One From the Vaults: Green Fuz – Back From the Ashes

Green Fuz b/w There is a LandLate 1960s legends The Green Fuz are back!

But unless you’re an aficionado of garage compilations, an inveterate record crate digger, or a fanatical collector of hopelessly obscure 45s from forty years ago, this news probably strikes you as something less than earth-shaking. In fact, chances are quite good that you’ve never heard of The Green Fuz. In this, you are not alone.

This teenage garage group based in Bridgeport, Texas (near Fort Worth) released only one single — “Green Fuz” b/w “There is a Land” — on the tiny Wash-Tex label in 1968. And then they were never heard from again. But that in and of itself wouldn’t earn the Green Fuz their well-deserved (if small) place in rock history; informed estimates suggest that more than ten thousand garage rock groups existed in the mid- to late 1960s, and a surprising number of them managed to cut singles. A whole cottage industry has arisen to enshrine the efforts of these rockers. The wide array of compilations of the Pebbles / Nuggets / Back from the Grave variety chronicle the highs and lows of the craze that swept the USA in the wake of the British Invasion. The whole genre has been immortalized in popular culture through the modest success of films like Tom HanksThat Thing You Do!, the fictional story of an Erie, Pennsylvania based band’s brief and meteoric rise and fall. And while that story is invented, change a few particulars here and there, and it could be the story of any number of late 60s garage groups.

And so it was with The Green Fuz. These five guys were younger than most of their contemporaries (they were mostly about fourteen or fifteen when they recorded their eponymous single), and their brief moment came after the movement had waned (by 1968, mainstream rock had gotten heavier and was moving away from the garage aesthetic). But most significantly — and here’s where we get into what is for garage-rock fanatics the unique selling proposition of the Green Fuz — their single was crude. Really crude. Crude even when set against the “standards” of what passed for garage rock audio quality in the 60s. Cruder than The Seeds. So crude, in fact, that punk rockers The Cramps would discover, love and ultimately cover “Green Fuz” in 1981. According to Ira Padnos, impresario of the Ponderosa Stomp Festival (more on him forthwith), “Y’know, people talk about ‘lo-fi.’ There was no-fi on this one. This is the crudest record ever made.” And the song “The Green Fuz” is wonderful in large measure because of that fact.

“We were a cover band. We wrote a couple songs,” explains Randy Alvey, lead singer and primary lyricist for The Green Fuz. They played what the band calls the “Texas torture circuit” of dance halls and such in the Dallas and Ft. Worth region. “Actually, 77 miles [from home] is the farthest we went,” one band A Green Fuz. photo (c) Bill Koppmember admits. “Back in those days,” lead guitarist Les Dale offers, “all of the garage bands were pretty much all on the same circuit.” Guitarist Jim Mercer recalls seeing The American Blues at The Cellar in Ft. Worth, and then again shortly after that group changed its lineup, style and name: “The first time we saw ’em as ZZ Top, it cost us a buck.” The Green Fuz repertoire included standard fare of the day. Bassist R.E. “Buck” Houchins recalls that they played “dance music. ‘Louie, Louie,’ ‘Hang On Sloopy,’ ‘Gloria.’ Stuff like that. ‘Midnight Hour.’ Stuff that everybody did; the kind of songs everybody expected you to do. But,” he laughs, “we played them badly.”

Despite their tender age, the group garnered enough success to catch the ears of local self-styled impresario Shorty Hendrix. History suggests that Shorty wasn’t all that interested in rock and roll, but he apparently saw the potential for revenue with The Green Fuz, and that was enough. Hendrix became the latest in of a line of managers for the group, though to what extent he actually “managed” the band remains in question. He secured the group a “record deal”; not coincidentally, said label–Wash-Tex–was co-owned by Hendrix himself. Hendrix certainly hedged his bets where the Green Fuz were concerned. Rather than steer them into one of the recording studios in nearby Fort Worth–heck, the megatropolis of Dallas was a mere hour’s drive from Bridgeport–Hendrix secured the use of a very basic reel-to-reel recorder and set the group up to record in a vacant restaurant. According to guitarist Jim Mercer, Hendrix “brought out a two-track reel-to-reel. And two mics. We had one sitting on one side of us, and one on the other.” So was mic placement the secret to getting that just-right sound? Not really. “For both the a-side and the b-side, neither microphone was moved,” Mercer reveals.

