When the members of D.C. rockabilly band Switchblade severed their ties in 1984, it might have been the best move of their careers.
It was New Year’s Eve 1979, and D.C.’s rockabilly favorites, Tex Rubinowitz and his band, the Bad Boys, were playing to a sold-out crowd at the Takoma Theatre at 4th and Butternut Streets NW. The new decade that was to begin in a few hours held bright promise for the band. Guitarist Eddie Angel, singularly named guitarist Ratso, bassist Johnny Castle, and drummer Scotty Flowers were an airtight unit playing behind Rubinowitz, whose remarkable singing and energetic performances had the guys working regularly and anticipating bigger things.
And then the bomb dropped.
“The place was packed, we were the hottest band around, everything was going great gunsand Tex unceremoniously announced to us on the break that he was quitting,” Castle recalls. “We were like, ‘Huh?’ We huddled, picked our jaws up off the floor, and I remember saying, ‘Well, I still want to rock.’”
So did Ratso and Angel, and with Ratso’s housemate Jim Dougherty replacing Flowers on drums, they repaired to Ratso’s Kensington basement. A few months later, the quartet debuted at the Cellar Door in Georgetown as Switchblade. Switchbladethe name was chosen from a poll taken at a local Catholic high school by an acquaintance of Castle’salso debuted a new sound: Although rooted in the frenetic beats and fast-lick playing of the rockabilly tradition, the new outfit incorporated elements of hard rock and added a big dollop of old-fashioned raunch.
A set highlight was “Hot Pink Panties,” which included the immortal line, “She wears real short skirts and high-heel shoes/And if you’re just a little-bitty fella you get one hell of a view.” Other Switchblade numbers included “Hey Miss Hey,” “Ms. Demeanor,” “Zip Zap Zoom,” “Red, Hot and Cool,” and the only tune even vaguely reminiscent of a hit, “She Makes Me Rock Too Much,” which received regular airplay for a while on WHFS when the station was at 102.3 FM. Music magazine Trouser Press called it “metal-billy,” and that suited the band just fine.
Along with the Slickee Boys and a few other groups working in the area in the early ’80s, Switchblade helped define a post-punk soundscreaming Telecasters that brought the surf to the garage, frantic rock beats, lyrics about making out and getting overthat was distinctively D.C. And unlike its musical relative harDCore, it was also, unmistakably, about having a good time.
During Switchblade’s heyday, Ratso sported an exaggerated, hilariously high hairdo that one critic described as “the bow of a luxury liner.” “Ah yes, the ‘Pompousdour,’” Ratso says, recalling the towering ‘do. “It caused so much of a stir at shows, I just kept doing it. At one point it was 14 inches high, but usually it was a real honest 12 inches. The secret was Clair Mist and a blow dryer. Aqua Net didn’t work nearly as good.”
“The shining moment for Ratso’s hair was one night at the Wax Museum around Christmas time,” says Castle, whose stage name was Johnny Shock. “He put electric Christmas tree lights in it, and on cue during ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town,’ the roadie plugged them in and they’d light up.”
As the sum of its parts, Switchblade never achieved the level of success it deservedthere never was an album, or even a deal for oneand at some point in 1984, the band simply petered out, a victim of market forces that favored New Wave synthesizer bands over the sort of twin-guitar, testosterone-fueled rock ‘n’ roll that Switchblade pounded out. But each of the band members went on to greater musical glory.
Angel, for instance. The Albany, N.Y., native began his musical career playing clarinet as a teen, but, he says from his current home in Nashville, Tenn., “Once I saw the Beatles on TV, the clarinet went under the bed and the guitar came out.” Good thing, or else the cult-favorite surf-instrumental band Los Straitjackets would have woodwinds instead of guitars. Angel is a guitarist and founding member of the band, distinguished by its twangy retro sound (think Dick Dale and the Ventures) and trademark Mexican wrestling masks (Angel is the guy in the black one). Los Straitjackets has played 20,000-seat arenas, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and kept the banner flying for the native American art form of instrumental surf rock.
Angel left Switchblade after just six months to play in D.C. rockabilly bassist (and onetime Switchblade roadie) Bob E. Rock’s band. “It’s hard to say why,” Angel says of his departure. “I was just hanging out more with Bobby. It seemed to be the thing to do at the time.”
