RON SOBOL: SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF 70s L.A. ROCK… AND INTO L.A. BEYOND

Written by HUgh Asnen.

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Ron Sobol in front of the Whiskey A GoGo. photo by BCRon Sobol in front of the Whiskey A GoGo. photo by BC

 

Ron Sobol is the prototypical rock scene dude. A rock photographer who began snappin’ in the 70’s, Ron not only was involved with the mechanics behind the multi-platinum rock act QUIET RIOT from the Randy Rhoads-era all the way into the 90s, but Ron also happens to be the brother of Stan Lee, guitarist for the legendary punk band THE DICKIES. All of this has given Ron a unique perspective on L.A. rock, and Hugh Asnen could not have been happier pickin’ Ron’s brain… as well as Ron’s memory!

HA: From the 70s into the 80s you had a unique perch to observe rock in L.A. with your connections to two popular L.A. based bands in distinct rock genres…. punk music with The Dickies, as well as hard rock music with Quiet Riot.  At what age did you recognize any kind of music scene in L.A.? Was it before those two bands formed?

RS: I lived here in L.A. all my life. Around, like, 1966, I was about 12 years old. I remember my parents driving down the Sunset Strip, looking at what my parents would call “the freaks” outside the clubs. Just teenagers. Some older. The hippie types were there. It was the 60’s after all. This was when “Pandora’s Box” was open. Pandora’s was a rock club near Sunset and Crescent Heights that the cops eventually shut down. The club The Whisky was going on strong. The Doors were playing there. Led Zeppelin was playing there. I was too young to see those bands though. The Starwood became a big place to see bands, but I don't know if bands were there at that point.

HA: And you would take in things differently than a kid in another part of the country because you were actually living in L.A. and seeing a thriving scene?

RS: Possibly. To some degree. In the car we’d listen to KHJ. There were the rock T.V. Shows. Shindig… Dick Clark. I was aware of the L.A. stuff without actually going to see it live. Then, the first concert that I went to was in the Valley. It was the Valley Music Theatre on Ventura near Winnetka. It was a theater in the round that somebody had built. The band Canned Heat was playing there. We got a ride from our parents. (laughs)

HA: What was the impetus for you to go see that show in particular?

RS: Me and my friends saw Canned Heat play in the Woodstock concert movie. And now here they were playing nearby. We could see them in person.

HA: You saw many shows from then on. And your brother ended up playing guitar in a prominent band: The Dickies.

RS: Yes. Stan Lee from The Dickies is my brother. He’s 14 months younger than me. He started playing when he was about 17 years old. He took lessons from a guy named Steve Hufsteter, a “musical genius” type guy that had success in a band called “The Quick”. But that was a while ago. It seems Steve’s immense guitar talent is kind of lost to history. The Quick hadn’t actually formed yet, and Steve and my brother hung out a lot. Steve would come over, it seemed most every day, to give my brother guitar lessons.

HA: Were you interested in that stuff?

RS: (laughs) I knew some guitar. Some chords. I never took an official lesson, but I’d ask Steve to show me some leads. Like the lead solo in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”.

Stan Lee of THE DICKIES. photo by Ron Sobol
Stan Lee of THE DICKIES. photo by Ron Sobol

HA: So, The Dickies essentially started through the efforts of your brother?

RS: Yes. Maybe through connections with musicians Hufsteter knew. In the beginning, I’d say it was more of an equality of power with the five members in The Dickies, but it’s different now. The only original members left now are Leonard the singer, and my brother on guitar.

HA: I saw they did a recent Warped Tour. They’re still vital aren’t they?

RS: They still play. They’re playing the Key Club in L.A. on May 28th. And they’re touring Europe this summer. They’re still popular in Europe. England especially.

HA: Can you put into perspective, within the context of the Dickies status, when you first met Kevin DuBrow?

RS: When I met Kevin there was no Dickies. And there was no Quiet Riot. I met Kevin through my brother.

HA: That’s interesting, as I’ve heard that Kevin, at one point jammed with the Dickies.

