The Berkeley-based Rubinoos were playing rock ‘n’ roll with pop hooks and vocal harmonies long before the record companies lumped them into the “power pop” genre. As early as 1970, teens Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar were plotting their musical course, launched by a minor hit cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and went on to record two classic albums. A recently unearthed cache of demos from 1976, which caught them in their pre-fame glory, has been released as The CBS Tapes (Yep Roc). Eric Davidson spoke with the good-humored Jon Rubin who shares tales about the band, Jonathan Richman, Elvis Costello, Bob Hope and Bill Clinton.
I will make a wild guess that many reading this might remember when the post-Knack, “skinny tie” power pop trend blew through FM radio, circa 1979-81. Much of that oft-maligned signing frenzy was weak, fodder for the then-argument that it was all just watered-down punk rock from an aging major label industry that assumed punk was too messy and noisy to sell.
Under the usual morass of trendy also-rans was a huge swath of young bands who were weaned on ‘60s radio, bored with early ‘70s stadium rock, inspired by punk’s energy, and came, went, never got the major label push, then got rediscovered later via collector streams and bootleg comps years later. I won’t list the hundreds of since-dug up acts, but just put “power pop” into your Facebook search, join a few groups, and you’ll see that lake is bottomless.
What makes the Rubinoos unique is they’re one of very few bands who were dragging their guitars around clubs doing the re-electrified ‘60s garage pop hooks’n’harmonies thing years before music history turned the term “power pop” into a vague catch-all. The Rubinoos basic duo of Jon Rubin (vocals, guitar) and Tommy Dunbar (guitar) started out looking for band mates and putzing around the Bay Area in 1970. They scored a minor hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” off their 1977 self-titled debut; and by the time of their sparkling breakout sophomore album, Back to the Drawing Board (1978), they got swept up in the power pop trend.
But to them, they were just rock’n’roll fans lookin’ for fun times – as evidenced on the excellently loopy new Rubinoos release, The CBS Tapes (Yep Roc), a recently unearthed 1976 demo of the band in full teenage excitement mode, on the precipice of their debut. Full of fun covers, ragged run-throughs of tracks from the debut, and lots of blue-tongued, between-song banter, it might be just a fun bit of nostalgia for the band, but the record jumps around with the kind of scrappy energy and raw recording that modern-day power pop archeologists pine for. Part of the problem of many eventual major label power pop releases from the end of the 1970s was the punky energy was often sapped by radio-hopeful production. The aim of current collectors is to find the looser, scruffier stuff – like The CBS Tapes.
A few more hits happened for the Rubinoos, one of which, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” is a bona fide absolute immortal gem of the genre. It bought them some more major label releases, soundtrack work, and eventually unwanted litigation with Avril Lavigne, after she’d (well, her producer) nicked the song’s main hook for her 2007 hit, “Girlfriend.”
Since their heyday, Rubin and Dunbar have never really stopped popping, leading to solid reunion albums and occasional touring. I saw them at Union Pool in Brooklyn in 2018, and their original teen energy seemed to have been bottled, opened, and slugged down their throats for a jumpy hour-plus set.
What can be lost in the Rubinoos’ current power pop royalty status is that they were actually contemporaries of pre-trend founders Big Star, the Raspberries, Blue Ash, Cheap Trick, Pezband, and just about nobody else from that weird little window before punk got banned and ties got skinny.
I caught up with leader Rubin and avoided the dreaded power pop question as long as I could, which was easy given the number of funny stories his long career has afforded.
PKM: Okay, I have to ask this, and may be the only one who will, but, while I can assume where the band name came from, does it have anything to do with The Bugaloos?
Jon Rubin: Ha ha! Now that’s the first time that question came up! The rumor is that it was from Buck Owns and the Buckaroos. Tommy disputes that with me. Maybe it was because we had a lot of “oo-oo”s in the background vocals, I don’t know. Tommy says he came up with it, and I’ll believe him. But that Bugaloos reference is pretty funny! I’m gonna work with that one now.
PKM: So you’d been together since 1970, right?
Jon Rubin: Yeah, but the lineup on [The CBS Tapes] had been about a year. That was recorded during the ramp-up to our first album for Beserkley Records. We’d done a few sessions – I’m guessing this was probably our third session ever in the studio. We’d had “Gorilla” and a couple other tunes before that. Mainly we were just trying to help the engineer get sounds. Back then, you didn’t do much piecemeal recording, so all the tracking and a work vocal was done at once. This was just to prepare to record. They said go, turned on the tape, and we went. It was mixed straight to two-track. As far as a studio, none of us were seasoned at all, but we were used to playing together all the time.
PKM: For me, since I started buying records, it all comes after when punk happened. And what’s interesting to me about the Rubinoos story is you were right before that original punk era, when you were still just young guys who liked ‘60s pop, and just wanted to play – though in an era when Big Rock was getting very serious. And I wonder if you were ever looked down on for “just” playing fun three-minute songs.
