Last Band Standing
In 1965, they tried to be rock stars. Fifty years later, they're getting another shot. Is America finally ready for the Sloths?
(Video) 60’s Band Back from Dead | The Sloths: In 1965, they started a band and tried to be rock stars. Fifty years later, they’re trying again. Is America finally ready for the Sloths? Mike Rummans, Tommy McLaughlin, Ray Herron, and Pat “Pooch” DiPuccio have gone on a world tour.
THE SONG BEGINS with a jungly rumble of tom-toms — that syncopated Bo Diddley beat. The lead singer, Tommy McLoughlin, shakes a brace of maracas, and then the guitar comes in: a jerky, slashing, four-chord riff. In a practice room deep in an industrial corner of Glendale, outside Los Angeles, the Sloths are playing their signature number.
But, no — it's not right. Mike Rummans, who plays bass, waves the band to a halt. "It could be slower," he says. "Like this: buh-Bump. Buh-BUMP."
He counts them off, and drummer Ray Herron resumes, a tick slower. Mike nods, guitarist Pat "Pooch" DiPuccio comes in, then Tommy's nasal snarl: "Only one thing I wanna do/Baby baby makin' love to you."
Tommy has a lean, coiled, Iggy Pop intensity: tight black T-shirt, black jeans, a shoulder-length mane of righteous rock 'n' roll hair. He is 65. In another life, he was a mime, then a movie director. He hasn't fronted a rock band since 1969.
Even by the rustic standards of its day, "Makin' Love" is a crude thing, with a distinctive, herky-jerky riff — E to G, A to B: buh-Bump. Buh-BUMP. It's the kind of lunkhead progression you might come up with at 16, which is how old Mike was when he and his bandmates wrote the song. The Sloths were his first band, and "Makin' Love" was the A side of their only single. The fact that Mike is grinding it out again in the summer of 2015 is one of those minor miracles of persistence and happenstance that make one ponder the limits of human agency. How, exactly, did he get from there to here?
Only a couple of hundred copies — no one seems to know precisely how many — of "Makin' Love" were pressed back in 1965, and fewer still were ever sold. But it was just enough to spawn a minor but fervent cult: In 2011, a record collector spent $6,550 for a mint copy on eBay. When word of this feat reached the surviving original Sloths (two had passed away), it kick-started the band back to life. Now the reconstituted 21st-century Sloths find themselves touring behind a new album, sharing stages with hungry new bands and courting fans roughly four decades younger. They're living out that most hackneyed of adult fantasies — a chance to fulfill a teenage dream.
"I'm standing up there and looking at these kids," says Tommy. "They're the exact same kids I saw 50 years ago. They're dressed the same. They're dancing the same way. It's like, I'm back."
WE'RE GETTING THE band back together. This has, for good and ill, been the rallying cry for many a performer since the 1980s, when the term "classic rock" surfaced and the music of the 1960s and '70s resumed its dominance of the airwaves. A mighty wind of nostalgia has filled the sails of many an ex-rocker, reuniting long-defunct acts and feeding the dreams of unsung Dad Bands in subdivision rec rooms. The argument over how old is too old to rock ended long ago. But what the Sloths are trying to pull off is tricky: They aren't seminal legends or even one- or two-hit wonders. Their reputation, such as it is, rests upon a single song that was never played on the radio because the title was too racy. This obscurity, they say, is actually a blessing. "The fact that we only have one recorded song that's even recognizable has turned out to be a godsend," insists bass player Mike. "There's only one song from the past that people can yell for. They gotta take whatever else we give 'em."
For more than an hour, the band hones the set for their next gig, an all-day showcase hosted by Lolipop Records, which specializes in a raucous modern approximation of '60s-style garage rock. For this 30-minute slot, they'll need to trim a few tunes from their standard hour-long set, which usually includes most of the original songs on their new album, Back From the Grave, plus a handful of period classics.
Each two-minute song is pounded out with brisk efficiency; after each, the musicians swig bottled water and try to catch their breaths. Drummer Ray jokes about needing a vitamin B12 shot. There's no drinking, no smoking, no drama. The Sloths play like a band without time to waste.
