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The Beserkley Story

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As owner and chief producer at Beserkley Records from the mid-’70s through the mid-’80s, Matthew King Kaufman created one of the coolest indie labels, and helped create some of the finest power pop of all time.

On a shoestring he produced or co-produced enduring albums by Earth Quake (Rocking the World, 8.5), Jonathan Richman – with and without the Modern Lovers – (Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rock and Roll With the Modern Lovers, Modern Lovers Live), The Rubinoos (The Rubinoos, Back To the Drawing Board), and most popularly, Greg Kihn (Greg Kihn Again, Rockihnroll, Kihnspiracy).

Born in 1946 and raised in Baltimore, Kaufman graduated from law school but never took the bar. Instead, convinced they were to be the next Beatles, Kaufman went to California to co-manage the San Francisco rock band Earth Quake. Kaufman helped the band get a two-record deal with A&M in ’70, and hung around the label picking up production tips from some of the greats, including Lou Adler and Glyn Johns.

After a few years Kaufman became frustrated with what he felt was A&M’s ineptitude at marketing a hard rock band. There was one small problem: money. “I was watching TV late one night in ’73, and Reverend Ike came on and said, ‘A guy drives by in a Cadillac and you can either love him or curse at him. If you curse at him, you’re never going to get a Cadillac.’ I loved it – this power of positive thinking line – and I wanted to encourage it, so I sent the man $10.

“A little later, I got back in the mail this cheap red cloth cut out with pinking shears, which was supposed to be a prayer cloth. The note with it said, ‘Put this in your mailbox and money will show up.’ I figured ‘what the hell’ and put it in my mailbox.

“That night I was staring at Alcatraz and it turned into the ‘Beserkley Records’ logo; a line from a Gene McDaniels song – ‘I’m at the point of no return/And for me there’ll be no turning back’ – popped into my brain, and I knew I had to start my own label and call it ‘Beserkley.’

“As it turned out, a snippet of an Earth Quake song had been used in the movie The Getaway. The snippet was vital because they used it to show that two different scenes were going on at the same time. The film’s music director, Quincy Jones, hadn’t cleared the rights with us. He sent me four-or-five times what this little snippet was worth just to shut me up. This check for $1,100 showed up three days after I put the prayer cloth in my mailbox. I had no idea that this money was on its way,” he said.

The strangeness continued. “I cashed the check and took the money down to the track. By the end of that day I had $3,400, which covered the production budget for both Earthquake’s live album and Chartbusters. That’s how we started.”

From ’73 to ’75 Beserkley put out singles (assembled into Chartbusters in ’75). The first was Earth Quake’s great dueling-guitar (Robbie Dunbar, Gary Phillips) version of the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” – for years a weekend-kickoff staple at rock stations throughout the country. John Doukas’ thick, powerful voice captures a feverish hedonism that was missing from both the original and David Bowie’s Pinups version.

He worked quickly: “To record Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ took the 3 minutes-35 seconds for the performance, about another 30 minutes to dump the background vocals on, and another 90 minutes to mix it,” he said proudly, referring to the classic Jonathan Richman single.

The first version of “Roadrunner” (called “Roadrunner once”) had been produced by John Cale for Warner Brothers in ’72, but not released (Beserkley subsequently licensed Cale’s tapes and released them as The Modern Lovers album in ’76).

Kaufman produced the second version (“Roadrunner twice”) and released the two versions together as a single in ’77, which reached an astonishing No. 11 in the U.K.

Kaufman’s version of the song lacks the electric drive of the original, but it captures childlike wonder as well as anything ever recorded – Richman positively squirms with delight as the late night open road stretches before him and the radio plays. His heart leaps out to fill all of the open space as stars wink in the black-ice sky.

“Jonathan was so prolific it was frightening,” said Kaufman. “My problem with him was eliminating songs, not waiting for him to write good songs. My favorite session with Jonathan was ‘Egyptian Reggae.’ We came up with this idea of recording the whole song in the echo chamber in the bowels of the CBS studio. It smelled in there, but it was a great session. Glen Kolotkin is a great engineer – and he made it sound like a grown-up record.”

Beserkley’s purest pop came from the Rubinoos, a young Berkeley band. Jon Rubin’s lead vocal on the band’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” achieves an aching emotional vulnerability. The way he hangs on to the first line – “Children beha-a-ve” – simultaneously absorbs and mocks every humiliating parental slight ever directed at a teen.

Besides “Alone,” the first Rubinoos album is graced with excellent originals by guitarist/songwriter Tommy Dunbar (younger brother of Earth Quake’s Robbie Dunbar), including the peppy “Leave My Heart Alone,” the sprightly neo-soul of “Hard To Get,” and the Raspberries-like rocker “Rock and Roll Is Dead.” Power pop great “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” was the lead single from the band’s second album, Back To the Drawing Board in ’78.

Recalled Kaufman, “‘Boyfriend’ [recorded in England] was played on the BBC more than any other record I had ever done, and just then all of these kids were buying Sex Pistols records and didn’t want to hear boy-next-door rock. It was my biggest heartbreak. You miss by a day, you miss by a year, you miss,” he philosophized.

