The Sleepers – Against the Day
Michael Belfer and Tim Mooney started the band and got Paul Draper and Ricky Williams together in 1977. They were recording their first record in January 1978. There was a strange lull that year when it came to bands putting out their debut 7” records. There had already been a glut of bad 45s after Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, Television, and others got signed to major labels off of theirs. The earliest independent record distributors like Jem and Bomp! didn’t really differentiate the junk from what mattered; thus the glut reached the shops and made them leery of taking new records by unknowns. In late 1977 I started working at a record shop in Portland and we began turning it into a new kind of distributor that didn’t worry about German pressings of “Dark Side of the Moon” or French Bowie singles or UK major label punk, and would make a judgment on the records before we asked shops to buy them unheard C.O.D.
We were solicited on The Sleepers 5-song 7” e.p. by Jem Records by fall of ’78 and I ordered a few for the shop; I hadn’t heard of them. When the record came its picture sleeve went up on the display wall and I played it with the rest of the new stuff so I could describe it in our mail order catalog and figure out if I’d play it on KBOO or try to track it down for distribution purposes. I liked it but hadn’t really gotten into it before Rozz Rezabek came into the shop and flipped out when he saw it. He had me play it for him and bought a copy – the only time I ever saw him buy anything. Rozz was one of the Portland kids who practically commuted to San Francisco to participate in its much bigger music scene. He sang for Negative Trend awhile. Rozz came back into the shop a couple days later and I heard him tell somebody that he’d stayed home with his girlfriend and played The Sleepers record all day. That made me listen to it more closely and then I was hooked.
Even though the 7" e.p. is 33rpm the opening guitar on “She’s Fun” cuts and all five songs are great and different. “Linda” is the long slow one and takes awhile to appreciate. But once you’ve acclimated to Ricky’s way with vocals that song is where he really has room and time to walk his crazy high-wire approach. We tried to order the record from the label but as I remember they’d shipped them all to Jem. Most San Francisco bands didn’t respond to letters requesting purchasing info. They were really living the music life in one of the best early punk era scenes. Bands sold their singles locally thru Aquarius, Tower, and Leopold’s. Systematic Record Distribution, the company we built in Portland and moved to Berkeley hoped to change that. Still in Portland though in 1979 Jem Records remaindered a bunch of small label stuff they couldn’t sell. The 7" records were a dime each. So we bought 75 copies of The Sleepers e.p. and were able to sell them easily deeply discounted via our mail order catalog and to the new kind of shop around the country that Jem didn’t sell to. I think we bought another hundred for ten bucks and moved those too. Later if I remember the same e.p. was re-issued as a 12” e.p. Maybe that got around a little better, I don’t recall.
We saw mostly L.A. bands in Portland. No Sleepers anyway. In Berkeley, Vale of Search & Destroy magazine was helping Rough Trade and Systematic set up in the bay area, plus he was part of Adolescent Records and they were following up a Sleepers 45 ("Mirror"/"Theory") with the “Painless Nights” album. I liked the album but when I saw the new lineup Oct. 24, 1980 at the 10th St. Hall I was really impressed. I thought they were going to be big; their live sound was massive! If the board tape is out there for sale buy it.
The Sleepers didn’t become big; they broke up in New York at the start of a tour. Not many of us knew what we were up against back then. We knew the rock press had disowned punk rock and radio wasn’t even worth talking about. The San Francisco scene seemed satisfied with the four college stations that were pretty good, but to make the jump to a major label and commercial radio, or to sell enough records on a small label for a band to buy a van or eat? Not likely for those early bands. Radio and press had stopped educating the music audience and gotten down to platinum business.
Rolling Stone left San Francisco for New York in 1978 – perfect timing for anyone who wanted to preserve their ignorance: New York was over and San Francisco was happening. If the mag had stayed they’d have had to review or mention what was going on in their town. As it was they never wrote about The Sleepers until suddenly in 1992 Ricky’s career debuted in Rolling Stone as an obituary. He was a rock star if anybody was a rock star! He’d listened to a lot of Iggy and a lot of Bowie but wherever he started, he improvised from and ended up… wherever all over again – you just had to follow him. He had lyrics written down somewhere, I suppose, but he used phrases like he sang them, changing the words and sounds depending on the moment. Ricky was a handful no doubt, but Belfer and later, Craig Gray in the Toiling Midgets made allowances for genius.
Belfer’s guitar had the power to calm one new wave spaz after another: Tuxedo Moon, BPeople, DNA… I think those guys were maybe especially susceptible to Belfer’s warm, heavy, careening psychedelia. I saw Michael play a duo set with Arto Lindsay if you can imagine that. And I remember being confused by a sudden change in the sound of The BPeople, a Pasadena art band, and Laurie O’Connell of the best art band of that day, Monitor, explained and complained that their guitarist Alex Gibson had fallen under the spell of The Sleepers and turned bassist Fred Nilsen’s concept into another “macho rock band.”
I think about this now because west coast punk is being repackaged and misinterpreted sans “macho” at this late date in post-Death-of-Rock London. Back then this living music was actively kept out of the UK shops for any number of bogus reasons. Even in their hometown The Sleepers big re-debut in 1980 on the release of their first album found them having to play a truncated set opening for post-rock sub-stars Cabaret Voltaire. Though some early SF scene fans were out to see The Sleepers, there were more of the new-style Anglophiles yelling for them to get off the stage. Before their last tune that night (“She’s Fun”), after the best 35 minutes of music those deaf children had ever been exposed to, Ricky says, “I’m really sorry, I know you can’t take this any longer but….”
Imagine sophisto stupidity so dense it’s not penetrable by such as The Sleepers? Well, that was the truth of it back in the day. reprinted below by permission from Superior Viaduct/Carducci