This is an update of an article I wrote for Discoveries Magazine in July of 1999. Hope you enjoy it.
The second that the fat wet Fender guitar pulse hits your speakers, you want to duck and cover to keep from getting drenched by the foamy ocean spray. That’s the sound of “Baja,” a surf instrumental classic from 1963 that seems to be on all the CD compilations of that particular musical style. The amazing thing about the group who waxed this song, the Astronauts, is that they had never been a surf band prior to these sessions. Indeed, they were not even from the beaches of California, but rather from the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado where skis, not surfboards, dominate. Even more amazing is that while they barely dented the U.S.charts, in Japan they were considered mega-stars for a time.
In the late ’50s, Jon Patterson (or Stormy, from his middle name-Storm) was a Boulder, Colorado high school student and state wrestling champ. He was also an aspiring guitarist/singer and showed this facet at a school talent show impressing fellow Boulder High student Bob Demmon in the process. Demmon convinced Patterson to teach him guitar which naturally lead to the formation of a band. With the addition of future Boulder Sheriff Brad Leach on drums the Stormtroupers came into being. Note the spelling was “troupe” not “troop” though sometimes is seems to have been misspelled that way or as one or two words. The dictionairy definition of troupe is “a group, especially of the performing arts” which fit quite well as the band was Storm’s troupe. Being only a decade or so removed from World War II and the Nazi atrocities committed by stormtroopers, the name of the band quickly created controversy in conservative Boulder.
When Patterson and Demmon started college, the group lay pretty much dormant till Boulder drummer Jim Gallagher (several years younger than the other two being still a high school junior) convinced them to reform to play at a beer joint in the mountain resort town of Estes Park. To play the Rock Inn, Gallagher had to conceal the fact that he was still a minor since you had to be 18 to get into a 3.2 beer place. As a three-piece, the Stormtroupers were then in demand for dances, parties and store openings as there were few rock outfits in Boulder.
As the ’60s dawned, Patterson switched to bass guitar (borrowing one at first from the University of Colorado) and added a new member to the band, guitarist Dick Sellers. As the act got better, they acquired steady work at Boulder’s Olympic Lanes (a bowling alley) and the town’s best club-Tulagi (on the Hill, the section just West of the university campus). Other early highlights were playing a benefit for the 1960 Olympic Ski Team and being flown to Dallas to play a debutante ball for the daughter of John D. Murchison who owned Boulder’s biggest hotel, the Harvest House (in addition to his part ownership of the Dallas Cowboys with his brother Clint).
A1962 article in the Sigma Nu Fraternity magazine Delta by future Sports Illustrated writer Doug Looney talking about the band came to the attention of Stan Zabka in Chicago who was impressed enough by what he read to write to the boys suggesting a recording session (Demmon and Looney were both in the frat at CU). The band jumped at the idea and hopped on the Denver Zephyr for the day and a half trip to Chicago where they stayed with Gallagher’s aunt while recording. The Patterson original rocker “Come Along Baby” was chosen for the A-side with the R&B standard “Trying To Get To You” on the flip. While Palladium 45 B-610 certainly didn’t get even a glimpse at the popular music charts, it stands up as a raw document of what an early ’60s party combo sounded like. Both sides of this rarity can be heard on the 1991 German import CD Rarities (Bear Family BCD 15556).
These first recording sessions contributed more than just a record as Zabka prevailed on the guys to finally change their name to avoid further controversy. After rejecting names like the Button Downs, the name the Astronauts was chosen to reflect the current interest in the fledgling space program. An interesting tie-in is that the second U.S. Astronaut to orbit the Earth, Scott Carpenter, was also from Boulder (he did it May 24, 1962).
The only real Boulder competition for the Astronauts in the early ’60s were the Spartans led by Rich Fifield -a guitarist and singer from Ogallala, Nebraska. Fifield asked if he could sit in with the more established band one night and was told that he could only if he would wear a tie and a white shirt (the Astronauts were, after all, a classy bunch). When he later turned up dressed to the nines with his guitar, the guys let him on stage and were impressed enough with the resulting sound to expand to a quintet with his addition.
The classic Astronauts lineup was completed when Sellers abruptly enlisted in the Navy and was replaced by Dennis Lindsey who had been working in a laundromat (though he had to be asked to cut his hair a bit shorter). They continued to work local shows and even backed up acts like Del Shannon and Dick & DeeDee for Colorado engagements. Still, this was not enough of a taste of success for the guys and since the time away from studies didn’t exactly help their college careers it was decided that a direct appeal to a record label was in order before giving up on music.
