It's too bad they only release one album.
“I have had people who have listened to the material since, and they said they can’t understand why we didn’t get signed. But at the time that we put out that material, people were still expecting long jams. It was before the so-called New Wave stuff took on and became more pop and what not, the shorter song format. I just write it off to timing, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world…”
-- Jack Casady interview in Relix magazine, February 1986
It has been 35 years since San Francisco rock band SVT released their only full length album, No Regrets. Much has shifted in music, particularly rock music, since that time, and this album may have something to tell us, in retrospect, about directions in rock music, generally. More importantly, however, it may be time for a reconsideration of the band’s output, in particular the songs of their lead singer/guitarist, Brian Marnell.
To be sure, by the time of this album’s release this was fully Marnell’s band: his voice, his guitar, his songwriting. Jack Casady may have had the name recognition, after establishing not one but two historic San Francisco bands, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. But Casady was looking for a new direction in the late 70’s, declaring that he was bored with the long jam style of Hot Tuna. Together, Marnell and Casady originally worked with a keyboardist, Nick Buck, but eventually stripped down to the three-piece outfit on the album along with drummer Paul Zahl. Casady and Zahl locked down an impressive rhythm section, and Casady’s fame gave the band an immediate notoriety.
This notoriety was not always positive. Any fans expecting a “Jack Casady Band” in the mold of his previous material would leave the nightclub shocked. This was a new music: purposeful, powerful, embracing the new sound and energy of the times yet with echoes of the “hard rock” of the era, as well.
This became an issue for the band in the end; How to classify this music? Some called it punk, which Marnell dismissed outright. “New Wave” was closer to the truth, but, especially since the parting of Buck’s keyboard, the band had a heaviness missing from much of the New Wave of the period; the music had less of New Wave’s sense of irony, and part of the power of the band came from a sincerity in the music, particularly from Marnell and his voice.
The voice is the central instrument on No Regrets, and Marnell may be the most underrated singer of this period of San Francisco music. Live, each of these songs had an intensity of voice, a howl at times (underscored by the way Marnell breaks into “oh oh” at key moments) and, moreover, a control that drove the music. Even on songs where the lyrics seem a bit “light-weight”, such as “Love Blind” or “What I Don’t Like”, for example, the delivery is so honest and impassioned that these songs absolutely work as classic pop delivered with amps turned up to 11.
Lyrically, tortured love songs predominate, but beneath the surface I sense something else at work; these lonesome boy poems begin to sketch out a mythology of urban desire that reflect a deeper sense of alienation and loss. Cityscapes reflected in tunes like “Money Street” or “North Beach” become urban mythmaking similar to a young John Fogarty looking out his window in El Cerrito, California, and creating his bayou legends nearly15 years prior. Listening to these songs now, it feels like Marnell desperately wants to live in this world of his own making, a world more pure, more real. This is the underlying tension of the music, reflecting a tension within the listener him or herself. Perhaps this tension defines all genuine rock 'n' roll.
The music is, as we used to say in those days, “tight”. The Casady-Zahl rhythm section drives everything, a subtle combination of Casady’s stripped down bass lines (often a hammer of two or three notes) and Zahl’s accented power drumming. Add to this Marnell’s ideosyncratic way of playing lead guitar. “Waiting for You” provides a great example of how his leads were patterns weaved into patterns, creating great intensity and a singular guitar “voice”. The album presents songs the band had been performing in nightclubs for some time, and though a couple of the songs, notably “You Don’t Rock Me” and “Too Late” are less effective here than the rock anthems they were when performed live. Rather, it is the "smaller" songs, if you will -- “Waiting for You", “Heart of Stone”, “Secret”, “Love Blind”, “North Beach”, and the title track -- that benefit most from these recordings.
Of course, today the album is colored by subsequent events, specifically Marnell’s overdose death in1983. The later unrecorded SVT songs were gaining in strength and vision, as well as guitar prowess. Sadly, this album remains the last public document of this band. For anyone interested in San Francisco music, this album is essential; likewise, anyone interested in “New Wave” and its variations should own this.
More than that, however, No Regrets is a testimony to three musicians, one in particular, who had a vision and tried to live it completely.
Tim K Hardin lives in SE Portland, Oregon, where he is a writer, musician, and former teacher at Portland Public Schools. He considers the Ramones to be the greatest rock band of all time.