Time has accorded the Chocolate Watch Band more respect than almost any other garage band of the '60s. Theirs was the ultimate blend of teen frustration and primitive psychedelia, delivered with a Jaggerseque snarl, wonderfully snaky and raunchy guitar leads, and state-of-the-art production that was both sophisticated and experimental. They had the look, too: take a glance at shots from Riot on Sunset Strip, in which the group make a winning bid for the award of most convincing junior version of the Rolling Stones, American division.
Yet the Chocolate Watch Band never got much respect in their own era, in part because control of the artistic process was often wrested from them in the studio. They wrote hardly any of their own songs, and some of their tracks were partially or wholly recorded by studio musicians; their best-known tune, "Let's Talk About Girls," even features lead vocals by a guy who didn't belong to the group. The backs of their albums were covered with more ludicrous dedications than any LPs before or since. Yet songs such as "Misty Lane," "Sweet Young Thing," "Are You Gonna Be There," and "I Ain't No Miracle Worker" endure as some of the best garage-psychedelic hybrids ever, even if the band themselves didn't care for all of them. Lead singer Dave Aguilar recounted some of the group's elation and despair in this interview in late 1996.
Is the big surge of interest in the Chocolate Watch Band in the 1980s and the 1990s a surprise to you?
Every time somebody calls me up -- and I get a lot of calls from young kids -- I can't believe it. I don't understand it. After all these years, I find it intriguing. I find it very interesting that I'll get a call from some 13-year-old boy in Ohio who's tracked me down and is absolutely in love with our stuff.
I've seen French versions of our albums in stores, French CDs, German versions, and haven't a clue as to even how this stuff got over there. I occasionally will go into a store just for the heck of it and take a look. It still amazes me when I'm in San Francisco, I'll go through some of the record stores and there's a whole file on us. I don't understand it.
How do you see the Chocolate Watch Band in relation to the rest of the 1960s San Francisco Bay Area scene? You were a psychedelic band in some senses, but more garage than many of the bands that are most famous from the region. Plus, you were from San Jose, not from the city of San Francisco itself.
The interesting aspect for us is that local bands come out of cities where for some reason they seem to be blessed with a sound, or an energy source that comes out of them. We've just seen what comes out of Seattle with all the groups that have come out of there recently. It went from San Francisco to L.A. for a while, and it took quite a while for the East Coast, for Boston occasionally, to put a group or two out, or New York. It just happened to be [that] the focus at that time was San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area. It may have simply been the attitude or the fact that Bill Graham had this place where you could play, and he just featured these groups. But it's odd, it doesn't happen universally. It happened in England, it came over here. But it took a long time for it to happen in Australia or Canada or New Zealand -- it's odd.
That was one of the pluses, and one of the reasons was that for some reason it was just occurring in that locality. I think when that happens, you get a lot of producers, a lot of directors, a lot of people coming to see what was going on, and where the talent was. It seems to focus in that area.
Actually, it was detrimental for us to be from San Jose. But that's where Jefferson Airplane started, that's where Moby Grape started. But they all migrated very quickly to San Francisco, because it was a larger city and had a higher profile. But that's actually where a lot of the groups started. We were jamming with them before those groups even came together. We were trading players and trading talent. It was as if there was a giant talent pool of very intriguing and talented people, just moving back and forth until they found the correct combination for them, and came together as a band. That's what happened to us.
But you never had the national visibility that bands like the Airplane and Moby Grape did.
There's an excellent reason for that. Moby Grape was physically put together by a group of investors and producers. The same with Jefferson Airplane. I will never forget when Jerry [Jorma] Kaukonen came in, he was playing solo at the time. He was teaching music down in San Jose. He came into this little club where we were playing in San Jose, and they were very excited because an investor had stepped forward and they were putting this band together. And they were all set to go.
We never had that. We were just very excited young guys with an attitude, but no financial backing or investors that were willing to come in and say, okay, we'll get you going, we'll set you up with equipment, we'll set you up playing, we'll set you into the studio to start recording. So that was the big difference between the groups.
I think it's hard for people to understand what garage bands were about sometimes, because today it is so commercial. And there are so few places for kids to play. But it was an era where every Friday and Saturday night, there were bands playing everywhere, all over town. That's what was so exciting, and that's why people had so much opportunity to play. Nobody had told us we couldn't do it, nobody told us we needed a manager, nobody told us that it was too difficult, so everyone did it. And I think that's something that we've lost today. I wish there were more kids out there playing music.
How did producer Ed Cobb end up working with you? He had come from such a straight background, as a member of the Four Preps.
As I've matured and I've taken a look at the situation, I think in all honesty Ed Cobb was a performer that had seen his day and realized he could not participate any longer. He had been in an era of recording when the music was much different, and he didn't want to give that up. He wanted somewhat to still be intimately involved. I think he's very talented. He was looking for a band that he could influence and he could have them to do his music. He did not want to [be] shut out of this rock and roll phenomenon that was now happening. The Standells [also produced by Cobb] were actually probably a much better band for him to use than us. He picked a band on each coast that would enable him to use his talent. The Standells, I think, were more malleable, and they were more interested in just being stars. They were probably more interested in doing work in the recording studio. They were much better in a recording studio than we were.
