The Daisy Bang Story

The Daisy Bang Story
by David Smay

They’re among the most sought-after bootlegs in all of Rock and Roll. There was a time in the early eighties when you couldn’t claim to have a serious record collection without the Smile sessions, Big Star’s 3rd, The Basement Tapes and The Daisy Bang Story. The gatefold opened to a double album with one side for each band member: Anna van Leeuwen’s eerie Dub Masters; Dillon’s Harmony Cathedral; The Black Beauty Demos; and Cin Songs Seventeen. Nowadays Elephant 6 bands cite it as frequently as Os Mutantes, DJ’s pay up to $2,000 dollars for an original vinyl copy, and Option rated it with Ubu’s Hearthen singles, Spunk and Television’s demo tapes as punk touchstones. Not bad for a third-string bubblegum band with only one LP and two 45’s in their official discography.

The first syndicated episode of Captain Jack and the Daisy Bang premiered September 5th, 1971. It looked and played like a knockoff of the Bugaloos hosting Wonderama. Shot on an old Republic Studios soundstage, each episode featured a smattering of old cartoons (Heckle & Jeckle, Harveytoons), appearances by L.A. based musicians, puppet skits and a live performance by the Daisy Bang (often backing the visiting musicians).

The show’s producer and mastermind, Rick Reilly (b. Eric Piscarelli), hosted the show as the silver suited Captain Jack of the Starbrite Rangers. (A cuddly, cosmically trippy kind of ranger corps by all appearances.) The set, composed of abandoned props from Universal’s Flash Gordon serials, resembled nothing so much as Ming’s Tacky Space Discotheque of Doom. Local kids were selected for their ability to costume themselves in anything vaguely sparkly, feathery or futuristic and were seated in a curving half ring of chrome bleachers. When the band played they rushed down to the dance floor in their tiny space-hippy outfits and shuffled about enthusiastically.

Reilly recruited the band with a Variety ad. Since their onscreen activities were limited to chatting up alien space puppets, he was able to focus on musicians over actors. He cast singer /songwriter Cindy Schein (Sharon Sheeley’s niece) as the band’s leader and singer. Schein had already had some small chart success co-writing a Fun & Games b-side with Gary Zekley, and album tracks for The Association. The part of her brother Simon went to Thom Dobson, a skinny but telegenic drummer with a shag haircut and a chipped front tooth. He famously played with the Hollywood Persuaders on Drums A GoGo as a mere 14-year-old. Dutch-born, Juilliard-trained Anna van Leeuwen was brought in on lead guitar. Dillon Moss rounded out the band on keyboards, though his training was as a vocal arranger, having studied with Gene Puerling.

After her makeover, Cindy emerged as Cinnamon Sunshine with red corkscrew curls, rainbow overalls and stripey shirts. Thom played Simon with bounding Iggy energy barely contained behind his kit. Anna became Gillian, her hair stripped white-blonde and cut into a Kiki Dee bob. They dressed her in silk kimonos and satin flares – a fairly demure ensemble for the seventies. They permed Dillon’s hair into a perfectly globelike afro, slapped on an oversized bow-tie, a vest, cartoonishly large round glasses and platform shoes. He looked like the geeky, elfin offspring of Elton John and Leo Sayer. They all looked ridiculous, of course, but not unusually so for the era.

Except for the musical guests, the shows were fairly routine. Capt. Jack arrives with a flash of firepots and strobing lights. Welcomes the kids. Tired jokes and skits with the alien puppets, segue to Casper followed by a commercial break. Then the bizarre sight of Carl Wilson or Cass Eliot bantering with little green space puppets before they perform. After another commercial Capt. Jack calls down some lucky kid from the audience for a party-game rewarded with gift certificates or punished with cream pies. Finally, the Daisy Bang play and the kids go-go and credits roll. One half hour, five times a week, one season and not unlike a hundred other local kid shows. Except for the music.

The music for the show was spectacular, both from the guests and the Daisy Bang itself. One episode famously featured Carl Wilson’s harmonizing on “Wayfaring Stranger” with Bruce Johnston and Emitt Rhodes. Nilsson and Cass Eliot did a medley of “Mr. Sandman,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and the Everlys’ “Dream.” Jackie DeShannon played Dolly Parton’s “Bargain Store” with Gene Clark.

And the Daisy Bang’s original songs by Schein/van Leeuwen had a joyful, effervescent charm. Dobson’s drumming kept everything uptempo, but Schein’s sunny melodies, van Leeuwen’s strikingly sophisticated musicality and Moss’ intricate vocal arrangements lifted the music far beyond your expectations for kid show pop songs. At times they sounded like the Mamas & the Papas over a Motown rhythm track. But when Dillon sang lead his clear tenor gave them an Archies feel.

The Daisy Bang released a single on Bell, “Daisy Bang Day” b/w “You’re It!” that got heavy airplay on the West Coast but didn’t break nationally. The exhilarating follow-up “Race You To The Moon” b/w “Bang Saturn! Yeah!” was unjustly snubbed by radio. Bell picked up an option for an album on the basis of the first single’s success. The band already had the songs in the can and hoped that a successful release would launch the band nationally.

