Real Vinyl History: Jack Ruby
The Nasty Bits on HBO’s Vinyl had its roots in a Times Square cassette.
In HBO’s rock and roll jukebox series Vinyl, Mick Jagger’s son James plays Kip Stevens, the lead singer of a protopunk band called Nasty Bits. To some viewers, the band’s sound may seem an anachronism in the still-too-early seventies, but the demo that got scooped out of Richie Finestra’s inbox came from a real band that got its name from the guy who shot the guy who shot JFK, Jack Ruby.
In the pilot episode of Vinyl, directed by Martin Scorsese, the American Century Records coffee and coke girl is transfixed by the raw aggressive sounds coming through the headphones in her office. She’d only snagged the tape because she liked the look of the lead singer but here was a new style that was a distillation of all the energy of pop music since the beginning of rock and roll. The cassette rendering was raw but melodic. Of course, Den of Geek readers picked up on it and put in a special request to find out who and what created it.
And it was a Den of Geek reader who pointed us in the right direction. “The song that comes out of the demo tape is Beggar’s Parade, a 4 Seasons song covered by Jack Ruby on the ugexplode #50 disc & also on the dbl cd version from the St. Cecelia Knows release,” wrote gar w reese in our comments section. “Unfortunately, there is no Jack Ruby music on the soundtrack.” So we found the Jack Ruby version on YouTube for the listening pleasure of all and sundry.
The demo was performed by the Vinyl house band put together by the show’s music supervisor Randall Poster and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. To recreate Jack Ruby’s take on the Four Seasons’ “Beggar’s Parade” they pulled in Ranaldo’s former Sonic Youth bandmate, drummer Steve Shelley along with bassist James McNew of Yo La Tengo with Alan Licht and Don Fleming on guitars. Ontstage they are played by Brooklyn’s Beach Fossils.
But who were these pre-punks? While Television and the New York Dolls were bringing raw bones rock and roll desperation to the Mercer Arts Center, they were only part of a growing city movement committed to noise. The Harlots of 42nd St, who looked like the Dolls, and the Brats, pared down their arrangements while turning up the volume. Suicide’s Alan Vega sang over the keyboard feedback that Martin Rev layered. Jack Ruby combined synth rhythms with thrashing guitars.
Jack Ruby began when songwriter Robin “Robby” Hall and guitarist Chris Gray came together in Albany, New York, in the summer of 1973. They moved to New York City where Gray started working at the legendary, but sadly now-defunct, West Village record store Bleecker Bob’s. The pair ran an ad in The Village Voice classifieds look for a drummer, “Detroit raunch-schooled preferred. Must be fast, tight, and tasteless.”
The ad caught the eye of Serge synthesizer co-creator Randy Cohen, who also played drums. Randy used the synthesizer as an early sampler, creating rhythms out of recordings of sound effects records. Cohen pulled in Boris Policeband, a viola player who electrified his instrument by running it through an FM transmitter and a bunch police walkie-talkies that he strapped around his waist.
They were prepunk intellectuals who were as influenced by William Burroughs as they were the Velvet Underground or the MC5 European art-house cinema. Robbie Hall had dropped out of college when he met Chris Gray, who was a music major at Albany State. Randy and Boris both went to the California Institute of the Arts. Gray wanted the band to be an ‘art-punk Steely Dan.’ Cohen helped develop the Serge synthesizer at an electronic workshop with Serge Tcherepnin. The band’s sound combined some of the synthesizer work that Eno was using in Roxy Music with the atonal guitar sounds of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.” John Cale played the first rock viola and Policebrand was classically trained. Jack Ruby also borrowed elements from the Stooges and the MC5.
Hall chose the name for its name recognition. He was inspired by the infamous photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald as he walked through the Dallas courthouse basement. Jack Ruby recorded three songs in a studio in Times Square in early 1974. Gray and Cohen wrote “Hit and Run,” Policeband brought the song “Mayonnaise is Made of Eggs.” The third song is lost and the band reportedly can’t even remember the name.
The Jack Ruby demo made its way to Terry Ork who owned Ork Records and managed Television. The band set up an audition but Ork passed. It also made its way to Epic Records’ Steve Paley who was Sly Stone’s A&R rep. Paley arranged for the band to record another demo. Policeband quit the band before recording and other three woodshedded in Pennsylvania to write “Bored Stiff,” “Sleep Cure” and “Bad Teeth” for the session. Epic didn’t pick them up. No label did.
Cohen quit in 1975. Former actor George Scott took on the bass. He worked at both Bleecker Bob’s and the record store Musical Maze. Scott had come up to New York from Sarasota, Florida, where he went to high school with Paul Reubens, AKA Pee Wee Herman. In May of 1977, Hall quit Steve Barth took over as lead singer. The band played Kenny’s Castaways and at least four other live shows. Their stage act was described as including dildos and dolls sharing the stage. The band’s first show was opening for a topless snake dancer at the basement-club Copperfields on 8th Street, which was appropos because the real Jack Ruby ran a strip club. One show was at the Village Gate with Teenage Jesus and the Fleshtones. The band’s last show was at Max’s Kansas City in November 1977.
Jack Ruby’s influence can be best heard on the post-punk No Wave bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Lydia Lunch was 14 when she became friends with the Jack Ruby players in Bleecker Bob’s. Teenage Jesus further minimalized sounds by restricting drummer Bradley Field to one snare and tied one hand behind his back.
A two-CD retrospective called Hit and Run by Jack Ruby came out Saint Cecilia Knows records April, 28, 2011. It was put together from tapes Weasel Walter, guitarist for Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus, had for his now-defunct ugEXPLODE label. The retrospective included a cassette recording of a band rehearsal from 1977.
George Scott went on to form 8-Eyed Spy with Lydia Lunch and the Raybeats. He also played with the Contortions, James White and the Blacks, Human Switchboard, and John Cale. Scott died in 1980. Boris Policeband died in 2001. Chris Gray died in 2014. Cohen would go on to write an ethics column for the New York Tomes and jokes for David Letterman and Rosie O’Donnell. Boris Policeband played in a few New York City bands before he disappeared in the mid-1980s. He is rumored to be dead. Robin Hall lives in Brooklyn.
HBO’s Vinyl season 1 happens every Sunday at 9.