Jon Rubin: Yeah, we were coming from a Stones, Beatles influence. That’s part if it. But the other thing is, when people talk about punk stuff, there was already stuff like Iggy, the MC5, and of course the Velvet Underground, and we listened to all that. We weren’t in a vacuum of pop only. Jonathan Richman too. I guess he wasn’t a seminal influence on me. I didn’t see him live until 1972, with the original band.
PKM: Wow! Do you have a memory of that show?
Jon Rubin: Oh yeah. They were sort of an epiphany. The night we saw them, I go to the club – we were really young, but we got to get into the club cuz Tommy’s brother (Robbie Dunbar) was in one of the big bands in town, Earthquake, and could get us in. Anyway, the PA is just playing whatever music, and I see this guy out by himself on the dance floor, and he’s wearing this T-shirt that’s he’s scribbled with crayon, “I Love My Life.” And he’s like spastically moving around, really weird. And we were like, what’s wrong with that guy?! And of course, once the Modern Lovers come on, that guy was Jonathan.
They proceeded to play through that first album, full electric, with David Robinson, Jerry Harrison, and Ernie Brooks. It was really full-on proto-punk, I guess you’d call it. It was amazing. It was really unique for the time. Jonathan’s delivery, it wasn’t quite tongue-in-cheek as it would become, it was a little more angsty. But the sincerity of his delivery was disturbing – like, if you’ve ever been in a room with some people, and one guy is looking you directly in the eye, sort of uncomfortably.
PKM: Yeah, I’ve read in so many articles about the early Modern Lovers, that at that point, just as the hippie thing was fading and rock was getting really stadium huge, etc., that Jonathan – a guy with short hair, button-up shirt, who was actually really sincere and sang about not doing drugs and such – that that actually seemed a lot weirder.
Jon Rubin: Ha, yeah. But his whole sort of in-your-face aspect of it was unique. And he is who he is, it’s not a show or a put-on. I’ve known him now for decades, our members have played on his records, etc., and that’s him.
PKM: And in the music the Rubinoos ended up doing, there was a sincere feeling too, about just having fun, and kind of back-to-basics pop. And I’m wondering if in the early ‘70s, in the music scene you were playing through in the Bay Area – successful hippie bands, and serious rock musicians mixing jazz and long songs into their sound, etc. — and here you are covering “Sugar Sugar” and goofing off on stage. I’m wondering if you got a feeling from other bands that you weren’t taken seriously.
Jon Rubin: Yes and no. Growing up in Berkley right then, there were a few things happening. The sort of soul-funk thing; the hard rock thing; and the psychedelic thing. And jazz too. And at the time, we were probably the only pop-oriented band. And I mean really pop, like teen pop. We were learning to play, writing songs by covering and copying songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. We were particularly interested in the vocal harmony stuff.
PKM: Yeah, I noticed even in this early demo, and just thinking of it as a run-through to set up recording sounds, the harmonies on some of the songs are amazing.
Jon Rubin: Yeah, that was something we concentrated on. That affected our choice of material. That’s not to say that early on, we were doing some prog rock and all kinds of stuff, trying to find our way. But because we were friends with a lot of guys in bands, we weren’t totally ridiculed for it. But also, because we could sing harmonies, and not many other bands around were doing that, most of the musicians around town found that impressive. Plus, Tommy was a spectacular guitar player, and had been since he was like 16.
PKM: So how did the finding of The CBS Tapes come about?
Jon Rubin: Tommy was just going through his old cassettes, transferring them. It wasn’t like we didn’t know they existed, we just hadn’t thought about it in years. He played it for Chuck Prophet, who produced our last album, and he heard it and said, “You gotta release this!”
PKM: Did listening through them again after all those years bring back some weird feelings?
Jon Rubin: Well, yeah, of course, it’s like stepping into a time machine. But one of the things it brought back – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – was how cocky we were. There was no issue about anything, feeling like we could do anything, like no worry, not self-conscious in any way, just let’s go. It was like we rule the world, that feeling you have. The fact we were getting to make a record was so great. But then when it was going down, we never felt like this was so fantastical, if that’s a word.
PKM: Like, that’s just what you do next, record an album.
Jon Rubin: Yeah, this is how it goes. You join a band, you work hard, and then you make a record, and then you have a hit with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and that’s just how it goes. And of course as time goes on, it’s like yeah right! Ha ha.
PKM: And you were aware of the Ramones, and maybe the kind of brevity and rawness of them, Dictators, New York Dolls, etc. was seeping in?