Kaufman didn’t miss with Greg Kihn. Kihn, like Kaufman from Baltimore, moved to Berkeley in ’74 and sang backup on Earth Quake and Richman records before forming his own band. His second album, Kihn Again, contains a fine Byrds-ish version of Bruce Springsteen’s “For You,” and a stomping version of Buddy Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool Of You” (powered by lead guitarist Dave Carpenter).

Every subsequent Kihn album charted. ’81’s Rockihnroll contained Kihn’s breakthrough single, “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” – an exceptional midway point between Buddy Holly of the ’50s, and the Gin Blossoms of the ’90s. Led by the relentless, clavinet-powered single “Jeopardy,” Kihnspiracy shocked the world by reaching No. 15 in ’83.

Kaufman licensed the label to Rhino in 1986 and moved on – his legacy is strong.

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About Eric Olsen

  • JR

    Thanks for this post! Now I know which version of “Friday On My Mind” I grew up hearing. In later years I would hear the Easybeats version on the radio and it just didn’t sound right.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks JR – it about killed me that no one had commented on this post yet. You have saved the day.

    And I know what you mean about “Friday On My Mind” – once you know the Earth Quake version the original and the Bowie remake sound anemic.

  • JR

    I was never very hip to indie rock; but I grew up in “Silicon Valley” when it still had trees, and my dad had the radio permanently tuned to KSAN. This one was bound to resonate with me.

  • Eric Olsen

    Besides the music, I think the guy is quite a personality as well.

  • Danielle Williams

    I was wondering why none of the groups- Earth Quake, Greg Kihn, Rubinoos, Jonathan Richmon- were not recorded live at the Long Branch club in Berkeley where they all got their early start. Perhaps there are some old tapes that still exist that could be released so that fans could hear their original raw sound of the early 1970’s. Maybe the club’s owner (Malcolm ?) at that time has some audio tapes you could get. Let’s hope! Thanks for the wonderful records over the years. I love all the boys! Danielle Williams

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Denise, have passed your ideas on.

  • Duke Zimmerman

    Anyone know how I can reach Matthew King Kaufman? I would like to give him details about his high school reunion, Class of 1963, that is coming up in a few months. If you have any information please contact [eMail address edited out]. Thanks, D.

  • Eric Olsen

    forward it to me Duke and I can get it to him

  • Philip Donkin

    Hi I am looking to get in touch with Matthew King Kaufman as I want to make a radio documentary about Beserkley 30 years on from Chart Busters being released. I am based in London, England and want to show people here how great the music is and the stories behind it. If you can help contact me on [eMail address edited out].

  • Bobbie Horton

    Earthquake was the first band I saw at the Long Branch opening for Eddie Money. What a show! The place was jumping. Some girl stepped on my toe with high heels, and my toe has never been the same since. All in all those days at the Branch were some of the best I’ve ever had. Thanks for all the great music! What ever happened to Earthquake?

  • Char Scott

    Weekends were what weekends should be. Tearing up the dance floor at the Longbranch or Keystone to the music of Earthquake.
    Please tell Matthew that we need to have a Longbranch reunion. Is he still in touch with Malcolm (the owner of the club)?

  • obert

    Nice article.
    I just saw Malcome last month and will
    see him again in August.
    I’d like to get in touch with Kaufman too.
    How do I forward a request to you Eric?

  • http://www.diblerto.com Greg ‘Curly’ Keranen

    Memories…
    I was the original bass player in The Rubinoos.
    I found your site while trying to figure out the exact date of our gig with Earthquake, Link Wray and Jefferson Starship at Winterland (opening night of the “Sounds of the City” series).
    Does anyone know?
    Jonathan Richman sat in with us on ‘Sugar Sugar’ on that gig and got pelted with bananas from the crowd…
    Yes, many memories of Longbranch Saloon. I may even have some tapes somewhere.
    – Greg

  • Eric Olsen

    wow, great to hear from you guys – my email is lsited at the top of the front page of the site – I can get a message to Matthew – thanks!

  • http://okay john p

    Earthquake the best band ever to not become a supergroup. Live WoW. Jon Doukas was amazing. Anyone here of a reunion? Let us prey brothers…

  • Derek M

    Thanks for the great overview of the Beserkeley/Earthquake/Greg Kihn era. I was there, going to school at Berkeley at the time. I too thought Earthquake was a great band and deserved more national recognition. The had a great live show also. Greg Kihn’s Again album is a classic. Too bad Kihn himself is such a jerk!

  • Craig Barney

    Does anybody know anyhting about posters? I have a Star and Garter poster from June of 75 advertising a concert at Pauley Ballroom with Earthquake headlining and the Rockets, the Neckelettes, Freaky Ralph and Hoo Doo. if you could get back to me witn any info you have id appreciate it.

  • Rick

    Last I heard, Robbie is playing guitar with Larry Lynch from the Kihn band and John is living in England

  • R.J. Fernandez

    Hi, I am looking for information concerning one of the Berserkely releases from 1978: The Spitballs. I don’t own the record but there is an excellent version of Smokey Robinson’s “Way Over There” on it, which I’ve got on a Berserkley Compilation. I know that several members of the Berserkely stable of artists contributed to that album, but I’m not sure who is actually doing the playing/singing on this amazing song(it sounds kind of like Jonathan Richman but I can’t be sure). Please help and thanks in advance.

