Az band Gentlemen Afterdark rides into the sunset

From the downbeat, Gentlemen Afterdark — an arresting combination of rooster-crested glam-punk, ‘80s romanticism, and the pop trash littered upon the sidewalks of the Sunset Strip — were always a band on the edge.

From the dead-end bars where they came up to standing on the crumbling precipice of fame — in advance of GAD’s farewell performance at HoCo Fest 2023 on Friday night — guitarist Robin Johnson fills in the gaps.

* * *

Robin Johnson grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., weaned on a steady diet of AM/FM radio. By the time he relocated to Tucson with his family in 1975, his lifelong fascination with music had already been piqued.

“After seeing Judy Collins at the Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis) with my mom and sister, my next concert was The Jackson 5 in 1974,” Johnson recalled. “By that time, I had become a huge Elton John fan. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973) was the first record my mom bought me.” During the 1970s, Elton John reached the apex; charting 7 consecutive No. 1 albums (in the U.S.) between 1972-1975. Truly, a herculean accomplishment. “Although I admit, the last Elton John album that I ever bought was ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (1975).”

Around that time, Johnson discovered the vaudevillian freak show/shock rock of Alice Cooper and his young mind was blown asunder.

“After seeing the ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ tour at the Met Center (Bloomington, Minn.) during midsummer of ’75, I became a huge Alice Cooper fan. Later in August — as my mom, sister and I traveled across the country — I read everything that I could get my hands on about Alice,” Johnson said.

Soon his obsession would take a different slant.

* * *

“Once I got to Tucson, my uncle took me to get a guitar,” Johnson enthused, “a Yamaha nylon string entry-level acoustic. I took lessons, in a classroom, at Randolph Recreation Center from Jim Klingenfus.”

Johnson learned to play popular folk songs torn from the pages of the American songbook: Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver and others.

“It was said that I was somewhat of a ‘natural.’”

“Around this time, I met my first friend in Tucson at Naylor Jr. High School. He sat behind me in homeroom. He lived near me. We shared a love for music and guitar. He was into KISS, I was into Alice,” Johnson recalled. “He had a real Gibson Les Paul Custom. Black, no less.”

* * *

The next year Johnson would move to a new neighborhood. And in similar fashion, he would become fast friends with a new kid in homeroom this time at Mansfeld Jr. High School.

“He was a great, if not half-crazy guy, named Fred Cross,” Johnson said. “His older brother Eric was a drummer. Fred wanted to play bass, but had no gear.” After Johnson and Cross secured jobs at El Parador Mexican Restaurant & Cantina — where they both worked as busboys — Cross’ mom agreed to co-sign a loan so Fred could get some equipment from the Chicago Store. “So Fred now had a shitty bass and a small, but decent, amp rig.”

Johnson’s childhood dream of playing lead guitar in a band inched another notch forward.

“The three of us started playing in my garage on the corner of 9th and Campbell. By the time Fred and I joined Eric as students at Tucson High, I had written a couple instrumental songs. We played one at a talent show in the auditorium, losing to a couple who were lip syncing to Peaches and Herb’s ‘Reunited,’” Johnson said. “I was pissed off.”

When he reached the lectern to accept the second place plaque, Johnson jeered, outraged that an act that didn’t display any real talent had won. He left the auditorium in a huff, pitching the award in the trashcan on the way out.

* * *

The next year, Johnson met drummer Rex Estell through his cousin Nathan who played together in the band Z9. That group was fronted by Ariel Bagby, a precocious 16-year-old vocalist.

“I knew Rex from buying weed and hanging out in his nearby apartment on 10th and Martin,” Johnson reminisced.

Estell would play an important role in Johnson’s musical development; introducing the burgeoning guitar hero to seminal punk bands (Ramones, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Television, and many others), along with power-pop masters (Cheap Trick), and guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck.

“Beck’s ‘76 ‘Wired’ album blew my mind and changed my life,” he said.

After cousin Nathan quit Z9, Johnson got the gig. But not unlike the intrinsic nature of rock ‘n’ roll itself, chaos and upheaval would soon follow. 

