An Old Show Biz Story
The return of The Rubinoos, the rebirth of Earth Quake, and the legacy of Beserkley Records.
Photo courtesy Rubinoos
For a brief shining moment, it looked like Berkeley was going to become a musical mecca. Dozens of venues in Berkeley and San Francisco gave acts like The Rubinoos, Earth Quake, Jonathan Richman, and Greg Kihn room to grow and experiment with the parameters of rock music. Those bands found shelter under the umbrella of Beserkley Records, a label started by Earth Quake’s guitarist and songwriter, Robbie Dunbar, and the band’s manager, Matthew “King” Kauffman.
Dunbar recalls the founding of Beserkley with pride and sadness. “Earth Quake was one of the first rock bands signed to A&M records,” he said. “They wanted to break out of the easy listening box, but they didn’t know what to do with us. We made two albums for them, Earth Quake and Why Don’t You Try Me? They included fan favorites we’d been playing since our days at Berkeley High, but they didn’t chart. Our break came when Quincy Jones used the instrumental break from our song, “See What My Love Can Do,” on the soundtrack for the Steve McQueen version of The Getaway.” The band sued Jones, and the money he paid the band financed its escape from A&M and provided the seed money for Beserkley, one of the first indie music labels. It launched the logo in 1973. “Dave Robinson and Jake Rivera told us Beserkley was their inspiration to start Stiff Records. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among the bands. We were convinced we were going to be stars. The label was exploding with talent. Beserkley Chartbusters, Volume 1 (1975) was our greatest hits compilation.”
Several tracks on Chartbusters became standards, including Earth Quake’s version of the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind,” The Rubinoos cover of the DiFranco Family’s “Gorilla,” and Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Sadly, by the late ’70s, the label petered out. Four Earth Quake albums failed to chart — The Rubinoos and Jonathan Richman left the label — and after Greg Kihn hit No. 2 on the pop charts with “Jeopardy,” he signed with Capitol and Beserkley folded. “It’s an old show biz story,” Dunbar said. “Lots of creative talent and no business sense. I went back to school and got music degrees from UC Berkeley and Cal State. I’ve been teaching music and playing regularly with Larry Lynch and the Lynch Mob and THE FAVES.” Dunbar’s currently putting together a new edition of Earth Quake to play the old hits and the new tunes he’s been writing.
Like his brother Robbie, Tommy Dunbar was sure Beserkley was the path to success. The Rubinoos, the band he started in middle school with his best friend, Jon Rubin, took off after releasing a couple of singles on Beserkley. “We covered the Tommy James tune, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now,’ and had a hit,” he said. “We started touring and got onto American Bandstand. It seemed normal to us. We were going to be huge.”
Jon Rubin agreed: “We also hit with ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.’ We played in England, headlined the Lyceum, and got an opening slot on an Elvis Costello tour. We were sure that’s the way it was supposed to be. Put out a record, tour, became professional musicians, which was all we ever wanted to do.”
“Earth Quake was a big influence,” Tommy Dunbar said. “They worked hard and so did we, rehearsing five days a week, nailing our three part harmonies and playing gigs with the other Beserkley bands.” When the label faltered, Rubin and Dunbar moved to LA, continuing on as a duo. They got a deal with Warner Records and cut the Party of Two EP with Todd Rundgren producing. “The label dropped us after the EP came out,” Rubin says, “but a video we did for ‘If I Had You Back’ stayed on MTV for 25 years.”
They continued making demos and wrote the title song for the cult film Revenge of the Nerds. Tommy moved back to Berkeley in 1990 and got the original band together for a reunion show at Slim’s. That led to the release of The Basement Tapes, a collection of Beserkley demos that hadn’t been previously released. “We kept playing together after the Slim’s show, doing sporadic gigs,” Rubin said. “Our Japanese label guy asked us to do a tour of Japan. Then a Spanish promoter booked us for a tour of Spain. This year, we’re doing our 15th tour of Spain. It’s become our new home base.” Since the reunion, the band has made five albums, with moderate success, and toured Spain and Japan regularly, with a smattering of U.S. dates tossed in.
That may change with the release of From Home, the band’s Yep Roc debut and the first Rubinoos album in decades to get national distribution. It’s getting rave reviews. Chuck Prophet, a longtime fan, produced it, capturing the band’s live energy. “Chuck and I co-wrote the songs, aiming for that retro meets modern sound that’s our trademark,” Tommy Dunbar said. “We rehearsed our asses off for a month before we recorded. We had the harmonies down, the arrangements down, and played them live in the studio. Chuck had me play the solos as we did the basic tracks, making ’em up on the spot. We also did a lot of acoustic, living room rehearsals, just like the old days. We were well prepared, so we were able to let go and get excited when we recorded — all together in one room. We kept the tracks raw, with no editing. It’s a live rock ’n’ roll record.”
From Home sounds like a greatest hits collection, with tunes like “Rocking in Spain,” a Slade meets Beatles rave up; the pure pop of “Honey from the Honeycomb;” the ska-influenced “Do You Remember,” a rocker that recalls the band’s early days, playing free concerts on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and the sweet pop of “Watching the Sun Go Down,” a showcase for Rubin’s wide open, romantic tenor.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be playing with these guys for all these years,” Rubin concluded. “We’re all best friends. Very few people get to do what they love, for as long as we have. We’ve been able to sustain it, because we all like each other. I enjoy going to rehearsals as much as I like going to the gigs.”