From an earlier contact with RCA Victor distributor Ward Terry, a meeting was set up with A&R man Steve Sholes and over spring break (1963) Gallagher and Demmon flew to Hollywood with a scrapbook and a demo tape which included the standard “Lil’ Liza Jane.” Sholes was interrupted during the meeting by a call touting the big sales of the Beach Boys’ new Surfin’ U.S.A. album for the Capitol label. Covering the phone, he asked if the Astronauts played surf music. Sensing an opportunity Gallagher and Demmon lied a bit and said that of course they could play surf music even though the band had relied on rock and blues standards up till now and really had no clue if they could play this foreign form of music. An audition on the band’s home turf was set up and then Gallagher and Demmon beat a hasty retreat back to Colorado to inform the rest of the band that they had but three weeks to learn how to be RCA’s answer to the Beach Boys.
Al Schmitt, who would later become their producer, flew to Colorado and was treated to a barbeque at Demmon’s house (what with him being the only married man in the band). Then, it was off to Tulagi for a regularly scheduled show with the crowd knowing to cheer extra loud in hopes of securing a contract for their hometown heroes. In an amazing show of confidence, when the houselights came up the guys lurched into a slow and out of tune first song while Schmitt pondered a quick getaway back to Hollywood. The charade mercifully ended quickly with a laugh and then the Astronauts got down to business and proceeded to blow Schmitt away with their self-assurance. A contract was signed that night and a recording session set up for April 1963 in Hollywood.
On May 6 and 7, the Astronauts convened at RCA’s Studio 2 and over nine hours layed down the tracks that would become their first album. Their white Fender Jazzmaster guitars lined up with Demmon on the bottom, Lindsey fleshing out the sound and Fifield playing brilliant underrated lead lines over Patterson’s bass throb. RCA essentially already had the album planned out and only needed a group to play on it. Patterson did get to contribute the cool original song “Kuk” to the lineup though writing credit went to the whole band (as were most group original songs as a gesture to band contributions in arranging their individual parts). The lyrics make light of the band’s difficulties in understanding the peculiar language of surfers. In addition to this song, they did several of the current surf songs such and “Misirlou” (with Demmon on trumpet), “Pipeline” and “Surfin’ U.S.A. The highlights, however, were three instrumentals written by Duane Eddy’s mentor Lee Hazelwood. Eddy was also on RCA during the early ’60s, it should be noted.
“Batman” was decent, but “Movin'” and “Baja” really cooked and would reward the boys with sizable hits (if not in the U.S. – more on that later). Of the 12 songs picked for the Surfin’ With The Astronauts album, “Baja” with “Kuk” on the flip side was chosen for single release. In late July of 1963, the first Astronauts single managed to dent the Billboard chart for one week at #94 while back home in Colorado it splashed quickly to #1 and was cause for much celebrating that the local boys had made it to the big time.
The LP faired a bit better. According the Whitburn’s Top Pop Albums book, Surfin’ With The Astronauts managed to climb as high as #61 in its 14 week chart run beginning Aug. 3, 1963. The cover showed a moody blue hued picture of a lonely surfer dude carrying his board out of the sea. Interestingly, the original of this scene was of a surfer girl not a dude, but with a little airbrushing out of curves and ponytail, it became the cover we know today.
This was not a bad chart placing for a debut LP, but still a bit disappointing in terms of the quality of the record. To cement the style of this debut, two new band originals were quickly waxed and released as a non-LP single with a nice (and now rare) picture sleeve. The a-side “Hot-Doggin'” may actually be the best instrumental they ever recorded with its complex up and down the fretboard runs by Fifield’s deft fingers. With the vocal number “Everyone But Me” on the flip, this single was again relished by local Colorado fans who mustered a top of the chart placement in October of ’63, but this didn’t matter to the national charts.
At this point the band’s schizophrenic nature started to show itself as a second album was prepared for release. Rather than solidify the surf instrumental image, the band recorded three nights of shows (Sept. 19-21) consisting of vocal covers at their newly opened Club Baja on 14th and Stout in Denver. Frankly, live is where the Astronauts always excelled, but in retrospect it seems a bold move to release a live album as a second LP and have it sound 100 percent different then what fans of their first record would expect. The songs chosen were certainly what they would have played at a frat party and must have sounded great reverberating off the kegs of 3.2. Songs like “Bo Diddley,””Big Boss Man,” Shortnin’Bread,” etc. were good, but missed the dynamic fun of their visual stage show. The closing “What’d I Say” clocked in at an unheard of six plus minutes for this era of the two minute single and featured a great Gallagher drum solo. In Feb. of 1964 the album Everything Is A-OK managed a respectable #100 placing on Billboard’s album chart.
