Lost & Found: The Unknowns

These days I’m rediscovering many things in my room, going through old boxes of concert tickets and birthday cards. Oddly, this time has become great for us nostalgia keepers—a few steps below hoarding, eager for time to pass to relive a bygone moment with a hint of rose-coloring. I’ve even started to investigate my small collection of Vinyl that I have barely touched since moving to Queens this past January. (I’ve been slow at setting up the whole system because I’ve become a lazy dweeb great at procrastinating the easiest of projects.) As a result, I came across a chunk of punk records I had yet to hear, plucked from a flee market in Chicago (I think?) based on their cut-and-paste edited covers and outlandish “The” names—The Flies, The Dictators, The Unknowns. The latter was the first vinyl record I listened to since being locked in. Above the track list on the LP’s label, it reads: “Biting the wallet to poison the ears.” Immediately I was greeted with a ska-indebted beat, anxious puppy-like yelps, and quivering ghoulish vocals. As a major fan of the Cramps, this eerie, rockabilly-punk concoction made me giddy.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information about the Georgia-raised, San Diego-based quartet. What I’ve discovered so far is that front-leader Bruce Joyner had an incredibly tragic and accident-prone childhood. When he was four years old, he was given chloride crystals and told they were rock candy. As a result he was hospitalized, his vocal chords were scraped out, and his throat was scarred. He began singing to records as a way to rehabilitate his vocal capacity. Joyner described his singing as a “tape machine gone screwy.” He also lost an eye (no clue why) and was involved in a debilitating car wreck that left him partially paralyzed for a time. Through rehabilitation he was able to walk, in many photos or articles he notoriously carries a cane. Although he endured this before he was eighteen, Joyner would go on to head multiple groups, most notably the Unknowns.

Other members of the group included Dave Doyle on bass, Mark Neil on guitar, and Steve Bidrowski on drums. They signed to BOMP! records in 1981, an offshoot of Sire, and released their debut EP Dream Sequence, which is the LP I have. They put out one full-length in 1982 before Joyner left the band to pursue other groups. The other members would also pursue solo careers or other musical projects. The band also reunited in the early ’90s with a slightly altered lineup. Crazy enough, bassist Mark Neil would go on to be a Grammy-nominated producer and studio engineer, working on most of the critically acclaimed Brothers by the Black Keys.

Dream Sequence contains six tightly written garage-rock, surf-punk tracks that range from kinky to strikingly violent. The self-titled opener is a spooky, swaggy favorite of mine. The pumping guitar melody is what I would imagine a suave swamp creature to strut to. It’s an anthem for mischief. It builds to a stuttering drum rush at the chorus, where Joyner’s vocals sink even deeper into a ghostly call. There’s mention of being tied up in velvet ropes, hushed screams, a hooker in a red dress, and murderous gunshots. The recording is a bit warped, which makes it hard to piece together the story. Is it supposed to make sense. Parallel to the surreal images that flood our brain when dreaming, Joyner’s frantic tone and accelerating vocal delivery leaves me with scattered images, vivid enough to fool me into thinking I might be able to piece them together.

Dream Sequence is a dizzying hole to fall down. Most of these tracks are either on the cusp of giving into carnal urges or have already succumbed to an impulsive mayhem. Other highlights from the album include the bloodthirsty western-inspired “Gun Fighting Man” and the horny pop song “Suzzanne,” polished with a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll shine. Overall, it’s sad and curious why the Unknowns were lost to history. Their untamed howls and unrelenting rhythm section are exciting rarities of the new wave movement.

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