From Punk to Soundtracks and 40 years of Togetherness: The story of a couple and their quest for a life in music
Article by Greg McWhorter for Record Collector News, 2012
Queercore is an off-shot of punk wherein bands are open about their homosexuality and often write songs about their lifestyle. The Wikipedia article on queercore mentions The Dicks and The Big Boys as being some of the first openly gay punk bands, but there were bands in Los Angeles that were earlier in their openness. Bands like The Bags, Catholic Discipline, Nervous Gender, The Screamers easily come to mind as being ‘out of the closet’ with some, or all, of their members. In the quest for ultra-rare and obscure punk records, I found the story of two openly gay punk rockers that have just celebrated 40 years of being a couple. Meet Michael Ely and Spider Taylor; two guys that met and stayed together through their love of alternative music and through their involvement in several iconic bands: The Tracers, Hey Taxi!, and Red Wedding.
Michael and Spider first met at a small bar called The Stables in Sunset Beach in 1971 and quickly became a couple. Michael was not a musician, but he had a fondness for singers and musicals. Spider was the one who first turned him onto rock and glam. Both became big fans of Patti Smith. Spider says; “My early influences were varied and eclectic. As a kid, I owned every Venture record ever released. I also listened to Jazz artists like Kenny Burrell, Herbie Mann, Chico Hamilton, Yusef Lateff, Gabor Szabo, Miles Davis, etc. That phase bled into early Jeff Beck, The Stones, Cream, Hendrix, The Doors and a host of known and unknown psychedelic players. Later, I started listening to glam and punk rock and being influenced by players like Mick Ronson and Lenny (from The Patti Smith Group). I taught myself how to play guitar when I was 11 years old and started my first band when I was 12 (Sons of Satan).” Besides the Sons of Satan, Spider also played guitar on a single on the RCA label for the band Emperor and recorded on a Delany Bramlett LP “Delaney and Friends”. These influences and the changing music scene set the stage for this duo to eventually join a band.
By the late 1970s, Michael was already a regular at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco where he got heavily into glitter rock and started hearing the new sounds of the emerging punk rock. In 1979, Michael convinced Spider to get into the new punk scene by joining one of the new bands. Michael says; “Spider joined The Tracers in 1979 as a second guitar player. The band was located out of Pasadena. I would go to the band rehearsals and dance while they practiced and the singer (Lynn) liked the way I moved and she asked me to join the band as a backup singer. Note that Spider and I had been a couple for nearly a decade before The Tracers, and Spider was the musician in the family while I sat on the sidelines. I never dreamed that we would be in a band together. Our first show in The Tracers was at a club called The Rock Corporation. I was so nervous being on stage for the first time that I don’t remember any of it!” The Tracers had already been an active band for over a year before the two joined and had already released one single: “Red, Black, and Blue” b/w “Cigarette Dance” (Seltone, 1978). Michael and Spider were asked to record on the band’s second single before they ever played live with the band: “My My Girl” b/w “Itchy Bugs” (Seltone, 1979). Michael says of the experience, “I had never sung before, never been on a stage, and suddenly we were going into a studio to record a record! You have to understand how nervous I was in those days. I had no band experience whatsoever. Not only did Spider play guitar on that single, he also incorporated an electric drill and an electric razor into the mix. It was very clever on his part. ” Spider recalls, “For someone who had no experience, Michael nailed those backup vocals. We only played with the Tracers for a handful of gigs, and I guess Michael and I had some kind of stage presence with each other because, from the very beginning, people were urging us to leave The Tracers and start our own band. ”
Michael and Spider left The Tracers after increasing tension between Michael and the lead singer, Lynn. The two decided that the time was right to start their own band. This time, Michael would take his place as lead vocalist, while Spider continued with guitar duties. Spider says, “We hooked up with George Hurley (later became drummer of the Minutemen) and Jim Kaiser (bass), moved from Long Beach to L.A.and started Hey Taxi! in the summer of 1979. We played our first gig at the Hong Kong Café. In the beginning we were playing to five or six people in the audience at clubs such as Blackie’s and the Londoner. Then at some point a band called Party Boys took us under their wing and started putting us on some of their shows. I think the first show we played with them was at a Mexican topless bar called Jacaranda’s located in Downtown L.A. Eventually we got to the point where we had developed a following of our own and we were packing them into the Hong Kong Café every other Saturday night. Paul Cutler (of 45 Grave) was our sound man there and he gave us a great mix and lots of encouragement. Carlos Guitarlos was the doorman. Michael was quite wild on stage in those days. You should have seen him, drenching himself in beer and dancing on table tops. People couldn’t take their eyes off him. It’s like they were waiting for him to explode into a puff of smoke.” Michael adds, “The concept behind Hey Taxi! was to keep all of our songs down to a minute or two in length. That way we could blast out a fast paced set of 15 songs in about 35 minutes. The idea was to keep audiences always wanting more. A lot of my lyrics for Hey Taxi! were sarcastic and tongue and cheek, themes dealing with serial killers, cannibalism, riding on L.A. busses, soldiers at war, queens and gay vampires, etc. I even incorporated some lines from musicals into our songs, stuff that went right over people’s heads. We were approached by Doug Moody of Mystic Records. He wanted to record one of our songs titled “I Hate Dogs.”