Jon Rubin: Yeah, punk had broken already – Ramones, Dictators, etc. – and we listened to all that stuff. We gigged with the Ramones. We played with them at a club in SF one night, I’d already bought their debut, so we were really into them. It was great! But they were so loud that you couldn’t hear Joey, and that was a little disappointing. I went and talked to them backstage, they were kinda to themselves. But at that point, they were not making money and doing hard touring. They’d probably been on the road a year before I saw them, so maybe they were a little burned out.
PKM: So though still young, I guess with some of the contacts you guys had in SF, the assumption was you might get signed. I guess an indie label wasn’t really an option at that point?
Jon Rubin: Actually, we were so unsophisticated as far as the business, we never thought about it at all. Beserkley Records was the first kind of independent label of that period around there. All the earlier indies had been bought up. Matthew Kaufman started Beserkley. Everything was going in the opposite direction – majors buying up indies – and Matthew decided to go independent.
It was distributed through Playboy Records, which was distributed by CBS, then some other paths. Matthew did it with Tommy’s older brother’s band, Earthquake, who had been on A&M, but had been dropped. So Matthew was managing them I think, and Matthew convinced them to do a single with him, that became a Bay Area hit, then they did an album. Then he signed Greg Kihn, then convinced Jonathan to sign, which was amazing because Jonathan was being pursued by a lot of labels at that point. And since we were Rob’s little brother’s band, he checked us out. We were sort of the weird little band around at that time.
PKM: Did you have a sense that there were other like-minded young bands around the country that were into pursuing a similar pop sound? Like the Raspberries, or…
Jon Rubin: Yeah of course, the Raspberries definitely, but that was early ‘70s. It was a pretty bleak period on the radio. I was probably listening to more soul music at that point.
PKM: Okay, here’s the power pop question. I’m guessing that even by the mid-70s, like ’76, when you made this demo, that term was not bandied about much.
Jon Rubin: No, that came later. We never thought of ourselves that way. “Power pop,” I don’t know, what is that? Guitar-oriented pop music. I don’t know what it is. Or as I like to say, Oh, power pop – you mean it doesn’t sell? Ha.
PKM: Yeah, genre terms get annoying, but you guys were doing this sound before the whole “skinny tie” signing frenzy happened at the end of the decade. And you guys were sort of lumped into that.
Jon Rubin: Yeah, somewhat. There was a sort of aggressive pop movement, I guess you could say, that came out of punk. And not a lot of those bands sang well, or their playing was just okay. So for us, singing and playing were something we really aspired to, instead of putting on some fashion of the time… We practiced five days a week, and gigged on the weekends. But I guess with some experience behind us by the time of our debut, maybe we had that sound down more.
PKM: Listening to The CBS Tapes though, it sounds like – for a time that was very serious in the stadium-filling, concept record, radio rock time – you guys had this sense of fun and humor that was readily apparent, a few years before you had that more peppy, upbeat power pop trend.
Jon Rubin: Yeah, definitely serious was more the vibe on the scene at the time. There was a band around at that time actually called “Serious.” I’m serious, ha. I just remember, their quote was like, “We’re Serious, and we are going to ROCK you!” We’ve always done this for fun. When it’s not fun, that’s when we make our worst decision and worst records. So it was always driven by that.
PKM: You did the “Pepsi Generation” theme song. I’ll assume doing a TV commercial jingle was frowned upon.
Jon Rubin: Oh yeah! Ha. One of our most famous concerts back then, it was our biggest gig up to that time, at the Winterland in San Francisco, Bill Graham’s venue, a 6,000-seater. It was called “Sounds of the City.” So it was us, Earthquake, and Jefferson Starship. 1975. We go on first, and we did “Heartbeat is a Lovebeat.” Nobody in this crowd really knew what that was, so not particularly offended by it. But then we do “Sugar Sugar,” and Jonathan Richman gets up on stage and dances “the Archie.” It’s one of the first concerts where they had a big video screen above the stage, and it’s showing Jonathan dancing. And the audience just loses it. They’re booing and going nuts. Then we finish the set with the “Pepsi Generation,” and then the crowd really goes nuts, and starts hurling things at us and really yelling. They’d been selling bananas at the concession stand, and so the stage is littered with banana peels. We can’t believe the hostility, we thought this was funny. I remember coming offstage and Bill Graham yelling, “You guys will never work for me again!” And then – I will I love Grace Slick for life for this – she comes up to me, gives me a hug, and says, “Don’t worry, fuck those people. You’ll be fine.”
PKM: You guys did a whole tour with Elvis Costello in 1980. Any good tales from that one?
Jon Rubin: Yeah, that was like 60 shows, doing places like 2,000- to 5,000-seaters. The funniest moment for us was, we were going onstage at the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit, we head up on stage, and immediately a couple eggs hit the stage.
PKM: Whenever I hear stories like this I think, who the hell brings eggs with them to a rock concert?
