The Rubinoos (pic from
40 years now, classic power pop band The Rubinoos came out of the
Beserkley scene in the 1970s that also saw the likes of Jonathan Richman
and Greg Kihn get noticed. Always a great band, their first headlining
gig outside of the States was actually at Friars Aylesbury in March
1978. Many will remember their hit version of I Think We're Alone Now
and also the single Boyfriend.
We caught up
with two of the band who have been there for the whole journey, Jon
Rubin and Tommy Dunbar.
Welcome to the Friars Aylesbury website! Great to have you on board.
into your career, I notice that you use Rolling Stone magazine’s quote
of “unlistenable trash rock quartet” on your website’s home page.
Clearly tongue in cheek gentlemen……that wouldn’t be my description!
Well, thank you again! We always loved that quote. If I saw a review like
that I'd have to check out the band! Unlistenable, that's a pretty
strong strong warning! Don't go near it! Completely toxic! You'll be
I think many
people won’t have realised that the Rubinoos history can be traced back
to 1970 and were involved more or less form the start with Beserkley
with the likes of Jonathan Richman and Greg Kihn?
Also, my brother Robbie's band Earth Quake, who were really the band the
started the label. Earth Quake started Beserkley after being dropped
from A&M records. Jonathan came out from Boston and Greg came out from
Baltimore to be on the label. The Rubinoos in contrast only had to take
a leisurely stroll across town!
Jon Rubin: I
think the time and place were really special. There was a dearth of
independent record companies and the Bay Area had a really vibrant live
music scene. Initially, Beserkley was a promotional effort to get Earth
Quake a major record deal. Somehow it morphed into a real company. We
were the youngest band playing the clubs at the time and the only pop
band. It didn’t hurt that Tommy was the younger brother of Earth Quake’s
Guitarist Robbie Dunbar. So we were signed. Being radical Berkeley kids
the idea of a non-traditional label really appealed to us even if we
might have been better suited to a major.
As a very
young band at the time, you seemingly weren’t too dispirited at having
various things thrown at you supporting Jefferson Starship in 1974?
Seems a bit harsh, what was the cause of that, it couldn’t have been the
Hey, we were happy to be getting a reaction! Actually I think it was the
music. It was Sugar Sugar and The Pepsi Generation that set them
off….our original songs got no such reaction, so we knew we had to work
“Sounds of the City” was Bill Graham’s way to promote local groups. He
would have a big local headliner (like The Starship) and several smaller
bands from the area. We were 17 years old and had never played before a
crowd of more than 200. Winterland held 6,000. We figured we would do
the same things we always did. Play the songs we liked and make fun of
stuff. Our bass player came out wearing a baby bonnet. We were greeted
by indifference until we played our cover of The De Franco Family hit
“Heartbeat It’s A Lovebeat.” The indifference then started to turn a
little hostile. Not discouraged we plowed on with a cover of the Pepsi
Generation theme followed by Sugar Sugar featuring Jonathan Richman
dancing The Archie on the Diamond Vision. Needless to say the audience
went mad and pelted us with anything in reach. My girlfriend had brought
my mother and some guy next to them was screaming “YOU SUCK!” My
girlfriend told the guy to “shut up, this is his mother” and kicked him
in the shin. Backstage we were offered a deal with ABC Records on the
spot. It was pretty hard on a group seventeen year olds to be hated and
booed by 6,000 people but it was a loving type of hate…not!
best known in the UK as a power pop band gaining much airplay in the
late seventies…we caught you at Friars Aylesbury in 1978 on the
Beserkley Records package tour and more importantly I believe the Friars
appearance was your first gig outside of the US. What were your memories
of that time – you obviously thought you should have made it much bigger
in the UK. You wouldn’t be alone!
Oh, I don't know that anybody should make it big anywhere. Think how
insufferable we might be if we'd had major success. It was really fun
hearing our songs on the BBC though! For that matter, just getting to
hang out in London while recording our 2nd LP was a thrill.
Wait a second…we weren’t big in the UK? I was so psyched to be going to
play anywhere outside the Bay Area. It was, what I thought anyway, the
beginning of our meteoric rise to the top. I just remember having the
best time playing in the UK. The whole punk thing was happening and even
though we weren’t part of that we loved it. We got to go to play at all
these places that were legendary to us like The Marquee Club and The
Cavern. We were in the land of The Beatles, The Stones, the Sex
I think many
reading this will possibly best remember you for your version of I Think
We’re Alone Now but your I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend single and Back to
The Drawing Board album resonates much more with me and I still remember
it now hearing it for the first time. The Boyfriend single gained
considerable airplay and didn’t somehow give you a huge hit record here.
