Sean Bonniwell dies at 71; lead singer of the Music Machine
Sean Bonniwell, lead singer and songwriter of the Music Machine, a 1960s Los Angeles band regarded as one of the most original of the garage-punk era, has died. He was 71.
Bonniwell died Dec. 20 of lung cancer at a medical center in Visalia, Calif., said a spokesman for the Tulare County coroner.
A former folk singer, Bonniwell was recognized as the chief force behind the band that honed its sound during a regular gig at Hollywood Legion Lanes bowling alley. The group’s one big hit was “Talk Talk,” a proto-punk single that broke into the Top 20 in 1966.
It was “the most radical single” then on Top 40 radio, “garage psychedelia at its most experimental and outrageous,” Richie Unterberger wrote in his 1998 book “Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Rock and roll was a teenager in the ‘60s, and I used that climate to express my confusion, my anger, at the injustice of the world,” Bonniwell said in the book.
Although Bonniwell did not regard himself as “the grandfather of punk,” he recognized that others did, he told Unterberger.
“The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders” viewed the Music Machine as one of “the most loved” but “least played garage bands of the 1960s.”
The band’s success was largely due to Bonniwell, a gifted songwriter who penned “torturous but catchy, riff-driven songs,” according to the All Music online database. The original five-man lineup included Keith Olsen, known for wielding a fuzz box, an electronic device that altered his bass guitar sound.
The band started out as the Ragamuffins in 1965 but soon was known as the Music Machine, a nod to its energetic performing style.
“The band was looked on as an early pre-punk punk band. We wore all black and dyed our hair black,” Olsen, who later produced albums for Fleetwood Mac and many other groups, told The Times on Wednesday. “But we were perfectionists, that was kind of our trademark.”
By 1967, members started leaving the group, a turn Bonniwell blamed on poor management and pay. They had released one album, 1966’s "(Turn On) The Music Machine” which featured “Talk Talk” and the minor hit single “The People in Me.”
Bonniwell kept the Music Machine going for two more years and released a solo album. In 1970, he stopped actively recording and entered what he called “my transcendentalized western guru period,” traveling the U.S. in a Volkswagen bus.
He was born Thomas Harvey Bonniwell on Aug. 16, 1940, in San Jose. In high school, he formed his first band after hearing “Only You” by the Platters. He later played guitar with folk groups the Noblemen and the Wayfarers before turning to alternative rock.
“Early rock ‘n’ roll was really electrified folk music,” Bonniwell once said.
He eventually moved to Porterville and published an autobiography that reflected, he recalled in “Unknown Legends,” “my having been a teenager in the ‘50s, a rock celebrity in the ‘60s, a guru in the ‘70s and a Christian from the ‘80s on. My life has paralleled the decades of American change.”
Information on survivors was not available.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.