Yancy Derringer becomes THE...VERS:
New songs came out of J.C. like bunnies in mixed-up-cages, and they were all very, very good, which brought a new wealth of creativity out of everyone in the band. Suddenly finding themselves on the cutting edge of a "new wave," nearly everything in the band changed. This was a band who now appreciated the message, energy, efficiency, and humor of "punk," but unlike "real" punks, they were musicians who could actually play! And they were fronted now by the incomparable, larger-than-life J.C. Hall, Jr. on vocals, songwriting, energy, humor, and inspiration.
In 1978, on the way back from a gig up in Medford, Wisconsin, the band was still trying to come up with a new name, when, passing through Colby on Highway 13, some black letters three feet high on the side of an old garage spelled "VERS." To this day, nobody connected with the band has any idea what the letters on that garage actually meant, but J.C. immediatly went nuts over it, deemed it a "sign" from above, and the band was now THE...VERS. Bands before had shown that you could name a band anything, and this one was now proving that the name didn't even have to be anything!
In succeeding years, fans often said they had figured out what the name meant: "It's German for 'verse,' a reference to your dedication to songwriting;" "It's French for 'worms!'" (making a wiggling gesture in front of their crotch); "It's an acronym for 'Vibrating Exotic Rock Show!'" Nobody really believed that it was the lead singer's last name, or that the guitar player was really an alien from another planet, for that matter, but who cared? There was no name like THE...VERS, and no band like them, either.
Before long, everything and everybody in the band took on a completely new look and outlook: J.C. Hall became Mondale "Mondo" Vers; C.F. Kuchler became Charlie Calendar; and Boyd Williamson became Zoid Asteroid Machine. And the superb rhythm section of Gabe Berrafato and Lance Gnatzig was refreshed, reunited, stronger and tighter than ever. This band was going to "go for it."
|THE...VERS / Early:
At this time, the band lived in and around Beloit, Wisconsin, and did some recording on a 4-track Teac with the help of Dennis Kranz, a very good friend of Mondo's from Milwaukee. The house they recorded at was on Porter Ave., and the tapes from those sessions became known thereafter as the "Porter House Takes." "New York's In Heat" from those sessions appeared on the 92FM MadCity Homegrown Album, and the cut was critiqued as "the hit of the album." Billed on the record as "The Vers, formerly known as Yancy Derringer," the band was starting to make waves. Within a couple of years, they were also on the second 92FM WMAD album, The Prairie Sun Album, and two D93 Dubuque, Iowa "Basement Tapes" LP's.
|Less than a year after they started, personal problems forced drummer Lance Gnatzig to leave the band. He was replaced by Jim Stein, who had been with a popular Madison band called Hazzard. Jim's dad, head photographer with the Wisconsin State Journal for many years, had been a jazz drummer, and it was in Jimmy's blood, as well. But unlike his dad, Jimmy was built like a fire hydrant, was also a former Golden Gloves prizefighter, and played drums like firecrackers and cherry bombs going off. A ported-and-polished souped-up V8 motor of a drummer that could finish the Indy 500 twice and just be getting warmed up...
THE...VERS / the show:
|In an era when most bands were wearing big hair and spandex, the charismatic 6 foot 8 inch Mondo Vers would appear wearing a long olive drab trenchcoat (loosely hiding gaily colored boxer shorts), eventually adorned with over two hundred buttons advertising anything and everything cool, a baseball cap with either devil horns or floppy Bullwinkle antlers, and a pair of "groucho-glasses" featuring a penis for a nose. Immediately, head-and-shouders above everyone else as the center of attention, and totally in control as the Ultimate Master of Ceremonies, all the while manic, first funny and then serious as all hell. He drew you in, made you laugh, and then made you cry, giving the best vocal performance of his life every time you saw him.|
|Zoid Asteroid Machine was the cryptic, marooned 400 year old alien guitarist from the planet "Vulva," with the orange hair and "spocked" eyebrows, wore red superman briefs over black tights, spinning, jumping off of amps, stages, anything he could climb up on, taking advantage of his heavy-duty skateboard kneepads to save himself from his 20 foot rock'n'roll slides onto the dance floor, dynamically playing rthythm like Townsend, delicately playing the chords behind Mondo's vocals, machine-gunning leads, physically bending his guitars for vibrato, and all the while, never missing a note.
|Charlie Calendar was the keyboard wizard, hammering piano, zapping the synth, and tastefully putting the heart-pulling string counterpoint behind the melody, and came out from behind his keys at times, throwing a 50-pound MiniMoog synthesizer, held together with several yards of duct tape, around him and into the air, playing it like... Jimi Hendrix? The missing keys on his Yamaha piano were mute testimony to Charlie jumping up on it, and playing it with his feet.|
|Gabe Berrafato, a true Sicilian and outwardly the consummately quiet, cool bass professional, anchored a solid, tasteful and melodic bottom end, moving the floor with his thundering, customized '64 Fender Jazz Bass.
