What a beautiful band The Three O’Clock truly were and back in the mid eighties, a few years before the endless treasures the “powerpop” resurgence that the nineties would bring, there were very few bands producing the psychedelic beatlesque sounds and melodies this LA combo fairly dripped with. Built around the abundant melodic gifts of bass player and vocalist Michael Quercio the band were loved by serious music fans across the globe for their unique sound and depth. Quercio’s Emitt Rhodes has tea with Robyn Hitchcock songwriting abilities and magically pure silvery voice gave the band their unmistakable sound and in Louis Gutierrez, Danny Benair and Mike Mariano he had stumbled upon the perfect combination of musically empathic talent to compliment and nurture into a perfect precious whole.
Michael Quercio grew up in Carson, California thirteen miles south of Los Angeles. In 1968 at the age of five he became fascinated with his older sister's collection of Monkees albums and from then on he caught the musical bug. By junior high he was an avid record collector and had discovered the likes of The Merry-Go-Round, The Left Banke, The Electric Prunes, and Barrett period Floyd. By then the L.A. punk scene had started to get going and the teenage Quercio attended gigs by the likes of The Dickies and The Plugz and it became inevitable that he would soon get himself a bass guitar and join the first available high school combo. But it took until February of 1981 and the formation of The Salvation Army with Troy Howell on drums and Johnny Blazing on guitar that things started to gain momentum. Quercio, using the name Ricky Start, sang, played bass and wrote all of the bands' songs. They sent rough home recorded tapes to veteran talent spotter Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ and encouraged by his airplay saved up enough money to record a proper demo and went into the local Piper Recording Studio for two days that July. They recorded four tracks Happen Happened (Doris Day), For Hours, Fight Songs and Mind Gardens. As with all that bands output the music was a bit rough and ready and the production straight forward as befitting the time but already the obvious song craft, psychedelic affections and natural melodic abilities of Quercio shines through the pop punk noise. A few weeks later as support band at a hardcore punk outfit The Minutemen gig Minutemen vocalist D. Boon was impressed enough to ask Quercio if they had anything recorded yet and was given the demo tape. Though not quite punk, it was fast and loud enough for him to offer them a single release of Mind Gardens back with Happen Happened (Doris Day) on the band’s New Alliance label to come out that November.
Both would soon drop out of college as band activities took up more and more time. On February 2nd 1982 they recorded a five song tape at Dynasty Studio for a New Alliance EP to be called Blow Your Mind. She Turns To Flowers, Grimly Forming (a cover of a song by The Great Society), The Seventeen Forever, Going Home and Cellophane Nirvana were the songs recorded. But the record got shelved when two days after Rodney Bingenheimer played an advance copy of the tape the band received a call from Lisa Fancher. Fancher a former employee of Bomp! Records had started her own label Frontier Records to record mostly punk-oriented bands and had great success with Group Sex by the Circle Jerks. Fancher signed The Salvation Army right away and soon after they were given four days in Fiddler's Studio that March to record an album to be released that May. They re-recorded both songs from the single and four of the five from the aborted EP and four new songs Upside Down, While We Were In Your Room Talking To Your Wall, Minuet and I Am Your Guru. The pro-ducer, Tom Wilson (not the famous 60's producer) ended up serving more as engineer as Quercio, fascinated by the recording process usurped his role, so much so that Wilson didn't want his name to appear on the finished product which credits production to H.B. Lovecraft.
Danny Benair had been the drummer in The Quick who had recorded one excellent album, Mondo Deco, for Mercury back in the seventies. Lisa Fanacher had run The Quick’s fan club back in the day so she and Benair were old friends. He was currently playing with another Frontier band Choir Invisible and had been in the studio during the recording of the Salvation Army album and told Fanacher that he considered they were the only band in L.A. worth joining. A few weeks after he quit Choir Invisible during a terrible tour and was now available.
