The Art School Abandon of San Francisco Punks The Mutants
Talking old school West Coast underground with the band who opened for The Cramps at Napa State Mental Hospital
In August 1974, the Ramones began playing shows to small crowds at CBGB, typically delivering rapid-fire, 17-minute sets.
The group’s self-titled debut album arrived in early 1976, followed by the band’s first shows in London on July 4 & 5, which attracted the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, Chrissie Hynde and even Marc Bolan. Word of mouth and the music press quickly spread the imagery and excitement of punk rock around the world.
Local scenes began to coalesce around like-minded misfits. San Francisco, a previous destination for both the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love, had at least three punk groups by the end of 1976: the Nuns, Chrome and Crime. The following year the number swelled to include the Avengers, Grand Mal/Negative Trend, the Dils, Tuxedomoon and the Mutants.
The Mutants were formed by seven art school students who played their first show at the San Francisco Poetry Festival in 1977. They were soon headlining such crucial Bay Area punk venues as the Mabuhay Gardens, the Savoy Tivoli, the Berkeley Square, the Deaf Club, the Old Waldorf and the Warfield Theatre. From the start, the Mutants were slightly different from their peers. Their concerts integrated elements of performance art, frequently based around themes inspired by cult movies. Band members also drew upon their art school sensibilities to create some of the most striking concert posters and flyers that continue to define the era.
The group’s lineup resembled the B-52’s. Lead singer Fritz Fox shared the frontline with vocalists Sally Webster and Sue White, while the musicians — guitarists Brendan Earley and John Gullak, bassist Charlie Hagan and drummer Dave Carothers — were all guys. In regard to ambitions, it could be a group of two halves. Fox, Gullak, Webster and White were primarily concerned with evoking emotional reactions from audiences, typically feelings of joy and possibility. The remaining members were fine with those goals, but they more concerned with paying the bills and earning a living wage. This dichotomy could occasionally lead to combustible moments both on and off stage.
A popular draw on the Bay Area scene from 1977 to 1984, the Mutants also traveled to Los Angeles frequently, and completed several East Coast tours. In 1978, they played an infamous show with the Cramps at the Napa State Mental Hospital in Northern California. Joe Rees at Target Video filmed the Cramps, and any underground music fan who has viewed the crude B&W footage will testify to its greatness. Over the years, it was believed that the Mutants were not filmed that day. This now appears to not be the case, as word circulates that the Mutants’ set might finally see the light of day.
VIDEO: The Cramps at Napa State Mental Hospital
In 1980, the Mutants were looking forward to opening a handful of shows on Joy Division’s first U.S. tour. Until that group’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, took his own life just two days prior to leaving for America. The Mutants’ plane tickets to New York were pushed back, and they ended up sharing a bill with British punks 999 a few weeks later. On a more positive note, 1980 saw local independent label 415 Records release the Mutants’ first single, the “New Dark Ages” EP, and another of the group’s songs featured on a 415 compilation.
For the past four decades, there hasn’t been much music for the curious to explore. The group’s lone LP, Fun Terminal, was released independently in 1982 but suffered from poor distribution. In 2002, its tracklist was doubled in size for an expanded edition CD release, but that version has long been out of print. This summer, Massachusetts-based Liberation Hall picked up the slack and has issued Curse of the Easily Amused on CD and download, a 14-track retrospective that presents the Mutants in their best-ever sound quality, and includes eight previously unreleased songs.
As evidence that mutants are a resilient breed, four original band members are still occasionally gigging together in the Bay Area. The Mutants’ next show happens in November, to coincide with Curse of the Easily Amused being released on vinyl. I recently caught up with Fritz and Sally to discuss how art school and underground filmmaking influenced the early days of this unique band. Fritz is a screenwriter living in Maine and Sally is a painter living in Brooklyn.
SALLY: John, Dave, Sue, and I were all attending California College of the Arts in Oakland. This was the early 1970s. It was a small school and we kept crossing paths at film screenings, performances, and parties.
FRITZ: I met Sally and Sue when they came to my show at Jerry’s Stop Sign in Oakland. I was going to Laney College, studying filmmaking and photography. In the evenings I would moonlight with the Chicago Stick Blues Band. Sally and Sue got me interested in attending art school, but they told me it was expensive and difficult to get into. I took up the challenge anyway and applied to the San Francisco Art Institute with a short film I had made while traveling from Chicago to Oakland called Snapshot in Omaha. Much to my surprise, I was accepted into an accelerated MFA program with a scholarship.
