Pavlov's Dog were signed by ABC in 1974 their $650,000 fee was reputed to
the biggest then paid to a new act in the US. Three years later, with a
staggeringly powerful debut album under their belt and a second album
credits read like a who's who of top session musicians, they found
themselves out on the street without a label, broke and at each other's
Like many bands before and since, the Dog's fate rested with the anonymous controllers of American radio. But the group's high-energy rock - forged in the crucible of St Louis, a humid industrial city on the banks of the Mississippi, and driven by the eerie falsetto of lead singer David Surkamp - proved too extreme for these arbiters of popular taste. With national radio airplay denied, the key markets on America's east and west coasts remained firmly closed and record bosses quickly lost interest.
Pavlov's Dog and the Condition Reflex Soul Revue and Concert Choir began to form in 1970 under Mike Safron, a 19-year-old drummer who had played with Albert King, Bo Diddley and St. Louis' most famous son - Chuck Berry. Safron was searching for a hybrid sound, drawing on classical influences while keeping a feel for rhythm and blues "building a melodic wall of sound using violins instead of horns, that sort of thing," as he says.
With him in Berry's band was bassist Doug Rayburn, and for a while he and Safron experimented with different sounds. A year later, after Rayburn had left for California, Safron met Richard Nadlar, a flamboyant violinist with jazz and classical tastes whose creative input to Pavlov's Dog was to be crucial. Adopting the stage name Siegfried Carver, he and Safron began to piece together a band.
One young hopeful was Surkamp, described by Safron as a "skinny kid who had ambitions as a guitarist". As Safron recalls: "David played his guitar in the audition and I was just about to show him the door when he asked if he could sing something. It was 'The Wizard' by T-Rex. I had just gotten my passport to tour Europe with Chuck Berry, but when I heard that thing come out of his mouth I just knew I had to stick with it. It just floored me, what a voice." Surkamp was to be pivotal to the band's fortunes. His songs, evocative masterpieces, were to form the overwhelming bulk of the Dog's repertoire, while his voice provided an other-worldly focus for the music. But his vocal gymnastics ultimately proved too extreme for commercial tastes. "Trembling, quivering and unearthly, impossibly high-pitched yet substantial," one admiring reviewer wrote of his voice; "a choirboy on speed" said another, less enthused.
Surkamp had sung in High on a Small Hill, formed soon after leaving school, and Touch, a blues-based outfit in which he also played guitar. "I play the guitar a lot better now than when I was 19 years old," he says. "Touch was a good band but it wasn't what I wanted to do. They did some of my stuff but they just wanted to play covers." Surkamp lists Family, Fairport Convention and Robert Wyatt as early influences, but adds: "I've never tried to sing like anybody else and I've never tried to write songs like anybody else." Rick Stockton, the bassist in High on a Small Hill, was next to join the Dog, along with guitarist Steve Levin and Lexa Engle, a female singer taken on to share vocals with Surkamp. Levin lasted just a few months, and as the band had secured a residency at St Louis' Chase Park Plaza Hotel he needed replacing quickly.
Safron (who had scrapped his British tour with Berry, and so missed recording the London Sessions album and My Ding-a-Ling) turned to Steve Scorfina, a one-time REO Speedwagon guitarist whom he knew "from back in the '60s when I had my soul groups and he was playing in British invasion type outfits".
Musical differences had forced Engle out of the band and three female singers, close friends of Scorfina, lasted only a few months more. With a recording session fixed up in Pekin, Illinois, Safron was keen to flesh out the sound. The band turned to two keyboardists: David Hamilton, a versatile jazz-influenced player, and Rayburn, Safron's colleague in Berry's band who had since switched from bass to keyboards.
Scorfina recommended Hamilton, whom he had played with in Hamilton's band Syro Flashcat. He had initially suggested that Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) be approached: "We sent McDonald some recordings we had done and told him we wanted to add another keyboardist and singer to the band. McDonald heard David's voice and just said 'there's no way in the world I could work with him'. When that didn't pan out we added Hamilton." Rayburn's arrival did not go down well with the other musicians at first, recalls Safron. They were concerned the band was growing too big and saw little need for a second keyboard player. "Everyone was just pissed with me but I wanted Doug, who was such a creative musician," says Safron.