“The bass player was an ex-junkie loudmouth named Jeff Latowick,” Johnson said, venomously. In short order, Johnson ascended the ranks to become the band’s driving force. He then convinced Estell to replace Latowic for Cross.

* * *

Flatly rejecting the excesses and bombast of 1970s rock, when punk began to germinate it did so on the fringes, away from the conventions and mores of mainstream society.

“During the summer of ’79, there were only three punk bands in Tucson. It was us, The Pedestrians, and The Suspects,” Johnson noted. “We all started playing downtown at Pearl’s Hurricane Bar on East Broadway. I’m happy to say that I still know 90 percent of those people today; the ones still living, that is,” Johnson commented.

“After one of our gigs, Brian Smith of The Suspects — who loved the sound of our band — came up to us with a proposal,” Johnson said. Smith, a gifted writer, was very interested in forming a band that penned original material. “Having just seen Brian move like a motherfucking badass on stage with The Suspects, we agreed.”

Bagby — Johnson’s girlfriend at the time — got the boot.

That night in 1979, The Pills were born.

Unlike war, rock ‘n’ roll holds no prisoners; it only leaves casualties strewn behind.

* * *

What began as a scrappy DIY movement — as more and more bars were no longer wary of booking acts like The Pills — the local punk scene soon reached critical mass. “The music scene was crazy back then,” Johnson noted. “Suddenly, everyone thinks, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke expressed it best when he sang the heart-rending line, “Anyone can play guitar and they won’t be a nothing anymore.”

“Some were good, some awful. As for The Pills, we always had our eyes set on major label success,” Johnson affirmed.

The Pills debuted at The New Deal, a dive bar on East 36th Street. There was a line of punks that serpentined out the door.

In a scene all too familiar, that night a local guitarslinger was in attendance: Mark Smythe from a band called Isaiah. “He had John Lennon’s voice and played lead guitar like a motherfucker,” Johnson enthused. “Mark was all of 23 and absolutely hated it when we wouldn’t stop calling him ‘Grandpa.’”

The quartet soon morphed into a quintet.

As soon as The Pills reached fighting weight, they released a four-track, self-titled EP. Despite the song “DC-10” receiving airplay locally on KWFM and “She Said Goodbye” appearing on “KWFM On The Air” (1980) — a compilation that featured tracks by The Serfers, Bob Meighan, Chuck Wagon & The Wheels, and other bands du jour — Smythe quit the band right after the record came out.

Kali, the Hindu goddess of change, had made other plans.

“I was super pissed off at him for quite a while,” Johnson said. Smythe’s departure left the band in a lurch. “We had to play our sold-out record release party with just the 4 of us. We pulled it off, though. Mark actually showed up at the gig like some kind of prick. Swilling beers, smoking Marlboros, and holding court. It was irritating.”

* * *

The Pills took hiatus in the summer of ’81. Brian Smith went to New York for a time. When he returned he had two musicians in tow. That pairing was unsuccessful. But it did serve to infuse life blood into The Pills remaining lineup.

Enter Barry Smith.

Barry Smith — Brian’s older brother — is an accomplished violinist, saxophonist, and keyboardist. His style and musical prowess added new dimensions and expanded the reach of what had been a solely guitar-driven sound.

Yet, The Fates hovered overhead.

“While rehearsing for a major reset gig at the Night Train on North 4th Avenue, Rex suffered a terrible car accident,” Johnson imparted. “He nearly died. I fainted when I saw him at the hospital.” Estell’s injuries were so profound they would require years in recovery. Torn, the band had to make a decision.

“By then the gig was set and advertised. We turned to a friend,” Johnson commented. “We knew Winston Watson from our old rehearsal space.” Watson had been a longtime member of Snowblind.

“It was hard for him. He loved those guys.”

“We had an up-and-coming vibe and he saw where the wind was blowing,” Johnson asserted.

Watson acquiesced.

“Our first gig was a disaster.”

“The opener was a passé cover band. They sucked. But they provided the PA. So we had to put faith in an inexperienced soundman. Most of the show we had to stand onstage, waiting,” Johnson said, pensively. “It was awful.”