Quercio and Gutierrez ready to take a more sophisticated approach to their music and aware of Howell’s current limitations were more than happy to welcome a drummer of Benair’s quality and experience into the fold, especially one who shared Quercio’s interest in collecting sixties records. By July he was in the Salvation Army but no for long because by August the real Salvation Army, who had already put up posters in all of their local stores telling customers that band were in no way affiliated to the organisation, were now starting to get litigious in their disapproval. Quercio renamed the band The Three O'Clock taking the name from a F. Scott Fitz-gerald quote: "In the darkest part of the mind it's always three o'clock in the morning." Along with the new name came a new member in keyboard player Mike Mariano who had previously been in The Falcons with Benair and so the classic line up of the band was now in place.
They quickly established themselves back on the L.A. club circuit sharing bills at clubs such as Cathay de Grande, The Lingerie, and Santa Monica's Music Machine with other upcoming acts, The Dream Syn-dicate, Green On Red, The Rain Parade and The Bangs (soon to lengthen their name to The Bangles). While none of these bands were out and out psychedelic revivalists and were each very different in approach, they shared a common interest in looking past the new wave influence that had dominated those last few years and back to the wider musical values of the late sixties. They played together, hung out socially and had BBQ parties. Gutierrez was in a long term relationship with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles and everyone knew everyone. Soon enough these bands had a new scene going with enthusiastic fans flocking to every gig.
Quercio was close friends with Lina Sedillo who was the bass player with local punk band Peer Group, who had played on the same bill as The Salvation Army on occasion. One evening Sedillo taped Peer Group rehearsing and one of the numbers contained and improvised spoken middle section. Sedillo was wearing a red paisley dress she had bought from a thrift store and his eyes fell on the bass player and out came the line “Words from the paisley underground” Sedillo noticed the phrase while playing the tape back the next day and immediately phoned up Quercio and repeated it to him. They ran a casual 60’s music listening group together and thought it a cool name for them to use. When Quercio a few weeks later spontaneously dropped the phrase into an interview when asked to describe The Bangles, Rain Parade and The Three O’Clock sharing the same bill, the interviewer highlighted it in the article as a handy label for this group of bands. And so Quercio had unwittingly came up with the name of this new movement, the Paisley Underground.
Frontier was keen for the Three O'Clock to get working on a record and it was crucial that the band find a producer capable of understanding the direction and scope of their ambitious new sound and Danny Benair knew just the man for the job. Earle Mankey had been in the original American line up of Sparks and had moved into engineering and production from there. He had produced The Quick’s excellent sole album, Mondo Deco and he and Benair were old friends. He had recently produced the first album of one of Quercio’s favourite L.A. bands, 20/20 so they knew he had the chops and his finger on the pulse. They could not have made a better choice. Mankey was in many ways the west coast equivalent of Mitch Easter and like Easter he was an innovative, creative and always empathic producer with an unmistakable quality and style that made his production credit on any album automatically mean the record would be worth checking out. He was the perfect choice to bring out the best from the band’s music, which had now moved towards the Beatlesque, Byrdsian, Barrett tinged psychedelia that suited Quercio’s charming melodic songs and rich honey light vocals far better than the straight ahead pop punk of the Salvation Army. Over in North Carolina Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio was based in his house with second hand professional equipment bought from real studios in the style of Wayne Moss’ Cinderella Sound up in Nashville. Mankey was chief engineer at The Beach Boys' Brother Studios and had purchased Brian Wilson's old Smile vintage home 16-track equipment and set up his own home based studio, Earl's Psychedelic Shack.In October they recorded the four Three O'Clock originals, With A Cantaloupe Girlfriend, I Go Wild, Marjorie Tells Me and As Real As Real plus a cover of the Easybeats’ Sorry that would comprise the Baroque Hoedown EP released December 1982 on Frontier. An expanded version on the french label Lolita soon after added a cover of Gene Clark’s I Feel A Whole Lot Better from the Mankey sessions plus In Love In Too and a cover of the Floyd’s Lucifer Sam produced by Ethan James and recorded at his Radio Tokyo Studio where they had also recorded the track All In Good Time for the comp The Radio Tokyo Tapes on Ear Movie Records 1983.
