By Ian S. Port
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Back in the '80s, San Francisco had a vibrant local indie-rock scene, with live bands playing clubs from Haight Street's Nightbreak and I-Beam to Club Foot and Firehouse 7 in the Mission. Some of them moved on to bigger things, but for every Camper Van Beethoven or American Music Club that eventually found greater glory, there were plenty of bands that made their mark, then faded to footnote status. Bands like the Cat Heads.
Formed in 1985, the Cat Heads consisted of homegrown talents: guitarists Sam Babbitt and Mark Zanandrea, bassist Alan Korn, and drummer Melanie Clarin. Having cut their teeth in other bands, they were a creative bunch, and the four contributing songwriter/vocalists made for plenty of variety, but a fair amount of personality clash as well. Cat Heads performances were unpredictable, ranging from transcendent fun to onstage disintegration. "It was always a crapshoot," Zanandrea recalls in an e-mail from his Portola District home. "We could pull it off and be a truly engaging and amusing rock 'n' roll band, or have an onstage meltdown, and be the worst act in San Francisco."
The Cat Heads released two albums via the Restless label: 1987's Hubba and Submarinein 1988. Both sported a clangorous jangle equal parts post-punk and roots rock, sounding at times like a countrified Replacements. Many of the tunes on the records were moving and earnest, but the band had a sense of humor; two of the standout cuts on Hubba were the anthemic "Power, Love and Pizza" and a tongue-in-cheek ode to the joys of hanging out in Golden Gate Park.
By 1989, frictions within the Cat Heads had taken their toll, and the band split into two factions: Babbitt and Korn went on to form the (ex) Cat Heads, and Zanandrea and Clarin started It Thing. "We never did the slow wane that most bands go through," Zanandrea writes. "There was a meeting, we saw there was no common ground left between the It Thing faction and the Ex Cat Heads faction, and we just walked away. I don't think we even had a ceremonial last show. It was a breakup to be proud of."
Oakland resident Clarin, now known by her husband's surname, De Giovanni, theorizes that touring did the band in. "It's hard to sleep on strange people's floors every night and drive around in a van that smells like old socks," she writes from her job as a legal secretary. "People start getting edgy. There were good times and there were bad times. We had a group of kids following us to every show we played throughout Florida. We played to the bartender in other towns."
So the Cat Heads moved on. The (ex) Cat Heads put out Our Frisco in 1990, a cohesive suite of Velvets-go-Minneapolis songs that Australian label Lamingtone saw fit to rerelease recently. In 1992, It Thing served up The Ode to Billy Joe Bob Dylan Thomas Jefferson Airplane Experience, a variegated rock gem with its layered, psychedelic new-wave sound (plus left-field moments like the track called "Sacred Paisley Goat Scrotum").
Fast-forward to today. It Thing carries on, putting finishing touches on a second album. De Giovanni has played in a laundry list of great local bands over the years, including current Oakland country trio Yard Sale. Korn is a lawyer now, but it doesn't keep him too busy to play with bands like East Bay instigators She Mob. And Babbitt eventually opted for early retirement by the New England seashore.
Since we seem to be on a 20-year revival cycle, it kinda makes sense that mid-'80s indie rock is the next genre ripe for a comeback (not that it ever truly left). So, naturally, it's time S.F. bands like the Cat Heads reunited. Former SF Weekly music editor and current Rickshaw Stop booker Dan Strachota came up with the idea after reading the liner notes of the recent (ex) Cat Heads CD reissue. "I started [thinking] how great it would be to have a kind of hootenanny where we got to hear all those great old songs again (or in some cases, for the first time)," Strachota comments in an e-mail from the club.
And hence the "Class Reunion" series at the Rickshaw. The first one featured Spot 1019 offshoot Hobbitt NYC and S.F. quirk-folkers Ed's Redeeming Qualities, along with the aforementioned She Mob. For "Class Reunion II," curator J. Neo Marvin -- who fronted longtime local linchpins X-Tal -- rounded up his old compatriots for a classic '80s-'90s S.F. lineup: the Cat Heads, X-Tal, It Thing, and the (ex) Cat Heads. "I'm a bit stunned at the attention this show is starting to get," Marvin reflects via e-mail. "It's gratifying to discover that something you did so long ago is still remembered fondly."
And how do the long-lost Cat Heads feel about this reunion? Perhaps Babbitt says it best in his electronic missive from the East Coast: "I often felt that as more mature adults we could have really built on a great beginning and a lot of potential, so I really am looking forward to playing again with those guys. Everyone I've played with since has paled in comparison. Excellent musicians who can all sing and harmonize! Not easy to come by."
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