Despite their less than stellar debut, the band sold almost 700 tickets; garnering respect from the owners of the club (Doc and Shag).

Despite appearing on the marquee as The Pills, for all intents and purposes, they had morphed into Gentlemen Afterdark.

* * *

Circa 1982, Gentlemen Afterdark relocated to Phoenix — the heat dome to the north — taking a kick at the can.

“Phoenix was always a different story for us,” Johnson reflected. “We got a pad in central Phoenix; eight bedrooms and a crippled AC unit. We entered a time where we played every weekend somewhere: Tempe, Phoenix and back to Tucson. We were able to make a living as our entourage grew larger.”

One fateful night Gentlemen Afterdark were playing The Mason Jar — an erstwhile Phoenix venue that lives on in scarlet infamy — Alice Cooper was in the audience to see what the buzz was all about.

“Alice sent his personal assistant over and we met him. My idol.”

Cooper’s PA, Brian Nelson, or “Renfield” as Alice called him — R. M. Renfield, is the tortured aide from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” who does his master’s every bidding — was also very interested in meeting the band. “With higher aspirations than just carrying Alice’s water, he thought we had a future.” Brian Nelson soon became Gentlemen Afterdark’s manager.

Through discussions with Cooper and financier Mike Bolton, it was decided that Alice Cooper and Dick Wagner — his longtime co-writer and guitarist — would produce Gentlemen Afterdark’s debut EP.

“Dick was a knob-twirling studio engineer/producer in the mold of Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, KISS, U2), Alice’s longtime producer.”

In 1975, the Cooper/Wagner penned ballad “Only Women Bleed” rose to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“During pre-production — after rolling up in Alice’s Rolls Royce — it was more than a trip to have Alice and Dick in our humble bandhouse giving us pointers,” Johnson reflected. “I think they truly enjoyed hanging in that environment. They’d been there themselves as kids — destitute and determined — just like us. In 1972, Alice Cooper was probably the most famous man in the world next to Muhammed Ali.”

“Moments like those felt like we were destined for greatness.”

Recorded at Vintage Recorders (Phoenix), the band’s debut EP “Gentlemen Afterdark” (1983) was intended to be their calling card to lure a major label.

* * *

In 1984, Gentlemen Afterdark were vaunted as “Stars of the Future” in People magazine’s 10th anniversary issue. In spite of such accolades GAD struggled to safely traverse the intersection where art and commerce converged.

“I still believe that if we’d been able to hang together as a band, we would have found a way to be relevant to major labels,” Johnson contends, “and found a team that could’ve marketed us properly so as to overcome the ‘differentness’ that caused the major labels to balk. We had so much interest from them, at one point, and they never came through; not even with a developmental deal. They’ve always been cowards and still are. But I didn’t know that then.”

More than three decades later, Johnson takes a hard look back.

“There were more than a few low moments. I suppose the easiest way to define it would be when guys in the band gave up. And I was one of them. I was a jaded 27-year-old towards the end. I’m sure I could’ve caused it all with my parade of women, laziness and drugs,” Johnson mused.

In 1989, after recording demos for and a protracted flirtation with A&M Records that failed to bear fruit, Gentlemen Afterdark called it quits.

* * *

In 2019, 36 years after the band went into the studio to record their debut EP, “Open the Door” enjoyed an uncanny resurgence after landing placement on the season premiere of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” — starring Winona Ryder and David Harbour — the third installment of the nostalgic horror series.

In October 2019, Netflix reported that over 64 million households had watched “Stranger Things” (season 3) within the first four weeks of its release. A record viewership for any Netflix program.

“It would be nice to feel a sense of vindication after some of our old songs got placed in film, television, and on music streaming services. I like that people are finally hearing the songs,” Johnson said. “But on the business end streaming doesn’t pay.”

On average, Spotify pays artists between 0.003–0.005 cents per stream.

“It’s a drag. We took thin air and made music. Music that a whole bunch of people dig. I always thought that film and television were ways for artists to make real money,” Johnson said. “Evidently, that’s not how it works.”

I go
Never knowing
Never changing
Never growing
— excerpt from Gentlemen Afterdark’s “I Go”