It's intriguing. There's a philosophy of bands. There are bands like the Beatles who loved to record in the studio, and then they had to figure out how to copy their sound onstage, although they started just stage performers. Their true expertise was what they did in the studio, where they actually would rather have been. That's what they chose to do when they said, "we'll never tour anymore. We'd rather be producing in the studio." They think of an album as a concept, and then go back out onstage and try to recreate that album that they created in the studio. Many groups think that way.
We were different because we never thought that way. And it was difficult for Ed Cobb to relate to that. Ed Cobb was a studio recording person. We were an onstage performance band, who, by the way, would probably cover some of the stuff we did in the studio. When we approached an album, we were thinking onstage -- for us, a studio performance was performing onstage. The audience was always more important to us than what we put down on vinyl. For him, the discipline necessary to put it down on vinyl first and then go out and perform it was entirely different. It was opposite of us. But it wasn't for the Standells. I think that's why [that] band worked much better for him.
He just didn't understand what he had with us. He was very bent and focused on his sound. It was his music that he wanted us to record. What's bizarre -- I don't think we ever did one [song], maybe one, "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," onstage -- but we never did anything off of our album. We just didn't feel it was ours. It didn't feel right for the way we presented music. Any of the albums. Absolutely not.
What did you play onstage?
At the time, it was some rather obscure stuff by probably -- it would range from Muddy Waters to Yardbirds [or] an occasional very obscure Stones song that had been released in Japan but never in the States. We would do things to songs that had not been recorded on the songs. We would change them, we would add to them. A song could last fifteen minutes for us, that's no big deal. And it would be different, and it would be fun. And each night we performed it, it would be different.
Songs like "Come On," maybe? [Chuck Berry's "Come On" was recorded by the Rolling Stones as their first British single in 1963, although that track didn't come out in the United States until the 1970s; the Chocolate Watch Band recorded their own version.]
We did ["Come On"] only because I loved that song. I loved it before I ever heard the Stones do it. I'd heard Chuck Berry do it. And it was kind of a good luck warmup piece. Hell, if it worked for the Stones, it might work for us, let's just do it. But it was never meant for release.
How did you guys feel about entire songs being recorded with other musicians without you being there, and then released under the Chocolate Watch Band name?
It caused a lot of problems, but then -- I'll try and explain where our heads were at the time. We were 16, 18, 19 years old. We'd been picked up by this producer. We were flown down to L.A. We were told on a Thursday that Friday a jet would pick you up and you would go down and record an album and spend a week in L.A. There would be a limo that would pick you up at the airport. Every meal that you ate was catered. You went into the studio. We really had no virtual studio experience recording. So we weren't prepared to go into the studio. We hadn't been writing music. We were stage performers.
What we did on stage was what we loved to do. We loved to challenge big-name groups and blow 'em off the stage with a stage performance. That's where we got our excitement and our kicks. There wasn't anything better in the world that we loved, is going up against a group that had a hit single out on the air right now and come together with a show onstage that was just so powerful that some of the groups didn't want to come out and play. They were the discouraged. That's where our heads were.
Going into a studio and everything that went in around it, that was fun. We were not crazy about the songs that Ed had picked for us, but then again we had no background preparation. We didn't go in with songs of our own that we wanted to record, and so we accepted what he did. We didn't know that he was changing them and adding people to it, and adding stuff to the album, 'til months after we'd been in the studio and we were gone.
I remember at one point, one of the albums came in, and we took a look at it, played a couple songs on it, and said, "What the hell is this shit?" And somebody threw it in the trash. And we went back to rehearsing for a show that we had coming up. I mean, it bothered us that it wasn't us, but we weren't playing any of Ed Cobb's stuff in performances anyway, and we were right up there onstage with the Yardbirds and the Dead and the Airplane in the Fillmore Auditorium and rubbing elbows and feeling good about it. So that didn't bother us either. We felt that we had arrived, just on a different level. We weren't selling records, but that didn't really matter to us at the time.
You were in the Riot on Sunset Strip movie. Was there anything you did for it that didn't end up being used in the film?
If I remember, there are a couple, three that were recorded, especially on the movie studio lot. They just felt it didn't fit the movie well enough, so they pulled them aside.
Of the songs you did record, which were your favorites?
I loved "Baby Blue." I loved "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." "Gone and Passes By" -- I hated the version of what they did to my song, 'cause I wrote that one. I hated how they tried to make it light and fluffy and pretty, because it wasn't meant to be that way. Those are probably some of my favorites that I like to listen to. I would love to go back and redo "Sweet Young Thing." Ed Cobb's insistence that we make, it, that we put that riff in there that sounded like the Stones' "Paint It Black" -- I hated that! I would have rewritten the song completely, and it would have been harder, edgier, but it wouldn't have been copying somebody else. I absolutely hated that. I hated "Misty Lane." I hate it to this day (laughs). I hated that song. He had something in mind.
The other thing that bothers me about Ed Cobb and that whole group was, why in the world did they stick us on Tower Records, which was a black label? I mean, c'mon. Why? What in the world was going through their minds at the time? I don't get it.
