Selected rejection letters from some of the major record companies in America:
"Not bad, but not very exciting either . . . I pass."
"Does not fit our needs at this time."
"Maybe if you could sound a little fe shore like Dire Straits."
"I must say it was one of the finest tapes we have received this year. I found the sound very appropriate for these times and totally refreshing . . . What we didn't hear was the song that would establish you on radio from coast to coast . . ."
These comments and others are attached to a peg-board that seems to hold up one wall in the cramped McLean basement that has served as a launching pad for Washngton's 4 Out of 5 Doctors. Next Friday, when the four-man band's debut album is released on Nemperor Records (distributed by CBS), some of those companies may feel a little silly.The Doctors have produced a set of original rock as striking as the debut efforts from Boston and The Cars; a pastiche of clever, inventive power pop melodies marked by excellent singing and strong playing. "We're kind of a combintion of Bread and Led Zeppelin," laughs guitarist George Pittaway, "Bread Zeppelin!"
It's quite a success story for a band that hit the big time after five years of honing their skills in a suburban basement while most of their contemporaries were earning their stripes on the bar and club circuit. But the Doctors had decided early on to internalize their sound before approaching the record companies with a finished product. They felt their moment approaching when the rejection letters stopped being computer-written and became personal. But "we didn't know it would take five years," they say now."If we'd known that at the time, we might never have done it this way."
The group consists of bassist and lead vocalist Cal Everett, 26, from Potomac; guitarist/keyboard player and singer Jeff Severson, 26, from Nebraska; drummer, Tom Ballew, 24 from San Francisco; and guitarist/vocalist Pittaway, a 26-year-old Army brat who spent many years in Southeast Asia. Severson and Pittaway came together in 1975, moving into a large house on Old Chesterbrook Road in McLean. Over the years, their wryly named Club Chesterbrook has served not only as a rehearsal space and recreation center, but was until recently home to all four musicians. s
Cal Everett, the tall, handsome bassist who is now the group's front man on stage, came in three years ago -- after placing an ad in The Washington Post offering his services. ("Bassist/keyboard player seeks guitarist to play original material.") All but Ballew, who joined two years ago, are prolific writers -- when Everett joined, "he had a songbook with every song he'd written since the seventh grade," jokes Pittaway. "Two hundred were written to girlfriends." "It was hard to get a date if you were gangly," Everett says in his own defense.
For the first 3-1/2 years, each songwriter would lay down basic tracks on his own material, with the other musicians adding rhythm and solo tracks one or two at a time. Working at occasional outside jobs but never playing in public, the Doctors hadn't expected such a steady diet of recording and rehearsal. "But we grew together," says Severson. "We all wrote material from how we conceived the pop music scene in our own eyes, as well as how we wanted it to be."
Their funky rehearsal space, affectionately known as The Lost Basement, filled up first with "all the rugs we could steal," says Pittaway. Their recording equipment evolved from mono to four track to its current eight-track capability ("with washer and dryer," adds Ballew). Surprisingly, in five years on the rock road, the Doctors never heard one complaint from their neighbors. "Unbelievable!" says Ballew.
When they weren't recording or writing songs, the band members earned money at a variety of jobs: Everett managed an Armand's sub shop in Rosslyn; Ballew worked for United Parcel Service; Pittaway taught guitar. (Pittaway also had some money left from a 1973 fling in the fashion world when he handled a line of designer Asian floursack shirts that enjoyed a brief vogue at Bloomingdale's. "But I had been interested in music all along," he adds. "It was just hard to play when I was always traveling around as a kid.")
Severson, who seems the most thoughtful and serious band member, had come to Washington to work at the Reston-based Victoria Films, an experience which will be useful if and when the band experiments with video. For several years, the Doctors provided soundtracks for industrial and government films and several of the tunes they sent out to record companies on their eight demo tapes showed up in the horror film, "Boggie Man," a surprise hit of the summer season. "We had no idea we were writing for a murder-mayhem scene," laughs Severson. "We even had to pay to see the movie, but we did get a good plug at the end . . . 'Music by 4 Out of 5 Doctors.'"
If the name of the band seems a little strange, consider some of the alternatives developed years ago in a free-association discussion: Young Snorkles, The Karz (before the arrival of The Cars, for whom the band has opened several times), White Glove Inspections, Jungle Pillows, Razor Sharp Credit Cards, Blood Sausage. They couldn't choose, and left it up to a seventh-grade class and a high-school class, who were asked to vote on the "if you had a rock band, what name would you chose" platform. Nobody voted for 4 Out of 5 Doctors, but the band adopted it on the principle of negative subliminal impact -- and possibly with an eye to future endorsement opportunities. "Then we thought we'd better write some music," chortles Pittaway.
Meanwhile, the demo tapes that had elicited the form-letter rejections kept getting better, and finally in mid-1979, the band got a phone call ("which makes us think we should have been using the phone all along," says Ballew). "I like your tape," said the artists-and-repertoire man for Arista records, "where can I see you play?" A quick cough and a muffled "around, you know" couldn't quite cover up the fact that the Doctors had never played in front of a live audience: And while the others had experience in various bands since high school, Pittaway had never performed anywhere but the basement. Two weeks of intense stage rehearsal led to a Childe Harold gig in September 1979. The A & R man was not impressed and never called back.
Some later gigs were similarly unfullfilling, including an opening spot for the Clash in the cement grand canyon of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum. The Clash wouldn't allow a sound check and the Doctors' equipment literally fell apart on stage, leaving the band performing in pantomime. The band finally caught the ear of Nemperor's Nat Weiss, a New York lawyer who had become Brian Epstein's partner in the Beatles' management company just before Epstein's death. Weiss finally flew down to Washington in a blizzard and sat through a whole set of originals in the Doctors' McLean roost. Sitting in the cramped and sloppy rehearsal room while eating "bad cheeseballs," he later told them, "I thought you guys were going to give me a tambourine, I felt so close to the band."
A final showcase at New York's Trax club in March of this year brought representatives of six different companies to hear the band. Nemperor had thrown a cocktail party for the group that afternoon, and the band expected that a contract would be offered then. Instead, they felt ignored. Stung and upset ("we were screaming in our taxi back to the hotel") their anger came through in the performance that night. "We weren't going to leave without a record contract," says Pittaway. And they didn't: After the show, the record companies lined up outside the dressing room, at which point Weiss walked in and made the deal.
Before the contract was finally signed, the group got other offers.Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, the former Doobie Brother and Steely Dan guitarist-turned-producer for A & M Records, "wanted to produce us real bad. He was persistent in calling us during the limbo period of the Nemperor deal," says Everett. "We were awestruck and obviously it was ego-inflating." The Doctors finally settled on Alan Winstanley (Rachel Sweet, Madness, Original Mirrors), who recorded them in six weeks in Miami.
"We were allowed to be completely true to everything we had worked at for 4-1/2 years in the basement," says Everett. "He kept all that, but enhanced it with his studio knowledge."
After their five-year odyssey, the good Doctors had to wait just a while longer. Their album had been scheduled for September release, but CBS postponed it until this week to avoid losing it in the fall deluge of album releases. During the next month, they will be monitoring the trade journals and record tip sheets, hoping their first single, "I Want Her," can break into rotation and give the group the initial exposure it will need. And as the album sells, they'll head to "areas of intensity" to back up airplay with live dates.
"We carry in our minds the idea that it will be successful," says Everett, "but we're also prepared for it not to be. Then the next album will do it. I told the record companies a long time ago that they should sign us because we could put out 10 albums like that . . ." and he snaps his finger.