  • http://www.eclipsoid.com Bill Coffin

    Berserkeley records put out an EP recorded by Earthquake at the same time they recorded Monday I Got Friday On My Mind. The EP was titled Yukon Pete and the band name was listed as “Son of Pete and the Muffdivers”. The EP was accompanied by a booklet of the lyrics illustrated by underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson.

    One side of the EP was the instrumental version of Yukon Pete. (The version with vocals was too obscene for radio play.) The instrumental version received quite a bit of airplay on KSAN. The musical saw part is played by me. (I also recorded a jews-harp track for Monday I Got Friday On My Mind, but it’s mixed so low that you can’t hear it.) I did both tracks in one take each, both on the same day — Berserkeley didn’t have much money for studio time…

    I am named on the Berserkeley Chartbuster’s liner notes but no reason is given. And Matthew Kaufman still owes me $20. But I’m happy to be part of a historical footnote.

    -Bill

  • Richard (Reno, NV)

    I’m a 61-yo man, and if I ever made a list of my Top 10 all-time favorite rock songs, Earthquake’s “Friday on My Mind” would definitely be on it. I played it so much I wore the grooves off my old Beserkely vinyl 45. Younger folks who’ve never heard it don’t know what they’re missing!

  • http://www.famousracehorses.co.uk Cheshire

    Love this article and all the comments. I remember Char! Agree about their version of ‘Friday’. Used to play it all the time in the car, great drive music.

    I gave up rock and roll for racehorses and have lived in England now for many many years but remember those days in the Bay Area fondly.

  • Phil Brown

    I did both tracks in one take each, both on the same day — Berserkeley didn’t have much money for studio time…

    I am named on the Berserkeley Chartbuster’s liner notes but no reason is given. And Matthew Kaufman still owes me $20. But I’m happy to be part of a historical footnote.

    -Bill

    That’s nothing, Bill. He owes me $2500. I was an engineer at CBS in San Francisco where most of the Berserkeley stuff was cut. I seconded on some sessions and mastered most of the records. Matthew is a real character. And Egyptian Reggae wasn’t cut in the echo chambers, which were small and tucked between the 1st and 2nd floors of the building, but in the men’s room.
    Phil Brown

  • obert

    Purple Earthquake is playing a gig on
    Aug 23rd of 09 in Concord, ca
    Dukas is in Africa
    Kaufman is still in Berkeley but not involved in music.
    Greg Boyken passed away last yr

  • obert

    Hi
    I was in error when I said Kauffman is no
    long involved in music
    He founded mp34U a couple of yrs ago
    and has produced a couple of records for
    a ska band.
    Obert

  • http://home.comcast.net/~obertson/wsb/html/view.cgi-home.html-.html obert

    Just heard from John Dukas, he’s moving back
    to Ca next July.

  • obert

    Robbie Dunbar is playing with Larry Lynch but
    he’s not in England he live in Walnut Creek, Ca.

  • trish ward

    Jon Doukas was my fantasy. I hung out at the keystone in the 70s. I made Jons white satin drwstring pants when he opened for heart at winterland.

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    coolness – thanks Trish!

  • trish ward

    What was jon doing in africa? Is robbie married?

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers are great, one of my favourite American pop bands, and were well accepted in English Punk circles back in the day. Great stuff!

  • Emmett McAuliffe

    Agree with John P. about Earth Quake. And where is Mr. Doukas these days. I’d love to tell him just how great he was … and talk about his influences. Someone should get the full story about Earth Quake now that any hard feelings have evaporated. Like the JoJo Blog has done for the Modern Lovers. I am weird the 4 chief Beserkley bands are in my Top 10 bands of all time. And Tyla Gang is in my Top 50. There is something about the spirit with which each band attacked their respective genres (except Jonathan, who is pretty much “no genre”)

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    love that this story is evergreen – long live Matthew and the Beserkley boys!

  • Keith Groustra

    I was the manager of the Longbranch. I worked with Malcolm Williams, the owner, and loved having Earthquake play there many, many times. Having done business with Matthew Kaufman I can honestly say that he was an astute business man. He always worked hard for his bands. A little testy to get along with sometimes, but that is the job of a good manager. The band comes first. I miss those days! Sadly, John Doukas passed away in March 2011. He will be greatly missed. Those days when Earthquake headlined and Eddie Money (Eddie and the Rockets back then) opened for them, were some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen hundreds over the years.

  • malcolm williams

    Too cool to see my name in preint! Yes we need a reunion–if I could only find a building-preferrablyl old and run down with low rent. SEE YOU THERE

  • malcolm williams

    I mean my name in PAINT–not prient! The Long Branch kicked it from 1969 until 1976. Go to Facebook/Malcolm Williams to some some great pix of great nights
    Miss it a lot, Malcolm

  • malcolm williams

    Keith– call me or leave a message. Can’t believe I just read a blog form you!!!!

  • malcolm williams

    Mattt– Call me–imm in he book