While Quercio was still writing the songs Gutierrez would knock them into shape and work out the chords and so now received co-writing credits while the whole band collaborated on arrange-ments. Will Glenn of The Rain Parade plays violin on Marjorie Tells Me. Creatively the EP is a complete success and sold a very respectable 15,000 copies. The songs are excellent memorable pop of great quality and worth, the playing assured and the shimmering production psychedelic without ever being retro. Mariano's keyboards bring a Left Banke flavour to the affair, Gutierrez’s guitar work is excellent and Quercio’s bass playing alongside the experienced quality drumming of Benair is propelled into a different league. And of course the consistent cherry on the cake with this band, the heart of the listening experience was Quercio’s beautiful, pure unique voice.
The EP received a good deal of college airplay and led to the band's first television appearances on MV3 in Los Angeles, (for which they were paid $500) performing With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend and Sorry. The success of the EP helped sell the remaining copies of the Salvation Army albums, now resplendent with large Three O’Clock stickers covering over the forbidden name. Frontier were later to do a repressed under the new title of Before Three O’Clock and the CD a few years later added the rest of their recordings and unreleased tracks to the collection.As Let’s Active had done with their infamous puppy video for “Everything Means No” The Three O’Clock got to do an “econo-video” for I.R.S.' The Cutting Edge show on MTV. The idea behind this segment being the artist coming up with a theme for a video and then the program put it together and filmed it that day. Avoiding the puppy dilemma of Easter’s combo they wisely settled on the band performing I Go Wild in front of a pop art background.
In June of 1983 the band set off on their first national tour and returned considering the venture an overall success and encouraged they were ready to record a full album for Frontier. They did not have a major label budget but fortunately what they did still have was the brilliant Earle Mankey and his far more affordable home studio Earl's Psychedelic Shack. That gave them the luxury of six weeks over the summer of ‘83 in which to record an album’s worth of tunes. Now that things were getting serious and well aware that being perceived of as a Neo-psych band in 1983 would have doomed to a cult following and nothing more they wisely decided to highlight their pop chops rather than go technicolor mad. Instead to rely on Mankey to highlight the pop while shimmering the psych into the mix for the more dedicated listeners.
The result is a beautiful pop album that is also a psychedelic gem, basically a classic. Tambourines has nine new songs: Jet Fighter, Stupid Einstein, And So We Run, Fall To The Ground, A Day In Erotica, Tomorrow, On My Own When Lightning Starts and Seeing Is Believing along with a cover of the Bee Gees’ In My Own Time. While much of the album continues the guitar splashed power pop of the EP the band were not afraid to include more mellow material. This did not sit well with certain sections of the punk obsessed press who castigated the band for not still being the Salvation Army and playing everything at breakneck speed to an audience of ten. Other, more open members of the press embraced the album for the classic adventurous gem it actually was.
Despite its love or hate reception it sold an impressive 20,000 copies when it was released it on Frontier that December. They also secured a Japanese release for it on JVC along with one for Baroque Hoedown. Lolita also released the album in France with a more psychedelic variation on a cover art. Lolita, without asking anyone connected with the band cheekily included a Radio Tokyo Studio recorded song Around The World that had been included on the tape containing In Love In Too and Lucifer Sam that had been sent to them for the extra tracks on their version of Baroque Hoedown. Turned out the band did not hold copyright to the recording and it was hastily removed from later pressings (though was later included on the Frontier CD reissue in 1991).
With Lisa Fanacher taking care of the album and the fan club and her boyfriend John Silva taking on manger duties The Three O'Clock took off on another national tour, staying in cheap motels or crashing on the floors of helpful fans. Playing in Davis, California Quercio was approached by Scott Vanderbilt then manager of Game Theory asking if he would be interested in recording the band’s new album. Game Theory had already self released their debut album Blaze of Glory back in 81, recorded in leader Scott Miller’s house on a shoestring that had not even stretched to printed covers and in ‘83 a mini album Pointed Accounts of People You Know on Rational Records. Vanderbilt had approached Mitch Easter with the same request a few weeks earlier when Let’s Active had played the same club. Easter was impressed enough by Game Theory to agree on principal but his work schedule made it difficult for the time being. So they chose to ask Quercio instead and he agreed. The only problem was that as the recording approached the funding shrank until they only had enough to record a mini album on a Tascam 8 Track. Despite all this Distortion, released in 1984 on Rational is really rather excellent and contains early Miller classics, Shark Pretty and Nine Lives to Rigel Five. Quercio produced and added backing vocals, both to great effect. More importantly he and Miller became friends and his involvement with Game Theory continued from then on.
