Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A folk/country band formed in the early 1960s in NYC by vocalists Peter Stampfel (b 29 October 1938, Wauwautosa WI) on banjo and fiddle, guitarist Steve Weber (b 22 June 1944, Philadelphia; d 7 February 2020, Mount Clare WV). Stampfel knew an uncountable number of songs, while Weber was the better musician, but famously reluctant to rehearse, or even, allegedly, to get out of bed. The Fugs' Ed Sanders said of Weber, 'He's the only human being I ever saw, who, as a remedy for toothache, took LSD.' But the Rounders' 'progressive oldtimey' or 'acid folk' found an audience that never goes away. ('Rounder' was USA slang for an idler, probably dissolute, but perhaps of considerable experience.)

Their first albums were The Holy Modal Rounders I and II '64 on Prestige (later a two-disc Stampfel And Weber); they collaborated with the Fugs on ESP LPs, made their own Indian War Hoop '67 on that label, with budding playwright/actor Sam Shepard on drums; went further in the acid direction with The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders '68 on Elektra, adding Dave Levy on electric guitar, Richard Tyler on bass and keyboards (Stampfel had run a band called the Moray Eels in which he played bass), floundered on with Good Taste Is Timeless '71 on Metromedia, with Michael McCarty and John Wesley Annis replacing Shepard and Levy, adding Robin Remaily on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and vocals. ('Living Off The Land'/'Boobs A Lot' on Metromedia was probably their only single.) Meanwhile they recorded an original cast LP of the Sam Shepard play Operation Sidewinder for Columbia c.1968 but the play flopped and the album was not issued; more Elektra material remains unreleased.

Stampfel's girlfriend Antonia's 'Bird Song' was the song from the soundtrack of Easy Rider '69 that nobody remembers, and they also had spots on TV's Laugh-In, but despite a loyal following, the unevenness of these albums and the impossibility of categorizing their music kept them in left field. The '72 band including saxophonist Ted Deane was said to be their best lineup, but did not record. They found a new home on the new Rounder label (probably not named after them, but who knows?) with Alleged In Their Own Time '75 including Stampfel, Weber, Remaily, Tyler, the excellent Karen Dalton on vocals, plus Luke Faust (from Insect Trust) on vocals, guitar and banjo, Hunt Middleton on guitar, Dave Reisch on bass: this was succeeded (and exceeded) by the cult songwriter Michael Hurley's joyful Have Moicy! '75, with the Unholy Modal Rounders (without Weber) and the Clamtones, including Stampfel, Paul Presty on guitar and vocals, Remaily, Jeff and Jill Frederick, Antonia, Dick Nickson (aka Frog) on drums: rated a record of the year by Village Voice and Rolling Stone (see also Spiders In The Moonlight by Jeff Frederick and the Clamtones).

Reunions of post-'71 HMR included Last Round '78 on Adelphi, Going Nowhere Fast '81 on Rounder; a live '81 Stampfel/Weber reunion was to be released as two-disc Cruel And Unusual, The Punishment Brothers; an album on Adelphi was predicted late '90s and they were to play together again in July '96 at the Bottom Line. Meanwhile Stampfel teamed unsuccessfully with Mark Bingham (guitarist who contributed to the Kurt Weill tribute Lost In The Stars on A&M) and singer/songwriter John Parrot. He formed the Bottle Caps '81 (referring to his bottle-cap collection, featured on earlier album sleeves): Peter Stampfel And The Bottle Caps '86 on Rounder won NY Music Award for best independent record, with John Scherman, lead guitar; W. T. (Tom) Overgard, rhythm guitar; Jonathan (Jabe) Best, keyboards; all vocalists except Peter Moser on drums, Allan Greller on bass. This was followed by The People's Republic Of Rock And Roll '89 on Homestead. Stampfel's You Must Remember This '95 on Gert Town is a collection of ditties from 'Indian Summer' to 'Goldfinger' (the Bond film theme), his voice here aggressive, there unexpectedly gentle. The Unholy Modal Rounders (without Weber) made a privately released album of 'songs' by Buckminster Fuller ('Roam Home To The Dome' to the tune of 'Home On The Range', etc). Stampfel also made cassette Not In Our Wildest Dreams with the Chicago-based Dysfunctionells and a children's album by the Du-Tels (Stampfel and ex-Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas).

Weber contributed to The East Village Other on ESP, also to Hurley's LPs. Hurley also drew distinctive LP covers; his best-known song 'The Werewolf' was widely covered. His albums apart from Have Moicy! included Long Journey and Snockgrass on Rounder in the late '70s, also First Songs '65 on Folkways, Armchair Boogie and Hi Fi Snock Uptown '71-2 on WB's Raccoon label, Blue Navigator '84 on Rooster, the excellent Watertower '88 on Fundamental (including 'Ma's Dream Blues', an imaginary meeting between Ma Rainey and Blind Willie McTell), compilation Wolfways on a Koch CD. Dalton made It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best '69 on Capitol, In My Own Time '71 on Just Sunshine/Paramount.

Incredibly, there were no Holy Modal Rounders reissues or compilations listed in Schwann early '97, but then Schwann was not long for this world either. And there was a documentary film released 2007 called Bound To Lose, about an attempted reunion tour: Eddie Dean wrote in the Wall Street Journal that 'the bond of music forged a brotherhood for life, and like an old-time fiddle tune, it lingers long after it's done.'