Jimmy Stein twirled his sticks and played his big white custom-made double-bass set of Slingerland drums with unlimited energy, like a championship fighter throwing knockout punches.
Not taking anything away from the other three, but with
And the wonderful songs! Titles like "New York's In Heat," "I Hate My Idol," "(I Can't Get No) Medication" "I'm So Mad I Could Break My Arm," "I'm Never Gonna Be That Old," "Not Tonight," "Come On Back," "Crazy Boy," and others were funny, dramatic, powerful, memorable, and stunningly original. Songwriting hooks that could land marlin. Young anthems. Tearjerkers. Smoking instrumental bridges. Dance-yer-ass-off grooves that you had to listen and move something to, you just couldn't help it. And they meant every note of it.
One featured highlight of a VERS performance was a nearly religious ceremony that involved the band's performance of Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll." While the band vamped, Mondo would take his mike out onto the dance floor, and get everybody involved, ad-libbing and improvising commentary at a level on a par with the finest comedians of any age. Occaisionally, Zoid would leave the stage and circle a good-looking girl, orbit her, tying her up in his coiled guitar cable, playing his guitar and embracing her with the electricity at the same time. Pure rock and roll communion.
Damn, but these guys were good! They were great fun to watch, wonderful musicians who were tight as paint on a billiard ball, yet with a spirit of spontaneity that made you feel that anything could happen. They never failed to get the audience involved, put on a hell of a show, and the songs were sure-to-be hits. They always played three songs end to end before pausing to speak and allow the crowd to catch their breath, and played three 55-minute sets per night, changing their shirts, literally dripping with sweat, after each set. And they never failed to get at least two encores, usually three. Nobody wanted them to quit, and weren't too shy to say so, but there was only so much time before the cops came.
The huge majority of people who saw them, absolutely loved them, and were convinced that they were about to be megastars. A very small percentage said they hated them, which was just enough to get everybody talking, and make sure everyone who hadn't seen the band had to go find out what the buzz was all about. You either loved them or you hated them; there was no middle ground. As the Lord High Priests of Sex, Drugs, and Rock'n'Roll, they had no peer, never failed to kill the crowd, and took no prisoners, although there were some rumors of women being tied up in private.
THE...VERS / the parties:
And the parties afterward? Having THE...VERS attend your party after the show was real social status, and great fun as well. Picture Mondo coming out of the bathroom with a handful of water, sneaking up behind someone, and yelling "aah-CHOO" while throwing the water at the back of the person's head and shoulders. When the victim spun around to look, there was Mondo, holding his nose and looking comically embarrassed. Twisting the cap off a bottle of beer with his eye. Girls touching Zoid's hair, saying "Oh my god! It really is that color! I thought it was the lights!" Other girls were very interested in the "six-pack" that Jim Stein brought to the party. People talking all kinds of business with Charlie. Gabe, very cool, maintaining a "low profile," attracting other very cool people interested in maintaining a "low profile."
And about the time the beverages were running out, the road crew...
[let me interrupt the narrative for a minute here to say that the road crew, who tirelessly got up and took off for the gig two or three hours before the band, stayed to tear down and got to bed a couple hours after the band, drove, packed and unpacked the truck, loaded the gear in and out, tapped the 220 mains box at whatever venue they were at, set up, ran, and tore down the stage, sound, and lights, changed the blown speakers, duct-taped Charlie's Minimoog together, restrung and tuned the guitars, polished the instruments, provided security against any threat, and made the guys in the band feel like kings, and who for a while were arriving at gigs wearing WAR PAINT; at one point had their OWN band called the "Daddy-O's;" and who only ran the truck off the road and flipped it on its top ONCE (without damaging any of the gear), definitely deserve their own page, before any more of them die! Let's see, there was Panama Red, Eggman, Spy, John Juan, Matt, Dirk, Gilmore, Puss, Lyle, Ranford, Jim, Mike, Dave, John, Cheeze, Terry, Chuck, ... I know I'm missing some! Somebody out there email me and refresh my memory, hey? We'll get your own page going on here! You guys were great!]
... the road crew would show up with a case of Heinekens.
We would describe the parties in more detail, but we ARE gentlemen, and we are NOT sure about the statute of limitations...
NEXT PAGE: THE...VERS / the campaign:
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