Everything, however, was not A-OK in Feb. of 1964 if you were an American music act as the charts were being swept by a British Invasion spearheaded by the Beatles. Back in December, the Astronauts had recorded another studio session for album release in 1964 not aware of the massive changes the coming months would foment on the U.S. charts. With the Beach Boys showing the way, the next direction for the Astronauts was to be an LP of car songs. Another Duane Eddy alumnus, saxman Steve Douglas had recorded an album entitled Rev-up as the studio-only group the Vettes. As that album didn’t set the world on fire, Douglas brought seven of those songs to the Astronauts for their next record, even playing sax on them himself. Songs like “Devil Driver’s Theme” and “Little Ford Ragtop” sounded great but were equalled by another band original, “Our Car Club” an ode to all the band members and their female named cars. Hazelwood contributed two more exceptional instrumentals in “The Hearse” and “El Aguila (The Eagle).”
The 45 from this set was the title track “Competition Coupe” written by car song veterans Gary Usher and Roger Christian. The B-side, “Surf Party” was the title track to their first movie appearance and accompanied “Firewater” on the soundtrack for 20th Century Fox records.
On Feb. 15, 1964, “Competition Coupe” managed to bubble under at #124 and could make no headway against the likes of “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” by the Beatles. A month later, the album Competition Coupe managed to place in the charts at #123 for the last chart entry by the Astronauts. While Patterson today barely remembers several of the songs on this LP (since they learned them quickly strictly for the record), he recalls vividly the cover photo shoot. Two hotrods had been borrowed from a California girl and the Astronauts went cruising the Hollywood hills with photographer in tow only to be stopped by a motorcycle cop who was afraid they were drag-racing. Luckily he was persuaded that the band was shooting an album cover and let the boys go. His picture, however, did turn up in the CD booklet for Rarities.
If the band were not obscessing over the U.S. charts in January of 1964 they could be excused, however, as only a few weeks before the Beatles invasion, Astronauts-fever was sweeping through Asia. They were at #1 on the singles and LP charts and in demand for a concert tour. The Japanese had embraced the surf instrumentals recorded earlier by the band with Victor Japan changing several of the titles for the foreign audience. For example, “Baja” became “Surfin’ #1” and “The Hearse” features the sound of an overdubbed car and is retitled “Gear Is Screaming.” The biggest hit of their 19 Japanese singles was “Movin'” or “Over The Sun” as it was dubbed (it was never released as a U.S. single).
When the guys flew in for their first Japanese tour, they were greeted by perhaps 10,000 screaming fans at the airport who hounded their every move in an attempt to rip the clothing off their backs for a souvenir. This, coupled with the language barrier, conspired to keep the guys close to their hotel, but managed to help them sell a few million records over their careers. The Astronauts found themselves playing huge arenas filled with screaming fans who drowned out the music and threw oranges at the stage as a gesture of affection. It must have been strange to be considered superstars in Asia and Colorado, but to be struggling for any sort of recognition everywhere else.
Records were not the way bands paid the bills back in the early ’60s, but via incessant touring. Such was the case with the Astronauts who made alot of money for RCA, but had to play constantly (sometimes two shows a day) to keep eating regularly. It seemed the guys played every college campus in the midwest which may explain why album number four Astronauts Orbit Kampus was yet another live set This was recorded in Boulder back at their old haunt Tulagi from Feb. 27 to March 1, 1964. The sound on this record was noticeably fatter and rocked a bit more then the first live effort. The twelve songs again were vocals and covered mostly traditional rock territory such as “Johnny B. Goode,””Linda Lou” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The album cover has a great band photo with Boulder in the background as seen from Flagstaff Mountain (where your’s truly first learned to drive).
