By Peter Lindblad
And then comes a brief snippet of exotic oriental music, followed by matching shots of spitfire guitar and Cortopassi urging listeners to “Come on now. That’s right. Uh huh.” So begins the excitable, frothing-at-the-mouth “Spazz,” one of the most bizzare and controversial garage-rock seizures ever captured on vinyl.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the heck I was trying to do with the vocal on ‘Spazz,’ other than just get the song out,” admits David Cortopassi. “It was the first vocal I ever did in a real studio and didn’t know what to expect.”
Just a teen at the time, Cortopassi and the rest of The Elastik Band, the group he formed in 1965, were too young to care how odd or strange the infamous “Spazz” sounded. What’s more, they were too naive to understand the furor over “Spazz” that, for all intents and purposes, doomed them.
“We had a blast doing it, and the enthusiasm of the group and [A&R man Hank Donig’s] direction certainly pushed my buttons I’m sure,” says Cortopassi. “‘Spazz’ was kind of a fluke. But heck, I was pretty young and wrote some weird stuff.”
Released on ATCO in late 1967, “Spazz” — written by Cortopassi — was thought to be the single that would break The Elastik Band. It was recorded at Action Records in San Mateo, Calif., and an acetate of it was brought to New York, where the engineer who worked on the recording met Jerry Wexler in an elevator. A deal was immediately struck.
Picked up by a radio station in the band’s hometown of San Francisco, the song got a huge response. So huge in fact that, according to the liner notes for the 2007 compilation The Elastik Band (1967-1969) on Cortopassi’s Digital Cellars label, “… they thought the band had staged a mass call-in requesting them to play it again. They hadn’t.”
The band’s manager even organized a European promotional tour to push the single, released on EMI’s U.S. label.
Then a not-so-funny thing happened to The Elastik Band. They were told not to go to Europe if they knew what was good for them. Audiences had misinterpreted the song’s lyrics, thinking that they were ridiculing the developmentally disabled. And they were ready to stone the group once they got off the plane. The tour was off, and Cortopassi was aghast.
“I guess my reaction was both one of surprise and of disappointment,” recalls Cortopassi. “Surprise because the response was so unexpected and unwarranted. Though admittedly I don’t have a lot of patience for stupidity or people without a clue, I never made fun of people with physical or mental disabilities. It’s entirely out of character for me. Disappointment soon followed because the change in plans for the band drastically impacted our chance to promote ourselves or what we were about musically.”
In all likelihood, “Spazz,” regardless of how deliriously catchy it is, was probably too schizophrenic to make much of a dent in the charts. It wasn’t exactly accessible or commercial. But the backlash of political correctness against “Spazz” stopped any momentum The Elastik Band had built.
“In retrospect, that one thing changed everything for a long time,” says Cortopassi. “Things were quite different then. Companies didn’t capitalize on bad publicity as they do now. Today, any publicity is good publicity. Management at the time questioned whether we were still saleable or if they wanted to be associated with [the] controversy.”
In a way, The Elastik Band would get the last laugh, even as label machinations and gross mismanagement would tear it asunder. “Spazz” unexpectedly became a cult favorite, with a big following among garage-rock and psychedelia collectors after being included in the first Pebbles series.
It also wound up on the esteemed 1998 Nuggets box set put out by Rhino, and its fame spread. Of “Spazz,” Scott Floman, Rhino Nuggets Review, said, “I’m not quite sure what to say about The Elastik Band’s ‘Spazz’ other than to say it’s spectacularly unlike anything I (or you, most likely) have ever heard, in part due to its, ahem, unusual lyrics/vocals but also because of its adventurous music.”
San Francisco in the late ’60s was a haven for artistic freedom and free-thinking, unwashed individuals the straight world considered freaks. The Elastik Band was right in the middle of the flower-powered chaos.
