Rik-O-Sound: Pianosaurus and Extinction

They Might Be Giants. The Young Fresh Fellows. Robyn Hitchcock, with or without the Egyptians. The Posies.

Compact discs by any or all of these groups may have been in my hands when I reached the Mammoth Music counter on that fateful moment fifteen years ago when a toy guitar, a toy piano and a Fraggle Rock drum kit made my head do a 1080 degree spin above my neck. If there is a moment in a music store in the last fifteen years where one of those groups (or some side project or offshoot of one of those groups) wasn’t in my hands, I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint it. I don’t actually remember exactly what I was buying on that wintry day, but I do know that it was the combined effect of the type of CDs in my hand that made the counter guy step back and say, “Have you heard Pianosaurus?” When I replied to the negative, he added “Oh, you have got to hear this!”

I don’t usually listen for long when salespeople say ““Oh, you have got to hear this!” or “…see this!” or “…taste this!” (The latter one is the most dangerous…) But I knew this salesperson, hereafter referred to as Terrific Counterguy, to a certain degree, as he was an acquaintance of mine from his days at the local comic shop. I knew his taste in comics, and it mostly jibed with mine. Most of the people who worked with Terrific Counterguy at the comic shop thought he was an ass. Later on, I would find out most of the people who worked at the record shop thought Terrific Counterguy was an ass too, even though they would attend the sporadic shows his band would play. Even further on, he would get involved theatrically, and many people told me horror stories of dealing with Terrific Counterguy. I guess this means they thought he was an ass as well. That’s OK. I’m also an ass, and frankly, whatever other people thought of him, I always thought he was pretty swell. After all, he introduced me to Pianosaurus. This is no small thing.

Terrific Counterguy had only recently started working at the record shop, but this didn’t stop him from cracking open the wrap and seal from a new copy of Pianosaurus’ Groovy Neighborhood CD that he whisked from the rack after very nearly vaulting the counter in front of me. “If you don’t like this, I will buy the albums in your hand for you.” This was a decidedly different approach to salesmanship, but it could have been possible he was intending to purchase most or all of what I was buying for himself anyway, and just hadn’t yet. Regardless, though I never would have taken him up on the offer, it was cool to hear. And it definitely intrigued me. What sort of band could make someone act this way?

How about a band entirely peopled by art students playing toy instruments? This in itself could prove to be a bad thing, unless the right touch of talent and/or genius was in place. Alex Garvin, lead toy guitarist, singer and songwriter for Pianosaurus, was graced by both. The cover of the album doesn’t disguise a thing: a trio of wild-haired geekoids surrounded by a pile of various toy instruments, including the aforementioned Fraggle Rock drum kit. I didn’t even know a Fraggle Rock drum kit existed, and there it was on the cover of Groovy Neighborhood. Of course, even if I did like what I heard, there was still the novelty factor. Novelty music can be great fun, but even the best novelty music can feel like there is a giant empty-caloried hole through it after a short while. Surely, Terrific Counterguy would know this as well, for his enthusiasm for the band seemed so unbridled that I felt there had to something else to this Pianosaurus thing.

There were no John Lee Hooker albums in my hand, so that could not have been the impetus for Terrific Counterguy's next move. As the first track he wanted me to hear, he played Pianosaurus' cover version of Hooker's Dimples... and that was all it took. Despite the high-chiming plinkety-plinks that pervaded the basic and familiar blues riff that carries Dimples along, the song quite simply and utterly rocked, with Alex Garvin ripping into a shattering solo on his miniature guitar. How Terrific Counterguy knew this would be the song to do it, I will never know. Maybe I was just that impressionable, but I've always considered myself something of a hard sell when seeking out music I truly love. Looking back, had Terrific Counterguy played many of the other songs on this album instead as my initial dose of Pianosaurus, despite the excellence of those other songs, my heart would probably not have been captured so instantly as it did when I heard Dimples. Two follow-up covers were played next -- Chuck Berry's sublime Memphis and the Box Tops' The Letter (how did I know Alex Chilton would come into this somehow?) -- and I bought Groovy Neighborhood with the remaining tracks completely unheard at that point.

For all I knew, Groovy Neighborhood was a mere collection of swell cover songs, albeit plinked and plunked out on toy instruments. The music still struck me a pure novelty, but I knew that I had to have it for my own. There was no way I could pretend that I had remained unaffected by the sound, and so I couldn't fake my way into letting Terrific Counterguy buy my albums for me as he suggested. Etiquette wouldn't have allowed to do so anyway, and as I said, my own joy at hearing the Hooker cover was enough for Terrific Counterguy to know that he had won a convert to the side of Pianosaurus.

