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Unfrozen after 27 years

Special to The Times

James Demeter tentatively strums a chord on his electric guitar.

“Is that too loud?” the electronics designer asks his four friends who are arranged around their instruments and microphones.

“Not for me,” says Phil Cohen, a Universal Studios business-affairs attorney, sitting behind the drums with a big grin on his face. He’s been waiting 27 years for this moment.

Unlike many graying weekend-warrior rockers dubiously trying to live out a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy late in life, Cohen and his mates, gathered on this hot Saturday afternoon in a rehearsal studio in the shadow of Chavez Ravine, are picking up a dream that was very real to them three decades ago. When this quintet, the Heaters, steps on stage tonight at the Viper Room, it will be a case of -- depending on which of the five you ask -- closure or healing.

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Either way, it takes only a few minutes for Demeter, Cohen, sisters Maggie (keyboards) and Missy (bass) Connell and vivacious singer Theresa Robertson to shake off a little rust as they blast through the dramatic song “Crossfire” and the perky “Put On the Heat.”

The music starts to click, the women’s harmonies gel, everyone loosens up, and for the moment it’s just some old pals having fun -- 27 years since the last time they all played together. The songs, though, are from the group’s 1978 debut album that’s at the center of the tale of rockus interruptus that brings them together this day.

In the late ‘70s, this quintet was a clear Next Big Thing in the Los Angeles rock scene. Part of the DIY surge fueled by punk, the Heaters’ music held potentially broader appeal, drawing on great pop models from the Ronettes to musical theater (the Connells’ parents are Broadway actors Jane and Gordon Connell) to ‘70s melodic hard rock.

Embraced by rock critics (including some at The Times, the local weeklies, music trade magazines and influential statewide music publication BAM), the Heaters sold out such key Hollywood clubs as the Starwood regularly, opened for top names including Van Halen and the Talking Heads, and had leading producers and executives lining up to work with them.

Their look, showmanship and pop sense influenced acts such as the Knack (Doug Fieger has acknowledged that he borrowed the white shirt/black vest/skinny tie style from them), the Motels and the Go-Go’s.

“I was working with the Blasters [at the time] and told them, ‘You guys are great, but the Heaters are better,’ ” says writer and pop historian Art Fein, one of the band’s most devoted supporters in its heyday.

And then it all went wrong: Inexperienced managers hooked them up with an ill-fitting record company and inappropriate producers, despite the fact that British hit-maker Michael Chapman (Blondie, the Sweet) was eager to climb aboard. Among several things the producers did was replace Cohen’s spirited drumming with the lifeless playing of a session man. The 1978 debut album, “The Heaters,” sank with nary a trace. A second, without Cohen or Demeter, fared even worse.

The fact that Chapman-produced artist Suzi Quatro had an international hit with what was virtually a note-for-note version of the Heaters’ energetic “I’ve Never Been in Love” in 1979 only served as bittersweet confirmation of the band’s unrealized commercial potential.

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A full account of how the Heaters went from toast of the town to footnote, written by illustrator William Stout, a devoted fan who’d played drums in an earlier band with some of the Heaters, appears on the band’s new website, www.theheatersonline.com.

For Cohen, the experience inadvertently set him on a path that took him from law school to his current position as a Universal vice president, as it happens in charge of all music deals for the studio’s film projects. All in all, he considers his outcome fortuitous. But he readily admits that he’s often found himself playing the mental game of what-ifs.

“It’s hard not to do that, certainly, when you have those 3 a.m. thoughts lying in bed,” he says. “But that was then. You have to shelve that and move on.”

The Heaters came off the shelf, literally, two years ago when Demeter, whose Demeter Amplification is a respected source of innovative equipment for musicians, pulled out some of the old tapes and engaged in his own what-ifs about how that first album might have sounded.

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“Phil and I were always saying how cool it would be if he had played drums on that first album,” Demeter says. “He knows people, and I joked, ‘Why don’t you get the original tapes back?’ And he did.”

With painstaking engineering work by Demeter and Cohen replacing all the drum tracks with new sessions, the Heaters’ debut album has been completely remixed and remastered to give it the sound the band intended, with a few other tracks and some excerpts from their exciting vintage live shows added as bonus material. Tonight’s Viper Room show celebrates that “new” album’s completion and release.

The occasion brings forth a lot of memories for the crew, now running from 49 to 58 years old. Missy Connell, who wrote most of the original Heaters songs with Cohen, recalls the band’s approach as being a reaction against punk fads of that time.

“I think we were sort of upside-down punk,” says Connell, who has continued to write and record music and has been working as a massage and Reiki therapist. “We did the outfits as a joke, pretending to be a regular, middle-class family, not unlike the Partridge Family.”

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Maggie adds, “We were trying to be as unhip as possible.”

As for what reviving the album and getting together on stage means, there are only slightly differing views among the members.

Maggie says it’s not about regrets.

“No, you really have to be philosophical,” she says, “though I feel sad the work we did and the belief we had didn’t flower.”

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Robertson, who lives in Arizona with her husband of 20 years and sings jazz standards at local clubs, sees it as “healing and closure.”

“ ‘Closure’ is actually a good word,” says the singer, who in the ‘70s used her given name, Mercy Bermudez. “That circle is closed, and we can move on, which is always a nice thing.”

Missy Connell, who has been studying graphic arts in New York, where she and her sister now live, rejects the term “closure.”

“That implies we wouldn’t work together again, seems too final to me,” she says. “It feels to me like coming home.”

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One thing they agree on completely is that there are no delusions that this will magically restore them to the fame that was in their grasp back in their youth.

“Oh yeah! I want to be a rock star again at 58,” says Demeter with a sarcastic laugh. “That makes tons of sense.”

--

The Heaters

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Where: Viper Room, 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 8 tonight

Price: $12

Contact: (310) 358-1880

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