Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wolfgang and the Noble Oval - Stool Samples - Unreleased (An Interview)

Like most local scenes in the early days of punk, the history of punk rock in St Louis is a largely untold story lost somewhere between the haze of youthful hangovers and the slow alzhiemers of fruitless job hunts, countless changed diapers, and well, just growing up. But unlike most scenes, the origins of punk rock in St Louis can be pinpointed, almost to the exact minute, with the formation of Wolfgang and the Noble Oval in 1971. Comprised of two individuals who would later become among the cultest of cult legends, vocalist/guitarist Wolf Roxon (of NYC proto punkers The Tears, The Metro’s, and Walkie Talkie), and Jon Ashline (vocalist and drummer for midwestern noise-freak legends The Screamin' Mee-Mee’s), Wolfgang and the Noble Oval predated the faintest grumblings of punk rock, making music that defied conventional notions of what music could be and, more importantly, who could make music. In an age dominated by the grandiosity of larger than life bands like The Eagles and Led Zepplin, Roxon and Ashline simply locked themselves in a bedroom and pounded out raw, stripped down rock songs that eschewed the style over substance ethos of the popular rock music of the day.

"The bulk of music in the late 1960's and early 1970's had lost its primitive, rhythmic appeal," Roxon recalls. "Rock'n'roll was basically dead except for oldie shows. The contemporary guitar and keyboard stars were showing off their fine-tuned skills, the writing was either pretentious or banal, and everyone looked like spoiled, boring 'rock stars.' In short, we loved basic, root rock, not overproduced spectacles."

With titles like ‘Whoa, Jonny Gimmie That Beer" and "Eva Braun, Spinnin’ Round", Ashline and Roxon's recordings provoked confusion among listeners accustomed to the pandering so prevalent in the music of the 1970s.

“Most [listeners] expressed horror and couldn't believe their ears,” recalls Roxon, who now lives in Vermont, of the reception of the bands recordings.

(Above: Roxon post-W+NO)
Roxon and Ashline met as teenagers in 1968 while working at the same Burger Chef restaurant in suburban St Louis. Both considered themselves normal teenagers at the time, but something about their relationship must have been a bit different since rather than spending their time tossing the old pigskin around, the pair spent their time obsessed with music.

"We usually hung around Jon's house, spending most of our time producing what were called “break in” recordings," Roxon says.

A predecessor to modern day sampling techniques, break in records were popularized in the 1960s by Dickie Goodman. His recordings consisted of an interviewer asking questions to real or imaginary individuals, which were met with responses cut from popular music.

“We would pretend to be interviewing fellow workers at Burger Chef and might ask, ‘What do you want from this job?’,” Roxon recalls. “The answer might be a ‘sample’ from the Beatles version of ‘Money’—the sung line ‘Just give me money—Thats what I want.’

(Right: Ashline in the mid-1970s)

“It may sound stupid and mundane today,” Roxon continues. “But that was high tech stuff back then. The average person thought we were engineering geniuses and our bosses couldn't figure out how we could be smart enough to pull this off yet unable to make a decent tasting hamburger!”

"But the real importance of this hobby," he continues. "Was that, in searching for music samples, I plowed through Jon's record collection. He was light years ahead of me. I mostly listened to top ten hits. Suddenly, my exposure to offbeat music was greatly increased by hanging around Jon who led me down the road of ruin by introducing me to record collecting."

Through Ashline, Roxon discovered the music of The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Godz - music which today holds a heralded place in the history of rock, but at the time was obscure and strange. Punk was still a few years out and bands like The Stooges and The MC5, while critically acclaimed, were receiving more death threats than royalties. Mixed with their burgeoning creative desires, the music inspired the duo to create their own music as well. Over time Ashline and Roxon began to experiment with writing actual songs using actual instruments and actual recording equipment in 1971.

"There comes a point when you want to do produce something of your own," Roxon continues. "I practically begged Jon to form a group with me."

"I had been writing lyrics since childhood," Roxon recalls. "I played a little guitar and could bang out a few current hits, that is, on a good day when my guitar was in tune. Every so often we would manage to have a practice session and usually, in the end, there was a mutual agreement that rock stardom was not in our cards."

But it was by the grace of fate (or Santa Clause) that the duo actually came together as a band.

"The watershed moment of our history came when Jon's little brother received a toy drum set for Christmas from K-Mart marketed as The Noble Oval. It was a toy set, not a cheap set of adult drums. You could pick up the entire kit with one hand."

"They were crap," recalls Ashline of his first drumset. "Made out of tin. The heads were crap. The bass drum was oval shaped, that’s why they were called that."

New rhythm section in tow, Roxon and Ashline began to record in Roxon’s bedroom. The sessions were impromptu with lyrics and music largely conceived in the moment.

"We started playing our own compositions basically, on the spot," Ashline says. "One take songs, we did a couple covers. Most of the stuff was recorded on real cheap cassette players in his bedroom because we had no studio per se. We’d just get the recorder out, press record, and start playing."

"Only Jon Ashline could have played those drums while singing and, simultaneously, creating lyrics," Roxon says. "Jon had natural rhythm. A solid, steady driving beat was his forte. I give him a lot of credit."

"Jon even attempted a drum solo with his toy set of drums," Roxon recalls. "We debated rerecording the solo by just throwing the drums down my basement stairs. It was a tough choice."

