By Chuck Miller
They were barely participants in their first music video. Their record label was shut down by federal agents. Their drummer once punctured his eyeball during rehearsals. And John Lydon once urinated on a band member’s car.
Such was the world of The Din, an Orange County, Calif., ska-punk rock band that, in the early 1980s, went from Orange County’s clubs to college radio darlings, only to dissipate after two albums. Now, the band mates are planning a return to the stage.
The Din first started making noise in 1981, when several employees at a Los Angeles-area Tower Records shared their love of music with each other. The original lineup — guitarist Phil Clevenger, bassists Lee Dolan and Tony Vick, sax player Clifford Mabra and drummer Scott Schnabel — were popular fixtures on the Orange County club scene. Before long, fans packed the Concert Factory to hear The Din’s music. Several musicians joined and left the band (including sax player Bobby Martin, who later played sax on Flipper’s “Sex Bomb” track), but the core of Tony Vick, Phil Clevenger and Lee Dolan remained solid throughout.
“Lee was really the engine behind making the band happen and keeping it going,” Clevenger said. “He did all the pep talks, booking shows and tours. We were a disparate group with little in common but a desire to play loud and a willingness to show up. Listened to a lot of Gang of Four, Hunters & Collectors, dub reggae, Killing Joke, X, and so on … I believe Lee had just taught himself the bass by listening to the Psychedelic Furs.”
After going through a succession of drummers, The Din settled on Mike Malone, who proved his commitment to the band by actually injuring one of his eyes in a freak accident.
“Mike Malone had energy to burn for sure,” said Clevenger. “One time at rehearsal, he hit the snare, and his drumstick bounced up and took a rather large chunk out of one of his eyes … He jumped up from the kit, screaming, one hand over his eye, the other still holding a stick, gyrating like mad … and we all thought it was just normal, crazy Mikey. Until the blood flowed.”
The Din’s mélange of ska and punk, combined with a tremendous live concert show, impressed Bob Heinlein, whose High Velocity Records already had one successful punk-rock band, Lost Cause, on its roster.
“The band had many connections to the Record Trading Center in Tustin,” Vick said. “RTC was owned by Bob Heinlein. High Velocity was his brainchild, and he was working toward being an OC New Wave mogul.”
Heinlein’s High Velocity Records was distributed by another company, Rocshire Records, an Anaheim-based company with some minor chart hits from singer Tony Carey (“I Won’t Be Home Tonight,” “West Coast Summer Nights”). Within weeks of signing, Din’s first album, “Great Tradition” (High Velocity XR 22012) was released, as well as a single from the album, “Reptiles”/“Rejection” (Rocshire XR 95043).
“Reptiles” caught on strong with college radio stations, whose deejays enjoyed the band’s musical chops and the songs’ literary-inspired backgrounds. The track “Rejection” was based on the work of Franz Kafka, while the title track “Great Tradition” was inspired by Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”
“It wasn’t until I met Phil and Tony that I began to learn more about the ‘must-read’ books,” Dolan said. “I’m afraid my literary influences at the time were limited to Hunter S. Thompson, Spalding Gray, Douglas Adams and the L.A. Times sports page.”
To promote “Reptiles,” The Din filmed a music video at Francis Ford Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope Studios. The band thought it was making a straightforward performance video, only to discover that their camera time was shared with modified hot rods, breakdancers and girls dressed as neon-painted reptiles.
“The video shoot was a strange day, indeed,” said Lee Dolan. “We had NO control over the making of the video, and in the end, I feel it hurt us more than helped. It was not who we were and had little to do with the song. In retrospect, I wish we had stood our ground and demanded something different. I remember being in New York for the College Media Journal music awards and that video was playing everywhere I went. By week’s end, I couldn’t stand myself. Love the song, though.”
The band members also discovered that although the video for “Reptiles” did get some airplay on MTV, the video wasn’t really produced with The Din in mind.
“We found out the hard way,” Clevenger said, “that we were the vehicle for a production company to produce a video demo, which went on to land them their ACTUAL target gig, the video for Billy Idol’s ‘Flesh For Fantasy.’ That explains why the whole thing had NOTHING to do with the content of our song and why they edited us out of pretty much the whole thing. Live and learn!”
“In a life pretty much dominated by surreal, über-silly events,” Malone said, “This particular affair occupies a wing of its own in the Weirdness Hall O’ Fame. I spent the entire useless day drinking and hitting on the dancers.”
Still, the band was performing sold-out concerts throughout the West Coast, and the “Great Tradition” album sold a respectable 25,000 copies in the summer of 1983. But just as the door to stardom was opening for The Din, it got slammed and padlocked shut.
The owners of Rocshire Records financed the record company by, of all things, an elaborate embezzlement scheme. The record company owner’s wife worked at Hughes Aircraft and forged millions of dollars in fraudulent medical reimbursement checks, which were deposited into Rocshire’s bank accounts. Federal agents swooped in and confiscated everything in Rocshire’s studios, leaving the label’s roster of singers and bands — including The Din — with scant time to save anything.