After making a cut price video for Jet Fighter with a local firm keen to break into the music video market which got a few airings on MTV the band then embarked on a three week tour of the Northwest. With that done they eased off from live shows to concentrate once more on getting signed to a major. Island Re-cords seemed interested for a time but they finally signed to I.R.S. Records for a five album deal in November 1984. The band were immediately sent into a studio to record a live demo of the new material to be sent out to list of in vogue producers put together by the label to see who might be interested. British producer Mike Hedges who had worked with the likes of Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Cure liked what he heard and got the job. Hedges wanted to use the new state of the art Hartmann Digital Studio a converted power station in a small village near Nuremberg in Ger-many and within a week or so The Three O'Clock were flying off to join him for a month of intensive recording. Hedges proved to a sympathetic producer and though the digital production was a little bit slick and cold at the edges here and there, overall he did a fine production job. Polished enough to satisfy the label but with lots of psychedelic depths hidden in the detail from the more discerning listener. The band, with a lot of touring under their belts by that time, were at their finest bringing a sophistication to their playing that they would never better.
Eleven songs were recorded for Arrive Without Travelling: Her Head's Revolving, Each And Every Lonely Heart, Underwater, Mrs. Green, Hand In Hand, Knowing When You Smile, Half The Way There, Simon In The Park, Another World, The Girl With The Guitar and Spun Gold. Overall the album stands as their finest musical achievement and contained some of Quercio’s strongest songs.Arrive Without Travelling’s February 1985 release was postponed when A&M dropped out of their distribution deal with I.R.S. leaving the band promoting a forthcoming album rather than a new released album on I.R.S.’s Cutting Edge that month. After a brief interview they performed an unplugged version of The Girl With The Guitar, the song co-written by Quercio and Scott Miller for the album. A twelve inch of Hand In Hand was released in the UK in advance of the album and included Watching Pictures, an outtake from the album sessions along with a version of I Go Wild which the band had re-recorded the April before with producer Don Gehman for the soundtrack to the film The Wild Life (the sequel to Fast Times at Ridgemont High). As with Michael Penn’s wonderful Macey Day Parade on the Godzilla soundtrack, the song was barely noticeable in the film, reduced to a background snatch easily missed. But it was on the MCA soundtrack album and now MCA had taken over I.R.S.’s distribution they were happy to allow it to appear on the twelve inch.
A video for Her Head's Revolving directed by Graeme Whifler well known for his video work with arch avantgardeners The Residents was made and promptly banned by MTV, when scenes of a girl drinking a mysterious blue liquid from a mayonnaise jar was cited by the channel as promoting the use of drugs. After an intensive week long mini tour and promotion, finally in April Arrive Without Travelling was released.
On July 19th they joined the California leg of the latest REM tour playing support along with True West for five shows over the next ten days at which point Louis Gutierrez suddenly quit the band, his last show being at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater on the 28th July, his departure announced by Michael Stipe from the stag. With a week to replace him before their next show with REM in Minneapolis on August 5th they brought in a friend of Benair’s Patrick Winningham. Winningham was more of a rhythm guitarist than a lead but with some intensive rehearsals he was brought up to speed. As a headline act REM were famous for their generous and gracious treatment towards their support bands and The Three O’clock were no exception. That August they played twenty one shows starting at the Civic Center Forum in Minneapolis on the fifth then onto Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, then up into Canada for three shows before heading down the east coast finishing at the Agora Ballroom in West Hartford on the 24th. They had a great time and much fun along the way. After the Syria Mosque show in Pittsburgh, they attend an after show party at the Graffiti Club where a local band was playing. During the band's break, The Three O'Clock borrowed the band's equipment and played a set of covers. Bill Berry, Peter Buck & Mike Mills all joined in for the final song, a rousing & extended version of La Bamba.
