An Interview with (John) Chris Christensen of Opus 1
[Q] Where and when was Opus 1 formed, and by whom?
[A] The formation of Opus 1 is a pretty interesting story. I was in and out of a lot of the better Long Beach, California bands during that period, in the early to mid-sixties: The Surfriders, The Intruders, The Sunsets (pre-Adrian Lloyd), The Town Criers, Time of Your Life, The Reveres and (briefly) The Togas. For the information of you hard core collectors that have copies of the Ionic Records release of "Ode to a Bad Dream" B/W "You Make Me Feel So Good" by Time of Your Life . . . "You make Me Feel So Good" is actually by The Town Criers. I have reference acetates of five more sides by the Town Criers in my archives. During that time I maintained a partnership with Bob Renfro, a local guitarist and singer (the writer of "Ode") in a series of bands fronted by Bob and myself. However, my loyalty to Bob was not reciprocated. The Decker brothers, Brian and Doug, had also seen a succession of bands in which even though they were largely responsible for the groups sound and success, but they always ended up being subservient to their front men. Their method was to find a strong lead singer, and then build a group around that person. Eventually the front man would become overbearing, and then the band would break up. I believe that happened to them with Frank and the Conceptions, Lloyd Terry and the Victors, and, finally, The Togas, when Chris Morgan left taking the group name and putting his own in front. I had booked a casual on this particular day using a group I played with on and off called The Reveres. Bob Renfro was also going to play, and we set out from one of the band members' houses to caravan to the gig. Unfortunately, we became separated on the freeway, and I was the only one with the actual address of the party, which was in a house in Naples, just down the street from the Decker's house. After many frantic calls to the other members' houses, it soon became apparent that I wasn't going to get in touch with any of the guys and I had an obligation to provide a band for this party. I walked down the street to the Deckers, and was fortunate enough to find Doug, Brian, and Pete Parker there. I told them about my jam and asked them to come and help me out. Well, we played our first gig together that day without a front man to screw things up. Four part harmony was ad-libbed on the spot! The songs just flowed out of us effortlessly. They were sick of Chris Morgan, and I was tired of my situation. The gig had been so easy that we decided to make it permanent.
[Q] Who came up with the band's name, and why?
[A] We called the band Opus 1. I believe that the suggestion for the name came from Brian Decker, and then we all listed the reasons why it fit, because it was a fresh start . . . a new beginning . . . a 'first work' . . . we wouldn't take a back seat to anyone else, and we would truly be a group. From that moment on, things moved rapidly for us.
[Q] Please list all band members' names, and their corresponding musical instruments.
[A] Brian Decker: Lead Guitar (Mosrite) and vocals; Doug Decker: Fender P Bass (Big Red) and vocals; Pete Parker: Farfisa Organ and vocals; and (John) Chris Christensen: Ludwig Drums and vocals.
[Q] What bands or artists would you consider as initial influences?
[A] We all had very diverse tastes in music. Our ears were open to everything. Brian and Doug's father was the first call French Horn player in the L.A. studios, so they (and we) were exposed to everything from Ravi Shankar to Beaver and Krause. I know we all had a common love for R & B and early Rock and Roll. We had all played in surf bands too, so that thing was an element in our sound. Somebody once described "Back Seat '38 Dodge" to me as the last real surf record and the beginning of punk. It does sound like a huge hell bound train to me thanks to those great Del-Fi echo chambers. I also remember that Brian and Doug were very (much) into country at the time, which is something I only had a casual interest in. We were just like most of the kids of our generation that had bands with one exception. We loved all the English bands: The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, (I had a real passion for The Zombies), and The Animals; but, we didn't want to be them. We had all played music before the British Invasion, so we were fairly confident in our musical sensibilities. We were Americans, and liked our heritage just fine, thank you. I know I'm prejudiced, but that's why, to me, "Back Seat '38 Dodge" still roars out of the speakers. I don't think it sounds nearly as dated as most Garage Band recordings from that era with the fake British accents and the America-by-way-of-England approach. We did try to do something different. It's too bad more of the music doesn't exist!
[Q] How popular was Opus 1 locally? How wide was the band's popularity range?
