Ernie Earnshaw has some lyrics from Rock & Roll Circus, a Wackers live staple from the 1970s, tattooed across his shoulder.
Four decades after the band broke up, its drummer bears that permanent reminder of what he was hoping for when he joined. The phrase Earnshaw chose to immortalize in ink: “Pick up your troubles and all your dirty laundry n’ throw them up into the wind.”
The song’s memorable chorus was a call to arms:
“Run away to the rock’n’roll circus and leave all your troubles behind,” the group sang. And those words were regularly heard — and sung along to — in Montreal clubs, bars and concert halls, at college and high school auditoriums and on dance floors and outdoor stages between 1972 and 1974.
During that brief, exciting period, the Wackers — a group of California expats living in N.D.G. — staged their own glorious Big Tent show.
Not all troubles were left behind, as the song optimistically predicted. In fact, when singer-guitarists Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop, bassist Bill “Kootch” Trochim and Earnshaw emerged from the experience and went their separate ways, they were pretty much broke.
Dropped by their label, with the release of their fourth album — a potential breakout record — cancelled, the Wackers called it a day and joined the seemingly endless list of great bands that deserved better.
But for that memorable couple of years, at least, they were ubiquitous in this city. Lauded by the local press, including The Gazette, promoted by tastemakers like CHOM and adored by fans starved for actual rock’n’roll in an era largely defined by mellow singer-songwriters and bombastic progressive rock, the Wackers were, arguably, our best-loved band of the era.
The Wackers were going against the pretensions of the British musical scene at the time. We didn’t have pedal boards and distort our guitars. Randy and I prided ourselves on being able to write a fairly decent pop song — and that’s what we built the Wackers around.
It was as if we got a preview of power pop before the expression became go-to critical shorthand a few years later. The Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger may be heralded today as the pioneers of power pop — but for Montrealers, it began with The Wackers, who played punchy, hook-filled originals, with a touch of glam and glitter (this was, after all the era of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust). And when they chose a cover to do on stage, it would most likely be a Chuck Berry standard, a Rolling Stones scorcher or a Beatle gem. And if that seems like a cliché now, those musical choices thrillingly defied the musical zeitgeist of the time.
“We were an anomaly,” Segarini said during a recent telephone interview, before launching into an evisceration of Led Zeppelin that would raise the blood pressure of any devoted Zep head. (His judgments on rock and pop culture remain as barbed now as they were then.)
“The Wackers were going against the pretensions of the British musical scene at the time. We didn’t have pedal boards and distort our guitars. Randy and I prided ourselves on being able to write a fairly decent pop song — and that’s what we built the Wackers around,” he said.
Bishop agreed, saying in a separate interview that even the band’s friendly, retro name was a stand against what he called the pretentiousness of Yes, Gentle Giant and other art-rock bands. “It was very deliberate on our part,” Bishop said. “We didn’t care about solos. We wanted to make music that was melodic, with lyrics that made a certain amount of sense — songs that didn’t go on for eight minutes with a million different bits and pieces.”
The story started in Eureka, in Northern California, where group members and their friends and families were living in Wackering Heights, a house on the Pacific Ocean. Their 1971 debut disc — a tuneful, harmony-filled collection more reminiscent of the Buffalo Springfield than the Stones — was named after the house.
There was history.
Segarini and Trochim had been together in The Family Tree, which released a superb slice of psychedelic chamber pop titled Miss Butters in 1968. The album featured Butters Lament, co-written by Segarini and his friend Harry Nilsson (Nilsson’s own 1967 version finally surfaced in 1994).
One of The Family Tree’s biggest fans was a teenage Bishop, who was a regular at the band’s shows. He was later asked by Segarini to join Roxy, which issued only one album — a spirited, self-titled effort — in 1969.
The formation of the Wackers drew Trochim — who had not been a member of Roxy — back into the fold with Segarini and Bishop, while Earnshaw was brought in to replace a local drummer who was not working out. Guitarist, pianist and songwriter Michael Stull (who died in 2002) was the fifth member.
