In the late 1980s, on the Galveston Bay side of the island, my radio receiver just barely picked up KPFT's Montrose-generated signal. Monday nights at 10 p.m., armed with two 90-minute tapes, I would hit "record" as soon as Dayglo Abortions kicked off Funhouse.
That show was easily Houston radio's most progressive of the era, and hosts Chuck Roast and Austin Caustic were responsible for introducing Houstonians to all varieties of punk rock and industrial noise.
The pair also injected a heavy local angle into their three hours. One night they played a song with a female singer howling over a lightning-fast bassline, furious drumming and big, warm guitars blanketing everything with heavy, dark overtones. Like the rest of the program, it was swathed in static, but her voice cut right through that — confident and husky, with a way of measuring out the lyrics that made you hang on every line.
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When the set ended, Caustic came back on the air and announced that they had just played "21st Century Compliments," by Mydolls, from right up the Gulf Freeway in Houston.
But Mydolls was Houston to the core, part of one of its most vibrant music scenes ever. In the late '70s and early '80s, punk spread across the nation and manifested itself here most often as hardcore. Early offerings by locals Legionnaire's Disease inspired, while Really Red simply ruled. The Big Boys and Dicks made frequent trips from Austin, as did San Antonio's Butthole Surfers and Marching Plague, to play Rock Island at Main and 59.
And then there was this group of three women and one man, who stood out not because of their gender but because of their songwriting — especially against the hardcore backdrop that so dominated the scene.
"I loved them because they had no pretensions," says Really Red drummer Bob Weber. "The Mydolls' songs were a bit exotic, very original. I went to every show I could — it had the energy of a band with four individually creative members who could mesh their fascination into some powerful pieces. Songs created in this fashion have more depth than compositions written by a single author. The roots are deeper, you know? And the music lasts."
Mydolls — yes, the name is a take on the over-the-counter medication — were Trish Herrera (vocals/guitar), Linda Bond (vocals/guitar), Dianna Ray (bass) and George Reyes (drums). They formed in 1978 alongside Really Red, the Degenerates, AK-47 and a host of other bands who would eventually make up the roster of Weber's Heights-based record label C.I.A.
By all accounts, C.I.A. was more co-op than label, with bands handling all financing and promotion on their own — an arrangement that suited Herrera's ambitious spirit.
Encouraged by the support of Really Red, especially vocalist Ronnie "U-Ron" Bond, Mydolls started gigging and recording and were soon landing opening spots for major touring bands such as the Cramps, Minor Threat and the more comparable Siouxsie and the Banshees. Proprietor of the Real Records store on Shepherd, Bond was also an original host of Funhouse and all-around major influence in the scene.
"Ronnie probably would have rejected the role of 'teacher' or 'leader,'" says Mary Manning, a Mydolls friend and fan known as "Bird" during that time. "But in many ways, he was sort of a father figure. Really Red said, 'Nobody rules,' but Ronnie was, like it or not, a leader."
"Mydolls was a sister band to Really Red," explains Herrera. "Linda Bond, our guitarist, was married to U-Ron and Really Red nurtured our playing and really helped us with shows."
But that nurturing didn't come across in the music. Mydolls occupies an odd spot in Houston's music history for both its post-punk sensibilities and Herrera's commanding presence behind the microphone in an era where vocals were largely buried.
"Texas bands are often influenced by blues, jazz [or] zydeco in some way, and the punk bands of that time [were] adding the influence of bands like Patti Smith or the Raincoats or Sex Pistols," says Herrera. "It just becomes more entwined with layers of sound and history."
"The innocence of that time, since punk wasn't really a genre yet, was you just didn't know when you were making a mistake," she continues. "There wasn't a box we had to stay in. Later, punk had a uniform and a formula."
"As musicians, I don't think Mydolls knew enough about what we were doing to try to sound like anyone else," offers bassist Dianna Ray. "We couldn't have imitated Really Red or Black Flag if we had wanted to. And people discounted us for not being real punk rock.
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"There were 'purists' who felt like you weren't punk if you weren't loud, fast and full of thrash," Ray adds. "But for me, even The Judy's were punk. Take their song 'Guyana Punch,' about the Jonestown mass suicides. It was a searing social commentary wrapped in a candy-sweet package. Now that's subversive. To me that's punk rock."
After eight years and an appearance in Wim Wenders's 1984 film Paris, Texas — not to mention one European tour and several U.S. treks that would appear on the group's Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick 12" — Mydolls disbanded in 1986.
Still, they are very much alive. Grand Theft Audio released the retrospective CD A World of Her Own this spring, and the band has a song on the soundtrack for the upcoming Claire Denis film 35 Shots of Rhum. Since breaking up, they have already reunited a handful of times, and do so again at this weekend's Noise and Smoke Festival.
"So here we are again, another reunion of sorts," muses Chuck Roast, referring to the Rock Island reunion almost two decades ago and last year's congregation of former Axiom denizens. "To those of us who have survived it, I'm sure we look forward to seeing our great local band the Mydolls, and seeing who is out there still alive, and still fighting the good fight in life."