RS: Not at all. Where did you hear that one?

HA: This is a good time to dispel that myth.

RS: Okay: Kevin never jammed with the Dickies.

HA: I see. The conclusion jumped to there was probably because people saw Kevin and your brother hanging out a bit at the time. Personally, I heard about Kevin jamming with the Dickies in Quiet Riot interview blurbs throughout the years in mags that I can’t pinpoint at the moment. But particularly, I saw a Kevin DuBrow interview on the Net... you can Google it… it had Kevin relating a story that involved your brother. Kevin said he was working in a band with your brother at the time, and your brother was suggesting checking out Randy Rhoads’ guitar playing… that it would be an amusing hangout session. They could watch this odd guy Randy noodling around on guitar at his mother’s house and get a laugh out of it.

RS: Hmmm. If that’s what Kevin said... interesting.

HA: Certainly, as that was how Quiet Riot launched way back in 1975. It seems Kevin is giving your brother credit for that Rhoads introduction, while also noting that they themselves were working together in some form. Your brother and Kevin
.

RS: Okay… well… they were playing together, but nothing formal. It certainly wasn’t an early version of The Dickies. Not a lot of rehearsals, just more learning a few songs. I think they played at one party. Some Who songs like “Can't Explain”. Maybe Bowie's “Moonage Daydream”.

Quiet Riot's Kevin DuBrow and Randy Rhoads . photo by Ron Sobol
Quiet Riot's Kevin DuBrow and Randy Rhoads . photo by Ron Sobol

HA: So here you had Kevin DuBrow, a guy who was in a very popular hard rock band, and Stan Lee, a guy who was in a very popular punk band. I see that as being two quite dissimilar rock genres. Agree?

RS: Yes. Totally dissimilar.

HA: How were their attitudes divergent?

RS: My brother concluded that he did not have the skills to be a “flash” guitar player like someone like Randy Rhoads. To be a punk rock guitar player was a different idea. My brother saw the Ramones and said “Hey, I can do that.” He could just play rhythm guitar, and have a band without the pressure of being that flashy kind of lead guitar player needed in the more serious technical rock bands.

HA: He was right there at the beginning of the punk movement?

RS: After the Sex Pistols broke, there were punk bands along with the Dickies popping up in Los Angeles. I don’t know if those bands formed before or after the Dickies, but around that time there were the Germs. There was X. The Blasters, but they were more “hillbilly” in style. The Weirdos were another punk band.

HA: Your brother obviously enjoyed that genre. Were you, yourself, going to see those bands live?

RS: No. I only went to see my brother’s band play. I hated that kind of music. I thought it was shit. I really couldn't believe people liked it.

HA: Even so, you ended up seeing the Ramones live.

RS: Yes. At the Starwood. It wasn't my kind of thing, but at least they were more palatable than some of the bands that couldn't play at all.

HA: Well, that's the Ramones for ya. Good playing. Great hooky melodies. The Dickies seemed to ascribe to that school as well. Poppier punk sometimes. Not such a “noisy” non-pop punk as the other bands.

RS: Well, the Dickies kind of got the moniker of the “Clown Princes of Punk”.

THE RAMONES. photo by Ron Sobol
THE RAMONES. photo by Ron Sobol

HA: Was that because they took traditional rock songs and did punk versions of them, and people found that funny?

RS: That, and they used odd stage props. Also, a lot of punk bands were writing angry songs. The Dickies didn't write any angry songs or protest songs. They wrote about everyday stuff in a humorous way. They had that song "You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)" and they were singing about… I don’t know… I guess about a girl that drives a guy crazy, but looks like a gorilla. (laughs) That’s not like the other bands that were saying “Fuck politicians” and “Screw the tax guy”.

HA: Kind of a “party” attitude. An attitude that people relate to L.A., right? A precursor to the fun, overblown hair metal movement, maybe?

