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Downey's favorite sons, the Blasters, almost single-handedly spawned the roots-rock movement of the early '80s, paving the way for such acts as Rank & File, Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, the Long Ryders, and my own band, the Beat Farmers, among others. The Blasters were positively god-like in those days; experiencing them live was like crawling inside a jet engine and feeling its power rip the skin off your body and pulverize your bones to a powder.
The sight of sweat-soaked Phil Alvin's screaming purple skull of a face belting out "Marie Marie" and "American Music" through vise-clenched teeth bespoke musical rapture and Robert Johnson's hellhounds in equal measure; it was one of the great visual images in rock & roll. Meanwhile, little brother Dave—the group's songwriter/guitarist—thrashed about onstage like he was treading barefoot on hot coals, a whirling amphetamine blur of black leather, blue denim and red quiff.
And, of course, aside from any striking imagery, there was the glorious, unglued fury of the Blasters' music itself. Phil's voice shouted with the authority of Big Joe Turner and a curiously old-timey edge, his reedy vibrato testifying to familiarity with such vocal pioneers as Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Dave's guitar work was Chuck Berry two-note rock & roll strained through the sensibility of both Creole funk and LA punk. Bassist Johnny Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman formed a jackhammer rhythm section that throbbed and pounded with equal power and precision, while pianist Gene Taylor battered the 88s as if beating the boogie were an act of perverse sexual aggression. Finally, veteran New Orleans sax man Lee Allen honked and grunted atop the proceedings, the final siren of perfection in the Blasters' frenetic mix. Make no mistake about it—this was one of the greatest rock & roll bands to ever stalk the planet, a Ron Jeremy blue-steel boner come to musical life, squirting its demonic seed over the anointed masses.
Yet for all the glory they forged together, you'd be hard-pressed to find two more disparate personalities than brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Dave is a quiet, thoughtful, down-to-earth type, while Phil—a bona fide mathematical genius—frequently goes off on meticulous rants like a mad scientist from a '50s B-movie. In this respect, the creative and personal tension between the two is not unlike the Kinks' battling Davies brothers—fractious fraternals who fight tooth and nail even as the yin/yang nature of the relationship somehow creates musical fireworks to shake the heavens.
Back in the day, the Beat Farmers spent many a night touring with the Blasters, where I was privy to regular and predictable battles between the siblings. Some were quite amusing and could have formed the basis of a nifty sitcom, while others were downright scary in their personal savagery. These guys seemed quite capable of killing each other should the stars cross in ugly ways. When Dave left the band in 1986, it didn't come as much of a surprise.
Dave briefly replaced Billy Zoom in X and then went on to forge a solo career as a singer/songwriter, which only recently has begun to bear fruit—he even won a Grammy last year. Meanwhile, Phil continued to front the Blasters, but as more members came and left until he and Bazz were the only remaining originals, the juice seemed to wane from Niagara Falls to the level of Tom Arnold having himself a tinkle.
Fans have speculated for the past 16 years as to whether the original Blasters might reunite, and that day has finally come. With the Rhino Records release of the double-disc set Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings on March 5, everyone has decided that now is a good time to show the young'uns what all the hype was about in the '80s.
Well, almost everyone.
"Phil had to be talked into doing this," sighs Dave. "He didn't want to confuse the issue of the new Blasters vs. the old Blasters. He didn't want to have people bugging him at every gig, asking, 'Where's Dave?' He even wanted to have the new Blasters onstage with the old Blasters, but no way—we're going out in support of this reissue, and it's, like, here's the original band, the guys that played on the original records."
"I really can't even tell you how this happened," says Phil in a separate interview. "I never told David to leave the Blasters in the first place, and I still don't know how that even came about. There's only been two times in the history of the Blasters where I ever threw somebody out of the band. People leave the band, and I always tell them, 'There's going to be some point in the future where you'll be upset that you did this.' They should pay attention to my advice."
The Alvins also disagree about the release of Testament. Phil is upset about the anthology, claiming that it's the result of "an illegal contract." Dave views it as belated recognition—if not redemption—for all the trailblazing work done by the Blasters in the early years of the roots revival.