That must have been hugely frustrating given that you had been building
a following in this country steadily over the preceding year or so?
I guess it should have been frustrating, but I don't remember feeling that
way at the time. We just knew we were getting to play over there, and we
were having fun making records. In hindsight, we were pretty dumb about
the business. I still wouldn't hire any of The Rubinoos to run a
business or anything come to think of it.
frustrating. Our record company president in the UK was on drugs,
useless and I heard embezzling from the company. Boyfriend was the #4
airplay record of the year 1978 and never got into the stores.
building up in the UK and Europe included appearances on just about
every important television programme going (including the legendary Old
Grey Whistle Test) which for the time was no mean feat. How did the rest
of Europe take to you at that time?
I remember the audiences being pretty enthusiastic in The Netherlands and
Scotland (my peeps!) as well. It's funny because punk was really big at
that time, maybe we were thought of as new wave, I don't know.
We did really well in The Netherlands and Belgium. We had a top ten in
Holland. We sold well in Scandinavia but never played there. Back then
we never made it to the southern European countries that we are popular
what must have been a high profile support slot for Elvis Costello in
the US around 1979/1980 – how did this go and did his audiences take to
The tour went surprisingly well, except we all tried to poison ourselves
by eating fast food every day while traveling in a Winnebago. It was
great to hear Elvis every night, we were all big fans. Similar to going
to Europe, we were just excited as hell to be out on the road on a real
tour. But the audiences were great, giving us encores pretty much every
night. Elvis may have had the angry young man stance, but his music
really was pretty pop, with actual melodies and all….
We were given the slot apparently because we were perceived as a
successful US band and Jake Riviera thought it would look good to have
us opening for Elvis. We did really well on that tour, 55 shows in 65
days with encores in all but one city. I think Detroit was the biggest
accomplishment. We started playing and two eggs hit the stage. I looked
at Tommy and said “the rest of that dozen is out there.” We did our best
to be moving targets for the rest of the show and got one of the
strongest encores of the tour.
To me it
seems that record companies and PR just were unlucky for you in the late
1970s – releasing records and distributors going bust and the like – I
guess the frustration was incalculable?
Well, I think every band has a sob story. I've always felt like we were
pretty lucky to go tour the world and make records. Why should the world
owe me a living just because I write little pop songs and sing and
strum? If I'd cured cancer and never got any kudos, then I might have a
reason to gripe. We're still making music and having fun with people we
love, so what's to complain about? Another thing I'll say is that I know
a lot of bands that signed with major labels and had a producer
completely disfigure them. Like you'd hear the record and never know it
was the same band! At least with Beserkley we got to pretty much record
what we were doing at the clubs, you know? We could have had a much
I did not slit my wrists and I did not become a junkie or an alcoholic.
But it certainly did harsh my buzz. One of the benefits of being young
and naive (read stupid) is that you don’t realize how fucked up things
are and think you can just move on to the next success. So I didn’t
really get how bad the damage was until later. All that said we were
incredibly lucky to have had any success at all.
Why did the
third album take so long to come out (The Basement Tapes) – over ten
years between creation and release?
Well, after we left Beserkley we went in and recorded what would later be
The Basement Tapes. We immediately put into play that savvy business
acumen I referred to earlier. We sent demo cassettes to several labels
and nobody signed us, so we thought that was that. So we just kept
playing till we had a couple of really bad weeks playing in a casino
(The Pine Cone Lounge at Del Webb's Sahara Tahoe). That was not good for
morale. We kept recording and sending new demos to our friend Marc
Nathan in Los Angeles. I think he'd finally figured out that the only
way to get us to stop pestering him was to become our manager and get us
a deal. He suggested we move to L.A., which Jon and I were up for, while
Donn and Al (our drummer and bass player) thought better of. So Jon and
I moved to L.A. and were a duo for the moment.
Actually the third album was Party of Two, our Warner’s record produced by
Todd Rundgren. I would really like to forget that record. I think it
hurt our career more than the label problems. Basement Tapes was demos
for the third album that was never made. We put it out on cassette when
we did our 10 year reunion show. A label called One Way heard it and
made us an offer. It was released 14 years after it was recorded. It
also made Billboard’s top ten critics pick for that year.
How did you
get involved in making songs for Revenge of The Nerds in 1984?
A friend of ours (Scott Wilk) had been asked to record the theme song
which was written by The Payne Brothers. He thought that he wasn't the
right guy for the song, but suggested us to the people making the film.