THE NEXT DAY, Mike and Tommy stroll into Canter's Deli. Mike is a compact man of 67 with a tightly cropped head of steel-gray hair and an unflappable temperament — a bass player personality. Tommy, on the other hand, is all front man. He's got another black T-shirt, a leather jacket and the ageless strut of someone who might have once been some kind of rock star. They claim a booth near an autographed picture of Aerosmith and talk about being teenagers.
"The key was the girls," Tommy says. "We learned early on, from the Beatles, that the girls wanted someone who looked like that."
Canter's holds a special place in rock lore: This is where kids in bands would go after playing clubs on the Sunset Strip in '65 and '66. In those days, mobs of teenagers swarmed the Strip every night of the week. The Sloths became regulars at clubs like Pandora's Box, the Sea Witch and Stratford on Sunset, part of a great upwelling of DIY rock that materialized in the wake of the Beatles. The band opened for a host of future Hall of Famers — the Doors, the Animals, Pink Floyd.
It's difficult to tell if, left to their own devices, the original Sloths would ever have made it. They were just kids from Beverly Hills High, playing cheap Japanese-made St. George guitars through patched-together amps. Like so many others, Mike saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and emerged transformed; with pal Jeff Briskin and a few other ninth-graders, he started a band.
In the early, proto-Sloths, he played guitar and sang. A friend was recruited to play bass, another to play drums, and a kid named Hank Daniels replaced Mike on vocals in early 1965. The five-piece practiced in a pool house, playing backyard parties and clubs in the summer of '65. When they were ready to cut a record, they started banging on doors along a strip of record companies in Hollywood. One, Impression Records, let them in.
Jeff, now 67 and a lawyer in Los Angeles County, remembers that he and Mike came up with the music for "Makin' Love" on the spot in the studio. A few weeks later, a few boxes of their 45 arrived. "We thought it was gonna be a big hit," Mike recalls. "Then we realized the radio wouldn't even play it because of the name."
Later, they also figured out the contract they signed with Impression wasn't valid — they were all minors. "We were so stupid," Jeff says. "What do kids know?"
A few months later, Jeff's parents made him quit because the late-night gigs were hurting his grades. But early in 1966, he started a new band, the May Wines, and 16-year-old Tommy entered the picture, joining as lead singer. The two bands shared a manager, and Jeff brought "Makin' Love" with him to the new band, too.
The May Wines plugged on through a decade under a series of increasingly psychedelic monikers. By 1969, Tommy was done with rock 'n' roll: He moved to Paris to study mime. "I went from all noise to total silence," he says. The rest of the Sloths decamped for adulthood. The original bass player became a schoolteacher; Jeff made it to law school.
Mike, meanwhile, stayed at it. His musical résumé is a kind of pocket history of American pop. There he is on bass in the bubblegummy Yellow Payges, the glam-tastic Hollywood Stars, the neo-rockabilly Kingbees. His Beatle bangs blossomed into a magnificent '70s shag, then retreated as the '80s arrived. Often, his bands flirted with success — the Stars were hyped as the West Coast's New York Dolls, and the Kingbees charted two singles. If stardom eluded him, he was working, making a living in rock 'n' roll. "I was getting older and older, but I never got the mind-set that I can't do this, or it's too late," Mike says. "It's very much like surfing. If you miss the wave, you wait. Another wave will come along. You'll have another chance."
The stage work started drying up in the late 1980s. Mike built his own rehearsal studios and became a rock businessman, the guy who rented practice space to the kids in bands. It was 2011 when he got an email from his old high school pal Jeff Briskin, who'd been tracked down by a fan of hyper-obscure bands of the mid-'60s. Unbeknownst to any Sloths, "Makin' Love" had become an object of fascination after it landed on an influential LP compilation in the early 1980s. "The Sloths were something special," says Mike Stax, a San Diego musician and garage-rock superfan who publishes the rock zine Ugly Things. "'Makin' Love' was the standout track on that album. So primal, so elemental. It had that caveman primitivism about it."