RS: You might say that. Back then, before hair metal took off, you had long haired guys that all played the same circuit the punk bands were playing. The Whisky, the Starwood, the Troubadour. There was a place called The Masque. I think the Masque was, like, a basement in Hollywood. It was the biggest, fun place for Hollywood punk going at the time. Punk and hard rock were going on at the same the time and whoever got the following wherever, that’s what’d dictate where they’d play.

HA: Was there a rivalry there between punks and the regular rock crowd?

RS: The rock guys in bands were saying “I hate these guys. They can't play.” Punk was more attitude than skill. The glam rockers, or more regular rockers were resentful, and wondering why people were coming out to see those sloppy punk bands in such numbers.

HA: Would you say those hard rockers had the last laugh?

RS: I wouldn't say they had the “last laugh”. They did sell way more records, and had much more appeal then. But today you have the Ramones, like they are almost now mainstream. But, yeah, Motley Crue were bigger back then than a band like the Dickies. And the Clash, they were probably the biggest punk band to come out, and yet they weren't strictly pure punk. And then look at how big the Police got, but they also weren’t pure punk. They were just different than the metal bands. And the hairmetal bands from L.A. did sell more records than the L.A. punk bands.

HA: Punk seemed to play second fiddle as the 80s kicked in?

RS: It seemed the punk guys didn’t have as many serious musicians among them. They wanted to get involved in the music scene because it was easy, or it was something to give them a vehicle to enact protest ideas or other issue-oriented kind of stuff. The hard rock kids were kids that just were more serious about musicality.

HA: Kevin DuBrow also had an opinion that was similar to yours? Anti-punk?

RS: Yes. Exactly. He’d say “This stuff is not cutting it,” with the musicianship.

HA:  How did your brother look at Kevin's band and the hard rock of the time in general?

RS: He pretended to hate it because he was now in the middle of the punk stuff. But a lot of the songs he still liked.

HA: The magazine this interview will appear in, Sparkplug, has a connection with Flipside Magazine which had a notable rep in the 70s in Los Angeles. Were you aware of Flipside Magazine back in the day?

RS: I definitely knew of it. If my brother was in it, I’d check it out. I wouldn’t seek it out or buy it. It was a punk fanzine after all.

HA: You were one of Quiet Riot’s key photographers during the Rhoads-era of the band. How would you sum up your photography experience from the start?

RS: I just like taking pictures, so it was natural to take them when I went to concerts.

HA: Did you experiment with photography?

RS: I don't know if you want to call it “experimenting”. I’d take pictures around the neighborhood. And that lead to taking them at rock shows, which then lead to taking pictures for bands.

HA: What was the first time you were asked to take pictures of bands?

RS: Quiet Riot needed a promo picture. After that I shot the live pictures on the back of the 1977 self-titled Quiet Riot album.

HA: You shot the Ramones at that gig you mentioned earlier. Did you do anything commercially with the pictures that weren’t Quiet Riot related?

RS: I shot quite a few different artists early on. For instance, I showed some pictures of mine of Quiet Riot to a woman that wrote interviews for a Japanese magazine, and she hired me. So, I went with her to all kinds of places to shoot artists she was interviewing. I went to Providence to shoot Aerosmith. I went to San Francisco and photographed Boz Scaggs.

HA: Were all of these artist photos live shots?

RS: Aerosmith was live and backstage too. Boz Scaggs was at his house.

HA: Any interesting anecdotes regarding the prevalent music scene bands back then?

RS: Well, Aerosmith had a publicist. And when I was finished taking pictures onstage and backstage, the publicist told me that my pictures had to be approved and to give her the film. I refused. So, she tells me she’s going to get security. And she leaves. So, I removed the film that was in the camera, and put the film in my carry bag. And when the publicist returned, I gave her some unexposed blank rolls of film instead of the actual film. She wasn’t getting my shots! (laughs)

HA: You have to draw the line somewhere! (laughs) How would you describe your status as a freelance photographer today as compared to back in the 70s and 80s?

RS: I still shoot photographs. I also sell my past work these days. Many of them are of Randy Rhoads. I just sold some Rhoads photos that appeared in two magazines that are out right now, actually.

