Listening to the Chocolate Watchband's snarly, unforgettable versions of Ray Davies's "I'm Not Everybody Else" and Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz's "I Ain't No Miracle Worker" -- renditions that vanquished all others in their wake -- it's not tough to imagine the South Bay's finest '60s garage rock band claiming a chart-topping place beside Big Brother & the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane. Bill Graham certainly pictured that in the Watchband's future when he tried to woo them to sign with him as their manager and let him send them out on tour with the Dead and the Airplane.
Instead, a host of unfortunate choices led the Watchband down the garden path toward surrendering control over their recordings, splintering and eventually self-destructing five short years after their inception. "Some of those problems, nowadays, are quite funny!" exclaims David Aguilar, now 69, vocalist and one of the few members of the Watchband who wrote songs that made it onto their LPs.
"The biggest problem was our name," he continues jovially, from a cafe in downtown Aspen, Colorado near his current home. "When our record contract went to Tower Records, we were being marketed with Pink Floyd. But somebody, somewhere, in some office, thought we were a black rock 'n' roll group, so they sold us to a black rhythm and blues label, Uptown. Lo and behold, the first Uptown Records concert they booked us into was at [the Oakland] Arena, and we walked in -- it was with the Coasters and Chuck Berry -- and they walked in, and I don't know whose jaw dropped down more!"
Today it makes for good story, but back in the day, it was simply one in a series of missteps and outrages besetting the band -- which some critics now regard as not only the best, most aggressive and rangy British Invasion-inspired garage rock unit to emerge from the '60s Bay Area, but perhaps the entire country. Kindred San Jose spirits Count Five may have created the charting power stomp of "Psychotic Reaction," but couldn't keep it together for much longer than that. The Watchband, meanwhile, made a name for themselves throughout the Bay Area with their live shows, holding their own alongside everyone from the Mothers of Invention and the Grateful Dead to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors.
Aguilar was not the first vocalist for the Watchband, which guitarists Mark Loomis and Ned Torney began tentatively amid the eucalyptuses of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills in 1965. But when the time came to put together a solid new Watchband to replace departed singer Danny Phay, Loomis knew that Aguilar, a science student at San Jose State, had the right bad attitude and a righteous way around a blues-rock hook.
You can see it all go down in snippets of the 1967 rock-scene B-movie Riot on Sunset Strip, as a dandified Aguilar struts, shakes his maracas, blows a mean harmonica, and swings his pageboy like he's in a cockfight for frontman supremacy with Mick Jagger. You can hear it in the band's hard-edged attack, which later inspired the Undertones to later undertake their own bristling cover of the Watchband's "Let's Talk About Girls" and Jet to do their own saucy version of "Sweet Young Thing."
Oddly, you wouldn't necessarily know the band even existed by taking in the sounds of the Bay Area's latest garage rock explosion. Few overt tributes to the pioneering garage band exist from their sonic descendants like Ty Segall, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, Shannon and the Clams, the Mummies, Hunx and His Punx, Nobunny or any of the many other spunky, punky distortion wranglers who have upped and moved to Oakland or LA.
But Aguilar isn't fretting about his nonrelationship with the current generation. "There's a difference between our music and the music you hear today," he mulls, going on to describe the Oh Sees, for instance, as far more experimental than the Watchband. "The funny thing about the music we were creating is that it lasts and stays. We were writing it and doing it ourselves -- we weren't being manipulated and handled."
Still, the Watchband had its share of music biz machinations. Their music may not have been the slickest of pop -- like the current chart-toppers that Aguilar derides as "so mechanically produced as a product, candy to be given out and don't worry we can make some more" -- but the vocalist must have felt at least a little slighted when Svengali producer-songwriter Ed Cobb, who was also behind the garage rock outfit the Standells and the writer of songs like "Tainted Love," swapped out many of his vocals with those of session musician and songwriter Don Bennett on the Watchband's first two albums.
Aguilar, however, sounds anything but bitter. "We were young -- 17 and 18 years old -- and we could not believe we were being flown first class to Hollywood recording studios!" he enthuses. "I brought my songs in, and Ed brought his songs in, and I remember telling him several times to his face that 'That song stinks -- we will not record it.'"
Bad blood on either writer's part aside, Aguilar allows, "to be truthful, with my songwriting and how much it eventually advanced, I would have loved to have recorded another album with Ed. He was a great songwriter."
Some may chalk up the Watchband's obscurity and lack of chart hits to bad breaks, poor management, a failure of marketing and distribution, and an absence of national tours. To that lethal combo, Aguilar adds: "Drugs really hit our group, too. Mark Loomis was really strung out on some nasty stuff. At that time, you took your chances -- you may end up back home or on a trip that never ended." Loomis, who died last year, was the first to quit the group, "and that's when I said 'I'm going back to school,'" Aguilar says.
In the ensuing years, Aguilar found another far-out way to channel his creativity. His astrophysics degrees at San Jose State led him to a longtime position as the director of public affairs and science information at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and this summer, he led a special media team for the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto -- during which he also happened to meet fellow rocker-turned-astrophysicist Brian May of Queen.
Now an award-winning author and illustrator of seven National Geographic science books, Aguilar is working on a "Cosmic Catastrophes" series for kids, due out on Smithsonian Books. Music has always been simmering in the background, though never with another band like the Chocolate Watchband. "I do write and compose and record music," he says, "and so when I do space artwork, I hear music and record it and listen to it over and over again. To me, music and art are all connected together."
A few of those new songs might even surface when the Watchband plays once again in the Bay Area, this time with early member Gary Andrijasevich on drums, Tim Abbott on guitar, Alex Palao on bass, as well as keyboardist, and new member, Daryl Hooper of the Seeds.
It's been several lifetimes since Aguilar quit the band in 1967 -- after which the Watchband carried on for three more years, with a new sound, to fulfill contractual obligations -- but he believes the Watchband's sound "was always there, and it came back in the '90s, all of a sudden, with our records selling and so many demands to play."
Aguilar sounds like he still can't quite believe it, while mercifully sparing us a "hash tag blessed" postscript. "I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to step back on stage and play these songs again," he marvels. "They may not speak English in France and Spain, but the audiences can sing all the words of these songs back to me when I'm on stage."
The Chocolate Watchband perform Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Chapel in San Francisco. Powder, Cellar Doors and DJ Sid Presley open. Details here. The band also plays Saturday, Nov. 21, at the Ritz in San Jose. Powder and the Gentle Cycle open. Details here.