By most accounts, Hendrix spared every expense on the band. He didn’t even have to pay for use of the recording venue. Les Dale recalls that “it was my mom’s restaurant,” and it was in the early stages of being remodeled. It was empty, save for a few tables and chairs. “Shorty wanted to keep that sound we had [live]; like, in a garage-type setting.” He pauses and slowly shakes his head in amazement. “Boy, did he get that.” Randy Alvey recalls the site selection slightly differently: “We got the sound because of the building; not the other way around.” Jim reminds that the building was “built out of stone and cement,” giving a cave-like ambience to the recording. He then offers a clarification: “It was actually petrified wood.” Either way, the room played a large part in giving the record its sound. The song “The Green Fuz” was recorded live to tape; the consensus of recollection is that two takes were done, but only the one–in all its no-fi glory–remains.

The song itself is a swaggering rocker, something of a band theme song:

“Here we come, we’re comin’ fast /
All the others are in the past /
Jump to your feet, let us catch your eye…
Look out baby, you better run / We’re the Green Fuz.”

A band covering this two-minute song today would likely struggle to keep straight faces, but as recorded in the late 60s by a bunch of teenaged Texas boys, “Green Fuz” is irony-free. And the production values–or, more accurately, the lack thereof–imbue the song with a captured-in-amber charm it might otherwise not possess. When presented with the observation that the recording has a weird, tape-wobble effect, Alvey laughs and replies, “You noticed that too, huh?” Apparently the session was rushed; even a cursory listen to “Green Fuz” suggests the band was in too much of a hurry to allow the guitarists time to tune their instruments. To less discriminating ears, the song might be charitably deemed, well, unlistenable. But to lovers of garage rock, all this adds to the song’s charm.

The b-side, “There is a Land” is more conventional and more bizarre all at once. Musically, it’s unremarkable, as befits a b-side by–let’s be honest here–a no-hit wonder. Co-composer Jim Mercer readily admits that it’s “a ballad. A slow ballad.” In true b-side fashion, Randy Alvey says that “it was something of a spur-of-the-moment [song] to get going; we needed a b-side. Some of the guys liked ballads…so Buck and Jimmy put this together.” The lyrics are something else, though: in the song, a young man is told that an older gentleman he knows is his “real” father. At least it seems like that’s what it’s about. The lyrics are spoken rather than sung, and there’s an unsettling juxtaposition against the rote musical backing.

Back row, L-R: R.E. 'Buck' Houchins (bass); Bob Gober (guest guitar); music journalist Bill Kopp; Randy Alvey (vocals); Mike Pearce (drums). Front row, L-R: Jim Mercer (guitar); Les Dale (lead guitar). photo (c) Bill Kopp But all this runs the danger of making too much out of this musical afterthought, even if it does represent fully half of The Green Fuz catalogue. When The Green Fuz are remembered at all, it’s for their a-side anthem. The original record is hopelessly rare; only 500 were pressed, and when the Wash-Tex single failed to light the musical world on fire, the boys went a-shooting: they took boxes of the discs out to a field and treated the records as clay pigeons. Even today, not all of the group members have copies. Jim Mercer: “To my knowledge, no one in the band has an original.” Randy Alvey: “Now, you’re not believing any of the shit he’s telling you, are you? I’ve got one.” Mike Pearce (drummer): “It’s hanging in my office. It’s enclosed in glass.” Les Dale: “My wife got me a copy of it for my birthday one year.” Buck Houchins: “I still have the original sleeve it came in.” OK, so everyone in the original band except Mercer has one. That accounts for four copies. But Mercer insists: “I’ll tell ya. Mike the drummer…his mom has two that have never had a needle on them. And,” he confides in a hushed, serious voice, “there is no money that can touch them.”

