Over the past year, the Blixa Sounds label has made a name for itself as the home to an eclectic line of reissues, from yacht rockers Stephen Bishop and Robbie Dupree to soul phenom Linda Clifford and psych-rock veterans Chris Darrow and Max Buda. Earlier last month, the label released its latest reissue – an expanded edition of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions’ self-titled debut.
The album was originally released in 1980 on Warner Bros. Records and introduced listeners to the infectious punk-new wave blend performed by Hilary Hanes on bass, John Hanes on drums, Peter Dunne on guitar, and Pearl E. Gates on vocals. Each member was a a veteran of the San Francisco punk scene. In 1973, a 17-year-old Gates had moved to the city from Germany in an act of rebellion, and she soon found herself immersed in the city’s underground scene. She auditioned for The Tubes’ Talent Show with a tap dance routine three years later and got the gig. During that time, she met Jane Dornaker, who recruited Gates to be part of Leila and the Snakes, a campy, all-girl music act that combined punk and cabaret influences. John Hanes was drummer for the ensemble and soon Gates asked him and his brother Hilary to join her new band. In turn, the brothers recruited guitarist Peter Dunne. They adopted outrageous pseudonyms – the brothers Hanes became the Stench Brothers; Peter Dunne rechristened himself Peter Bilt; and Pearl E. Gates became Pearl Harbor – and became fixtures in the San Fran club scene.
They eventually set up shop at the famed Wally Heider Studios, recording during overnight sessions with the front desk watchman David Kahne, years before his Grammy wins and collaborations with the likes of Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. A highlight of the album was the infectious “Drivin’.” The track opens the album on a high note, with catchy guitar stabs, syncopated backing vocals, and a quirky rhythm changes. KSAN’s Beverly Wilshire surreptitiously added the track to station rotations and helped break the album regionally. By this point, the band had made a deal with the local independent label 415 Records, run by future Reprise executive Howie Klein, but soon signed with Warner Bros. for their debut album.
The long-player, also produced by Kahne, included re-recordings of their independent releases and was released in January 1980. The collection was a moderate success and bubbled under the Top 100 Albums in Billboard. While Harbor has since expressed some dissatisfaction with the sleek and shiny, high-end-heavy production, the album was full of catchy, radio-friendly material that gripped listeners regionally and nationally. Soon, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions were opening for the likes of The Talking Heads and The Police, thrilling audiences with their stage show. The label was also supportive, but by the end of the year the band had been fractured by creative differences. As Harbor remembers, “It was time to make album number two and the guys wanted to go more into this jazz-funk thing and I was into singing rockabilly. So I decided that I didn’t want to do jazz-funk, so we broke up the band. Warner Bros. got extremely upset and they said that they would stick with me for one more record.” She released that album – a solo album called Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too under the name Pearl Harbour [note the spelling] and later married Paul Simonon of The Clash. Meanwhile Peter Bilt explored R&B with producer David Rubinson, and the brothers Hanes went on to collaborate with avant-garde musicians like Henry Kaiser.
While The Explosions may have scattered in the wake of their break-up, during their time together they were among the pioneers of the burgeoning New Wave scene. Their unique blend of punk, pop, rockabilly, and jazz is on full display in Blixa’s new reissue. Aside from the aforementioned “Drivin'” there’s also “You Got It (Release It),” a jangly pop-rocker that includes a gorgeous blend of acoustic and electric guitars and a simmering lead vocal. With its gorgeous harmonies, it’s a wonder it didn’t also become a radio staple. Meanwhile, “Don’t Come Back” is a more disjointed track, full of dissonant guitar chords and idiosyncratic rhythms – a quirky cousin of “Hit the Road, Jack.” “The Big One” explores similar musical territory with its blend of syncopated rhythm parts in a straight-ahead rock context. “Shut Up and Dance” is a more conventional, rockabilly-flavored track with crunchy guitars about a quick-tempered man who ought to just cool it and enjoy the music. “Get A Grip on Yourself” is a grooving track demonstrating the more disco-funk-leaning direction that some members wanted to explore. In all, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions demonstrates the many influences that the band embraced to create their unique musical amalgam: from rockabilly and pop to jazz, avant garde, and R&B, there are shades of everything on this debut.
For the new reissue, Blixa has expanded the original nine-track collection with seven bonus tracks. There’s the original 515 Records single “Drivin'” b/w “Release It,” plus three 1979 live cuts (a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Let’s Eat,” a version of Ron Wood’s “I Can Feel The Fire,” and the rockabilly classic “Black Slacks”), plus a rare radio spot from the same year that promotes the band’s debut. All the audio has been mastered by Bill Inglot and Dave Shultz and sounds clear and detailed. An illustrated booklet rounds out the set, featuring memorabilia, new notes by Joel Silva, and classic photographs that contextualize the music. It’s all presented in a gorgeous package designed by Greg Allen of Omnivore Creative.
All told, Blixa’s reissue is the most comprehensive collection of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions’ all-too-brief career. With remastered sound, detailed notes, and handsome packaging, the set is a must for fans of the early new wave scene.