It’s a muggy July afternoon, and for this all-day show the other musicians are still plugging in their electric guitars when “Fast” Frank Raven begins tooting on his tenor sax. The tooting turns to honks, then resolves into an earsplitting scream as the rest of the Slammin’ Watusis crash into the first song of the set. Guitarist Lee Pope, dressed in beachcomber pants with skull-and-crossbone print, steps up to the mike and shouts, “We just made a demo tape, just the other day / Sent it to the radio, nah, we won’t play / Well, we don’t care about havin’ a hit, music is what counts / We got our songs and got our band, never never sell out / Won’t sell out, won’t sell out, won’t sell out–no way!” The song is over in about 60 seconds.

During the next number, Mark Duranti runs in front of the stage, hurls his guitar high into the air, catches it, and crams as many notes as possible into his brief solo before jumping back onstage to finish the song. Raven introduces the following tune with the confession that “even scum-sucking creeps like me have feelings–it’s all right to show you care.” Lurching around the stage in skintight black jeans and huge, goggle-shaped sunglasses, Raven resembles a mutant beatnik as he blasts out bebop riffs on the saxophone and sings, “You got your white boy in Rubber City / Oh, it’s a bitter pill.”

The rest of the set proceeds at a breakneck pace; Pope looks like a woodchopper axing a tree stump as he bashes out rhythm strokes on his guitar. Drums and bass merge in an undifferentiated roar. The onlookers rock back and forth, wearing faint smiles and occasionally whooping in appreciation. As abruptly as they began, the Slammin’ Watusis finish their set and walk offstage.

Good fun has been had by all. The Slammin’ Watusis are, in fact, so much fun that a few weeks ago after a show at a tiny Wicker Park rock club, they were offered a record deal on the spot by an A&R man from CBS Records. The Slammin’ Watusis will be the first Americans to sign on Grinder Records, a new custom CBS label specializing in raw-sounding rock bands.

At Raven’s apartment the day after their afternoon concert, the smell of incense hangs in the air. Rooms are divided by tie-dyed sheets; the walls are covered with xeroxed fliers for Never Rich and Almost Famous, El Sexo Rojas, and Bohemia, bands Raven has played in. As he lights another incense stick, Raven recounts the night the Slammin’ Watusis were seen by CBS:

“It was totally unexpected, but we were ready for it, so when the record company walked into our gig, we were totally ready to not care about it, figuring, ‘He’ll probably hate us anyway so we’ll just do our set.'” Pope adds, “When we looked over on the third song and the guy was head banging on the table, we knew we were having some good fun then. He told us later it was a one in ten million chance how everything came about.” The CBS rep was in town meeting with Insiders guitarist/producer Jay O’Rourke, who happens to be a friend of the Watusis. O’Rourke brought him by the club on a lark.

The persuasive anarchy of their live show is no surprise considering Pope’s initial inspiration for the Slammin’ Watusis: “I was watching Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert on TV and we saw the New York Dolls–it was like, ‘These guys are so bad, these guys are so great, I can’t believe they pull this off!'” Pope started the band three years ago with a childhood friend, bassist Clay Watusi. Raven, recovering from the collapse of both his new wave band Bohemia and his marriage with Bohemia lead singer Carla Yvonne, used to hang around the clubs where the early Watusis performed. “One day I showed up at their gig and they made me play saxophone,” Raven remembers. “They didn’t even know what key they were playing in. I’d ask and everybody would just look at me and look at their guitars and go, ‘Wow, I don’t know.'”

In its original form, with guitarist Dave Frey, the Slammin’ Watusis did as much comedy as music. Raven says, “We’d open for top-40 bands in the suburbs and insult the other band, the audience, ourselves, and generally have a lot of fun. But after Frey left, there was no one to tell poo-poo jokes and pull down their pants, so we had to get real. That’s when we got Mark Duranti.” Since upgrading their musicianship with heavy metal guitarist Duranti and drummer Benny Sapphire, the band has played live as often as possible.

“We never make any money by the time we pay for the PA,” Pope cheerfully admits, “but we have a lot of fun. If we break even, we’re doing pretty good.” Raven says, “I’ve seen a lot of bands play at clubs and be disappointed when only three people show up. Hey, there’s a million reasons why that happens. I wear those really dark sunglasses and I literally can’t tell if there’s three people or three thousand. It really is helpful for keeping up a good attitude.” Even with their pending record deal, Raven says, “We don’t think there’s any way we can quit our day jobs until we actually go on tour. It’s not a dream deal where you go, ‘Oh wow Mom, go buy a home.’ It’s more like, ‘Make a record, buy a van, and eat dog food.'”

Live touring is probably the best strategy for the Slammin’ Watusis to build a following anyway, as their music makes no concessions to mainstream radio. Pope and Raven say they ignore commercial music altogether, preferring old blues master John Lee Hooker or more obvious influences like Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols. All their music, from original songs to cover versions of the 1950s TV theme song “Robin Hood” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” is played fast.

The Slammin’ Watusis begin work on their first album sometime after Labor Day. They can be seen tonight, July 31, at Gaspar’s (3159 N. Southport, 871-6680), and Wednesday, August 5, at Cubby Bear (1059 W. Addison, 327-1662). Sets begin about 10 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Banks.