[A] We were only known in the Southern California region. We did manage to maintain a pretty loyal following from The Togas and Town Criers fan base, but not in massive numbers. However, Opus 1 performed frequently. The term 'garage band' has always been offensive to me because (I think) it implies that somehow the groups weren't professional and never 'played out.' Garage Bands just stayed in the garage rehearsing endlessly. The members of Opus 1 were certainly young guys, but in our own minds we were professionals. We were playing constantly and getting paid to do it.
[Q] What type of venues did Opus 1 typically play? Do you have a story about a favorite gig?
[A] We played just about every type of venue, from teen clubs like The Cinnamon Cinder, to city and radio-sponsored youth dances, to the occasional (even though we were all under age) bar gig. Actually I have two favorite gig stories: #1...We played a very large teen dance at a park in (I think) Norwalk. We had just finished recording our single for Del-Fi, and it was the first time we really played mostly our original stuff and very few covers. We got a tremendous response. The host was a guy who did local radio (his name is long since forgotten to me) who said to us "You guys are great! I'm gonna make sure your record gets played on the radio," and he did! A couple of days later we heard the record on the radio for the first time. It was an awesome feeling, very much like in the movie 'That Thing You Do.' #2...We played for a while at a bar called (I believe) The Brass Lantern, where the bartender started feeding us drinks early in the night. By the end of the evening everyone in the band had switched instruments, and I ended up fronting the band as the lead vocalist, dancing on the runway that the girl dancers usually used, while Pete Parker played (he didn't really) the drums. Absolutely hilarious . . .
[Q] Do you recall any local bands that you competed with?
[A] The Emperors, The Pyramids, The Vibrants, The Knights of Day, The Cindermen.
[Q] Opus 1 released one single: the aforementioned "Back Seat '38 Dodge" b/w "In My Mind." How did that come about?
[A] We did a session at Western Recorders and hired Bones Howe as producer. That night was the first and only time I met Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys were recording next door. That was a real thrill that continues to resonate in me even today. Our recordings that night consisted of a couple of Brian Decker songs "In My Mind" and "Birds of Passage" that the band had arranged. Bones was also a talent scout for White Whale Records at the time and expressed some interest in us, but didn't act on it. Then we had a show biz attorney, Jay L. Cooper, shop the tapes. He was actually Bob Keene's attorney. Can you say "conflict-of-interest?" Del-Fi's Bob Keene liked the recordings enough to invite us down to his studio on Selma in Hollywood for an audition/recording session that lasted most of a whole day and late into the evening. He and Barry White sat around in the control room and pretty much recorded our entire original repertoire 'live' in the studio. During one of the breaks we began to discuss the then current controversy surrounding the art exhibit by Ed Keinholtz, and in particular, "Back Seat Dodge '38." Keene was peaked by the idea of something controversial, so we took another of our songs, "Why Did I Lie," also known as "Song," changed the lyric and did a little tweaking on the arrangement and "Back Seat '38 Dodge" (poetic license) was born. We paired that with the all ready completed "In My Mind," and that became our only single for Mustang Records. One of the many side stories to this is that the Del-fi studio had its own permanently miked drum set. I refused to use their snare or cymbals, and substituted my own, with them complaining that their snare was 'the kind.' It was a top of the line Ludwig metal snare that they had no idea how to tune, so it sounded all flabby and rattle. I replaced it with my bottom of the line Ludwig metal snare and, when they heard it, Bob and Barry came running out of the control room to check it out. "How do you get that sound?" Well, I just knew how to tune it. So they traded me their top of the line Ludwig for my drum.....heh...heh...heh.
[Q] Please detail what type of unreleased material exists: names of songs, approximate number of songs, whether they were demos, etc.
[A] Most of the unreleased stuff is demos made at the no frills studio (originally a back bedroom, and later a garage) of Russell Gary in Long Beach, California. There were masters of the aforementioned "In My Mind" and "Birds of Passage" that were supposed to be returned to us when we left Del-Fi, having a major creative difference with Bob Keene. The difference being that we had a version of the Yardley Black Label commercial we had written and recorded at Del-Fi called "Some Guys Get It." Doug and I just decided to visit Bob at the studio one day when we were up in La La, and he had Limey and the Yanks recording (really, really bad) vocals on our master. We left the label after that. A master mix of "Some Guys Get It" was made, and I have an acetate of that. The chorus went: "It's bitchin'...It's bitchin'...when you get it-got to get it." Keene balked at the word "bitchin,'" so we over-dubbed the word "bewitchin'" on top of the original to keep the youth of America safe. That's why the full page ad in the KRLA Beat said "'Back Seat '38 Dodge' single was Bewitchin'." There are some early demos of "In My Mind" with Russell Gary playing drums, and if you heard them you would realize how much the song changed once we became a band. Here are some other demo titles: "Battle in the Morning" (my personal favorite), "Words," "Dark Eyes," "Lullaby Women" . . . there are more, but I can't remember the titles off hand . . .