But even that didn’t last. In 1983, Angel says, “I was driven back to upstate New York. I was playing with a friend up there and making more money than I was in Washington.” With his Albany-based band, Jeannie and the Hurricanes, Angel made the career decision to move to Nashville in 1986. The Hurricanes scored a record deal with Columbia, but it turned into a harsh, if typical, Music City wake-up call.
“We got put through the Nashville meat grinder so bad that it almost made me quit playing altogether,” Angel says. “It took a year after signing to record the music, and then right as it was finished, Sony Music bought [Columbia’s parent company,] CBS. There was a big change in management at the label, and a lot of acts got scrapped, including Johnny Cash.”
New management informed the Hurricanes that they were never going to see landfall. “It was really frustrating,” says Angel. “After a year of sitting in the lawyer’s office and finally recording the record, then…nothing. You don’t want to be bothered with it anymore. It had nothing to do with the music anymore. I was pretty much ready to quit playing music.”
It’s hard to imagine Angel in a different line of work than playing his Telecaster, though, which he does as effortlessly as watering the plants. “A friend of mine had a record shop in Nashville and he started playing me some of his world-class rockabilly records, and that kind of rekindled the flames,” Angel says. “That’s how the Planet Rockers came about. Music Row had beat the desire out of me to try to make a living out of music. But I hung in there and just started doing it on my own. Then Los Straitjackets came along.”
In an indirect way, the Bad Boys were responsible for the formation of Los Straitjackets. “Tex always encouraged me and Ratso to do instrumentals like Link Wray’s ‘Run, Chicken, Run’ and ‘Rawhide’ at a time when nobody was really doing instrumentals,” Angel says. “Tex was a big Link Wray fan. One of my strongest memories is the tape Tex used to play before every show when we were setting up; it was always a Link Wray tape.”
“The very first time I played ‘Run, Chicken, Run’ at a show here in Nashville, this guy came up to me and said, ‘Man, I never thought I’d ever hear anyone play Link Wray in Nashville.’ It turned out to be Danny Amis, who used to be in the Raybeats, a hot instrumental band in New York. We hit it off.”
In the summer of 1988, Angel and Amis formed Los Straitjackets, a band that now has five albums (including the forthcoming Singalong With Los Straitjackets) and frequently tours with an entourage of up to two dozen devout hangers-on, as it did on a trip to Spain earlier this year. “Spainthat was the best reaction we’ve ever had,” Angel says. “NoMexico is the best. It’s a cool scene in both places. It kind of reminds me of the way D.C. was in the early ’80s: When a band showed up at the 9:30 Club, everybody was into it; the word would be out. That vibe still exists in this country, but it’s not as intense as it is [in some other countries].”
With his wife, Melanie Heeran, Angel also runs Spinout Records, a boutique label specializing in “bands that are into garage or rockabilly or surf or Western swing.”
Spinout began in 1994 as a way for Angel to release his own bands, including the Planet Rockers and a garage-trash ensemble called the Neanderthalswhich features Angel and NRBQ’s Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino, among others, dressed as cavemen and doing songs such as “Flintstone Flop” and “I Go Ape.” The label is small, but it was going to be even smaller until, as Angel says, “All of a sudden, a bunch of my friends wanted to put out records, so it kind of took off.” Spinout’s schedule for this year includes a compilation of Japanese bands and another Neanderthals CD; previous releases include discs by the Spurs, the Neptunes, the Shack Shakers, and Johnny and the Panty Raiders’ On Campus (would-be hit single: “Ooo Poo Pah Doo, Part 1”).
Angel’s departure from Switchblade also had a silver lining for his old bandmates: “They probably weren’t too happy about it,” he says, “but they wound up getting Steuart, so it worked out really great.”
Steuart is Steuart Smith, an Arlington-based guitarist who last month returned from a European tour as a backup player with the Eagles. With Angel out and Smith in the band, Switchblade’s sound was transformed. “It was just a bigger sound,” drummer Dougherty explains. “Everybody loved Eddie and what he did, and there were no hard feelings when he left, but [Smith] did add a different flair.”
In 1983, a local promoter arranged for Switchblade to play a New York showcase for a crowd of record-company executives. “I thought we did really, really good,” says Castle. “And during the setI’m paraphrasingRatso says to the audience, ‘Now look, you assholes, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll sign us.’”
The one label that expressed interest had a codicil: “They wanted us to dump Ratso!” says Castle. “We basically came up with ‘Fuck you.’”