I really didn’t know anything about contemporary art before I met Sally. When I visited her basement studio, I remember many little Play-Doh balls painted in fluorescent colors laid out on a black background. Sally’s art was part installation and part performance. She also had a device which she called her “hot dog cooker,” which featured two large nails protruding up from a small, rickety four-legged tabletop. Each nail had a wire wrapped around it from a cord that was plugged into an electrical outlet. When a wiener was impaled across the two nails, and electricity applied, the hot dog would explode. I fell in love with Sally, and she influenced me all the years we were in the band together. Platonic love.
SALLY: Sue and I were renting a huge two-story loft building at 116 First Street in San Francisco for $700 a month. I was bored with the “art world” and had the idea to host a poetry salon. Along with poet-publisher David Highsmith, we organized weekend poetry readings. The poets were amazing, and some really big names read. It turned out to be a bit too serious for me, and it eventually morphed into performance art and bands. Tuxedomoon played their first show there. The Mutants were going by this point. It became a blur of parties and bands, including lots of touring bands. U2 even came for a visit one day. LOL.
Fritz was in the film department at SFAI. I switched over from CCAC and started attending classes there. Underground filmmaker George Kuchar (Anita Needs Me, Hold Me While I’m Naked) was on the faculty. George was a genius.
Fritz and I both worked at movie theaters on Market Street and saw movies daily, crazy ‘70s movies, like films by Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Many local musicians were in those theaters working or watching movies. Fritz got ideas from those movies, for sure.
FRITZ: I wrote the lyrics for a Mutants song called “Tribute to Russ Meyer,” which described the shallowness of the American Dream. Another song, “Man From Omicron,” is the title theme to a film I made. In addition to meeting many filmmakers through my teaching job at SFAI, I also worked at the Egyptian Theater and saw movies constantly. Everybody in the Mutants loved movies. Sally and I attended screenings of old movies at the Strand, and afterwards I would try to re-enact scenes from these films at band practice, and while on stage, hoping it would make my stage presence more interesting.
SALLY: Our gig flyers were anybody and everybody’s department. We had a friend, Leo Zulueta, who worked in a copy shop and he printed everything for an extremely “nominal” price. Leo is now considered the father of modern tribal tattooing. Many of those flyers were so good. Most of the bands in the scene had members with art backgrounds. Making flyers was fun and you had your art up all over town.
FRITZ: Our guitarist John Gullak is an incredible visual artist and making posters was a great outlet for his creativity. I would love to see an entire museum show dedicated to his work from that period. Also, my fellow SFAI faculty member Bruce Pollack made a flyer for one of our shows that was banned by the mayor of San Francisco for being perceived as pornographic.
SALLY: The themes for our concerts were my thing. I did not want the Mutants to just be a rock band. Some ideas worked, others didn’t. I think everybody in the band enjoyed them for the most part, although they probably wished they didn’t look so stupid sometimes. My goal was to always surprise, and include the audience. We had snowstorms, feather storms, bubble cascades, glow-in-the-dark shows, various costume themes. Our good friend Michael Dingle worked in theater and helped us constantly. The Mission District was filled with thrift stores, joke, and novelty shops. Most of it was intended to be either funny or beautiful. The clubs hated cleaning up the messes. HATED IT.
FRITZ: I remember that the themes often evolved at the last minute, rather than being planned. For our first show, Sally had come across a fishmonger in Chinatown. She bought a five-gallon bucket of iced fish and brought them to the show. She and Sue wore raincoats, as fisherman might, or perhaps as protective gear, and started lobbing fish into the audience. They were hoping the audience would throw the fish back at us. Another time, we found large appliance boxes on the way to the gig, and decided to hide inside the boxes as we performed, until the audience tore them off. We also had a “fat suit” show. I found a suit that I really liked, but it was way too big, so I beefed it up with pillows, and the rest of the band did the same. Oh!, and we began one show with a phonograph playing “Play That Funky Music (White Boy).” I took a ten-pound sledgehammer and smashed it to bits.
Because our band existed during the early days of punk rock, there were sometimes confrontations with various members of the audience. They were always spontaneous; I never tried to bait them in any way. Maybe it was fueled by the energy of the times — political and social events causing tensions between people. This energy might erupt when people were letting loose at a club. Our goal was always to engage the audience in a way that would make them happy.
SALLY: By the time MTV came along, we did have one video produced for “Opposite World,” by a friend of Fritz’s named Sterling Storm. Videos weren’t high on our list of priorities. It was not something the punk crowd aspired to.
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