The big break came in 1974 when Ron Stevens, a DJ on the St Louis radio station KSHE, played Surkamp's "Theme from Subway Sue" from the Pekin session. ("Siegfried couldn't understand me during the session," says Surkamp, explaining the song's title. "I was singing 'someday soon, we'll find out where we're going' and he thought I was singing 'subway Sue'. I've got a twang in my voice and it was possible I mangled up the words. Anyway, we decided to change the song's title and make it sound like a movie track so we called it 'Theme from Subway Sue', an in-joke.") Safron says it was a close-run thing that the song was played at all. "Stevens was a friend of mine and I thought it a good idea to play one of the demos on air. But all the other band members opposed the idea as no one thought the quality of the sound was good enough to be played on radio. The truth of the matter was that everyone had their personal reasons for not wanting anything played Scorfina didn't like his guitar solo, Carver didn't like the tone of his violin, Surkamp hated his voice in one spot." Nevertheless, the song generated massive local interest and the Dog came to the attention of Ron Powell, the biggest rock promoter in Missouri, who was quick to spot the band's potential and take the place of Safron's brother, Bob, as manager. Powell soon lived up to his reputation by persuading ABC to pay out $650,000 for the Dog, then the house band at the Ambassador Theatre ("we actually lived there with the equipment so nobody would steal it," remembers Surkamp), and the seven musicians travelled to New York to record Pampered Menial at CBS Studios under Blue Oyster Cult producers Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman.
Pampered Menial featured nine tracks, the majority written by Surkamp. Carver wrote one of the album's three tracks not credited to Surkamp; 'Preludin' was a quasiclassical instrumental condensed from its original 10 minutes into a 90-second work (but captured in full length on the 1974 live KSHE recording of the band in concert at the Ambassador Theatre). Safron weighed in with 'Song Dance', and Scorfina with 'Natchez Trace' ("I was actually having a dream and heard the riff in my head; my mother, who comes from New Orleans, told me a story about something that happened down there to one of her great uncles and the story was in my head and I had a dream about it").
As a child Surkamp had suffered badly from asthma, which was to have a profound influence on his song writing. "I went through months when I could only breathe with difficulty," he once told the New Musical Express. "All I did was read: fantasy and fairy tales. That's what my songs are about mostly, particularly 'Episode' and 'Of Once and Future Kings on Pampered Menial - kids' stories blown up." His writing of 'Julia', Pampered Menial's opening track and the only song released as a single, was more down to earth. "We had just got our record deal and we were sitting around waiting for Eric Carmen (Raspberries), a guy I knew from Cleveland, to appear in concert on TV. My parents had divorced and had left me this wonderful house, with no furniture except for a grand piano. Anyway, I wrote 'Julia' during the adverts waiting for Eric to come on. The next night we went down to the Ambassador and Mark Spector (a producer with Columbia Records) was there with some other people. I walked into the box office with my guitar and said is this any good and it knocked everybody out".
Scorfina and Safron also remember the recording of 'Julia'. "One of the best solos I ever played was recorded for it," says the guitarist. "When they sent us an early copy of the record in St Louis I was waiting to hear the guitar, but when it got to my part there was a flute solo instead." The solo was played by Hubert Laws (Crusaders, Ron Carter), and Safron was at the session. "Laws, the world-acclaimed flautist, did dozens of different solos for the track and everything he did was great but didn't fit the song," Safron says. "I kept on saying try this or try that. Suddenly he came up with the 'Julia' solo, which he didn't like but I was just yelling 'That's it, that's it'. Laws stood up, packed his flute and, walking up to me, snarled: 'If I get a credit on this album, I'll sue'." No acknowledgement appeared.
The first album's title and its evocative cover, taken from a Robert Vernon lithograph, played on the Pavlovian theme, a trend continued on At the Sound of the Bell, the second album. But there is still a rift over production credits for Pampered Menial. "The producers did a horrible job on Pampered Menial," says Safron. "It was like a sea of reverb. You couldn't distinguish what was going on. So Powell asked me to fly back to New York to remix the entire album. The producers hated it when I showed up and just took it over. But I was never credited with the co-production." But Surkamp insists Pearlman and Krugman were responsible for producing Pampered Menial in its entirety. Scorfina says: "Mike did stay on in the studio and help with the remixing, but Pearlman and Krugman were there. Doug (Rayburn) was also there, and when he and Mike had left the two producers did some more mixing."
