Sound Check

In 1962, Fuller booked time at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Holly had created many of his seminal recordings. Petty cut two Fuller sides, but the results were lackluster, so Fuller returned to El Paso and began beefing up his home studio. He was on his way to becoming a public recluse -- the boy who stood on the roofs of gas stations playing an electric guitar, telling the other kids to dance.

"Bobby had a habit of remaining distant from the rest of us," Jim Reese, his rhythm guitarist, recalled in a Goldmine article. "He always seemed to be in a bad mood, as if he was mad about something, but it beats me what it was."

Fuller and his band, the Fanatics, journeyed to California in 1963 for a monthlong stint in Hermosa Beach. They found themselves at ground zero of the surf music explosion, the most democratic pop turn until punk arrived 15 years later. Back in El Paso, he issued the melodramatic "King of the Beach" on his own Exeter label, scoring a regional hit in Seattle and Denver and even some chart action in San Diego. He recorded the fast and wistful "Keep on Dancing," which he'd later rework into the even more powerful "Let Her Dance" (and which years later would be covered by Marshall Crenshaw on Good Evening; "Keep on Dancing" is on Shakedown!, while "Let Her Dance" is on The Bobby Fuller Four). His next Exeter release was a cover of a song his brother Randy found on an album by the Crickets, Holly's backing band.

That was "I Fought the Law," and even in the earliest version found on Shakedown! it's an irresistible recapitulation of everything rock and roll is supposed to be. Replete with the line "robbing people with a zip gun" (Fuller later changed it to "six-gun"), it's a mating song for juvenile delinquents. In the Fullers' family room, James Dean and Bonnie Parker were thrown together in a puppy-love suicide pact, wrapped in Bobby Fuller's performance, which is rough, tender and comic all at once. It can be hard to hear this at first, because stepping into Fuller's world from the present is like walking into brilliant sunlight. When he sings "I Fought the Law," there doesn't seem to be an ironic bone in his body.

"I Fought the Law" hit number one in El Paso and Tucson in 1964, and Fuller started billing himself as "The Rock and Roll King of the Southwest." Later that year, he, Randy and the rest of the band returned to California, intending to stay and make it big. With their second audition for Bob Keane's Del-Fi label, they hooked up with someone with clout. Keane, originally a jazz clarinet player, had been in the music business since he signed Sam Cooke in 1957. His biggest act on the Del-Fi family of labels was Ritchie Valens, but he had a roster of active surf artists including the Lively Ones, the Centurions and the Sentinels.

Fuller walloped these veterans on the B-side of his first single, the pick-grinding instrumental "Our Favorite Martian" -- but in the welter of surf 45s, no one noticed. A few months later, however, "Let Her Dance" garnered the band's best sales to date. The difference between "Keep on Dancing" and "Let Her Dance" was partly because of the cavernous echo Fuller got at Del-Fi, where Keane used a former bank vault for recording sessions. Fuller took full advantage of the makeshift technology. The song is upbeat, but his vocals have a calming effect, like tropical fish in an aquarium. He'd finally leaped beyond his influences.

Around the same time, Fuller started dropping acid. Band members recall him acting strangely during a stint at Disneyland that year, and attributed it to the LSD. Looking at the pictures of Fuller in the Shakedown! booklet, with his prematurely receding hair and worried expression, it's hard to believe he would have found peace in hallucinogens.

In the first months of 1966, the band charted nationwide with a reworked version of "I Fought the Law" (found on The Bobby Fuller Four). It's easy to see why this version made the nationwide charts: Propelled by echoing, fast-strummed acoustic guitars and one incessant cymbal, it's turbocharged folk music. The echo, courtesy of the vault, leavened the song, giving it a yearning any Coke-drinking, Camel-smoking suburban teen would instantly feel. And there was something else: Fuller double-tracked his vocal on the Mustang single; on the second track, low in the mix, where the lyric is generally thought to be "I miss my baby and good fun," rhythm guitarist Reese, who was at the session, swears Fuller was singing, "I miss my baby and a good fuck."

After reading Reese's remembrance in Kicks, I listened again to the song, and there it was, plain as an unzipped fly. It's even clearer when you compare it to the earlier versions on Shakedown!, when Fuller is definitely singing "fun." That this has escaped radio programmers down to the present only proves that the best place to hide something is in plain sight. Irony favors the leer and pun. Fuller was brutally direct.

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