April , 1980
By David Huff
Pearl Harbor and the Explosions
The Power Pop of Pearl and the Explosions
San Francisco, the city by the sea. Hardly a day goes by that something of major significance doesn't occur in this metropolis tucked neatly behind the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
For decades, San Francisco has been the subject of storybook love, mystery, romance, and intrigue. It’s been the cultural center of the West coast, focusing on everything from the fine arts to fashion. And, don't forget music.
Music has been as much a part of this city's heritage as the Golden, Gate Bridge. As the music industry flows in its cycles, so does the music scene in San Francisco.
In the 60's, the Bay area brought us the counter-culture groups like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. As the seventies moved in and the war subsided, hard rock became the focal point, and out rose the likes of Montrose, Sammy Hagar, and Journey.
Now, with a new decade upon us, there comes the new wave of music—Pearl Harbor and the Explosions.
In October of '79, the seed of Pearl Harbor was planted. It came to full fruition when they signed a record contract with Warner Brothers, The group is currently embarking on its first major tour outside of the West coast, and a brief appearance back East.
The principle members of the group are Pearl E. Gates, vocals, and the Stench brothers, John, drums, and Hilary, bass. The three of them met while performing in a cabaret/rock act called Leila and the Snakes, Their association with that group lasted until John got fed up with the whole scene one night and made a memorable exit from the stage.
"I said one night that I just couldn't take this anymore," recalled John. "So I threw all of my symbols and kicked over my drums in the middle of the last song and walked off. That was the point at which I realized that I was not going to be with Leila and the Snakes anymore.
"We were all frustrated. Pearl and I would go, 'What are we doing this stuff for?' We really never had any doubts that we could come out as a rock and roll band. We were visibly frustrated in the Snakes because we knew we were never going to do that. The transition was easy for us. We had been doing it all of our lives."
After cutting loose from Leila, Pearl and the Stench brothers were faced with the task of finding a guitarist to round out the group. John had been working with a guitarist named Peter Bill, whose background included a variety of bands ranging from rock to country to R&B. He was recruited as the fourth member of the soon to be Explosions.
'We all knew what would go over well in San Francisco," explained John, "and. what we would have to do to go over. We were lucky to start with a following from the beginning. We were known already, so when we quit the band, we put together a bunch of cover tunes that people would come to the club and watch us play.”
"With the combination of engaging personalities and all these popular oldies that people were going to get into, we knew we had something. We were awfully convinced we had a thing that was going to work—and it did. We built the originals into that framework as we developed an idea of what we wanted to write."
The band recorded a single for a local label, 415 Records, called "Drivin'," that became the hottest 45 in the Bay area. It got playlist adds on stations across the country and also Great Britain. It started things happening.
Stench says Pearl Harbor and the Explosions aren't riding on the crest of the new wave explosion, they are developing their own style of music they are happy with.
"It's different as much as it's a distillation of our personalities," continued John. "We're not aimed at copying tunes of an established form that will become an established form. It's a distillation of what we happened to be influenced by As far as sound, it has originality.
"Just because we were successful in San Francisco, we have no idea whether we will be successful everywhere else. That is what we are trying to find out. With this tour, we are getting acquainted towards us has been pretty positive all over the place, which to me says that we have a general acceptability. People actually like what we do."
The final testing ground for any new group is the road. To expect the unexpected is part of the game because anything can happen, and it usually does.
"When we go out and play these strange places we've never played before, and play for people you've never seen before, you wonder when you go to these places what is going to go on. You know, 'Are they going to like us or not?’”
"In San Francisco," said John, "we are sure fire. People approach us as if we're friends. We know the people that come and see us. It has that feeling of being a local band, a big local band.”
"You come to these places and you don't play to as many people. You don't play to a thousand people like you might in San Francisco, so you get worried right away. 'Gosh, there is only four hundred people here. Are we going to be able to get them off, get them into what we are into doing?' So tar, every place we've played, we have. The audience has gotten involved and that is the only thing that we are looking for.”
"Being big everywhere is a product of a lot of intricate wheeling’s and dealings, plus people actually seeing us and liking us. There are two levels we have to deal with. There’s us going around the country playing all of these places that we have never played before, letting people see what we do. And then there's convincing people that we are something that they can like. You know, not having to convince them because they come, they see us, and they like us."
One thing that is sure to attract the attention of people is the name Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. It's not something you easily forget. "The name," replied John, "just sort of happened. It was a combination of some mistakes, and people got Pearl's name wrong. It was an attempt to find something that had shock value. It just sort of fell together and it worked to make people notice us.”
"It was a gimmick, you are darn right. The only thing that isn't a gimmick is the fact that we are trying to play some music that is satisfying to us. Now that new wave has become this popularized form, it is turning around now, and there is a lot of people that are using the music as a gimmick. They are already rocking into this form which is new wave, which is a certain beat, which is a certain chord progression. That's the gimmick, and we are trying to keep the music un-gimmickized.”
"We can write, we can play, and we have energy. What's been happening is that we've been going to these places and people have LI been saying, 'I thought that your record was over-produced, until I heard you, and then you played it just like the record. You were as good as you are on the record, and we thought it was all produced to make you sound good.'”
"People are used to seeing these quote, 'new wave,' unquote, bands come in, and they really dig their record," said John elaborating on the new wave. "When they see one of those bands, and the band is whimpy and can't play. They have been produced to sound good, and they can't do it live. We can back up our record."
Stench is quick to point out that Pearl Harbor is rock and roll, not new wave. The sound of the band is the result of the musical backgrounds the four members have drawn from to produce the music they are comfortable with.
"Well, our music is enjoyable," said John after he thought for a few seconds. "It seems to be generally enjoyable because people all around have been getting off on it. To call it 'just fun,' is sort of, well, there's a connotation there that makes it sound sort of whimpy.”
"It is fun in the sense that people all around have been getting off on it. It's not fun in the sense that we are just slaving to try to get these things together to make them right so that people will be able to have fun when they see it. It's not, 'Hey, let's go down to the basement and write a tune.”
"We have only been together since October, so we are out touring and promoting our album on a major level. At the same time, we are trying to develop a group identity. This is something that is plastic—it challenges and develops. The thing to do is to be able to promote a product, and at the same time, develop in an artistic way.”
"Success is a real personal thing. It means the four of us being able to develop something together. It's success for a group of people involved in an endeavor which has some kind of product as its end result. Efficiency is being able to get the wheels turning smoothly and constantly so that there is a sense of a flow of creativity at all times. You develop the situation where you can make something and keep making something. Then, the thing that you are making keeps changing and growing, getting different and better all of the time. That's success. Success isn't going and playing Dodger Stadium."