In '79, the Handgrenades issued what would become the best UK DIY punk single not actually from the UK: their "Demo to London" b/w "Coma Dos" 45, self-released in an undetermined quantity on the band's unnamed imprint.
The single is a killer. It was also once a source of profound mystery -- to collectors and wayward punk geeks, at least. Omitted on the sleeve are the band's roster, their location and where they recorded their material, and the only nuggets of information profferred are a production credit attributed to Bob Levitan and the word "phonographix." Given this anonymity, and in light of the title and subject of "Demo to London" -- not to mention the otherworldly cut-up cover art, production, vocals, and musicianship (or lack thereof) -- many took the band's provenance to be London, or perhaps the outskirts of Manchester. The flip's manic "Coma Dos" sheds even less light on the single's origin, and the listener's left with a clang-punk artifact of the highest random order, reminiscent of contemporaries like Swell Maps, the Petticoats, Desperate Bicycles, so on, so forth.
Today, we know that they actually hailed from suburban Long Island, and they regularly played at the Island's best-known clubs, like My Father's Place and the Right Track Inn. They also ran the Bowery circuit -- Max's, CBGB's, etc. -- alongside groups like the Heartbreakers and the Revelons. And while they were oftentimes anonymous in their approach, core members Bob Kern (vox/gtr) and Jon Pellicoro (drums) were mordant provocateurs, and good ones at that.
"I always thought that it wasn't who we were that was important anyway," says Kern, "but what we had to say."
The two of them had much to say by way of art and antagonism. There are stories of the band playing three-song guerilla sets in packed Long Island clubs, of attemps to incite small riots by inviting a packed CBGB's to the Exxon Building after a show. And as partners of design firm Grafix Multimedia, there are sly stories about the group's promotional hijinks, like the tale of Pellicoro's Handgrenades posters.
"I had been by Warhol's place, the Factory," recalls Pellicoro, "and I just thought, 'Oh, I know how to do this.'"
Pellicoro was then the Art Director for the East Village Eye, so he had quite a knack for graphic design. He made up a number of faux-Warhol prints -- shaped, natch, like handgrenades -- and sent them along with copies of the band's single to a number of stores in Europe. "And owners of record stores were taking them home, because they thought they were real," Pellicoro laughs.
"We also put one in Warhol's elevator," adds Kern. "We posted them in the elevator of the Factory, and we sent them up to the third floor and walked off. Weeks later, I get a phone call: 'Andy wants to sue you.'"
But Warhol didn't sue them; he rarely sued anyone for counterfeiting. The reason, according to Pellicoro, is that "he would never deny a piece was his, since it would've destroyed his market."
His hesitance to expose the band catapulted the Handgrenades' market. Shopkeepers were either delighted or infuriated by the ploy, and it caught the attention of a number of labels, like Holland's Plexus imprint, who agreed to distribute the remainder of the "Demo to London" 45 and bankroll their first LP.
With the decade now coming to a close, the band's 45 had filled a coveted slot in the jukebox at CBGB's ("and David Byrne used to play it!" comments Kern). The band had also dropped the Handgrenades moniker and adopted another: the Sponsors. They maintained the same line-up -- Kern on vocals and guitar, Steve La Cava on bass, Dave Kilmartin on second guitar, Pellicoro on drums -- but the name change signalled a pop maturation of their sound. They would, however, retain some of their nervous and edgy tunes, like "Murder in the U.S.," a Handgrenades original.
Nonetheless, they were moving into safer territory. Plexus secured the Dictators' Andy Shernoff as producer and sent the Sponsors to their first real recording facility: Skyline Studios on 31st St. in Manhattan. It was a far cry from their friend's small Long Island bunker that yielded the Handgrenades' single. Gone were the dissonant pinging guitars and grinding rhythms of the band's earliest incarnation. In their stead, and under the direction of a more confident and proficient Kern and Pellicoro, the Sponsors skirted new-wave and power-pop territory with their underrated eponymous LP of '82.
While they streamlined and devloped their songwriting, they also investigated new media for the band's promotion. Cablevision, then a client of Grafix Multimedia, lent Kern and Pellicoro the equipment necessary for a music video -- a concept that MTV had not yet popularized, but which suited the duo's stylized ideals of visual representation. The two used a number of analog special effects to craft a video that looks awfully dated in 2012, but was, at its inception, quite a display. (They used the same set-up to record "Murder in the U.S." as part of a short-lived TV show Kern and Pellicoro helped develop called Nobody Special.)
The Sponsors' one and only long-player brought the band collegiate radio play and a modicum of attention, but it failed to propel them starward. They continued to gig around NYC and the surrounding area whenever they could. Their dissolution was a quiet one.
Fortunately, Numero Group issued 2005's Prefill: Yellow Pills 2xCD compilation, a power-pop collection that included the Sponsors' "In And Out of Love" and "Love I Can't Wait," both strong pop numbers from their LP. The label will finally give the double-disc the vinyl treatment this summer. Keep an eye out and an ear open.