange County pop scene too--although it wasn’t necessarily the economy that was doing the attritting. Many people still seemed to have plenty to pay for entertainment. The county’s two big pop venues, Irvine Meadows and the Pacific Amphitheatre, not only withstood national trends but actually reported attendance increases over 1990.
Rod Stewart, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were among the big draws at the Pacific, and such attractions as the Lollapalooza festival, the Scorpions and Oingo Boingo were hits at Irvine. It was at the ever-shaky club level where attrition really set in.
The biggest casualty was Peppers Golden Bear. The 579-capacity club in downtown Huntington Beach had opened in the summer of 1990, trumpeted by management as the second coming of the old Golden Bear, Orange County’s leading nightclub from the early ‘60s until it succumbed to downtown redevelopment in 1986. Peppers was part of that redevelopment, ensconced on the ground floor of the Pierside Pavilion commercial arcade not far from where the old Bear had stood.
It wasn’t a slack economy that attritted Peppers, but a strategic blunder. When the club was built, nobody had reckoned that noise from loud rock concerts would filter through the ceiling into an upstairs movie multiplex that was to be the Pavilion’s key tenant. Despite large expenditures on soundproofing, Peppers’ management and the Pavilion’s developers weren’t able to solve the noise problem. In May, with the movie theaters about to open, the developers bought out Peppers’ 30-year lease and the nightclub closed.
With it went the best chance yet to bring some competition (and with it a greater selection of shows) to the club-level concert scene in Orange County. As 1992 begins, OC is still suffering from an absurd anomaly: In an affluent county of 2.5 million people, only one club, the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, offers a full menu of touring attractions.
Even as his only local competitor was self-destructing, Coach House owner Gary Folgner was getting attritted on another front.
In an ambitious move, Folgner had renovated and reopened the 1,910-seat Raymond Theatre in Pasadena in late 1990, giving him a third suburban concert venue to go with the Coach House and the Ventura Theatre. But snags over fire codes led to the cancellation of some of the first shows Folgner had booked at the Raymond, putting him in a financial bind that he couldn’t escape. He eventually had to walk away from the investment, saying that pumping more money into the Raymond (after losses of more than $400,000) might jeopardize his more established venues.
The year also saw the end of Night Moves. The dark, smoke-choked Huntington Beach venue (given its lack of ventilation, Club Carcinogen would have been a more apt name) still was the most steadily active Orange County stage for local punk and alternative bands from 1986 until last July, when it closed for renovations that would turn it into a sports bar.
Those larger clubs, the scene for original ock and folk music was healthier here in 1991 than it had been in years.
In Costa Mesa, an acoustic and alternative music scene germinated at places such as the Black Market Art Gallery, the Blue Marble Coffeehouse, and Rock N Java. Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel continued to offer an interesting schedule of traditional folk and acoustic music, and a monthly folk series called the Living Tradition was launched at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center.
Alternative rockers found a cozy home at New Klub on the Block, a weekly soiree at the Newport Roadhouse. As the year ended, NKOTB’s promoter, Craig McGahey, announced plans to expand from Friday nights to Saturdays. The Roadhouse fizzled, however, in an attempt to develop an audience for blues and roots-rock on other nights.
The Doll Hut, an even cozier bar in Anaheim, was another humble but active outlet for grass-roots alternative rockers. After several years of free shows at which bands played without pay, the Doll Hut was able to begin charging admission and paying headliners during 1991. That allowed the club to begin featuring underground touring acts as well as local talent.
Bogart’s, just across the county line in Long Beach, remained the most important showcase for bands on the local rock scene, both on its main stage and in the adjoining Bohemian Cafe. Beside its regular offerings, the club launched Monte’s Garage, a weekly Monday-night session that fostered up-and-coming local bands.
Bogart’s also continued to be Orange County concert-goers’ nearest outlet for some of the most intriguing out-of-the-mainstream performers, including such acts as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dave Alvin, Pere Ubu, and the Mekons--none of whom appeared in Orange County proper.
Perhaps the best news for local musicians and alternative-minded music fans came when the Federal Communications Commission authorized a power boost for KUCI-FM.
At its current rating of 24 watts, the UC Irvine student-run station registers little more than static in most of the county. The station has begun to raise the $75,000 needed to install a new 200-watt transmitter that would finally give Orange County an adventurous rock-oriented radio outlet of its own. (KUCI already has shown a keen interest in fostering the local music scene.) Station officials hope to secure a loan that would enable it to boost its signal in early 1992 rather than whenever the station could raise all the money needed for the transmitter first.
Of the broader world of pop music, the most significant local event in 1991 was the death on March 21 of Leo Fender. He was a genius of electric guitar design who, starting in the late 1940s, turned his Fullerton shop into one of modern pop’s greatest arsenals. His Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars and Precision basses remain standard tools of the art in every branch of pop performance. Fender was still at work, searching for new refinements on the electric guitar, when he died at 81 of complications of Parkinson’s disease.
The Righteous Brothers spent 1991 riding the stunning 1990 revival of their 1965 hit, “Unchained Melody.” According to Billboard magazine charts, the “Best of the Righteous Brothers” compilation on Curb Records enjoyed steady sales through 1991.
Younger Orange County rockers who got national attention included hard-rock band Social Distortion, which toured as an opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and folk-rocker Vinnie James, who had the unlikely experience of playing solo-acoustic shows opening for Styx, that dated behemoth of corporate rock.
Attrition caught up with some of Orange County’s best rock bands, though: Eggplant broke up, although a potent spinoff group, Eli Riddle, soon emerged. Burning Tree was felled when its young guitar ace, Marc Ford, accepted an offer to join the Black Crowes. National People’s Gang went on indefinite hiatus after a personnel shake-up.
The local scene also suffered attrition by moving van. OC’s best Christian rocker, Rick Elias, and its highest-profile country singer, Jann Browne, both packed off to Nashville, seeking deserved career advancement. On its album “Real Good Life,” alternative rock band Don’t Mean Maybe criticized Orange County’s conservative suburban dream, then backed up its words by moving to the Bay Area.
But Orange County remained a fertile enough patch of pop soil to continue sprouting some promising new faces. Standard Fruit, Soul Scream, Altered State, Peter Shambrook and the Cadillac Tramps were among those making good impressions with debut albums or fledgling gigs during 1991.
CRITICS’ PICKS: F2.