[Q] Did the band make any TV appearances?
[A] We made an appearance on "The Perry Mason" show. We had the distinction of being in the very last black and white episode, "The Case of the Avenging Angel." We were supposed to be ourselves, but when we showed up they called us Gabe and His Angels, and we mimed to some real fruity movie-rock-and-roll version of "The Jersey Bounce." They made Doug and Brian stand close together and in front of me to hide the bass drum head that says 'Opus 1.' We also did a stand-in bit for the Dean Martin movie "Murderer's Row," getting to meet Ann Margaret, who was unbelievably hot at the time. What a complete fox! The featured band in the segment was Dino, Desi, and Billy. We had a lot of fun hanging out basically teasing the shit out of them. My drum set actually appears in the movie without me. I ended up on the cutting room floor. A funny side-story to that is that we had been asked to audition for "The Monkees" when Opus 1 first got together and Brian had said, "No. It was way too cheesy." When we did "Murderer's Row," we went over to "The Monkees" set which was on the same lot where we were working as atmosphere. I remember remarking to Brian that they had their own Lear Jet!
[Q] How long did the band play together? Why did Opus 1 break up? When?
[A] The band lasted about a year. It didn't really break up. It just sort of dissolved. Several factors worked together to change things for us. Number one . . . I was drafted. I sold my car, stored my drums, cut my hair, and then, after a roaring goodbye party, the military didn't take me. During this brief period everyone just sort of moved out into other directions. I had opened the door for all of us when I originally made contact with Barry Campbell who ran Ionic Records. All my friends seemed to do a better job of working this connection than I did, even though I initially put it together. Pete Parker quickly moved towards record production for Ionic, sort of leaving us in Limbo. I think Opus 1 was done by the summer of '66.
[Q] Did any of the band members move on to play in other bands?
[A] After Opus 1, Doug Decker and I went to work with Bob Renfro and Jack Apfelbaum in the Time of Your Life, but that band imploded rather quickly. We didn't play on the single "Ode to a Bad Dream," although I helped edit it. From there, Jack, Doug, and I formed a trio called A New Delhi Abstract Three Pyce Band. I have three demos of this group. Two tunes are covers: "Motherly Love" and "Let Me Down Easy," and one is a really cool backing track for an original we never finished. That's the band I really wish had continued! It's unfortunate that the demos don't show the vocal power that Jack and I had together. Then Brian Decker came back on the scene. We decided to turn ourselves into a four piece (big mistake) and changed our name to River Om. We then moved the band into a house in Laurel Canyon. River Om had auditioned for a gig at The Sea Witch on the Sunset Strip next to Dino's, and nailed the job. The club management and regulars loved the killer vocals supplied by champion throat-shredder Jack Apfelbaum. However, our opening night Jack decided to not make the move, and bailed on us! We actually got the call from him while we were onstage! We were in an extreme state of altered consciousness at the time so this was really not funny. That night we became a trio, and did all our originals, pushing Brian up front. River Om actually got some major label interest, but before we could get a deal in place I was drafted again, and this time they took me! River Om cut four or five demos at Russell Gary's studio, but Russ says that the sessions never happened. "Water, Nice Day for a Swim" and "Table-Top Ballerina" are the two I distinctly remember doing. After our last gig at the Marina Palace sharing the bill with Things to Come, I was inducted and spent the next three years in the Army, actually in the same company as Things to Come's lead guitarist Lynn Rominger. Brian Decker got married and just sort of dropped out of sight. I know he has been in a few country bands over the years, but as far as I know his work as a performer has been pretty sporadic. He works primarily as a carpenter. Doug Decker has had a very successful career doing recording engineering working with Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Band of Gypsies, Roger Miller, and John Fahey among many, many others. Today he is doing sound for the "Win Ben Stien's Money" TV show. Doug and I have worked together on and off for the last 30 years. We did an album with his wife Maureen O'Connor in the early seventies for Takoma Records called "Granfalloon." The group was called Laser Pace -- very experimental, lots of electronics. I have tried unsuccessfully for three decades to track down Pete Parker. I was told at one time that he had become a Vegas type lounge singer and pianist. Don't really know what became of him. Pete was the key element in the Opus 1 instrumental sound. A really good keyboard player. One of my big gripes with Del-Fi (besides receiving no royalties) is that on the last two reissues of "Back Seat '38 Dodge," they have a really annoying hot rod sound dubbed onto the end of the recording. It obliterates this really cool spooky ending that Pete played, as well as this big bass wind up and drum finish. They have no taste!