Jon Rubin: Ha, yeah really. But Detroit, a notoriously tough crowd. I remember looking at Tommy and saying, “The rest of that dozen is out there.” So the rest of the show, we’re jumping around and moving as much as we possibly can, thinking shit is going to fly at us. But it ended up as one of our best shows, one of the best responses. Creem ended up giving it a great review.
PKM: Was Elvis [Costello] someone you could hang out with?
Jon Rubin: Not at all. I talked to him at length once. They were doing a ton of blow, and we were totally not into that. I’m not judging or whatever, but I don’t enjoy hanging around people doing a ton of blow. Plus they’d been on the road like 18 months. They were really burnt. That was the tour where Bonnie Bramlett punched him in the nose at the hotel bar, after he said that junk about Ray Charles. The repercussions from that, there were death threats during that tour. But he was just baiting them. I don’t think Elvis Costello is a racist. He was just giving Steven Stills shit. It was inappropriate, but whatever. And they dislocated his shoulder.
Another one, I remember Steve Nieve (Attractions keyboardist), he was about my age, but already a horrible alchoholic. I think it was in Austin, I watched their whole set from the side, and I loved that band, they were incredible. I probably watched 50 of those shows, they were just on fire. But that night, right before they walked on, I watched Nieve chug a fifth of Blue Nun. They get to “Alison,” and suddenly you hear this huge “whhhirrrrzzzz,” and Steve had completely passed out on the keys of his Prophet 5, and it was just spewing out crap. Elvis just let it go on.
PKM: Did some bouncer finally come out and get him?
Jon Rubin: Yeah, finally. His other bad incident was we were sitting at the Mayflower Hotel in New York, at the time a pretty crappy hotel. They had a giant saltwater fish tank in the lobby, and Steve climbs up and pushes it over. Maybe a 300 gallon tank! So for the rest of the tour, he was not allowed to stay in the hotels.
PKM: So back to those Rubinoos ’76 demos, and getting ready to make your debut, it was a fairly relaxed situation with Beserkley, not one of those million dollar advance hanging over your head situations?
Jon Rubin: Ha, a million cents! No. The guy that did the hands-on production, Gary Philips, would come by and work on arrangements, that’s about it. Although studio time was very expensive then, like $150 an hour.
PKM: It was actually CBS Records’ studio, right?
Jon Rubin: Oh yeah, Folsom Street Studios. They did Sly there, Santana, Big Brother, I think some of Simon & Garfunkel, a lot of history there.
PKM: Got any story of a famous person popping their head in while you were recording? You hear those sometimes with people recording at a famous studio, like Bob Hope walks by or something.
Jon Rubin: Ha ha, no, but I actually do have a great Bob Hope story! I was doing a gig with my other band, The Mighty Echoes, an a cappella doo wop band, and we were playing a 4th of July show at Razorback Stadium in Little Rock, AK, in 1991. See, one of our members had done a commercial for a bank there where he danced and sang. So he was known as “The Dancing Banker of Little Rock.” So they hired us to play that because of him. The lineup was us, Bob Hope, and Marie Osmond. Then, Bill Clinton, pre-presidency, was there. We go on, do our 4 songs, whatever, come off, and there’s Bob Hope sitting by himself in a golf cart by the stage. And we’re wearing our matching green sharkskin suits, we’d obviously just performed, and of course we’re like, let’s go say hi to Bob Hope. We go, “Mr. Hope, we’re The Mighty Echoes, nice to meet you.’ And he looks at us, looks away, and says, “Who are these guys? Get them away from me!” And I went, ‘that is awesome.’ We were incredibly happy.
Then he goes on, and he’s hammered. At this point he’s about 90. He gets up, and he has a guy with cue cards – ONE WORD per card. So the guy is furiously flipping through these cards, just throwing them. And the jokes were like, “I saw a guy who said he hadn’t had a bite in a week, so I bit him,” stuff like that. Then, we go backstage to the green room, and Clinton is back there hitting on Ms. Arkansas. I actually didn’t know much about him at the time, he was just revving up his campaign. One of the people who had hired us was on his exploratory campaign, and so I took him aside and I said, what’s the deal with this guy? He said, “Look, Bill’s got two problems – keeping the weight off, and keeping the pants on.”
PKM: Ha ha! So I guess you didn’t get to meet him because he was a little, uh, busy?
Jon Rubin: Oh no, I met him. I found him a little smarmy, but I was really impressed how well he worked the room. He was nice, plus he sat in with Marie Osmond and played sax. But there’s more! The whole event finished with a fireworks competition between the U.S., China, France, Brazil, and Japan – 90 minutes solid of the most amazing fireworks I’ve ever seen. It was an insane day.
My only regret is that I didn’t donate $500 to Clinton’s campaign. In the early days of the campaign, if you donated $500, you got an invite to the White House.
PKM: So I guess you still haven’t made it to the White House?
Jon Rubin: Ha, no. And at this point, I don’t think I ever will.