“The first time we were informed of real trouble at Rocshire was the day before the FBI closed down the operation,” said Tony Vick. “We were tipped off by a friend and Rocshire employee to make an emergency trip to the facility to grab any personal gear before the shutdown the next morning.”
“It was a crushing blow to me, as well,” Dolan said. “Everyone in the band worked so hard to get to where we were, and when the hammer fell, it was hard to deal with.”
The Rochsire story didn’t hit all at once, Clevenger said. “There was no Internet grapevine back then, so the story kind of unfolded, with each new info tidbit adding to the wonder of the story,” he said.
Malone was playing at the Laguna Beach Art Festival when he heard what was happening. “I was told about employees running off with anything they could carry — studio gear, office furniture, etc.,” Malone recalled.
The end result: the head of Rocshire went to jail, Rocshire Records folded, and the collapse of the label almost destroyed The Din.
“The Rocshire debacle was devastating,” Vick said. “After a summer-long struggle to get “Great Tradition” back on the streets and enduring the scorn of the record industry for our association with them, I took a hiatus from The Din. I went on an extended road trip from the end of September 1984 until March 15th, 1985.”
While Vick’s choice was understandable, it didn’t really make things easier for his band mates. “When Tony took some time off, it left Phil and I to try and carry the load of saving the band,” Dolan said. “As I remember, Phil started writing a bit more than normal. We had come off of a pretty successful tour a few months before and had some new material to work with. We did a couple of shows with PiL but mainly worked on songs for our second album, ‘Talking Machine Plate.’ It wasn’t the same doing shows without Tony.”
After Vick’s departure, Clevenger said just put his head down hard and focused on material, trusting that things would happen. “We rehearsed, we did some shows, yes, but it was really tough without soul brothah T.V. in the fold,” he said. At a PiL gig, I do recall catching Johnny Lydon pissing on the front fender of my Toyota, and me chasing him off.”
The Din continued on, and the band’s second album, “Talking Machine Plate,” was released in 1988. Tony Vick returned to the band, and the LP was released through VMI Records, a new label from former High Velocity owner Bob Heinlein.
“I was asked to rejoin The Din in March of ’85 and arrived back in San Clemente on March 15th, my birthday,” Vick said. “I went from car to The Din Den and started working on the new songs that same day. I remember the sessions being very long and stressful. I have never known how many copies were pressed or how many shops the LP made it into. I doubt very many at all.”
Bob Heinlein funded the recording of “Talking Machine Plate” himself — even absent a distribution deal, Clevenger said.
“Mike Malone had moved on, and we were working with another drummer who seemed to never show up for the sessions — that was a giant pain — but we finally got basics done,” Clevenger said. “We had some very beautiful album artwork that had been done for us by Mary Rogers of the band Western Skies, which got lost in the shuffle. When Bob Heinlein finally got a distribution deal for the album, he somehow produced what may be the crappiest album cover artwork I have ever seen, without our input. I think he ran our photos and a crude drawing of an early phonograph through some goofy software to render photos as line art, rendered it in grayscale, and shipped it. Bah.”
By the time “Talking Machine Plate” was released to the public, The Din’s members had already parted ways. The band gave its final concert in September 1986 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. After the show, Tony Vick left to form a new band, Bad Date, and released an album with The Dead Sea Squirrels. After spending time with the Celluloid and SST labels, Vick now works at a guitar shop in Illinois. Lee Dolan moved to Taos, N.M., and opened a coffee house. After performing for several years with the reggae band All One Jones, Dolan returned to Los Angeles and founded a design company. Malone is an acclaimed drummer for hire, having recently worked with blues guitarist Marc Ford. Clevenger became a computer software designer; he even developed a pre-Facebook social networking application.
In fact, in the quarter century since the band’s last concert, the group has kept in touch.
“Some of us posted old Din photographs online, and we started an idle banter of half-memories,” Vick said. “And it led to the question: ‘What if?’ And, ‘Can we still?’ It has been decided we will.”
“To be able to come together over the miles and years to reclaim a place at the table of friendship is to realize your place in a LONG chain of community,” Malone said. “And that’s a realization that fills me with both humble awe and gratitude. Besides, these are the cats I made my first appearance on record with, lived with, traveled with — and I’m REALLY lookin’ forward to seein’ these knuckleheads again!”
“I heard rumors of a possible reunion through the Din grapevine of old friends,” Dolan said, “and I jumped at the chance to see everyone again. This is an opportunity for all of us to gather together. It is also a chance to play with some of the best musicians I know, a chance to visit with old friends and share the stage with the original Din. It’s funny how things work out. But I couldn’t hand-pick a better group of people I’d rather spend time with. As far as any future plans go, we have none. However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some new material coming out of all this. Stay tuned.”
“More than the music, I am looking forward to seeing Mike, Lee and Tony in person, and all of our friends from back in the day,” Clevenger said. “Be fun to write something new. In fact, this event will be filmed by five HD cameras so we may even get a nice live performance artifact out of the deal … new ‘Reptiles’ video, anyone?”