After graduating high school, Cortopassi went to college to study music. He was introduced to Scott Williams (lead and acoustic guitar, 12-string bass and vocals), who co-wrote many Elastik Band tunes with Cortopassi, and they hooked up with drummer Vince Silvera. Silvera and Cortopassi had been playing together for years, and shortly after bringing Silvera aboard, they recruited Cortopassi’s cousin Russell Kerger to play keyboards and saxophone.
“And we found Rusty Kierig on bass after hanging an ad in the student union building at the college,” says Cortopassi. “Basically, we all became inseparable in a short time. I think mostly because we immediately had something going for us: gigs, label interest, a fairly professional studio to record in, excitement and strong common interest.”
Not only was it a tight-knit unit, but there was also a democratic philosophy that held sway within the group.
“We spent literally days at a time in the studio … often going in for three or four days straight and not coming out until we had something down,” says Cortopassi. “We’d eat, sleep, play, write, mix, have friends in and party in the studio. I think another reason we got so thick is everyone participated in decisions. It was truly a family that shared a goal.”
In the beginning, The Elastik Band had an identity crisis, however. Initially, the band was called This Side Up, and as such, they cut their first single, “Lose Yourself/Turn Your Head” on the Century label — only about 100 pressings were made. Briefly, the group also went by the names The Munchkins and The Gremlins before settling on The Elastik Band.
Brian Gardner, who would go on to master recordings by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Jefferson Airplane among others, engineered the group’s first recordings in his living room. Moving on to a more professional studio environment, The Elastik Band recorded “Spazz” and pieced together an entire album, which featured re-recorded versions of “Turn Your Head” and “Mixed Emotions,” a song originally engineered by Gardner. The Gardner version was never released.
From the start, it was clear The Elastik Band was something altogether different. They were diverse and simply weren’t interested in being pigeonholed.
“Well, to begin with, I was just 18 at the time, and the rest of the members were even younger … my cousin, Russell, on piano was only 15,” says Cortopassi. “We didn’t know what we couldn’t or shouldn’t do.”
One man nurtured their experimental tendencies.“Luckily we had an exceptional A&R person, Hank Donig [also our manager at the time] who had the audacity to tap into our youth and simply let us go with anything we thought was fun or cool,” says Cortopassi. “Hank was a conduit for anything we did, and once he heard whatever we were working on, he immediately could channel it where it belonged or mold it into a cohesive idea that fit.”
And ideas were never in short supply.
“We talked things through with verbal concepts — not just by coming up with a lick or rhythm or chord progression,” explains Cortopassi. “Using terms like ‘edgy,’ ‘chunky’ or ‘sad’ to convey a feel that you wanted from the bass or guitar player.”
Eclectic to a fault, perhaps, The Elastik Band defied categorization. “Spazz” wasn’t at all indicative of its all-over-the-map aesthetic, and sadly, the controversy undoubtedly prevented many from hearing just how unique they were.
“It’s taken a long time to come to grips with that,” says Cortopassi. “We were too diverse, and it took its toll. The music industry seems to want to put everyone into a category and keep them there in suspended animation. The Elastik Band prided itself in being able to play many styles of music, but in reality, no one quite knew what we were about.”
As The Elastik Band compilation bears out, Cortopassi and company could conjure up the twinkling folk-pop of “The Darkest Corner” and evoke the sunny disposition and lively gait of the British Invasion in “Papier Mache.” Found in “Think Of Today” and “Don’t Say Love” is the charming jangle-pop of The Byrds, while at other times what emerged was the wistful nature of The Mamas And The Papas (“All I Need” and “In A Family Tree”).
There’s also the classically influenced instrumental “Pauper’s Fugue,” the psychedelic swirl of the Beatlesque “Don’t Say Love” and the jug-band oddity “Popcorn,” complete with kazoo and burping jew’s harp. And, for historical perspective, The Elastik Band includes an Australian radio broadcast of “Spazz” where the announcer states how offensive he finds the track.
Early on, however, The Elastik Band wasn’t so despised, especially in San Francisco, where they opened for greats like The Grateful Dead, Santana, Country Joe & The Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Animals.
