In the summer of 2009 I interviewed Tom Guernsey, the songwriter behind one of the most exciting records on the Rockabilly scene... "Don't Call Me Flyface" named after a villain in a Dick Tracy comic book. Tom was the the guitarist and songwriter in not only the Reekers but also Garage Punk legends The Hangmen.
How old were you when you formed the Reekers?
One year out of high school - 19.
How did you meet up with the rest of the band?
Mike Henley (piano), Joe Triplet (vocals) and original drummer Jim Daniel were classmates and friends at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. We met the original bass player Richard Solo when we went into the studio to cut “Don’t Call Me Flyface” and “Grindin”.
What year was this?
Mike and I met about 1955. We grew up together in Garret Park, Maryland and went to elementary school and junior high school together. We met Joe Triplet & Jim Daniel in high school in 1961.
What year was “Flyface” recorded?
Do you recall how the band name came to be? Did you reek in the sense that you never washed or was it that your initial musical prowess left a lot to be desired?
It was the musical prowess (or lack thereof), we could have good nights, but on any given night we might “reek”.
What kind of background did you and the band come from?
Decidedly middle class.
What did your families think about you going into the Music industry?
My parents were pretty academic and all of us kids were slated to go to college, etc. so I don’t think any of the parents were thrilled initially, but they did adjust.
Were you the typical garage band, honing your sound in parents garages?
Yeah, we practiced mainly in my & Joe’s parents living rooms. Later in the mid 70’s during one of many times of getting back together we practiced in Mike’s parents basement.
When you started gigging, what kind of people were you playing to? Was it mainly high school friends?
Definitely! We used to rent a beer hall called “Ben’s Hideaway” and buy a couple of kegs of beer and then get all our friends to pay a couple of bucks for the party.
How rapidly did that following grow?
Well, that’s hard to say because right after we cut “What A Girl Can’t Do” and it came out under The Hangmen, The Reekers went into a long 'hibernation'.
The Reekers eventually folded and mutated into the hangmen as members went off the College. The Reekers cut “What A Girl Can’t Do” during a summer vacation while we were all home from attending different colleges. In the fall we returned to our respective schools, then Monument Records heard “What A Girl Can’t Do” and wanted to release it. At the time I was playing with a band called The Hangmen while attending school so it was decided that the song would come out under the group name “The Hangmen”. Who knows what would have happened to the song if not for the fact that The Hangmen acted as the group that actually cut the song.
That’s quite incredible to comprehend, I wonder what you could have produced if you'd stuck together instead of going back to college. It must have been tough going back after that first taste of the ‘pop scene’, did your new-found fame travel with you?
Well, yeah at least the song. “What A Girl Can’t Do” was such a landmark in the Washington area that it really became my 'calling card' for the next 30+ years. It always amazed me how well known that song was!
What did you study at College?
Oh man, I was really into politics, history, sociology... all of it. I barely got out of high school because I was always reading novels behind my class books, so I went to Montgomery Junior College to get my grades up. I was on the deans list for 2 straight semesters (which meant I had all A’s) and was going to transfer to a good 4 year school out of state (Antioch college in Ohio) and then the record and the group took off which caused me to drop out and follow the dream.
What was the local music scene like in DC back when you formed?
There were a lot of good bands that formed after the first “English Invasion”. And there was a lot of good soul music being played at The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
What kind of local acts were you up against back then? Do you remember any of the good ones?
In particular, The British Walkers with (incredible lead vocalist) Bobby Howard and not yet famous guitarist Roy Buchanan, as well as The Fallen Angels with (great songwriter & bassist) Jack Bryant. Truth be told, The Walkers were probably a better live band than us at the time.
The Reekers "Don't Call Me Flyface" Rojac Records 1964
“Don't Call Me Flyface” and “Grindin” have a definite ‘back alley’ sound, they are not conventional ‘pop hits’ in any sense of the word, how would you describe the style of The Reekers?
Gosh, that’s hard to say. I was an aspiring jazz guitar player who got infatuated with Rock & Roll thru The Beatles and ran out and bought a flat top Gibson and promptly wrote “Flyface’ and “Grindin”. Joe & Mike were already into soul & country. We had no idea what we were doing, we just liked the sound we were getting.
What records were you listening to at the time of “Flyface”, I guess you were aware of Link Wray?
I was aware of Link Wray as he was a local talent. Early on The Reekers played at a record hop to promote “Flyface” with Link Wray on the bill. Several years later he was at a Hangmen gig and got on stage with us. He was pretty drunk and probably so were we! We played a 20 minute rendition of “Jack The Ripper” with him. I thought my hand was gonna fall off.
Would you say he was an inspiration to your sound, the savage guitar playing on Flyface sits more comfortably to my ears alongside Link Wray than the rock’n’roll of say The Beatles or British Walkers? Not to say I think its derivative – far from it!