The producer of Wackering Heights, Gary Usher, had worked with the Byrds on masterpieces like The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and had co-written 409 and In My Room, among others, with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys. It was Usher’s idea to bring the Wackers to “someplace exotic,” as Segarini now puts it, to record their follow-up album. Hopes of going to London, he said, were quickly replaced by “F — k! We’re going to Canada.”
It was the fall of 1971 and the Wackers were Montreal-bound.
The sophomore LP, Hot Wacks, was mostly recorded at André Perry’s Studio A, which was in the former Church of All Nations on Amherst Square. The record was a far poppier, more Beatlesque set than its predecessor, down to an Abbey Road-ish song cycle that took up most of side two and a cover of John Lennon’s Oh My Love — the only track completely recorded in California — done as the Fabs might have performed it.
In fact, Segarini said, the Wackers’ take on Lennon’s love song made it on to a few Lennon and Beatles bootlegs, being passed off as an outtake from Abbey Road.
When we went back to California after the Mustache shows, there wasn’t a band on the West Coast that could touch us
“We fell in love with Montreal immediately,” Bishop said. “It was a unique cross-cultural aspect of French and English and American cultures coming together. We loved the fashion and the women — the classiest, most beautiful women.”
The group was booked into Norm Silver’s Mustache on Closse St., across from the Forum, during the Hot Wacks sessions, and the show was successful enough to result in a four-week return booking for January 1972. That residency turned into eight or nine weeks, as Segarini remembered it, with the band doing eight sets a night, with no nights off. It was, he said, “our Hamburg,” referring to the German city that is said to have made the Beatles into a tough, tight live unit.
“When we went back to California after the Mustache shows, there wasn’t a band on the West Coast that could touch us,” Segarini said.
The sessions for a third album, Shredder, which included their biggest hit, the ultra-catchy Day & Night, started here later in the year. The record had started life as a Segarini-Bishop side project, but turned into a Wackers album along the way.
The decision was made to move here permanently.
Stull decided to stay in California and J.P. Lauzon, formerly of the Jaybees, was hired as a guitarist. Pictured with the group on the cover of Shredder and in publicity photos at the time, Lauzon also toured with the Wackers, but never quite fit the band, Segarini said. An amicable split soon followed, he said.
A live recording from June 1972, before a free show at N.D.G. Park, was broadcast on CHOM and showed off the inspired raggedness of the band at its without-a-net best, as they careered recklessly from their frenzied opener I Started to Rock into Slow Down and (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, without stopping for a breath. Side-by-side covers of the Beatles beauty I’ll Be Back and the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash nicely illustrated the Wackers’ debt to both bands and their deft walking of the blurry line between rock and pop.
Bishop’s look also played its role in the band’s distinctive appeal. Inspired by David Bowie’s Hunky Dory image, he never had second thoughts about hopping on the 105 bus from N.D.G. to go downtown, wearing makeup and decked out in satin jacket, velvet pants, feather boa and ballet slippers.
“I started getting very political about that sort of androgyny, because it would really get a rise out of people. My appearance did cause some violent episodes. It was the cause of some people getting more aggressive and me being more defensive,” he said. “But it was part of our thing. Bob and I have always loved artists that put on a more theatrical show — going back to Little Richard.”
The Gazette’s critic at the time, Bill Mann, reviewed their February 1973 set, in a show also featuring the Ventures, at Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. “It’s all very inspired theatre,” Mann wrote of the Wackers’ stage act, predicting that some coming dates with Alice Cooper would be “the musical and theatrical tour de force of the year.”
Singer Rita Coolidge, a friend who had co-written Travelin’ Time with Segarini and Bishop for the debut album, was in town with then-husband Kris Kristofferson for a concert in 1973, Bishop said, when he visited them backstage — in full flamboyant gender-bender regalia. “She did a double take, wondering if it was really me,” he said.