When the album is played through and one realizes that the other 14 songs on it are pure originals -- even those like Ready to Rock which play off of the established patterns of Berry and others -- one will find it amazing that Terrific Counterguy's focus was solely on only those three cover songs upon it. Perhaps he was afraid that if he did play the opening song, Thriftshoppin', or later songs like Bubble Gum Music, Barbie and (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the) Toystore, that I definitely would hear the sound as mere novelty, seeing as these songs are the ones closest to capturing what one would imagine to be the music played by a band wholly invested in toy instrumentation. Songs about toys, disposable popular music, bargain shopping and Banana Splits references. I doubt he had even considered that prospect, and probably just chose Dimples because it rocked out in a fashion that just outright delighted him. But all one needs to do is hear the closing 45 seconds of Thriftshoppin' that while novelty may have driven the band to perform, there is true musicianship here, and an often reckless spirit as well.

I do wish he had considered playing some of the deeper songs on the album, if only to know what my immediate reaction would have been to them. Years of constant playing has revealed the truth and the sadness behind Pianosaurus. Sun Will Follow almost seems like what the Velvet Underground would have been like if they had just pulled the shades up once in a while and then admitted to the world their hidden Brian Wilson jones. Pianosaurus seems absolutely determined to convince us that bright times are always there to back us up, no matter how the rain falls before us. They may not fully believe it given the pose, but the sweet harmonies that support Alex Garvin's assertions make us think they do. Pianosaurus seems to be fully capable of just about every move in the '60s pop catalogue, with Love is a Two-Way Street, Going Downtown and A Little Love (Never Hurt) displaying particular regard for the various styles of those bygone days. Eleanor Day is so gorgeous in its brevity and directness that it spells up just how tragically short it is at just less than a minute in length. It almost feels like a great lost standard.

And then there is Cherry Street, the song that I sing to myself often in those quiet moments when the mood seems perfectly suited for an odd but wistful longing for a street of possibly ill reputation. Particularly given that so much of their material seems to be tie-dyed with innocence, Cherry Street's architectural perversity married with the delicate strains of its melody make it an absolute delight. It makes me wonder all the more how I would have felt if this would have been the song I first heard from the group. Would I have loved them instantly if I did? It took me awhile to realize my love for Cherry Street, perhaps in a parallel to the singer's own almost shy admission in the lyrics that he does too, despite the opinions of those around him.

And here's my admission to unabashed love for Pianosaurus, the band that went extinct before its time. Or maybe it was its time when this album came out, maybe its purpose was fulfilled, and maybe it had to go away. There was apparently a second album recorded (or at least recorded for) to be titled Back to School, which was never released in any form. And then Alex Garvin went off, taking his candy-colored vision with him, leaving behind him a trail of unanswered questions as to his utter disappearance from music. Groovy Neighborhood is the only fossil record of Pianosaurus. Maybe this is all they were supposed to leave behind. To listen to their only album is to simultaneously wish they had done so much more, but to also realize just how perfect this album is on its own. The band is dead, but Groovy Neighborhood is still a living, breathing thing; still in print, still waiting to be discovered by each succeeding wave of musical archaeologists.

Hopefully, some of these archaeologists are also Terrific Counterguys, and each one has the verve to get this music into the hands of the people that need it most. Like my Terrific Counterguy did, like I still do, and like I hope others will too. It's not a truly groovy neighborhood unless everyone is having fun together...


Mark Otis said…
When first I landed my feet in Upper California; when first I landed a job in Upper California; when first I needed to choose a medical group from which to pick a general gractice doc for to ease my ills: I chose "Cherry Street Medical Group" off of the list provided.


You guessed it: Pianosaurus.

I still choose to bring Aerin there, when the local school board requires he get his shots for the school year.

Funny thing: The med offices are not on Cherry Street, they are on Doyle Park Drive. I wish I could say that there is no Cherry Street in Santa Rosa, thus heightening the possibility that, perchance, the docs involved in the naming decision might have - quite possibly - chosen the moniker due to the influence of Pianosaurus.

But alas and alack, there is a Cherry Street in this town.

But, not so alas and alack, really: because Santa Rosa's Cherry Street is a mere 2 blocks from where I work, and is the same street where our acupuncturist has her practice. And she succeeds in her duties.

And maybe she succeeds because of her own being quite possibly influenced by Pianoasaurus?

Believe it or not!!

R. Riley was, after all, born in Santa Rosa.
halfpear said…
I loved making the Pianosaurus records with the band. Great music and memories. Wish you could hear the second album, still unreleased.

Peter H.
Rik Tod said…
Thanks for commenting, Peter. I should have mentioned the fact that you were the producer on the album in my sugar rush of a remembrance.

Have always loved the dB's, too. Probably get around to a couple of those albums here eventually.

sweetbeats™ said…
Loved pianosaurus for years I would love to hear the lost 2nd album : )

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