HA: Speaking of classic Rhoads, you shot some interesting concept stuff for the Quiet Riot II album. Was it a simple thing to shoot those football players in that locker room scenario along with the band?

RS: Well, I was a Los Angeles Valley College student preparing for film school, and that’s where the pictures were taken, so it wasn’t too difficult.

HA: Oh yes. I remember seeing a student film of yours online about a tweaking type kid. That was cool.

RS (laughs) Nicotine Fit.

HA: Yeah! A lot happened to that guy in nine minutes! And quite a bit of different film techniques. You also had something called “Rapid Eye Photography”. Was that related to the film stuff you did at all? Or just photos?

RS: It was just a name I used at the time to represent the photo stuff I was doing for Quiet Riot. But that pretty much ended once I went on the road with Quiet Riot in the 80s. I started doing stage lighting.

HA: I wasn’t aware you made that transition.

RS: Once I went on the road doing lights for Quiet Riot that pretty much took me out of the loop of contacts that I had to sell my pictures to. I’m not saying my departure left a notable void. But I lost out to other photographers who had stepped in, and were suddenly getting a lot of work.

HA: So then you got to see audiences across the country. How were the audiences in other cities compared to Los Angeles?

RS: Kids are kids everywhere. Still, in L.A., kids were glammed up more. Girls were more… I’ll use the term: “slutted up” (laughs). In the Midwest the kids were more dressed down. But there was more enthusiasm in smaller towns for touring bands.

HA: Back to the scene in Los Angeles… talking to Quiet Riot’s original bassist, I heard him mention certain violent outbreaks at the 70s rock shows. What was your take on the scene like when it came to violence?

RS: Not really a lot of violence that I actually saw. There was the occasional drunk kid that would try to get backstage. Like, the roadie would have to punch a kid, because the kid wouldn’t quit trying to sneak back there.

HA: This was still at home? Quiet Riot were that big in L.A. that they had guys trying to breach the backstage area?

RS: Yeah. Some of these guys were persistent and the roadies had to step in… hit him in the right spot to drop ‘em. They were drunk, so it was pretty easy. (laughs)

HA: Apparently, Quiet Riot was pretty popular. As the stories go, they had the reputation of being one of the bigger draws in L.A. but it was always weird that they couldn’t land an American record deal in the early days.

RS: Quiet Riot had a huge buzz, but had bad luck at that point. There were a couple times that an American deal was going to be finalized, and then cold feet from the label at the last second. Like the label just had too many monetary concerns. There were shaky finances, and there were other bands on a given label, bands that were already signed that were tanking pretty badly. They’d say to Quiet Riot “Well, now we can't take a chance with your band. Sorry.”

HA: You ended up contributing lyrics for a few Quiet Riot songs back then.

RS: Yes. On the first album there was “Fit To be Tied” and on the second album there was “Killer Girls” and “Eye For An Eye”.

HA: Both songs on the QRII album had “women” and “violence” themes. Was this a commentary on the bar scene in L.A.? The girls?

RS: More about slutty girls, I guess. Some of them wouldn't leave you alone and you had to put your foot down. (laughs) It was pretty easy to get laid, so you could afford to treat them like dirt, because there was just another one standing in line behind them. Not that that was the right thing to do, but we were immature kids trying to live what people thought was a “rock star” life. And that's what they thought a rock star life was back then.

HA: Did you enjoy being part of the creative process in the band?

RS: Yes. It was like, “Wow, you’re going to ask me to write lyrics?” I was thrilled to do it.

HA: Hearing about early Quiet Riot’s influences, I’ve seen Queen mentioned a lot. Was there any relation between the Queen song “Killer Queen” and “Killer Girls”?

RS: Queen was a big influence on Kevin. It’s been over 30 years. Man, I can’t remember if there was a connection there. But it’s possible.