Tower Records [not to be confused with the present-day mega-retail chain] had a bunch of acts that they seemed to put out records with, but not do anything as far as promotion and artist development.
We didn't know how many other groups they had in the can. We were never aware of that. It was never discussed. We thought we and the Standells [who were also on Tower] were it. We didn't realize that they had all these other people on the hook also. It's like buying 16 baseball teams and hoping one of them can go to the World Series. We weren't aware of that.
To an extent, that was frustrating. But you see, in the Bay Area, we were still huge, and played a lot. The other groups that had a hit record -- the Syndicate of Sound [famous for "Little Girl"], for instance, were great guys. They were polished musicians. They could cover any song and make it sound just like the group. I thought that was admirable. That was very interesting to me that they could sing all this variety of sounds, and it sounded just like what you were hearing on the air, which meant that they had some talent somewhere.
It was interesting, they were the first [from the San Jose area] to step out, they were the first ones to get the huge notoriety. I remember as a kid waiting in line before I was even in a band, hours, to get in to see them play. I was just astonished by how smooth and how easily they covered other people's music. And I never wanted to do that -- I wanted to have my own style. And of course they were the first band we wanted to knock off in the Bay Area when we got together, and I think we successfully did (laughs). They were our first target.
But playing with the Dead -- I'll be honest with you. I hate the Grateful Dead. I never understood them. I think they are the schlockiest musicians. They play country-western music and called it rock and roll. But people loved 'em. And I respected them for the fact that they found a niche and they succeeded. But when we played with them at the Fillmore, I could play cards upstairs or watch the hookers out on the street, or come up with a new way to do a song. The Airplane was much more interesting to me, and Quicksilver Messenger Service was much more interesting to me. I never understood the Dead. Maybe they were just too sophisticated for me, I don't know.
Since you were playing with the Airplane so early on, I'm wondering if you knew someone else I'm writing about in Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll, Skip Spence [the Airplane's drummer on their first album, later a guitarist in Moby Grape and a solo artist].
I met him, believe it or not, when I was back with Kaukonen and the group, and they were talking about forming the Airplane. They were looking for a drummer, and Skip was playing guitar at the time, and I remember how frustrated, or excited at the same time, he was about having to learn drums. When he was in the Airplane, he was pretty happy-go-lucky and very talented, and excited about what was happening.
Why did the best lineup of the Chocolate Watch Band split so early on?
It was interesting. The band was broken up by [guitarist Mark] Loomis. I don't care what Ed Cobb says, I don't even understand what Ed Cobb says, but he didn't hold us together. Mark was a very creative, insightful person. He was the reason why the Watch Band came together. He decided at one point that it was not going in the direction that he wanted it to go. He looked upon it, I think, as his personal band that he had put together, and he wanted to do different music. He really wanted to do more melodic -- he wanted to do things more along the lines, I guess, of the Byrds. He wanted to move in a different direction with his music.
He just announced one day, "I quit, and I'm taking Gary the drummer with me," because Gary was his good friend, and he was quite young at the time. I remember to this day saying, "You're absolutely crazy. You have no idea what you have here! You have no idea about the potential. Yeah, we've had some problems in these first albums, but eventually we're gonna start recording our own album. We're gonna start doing our own stuff. You have no idea. You don't understand this at all anymore." And he didn't. He really didn't. And I know that he was also deeply into psychedelics at the time, and he really -- he felt for his creativity, and his direction, he needed to go in an opposite direction of what we were going in at the time. I remember sitting down with him and trying to talk some sense into him, and saying, "You're going to regret this. You do not understand. You're not seeing the big picture here."
You've had an unusual post-musical career for someone from a 1960s garage band. You went on to become an astronomy professor. What are you doing now?
I now work for an aerospace company, and work with astronauts when they come in.
Does your Chocolate Watch Band music ever come up when interacting with people in your current work?
I usually don't mention it. The only thing that gave me away here was one of my friends, who ran the video department, also had a little band. He was talking about music, and I mentioned to him one day that yeah, I'd played a little bit of music too. I named the group, and nothing much more was said about it until the Rolling Stone magazine came out with the top 100 albums ever, and we came in #78. There was my picture in the Rolling Stone magazine, and he said, "oh my god, I thought you were putting me on. There's your picture in Rolling Stone." So then, word of mouth traveled around. But I don't talk about it [at] work, I usually don't even mention it. Another life, another time. I'm certain so many people around me have very fascinating pasts that they don't talk about.
What was really weird was, I was on a
in Northern Africa. And these two Brits, these two kids that I'd seen
were trading tapes. They were talking about all these groups. They had
some old Sex Pistols stuff, all these old underground groups. They were
black market tapes. I asked one of them, "Do you have any Chocolate
Band on there?" The guy said, "Yeah, I have 'Let's Talk About Girls' on
this tape." And he went on to tell me about how fantastic this group
So I'm sitting in this train looking at the Tunisian countryside as
flying along, and these two young kids are talking about how cool the
Watch Band was, and I'm thinking, you guys have no clue. You have no
It's as flattering as hell.
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