Daisy Bang Days remains one of the lost gems of the bubblegum era and is highly sought after by collectors. (Oddly, it’s easier to find the 8-Track than the LP.) They recorded everything in the garage studio Reilly had scavenged and built with his recording engineer, Bobby Raff. Right there in one of Republic’s writer’s bungalows, they set up shop and achieved incredible sound with just sixteen tracks. The A-Side of the album started with “Daisy Bang Day,” followed by “Dappled Down Darling” (Schein’s Daisy Bang lyrics were prone to giddy assonance and alliteration), “Sunny Way,” a cover of “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and closed with “My Treat.” The B-Side opened with the proto-Power Pop “Shake You Out,” a different mix of “Race You To the Moon” that included a ripping guitar solo by Anna, “Love Me All Around,” “Tickled Pink” and the gorgeous one-two punch of “All Come Free” and “Day’s End.” Buy it if you can find it. There aren’t that many copies out there.

Despite the wealth of musical treats, their distributor declined to pick up a second season of the show and by the fall of 1972 they were unemployed, disappointed but ready to move on. But Reilly wasn’t going to let his opportunity slip away. After years of working on the fringe of the music scene he’d finally broken through and gotten some airplay (and producer royalties).

By then he had the entire band living with him in the bungalow adjacent to the set. He kept up a mad, speed-fueled patter, appealing to their egos, their fears, the apocalyptic mood in L.A. after the Manson killings. He convinced them to record one last album. Why not? They had a free studio, enough money left over from the show to support them for months, free room and a steady supply of pot, acid and speed.

Reilly and Cindy had become lovers by this point and she quickly latched on to the opportunity to showcase her songwriting. Similarly, Dillon and the engineer Bobby Raff coupled off, and Dillon was eager to experiment in the studio and wanted access to the show’s master tapes. He already had plans for Harmony Cathedral. Anna was less anxious to stay, but feared losing her visa and still wanted to write with Cindy. Thom simply didn’t have anything better to do and a free home and easy drugs and a casual liaison with Anna were enough to keep him there for the time being.

Dillon immediately began work on Harmony Cathedral, stacking layers of overdubbed vocals over simple instrumental tracks. He had the band members record his wordless arrangements of “Oohs”, “Aaahhhhs,” “Ba-ba-bas” and “Woos” and worked them into an intricate tapestry with the master tapes he had of the musical guests. In just one passage, Harry Nilsson’s vocal on “Dream” bobbed along on a swell of lifting harmonies, then dipped down into a perfect edit with Cindy, Anna and Dillon singing the chorus from “Along Came Mary” which melted into a high, trembling melody without words that sank into Thom’s baritone, isolated in a descending, echo-drenched bassline out of DooWop. It sounded like nothing else, a cubist vocal collage, a musique concrete prettily patched out of West Coast harmony vocals, Hi-Lo’s arrangements, folk rounds and Brian Wilson’s most baroque studio experiments. The final movement was built around Charles Manson’s “Cease to Exist.” Dillon had offended Carl Wilson when he asked him to cut the track with the original lyrics, but he had persuaded Curt Boettcher to do it as an experiment, promising him that it would never be released.

In the meantime, Cindy cut the demos for what would become Cin Songs Seventeen with just her acoustic guitar and occasional backing by Anna on cello. Inspired by Kubrick’s 2001 and Bowie’s Space Oddity she worked out a series of harrowing lyrical conceits that turned the trashy science fiction setting of the show into miniatures of alienation, isolation and loneliness. The songs were arch, witty, biting, tart, and achingly raw. The titles promised Space Opera epics, but the songs delivered mordant little turns like “Open the Pod Bay Door, Hal,” “Deathray,” “Dale Arden Blues,” and a cover of “Blue Moon” that sounded like it was recorded by the last human survivor of an annihilating Martian Invasion.

After three months of helping Dillon and Cindy, and suffering the increasingly paranoid rants of Reilly, Anna had become resentful, bored and restless. She tired of the lusty but loveless sex with Thom and was ready to return to Amsterdam. She had all but made up her mind to leave when Bobby and Dillon returned from a quick getaway to Jamaica. Bobby played her the King Tubby produced singles he brought back and Anna was electrified. The Rock Steady A-sides fascinated her, but the dub B-sides absolutely floored her. She played the dub version of the Techniques “You Don’t Care” for hours at a time, marveling at the unearthly groove she heard.

Anna became obsessed with creating the effect herself. She worked for days customizing the mixing board with Bobby, adding sliding faders, rigging an echo delay by running a tape loop over the heads of an old two-track machine. Anna had Thom lay down a series of drum tracks for her at different tempos, then overdubbed the bass parts herself. Her bass playing became less rooted in the beat and seemed to fluidly roam in and out of Thom’s relentless time and the little jazz breaks he’d drop on her.

