By Guphy Gustafson photos by Kaysh Shinn
One of the most influential bands Sacramento ever produced, punk legends Tales of Terror ruled Sacramento’s underground music scene a quarter century ago. Derailed by tragedy twenty-four years ago this month, the question remains: Why is one of the most important Sacramento bands of all time all but forgotten in their own home town?
Often cited as the foundation of the grunge movement, ToT blended hardcore, psychedelia and rock to form an original high-energy sound that had a lasting impact on music fans around the country, including Kurt Cobain. Based at the Stucco Factory, Sac’s legendary artists’ warehouse on R Street, Tales of Terror toured relentlessly and also played seemingly every punk venue in town- Club Minimal, the Entertainment Factory on Fair Oaks, On Broadway (now Pho Bac), the Clunie Auditorium and even the Crest.
The Tales of Terror cast of characters: Rat’s Ass (Pat Stratford, singer); Dusty Coffin (AKA Boots, AKA Geoff Magner, bass); Luther Storms (AKA Emperor Fuckshit, AKA Lyon Wong, guitar), Capt. Trip Mender (Steve Hunt, guitar), Thopper Jaw (AKA Thumper, AKA Mike Hunter, drummer). It’s like a fucking Russian novel with all the nicknames, it took me ages to sort them out.
Formed by Stratford and Magner out of the ashes of the Square Cools, one of Sac’s first punk bands, Tales of Terror were different from the start. Fueled by epic amounts of alcohol and later, LSD, their performances were high-energy, even by the standards of Hardcore bands of the time. But what really set them apart was their range of influences, which ran from rockabilly to seventies rock. Tales of Terror were Elvis fans, which explains both their badass cover of “Hound Dog” (which had migrated from the Square Cools set list), and the song “Over Elvis Worship” which describes a tattoo on a body part that most men are terribly protective of and features the lyrics, ”Shaking my balls all over the place, with a smile upon my face.” Shake it!
Unlike the stereotypical punk band, Tales of Terror knew how to play their instruments- but that didn’t stop the belligerent, in your face assault of booze soaked rock. Their frenetic shows were the stuff of legend – backflips from the stage, Rat’s Ass (or the whole band) wrapping themselves in duct tape and slowly ripping it off during the set, the obligatory jumps and poses, drinking out of a bottle while using both hands to play, anything and everything. An array of youtube videos clearly shows their live energy and exuberance. In the July 2008 issue of Exclaim magazine Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (whose earlier band Green River covered ToT’s “Ozzy” on their 1986 Dry As a Bone EP) listed some of their gigs as the most inspirational he had seen:
“They were one of the wildest bands I’ve ever seen. They were obviously kids who were rooted in punk and hardcore but they were expanding things a little bit, like they did “Spanish Castle Magic” and the drummer had this really nice Mitch Mitchell [of the Jimi Hendrix Experience] kinda feel instead of the hardcore, like ‘1-2, 1-2, 1-2’ kinda thing. The singer would do back flips and, by the end of their set, everyone was wrapped up in each other’s cords and rolling on the ground and I’m like, ‘This is what a rock show should be.’”
Their live shows have been compared to The Stooges and early Guns and Roses (who some suggest ‘borrowed’ Tales of Terror’s “Danant” as the basis for “Used to Love Her.”) By 1984 they were on top of their game, touring, playing all over town, and supporting big name punk acts like The Vandals, Dead Kennedys, and Fang. Word is that when they opened for Social Distortion they were so spectacular that everyone booed Social D when they took the stage. And rightly so. They played the last show ever at Stewart Katz’s infamous all ages venue Club Minimal. Hell, they might have played the first show there, they played there a lot, even though it was only open a year.
Their one album, the self-titled Tales of Terror, was released in 1984 on a San Francisco label, CD Presents, and is revered today as a great example of California skate punk. Though distribution was limited (it is estimated that less than 5000 copies were pressed) the record’s influence stretched far beyond Sac’s borders. Many, including Mark Arm, cite Tales of Terror as a key inspiration for the then-burgeoning Grunge scene. Dave Chavez, of seminal SF punk band Verbal Abuse, quoted in Gimme Something Better, thinks the connection could have been even deeper. “With the right management and maybe a little bit of rehab here and there, Tales of Terror probably would have been the Nirvana and broke.”
Though ToT toured heavily during their brief career, it was a more direct link that initially brought them to the attention of the Northwest flannel-wearing set. Stratford knew Alex Vincent, Green River’s drummer, from high school.
Green River is sometimes considered the first grunge band, but they are more famous for the bands that sprung from their breakup, Mudhoney and, uh, Pearl Jam. (Both fans of my writing will be pleased to hear that I hope to never mention Pearl Jam again, ever.) Mudhoney later released a song called “Tales of Terror,” and if that isn’t enough grunge cred for you, Kurt Cobain mentions Tales of Terror twice in his journals- the LP appears at number 32 in his list of his top 50 albums (Meet the Beatles is #37) and the song “Chamber of Horrors,” which has lyrics as lackadaisical as some of Nirvana’s best, is mentioned in a list of songs.
The original LP is now rare. (There was a copy on Ebay in November that sold for $33.00 and none since. Why didn’t I buy it? Why!?!) Downloads sometimes appear on the internet, but they are usually quite hidden. Like every band, they have a MySpace page with a few songs to check out and I was able to snag a “Rat’s Ass Approved” CDR of their complete issued output through murky channels. The original record has been out of print for twenty years; there have been speculations and hopes of an impending re-release, but it is a tangled web. The songs may or may not be owned by CD Presents, who never paid royalties and I am more than ready to talk shit about, or by Alternative Tentacles, who I won’t. Either way, don’t look for it soon.
It all came to and end on the night of January 5th, 1986. Rumors and rampant speculation have swirled around the incident for years, but the facts are sadly straightforward. Lyon Wong was walking late at night near the Zebra Club when some teenagers in a truck drove by and yelled at him. Someone with Wong yelled back, and the teens circled the block and pulled over. During the ensuing melee, Wong went down, hitting his head on the curb; he was dead by the time he arrived at Sutter General. The teenager who threw the punch that sent Wong to the sidewalk was a minor; he received only six months in prison.
Some less substantiated stories of that night have been repeated over and over: that the truck was full of Sac High jocks; that the light sentence was because the perp was a star on the football team; that Lyon was hit from behind. I could only find a small article about Lyon Wong’s death in the Bee and nothing at all about the trial. I did find out the name of the kid who struck Wong and learned that after feeling terrible about what had happened for his entire life, he too was killed by horrific violence. I vote that we leave both of their memories in peace.
Like that, it was over. The band opted not to continue without Lyon Wong. The various members drifted into other groups, most notably the Pirates of Venus, the Cactus Liquors and the Whorelords. None ever received the attention- or the acclaim- of Tales of Terror. Those who knew Lyon Wong described him to me as one of the brightest lights they ever knew- a musician and artist, and a really fun guy. Twenty-four years after his death, his memory is still bright. If time has been kind to Wong’s memory, other members of Tales of Terror have not had it so easy. Dusty Coffin died of a methadone overdose in 2004. Rat’s Ass suffered a series of strokes that have left him impaired and unable to live on his own. Rock and Roll has never been known for its retirement plan.