And so did the label. But the showcase paid off for Smith later: In the audience was Grammy-nominated producer Rick Chertoff, who would go on to helm Cyndi Lauper’s 1984 breakout album, She’s So Unusual, as well as discs by Joan Osborne, Air Supply, and Barbra Streisand. “He called me about three years later,” Smith says. “He really liked the band, but it wasn’t what they were looking for then. But he introduced me to a bunch of people, including Rodney Crowell, and that was how the Nashville connection was made for me.”
Crowell’s 1988 record with Smith on guitar, Diamonds & Dirt, bore five No. 1 country singles, and a long-term relationship was forged. Smith also plays on Crowell’s latest, The Houston Kid, and has appeared on records by Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others.
A few months after the ill-fated New York showcase, Ratso started his career with CBS and later WUSA-TV as a news videographer; he won an Emmy for his work this year. But he was never far from musicor national notoriety.
Born Jimmie Silman III in Bethesda, Md., Ratso earned his nickname as a student at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., which is also where he put aside his drums and began playing bluegrass guitar. Later, when Ratso returned to the D.C. area, he started playing country and rock, as well. Sitting in as bassist at the Cellar Door one night in 1976 with Texas musical-satirist-cum-best-selling-mystery-novelist Kinky Friedman, Ratso was tapped to replace the freshly fired guitarist. During the set, Friedman discovered a kindred soul in Ratso. The two have been musical collaborators since, with Ratso accompanying Friedman on domestic and overseas tours.
And yes, Ratso is the Ratso who is a recurring character in Friedman’s novels. “He definitely is that Ratso,” Friedman says from his ranch near Kerrville, Texas. “Ratso is my little Lebanese brother, and of course he and I consider ourselves to be the last true hope for peace in the Middle East. He’s a great American, a favorite wherever he goes. And he can keep up with my Jewish rhythmic patterns, which is very hard for guitarists.”
“I’m big in Frequent Flyer,” says Ratso. “You think I’m dead for about six chapters; you really see how much the guy likes me when he thinks I’m dead.”
Doughertyknown as Jimmy Video in the old daysleft Switchblade in 1983 in a trade with Evan Johns & His H-Bombs for their drummer, Giles Cook. He subsequently played with guitarist Danny Gatton and Billy Hancock’s the Satisfires before relocating to California in 1986. He’s now the percussionist in Art Deco and the New Era, a band that stays busy with corporate clients throughout the West and is slated to perform at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“It’s definitely more of a financial pleasure,” he says of the gig. Dougherty satisfies his rock ‘n’ roll jones by playing in other San Diego bands; until the pianist’s death last year, he drummed for boogie-woogie pioneer Merrill Moore.
After Switchblade, Castle, married and with children, took off his trademark spiked dog collar and worked in a variety of other groupsbluegrass, blues, Top 40, whateverto pay the bills. “Everybody did good,” he says of his former bandmates. “I was hurting the worst. Ratso went on to start the career he has now at Channel 9, and Steuart landed on his feet, ending up with Rodney Crowell.”
But Castle’s perseverance finally paid off: Nine years ago, he landed the highest-profile gig of his career: as bassist and vocalist for the Wammie Award-winning roots-rock trio Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun. The band’s latest record, Tied to the Wheel, will be released next month.
In April of this year, Dougherty and Angel were in town to record tracks for an album by Colorado-based singer Ray Wallace. By chance, Castle and Ratso were also available. “Ratso would always say something about a reunion whenever I ran into him,” Angel says. “As soon as I had some time, we decided to try to do it.”
The original Switchblade played its first show together in more than two decades at the Outta the Way Cafe in Derwood, Md., on a chilly Wednesday night a few days later. Even with no rehearsal, the band was as tight as ever, conjuring vivid memories of its Pompousdour glory days. “Johnny Castle will probably tell you,” Ratso says, “that at a Switchblade reunion, there won’t be a dry seat in the house.”
“It was so much fun seeing people we hadn’t seen in 20 years,” Angel saysso much so that the band has decided do it again on Friday, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. This time around, Angel, Castle, and Ratso are on board, but Dougherty can’t make it. So he’ll be replaced by Flowers, who now lives in Cleveland and plays in the alt-country band Hillbilly Idol.
Which means that the guys are right back where they started: This weekend’s Switchblade reunion is actually a Bad Boys show. CP