Patterson remembers some crazy, but good times playing in concert such as the time a guy came in to the ‘Tule’ waving a very threatening machete at the crowd till Demmon wacked the wierdo in the gut with his guitar. Another time in an unplanned attempt to invent crowd diving decades before alternative rock, Patterson managed to fall off the end of a dark stage while singing then climbed back over a startled couple’s table without missing a beat. One outcome of playing was getting in trouble with the law and while playing in Hawaii at Betty’s a-Go Go, the boys managed to get themselves banned from the islands. It would be interesting to find out if Hawaii 5-O is still on the look-out for any Astronaut to brave the ban and try to return.
On the vinyl frontier, no singles were pulled from the live record. Another non-LP 45 was instead sent out with “Go Fight For Her” and “Swim Little Mermaid” in the grooves. The top side was a heavily produced mid-tempo rocker whose basic intent was to remind every red-blooded American male that in order to win and keep the girl-next-door, he’d better be prepared to spill some of that blood. Through May and June of ’64, this record pumped up towards the top of Denver’s KIMN chart, but as usual the rest of the home of the brave turned a deaf ear to RCA 47-8364. Julius Wechter, later of the Baja Marimba Band, supplied the vibes while piano was pounded by one Russell Bridges aka Leon Russell.
The next record was also a 45 of no 12″ parentage coupling the Chuck Berry rocker “Around And Around” with the orchestrated and long titled plug side “Main Title From: Ride The Wild Surf” which was a cool beach movie with Shelley Fabares and a pre-Jeanie Barbara Eden frugging madly to Jan & Dean tunes. Needless to say, this movie made a large impression on your intrepid author, but the 45 only made an impression in Japan under the title “Surf In The Sun.”
The Astronauts were at an impasse as every surf instrumental they recorded shot up the Japanese charts, but were labeled as passé in the rest of the world. The answer was to record music in Japan specifically for release there. On the next Asian tour, the guys quickly learned and waxed Yukio Hashi’s “Che Che Che” which was released with “If You Are In Love” on the flip. The next Japanese-only record was a pairing of two songs by John Barry from the new hot James Bond movie “Goldfinger”/”007 Theme.” The James Bond vault would be mined later for the single “Thunderball” which was paired with “A Taste Of Honey” both done instrumentally.
For the English speaking audience, the Nov. 1964 single was one of their strongest vocal records with “I’m A Fool” on top and “Can’t You See I Do” underneath. “I’m A Fool” was an obviously commercial production with handclaps and driving drums pushing the song along. The song was a hit, but it would take seven more months and a recording done by Dino Desi & Billy to place it in the charts. A side by side comparison of the two versions reveals that the better of the versions ended up the hit as DD&B revved up the tempo a bit and really emphasized the basic “Louie Louie” three chord riff with a prominent 12-string guitar. Still, the Astronauts version had hit potential as did the strongly Merseyish B-side. With a bit more of the production style of “I’m A Fool” it may have been that the great band original “Can’t You See I Do” should have been the plug side.
For 1965’s first Astronauts single, the Chuck Berry rocker “Almost Grown” was coupled with another band original “My Sin Is My Pride” another British sounding ballad. RCA Victor then released a new album by the band pairing the last two 45s with eight more songs under the title Go…Go…Go!!!. This may well be the strongest non-surf style LP the guys ever released and saw them write two thirds of the songs. The record lead off with an outside bluesy rocker in “Hey Sugarfoot” and ended with the most overtly British Invasion song they ever wrote in “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind” which strongly recalled the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That.” Another band original “You Gotta Let Me Go” could very well have passed for a Billy J. Kramer record. In an astute move, the guys included two instrumentals that were quickly paired for a Japanese single. They double-timed it through Les Baxter’s easy listening gem “Quiet Village” then added their own rocker “Gouch” which was named after the bar manager at the Club Baja (Stephen) Ken Taniguchi. If the guys had any hope of confusing record buyers that the U.K. invasion sound-alikes in the grooves were by a new British sensation called the Astronauts they should have ditched the cover photo. Bands like the Sir Douglas Quintet found that pretending to be English helped their chart chances, but required long hair and silhouetted faces on the cover. For the Astronauts, the look was clean-cut All-American boy and probably doomed the album.
