We love it when a Philly guy goes on to great things, even if he has to leave Philly to do it. In the mid-’80s, before South Street became a post-gentrified boardwalk, Greg Harris and his pal Jacy Webster opened the (still kickin’) Philadelphia Record Exchange on South Fifth Street. The place was something of a haven for DIY musicians of the post-punk, roots-rock variety. “It was a busy era,” says Harris, “and it wasn’t defined by any one gigantic name. I think Philly was known to the rest of the world for Philly soul, and for bands like Hall & Oates, but we were sort of going the other way.” Now, after nearly 30 years and plenty of occupation changes, Harris is the president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. We asked Harris: If you were to construct a “Philly Hall of Fame” from your good ol’ days, who would be in it?
Ben Vaughn Combo
Ben Vaughn’s band formed in 1983, the same year Harris enrolled at Temple. Always attracted to both gnarly post-punk and “traditional” rock ’n’ roll, Harris found himself drawn to the Ben Vaughn Combo. Though the band leaned toward the latter — thanks to Vaughn’s rockabilly-inflected guitar and Gus Cordovox’s upbeat accordion — it’s worth noting that Vaughn went on to collaborate with Alan Vega, whose penchant for injecting fear and uncertainty into ’50s styles is well known. The Combo’s live show was also a testament to Vaughn’s wilder side. “Ben Vaughn shows were always great,” says Harris — as a onetime Vaughn road manager, he’s not entirely impartial. Harris says he also distinctly remembers them “playing in front of the record store and [Vaughn] walking up and down the parked cars as he played guitar.”
The Stick Men
Formed in 1977 by art-school grad Peter L. Baker, the Stick Men went through lots of changes before becoming the funky no-wave band who would open for Johnny Thunders, Gang of Four and Oingo Boingo. Listening to them now is like chancing upon some long-lost Contortions record, only with keyboards and somehow more frenetic, more menacing. “The Stick Men were James Brown on fast-forward with a lot of great rhythm and stops and starts,” Harris recalls. “Just a frenzied, fantastic show.” They disbanded after only one full-length and an EP, and even in the Internet age they remain an obscure gem.
King of Siam / Strapping Fieldhands
Jacy Webster, Harris’ business partner and co-founder of the Record Exchange, had a band called King of Siam whose scratchy guitar, jittery rhythms, and (very) lo-fi production recalls the Feelies with a touch of Ween-ish psychedelia. In 1991, Webster joined songwriter/guitarist Bob Malloy and other record-store cronies in the Strapping Fieldhands, whose 1994 debut full-length Discus is somewhat legendary. Though King of Siam was more “of his time,” Harris recognizes the breadth of the Fieldhands’ influence: “From what I hear, the Strapping Fieldhands have impacted a ton of younger bands. It’s remarkable when I meet some of the younger Philly bands — Dr. Dog, Man Man — they all mention the Strapping Fieldhands, which is friggin’ awesome because those guys were all making records 25 years ago, and they’re all record-store guys.” Both bands are still active today.
The Sic Kidz represent the Philly end of ’77 punk, having started around that time and opened for the Cramps, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Dead Kennedys. Frontman Mick Cancer once described punk rock as “about being sick. Sick of it all. Sick of life as we live it.” This should give a good idea of their sound, but it’s not the whole story. They were also a lot of fun, offsetting the mangled distortion of their guitars with a slapback delay on the vocals. “The Sic Kidz were a phenomenal band. They were the growling, late-night swamp-rock stuff that was just incredible. They were always great to see live.”