Later that night, Coolidge and Kristofferson sang on what Bishop called a drunken session involving the song Juvenile Delinquent, which was being waxed for the group’s expected fourth album, Wack n’ Roll.
Also hanging out at various times during the sessions for the album were Eric Idle, John Cleese, Neil Innes and Michael Palin of comedy legends Monty Python’s Flying Circus, who were in Montreal while on a North American tour, Segarini said.
Made up of some live tracks recorded at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and new studio material, Wack n’ Roll came closest to capturing the band’s real sound. Today, it still bursts out of the speakers. It was, Bishop speculated, the album that could have become their commercial breakthrough.
And it was never released.
What happened? Segarini and Bishop both agree, four decades later, that their then-manager, Norman Schwartz, called their label, Elektra, to introduce himself to the new chief, David Geffen, who was replacing Jac Holzman. Although neither Wacker was privy to the actual conversation, both have heard that Schwartz said something very wrong. When the conversation was over, they have been told, an angry Geffen gave orders to find a loophole in the band’s new contract for a seven-album deal and make sure they were dropped.
Interviewed for Mojo Magazine in 2010, Holzman was at a loss to explain why the Wackers didn’t happen on a large scale. “Ultimately, I don’t think records were big enough to hold them,” Holzman said.
The band fell apart in 1974. “We were done. After Elektra dropped us, we just looked at each other and said “Well, we gave it a shot,” Segarini said.
Bishop was the first to leave after the Wack n’ Roll debacle. “I was just fed up with starving,” he said, reminiscing about a $100 bill he pocketed after a Wackers gig across the border. “It was the most money I’d had in my entire rock n’ roll career — Roxy through the end of the Wackers,” he said, laughing.
The band’s rent, Bishop said, was paid by their management and the members had to live on a per diem of $15 or so for four years.
Don’t You Worry, a song Bishop released in the wake of the Wackers split, was a national hit. Today, he is a Grammy-nominated songwriter, having co-written My List, a No. 1 hit for Toby Keith in 2002, and authored four books, including two on songwriting. His songs have been recorded by the Beach Boys, Heart, Cheap Trick, the Indigo Girls, the Searchers and Tim McGraw, among others. He lives on the Oregon coast, where he is now writing screenplays.
After a post-Wackers album with The Dudes, Segarini released four solo records, including the excellent Gotta Have Pop, and two by another project, Cats and Dogs. He also did a disc jockey stint on Toronto’s CHUM-FM and Q107 as the Iceman, and worked in television and satellite radio. A Toronto resident, he continues to observe pop culture and music on his Don’t Believe a Word I Say blog, which also features other contributors, and hosts The BobCast podcast. The blog can be found at bobsegarini.wordpress.com
Earnshaw lives in Loleta, Calif., and is still an active drummer, notably with the band Rolling Bob and other West Coast musicians. “I’m playing as well as I ever have,” he said. “A little better in some ways, even though I’ve slowed down a little bit. It’s like the old ballplayer, you learn a few tricks along the way.”
Segarini, Bishop, Earnshaw and Trochim (who declined to be interviewed for this story) reunited in 2011 at Cherry Cola’s Rock n’ Rolla club in Toronto, which has a capacity of 200 people, by Segarini’s count. The event drew a rave review in Cashbox magazine, but it was a show Segarini said he desperately wanted to perform in Montreal, where he’s certain a much larger venue would have been in order. For three years, he said, he tried to explain the group to Montreal promoters who were too young to know what he was talking about.
Talking to the three ex-members today, for a combined five hours, brought a wealth of anecdotes and analysis that would fill a book more easily than a newspaper article. Shared affection between Segarini, Bishop and Earnshaw still came through loud and clear during the interviews, but Earnshaw’s final judgment on the Wackers seemed to best encapsulate their collective memories.
“It was kind of a magic band,” he said.
(Wackering Heights, Hot Wacks and Shredder can be found online, but some hunting and comparison shopping will be required. New and used copies, on vinyl and CD, can be found on amazon.ca and discogs.com, among others.)