“We played just about everywhere there was to play between L.A. and San Francisco,” says Cortopassi.
The Elastik Band also played big festivals like the Valley of the Moon and the Lake Amador Rock Festival, which drew 40,000 people and attracted the crazies.
“I remember Hell’s Angels arriving and driving their motorcycles over people in sleeping bags one night,” reminisces Cortopassi. “The next day while we were playing, one of them came up onstage, handed me a dead snake as an obvious offering to let him play my vibraphone. I wasn’t about to argue with him. Thankfully he was drunk as a skunk and didn’t seem to mind when our roadies kindly ushered him off stage. He did come back later to get his snake.”
In the wake of “Spazz,” The Elastik Band signed with Universal, and the label didn’t want a repeat of the trouble the song caused. Universal took over, bringing in orchestras and special arrangers. Furthermore, the label hired a producer the band couldn’t work with. The Elastik Band no longer had control over its destiny.
“The worst part was seeing the band start to fall apart and not be able to offer them a light at the end of a very dark, rude tunnel,” says David Cortopassi. “I think we might have been able to outlast the turmoil, but what really did us in was the verbal abuse our A&R man [not Donig] constantly dealt us. He berated everything we did.”
Then there was the fiasco over “Tunesmith,” a Jimmy Webb-penned song that was going to be released by the Oregon band The Bards. It had “hit” written all over it, but the Elastik Band’s label wanted a piece of the action.
“Trying to seize the opportunity, KAPP immediately canceled all Elastik Band gigs and flew us back to record a cover of the song in an attempt to beat The Bards to the hit. Universal booked us into Sunset Sound Studios, hired backup singers, got Don Landee (Captain Beefheart, the Doobie Brothers) to engineer, and we didn’t come out for three days,” says Cortopassi.
45s were pressed as soon as it was done. Universal took out a full-page promo in Billboard magazine and flooded stations with copies. Unfortunately, The Bards were just as quick on the draw.
“Both releases hit the market at the exact same time,” says Cortopassi. “Not knowing which band was the original, most all DJs across the country refused to play either record. I frankly didn’t realize what was happening at the time, other than that we were getting a lot of attention and being thrown into the limelight.”
Before getting roped into doing “Tunesmith,” The Elastik Band recorded the hook-filled triumph “I Would Still Love You,” and that was supposed to be the one that would make or break the group.
“Everybody thought ‘I Would Still Love You’ was going to put us over the top,” says Cortopassi. “And I think it might have if KAPP stayed on top of it. We were on the charts and had bookings lined up to promote it when KAPP decided to drop it and try to steal the day with ‘Tunesmith.’ It was a big mistake.”
More trouble lay ahead. Universal decided on a name change, and just like that, The Elastik Band was Dangerfield. Under that aegis, the group went underground, pursuing edgier, more alternative music. “We started embellishing more with our material — doing variations on melodies, opening up the songs and letting each other ad lib at will,” says Cortopassi. “Gigs were changing, and the audiences were expecting more than a three-minute tune with a hook.”
Universal, however, decided not to release an album’s worth of material Dangerfield had recorded.
“Not really sure [why],” says Cortopassi. “We weren’t getting along with the manager UNI gave us. Didn’t trust him, didn’t like him, didn’t respect him. Eventually, when UNI defaulted on our contract by not releasing songs as agreed, we asked to be released, and it was granted.”
Though they had their freedom, the band disintegrated soon after. Williams and Cortopassi went on to form a seven-piece horn-based fusion band called MAX that was similar to Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. MAX recorded two albums, including the 1974 Pandora label release Rodan, now a collectible as well.
Still, even though he’s most proud of his work with MAX, it’s “Spazz” that keeps coming around like a bad penny.
“Over 40 years later, and ‘Spazz’ comes out ahead as the defining song of my entire repertoire,” says Cortopassi. “I’ve had bands that were far better, written music I’m more proud to have done, released albums having real meaning with something to say, but The Elastik Band continually bubbles to the top and grabs attention.”