One of the problems faced by bands during the Viet Nam ‘conflict’ was the increasing call for young men to be drafted into the Army. Hoping to delay the inevitable, Patterson had enlisted in the National Guard which kept him as a reserve for some time, but early in 1965 the Astronauts finally ended up losing their bass player and soul for six months. Patterson was forced to heed Uncle Sam’s call to arms and would report in March. Prior to his call-up, another single was recorded from the outside source of another struggling RCA artist Tommy Boyce. Boyce had managed a small hit in 1962 with “I Remember Linda” and was now making the rounds as a songwriter. The Boyce/Steve Venet song “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day” was selected to be recorded for a single release and was given an assist by Toni Wise on piano and future Raider Keith Allison on harmonica. The flip side was merely an instrumental version of the top side yet adds Allison to the writer’s credit perhaps since his harmonica is so prominently featured. This is one of the songs Boyce took with him to the Monkees the following year and a comparison of the two versions shows the Astronauts’ to be alot tougher sounding and Fifield’s vocal to be punkier than Micky Dolenz’s. Please note that the version on the Rarities CD and Varese Sarabande’s disc The Songs Of Tommy Boyce And Bobby Hart is not the single version, but a very bizarre sounding edit (though it at least appears in stereo for the first time).
To promote the single the still five piece band went on the national TV show Hullabaloo for one of their two appearances and mimed to “Roll Over Beethovan” along with “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day.” Four of the guys looked clean-cut and All-American, but Fifield had that dangerous Brian Jones/Rolling Stones look with his long blonde hair nearly falling over his eyes. The rest of the show was pretty darn lame save for Jr. Walker & The All Stars who were just hitting with “Shotgun” and Gene Pitney promoting his new record “I Must Be Seeing Things.” Baby boomers certainly remember how music shows from that era would mix in terribly unhip acts with rockers and this show must have set some record for squareness. The host was Dean Jones best known for starring in Disney’s That Darn Cat, Leslie Uggams who was a fine if mainstream singer, Shanie Wallace (who?), the Young Folk (ditto?) and an awful dance number by the Hullabaloo Dancers. The show exposure couldn’t push the new single into the charts which is a pity as it was a pretty fair rocker.
In 1965, RCA also released a promotional album titled Rockin’ With The Astronauts which sported a pretty bland cover. This ten song LP had several early hits (“Baja,””Competition Coupe”) alongside standards like “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Crawfish Song.”
Boyce took an even more active role in the next recording session with his new partner Robert Harshman (Bobby Hart). Of the three Boyce/Hart songs recorded, only “The La La La Song” was ever released during the band’s lifetime with “The Tables Have Turned” and “I’m Gonna Buy Me A Dog” sitting in the vault till the Bear Family Rarities CD rescued them from oblivion. Hart helped out on percussion and vocals while Boyce played the piano. With Paul Anka’s (via Buddy Holly) “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” as the B-side, “The La La La Song” stands out as the most overtly commercial single ever released by the Astronauts.
While many still loathe its sweet bubblegummy sing-along chorus of “la la la la la la, etc.”, Colorado loved it and bought truckloads of the 45 placing it at # 64 on the 1965 singles chart for the entire year (on 950 KIMN Denver’s most important top 40 station of the ’60s). Frankly this reviewer has always been a fan of bubblegummy pop and counts this as the best record they ever did (no accounting for taste, I realize) and the biggest disappointment in terms of national chart failure. A look at the national charts, however, probably reveals the reason the song didn’t hit. This genre of music really didn’t hit its stride till a few years later with Tommy Roe, the Ohio Express and the Archies so “The La La La Song” was simply before its time.
“I’m Gonna Buy Me A Dog” is the same song done by the Monkees a year later and in both cases the song should have remained unreleased as it’s one of the more embarrassing songs written by Boyce & Hart. The version by the Astronauts is pretty much an up-tempo blues while the Monkees joked their way throughout the song.
At the same time a new album was released though it did not include the last two singles. For You From Us was somewhat of a return to their earlier live albums as most of the songs were covers of rock standards. Chuck Berry contributed two songs in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Reelin’ And Rockin'” plus they covered Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.”
The Astronauts also covered two British invasion U.S. songs with “Twist And Shout” (the Beatles) and “Ain’t That Just Like Me” (the Searchers). The three originals on this LP are credited solely to Fifield and are again very British Invasion in sound. Of these the strongest and the best shot as a single (though never released as such) was “I Still Remember.” No U.S. singles were pulled from this album though at least the Japanese recognized the strength of “Unchain My Heart” which was coupled with “Twist And Shout” on 45. While this may not be one of the strongest Astronauts albums, it boasts the best band picture ever with the guys looking a bit moody in grey suits and black ties against a screaming red backdrop. Fifield has his Stones long hair and Demmon’s is getting dangerous too.