The cracks within the band and with the record label were widening and, just as Pampered Menial was about to be released, ABC decided to drop the group they had signed for $650,000 just a few months earlier. Within weeks, though, Powell had clinched a second contract, this time with Columbia Records for $600,000.
Again, recollection of events differs. Safron believes the breakup with ABC was no coincidence; he is convinced Powell engineered the split knowing that Columbia, which had rebuffed an earlier approach from Powell, had had a change of heart and was keen to sign Pavlov's Dog. But Surkamp and Scorfina say the band had been signed to ABC by Jay Lasker, the company's president, just before he quit to start a new label. "We were his pet project", says Scorfina, "and when he left we didn't have the company behind us because they were not having success marketing the band. We were having a lot of problems with radio programmers saying David's voice was just a little too weird and they couldn't use it on the radio." Mark Spector appealed to Columbia directors to buy out the Dog's contract, just as Pampered Menial was about to be released, Scorfina says. "There were people at Columbia who believed in the band who went in to bat for us." Whatever the reason, ABC's and Columbia's pressings of Pampered Menial were on sale simultaneously, although in different covers. And as the album climbed the charts in Australia, Denmark, France and New Zealand, the Dog began to break up.
"Things were falling apart during Pampered Menial and we were lucky to get the album out. The plot was developing even then," says Safron. "It was a completely political thing. The management were trying to turn everybody against each other. Powell wanted to see Surkamp backed by a couple of session musicians and doing more of an acoustic thing, thinking he would make that much more money. Everyone was trying to make David think he was another Bob Dylan. Everyone hated each other, but no one knew who the villain was. Powell was doing his job well." Scorfina agrees. "The record company was pushing David and not the band. David's voice and the songs he wrote were great but the group were also sensational, with a feel of its own. The company was trying to market us in a way that we shouldn't have been marketed." By the time recording of the second album began, three of the original members - Hamilton, Carver and Safron - were out of the band. Hamilton left out of frustration. "My material wasn't making it on to record, plus our management problems were terrible," he said in a later interview. He quit after negotiating a $10,000 pay-off providing he played on At the Sound of The Bell.
The events behind Carver's and Safron's departure are less clear cut. Surkamp asserts that Carver left the band out of loyalty to Safron after the drummer was fired. Not so, counters Safron; Carver quit for political reasons and, besides, no one was fired from Pavlov's Dog. Safron insists he was persuaded by Powell to stand aside to let Bill Bruford, fresh from Yes, play drums on At the Sound of the Bell.
"Carver had already left. When Bruford came the producers told me it was good for publicity, so I just stood back in the interests of the band. I was told I would be credited as a full member of the band and continue to play with the Dog live. The spirit left the band after Carver and Hamilton had gone and when At the Sound of the Bell came out and I had no credit I just decided to quit." He left with a $4,000 settlement, holding out for three months to help the Dog fulfil tour commitments.
Scorfina confirms that Carver "just got fed up with all the politics, with the record company and stuff". When he was told he would not get any of his material on At the Sound of the Bell - "just play the violin when you're asked to and shut up" - he quit, receiving no compensation. As for Safron, Scorfina says Pearlman and Krugman refused to work with him on the second album. "When we were working on material sometimes we would work a 12-hour day. We'd do an arrangement and then Mike would say 'No, we've got to do it like this', so we would go over it again and get it down and then he'd say 'No, we've got to change it here'. Lots of times it's good to change things, but Mike was going overboard. He also butted heads with the producers and they said they would not work with us if we used Mike on the record. Sure, he had an equal say in the band but he pushed it a little more than everybody else."
When Bruford arrived in St Louis for rehearsals he was chauffeured around by Safron: "I even let him use my drums. But he just thought the whole thing was a joke," he says. His opinions of the former Yes drummer are shared by Scorfina. "At that point I was really on Mike's side and was really bummed out about everything because Mike is a great drummer. He is also a feel drummer and honestly I thought Bruford was a real lousy choice for us even though he's a technician and is fabulous. We weren't technicians so I thought that was a bad match-up, which is why there is a lack of feel on At the Sound of the Bell." Scorfina says Bruford joined the band just a week before recording began. "We barely had the material conceptualised at that point so when we went to the studio we were playing the basic tracks not really knowing what was going on top - it was totally disorganised."