Fans of the scene revered its feral intensity, the sound of kids cutting loose on instruments they could barely play. The crudeness of the recording — the bass is inaudible; the drums sound like someone hitting a Rubbermaid garbage can in an adjoining room — was part of its mystique. Who were these guys?
Stax interviewed Mike and Jeff and wrote up an exhaustive history of the Sloths and the May Wines in Ugly Things. "Usually, that's it — everyone goes back to their lives," says Stax, who has profiled scores of old bands. "But something clicked with these guys. They wanted to do it again."
Two early Sloths, singer Daniels and drummer Sam Kamrass, had died by then, in 2009 and 1996. But the survivors decided to dust off their instruments and jam on Wednesday nights. At first, Mike was reluctant to join. "It sounded like a bunch of old guys noodling away in their spare time," he says. "But Jeff and Tommy still had the spark, the essence of what they were in the '60s. And I thought that we could put together a pretty good band."
With Tommy stepping up on vocals and the first of several replacement sidemen on board, Stax offered the Sloths a shot, opening for his band, the Loons, in San Diego. "Some of us said, 'Oh, no, that'd be disastrous,' " Tommy says. "And I said, 'So what?' "
They sounded rough, but kids turned out in droves to see a real-live 1965 band in the flesh. Tommy recalls the exuberant reaction at one early show in East L.A: "We were like the Stones up there for them. I was like, We gotta do this."
Mike felt it, too. "When I see something that's working, I immediately think, How far can I take this?" he says. "At some point, I realized the Sloths doesn't have to be a '60s nostalgia band. They can be whatever we want them to be."
His next wave, he sensed, was coming in.
Mike had about 30 years' worth of riffs and song fragments squirreled away; Tommy discovered he could write lyrics. They bashed out a pair of songs — "Lust" and a shambling anthem to midlife reinvention called "Wanna New Life," which successfully channeled the rebellious spirit of their teenage selves, updated for the age of Viagra and Medicare eligibility.
Thus began the Sloths' improbable last act. Just like back in the day, players have come and gone. Founding Sloth Jeff, in a tragicomic echo of 1965, reluctantly quit in 2013 when the band's touring got in the way of his law practice. But two new Sloths stepped up, both rock lifers. Guitarist Pooch DiPuccio, 61, is one of the founders of the L.A. punk fanzine Flipside; when he's not a Sloth, he's leading his own band, the Condors. Drummer Ray Herron, 64, has been playing since 1972. "I do this better than anything else," he says. "The only thing I've been doing longer is paying taxes."
After releasing their debut album, the reconfigured Sloths embarked on a proper tour, with stops at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, long a mecca for up-and-coming indie artists. And they've been welcomed by younger audiences, which doesn't surprise garage aficionados like Stax (who, at 53, is himself a generation or two ahead of a lot of the scene's current fans). "Age is not a stigma anymore," he says. "When I was a kid, I'd say, 'Who are these old bastards?' But now it's not an issue. Everyone's searching for authenticity. And what can be more authentic than the original guys? This is the real thing. People are burned out on the Kardashians and high-fructose corn syrup. They want the Sloths."
LAST NIGHT, ALONE in his apartment in Hollywood, Tommy blew up his half-dozen inflatable sex dolls. The Sloths use a lot of props. Some of this comes from Tommy's background — his father was a magician. He gives a theatrical show. During the song "Never Enough Girls," the dolls get tossed out into the crowd. "In a band like this," he says of the inflatables, "these are our groupies."
The gig is at the Echoplex, a club on Sunset that hosts the all-day Lolipop Records festival. By midafternoon, a crowd has gathered in the parking lot next door, some fans garbed like '60s mods, others in punk leathers. A pair of teenage brothers, Joe and Jacob Melendez, approach Tommy before the show. The kids, in Ramones T-shirts and artfully tattered jeans, pump him for information — about opening for the Doors, about the riots on the Strip in '66.
"What was the scene like in the '60s?" asks Joe. He's in a band, too.
"Well, it was kinda like … here," Tommy says, gesturing at the kids around them.