The band toured the UK that September headlining at Dingwalls, the Mean Fiddler and a show in Brixton supporting Shriekback. With Arrive Without Travelling failing to deliver the break out hit everybody expected the pressure on the band grew.
Steven Altenberg replaced Winningham on lead guitar before the recording of the next album 1986’s Ever After, produced by the Lightning Seeds front man Ian Broudie and it contained ten tracks: Suzie's On The Ball Now, Look Into Our Eyes, When We Can, The Penny Girls, Follow Him Around, Warm Aspirations, Step Out Of Line, We Are One, If You Could See My Way and Songs And Gentle Words. The album is not as strong as its predecessor but then Arrive Without Travelling was a hard act to follow. The keyboards dominated the overall sound as was probably instructed by the label but Mariano was such a fine player that it rarely strays outside of musicianship and into the dreaded automated sound that was the fashion at that time.
Broudie seemingly aware of the bands psychedelic roots balances the radio friendliness the label demanded by making the keyboard sounds spacey and ethereal and combined with Quercio’s angel with attitude vocals brings substance to the listening experience. That said the production is generally of its time and this more than anything else makes it a step down from what had come before. There are lots of great songs but a few lack the final shaping that Gutierrez would have brought to them. While older fans saw it as yet another step further from their roots taken on it’s own merits the album is still excellent. It is not like I.R.S. were giving the band complete creative freedom and the band were all too aware that if this record did not deliver up the much needed hit then they were in trouble.And when after touring the record and no hit was forthcoming the label dropped the band leaving them in legal limbo for the next two years. They continued to tour but never beyond California except for one show in Reno. Alterburg had quit the band and they were down to a three piece when Susanna Hoffs recommended them to Prince. Still carrying the tag of being the leading exponents of the Paisley Underground the band seemed the perfect choice to be signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label. A label representative was dispatch to see them live and once he gave the thumbs up they got signed up. Now all they needed was a guitarist.
Jason Falkner was nineteen years old and just returned home from Alaska where he worked in a cannery for a few months. Falkner was already a brilliant guitar player and had been writing songs and getting his chops together for a few years. He was now ready to move beyond the inevitable college band set up and form a real band. He placed and ad in a local classifieds magazine looking for like minded people but when he bought the issue to check on his ad he discovered The Three O’Clock had also placed an ad themselves looking for a guitarist. Falkner was a huge fan, he’d seen them live on a few occasions and his teenage combo had even covered a couple of their songs. He immediately called the number on the ad and got through to Danny Benair and the two spent a good few hours talking about music. The ad generated a lot of response and after a lot of auditioning they narrowed it down to Falkner and one other. For a moment they considered having both guitarists in the band but in the end decided to go with just Falkner. While they might have made the right choice there, the producer they went with, Ian Ritchie could not have been more wrong. Ritchie was at the cutting edge of computer sampling and programming techniques and exactly opposite of what the band needed. Quercio’s was already jaded beyond words after the last couple of years of dancing to the major label tune and felt burnt out as a lead singer and pretty poster boy for their legions of teenage girl fans. Openly gay in his personal life he was sick and tired of having to hide this fact when it came to their audience. He had always wanted the band to have hit singles but only because that was what The Beatles, Monkees and Zombies had and their failure to do so had dented his belief no end and seeing the way things were going he was ready to play chase the hit with his songwriting. He was going through a bleak time and as the recording sessions proceeded and got worse he became less and less interested. He did not even think this was The Three O’Clock as such and with Benair not even used but replaced by drum samples and Falkner too young and inexperienced to make his voice heard this really wasn’t a band making a record but a producer. Prince himself was not involved other than sending a tape of a few songs he’d written for the band to choose one to cover as the first single. The first songs he sent were far too funky for the band to consider and from the second batch they reluctantly chose the slight and gimmicky Neon Telephone. Falkner was heart broken by all this but could do little to change the situation. Ritchie had so little understanding of the band and the unique gift of Quercio’s golden voice that he even decided to get Mariano and Falkner to sing lead vocals on a track a piece. Quercio was fine with this since he felt it took the pressure off him. If was Falkner first lead vocal on a record but maybe his classic vocal style was not in place just yet or maybe he was told to sing in a certain way but his performance is fairly anonymous. Falkner had also shyly offered up a song for the band and Quercio liked it enough for the band to practice it but that was as far as it went.