At the Sound of the Bell was recorded in 1976 at the Record Plant, New York, with Krugman and Pearlman again taking production credits. The mixing was done at Ramport Studios in London accounting for the appearance on the album of the High Wycombe Boys Choir! A host of session musicians including Bruford, Andy Mackay (Roxy Music), Elliot Randall (Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs) and Mike Brecker (Dreams, Billy Cobham) complemented the four original members (Hamilton was technically a hired hand). Surkamp wrote all nine songs, one in collaboration with Scorfina and four with Rayburn, a partnership that was to develop over the coming years.
It was an altogether quieter album which won only muted critical praise. The lead vocals, while still distinctive, were not as prominent and the album missed the creative input of Safron and Carver. But Surkamp, who had by this time emerged as the band's de facto leader, does not think there was an intentional shift in emphasis on the record.
"The sound probably reflected the batch of songs that were around at that time," he says. "We used session men to fill out the sound because ever since I was a kid I had liked the sound of different instruments and, frankly, if somebody is going to give me the extra dollars so I can get Andy Mackay to do a sax solo, I'm there." Tom Nickeson, whose folk duo had supported Pavlov's Dog in the early years, played acoustic guitar on the album. After its release he was invited to fill the gap on keyboards left by Hamilton, while Kirk Sarkisian, a drummer with the Florida funk band Punch, took over Safron's role.
That year the new line up started work on what was planned to be the third official Pavlov's Dog album. Provisionally entitled Has Anyone Here Seen Siegfried, it was recorded in Richmond Heights, Missouri, under producers Mark Spector and John Jansen. It was a doomed project though; before the album could be released, Surkamp had quit and Columbia had thrown in the towel.
"I was having a really terrible time and didn't enjoy it," Surkamp recalls. "There was a lot of infighting and by the time we were recording the third album everybody in the band had decided they were a song writer and a singer, which didn't really give me a lot of room. So I left.
"Except for Doug, the band always felt threatened by me and I don't think it had much to do with Powell. I've always gone my own way, I've got my own path to follow." Surkamp had already left when the band fell out with Columbia. Powell had legal troubles unconnected to the band, but the Dog were still tied to him with an iron-clad contract, explains Scorfina. "We also had had no hit songs and while in cities like St Louis, Detroit and San Antonio we were as big as Led Zeppelin, in a lot of other cities we were nothing. No one in the company was confident enough that we would get radio airplay because of David's voice, so Columbia dropped us." When, four years after its completion in 1977, the album had still not been released, Scorfina and Nickeson had 1,000 copies pressed as an "official" bootleg. Dedicated "to the people who never had the chance to experience the Dog", it was put out under St Louis Hounds not Pavlov's Dog to avoid legal complications with Columbia.
"We had a half-track master from the studio that was pretty good," Scorfina says. "We had all poured our hearts into this thing and were pretty much broke, so a couple of the guys said let's try to get something out of this and have it pressed and circulated in the St Louis area." To finish off the album Surkamp and Rayburn had taken the master tape to New York to remix some of it, with Jeff Baxter (Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers) and Randall brought in to play, uncredited, on several of the tracks. The result was the patchiest of the Dog's three records. "Frankly," says Surkamp, "I would have been happier if it had never come out. It wasn't my best work."
Reflecting on events, Scorfina says it was the low point of his musical career. "We had spent years working and rehearsing to get where Pavlov's Dog was, and what happens? We were thrown off the label broke and exhausted, most of us with drug habits and our dreams crushed." There is a rare unanimity when Safron, Surkamp and Scorfina talk about the band's financial situation. "We signed our lives away to Powell and didn't realise it. We were so young and vulnerable we couldn't see beyond success," laments Safron. "We signed everything away, the publishing rights everything. We were earning $10,000 to $20,000 a night headlining, and yet we were on a salary of only $150 a week each." They all realise, though, that Powell was crucial to their success. "We were all egoed out, we really didn't understand what was going on around us," says Safron. "Technically, Powell was the greatest manager. It was just that we were kids and we stuck our butts out and anybody could have done that to us because all we wanted was to be recognised as rock stars."
For almost 10 years after the release of St Louis Hounds little more was heard from Pavlov's Dog. The original band members, minus Hamilton and Stockton and with Rayburn on bass, got together in the mid-1980s for a string of reunion concerts. A planned tour of Australia in 1990, which would have led to the recording of a live album, was aborted.