Patterson remembers missing out on the movies Wild On The Beach which featured “Little Speedy Gonzales,””Rock The World” and “Pyramid Stomp” (titled “Leave It To Beat” in Japan) and Wild Wild Winter which included “A Change Of Heart.” The Decca soundtrack for this last movie shows a four piece band on the cover with Demmon on bass, but lists them as a five piece on the back and without having seen the movie, it’s hard to know which is right. The notes on the soundtrack state that in addition to Hullabaloo, they had also done the TV shows 9th Street West, Hollywood A Go-Go and The Lloyd Thaxton Show.
The next LP recorded by the Astronauts was Down The Line and Patterson remembers contributing his parts after the record was finished by the rest of the band. To serve out his reserve time with the National Guard, Patterson was assigned to a special entertainment unit which allowed him to return to his position behind the Fender bass and allowed him to not miss the LP. For the first time there were no band compositions present with side one having a very bluesy feel. The ‘Nauts took a stab at Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ The Dog” and “John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” to name a few. Chuck Berry received two more covers on his songs “Memphis,Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Rock And Roller” while Roy Orbison contributed the title track. Perhaps the oddest and most interesting sounding song is the Boyce/Venet written “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” which for all the world sounds identical to a Dick and Dee Dee song. The single B-side “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” turned up again, but no other singles came from this LP which is a pity as several songs might have been excellent candidates. Either the Addrisi brothers song “It Could Never Be The Same” or the Alquist/Stuart (Chad of Chad & Jeremy) tune “Only Those In Love” deserved a better fate. The former could have been Freddie & the Dreamers and the latter had some great stompin’ drums. Maybe they could have hit under another group name like Storm & the Bedbugz, but this was not to be.
One of the most interesting ‘might-have-beens’ for the band occurred in 1965 when the band interviewed to play a group on a new TV show to be called The Monkees. It’s legend that there was a huge casting call for this show, but Patterson felt that at one time the Astronauts had the inside track to be this group for the show. The guys had gotten impatient while waiting in the office for their interview and had not only re-arranged all the furniture, but had then stripped down to their skivvies to greet their interviewer. After making a favorable impression, they were told that the main impediment to their getting the part was that they were a five piece band and that the show called for a four piece. It was felt that the shows could be re-written, but Patterson feels that the thing that scotched the deal was RCA not letting them out of their contract. Whether this would have happened is hard to say, but it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the guys would have gotten the clout of TV exposure and all the production and songwriting talent later used for the Monkees.
With Patterson back in the fold several songs were recorded but left unreleased till Bear Family raided the vaults in 1991. Of these Oct. 1965 songs, the best may be “Buy Me A Round” which features Lindsay on vocal and would not have sounded out of place on the radio next to bands like Music Machine and the Syndicate Of Sound.
Over in Japan Victor managed to find the time to record and release two albums that would never find U.S. record players. The first of these was titled Instrumental Album and was precisely that. Side one was made up of Elvis Presley numbers like “Heartbreak Hotel,””A Big Hunk ‘o Love” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” The other side ran from “The House Of the Rising Sun” to Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line.” In between they hit Duane Eddy’s “40 Miles Of Bad Road” plus “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,””Honky Tonk” and “Tequila.” This was a uniformly excellent LP though this author has never forgiven the guys for substituting a drum flourish for the only word on this last song – “Tequila!” which to this day is shouted every time the Champs’ version comes on the radio. The gatefold jacket features the heads of the band members superimposed on a fairly rough drawing of a band in a green jalopy playing red, pink and orange guitars as opposed to their usual white Fenders. The back cover repeated the For You From Us picture and the rest of the front side drawing which showed a dog with his leash wrapped around a female tree; very strange indeed!
The second Japanese-only LP was The Astronauts In Japan, yet a third live album in under three years. The ten songs on this April ’66 LP where recorded on one of their three Asian tours and was released on a Japanese CD. The only instrumentals are an opening medley of “Surf Party,” “Movin'” and “Pipeline” followed by “Hot-Doggin'” in its entirety. The rest of the album consists of the Beatles’ “I’m Down” and a sampling of classic rock covers like “Money” and “This Little Girl Of Mine.” The closing number, as on their second live album, is Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” with a wild Gallagher drum solo as the highlight.
The last of the movie appearance by the Astronauts was Out Of Sight with an all-star lineup featuring Freddie & the Dreamers, the Turtles and Gary Lewis & the Playboys. The guys once again turn to the blues and cover “Baby, Please Don’t Go” for the Decca soundtrack LP.
