By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
It seems somehow fitting to talk with the Allen Oldies Band's Allen Hill about vintage video games. We're munching on oyster poor boys and fries in the far corner of the Zydeco Diner's back room near a (sadly unplugged) Asteroids machine.
"The only game I got good at," the 30-year-old Hill allows, "was Mappy."
"Remember that one? It was based on Donkey Kong, but you had a little trampoline to jump off. You had to pop these balloons, and cats were chasing you. I've never seen it anywhere. You know they have those vintage arcades, and stuff like that, but I haven't seen it since seventh grade."
I reveal a long-withered Dig Dug talent.
"God, the concept of some of these games. Someone's chasing you, so you inflate them with a bicycle pump," Hill says.
Like the Allen Oldies Band, celebrating its fifth anniversary on Friday, November 16, at the Continental Club, vintage arcades cannot be appreciated without a certain sense of irony. After all, we can't truly enjoy the lame-o graphics of Galaxian, Joust or Defender in today's 64-bit universe, can we? And how seriously are we to take the rock-and-roll credentials of someone who cheerfully states it was the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" that got him interested in rock and roll?
It gets worse: "I played it on a Mickey Mouse turntable -- just listened to it over and over again."
Likewise, can we sincerely enjoy the AOB's renditions of such one-hit wonders as the Swingin' Medallions ("Double Shot of My Baby's Love"), Syndicate of Sound ("Little Girl") and the Linda Ronstadt-led Stone Ponys ("Different Drum")?
"I have a very different vocal range than Linda Ronstadt," Hill admits, before regaining his customary cool. "I am a very different type of vocal sensation."
Yes indeed. Some sources, including this paper, have questioned the tuxedo-clad wildman's "vocal quality."
"I'm not trained to sing," the former and at times current bass player admits. "But it's all about capturing the spirit of the songs. If someone wants perfection, I advise them to go to the symphony." Hill further elaborates his musical philosophy with the following pronouncement: "There's no such thing as wrong notes. Some are just better chosen than others."
Then there are the props. Peanut butter is dolloped around the house during the Allen Oldies Band's rendition of the song by the same name. Others require a little more inventiveness and DIY diligence. "The green tambourine is another fine prop," Hill states with characteristic modesty. "The Lemon Pipers. I have to paint my own tambourines. No one sells 'em anymore. It sucks. I've been through about half a dozen of them. It's fun to call places like Mars Music and ask them for a green tambourine. They don't get it. But if you call up Evans Music City and ask them for one, they say [imitates old man voice], 'A green tambourine? No one's asked us for one of those in 35 years.' "
Looking back on the band's first five years, Hill remembers only high points. He has especially fond memories of early-morning South by Southwest parties with Mojo Nixon, at which Hill cooked up jalapeño pancakes on stage. And of course there was the band's auspicious debut in that neglected relic on the South Loop. Not many bands can claim their first gig was in the Dome, but the Allen Oldies Band is one.
"Our debut gig was [after a fun run] in the Eighth Wonder of the World," says Hill. "That's where I came up with the tuxedo and jogging shoes idea."
Hill is quite willing to go the extra mile when giving fun run shows, with disastrous results to his wardrobe. "I've been through a bunch of tuxedos. We've sort of aligned ourselves with fun runs, because they really are just that -- fun runs. If it's 5K or less, I'll run the race in my tux and grab my jacket on the way to the stage and do oldies for an hour or so."
Allen Hill doesn't care whether you love or hate his band, so long as it's one or the other. "The thing that I enjoy most is that everyone has strong feelings about the Allen Oldies Band. Good or bad. That means we're doing our job If you can make someone hate you passionately, there's a chance that the flip side of that coin is gonna be pretty powerful."
Champ Hood passed away on November 4. I can remember meeting him in 1976, when he was a member of the Contenders, a short-lived but legendary group that also included Steve Runkle, Tommy Goldsmith, Jimbeau Walsh and Hood's Uncle Walt's Band-mate Walter Hyatt. This jolly crew pulled up at my mother's house in Nashville in a Winnebago they called the Blue Unit. Even at the age of six, it seemed to me that all of them, but especially Hyatt and Hood, were bound to be superstars. What's more, they were kind to the scruffy kid who forced them to play Nerf football with him.
If you look at their album covers from that era (be they Uncle Walt's or the Contenders'), the clothes they wore and their haircuts would not be out of place today. Their music was equally beyond faddishness; their sweet harmonies and swinging combo of standards, jazz, country and blues were more successfully taken to the world by Lyle Lovett, but not without Champ Hood at his side.