In 1990, though, the Dog was resurrected when Surkamp and Rayburn recorded a fourth album, Lost in America. The CD, produced at Rayburn's Benton Park studios in St Louis and released on Telectro Records, had contributions from Scorfina and Sarkisian, with Surkamp performing songs written in partnership with Rayburn. Michele Isam (saxes), Robert Lloyd (bass) and Frank Kriege (drums) made up the rest of the band.
And five years later Safron, with his six-piece band Pavlov's Dog 2000, produced his End of the World EP. Scorfina had played in the first mutation of the band but had left before recording began at Kiva Studios in Memphis. Backing Safron, who wrote and sang most of the CD's material, were local musicians Tom Tarantino (keyboards), Julie Moreno (vocals), Steve Simon (guitars), Hunter Springer (bass) and Ron Vince (violin). The album was released on Kanned Goose Records and, like Lost in America, its initial sales were restricted largely to the St Louis area.
But the musicians had not been idle in the Dog's 13-year recording hiatus. Soon after the break up of the band in 1977, Surkamp and Rayburn moved to Seattle where they formed Madshadows and began work on an album. They were only half way through it when their label Janus Records went bust. "It's really the companion piece to the first two Pavlov's Dog albums, but I'm sure it's never going to come out," says Surkamp of their unfinished work. "It sounds a lot more like Pavlov's Dog than St Louis Hounds; it was a continuation of the musical thought process." He and Rayburn then briefly formed Radio Lemmings before teaming up in Seattle with Ian Matthews, formerly of Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort, to form Hi-Fi. Rayburn soon quit.
"Doug was not a guitar fan and we had three lead guitarists in Hi-Fi," says Surkamp. "Ian Matthews wanted to get into something a little heavier than he was in at the time and that inspired Hi-Fi. I always looked at it as a cross between Buffalo Springfield and the original Fleetwood Mac - a lot of guitar solos and a good song-writing outlet. I got to sing as much as I wanted but I wasn't having to sing all the time and there are few things on earth more inspiring than looking to your left and seeing Ian Matthews playing." Hi-Fi released two records - Demonstration Record, a live EP, and Moods for Mallards, a full studio album. While in Seattle Surkamp also played guitar with local band Big Fun.
Scorfina and Nickeson joined Gulliver and local band Pave (with Carver). The guitarist also joined Safron in the Somerville-Scorfina Band and was reunited briefly with Surkamp in Memphis Underground. "We did a couple of old Pavlov's Dog songs and a lot of R&B, Carl Perkins and Elvis." He released a solo album - Polychrome Love Songs - last year.
Safron and Carver were quick off the mark and within weeks of leaving Pavlov's Dog had reunited to form Children. When this split in 1978 Safron went on to front The Strangers (1980-1982) and Trace the Moon (1990). Only The Strangers released an album - Steal the Night Away.
Carver eventually quit music altogether, moving to Kansas City where he became a magazine publisher and director of the Missouri Tax Payers' Watchdog Society. Hamilton moved to Los Angeles, where he won awards for his music scores. Stockton lives in Wichita, Kansas, where he is an environmental health and safety manager. Surkamp continues to write songs and perform regularly in the St Louis area with the David Surkamp Band, and aims to release a CD soon. Rayburn runs his Benton Park studio.
Safron plays frequently in St Louis and has plans for a reunion concert with all the original members. Twenty eight years on from when it all began, the founder of the Dog refuses to let it roll over and die.
Pampered Menial (1975)
Pampered Menial (1975)
Pampered Menial (US gatefold)
At the Sound of the Bell (1976)
St Louis Hounds
Lost in America
(US CD 1990)
End of the World
(US CD 1995)
Shanghai Hai 102
Moods for Mallards (1983)
First American FA7795
Moods for Mallards (US 1982)
Butt Funep 12-3
Demonstration Record (EP 1982)
Demonstration Record (US 1981)
With Michael Quatro
Prodigal PG 1001051
Dancers, Romancers, Dreamers and Schemers (1976)
Street Suite (US 1997)
It's almost Christmas / Winter Wonderland (US 1981)
Butt MGLS003 Louie, Louie/Summertime (1984)
Steal the Night Away (US 1982)
Xotic Bird Records
Polychrome Love Songs (US 1998)
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