She slowly built up a deep groove, and then over this laid a scrim of idle studio chatter, Cin’s lead vocals distorted by tape effects, ghostly shimmers from Dillon’s harmony bank, a screaming fight between Cin and Rick caught on tape in the studio, tapes of her and Thom making love, sound effect records, Theremin, typewriters clacking, simple riffs and vamps on the B-3, and distant crackling snippets of the Daisy Bang recorded off an AM radio. While Dillon’s Harmony Cathedral was dense, lush and pretty, Anna’s studio experiment churned up dark fragments of sound that seemed to loom out of the mix then recede back behind the endlessly looping basslines and Thom’s slow, stoned groove.

The atmosphere in the house deteriorated. Reilly gobbled speed endlessly, never seeming to sleep and began carrying a gun with him at all times. Cindy began to pull away from him as his behavior became threatening and controlling. Also it became clear to her that the sessions would never come together as an album. Dillon and Bobby were almost finished with Harmony Cathedral and they had both lined up outside studio work. They were ready to move to an apartment in West Hollywood. Anna drifted away from Thom, stoned, absorbed in her work, staying up for nights at a time in the studio.

One drunken night toward the end, Thom jokingly complained that he’d helped with their studio projects but they’d never backed him on anything. After much hectoring and cajoling, they allowed that he had earned his own shot at immortality but they were too tired to do anything that night. Thom would have none of it. He handed out a round of Black Beauties and with relentless good humor, bullied them into the studio. Once there, Bobby ran the tapes and the band rehearsed their entire repertoire of Daisy Bang songs in chronological order. But Thom began to double-time the beat, and urged Cindy to sing louder and harder until her voice got raspy. He told Anna to turn up her guitar make it sound dirty. She smiled at her lover indulgently and cranked it up. They recorded everything in one take, live in the studio. Anna’s voice gave out after three songs and Thom began singing the lyrics, turning each song into a hilariously filthy inversion of its original frothy sentiment. The Black Beauty Demos sound perfect when played between Metallic KO and The Replacements Let It Be.

Reilly was furious that Cindy had hurt her throat singing and railed at them for an hour, smashing furniture and firing his gun into the ceiling. The next day they confronted him, told him they were leaving. He stared at them with cold fury, then walked to the front door, opened it and said, “Fine. Leave. But I own everything in this place, including everything you recorded in my studio. So walk away. I fed you, supported you and you owe me that music.” Then he pulled out his gun. Cindy began to cry, Anna and Dillon and Bobby stared at him, stunned. Thom started screaming at him, calling him a freak and an asshole. Reilly simply pointed his gun at Thom and began shooting, hitting him in the hand, the forearm and the kneecap. In the confusion that followed, Reilly grabbed Cindy as the others rushed to help Thom. He pulled Cindy into the studio control room with him and locked the door. Dillon and Bobby tried to break in, heard Cindy scream “No!” then heard two gunshots. And that was the end of the Daisy Bang. But not their music.

Cindy’s ashes were scattered at sea and the surviving band members moved on. Dillon and Bobby worked steadily in L.A. until the mid-seventies when they moved up to San Francisco. Bobby found work with Patrick Cowley engineering Sylvester’s disco singles and Dillon formed an acapella vocal group. Thom suffered nerve damage in his right arm that prevented him from playing drums, and suffered a painful limp for the rest of his life. He hung around Los Angeles, collecting disability and working odd jobs, slowly drinking his life away until one night he stumbled into the Whiskey and wound up being adopted by the nascent punk scene. Punk energized Thom, giving him a sense of purpose and community. He wrote for Slash, lived at the Tropicana, managed the Zeros for a while and had completely reclaimed his life when he was killed by a drunk driver who ran a red light. Anna traveled for years through India and Southeast Asia. After nearly a decade on an ashram, she moved back to Amsterdam. She refuses all interviews about the Daisy Bang. Dillon kept the Daisy Bang master tapes. He and Bobby pressed up a one-time run of two-thousand vinyl copies of The Daisy Bang Story in 1977 and the band’s legend slowly began to grow.

Mary Lou Lord covered Cindy’s “Dale Arden Blues” on one of her early cassettes and PJ Harvey turned the bitter “Deathray” into a blistering roar on her 4-Track Demos complete with an anguished “Noooooo” cutting off the track. Every year seems to turn up at least one new underground dance staple built on one of Anna’s Dub Master samples; Moby, Aphex Twin, Dust Brothers have all found it irresistible fodder. Receiving a fourth-generation tape dub of The Black Beauty Demos became something of a punk badge of honor and rite of initiation, immortalized both in Cometbus and the Descendents’ “BBD.” Dillon’s work didn’t go unrecognized either. Olivia Tremor Control’s Harm and Catherine was an open tribute to Harmony Cathedral and you can hear its influence in Jeff Mangum’s “Harmful Catheter,” and Magnetic Fields “Bobby and Dillon.” Not bad for a third string bubblegum band.