The Three O’Clock rolls around again, this time for Coachella
Showtime was only minutes away at the Glass House in Pomona on a recent Saturday night as Michael Quercio, Danny Benair, and Louis Gutierrez, three original members of the Los Angeles psychedelic pop quartet the Three O’Clock, prepared for their first live show together in 28 years.
With the exception of the band’s frontman Quercio, who at 50 has maintained the boyish looks that made him a local heartthrob in the 1980s, the rest of the band bore little resemblance to their musical personas of old — a reality they were willing to joke about.
“This is a bit surreal,” Gutierrez said. “I’m a stockbroker now. I sit in an office and wear a tie every day.”
From backstage, the growing buzz in the theater was audible and a quick peek at the crowd revealed the sizable 800-person main room was filling fast.
Earlier in front of the club a scooter rally pulled up — just like the ones that used to appear before Three O’Clock shows past — with a small army of aging mods.
“I’m nervous,” Quercio admitted, between paces around the room. “Then again, I’m always nervous.”
Only Benair, despite “not playing drums in 20 years,” seemed unfazed. He worked the room backstage, taking only an occasional break from cracking jokes with friends and a few music industry acquaintances to scan Twitter for buzz of the show.
That anyone is tweeting about the Three O’Clock is a small miracle of circumstance. The seeds of the band’s revival began last summer after a chance encounter with Goldenvoice President and Coachella founder Paul Tollett at Bagatelle music store in Long Beach.
“I actually ran into Michael digging for records,” Tollett explained via email, before the Glass House show. “My mod friends and I were huge fans.”
After consulting with the band’s former manager John Silva — who got his first gig managing the Three O’Clock and, years later, went on to become one of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll after he shepherded Nirvana to international fame — Tollett offered the group the chance to reunite at Coachella.
“I couldn’t imagine a bigger offer,” Gutierrez said of what brought him out of musical retirement. “It was too good to turn down.”
The band will take the stage both Sundays of Coachella. And just days after its warm-up gig in Pomona, the Three O’Clock was set to make its late-night TV debut on “Conan.” That’s the kind of opportunity it never had even at the height of its 1980s success.
That isn’t to suggest the band didn’t have any influence, as its pull on Tollett and the armada of scooters parked out front attests.
With their 1960s-inspired sound, punk do-it-yourself ethos and sleek style, the Three O’Clock band mates were leaders in the short-lived L.A. “Paisley Underground” scene of the mid-'80s.
At its zenith, the movement gave birth to the Bangles and went on to inspire the work of bands like the Stone Roses and Mazzy Star.
Prince too was a fan, and famously named his first record label Paisley Park after the movement. He signed the Three O’Clock as his first act.
But despite a series of solid records — most notably 1983’s “Sixteen Tambourines” — and a few catchy songs that saw radio play, things never fully clicked for the band.
Gutierrez, who for a time used the first name Gregg instead of Louis, left the group in 1985 — aided by “a couple of [inter-band] fistfights,” as he explained after the show — to pursue a solo music career. Though Quercio and Benair soldiered on, the band finally collapsed in 1988.
Benair quit playing to form a music licensing business, and though Gutierrez found success after the Three O’Clock as the primary songwriting force in the indie group Mary’s Danish, he stepped out of the music business in 1993 to raise a family.
Only Quercio has continued his music career, fronting the bands Permanent Green Light, Jupiter Affect and the more theatrical Imperial Butt Wizards — and remains one of the more intriguing figures of the L.A. music scene.
Critically adored in his home city of L.A. during his Three O’Clock years, Quercio, who is openly gay, was less able or perhaps was unwilling at the time to blur the lines of sexual identity in the way of his ambiguous contemporaries, including Morrissey or even Prince.
It was a difficult proposition for a band with national ambitions during a time of anti-gay paranoia that swept the country with the spread of AIDS. A sign of the times, reviewers frequently described Quercio’s voice and stage persona in terms that, from a 21st-century lens, seem an awful lot like coded homophobia. He was routinely dismissed as being too “fey,” and one 1987 review in the San Diego Union-Tribune labeled him a “twerp.”
“We were in Arizona, and I remember a local Phoenix reviewer described Michael as the ‘king of twee,’” said Benair. “That really bothered him.”
Quercio, for his part, is magnanimous about any homophobia he may have faced: “It was really never much of an issue. Probably because we came up in Los Angeles, where no one really cared.”
The real death of the band, almost all its members agree, can be attributed to the 1985 departure of Gutierrez.
“Michael wrote the majority of our songs, but I do think he really leaned on Louis for songwriting duties,” said Benair. “Losing that additional voice was the beginning of the end for us.
“I can’t even remember our last show,” he added. “It was a bad time. We were on a crappy tour.”
All of which makes the band’s sudden reunion, more than a quarter-century after breaking up, all that more intriguing. Instead of dredging up bad blood, the band has fully embraced the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll do-over.
“To be able to go back, after leaving the band under clouded circumstances,” mused Gutierrez, “it feels like a coda. It’s emotionally, psychologically, professionally and musically fulfilling. It’s positive on every level.”
Perhaps the only dissonant note to the band’s resurgence is the absence of original keyboardist Mickey Mariano. The transition from civilian life to playing on national television and in front of arguably the biggest, most culturally significant music festival in North America isn’t for everyone, Benair said of Mariano’s reluctance to sign backup with the band.
Mariano was replaced by keyboardist Adam Merrin of the L.A. indie group the 88.
“We just want to be the band we were in 1985,” said Benair. “Adam fits in perfectly with that vision.”
As for the future of the band, no one seems to have any idea what will happen after Coachella.
Gutierrez, established in his career in the financial industry, seems content just to be playing music again, while Quercio and Benair are hopeful something new may come of the reunion.
“For now,” Benair said, “we’re thrilled to be on this ride.”
Scanning Twitter once again, Benair checked the feed of Gutierrez’s 15-year-old daughter and suddenly unleashed a belly laugh.
“Oh my God, you actually tweeted about my dad’s band,” she wrote to a friend who had posted about the reunion. “I’m laughing so hard.”
“Best tweet ever!” said Benair.
Moments later, the Three O’Clock took the stage and launched into a nervous rendition of “Simon in the Park (With Tentacles)” from its 1985 album, “Arrive Without Traveling.”
Of all the band’s members, Gutierrez clearly had the most pent-up rock star in his system, tossing his guitar in the air, shoving it next to the speakers for feedback, and then jumping from the speakers for good measure.
Then, with their jitters eased, the band members played what was arguably their biggest single: the catchy pop song “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend.” The crowd screamed and sang along, and even the normally stoic Quercio allowed himself a smile.
The Three O’Clock was finally back.
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