1966 saw some shakeups in the Astronauts camp which portended an eventual end to the group. Uncle Sam finally claimed another band member and Lindsey departed to be replaced by keyboardist and soul fan Mark Bretz. Lindsey will eventually find his way to Viet Nam where he breaks his ankle jumping out of a helicopter on his first mission.
The other change was in the producer’s chair where Schmitt was replaced by the team of Snuff Garrett and Leon Russell who had been having success with Gary Lewis & the Playboys. The first fruits of this collaboration rocketed to #1 in Denver during July and August of 1966 when the single “Main Street”/”In My Car” came out. The latter is a decent ballad, but the brilliant top side is where the new production showed. “Main Street” sounded just like a Gary Lewis record with a better singer (Fifield) and the lack of U.S. chart success is baffling even today. Perhaps radio programmers simply had gotten used to ignoring Astronauts records or perhaps RCA Victor was too busy collecting Elvis royalties to promote the band properly, but no matter – the song again flopped nationally. Undaunted, the team released the album Travelin’ Men which featured these two single sides plus the last single to bear the name Astronauts on the label in 1967’s “Better Things”/”I Know You Rider.” The former again should have hit as it sounded precisely like every other Gary Lewis single which had scored. The only problem was perhaps an overly long slow intro which should have been excised. The B-side is a real treat with Demmon arranging a return to his and Patterson’s folk roots and coming up with a stunner. Patterson’s vocal shows a toughness that resembles Barry McGuire with the New Christy Minstrels. The rest of the album includes two of Lewis’ hits “She’s Just My Style” and “Count Me In” plus a nod to Bretz’s soul leanings in “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “In The Midnight Hour.” The Astronauts also made one last return to their surf instrumental roots for this LP in covering the Marketts hit “Out Of Limits.”
Another of the band became literally a travelin’ man soon after as Gallagher was also called up to military duty to be replaced by Rod Jenkins as drummer. Demmon soon threw in the towel to take a teaching position in San Diego. With this change, Patterson switched back to his old Stormtrouper position of rhythm guitarist and a friend of Fifield’s from his old band the Spartans came aboard on bass – Rob McLerran. This version of the band managed one last Asian tour leaving only a few pictures of the guys backing Timi Yuro (at a party) in Patterson’s scrapbook as lasting mementoes.
With all these personnel changes, a name change was eventually decided on with this new group called SunshineWard after the psychiatric wing of a hospital. An album’s worth of material was recorded under this name for RCA but the only songs ever released were the old Jaynettes song “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” and a Stephen Stills song “Pay The Price.” Production was handled by Rick Jarrard who also helmed Harry Nilsson’s early albums.
Both songs were excellent and again sank without a trace.
With no success in sight Bretz, Jenkins and Patterson finally gave up and left Fifield and McLerran to carry on. Rather than throw in the towel they recruited Peter Wyant on guitar and Tony Murillo on drums while changing their name once again. This new group cut the self-titled Hardwater album for Capitol which was released in the fall of 1968 to little notice (today available on import CD). With production by David Axelrod, the LP sounds very much like a Buffalo Springfield record. Seven of the ten songs were band originals including one side of their 45 “Not So Hard.” The other three songs came via the songwriting team of Tim Gilbert and John Carter who had written for Gilbert’s group the Rainy Daze (a great Colorado band on Uni who hit with “That Acapulco Gold” in ’67). Their biggest success together was “Incense And Peppermints” for the Strawberry Alarm Clock, though Carter has been a successful writer and producer to this day for the likes of Sammy Hagar and Tina Turner. Fifield had for a short time been the manager of the Rainy Daze and this lead to the inclusion of “Sanctuary,””Good Ole Friends” and the other single side “City Sidewalks” on his LP.
While Capitol wanted another album from Hardwater, they were not willing to make a long-term commitment to the band. Fifield wasn’t interested and had been unhappy with a lack of artistic control over the first record. For this reason he took this opportunity to disband the group. While he briefly managed Boulder rockers Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids, it was a calling to Eastern mysticism that caused Fifield to ‘drop out’ for the next decade.
Of all the former Astronauts, only Fifield continued to play the music scene, if sporadically, around the Boulder-Denver area. The old band was reunited twice. First at a Boulder concert organized by Pat Downey at the old Harvest House.