Apparently, they knew of us and said yes. So we went in and recorded the
song with our friend Charles Judge doing the keyboard programming. The
film makers were trying to get Thriller by Michael Jackson for use in
one scene, but apparently
the asking price was somewhere around
the budget of the whole film, so they asked us if we had anything in
that vein. I just happened to have a cassette in my pocket of a super
rough version of a song Charles and I had written called Breakdown, they
thought it sounded acceptable, and since we only wanted bus money and a
sandwich, the deal was done.
Is there anyone else more appropriate for that song then The Rubinoos?
You took a
sabbatical from The Rubinoos for some time from around 1985. What
brought this about? I know you were working in different projects such
as The Mighty Echoes but it was the success of The Basement Tapes that
brought The Rubinoos back wasn’t it?
Well, Jon and
I continued to record and do various things, The Mighty Echoes being a
constant. I moved back to Berkeley and was playing in a sort of Rubes
offshoot called Vox Pop with Donn and Al. It could have just been The
Rubinoos, but Jon was in L.A., kind of a long commute for rehearsals! At
some point we decided to do a "reunion" show and we thought we'd make a
cassette to sell at the show, which was The Basement Tapes. Somehow, the
cassette got in the hands of One Way Records on the east coast and they
asked if they could put it out. This time we held out for 4 bus fares
and 4 sandwiches, so that was that. Then a label called Big Deal Records
(also on the east coast) contacted us about a bunch of other recordings
we had and that led to them putting out Garage Sale. That was sort of a
collection of odds and ends. I should mention that the other big event
to get us off our duffs again was when the amazing and talented Kevin
Gilbert offered to produce a CD for us, it got us moving! That was the
I think Basement Tapes was a spark but really it was recording the album
Paleophonic that got us going again. That CD was produced by Kevin
Gilbert, of Tuesday Music Club fame, and he brought a whole lot of
energy to the project and kicked our ass into gear. We then were asked
by David Bash to headline the first IPO festival in 1999. We were seen
by a fellow named Hiroshi Kuse and he picked up distribution of
Paleophonic in Japan. We started playing a little more often.
brought out an interesting covers album Crimes Against Music about 10
years ago. Was that just for fun? There’s certainly an eclectic
selection from there from Elvis Costello to Flamin Groovies and more
points between! How did you choose what to cover between you? I guess
you had your lists and took it from there?
Our friend Hiroshi Kuse at our Japanese label Airmail Recordings had heard
versions we'd done of Brandy (Looking Glass) and Cruisin' Music (The
Raspberries). He asked if we would make an all covers CD for Japan.
Sounded like fun to us, so we made a list of songs to consider. Each guy
took the list and put check marks next to the songs he thought were a
good idea. Any song that had more than one check mark was pretty much on
the record. I was interesting to figure out which songs to stay faithful
to the original and which to mangle beyond recognition….
Hiroshi Kuse asked us to record a covers album and we thought it would be
fun. I seem to remember we had everyone pick 50 songs and then compared
lists and any song on all the lists got on, then on two lists, then on
one, then on none. I don’t know who picked “Up In A Puff Of Smoke.”
allowed to talk about or make any comment on the Avril Lavigne
‘Boyfriend’ case? If so, what is your perspective on it?
I can't talk about it, except to say that we're happy with the way the
case was handled.
I admit I have plagiarized her hair colour.
playing again of late in places as far apart as Spain and Japan and I
know you are planning to play Spain again next year – what is it about
these places that makes them so special?
Well, besides the fact that we love both places, and it's really exciting
to go there and play, they actually seem to like pop music there! But
the main thing is, they ask us to come play, so we go! 4 plane fares and
a cup of ramen, or a plate of paella, there seems to be a pattern
forming here…..But seriously, the people who bring us over have treated
us so well, and have become really good friends too, so we are thrilled
They’ll hire us. I don’t know what it is about Spain and Japan but the
people there seem to have a deep feeling for (dare I use the phrase)
Power Pop. I can’t explain it. The audiences are much too young to have
heard us the first time around.
that, what does playing live after a long career still mean to you?
Mostly it just means having fun doing what we do. Rehearsing is super fun,
and playing in front of audiences that actually know our records is
still kind of mind-blowing. For me personally, traveling and making
music with 3 of my best life long friends is amazing. Basically, I just
feel incredibly lucky.
Going on tour now is like going to Rock Star Fantasy Camp. It’s like “Oh
shit, I still get to go do what I love to do with my best friends 30
years after the peak!” It doesn’t get much better than that.
talking to the Friars Aylesbury website – best wishes to you all.
interview and its content are © 2011 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and
may not be used in whole or in part without permission.