This is the strange and magical thing about being a Sloth at age 65. Mike sometimes closes his eyes onstage and wonders if, when he opens them, he'll find himself in 1965, like in some time-travel movie.
Tommy reports a similar sense of temporal dislocation and marvels at how easy it has been to slip back into his teenage skin. He remembers lyrics to songs he hasn't thought about in decades, rediscovers the inflections and the moves he used to do. It's all still in there somewhere. The fires, banked, never went out.
There's a physical dimension to this. When he was a mime in his 20s, Tommy could do a dramatic full backbend. He hadn't been able to do it in years, but he's now found he can pull it off onstage. "The body still remembers."
Nonetheless, being a Sloth has taken a different kind of toll. Playing in an indie rock band is not a lucrative source of retirement income (the band will split $300 for this Echoplex gig). It's been tough on Tommy's home life, too. "My wife thinks I'm living out some Peter Pan syndrome thing, and she's right," he confesses. "She asks, 'Where is this thing going?' And I don't know. But it's no different than having your parents and teachers back in the day saying, 'What are you gonna do with your life?' Mike and I, and the whole band, are of the opinion that this is our life now. We want to do something we really love doing. We know we're not gonna get rich. We're starting a band in our 60s. Is that bad?"
The other thing is, now that the fog of hormones and intoxicants and adolescent resentment has burned off, the music part — the actual rocking — is all that's left. It's just a bunch of guys playing at the ragged edge of their abilities. There are no more distractions. Except, of course, for time itself, the ticking clock ringing in their ears.
"The thing we're doing now is in the category of death defying," Tommy continues. "We're mocking the fact that we're this age, and we're going full bore. We're actually performing at a higher energy level than when we were younger. We didn't have the confidence then. We know this music. We love this music. And we're gonna give it everything we've got."
Following an earnest trio of what looked like 11th-graders, the Sloths swagger onstage like a biker gang. In the harsh stage lighting, you can see every gray hair, every line on their faces. "Rock 'n' roll is about death," Tommy announces. "One way or another, someone's gonna die here tonight." They slam into their opening number, a furious version of Love's "7 and 7 Is," which ends with Tommy miming his own electrocution with a spark-spewing device he hides in his hand. The audience howls.
"What a badass," says one young guy.
"I f---ing love the Sloths," his friend says.
The show goes well. Twice, Tommy leaps off the stage — he's got a wireless mic—and roams the crowd, shrieking songs of lust and depredation. He dances with a young woman in a red minidress. Four decades separate them. Is this creepy or awesome? Or a little of both?
True to their rehearsal plan, they keep up a breakneck pace through the 30-minute set. No filler, no fat, no time to lose. They have five minutes left when they hit "Makin' Love." Like he does every time, Tommy takes a moment to tell its origin story — how this is the song that brought them back from the grave, the song that saved the Sloths from vanishing forever, the song that someone paid $6,550 for on eBay. "The dream is just as sweet, whether you do it now or 50 years from now," he tells the crowd.
Ray leans into the Bo Diddley beat, Pooch hits the power chords — buh-Bump, buh-BUMP — and Mike closes his eyes as he lays down the throb of the bass line. Girls are dancing. Tommy waggles his maracas and promises to treat them right and love them all through the night.
At the very end, he does this bit where he screams his long last looooooove and crumples dramatically to his knees — he's wearing kneepads — and leans way, way back. He's going for the full backbend. Soon he's lying flat on the stage, with the band thrashily vamping on the riff. And for a terrible moment or two — it's a good 10 seconds, an eternity onstage — he's just down, motionless, both arms splayed to the side. He can't get up.
It's horrible to contemplate. Maybe he's stuck. Maybe he's really dying. The man is 65 years old.
But no! One arm springs straight up. The hand clutches the air. Tommy has gripped something invisible, and with it he rises, grimacing, pulled aloft by an unseen force. He claws his way to his knees. The band thunders on, Pooch windmilling now and Ray pounding out a trash can ending as Tommy brings that arm down and signals the great closing whomp. And the kids scream for the Sloths.
David Dudley is the features editor for AARP The Magazine.