The last reunion was in 1989 up in Boulder for a couple of shows (one on the hill and the other at the Boulder Theater). Needless to say the fans packed the clubs and went crazy, but there is no going back.
Lindsey died of heart failure in 1991. Demmon taught on Coronado Island near San Diego later having major lyringial surgery and finally succumbing in 2010. Gallagher returned to Boulder after the military getting in to restauranting for a time and then fronted a seasonal writing business. After an all too brief return to Colorado, Patterson sold Dental supplies while based in Arizona.
In 2012 the Astronauts (plus KIMN radio, Sugarloaf and Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids) were inducted in to the Colorado Music Hall Of Fame at a gala concert at the Boulder Theater completing a journey of fifty plus years.
One is left to ponder what might have been. Should the Astronauts have concentrated on the instrumentals and carved out a career as the Ventures did? Would a company other than RCA have been able to change the group’s image and promote the Beatle influenced side of the band? Without a visionary like Brian Wilson to drive the band and make decisions, were they doomed to always be chasing that elusive hit?
Changing the past is a futile impossibility, but with Collectables’ release of all eight U.S. LPs as four CDs plus Bear Family’s German releases and Victor’s Japanese CDs it is at least possible to enjoy their musical legacy anew five decades later.
***The author wishes to thank Rich Fifield, Jim Gallagher, Midori Johnson, George Karras and Jon Patterson for their invaluable contributions in the writing of this article (thanks to Pat Downey, Jon Patterson and Ted Scott for the graphics).
as THE ASTRONAUTS
Come Along Baby/Tryin’ To Get To You Palladium B610 1962
Baja/Kuk RCA Victor 47-8194 1963
Hot-Doggin’/Every One But Me (plus picture sleeve) RCA Victor 47-8224 1963
Competition Coupe/Surf Party RCA Victor 47-8298 1964
Go Fight For Her/Swim Little Mermaid RCA Victor 47-8364 1964
Main Title From: Ride The Wild Surf/Around & Around RCA Victor 47-8419 1964
I’m A Fool/Can’t You See I Do RCA Victor 47-8463 1964
Almost Grown/My Sin Is My Pride RCA Victor 47-8499 1965
Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day/Razzmatazz RCA Victor 47-8545 1965
The La La La Song/It Doesn’t Matter Anymore RCA Victor 47-8628 1965
Main Street/In My Car RCA Victor 47-8885 1966
Better Things/I Know You Rider RCA Victor 47-9109 1967
Sally Go ‘Round The Roses/Pay The Price RCA Victor 47-9227 1967
Not So Hard/City Sidewalks Capitol 2230 1968
as THE ASTRONAUTS
Surfin’ With The Astronauts RCA Victor LSP-2760 1963
Everything Is A-OK! RCA Victor LSP-2782 1964
Competition Coupe RCA Victor LSP-2858 1964
Surf Party – Original Soundtrack 20th Century Fox 3131 1964
(contains: “Surf Party” “Firewater”)
Astronauts Orbit Kampus RCA Victor LSP-2904 1964
Go…Go…Go! RCA Victor LSP-3307 1965
Rockin’ With The Astronauts RCA Victor PRM-183 1965
For You, From Us RCA Victor LSP-3359 1965
Wild On The Beach – Original Soundtrack RCA Victor LSP-3441 1965
(supposedly contains: “Pyramid Stomp” “Little Speedy Gonzales” “Rock The World”)
Down The Line RCA Victor LSP-3454 1965
Wild Wild Winter – Original Soundtrack Decca DL-74699 1966
(contains: “A Change Of Heart”)
Out Of Sight – Original Soundtrack Decca DL-74751 1966
(contains: “Baby, Please Don’t Go”)
Travelin’ Men RCA Victor LSP 3733 1967
Hardwater Capitol ST-2954 1968
Astronauts Compact Discs (selected)
Surf Party (a best of CD) RCA Victor 8557-2-R 1988
The Songs Of Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart Varese Sarabande VSD-5670 1995
(contains: “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day”)
Cowabunga The Surf Box Rhino R2 72418 1996
(contains: “Baja”) several other CDs contain this song
Surfin’ With/Everything Is A-OK! Collectables COL 2707 1997
Competition Coupe/Astronauts Orbit Kampus Collectables COL 2708 1997
Go…Go…Go!!!/For You, From Us Collectables COL 2709 1997
Down The Line/Travelin’ Men Collectables COL 2710 1997
Hardwater (by Hardwater) Tune In 005 2011