Well thanks for the compliment but I have to admit it was the Beatles that inspired me... I had absolutely no rock guitar models to follow, I just played what I played, don’t really know where it came from since up to that time I was playing and studying jazz guitar.
What kind of songs were you playing live at the time, I guess your set would comprise covers?
Yeah, we did a few original songs and then covers like “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Louie Louie”, “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, “Money” (the Kingsmen version), etc... a really wide mix.
Did you record any of those early live shows?
What kind of reaction did “Flyface” have upon release - how was it greeted?
Actually it did not get that much airplay. The stations used to play instrumentals when they were going into the news or something and that’s where they used it most. However it did get played on WEAM in northern Virginia, which was the top station in the area and the first station that “What A Girl Can’t Do” hit number one on. And it sold enough that there were several pressings of the record.
The flipside “Grindin’” sounds like it was straight out of a strip joint, where did that one come from?
My brother John (who is a piano player) came up with the basic riff and we used to play it on just guitar and piano and then expanded the song for the band.
It’s a cool song with a great tittyshaker / go go sound.
I actually like it better than “Flyface” in some ways, I think the guitar is more exciting and powerful and I like the way the song keeps modulating.
What memories do you have from the success of “Flyface” and the subsequent greater success of “What a girl can’t do”?
Well, “Flyface” was really exciting as it was the first record we ever made, it was a real thrill the first time we heard it on the radio! And it did create a local fan base for The Reekers, but “What A Girl Can’t Do” was a grass roots hit that just took off in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. and actually became the #1 record in the area when “We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper” by The Beatles was only #2. So that record made the Hangmen superstars in the tri-state area. I remember we once did an in store appearance at Giant Music (a large record store in Falls Church, Virginia) when “What A Girl Can’t Do” was #1 - 500 people jammed in to the store with an additional 2000 people blocking traffic outside who could not get inside. We played one or two numbers before the police were called to escort us away. The entire store was trashed, it was straight out of “A Hard Day’s Night” and the whole incident was reported on the front page of The Washington Post the next day.
Wow, you couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity! I guess at that time your live shows were getting bigger? What kind of venues were you playing?
By that time we were opening for acts like The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, also we were playing a lot of Washington D.C. “society type gigs”. We once played at Hickory Hill (Bobby Kennedy’s home in McLean, Virginia), and a few clubs in New York city.
How were you treated back home when the success started to grow?
Like rock stars, we had unlisted phone numbers… etc, etc.
I’m a real fan of 50's and 60's American cars – what kind of wheels were you riding back then?
I had a small motorcycle during most of The Hangmen years… we all used to take cabs EVERYWHERE! Iif only we had a nickel now for each cab ride!
Were you guys part of a local hot rod scene?
Joe Triplet was/is the “car man” he had some really cool 1955 Studebakers that he completely refurnished and also some great motorcycles. He later opened a car business and would go out and buy up old Volvos, totally fix them up and resell them. I have bought 4 different cars from him and Mike Henley has also gotten a few of them…great cars at great prices!
I understand that you are a record collector too?
Yes, I am always on the lookout for obscure old rock 45’s and LP’s
Did you start collecting some of the local garage bands that you grew up around?
Yes, but that was only in the last 10 years or so, I never really thought to save these records by our contemporaries at the time.
What kind of collection do you have?
Oh, it’s not that large, but I do have a few very hard to find “classics” such as “Watch Yourself” by The British Walkers.
You are back together with the Reekers, in fact you have rarely been apart, what kind of music do you play today?
Well our last gig was a few years ago, but we are ready to play anytime. Really it is just more of the same, we still do a lot of the old cover songs we did back in the beginning and have added songs that seem to fit over the years. Mike, Joe and Bob all play with bands that work a lot (as does Sam Goodall, our current bass player) and only occasionally do The Reekers get together for a gig
What are your thoughts on the current interest in your sixties recordings?
Well, it’s really kind of intriguing. The amount of interest in both The Reekers and The Hangmen and the songs I wrote does somewhat surprise me, especially over in England and Europe since the records were never officially released over there and we never played over there.
Well, thanks for your time Tom, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that The Reekers are still together although we have not played a gig in a couple of years…all the members except me are still working as rock musicians in other bands (I’ve been doing my jazz guitar solo thing for the last couple of years) and we are ready to play Europe, or as ready as 65 year old musicians can be…but seriously we all talk about more gigs so if you know of anybody looking for a good solid 50’s rock band.
The Reekers "What A Girl Can't Do" 1965 Monument Records
(Released as The Hangmen)
The Reekers "The Girl Who Faded Away" 1965 Momument Records
(Released as The Hangmen)
The Hangmen "Bad Goodbye" 1966 Momument Records
The Omegas "I Can't Believe" United Artists 1968
(Featuring core members of The Reekers)