Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about Country Dick Montana, who died onstage during a Beat Farmers performance 20 years ago in Whistler, Canada.
When the Beat Farmers went to England in 1985 for a month-long tour, a British music critic for Melody Maker compared the band to the Beatles.
Twenty years earlier, the Fab Four led the British Invasion into the United States with its interpretation of American artists such as the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry. The charisma of John, Paul, George and Ringo separated the Beatles from its British brethren, and it became the greatest pop band on the planet.
Energetic and powerful, the Beat Farmers made its own invasion with a fresh sound that was inspired by English rockers and mods, such as the Sex Pistols and the Kinks, whose lead singer Ray Davies balanced full bottles of beer on his head, inspiring the uber-charismatic Country Dick Montana to take beer-swilling gymnastics to unprecedented proportions.
Upon the urging of Dave Alvin of the Blasters, Los Angeles music manager Denny Bruce went to the Spring Valley Inn to scout the Beat Farmers. He instantly signed on as the band’s manager. He also made comparisons to England.
“Jerry is the Eric Clapton of San Diego,” Bruce said. “Dick knew every band in San Diego and he was able to cherry pick the guys he wanted. That’s why they felt they were special and they were on a mission.
“I said, ‘This is the new Liverpool and you guys are going to emerge. You will be the freshest, homegrown great San Diego group. It will shed that real quick and you will just be a great band.’ ”
While in England, which the band went on to tour four times, the Beat Farmers made a second album, “Glad and Greasy,” a brilliantly raw six-song EP co-produced by new wave pioneer Graham Parker. Country Dick sang two of the tracks, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “The Beat Generation,” which represented anthems for his onstage persona and his own self. The lines that separated the two were pretty blurred.
“On one side, Country Dick was afraid of the wretchedness of having to work a job that meant nothing, just to make it through this world,” said Paul Kamanski, who wrote many of the Beat Farmers’ songs. “That was one thing that just drove him mad to be a musician and to be creative. He hated that working man who just toiled for what, a gold watch? He was a true hobo.”
Dave Alvin, Nick Lowe, Gene Taylor, Loudon Wainwright III and Dan Stuart are the background vocalists on “The Beat Generation,” a song originally penned in 1959 by Bob McFadden. Country Dick changed the lyrics from “I run around in sandals, I never, ever shave,” to “I run around in boots, it’s drugs and booze I crave, and that’s the way it will be when someone digs my grave.”
After the Beat Farmers returned to the United States, the band signed — and went on to lament for years — a multi-album deal with Curb Records.
“Curb really didn’t work out, although (the label’s executives said), ‘This band could be the Dire Straits – they are that good,’ ” Beat Farmers’ manager Bruce said.
“ ‘But, Denny, you’ve got to collar Country Dick. Yes, we understand in your club, it’s what people come to see because they are not a hit act. But that’s alright with us. He can be kind of like Ringo with the Beatles. Let him have one, maybe two songs on the album.’ ”
Promptly after the Beat Farmers recorded its first album with Curb Records in 1986, “Van Go,” guitarist-singer Buddy Blue quit the band. He was replaced by Joey Harris, who formerly played with Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies and was Kamanski’s childhood friend from Coronado.
Bruce said the addition of Harris was like bringing Dave Edmunds into the band.
Harris, however, had trepidation about filling Blues’s rockabilly shoes.
“The first tour was scary,” Harris said. “I was afraid people would throw stuff at me on the stage. Dick convinced me to play ‘Rosie,’ that slow song by Tom Waits and I would win them over. He was right, and we were on our way.”
The first album with Harris was 1987’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” which includes one of the Beat Farmers’ most popular songs, “Hollywood Hills,” sung by Harris. Written by Paul Kamanski, the lyrics are a riddle. It seems to be about James Dean and the Beat Farmers. Kamanski said it was about that, as well as United States bands’ response to the British Invasion.
“The ghosts from these Western lands are going to rise up against English sands.
Like a tumbleweed on a reckless course, these barbed wire fences can’t keep us apart.
Where are the heroes that sang them old songs?
You recognize a hero ‘cuz he don’t belong.
We gave up our youth and model railroad trains.
We picked up guitars and we changed our names.
With experience of a tortured youth, turn up the music and go in search of the truth.
Life is a high price to pay for these kicks. Stay out of the deserts and keep off Route 46.
It takes a young man’s life, and it probably will; mining for gold, in them Hollywood Hills.”
“Dick was worried when they were recording ‘Hollywood Hills’ the English might take offense to ‘English sands.’ ” Kamanski said.
“He asked, ‘Can we change that?’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand your position. It was so obvious, you are taking it back to the English. You dug the Kinks, the Beatles the Stones and they took it over here to America, they conquered and they went back to England and they were fucking heroes. And now you assholes are going to go over to England and you give it back to them … It’s beautiful. It’s Biblical. It’s like David and Goliath but it’s rock and roll.’
“The English came over here and stole the blues from the (Delta) and Elvis Presley and the whole country music thing. They took it away from us. My thing with the Beat Farmers was, ‘You guys have gone over to England now. Now you’re taking some of that English stuff and you are bringing it back to America.’
“I don’t know at that moment that Dick realized where he was in history, when he was recording the song. We’re not offending them. It’s holding up a glass to them and saying, ‘Cheers, it’s back at you, mate.’
“They got a deal, got to tour the world and get a taste of what rock and roll was all about in that time period. It was one big, radical party and, when you jumped on board that tiger, it was something to ride. There were people who tried to stay on the road with them — they didn’t last very long. People just became road kill. They were storm troopers out there. They were fearless. They didn’t give a shit.”