The Automatic Pilot story - part 3
by Karl Brown

Erotic jazz wave
Creating a unique music to fit our unique performance niche

Steve McDowell left Automatic Pilot after acknowledging he wasn't keeping up (he remained Tony's housemate and later served as Tony's caregiver). John Selby, my schoolmate from high school and college, joined the band on sax and flute just in time for our Jan 25 gig at the I-Beam on Haight, opening for Silvertone (featuring the not yet world famous Chris Isaak) and the notorious Red Party at the Russian Center hosted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence .

The chorus presented Fabulous Follies of 1982, a follow-up to the 81 Follies, on April 16 & 17. Although by now everybody in Automatic Pilot had left the chorus (at various times and for various reasons), we played our new song Clone Butt: a commentary on clone lifestyle and attitude, cited in the BAR as welcome exception in a show that was mostly drag. On May 8 we made our first of three appearances at the On Broadway Theater. We were the headliner; AHZ and Margo Crossman opened for us.

Over the summer, we continued to rehearse often, polishing our sound and writing new songs. We had long moved beyond the simple structures of punk rock, taking on elements of jazz as well as more complex vocal harmonies. Tom became adept at improvising on the violin, and Selby was an accomplished jazz player when he joined us. We were aware we were creating a new style of music unlike anything that had come before. In retrospect, we pre-dated both acid jazz and queercore by 10 years or more. We always played acoustic, unless there was no piano in which case we used my Rhodes electric piano. Steve always played stand-up string bass. We proudly played kick-ass rock and roll (and much more) without any guitar or synthesizer.. The group that came closest to us in attitude and sprit was the acoustic punk band The Violent Femmes. However, with their acoustic guitars they came off more angry folk than jazz; they weren't gay identified despite their name. Matthew and Karl had always been greatly influenced by the music of Frank Zappa. We held numerous discussions on how to describe ourselves briefly in press releases and such; we settled on Erotic Jazz Wave.

From the beginning, Tony had stars in his eyes, and had become convinced we could make it really big, but first we had to sound just a bit more commercial. Karl was cynical, having participated as a kid in would-be commercial rock ventures that went nowhere, happy to use whatever performance opportunities we were given to play and sing our own quirky music to whoever wanted to listen. But we were becoming known. The Bay Area Reporter wrote about us regularly, and the Chronicle and Examiner knew who we were and included us in their calendar listings. In July, we went back into the recording studio and played our whole repertory live. The idea was to document our sound by getting through everything in the session, and not to try to do anything perfectly enough to release. Several songs came out quite well, and we went back in August to focus on two songs we hoped to release as a single. Tony really wanted a more electric sound and made m an offer I couldn't refuse: the opportunity to work with a Synclavier computerized synthesizer. This technology is commonplace now, but in 1982 it was a big deal, costing five if not six figures. (Zappa later used one for his Grammy-winning "Jazz from Hell" and other recordings that required more precision than humans could achieve). Karl had a great time programming the Synclavier in advance of the session, using my college training once more. But in the studio, we humans had to keep up with the damn thing and it was a struggle. The experiment paid off artistically; the songs sounded great and were plenty precise enough for an indie release, by now common among unsigned bands.

But Tony was holding out for a major label. He had a friend in the industry, John Geraldo, the west coast promoter for The Waitresses and local publicist for various dance music, who advised us not to release this but to go back to the studio and record something more mainstream. It seemed that we had great material and sounded very close to commercial rock and roll, but there were a few things that were slightly off: for example we should have an electric bass guitar for a firmer bottom, a rock drummer instead of a jazz drummer, a guitar, etc. And the lyrics were too queer. But they especially loved the vocals. The vocal strength we achieved from the beginning is truly a tribute to the excellence of the early SFGMC. Turned down for the Pride celebration, we played the Castro Street Fair to mixed results. In the morning we did great on the small stage at Hibernia Beach (18th and Castro). Later that afternoon we played the mainstage between two traditional rock bands; the crowd did not respond well to us. But Jane Dornacker saw us and was impressed enough to spilt a bill with us the following year.

September 1, 1982 was perhaps the definitive moment for Automatic Pilot as creators of both a new form of and a new context for music. It was in the middle of the first Gay Games (forbidden to use the word Olympics) and the West Coast Choral Festival (precursor to GALA Choruses). We had been invited back to the On Broadway, owned by Dirk Dirksen and upstairs from the Mabuhay Gardens. There was tons of publicity; John Geraldo even got us a blurb in the Chronicle. We asked our friends the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to be our opening act; it didn't work out. The Sisters were and still are great at hosting and emceeing events, making cameo appearances, street theater, not to mention their political activism and charitable works. But they were unable to sustain a full-length set. They looked great in their splendid costumes, but unscripted, unrehearsed and largely unplanned, they went far too long, over an hour, and drove out most of the mostly full house. This debacle was written up in both the Bay Area Reporter and the Advocate, who at least credited the audacity of trying to frame the Sisters within the semilegitimate theater. Margo Crossman, a dancer, performance artist and stripper, was our good friend and costumer. As at our previous On Broadway gig, she took the stage and danced, performed and showed her titties to the baffled remaining audience, mostly gay men and lesbians. Then we gave the best performance of our lives, very energetic and nearly flawless, fully connecting with our audience who stuck it out. Fortunately, the sound engineer did a great job and made a good cassette recording, which has recently been digitally restored and mastered.

next history page:
Too Queer, Too Acoustic, Too Weird

Automatic Pilot history index

Automatic Pilot homepage