HA: The fashion of the time in Quiet Riot and many of the L.A. bands was pretty outrageous. Was it a prevalent issue in the Quiet Riot circle?
RS: Kevin and Randy always dressed the rockstar part on stage… and off stage too.
HA: Was fashion important with the hard rockers compared to how the punk scene approached that stuff?
RS: The punks had their ripped T-shirts, ripped jeans and the pins in their face and their ears. It was something inspired by the Sex Pistols and other English punk bands.
HA: Did you ever have a “fashion approach” hanging with all these bands like you did?
RS: Kevin tried to help me, but I was pretty helpless. (laughs) I saw a fashion sensibility around me. But I was pretty intimidated and didn't feel comfortable wearing clothes like that. So, I pretty much wasn’t dressing that way. I'd make my miniature attempt. Some shoes and tight jeans. Leotards for shirts were popular. I got that far. No scarves. No make up. No platform shoes.
HA: Fast-forwarding through the 80s and into the 90s in your life... anything that had to do with the music scene… you continuously reinvented yourself in the”rock 'n roll” business? If not, dare-I-say, the “Quiet Riot” business?
RS: Yes. In the mid-nineties Kevin and I started a record label specifically to release the Quiet Riot album “Down To The Bone”. If the record would’ve been a hit, we had plans to sign other bands. And Kevin would produce them. Ultimately, I was lucky I broke even. The album sold about 20,000 copies. We recorded on an inexpensive budget. And one place where we were naïve with the overall project’s budget was with the cover art.
HA: It was a great album cover.
RS: Sure. But looking back, we spent way too much money on it. As far as the music, the style on the album was essentially Quiet Riot, but we chose to include a song written by another artist called “Pretty Pack ‘O Lies”. It was that grunge thing, kind of. Maybe Soundgarden. And not necessarily Nirvana, but taking on that “Lies” song, we were aware of those type bands. It was a good song, but I guess the time was passed for Quiet Riot, and only hardcore fans bought the album. There was a successful tour. But it was of smaller venues.
HA: Well, personally, I loved the album when it came out. “Dig” and “Whatever It Takes”were great tracks. And it was always cool to see ‘em performed live.
RS: (laughs) Those two songs were my favorites on the album! Kevin did a great job producing the album too. It was a great sounding record.
HA: In my humble opinion it was a good way to bring Quiet Riot into the 90s. As the 90s progressed, when did you get the impression L.A. hair metal type bands were losing favor in the industry?
RS: Well, you had bands like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot who were big. And then there was Guns N Roses…. ah…. you know, after 1985 I stopped going to clubs, and then I can't really comment on anything past that.
HA: So, your involvement and interest with music, and that industry was more about being passionate about working on something cool with your friend?
RS: Yeah. And, it was also a financial investment. I was living in Connecticut when they were making that DTTB record. The 80s bands that were touring clubs would come through, and I would go see Quiet Riot play around that time which was fun.
HA: Well, I have to say that I appreciate Down To The Bone. And I appreciate hearing your take on Quiet Riot overall, Ron. As well as your thoughts on the Dickies, and L.A. rock through the decades. Any final words about music as it stands in your mind these days?
RS: I think most bands that I like… the newer stuff… they can't recapture what they had back in the day. Even monstrous bands like the Stones.
HA: Why do you think that is?
RS: Maybe everything they had in them at the start was used up back then? Even bands I love like Cheap Trick. I didn't even really like the songs on their last release. It seems if a band is really successful and have a great five album run, that’s about it. Then there’s a situation like… U2… they had a great song recently. “Vertigo” I think it was called. But that's an exception. Actually, many times I’m thinking that people accept stuff by these older bands that they don’t like as much as they think they do.
HA: What do you think about today’s bands carrying on the torch from earlier eras of classic rock music?
RS: Well, my kids are into bands. Slipknot… those kind of bands. But it all kind of sounds the same to me… which is probably what they said about the music I was into back in the day.
HA: In essence, today’s bands could be akin to the “freaks” standing outside of Pandora’s Box in 1966, but the 2011 version?
RS: That could be as accurate a summation as four decades could allow (laughs).
(end)
Ron Sobol. photo by bc
Ron Sobol. photo by bc
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