Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock band formed '79; lineup: Dave Alvin, guitar; Phil Alvin, vocals; John Bazz, bass; Bill Bateman, drums. The Alvin brothers, from Downey CA, were brought up on diet of Sun rockabilly, Chess R&B, local heroes Eddie Cochran, the Burnettes, Jack Scott. Their first album American Music included an anthemic title song for the local Rolling Rock label, but the quality was poor; they remade it for their proper debut Blasters '81 on Slash (with 'Marie Marie': a cover by Shakin' Stevens was top 20 UK '80), 'Border Radio'. Live EP Over There '82 was made at the Venue in London, with covers ('High School Confidential', 'Keep A-Knockin' ', etc) and one original, as though to exorcize the rockabilly leaning.

They came to critical attention with Non Fiction '83. By this time they were seven pieces: Gene Taylor (keyboards) had turned down an earlier invitation to join in favour of touring with Ronnie Hawkins, changed his mind in time for Blasters; the band was also augmented by Steve Berlin (baritone sax); the legendary Lee Allen sessioned on Blasters and on a live EP playing his own tenor sax riffs from Little Richard's original '56 'Keep A- Knockin' '. Non Fiction was likened to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska in dealing with the plight of the working class under Reagan: Dave Alvin's songs combined downbeat lyrics with rock'n'roll excitement to great effect: 'Long White Cadillac' was about the death of Hank Williams; 'Boomtown' and John Fogerty-like 'Jubilee Train' examined hard times in rural USA; 'Red Rose' was in a romantic vein. Hard Line '85 had four pieces plus Taylor (Berlin had joined labelmates Los Lobos); the stripped-down sound had a noticeable gospel element (e.g. traditional 'Samson And Delilah'), 'Just Another Sunday' was co-written with John Doe (of Los Angeles punk band X) with whom Dave Alvin had played in Flesheaters, then concurrently in part-time group the Knitters (album Poor Little Critter On The Road '85), signifying some realignment with new wave instead of rockabilly revival. Hard Line furthered anti-Reaganism with 'Common Man'; like Springsteen in Born In The USA the guitar-based music attempts reconciliation of national pride and social conscience. John Cougar's (Mellencamp's) 'Coloured Lights' was included in Hard Line as an attempted hit at the label's request.

Dave left to join X; guitarist Hollywood Fats (Michael Mann) was recruited but died of a heart attack at age 32, and Dave rejoined temporarily; Berlin and Phil Alvin toured the UK with the Blasters early '87 while Los Lobos were also there. Phil's eclectic solo LP Unsung Stories '86 on Smash (London UK) included backing by Sun Ra, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Lee Allen, Jubilee Train Singers, etc; County Fair 2000 on Hightone included the Blasters, Dirty Dozen and others. Dave Alvin went solo with Every Night About This Time '87 on Demon UK, a showcase from country flavour to X's '4th Of July', on Epic USA as Romeo's Escape, later on Razor and Tie; also Blue Blvd, Museum Of The Heart, King Of California all on Hightone. The Blasters' At Home CD was on On the Spot.

Dave and Phil had not always got along, but on a Blasters tour in Spain in 2012 Phil developed respiratory trouble and nearly died. The brothers got together for Common Ground, described by the New Yorker in 2015 as 'a lively reimagining of material recorded by Big Bill Broonzy.' It was nominated for a Grammy, and was followed late that year by Lost Ground, 'as in "making up for",' wrote Barry Mazor in the Wall Street Journal, adding that the brothers had 'never quite masked their awareness of American music history even while blasting', on the new album paying tribute to Oscar Brown, James Brown, Big Joe Turner and Otis Rush, among others.