Collision Course

The garage rock career of Russell Quan has been one long train wreck

According to the liner notes on the Dukes of Hamburg's Some Folks, the group was a German "beat band" that played in the early '60s. Like the Beatles, the combo performed anarchic covers of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley tunes in Hamburg clubs; in the musicians' off hours, they worked as decorators and film technicians. Of course, the notes are a ruse. Closer inspection of the album unveils the logo of Gearhead Records, a San Francisco imprint that specializes in modern, primitive garage rock, and the personage of local scene titan Russell Quan, here dressed in armor and holding a plumed helmet.

The LP's cheeky design shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows of Quan. This is a musician who wrapped himself in bandages and rode in a hearse during his time with the Mummies, and who appeared with the rest of the Flakes in a book called 101 Ways to Pick Up Women! (No. 67: The Deep Knee Blonde.) With the Count Backwurds he posed as a pirate on the back of a 7-inch; on the Bobbyteens' Web site (, he listed "nose picking" as one of his favorite hobbies.

But saying that Quan is just a yukster is selling him short. The 43-year-old Castro Valley drummer and singer has been playing rough-and-tumble garage rock for 20 years now -- long before it appeared in the pages of Timeand The New Yorker, attached to the names of the White Stripes and the Hives. As for Quan's talents, "Peeping John" McDonald of the Flakes and the Count Backwurds says, "There's not a lot of drummers that can play like Russell does -- as loud and fast as he can."

Akim Aginsky


Friday, July 5

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The Tempest, 431 Natoma (between Fifth and Sixth streets), S.F.

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Still, when the idea of his significance is brought up, Quan waves it off. "I was in no way the leader of any of these groups; I was always the follower," he says. "None of these bands were important except for us to have a few laughs."

History would suggest otherwise.

All of Russell Quan's friends describe him as happy-go-lucky. "Russell's all about fun," Phantom Surfers leader Mike Lucas says. "He's like a Sammy Davis Jr. who doesn't like seafood."

But the hints of gray in Quan's trademark black mop-top seem to hint that life wasn't always so carefree. Back in 1965, when Quan was 7, he moved from multicultural Oakland to cornfed Castro Valley, where he stood out like a flower in a field of weeds. "I think there was maybe one other Chinese family living there," Quan says, during an interview at a Mission District taqueria. "I got shit all the time."

Quan's one solace was music. He adored the songs of the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and, naturally, the Beatles. "When the Beatles came on TV, it seemed like the biggest thing in the word, an undeniable force. Me and this Filipino kid from across the street, we used to pretend we were in A Hard Day's Night. It was probably just a passing phase for him."

Oddly enough, the East Bay was a hotbed for garage rock in the mid-'60s. Big bands such as the Yardbirds, Them, and Love all played shows around East 14th Street, at the San Leandro Roll Arena and the Mother's Cookies factory. Unfortunately, by the time Quan was old enough to attend the venues, the scene had died out. Groups packed up their fuzz pedals and Farfisa organs and faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, Quan tuned his radio to other sounds. "In the mid-'70s I was listening to soul music because rock music was such a bummer," he recalls.

By the end of the decade, however, Quan had rediscovered garage, thanks to cool fanzines like Bomp and the area's numerous record swaps. He remembers in particular picking up an album by the Sonics, a Tacoma, Wash., group responsible for one of the wildest rock tunes ever, "Psycho," and having something like a religious experience.

Forming a band seemed like the next step, except that Quan didn't know anyone with similar tastes, either in Castro Valley or at Chabot Junior College, where he was taking classes. Through his job at a gas station, Quan met a few guys, and they began rehearsing covers of the Kinks, the Who, and the Yardbirds. Quan decided to be the drummer, even though he had no training. "It appealed to me because it made a lot of noise," he says simply. "And Ringo's a drummer. Who didn't want to be like Ringo?"

The band lasted a couple of years, although it never found a singer, played a show, or settled on a name. "It was hopeless -- there was nobody around who was remotely interested in the music we were interested in," Quan says.

By the mid-'80s, that problem had been solved to a small degree. While the majority of Americans were bopping along to Madonna and Prince, a number of underground acts began reviving the feedback-and-organ blitzkrieg of the '60s. Inspired by the Chesterfield Kings and the Lyres, Quan hooked up with guitarist Christof Certig and formed the Horseless Headmen in 1985. (The drummer, Steig Mantis, came from pop culture royalty -- his mom was Miss America in 1961, and his stepdad was Jim Lang from The Dating Game -- and the rhythm guitarist was a then-teenaged Bart Davenport.) Quan sang, belting out covers and "rehashed originals" of '60s garage and British R&B tunes. The band did well, opening for big-time revivalists the Tell-Tale Hearts and the Unclaimed, but the Horseless Headmen were still either far ahead of, or way behind, the times. "We had a hard time getting shows," Quan says. "There were no bands in S.F. like us, except maybe the Morlocks, who'd moved up from San Diego."

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