The single was included on the vinyl Pebbles Vol. 2 compilation in 1979, then again on the Trash Box CD set and other collections a few years later. The Cramps’ cover appeared on that group’s 1981 release, Psychedelic Jungle. But nothing was heard from the band that started it all. “I went into the Navy in 1972,” Les Dale explains. By that point he had moved away from Bridgeport–first to California, then to Virginia Beach, where he lives to this day. Around 1970 the band had replaced him with Bob Gober and soldiered on for a bit. Then vocalist Alvey plus Pearce (drums) and bassist Buck Houchins reformed with other musicians as Natchez. With the exception of lead guitarist Dale (Jim Mercer: “We thought he was dead!”), the former Green Fuz members remained local and in touch. And with that, the story could have ended.

Les Dale raised a family and served more than two decades in the Navy, retiring in the 90s and going to work in the aviation private sector. During that time, he didn’t exactly sit around listening to 60s compilations. “I didn’t know anything about The Cramps. I didn’t know about the [underground] popularity of the song. When I found out, it was like, ‘come on!'” Mike Dugo of tracked Dale down a few years ago (he had previously interviewed Randy Alvey). “I did an interview with [Dugo],” Les recalls, “and then there was a radio station in St. Louis that called me. I did an interview with them. I guess it got out.”

Around that time, Dr. Ira Padnos, instigator, curator and grand poobah of the Ponderosa Stomp festival started looking for The Green Fuz. Padnos had started the New Orleans-based festival in 2002 as a way to shine a light on great-yet-forgotten and/or underappreciated music. The Green Fuz would certainly fit that bill. As Padnos–a dead ringer for comic Marty Allen–recently put it, “out of the five hundred [copies of the single] that were pressed, who knows how many are left. I wish I could see one or have one, but I don’t think I’ll ever find one.”

Dale continues the story: “And Dr. Ira got my phone number. He called me, and he said–I was in my music room, as a matter of fact–he said, ‘Can I speak to Les Dale?’ And I said, ‘This is Les Dale.’ ‘Are you the Les Dale that was in the Green Fuz?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And then there was a kind of silence on the other end. I was like, ‘Oh, damn. What have I done?’ I had no idea what it was. And he said, ‘I’m Ira Padnos, and I’d like to hire your band to pay in April at the House of Blues in New Orleans.'”

“As the conversation went on,” Les recalls, “I realized, ‘Damn; this guy’s for real.’ So I said, ‘I would love to do it, but there’s [all the] other guys in the band. So we’ve gotta talk.'” He made plans to contact his long-lost band mates. “My mom lives in Longview, Texas. My family and I went to visit, and I threw my Les Paul in the back of the car. I told my wife Marti, and she said, ‘Why are you taking your guitar?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna go to Bridgeport and see if the guys are still there.’ I hadn’t seen the guys in thirty-five years. And so I went to Bridgeport, and the first place I went was Jimmy’s house. And when I knocked on the door–when I told him who I was–his mouth dropped open.”

Things moved quickly after that. The complete original quintet lineup reconvened, augmented (for the Ponderosa Stomp gig only) by Dale’s 1970s replacement Bob Gober on guitar. Les explains, “There’s an awful lot of hard work that’s gone in to all this.” Houchins mentions that a few of the members “had played together a few times” between the early 70s and 2007, but nobody was really doing much musically. Les Dale: “See, in ’74, I laid down the guitar and never picked it up again until this.” But once they all decided to take part in the reunion, everyone got serious. “”I was flying to Dallas at least once a month for rehearsals with the band,” Les Dale recalls. “Sometimes twice a month. But over the last nine months, I’d fly from Virginia Beach to Dallas, and then spend four days in Bridgeport” rehearsing with the guys.