[Q] Do you still play?
[A] I make my living in the music business in a variety of ways, playing, recording and performing as a drummer, singer, guitarist and bassist in a wide variety of styles and situations. I teach music and have a gig as a director of a youth band and choir for a Catholic church. I also do some film and video scoring. The most notable of these are a documentary, "Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane," and a thriller, "Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market." Both projects were done for writer-musician and now movie director Max Allan Collins (of The Daybreakers). I've also had various recordings available over the last three decades. Avant-pop band, Hot Food to Go! in the early '80's, as well as a lot of stuff that was heard in a variety of guises on the syndicated Dr. Demento Show. My personal favorite release has to be "Songs from the Xenozoic Age," a collaboration with writer/artist Mark Schultz. The CD is based on the "Xenozoic Tales" and "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs" comic books. It's really a rock and roll record masquerading as a concept album. Mark and I also contributed three very retro songs to the "Real Time" soundtrack": "Mini-Mart Girl," "Please Don't Hurt Me," and "The Nervous." Each tune is supposed to represent a different genre of mid-sixties Top 40. "Please Don't Hurt Me" features my daughter Laura and one of her friends Laura Montoya multi-tracked to heaven in a Beach Boys meets the Ronettes/Shangri-La's kind of vibe. My other fave recording is from the late '80's, "The Spirit Picture Disk," a concept record based on Will Eisner's ground breaking comic book character, The Spirit.
[Q] When was Beat Brothers Records formed?
[A] In the late '80's. I originally had three other partners, all drummers, hence the name Beat Brothers. One by one they dropped out until about '93 when I finally dissolved the company. With the explosion of the Internet it has become feasible to reenter the marketplace. The expense and overhead, not to mention the risk that it takes to run a small label are so much less today. So this year I began to slowly reactivate the label.
[Q] You've previously mentioned Max Allan Collins. Beat Brothers has released a limited CD (200 copies) of his teen garage band the Daybreakers ("Psychedelic Siren"). How did your association with Max come about?
[A] We play in the comic book industry band, Seduction of the Innocent. Other members of the band include Bill Mumy, Miguel Ferrer, and Steve Leialoha. All very cool talented people. Having seen Seduction play at the San Diego Comic Con in 1989, I wanted to sign them to Beat Brothers. After the album was done, Bill Mumy felt that they needed another member to help flesh out their new originals live. To be an official member of S.O.T.I., you have to have a comic book credit. Since I had done The Spirit Picture Disk, I was asked to join the band. Al Collins and I hit it off immediately when we discovered our similar 'cult band' histories. Al had heard of "Back Seat '38 Dodge," and I knew about "Psychedelic Siren." We became fast friends.
[Q] Does Beat Brothers have any plans to reissue additional CDs by '60's garage bands? What is the possibility of an Opus 1 CD?
[A] The short answer is "yes" and "yes." As to Opus 1, there is just about enough material for a single CD release. I've been toying with the idea of doing a CD of the Opus 1 family tree. This could include stuff from my early history, as well as the Deckers, Bob Renfro and Jack Apfelbaum. I have a pretty fair amount of unreleased stuff from that era in the archives. The problems with doing that are the clearances involved, as well as the actual quality of the recordings. Some stuff exists only on badly worn acetates. There is also the issue of whom actually owns what. Then there are the recordings that may or may not exist. I know what I have in my archives, but Del-Fi claims that they only have the stuff from the single, not the marathon session and no "Birds of Passage" or "Some Guys Get It." Russell Gary has some of the demo masters, but doesn't remember some of the other sessions, so the waters get murky pretty quickly. It's been a dream of mine since the sixties to put this stuff out. Keep your fingers crossed.
"Copyrighted and originally printed on The Lance Monthly