By Clay Evans
For the Coloradan
It was 1964.The sun was rising from the dawn of the Space Age, and The Astronauts were launching.
The band, a casual crew of CU-Boulder students, had been inching toward success, playing its party-friendly mix of Buddy Holly, “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and full-tilt boogie at frat houses in Boulder. Soon enough, they graduated to the Olympic bowling lanes, Jax Snax and the legendary Tulagi bar on The Hill. Then they scored gigs in Denver and traveled to play on campuses of other Big Eight Conference schools.
It was, decided drummer Jim Gallagher (A&S ex’68) and guitarist Bob Demmon (Mus’62, MA’68), time to take a swing at the big time. So they flew to Hollywood. Having earned an introduction to RCA Records producer Steve Shoals, they waited awkwardly in the big man’s Hollywood office as he ranted and raved on the phone.
“Suddenly he says, ‘Jesus Christ, the Beach Boys are killing us!’ ” remembers Gallagher, now 69 and owner of a Boulder mail order card business. “Then he covers the phone and says, ‘You guys play surf music?’ We said, ‘Oh, sure, we play it all the time.’ ”
The two band members high-tailed it back to Boulder, and the band drilled on surf tunes for the next month until the RCA scout showed up. They feted him with steaks and beer and a month later recorded their first album, “Surfin’ with The Astronauts,” which included their signature single and greatest hit, “Baja.”
This summer, The Astronauts will be one of three famous CU-based 1960s-era bands inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, alongside the down-and-dirty greasers of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, aka Flash Cadillac, and the hippy popsters of Sugarloaf.
The Astronauts grazed the bottom of American Top 100 with “Baja” but in 1964 — imagine shades of Rob Reiner’s 1984 Spinal Tap mockumentary of a fictional rock band — found itself all the rage, curiously, in Japan where they drew Beatles-sized crowds of screaming young girls. Across the Pacific, the land-locked surfer band beat the Beach Boys hands down, toured with The Ventures, recorded five albums and eventually scored three Top 10 singles, including “Movin” at No. 1.
After a notorious run in Boulder, Flash Cadillac found modest fame in Hollywood. The band members were seen briefly playing for troops in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 movie Apocalypse Now set during the Vietnam War.
After a notorious run in Boulder, Flash Cadillac also found modest fame in Hollywood. The band members were seen briefly playing for troops in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 movie Apocalypse Now set during the Vietnam War and played a key role in George Lucas’ 1973 coming-of-age film American Graffiti as Herbie and the Heartbeats. In the latter film, Flash played three songs, including the original composition “She’s So Fine.”
Like so many acts of the era, the psychedelic rock band Sugarloaf flamed out early. But not before leaving a truly indelible mark on pop music with “Green Eyed Lady,” which reached No. 3 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 and remains a staple of classic rock radio today.
“That song came out in May or June and started banging up the charts,” says Rob MacVittie (A&S ex’68), 66, drummer for Sugarloaf, named after the mountain west of Boulder where guitarist Bob Webber (Aero’69) lived. “We didn’t even know what we had.”
This year’s inductees are heavy on CU influence, but then, so is the Colorado Music Hall of Fame itself. CU graduate G. Brown (Jour’79) — yes, that’s the first name he goes by — long wanted to create the Colorado equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but he felt there was never any place to put it.
A couple years ago, Chuck Morris, CEO of the concert promotion company AEG Live- Rocky Mountains — who worked with Brown at Tulagi in the old days — offered to house the hall at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo., and Brown’s dream came true.
“I was always frustrated that other states had halls of fame like Kansas and Iowa,” says Brown, who started at CU in 1971 and took a break from school to work at Tulagi. “I don’t want to disparage them, but relative to what we have coming out of Colorado, they just didn’t compare.”
In 2011 Brown’s brainchild inducted John Denver and Red Rocks Amphitheater as its first class. In February, the hall added legendary concert promoter Barry Fey and Harry Tuft, founder of the Denver Folklore Center.
This year’s Flash Cadillac — or “Flash,” as band members and fans affectionately call it — was a rocking, raunchy return to ’50s greaser music with a party-down mentality to match.
In 1969 CU dorm rats Harold Fielden (Jour’75), Warren Knight (Bus, Engr ex’70) and Linn Phillips (A&S ex’69) wanted to start a band and play “greasy stuff.” They cut their hair, slicked it back and only played stuff from the ’50s.
They approached future Firefall member Jock Bartley and the late Tommy Bolin, who would go on to play with the James Gang and Deep Purple, in their search for a vocalist.
“They were up for the music, but I don’t think they were into the hair-cutting part,” Fielden says.
Scouring Kittredge dorm for the perfect Flash, someone remembered they’d seen a guitar in Mick Manresa’s (A&S ex’72) closet.
“ ‘Can you play? Can you sing?’ we asked. ‘We’re gonna have a greaser band, get our hair cut. You want to be Flash?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Fielden says.
The band started getting gigs in 1969 at such dives as the Buff Room, one of a seemingly endless parade of joints that has occupied a dungeon-like space below street level on College Avenue in Boulder. They became regulars at Tulagi where they played every Tuesday night for years.
That’s when the raunch really kicked in.
One night — the precise dates are subject to debate — they noticed someone had taken off his shirt on the dance floor. That simple act gave birth to the 3.2 beer-fueled traditions of the legendary “Naked Twist” and “Skin to Win” contests.
“It just got to be more and more,” Fielden says. “There would be nude couples on the dance floor. You couldn’t even make the semifinals if you weren’t naked.”
As contest prizes, the band offered such treasures as a jar full of spit or hair of uncertain but distinctly curly origin, the back seat from a ’56 Chevy or a couple of battered hubcaps. Flash was flagrantly foul-mouthed up there under the hot Tulagi lights.
Crude, rude and rocking, Flash raged at Tulagi until one night it got too rowdy and people started heaving pitchers of beer. The band was unceremoniously exiled from Boulder but set up shop out at Art’s Bar and Grill north of city limits.
Flash has long drawn comparisons to the band Sha Na Na, which caught the public’s fancy at Woodstock.
Nope, Fielden says.
“We were really greasy, hanging from the ceiling, flipping people the bird, really inappropriate stuff,” he says. “They were a review, gold lamé stuff. We weren’t rivals; we were two completely different things.”
Gallagher’s career ended when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1965. Sugarloaf quickly melted away after they “did the usual thing, changing producers and managers, thinking we knew what we were doing when we didn’t,” MacVittie says. Flash headed to L.A. seeking fortune, eventually playing with the likes of the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper.
And CU-Boulder was the incubator of all that fame.
“We were really just kids when we started,” Fielden says. “It was a great ride.”