With all the hype these days about garage bands hailing from Sweden or New York, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that "garage" was actually the sound of young San Diego, circa 1984. We've covered a few, and we'll get to the rest, but near the top of the heap, and easily one of the most influential, was The Gravedigger V.
Formed in the early '80s by Leighton Koizumi (16, vocals), Chris Gast (15, bass), Ted Friedman (16, guitar), John Hanrattie (17, guitar) and a drummer named Matt (last name lost to the sands of time), the group was originally called The Shamen.
Matt was soon replaced by Dave "The Animal" Anderson, but the group discovered that their chosen name was already taken by another group. After a night of brainstorming at a Bob's Big Boy, the replacement moniker they chose, The Gravedigger V, was a take-off on the old "Monster Mash" backing group The Cryptkicker V. The band asked a waitress what she thought of the new name, and when she replied that she thought it was "stupid," they were sold.
Things took off quickly from there, with the group's over-the-top antics drawing nearly as much attention as their music. But oh, that sound! Their primitive, riff-driven, snarling, snot-nosed take on garage punk became a favorite of area teenagers.
After just a few shows opening for other local heroes, in January of '84 legendary music impresario Greg Shaw came a-callin'. The band eventually signed with his Voxx/Bomp imprint and released their first album, All Black and Hairy, later that year. All five of the garage rockers slept in their car in an alley next to the studio, while recording the album in LA. Now that's dedication.
When the group played the Whiskey A Go Go, they had to wait outside between sets, as they were too young to be in the club otherwise. Unfortunately, substance abuse problems soon caught up with the group; Gast was asked to leave the group he had helped found, and he was replaced by Tom Ward.
The group managed a further track on the Voxx compilation Battle Of The Garages Vol. 3, and their final album, The Mirror Cracked was released in 1987. This hodgepodge of demos, live tracks and oddities was hardly a fitting end for such a dynamic group, but it does capture the mayhem of their concert performances.
Friedman and Koizumi went on to form the Morlochs, relocating to the Bay Area, while "The Animal" went on to infamy with Manual Scan, The Trebles, The Answers, The Crawdaddies and Skid Roper. Ward recorded with New York's Optic Nerve and Manual Scan for a short time, before landing a lifetime gig with Carl Rusk and Ron Silva in a band that has been variously called The Nashville Ramblers, The Blackmores and The Black Diamonds.
The Gravedigger V's popularity-especially in Europe-never diminished, however, and in 1994 Voxx reissued both albums on a single disc, and included tracks on the Destination Bomp and Be a Caveman compilations. The band, including Gast, reunited for one last show at New York's annual garage rockathon, Cave Stomp in 1999.
Rumors circulated in the press during the late '90s that Koizumi had passed away from a drug overdose, but he had in fact gone underground to escape a bad crowd. Sadly, Gast-one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet-passed away at his New York home in in 2000.
The Gravedigger V's legacy is sizable. Their take on "All Black and Hairy" is still played at clubs worldwide and stands as a cover favorite for many European and Asian bands. Despite their short existence, the band's music has resonated, their place in music history secure, as long as kids continue to crank up their amps in the spot where their parent's minivan should be.Somewhere, Chris Gast is smiling.