Vermillion was released in June 1988 and is not a total disaster but near enough. It contained ten tracks: Vermillion, Love Explosion (a Lightning Seeds cover), To Be Where You Are, When She Becomes My Girl, World On Fire, Neon Telephone, On Paper, Ways Of Magic, Time's Going Slower, Love Has No Heart and Through The Sleepy Town.There are enough good songs on it to make a pretty fine EP with the lovely Through The Sleepy Town as the lead off track but that’s about it. The band played in support of the record but playing mainly older songs and Quercio knew by then that they had found one hell of a guitarist and was starting to think they had potential once more. But then the album bombed terribly and that made it easy for the band to call it a day.
The Three O’Clock were asked to reform to perform at a benefit show to raise funds for medical care for Joseph Fluery the one time manager of Sparks and The Mumps who by then had advanced Aids. They called up their former guitarist by then in Jellyfish and Falkner instantly agreed to play. On the 13th of March 1990 at the Club Lingerie the band ran through an unrehearsed eight song set of all their best loved classics and threw in a cover of John’s Children’s Desdemona for good measure. A pro-shot video of the show recently turned up on YouTube. And that was the end of The Three O’Clock.
Michael Quercio who had appeared on a lot of his friend Scott Miller’s Game Theory’s fine albums started playing bass for them live and then ended up joining the final now three piece line up of that band in 89 alongside drummer Jozef Becker. They recorded three new versions of songs from the very first Game Theory album for the best of compilation Tinkers To Evers To Chance and he wrote and sang the beautiful Water for the band’s last fan club tape. According to Miller, though they drifted away to other projects soon after the band never officially broke up and so Quercio is technically still a member to this day. Quercio then formed Permanent Green Light along with guitarist and songwriter Matt Devine and drummer Chris Buckner. They a self title mini album and then a full length Against Nature in 93 which saw Quercio’s talent revitalised and Earle Mankey back in the producers chair. Unfortunately other than on the tracks they wrote together Devin’s own songs and vocals are unremarkable in comparison and weaken both records somewhat in the same fashion Fred Juhos’ material had on those early Game Theory albums. He left and was replaced by guitarist Bernard Yin and with Quercio now back on full vocal and songwriting chores it seemed the next album would be the one. Two excellent singles were released and a full album was recorded and then shelved when Yin left the band. Adding two guitarists Jason Shapiro and Dan Epstein the band then changed their name to the Jupiter Affect in 97 and went on to put out a mini album and a pair of full length albums over the next five years. The superb Instructions for the Two Ways of Becoming Alice produced by Mankey and released on Eggbert is their finest. Since then Quercio has continued to be active on the LA music scene. In recent times he has hosted Michael Quercio’s Paisley Underground Consortium radio show every Sunday on LuxuriaMusic.com. His co-host is Lina (Sedillo) Litonjua, the two old friends once more running a music listening group like they had done all those many years ago.
Danny Benair hung up his drum sticks and for the next eight years he was vice president of the film and television department at Polygram Music Publishing before going on the start his own music marketing company Natural Energy Lab which specialises in film, television and commercial placement. The last couple of years Benair has been actively involved with The Three O’Clock’s Facebook page and has been putting together an archive release of unreleased and live tracks by the band.
It has just been announced that the original line up of The Three O’Clock with be playing the Coachella Festival in California this April. Quite a surprise, since they have resolutely turned down offers to reform before. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, develops from here. So long as Quercio’s song writing remains intact then there is no reason why a new record could be amongst their finest work yet. Though if they do get around to recording anything new then I think every Three O’Clock fan on the planet and their cat would want Earle Mankey producing. Time for The Three O'Clock to return.