In 1980, Hey Taxi! managed to record and release a highly sought-after EP on the new punk label, Mystic Records. Mystic was owned by Doug Moody, who had been a major player in the 1950s with his connections to labels such as Herald and Ember. Moody was looking for the next big thing and settled on the emerging punk. Spider states, “You have to understand that “I Hate Dogs” was meant to be a joke. One night, Michael and I decided to compose the worst punk rock song ever written, so Michael wrote the most lame lyrics he could possibly dream up and we put them to music. Again, it was suppose to be a joke, but the joke was on us. “I Hate Dogs” became our most popular tune, the song Hey Taxi! was best known for! I don’t know how many copies of the single were pressed, probably 300 or so. Besides…“I Hate Dogs,” “War Is Hell,” and “Queen Bee”, we recorded several other tracks with Doug that never got completed, songs such as “Cindi the Car,” “ I’m a Soldier Too,” and “Vinyl Art.” The band relates that the record had almost no exposure and even got a bad review in Flipside magazine, which is why they are surprised that anyone today knows about the record or why it has become so valued with record collectors.
By the end of 1980, the band started to implode and that is one of the reasons that they never finished all of their recordings for Mystic. Spider remembers, “Michael killed the band in early 1981. He was growing bored with the run of the mill punk scene at that point and was developing a concept for something new and risk taking. He was always good at breaking rules and making the music fit his original vision.” Michael states, “By 1981, I felt like punk was a cliché and I wanted to experiment with something new. I decided to take all of our past musical influences and combine them, to mix psychedelic rock, glam rock and punk rock together to create a new postpunk sound. If Hey Taxi! was the caterpillar, Red Wedding would be the butterfly. We started Red Wedding in June of 1981. Our first gig was at the Brave Dog, a little club located in Little Tokyo downtown L.A. owned by our friends Clare Gildden and Jack Marquette. It wasn’t long before we became the house band.” Spider recalls, “At the time, I was managing a gay glory hole club (near Fairfax and Melrose) and the other Red Wedding founding members (Marc O and John) worked there as doormen. That’s how we all first met. We were the first and only openly gay undergroundL.A.rock band in those days.” Michael continues, “Red Wedding played countless shows between 1981 and 1985. We were a hard working band. After the Brave Dog, we moved on to other clubs and we headlined shows at Lhasa Club, Club Lingerie, The Plant, Madame Wong’s, Cathay De Grande, Fiesta House, On Club, Al’s Bar, Music Machine, Anti-Club, The Whiskey and The Roxy as well as several clubs down in San Diego (in fact, we were regulars at the Spirit Club in S.D.). Some of the bands that we shared stages with included Romeo Void, Bow Wow Wow, Killing Joke, Specimen, 45 Grave, The Sparks, Suburban Lawns, Psi Com (an early incarnation of Jane’s Addiction), Fibonaccis, Nina Hagan, Interpol, Wild Kingdom, The Bangs (later renamed The Bangles), Outer Circle, Shadow Minstrels, Mnemonic Devices and Kommunity FK.”
Red Wedding released their first EP in 1981 entitled “Up and Down the Aisle” and it was produced by legendary punk producer Thom Wilson (just finished with the Christian Death sessions) for the independent Bemisbrain label. It was soon reissued in France for the New Rose label. A second EP followed in 1984 entitled “Nails” and was produced by Leslie St. James for the Important label. Both EPs garnered good reviews and the song “Somewhere” from the second EP even won the 91X (radio station) People’s Choice Poll in San Diego. A third EP was recorded in 1985, but was never completed. The music of Red Wedding is hard to describe, but here are snatches from what some reviewers said about them in the 80s: “Red Wedding’s record is an offbeat disc of slightly postpunk dance rock. There are traces of Bryan Ferry in Ely’s sometimes droll, sometimes melodramatic crooning while the music runs in eccentric grooves of guitar rifts and synthesizer washes. There are some really nice ideas here with dynamic hooks and chances… Red Wedding explores an area of modern art-rock dance music that bows to influences from various directions. There’s more than a touch of The Doors in songs like “Marsha in Pictures,” especially at the end where the organ weaves around the track, and a lot of Spider Taylor’s guitar work resurrects good old psychedelia. Ely’s vocals also owe to artists like Bryan Ferry, in that they’re more a matter of attitude than aptitude, and often he’s less than convincing. However, on the whole, his delivery is suitably idiosyncratic and tortured, matching the lyrics which are, for the most part, provoking and fresh.” Sadly, by May of 1985, the band played their last show.
From 1985 until 2003, the duo did not do much musically. The music making bug bit them again in 2003 when they started making ethereal soundtrack styled music under the name “Smoke and Mirrors” with Michael now on keyboards. Three CDs were released between 2003 and 2005. Their label said this about their “White Roses Painted Red” CD; “Smoke & Mirrors have…composed a heavily layered mix of cinematic soundscapes and rock instrumentals featuring sensual, driving guitars, eerie, dreamlike strings, dramatic percussion, and smoky, captivating ambience.” Other CDs have surfaced in a similar style built around a theme like the Sonoran Desert, Hindu deities, Alice in Wonderland, and old school exotica. One of their more recent efforts was their “Iridescent Garden” CD released in 2008 under their own name of “Michael and Spider.” Press releases for this CD said; “A collection of lush and exotic tiki-themed soundscapes. Taking equal parts of Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny, along with a dash of Yma Sumac, Link Wray, Santo and Johnny and The Ventures, Michael and Spider have turned vintage exotica upside-down on it’s head, adding their own modern twist while remaining faithful to the genre.” Several of the duo’s more recent works have been used in indie documentaries and one track was used in the Touchstone dance film “Step Up 2 The Streets.” Michael and Spider hope to continue making soundtrack-styled music and place more songs with film and TV.
Within the last few months, there have been recent hints from Doug Moody that he may be reissuing the Hey Taxi! material soon on the revamped Mystic Records. The duo also would like to do a proper reissue of all of the Red Wedding material with the right label. Although these guys have been a musical team, and a loving couple, for over 40 years, time has not seemed to have slowed these two down. Who knows what the future may hold in store for them and their talents? You can visit them at michaelandspider.com to say hello or learn more about their projects.