The Roots of Indie: Kashmere Stage Band
Three basic paths are available for kids whose interest in music grows from listening to performing.
The first is the DIY path favored by most kids. They pick up a $99 Squire Strat and start banging out rudimentary riffs with their buddies.
The next is church, where a lot of folks sing in public for the first time. Unless we're lucky enough to go to a really hip church, chances are endless repetitions of 'Rock of Ages' don't inspire you to hit your local open mic night, though.
The last -- and unfortunately the most endangered -- is the school band. Rarely held in the highest esteem among high school cliques, band programs have turned out some brilliant musicians. Some are well known -- Trent Reznor and Tommy Lee, for example -- but for the most part high school ends and the clarinets and saxophones gather dust in the backs of closets.
But how many people were inspired by those four years of music? I'm not just talking about the student musicians, either, but the kids who heard their peers rock at ball games, rallies, and concerts. How many young people got their first taste of a brass section via the school band?
Back in the '70s, recording school bands and choirs was fairly common. The school, or perhaps a local label, would put a few copies of the recording out on vinyl for the kids and their parents to buy.
If I'm ever lucky enough to come across a copy of one of these old concert band albums in a record shop, I snatch it up. They aren't all great, but they're fascinating little audio snow globes, capturing a moment in time -- a moment that for some of the kids performing marked the high points of their lives.
If you want to hear the roots of indie (or country, or metal, or jazz, or....) look no further than your local high school. That's where the next generation is building their skills, courtesy of dedicated and talented band directors.
The Kashmere Stage Band won 42 out of 46 contests that they entered.
And they didn't come much more dedicated than Conrad Johnson, director of the music program at Kashmere High School in Houston, Texas. Over the 37 years that Johnson taught at the school, the Kashmere Stage Band won 42 out of 46 contests that they entered. That statistic is a bit misleading though: They actually won those 42 contests over a period of 8 short years from 1969 through 1977.
During that same period, the Stage Band recorded eight albums, each of which included some original compositions by Johnson and a whole lot of funky covers. Check out this smoking version of Dennis Coffey's 'Scorpio':
Johnson's inspiration for such an insanely hip band was an Otis Redding concert that he attended in 1967. Many years later, he told NPR:
"[Redding] was kicking! He let all of his men perform, sing, play, and do everything. So I saw that and I went back and [asked my band], 'If I were to get you to do a show while you're playing and teach it to you, do you think you could do it?' My band said, 'If you believe we can do it, we can do it.'"
With their tight choreography, funky sound, and unconventional wardrobe (more Sly Stone than school band), Kashmere Stage Band were injections of adrenaline into the somewhat drab world of school band competitions.
Imagine it's 1972. You've been stuck in an auditorium for the last four hours listening to teenagers cover Duke Ellington, and then these kids take the stage:
The band broke up when Johnson retired from teaching in 1978, but remember: They had eight supremely funky albums floating around, waiting for hip-hop to come along and sample the Kashmere Stage Band back into relevance.
They did, too. Check out this track from the Handsome Boy Modeling School, which samples KSB's 'Kashmere':
The band regrouped thirty years later for a tribute to Johnson, an event that was captured in the must-see documentary 'Thunder Soul,' narrated by Jamie Foxx.
Original vinyl copies of Kashmere Stage Band's albums fetch in the hundreds of dollars, but there's good news. The two-CD set, 'Texas Thunder Soul: 1968-74,' is still in print and sells for a ridiculously cheap price. It is mandatory listening for anyone who likes soul, funk, jazz, R&B --- let's just cut this short: If you like music, you need this one in your stacks.
When my kid saw 'Thunder Soul' he doubled down on his practice time at the keyboard -- and I'm sure he's not the first.
Can I draw a line from the Kashmere Stage Band to any specific alt-indie band? I cannot, but I can tell you this: When my kid saw 'Thunder Soul' he doubled down on his practice time at the keyboard -- and I'm sure he's not the first.
That's the thing about roots -- we can't always see them, but they're always down there, nurturing us.