The Green Fuz onstage at the Ponderosa Stomp festival, April 30 2008 in New Orleans. photo (c) Bill Kopp In the run-up to the April 2008 Ponderosa Stomp gig, the band increased their stable of original tunes by 50% (they would not perform “There is a Land” at the reunion show). The new song, the autobiographical and aptly titled “Back from the Ashes” is a lyrical cousin to “Green Fuz.” But the production values–even live–are far superior. In fact, onstage in New Orleans, even “Green Fuz” sounded more like a regular rock and roll song. Les Dale had warned as much the night before the show: “When we play it tomorrow night…it sounds a lot better.”

On April 30, 2008, The Green Fuz kicked off the second night of the Ponderosa Stomp festival. In his well-oiled onstage introduction of the band, Dr. Ira summed it all up:

“The first band up tonight, I’m really, really honored that they’re here. Their 45 is called ‘The Green Fuz,’ recorded in 1968 in a diner that was being remodeled, outside of Bridgeport, Texas. At that point, the band wasn’t too happy with the sound…Of course they loved it so much, they took a bunch of shotguns and bb guns…But they’re here tonight. I got lucky: the drummer [sic] ran into the guitar player when he was visiting, after being away from about thirty-something years. And they’re here tonight. They had a first meeting about six months ago. They are here tonight. Ladies and gentlemen…The Green Fuz!”

The band took the stage and proceeded to run through a set of 60s chestnuts from their old days plus (relatively) newer songs like Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” Obviously having a good time in front of an audience custom-made for such a reunion, the band tore through the songs with aplomb. In the audience, wives and other relatives cheered them on wildly; many of them were sporting green fuzzy boas. Randy Alvey came equipped with props, including green flying discs and a squishy green “fuz” ball that was batted around the audience (this lucky writer ended up taking it home as a souvenir). The group held off until the end of their forty-minute set to give the audience what it was waiting for; when they did, the version of “The Green Fuz” featured a long mid-section vamp wherein Alvey introduced the band. The set was well-received, but when Dr. Ira came out to close the set, he knew that something else was needed to make things just right. “I don’t know about you,” he shouted to the cheering audience, “but we need to hear it one more time without the intros and everything! Let’s hear it like the 45!”

The Green Fuz obliged, playing the song Just Like The Record, one more time. The crowd went wild, with cheering continuing long after they had finished. Dr. Ira again:

“The Green Fuz, ladies and gentlemen! Whaddya think? Pretty awesome, huh? No, they can’t do it one more time; sorry. Two’s the charm. Okay…The Green Fuz, ladies and gentlemen! Forty years!”

Rock fans themselves, the members of The Green Fuz stuck around to hear other acts on the bill. The performers they were most interested in hearing included Ronnie Spector (The Ronettes), Mary Weiss (The Shangri-Las), Question Mark and the Mysterians, and Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators). As Les Dale gushed pre-show, “And we’re gonna be on the same bill with them! It’s an honor for us to be able to do this with all these legends. And for us to be able to start this, it is the thrill of a lifetime.” As far as future plans, nothing is certain; the guys might completely return to their former lives, putting the instruments away forever.

Where were these people forty years ago when we wanted to take over the world?
–Jim Mercer

Dale says, “We’re just happy for this [gig]; we’re taking this for right now. We’re having a good time. That’s all.” But you never know. He continues: “We’re all very excited about doing this. The new song sounds good. And if someone wanted to hear it–if there was a market out there–that would be great.” Mike adds, “I think that when it stops being fun, you won’t see us doing it again.” Les laughs, “It used to be a little easier than this, though.”

Les Dale recalls, “Somebody asked me, ‘What astounds you the most about the song?’ What astounds me most is that this song has,” he laughs, “lasted…forty…years! I mean, I played this song for my son–this song that we played, that we wrote forty years ago. And my son said, ‘Man, that’s awesome!'” Musing on the publicity surrounding the Ponderosa Stomp reunion, Jim Mercer jokes rhetorically, “Where were these people forty years ago when we wanted to take over the world?”