May 1996

Da Losers . . . Once Winners

(Original interview here) »

Da Losers . . . Once Winners

Pop music: New group, which plays in Anaheim Saturday, has its roots in the legendary O.C. punk band of the '70s, the Mechanics. May 17, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTONAn experienced Mechanic ought to know how to overcome a little rust.

Well, in this case, maybe a lot of rust. When it comes to playing hard-rocking music live and in public, Tim Racca and his two band mates in Da Losers have been away almost as long as Rip Van Winkle.

Racca hasn't played a rock show since 1981, when his last performing band, the Mechanics, broke up. That Fullerton band's four-year run caused nary a ripple in the wider rock world. But with Racca as guitarist and primary songwriter, the Mechanics were crucial to the development of the Orange County punk rock movement.

"That band was as big an influence on us as the Stones or the Pistols," Social Distortion's leader, Mike Ness, once said.

"They were the influence on all the Fullerton [punk] bands, period," said Adolescents' guitarist Frank Agnew. "All the other bands spawned from that. It's a wonder those guys never amounted to anything, because they were the tightest band I've heard in my life. I believe they were just ahead of their time."

Hoping the times have caught up with him, Racca, 42, is making a belated live comeback, starting with Da Losers' debut show Saturday night at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim.

He and fellow Losers John Scalzo and Ty Cobb, both 40, are returning with big dreams about what they might be able to achieve in a rock world that welcomes the blend of heavy-metal heft and punk-rock thrust that fizzled back in the Mechanics' day, when lines between punk and metal were firmly drawn. But Da Losers are being realistic and wryly low-key about their prospects.

As Scalzo puts it, quoting the catch-phrase that has become the band's motto: "It's too late to matter."

Unlike old Rip, Da Losers return fully alert, with powers apparently intact. The band's two demo tapes, recorded in a narrow bedroom hallway in Racca's house, are full of cannily arranged, riff-slinging guitar rock that hits with a great brawny crunch.

The melodies stick in the ear and invite a listener to sing along with Racca and Cobb's twin-lead vocals. The demo repertoire leans heavily on retooled versions of old Mechanics songs, with winking titles such as "Evil Underwear" and "A Day in the Life of a Ghoul."

The Mechanics started in 1977 as an alliance between Racca, who had just earned his math degree at Cal State Fullerton, and the L.A. Brats, a teenage La Habra-Whittier band. Scott Hoogland sang, Racca and Dennis Catron played guitars, Sandy Hansen was the drummer, and Brett Alexander, followed later by Tim Maag, played bass.

Unlike the younger players they influenced, the Mechanics never hooked up with a producer or label. The band broke up after putting out just one single, late in its run, that Racca thinks didn't represent it well.

Cobb and Scalzo went through similar frustrations. Cobb was the original singer of Berlin, which began as a raw New Wave rock band. He was dumped in 1979 when the band broke up, then re-formed without him. With Terri Nunn installed as singer, Berlin went on to mass success playing techno-pop in the early '80s.

Hurt and disappointed, Cobb dropped out of music until the late '80s. Though he has been playing the coffeehouse circuit with Dad 5, an acoustic, swing-influenced pop band, Cobb hasn't played a loud rock show since 1979.

Scalzo, who played drums in the Strand, dropped out of rock in '79, disillusioned with the incursion of hard drugs into the local punk scene. At first, for a year, he remained involved as founder and editor of Fullertone, an early fanzine documenting the O.C. punk-New Wave scene.

But "it got too weird," Scalzo said, recalling a party in Placentia in which some of the attendees burned a rabbit alive. "It was pathetic. Both Tim and I had the same realization the same night: 'We gotta get out of this.' "

Racca kept rehearsing with other musicians and dabbling with his own recording projects while earning a living as a computer programmer and analyst for Hughes Aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Mechanics' aftermath took a tragic and bizarre twist in 1987, when Hoogland was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for killing his roommate with a tire iron. Accused of first-degree murder, Hoogland mounted a "battered-person syndrome" defense, testifying that he killed while fearing for his life. He served four years in prison. "Scott's a nice guy. I was completely shocked," Racca said. "He was a wild man on stage, but pretty quiet and reserved" otherwise.

Racca's comeback began in 1994, when he put out a self-financed, all-instrumental rock album under the band name 16 Tons. Then he called his old friends, Cobb and Scalzo.

"I hadn't played this kind of music in years," Cobb said. "We took it slow at first, and didn't put any pressure on it. Tim was instrumental in guiding me on what to play. Now it's a musical melting pot, where everyone throws their two cents in."

As they launch Da Losers, the three members will try to work rocking in around busy careers--Cobb is a mechanical and engineering draftsman, Scalzo a lighting technician at Paramount Pictures, and Racca, a recent victim of corporate downsizing, has embarked on an intensive retraining program in computer engineering.

Since it has been a collective 49 years since the three Losers played full-on rock 'n' roll in public, it's legitimate to wonder about such matters as stage fright and rust. But with maturity has come an ability to keep expectations modest, and to see the humor in things.

For a first-gig outcome, Cobb said, "anything short of death will be all right."

"You're always going to have a bit of nervousness going," Scalzo said. "But we're Da Losers, and it's too late to matter."

* Da Losers open for Fuel, D/Railed and Creeps On Exile on Saturday at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams St., Anaheim. 9 p.m. $5. (714) 533-1286.

Influence of Mechanics Runs Deep in Punk World »