The second session was similar in approach but carried a different attitude.

"I had written a song called 'Eva Braun-Spinning 'Round' but we once again composed the rest as the tapes rolled," says Roxon. "The four letter words were really flying out of our mouths in this session. Both Jon and I had been dumped by our girlfriends and we were loaded to the gills with anger, frustration, and Michelob."

"After the sessions," Roxon says. "We would get together with Bruce Cole (future member of The Screamin' Mee Mees) and drive to Steak and Shake or the midnight flicks at the Varsity Theatre in University City, MO and listen to the tapes. Bruce really got a kick out of the recordings and helped us decide which songs were keepers. He also named the group by calling us 'Herr Wolfgang and the Noble Oval.'"

(Below: Roxon, center, with The Tears at CBGB, NYC)
What emerged from the sessions is an endearing snapshot of two young men fumbling through the short history of rock music in an attempt to discover their own little niche. The songs are largely simple, but not simplistic; often comedic without being flippant or absurd. You can hear the elitism of The Kinks mixing with the street corner prophecies of The Godz and The Fugs, the venomemous blasphemies of Iggy Stooge emerging from the polite innocence of Buddy Holly. It was, in a word, the optimistic beginnings of rock and roll wrestling with it's tortured future. While the recordings may lack the nihilistic bite of the punk that would come later, the Noble Oval songs were created with the same spirit that made groups like the Sex Pistols and The Ramones possible.

"Today, whenever I play our songs for anyone, their first response is “That's not punk rock!!!,” Roxon says. "The problem is that the average person defines punk rock as music sounding and influenced by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and other groups in the scene in the later 1970's—what became the sonic definition of punk. But, to us in 1970, the punk rock movement was still six to eight years in the future. Punk, at that point, had not been defined. It was more of a spirit, an attitude and an image. And if it wasn't defined in 1976-77, it certainly wasn't in the early 1970's. So we, in our own way, were redefining the character of rock'n'roll. It should be fun, energetic, aggressive, rhythmic, spirited, and simple. In the end, a whole new generation of rockers discovered what we already knew.”

“In the early 1970's,” Roxon recalls, “So many musicians emulated and imitated the stars who stood at the top of the heap. Other than the ability to imitate, they offered little. They played in the same style, wrote songs that sounded the same, and looked the same. They laughed at us because, not only were we lacking in musical skills, but we had no desire to sound or be like them."

(Right: The Screamin' Mee Mee's)
Wolfgang and the Noble Oval didn’t officially break-up. Ashline went away to college and eventually (with friend Bruce Cole) became one half of the infamous proto-garage mindfuck rockers The Screamin' Mee Mee’s. The Mee Mee’s would continue terrorize eardrums throughout the ‘70s and '80s with basement recordings that carried on the ‘push record and play’ aesthetic Ashline had championed with The Noble Oval.

After Wolfgang and the Noble Oval Roxon formed the cult proto-punk outfit The Moldy Dogs in St Louis before moving to New York and forming The Tears, The Metros, and Walkie Talkie, for whom, legend has it Madonna once auditioned as a vocalist. Roxon rejected her.

"My later groups were serious attempts to become successful in the music business," Roxon says. "while we always had our kicks, especially in Walkie Talkie, we also had our disappointments, frustrations and failures lurking at every step up the food chain. Wolfgang and the Noble Oval never had this problem. We kept our musical aspirations simple and, in that sense, we were purist. As for the contemporary, universal rejection by our peers, it fueled us instead of infuriating us. We could have cared less because we really loved what we were doing."

DL: Stool Samples: Recordings from the Very First Punksters in St Louis
(A Note From Mr Roxon on the Recording: "Be aware that, within a few years of our recording sessions, TEAC four track recorders (and later, digital) were added to my arsenal. With hundreds of songs under my belt, I decided to begin a long process of cataloging everything and copied my cassettes to multi-tracks. One of my projects was to put the final touches on songs that were in unfinished states. So the Wolfgang and Noble Oval tapes were transferred, with overdubs of added bass, lead guitar and background vocals performed by myself. The original recordings are still there, but the overdubs add some musical depth and quality.")

Still Screamin' After All These Years: An Interview With Jon Ashline of The Screamin' Mee-Mee's

The Screamin' Mee-Mee's MySpace

Wolf Roxon MySpace


Shelby Cobras said...

Damn, this is some HARDCORE Americana right here! From the shared employment at Burger Chief to "The Attack of the Human Turd", this post reeks of the good ole days of rock and roll. Color me impressed, Jack. This is some great quote unquote journalism, and I'm stoked you've published it here. Cool stuff that I'd never heard of before, and the music is surprisingly good (and funny). That stuff about the "break-in" records is GOLD, too. In my humble opinion, the phenomenon of the "break-in" record is deserving of a whole post of its own.

My hat is off to you, sir.

Shelby Cobras said...

PS: I'm glad you covered the "interview" angle, too. Strangely enough, I'll be posting my very first "interview post" here in the next week or so as well...

Jack said...

shelby: thank you for the kind words, but all the credit goes to mr roxon and mr ashline. it's really a shame that neither one of them had more success in the music biz. unfortunately mr ashline was sick so his participation was limited, but that wolf roxon is one articulate dude.

a whole post dedicated to break in records? hmmm, that sounds like a good idea.

good luck with your interview!