Pavlov's Dog released two albums in the 1970s which have long been cherished for the uniqueness and complexity of the music they contain. Built around the astonishing falsetto bleat of David Surkamp and his multilayered and devilishly romantic songs, the original seven-piece band were a seemingly unstoppable force of creative and imaginative playing, in particular from guitarist Steve Scorfina and violinist Siegfried Carver.
The first album, 'Pampered Menial', stands out 15 years on as the masterpiece that it always was. The second album, 'At The Sound Of The Bell', is nearly as good, but suffers slightly from record label interference and the telling departure of Carver and drummer Mike Safron. Leaving only these two albums as an epitaph Pavlov's Dog went to rock & roll heaven in 1977; Surkamp went on to record two albums alongside Ian Matthews as part of the HiFi Band, both of which are worth investigating, meanwhile a few years ago a bootleg of the Dog's unreleased third album 'The St. Louis Hounds' (from 1977) appeared which was hungrily snapped up by their erstwhile audience. It's not as good as the first two, the Pavlovian power once again being messed up by inane record company meddling, but it's still an essential purchase if you're a fan. Finally in 1991 a new album appeared under the Pavlov's Dog banner - but with only singer Surkamp and keyboard player Douglas Rayburn left from the original band the results lacked any real Pavlovian spirit. The songs are lovely, Surkamp's voice is as glorious as ever but the backing is smooth and faceless and bears little resemblance to the hurtling power of the one true Dog.
Our interest was sparked last year when the grunge guitar giant and Screaming Mee Mee Bruce Cole revealed that he had recently been playing with Steve Scorfina's current outfit the Memphis Underground, Scorfina and himself having been childhood friends. It seemed like the ideal opportunity to get the lowdown on Pavlov's Dog - so cut to St. Louis, Missouri, and the winter rains of January 1992 where we find Steve Scorfina ready and willing to talk to us...
PT: So, when did you start playing the guitar?
SS: I guess it started in 1962, I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday night and saw Elvis doing 'Hound Dog'. I implored my father to get me a guitar and once I had one I locked myself into my room and practised and practised. At the end of that year I formed a band with Michael McDonald, who was later one of the Doobie Brothers. The band was called Mike & The Majestics and was a really good, tight little R&B band. We played a lot of songs by groups like The Kinsmen at fraternity parties at Washington University in St. Louis. If you've ever seen the film 'Animal House', then that was what it was like!
PT: Were are the band members locals?
SS: The whole band grew up on the same block, so we all went way back together. Another kid on our block was Bruce Cole, so that's where I first met him as well. There were two types of band back then, bands who played soul music and bands that wanted to be like the Beatles and English invasion type bands. In 1964 Michael went off and joined a soul band and I formed The Good Feelin', who did stuff by the Pretty Things and the Yardbirds. Later on we got into groups like the Blues Magoos and Love. We stayed together about 4 years, by which time I was in my late teens - I'd really got into playing the blues and following guys like Albert King, who was from my home town. I decided to quit The Good Feelin' so I could pursue being a blues guitar player and straight away joined a country rock band called Aero Memphis. We did a lot of Buffalo Springfield songs, which was of course the opposite thing to what I'd left Good Feelin' for... one day I got a call from a band from Champaign, Illinois which is about two and a half hours away from St. Louis; they were called R.E.O. Speedwagon and they wanted me to audition for them. There was a bad connection on the line and I thought they'd said they were the Illinois Speedpress who were a group I really would have liked to play with. So anyway I went up there thinking it was this band and it turned out to be R.E.O. Speedwagon who I'd never heard of, but I went ahead and auditioned and got the job. I ended up staying with them for two years, between 1969 and 1971. At the time I didn't think the band was that good, even though we were very popular in the Midwest. We played all the college towns and it was really good experience, but in the end I decided the group just wasn't good enough to get a record deal so I quit the band - and the rest, as they say, is history. R.E.O. Speedwagon went on to fame and fortune.
PT: Do you regret your decision to leave R.E.O. Speedwagon?
SS: I did what I thought was right at the time. When their first album finally came out they'd done a couple of my songs on the record, which I thought was nice until I realised that all the songs were credited to 'R.E.O. Speedwagon'. Being young and foolish I hadn't copyrighted my songs, so they could just steal them away. I kinda got screwed by those guys.
PT: A charming move on their part.
SS: I reckon so. After that I moved back to St. Louis and sat around thinking what to do with my life. After a brief spell in Los Angeles working as a studio musician and then running around St. Louis playing gigs and picking up girls for a couple of years I decided to get back into playing original music, and that's when I got together with the guys from Pavlov's Dog. At that time they were called 'Pavlov's Dog And The Condition Reflex Soul Revue And Concert Choir' so I immediately asked that they changed their name... They were a real special band, I was totally blown away by David Surkamp who was definitely a world class writer. As a singer he was simply amazing. At that point in my life I'd worked with some great singers, like Mike McDonald, and I'd lived with Dan Fogelberg in Champaign during my R.E.O. Speedwagon days so I'd heard some top-flight singers, but David was truly fantastic. I don't think he ever got the credit he really deserves. But he wasn't the only one in the band that was special. Siegfried Carver on violin was incredible - the whole band as a unit created a sound that I'd never heard before. So we played around St. Louis and really built up a following, spent a lot of time writing songs and doing demos. Bob Safron, our drummer's elder brother, was getting us all the gigs and kind of acting as our unofficial manager. He introduced us to a promoter named Ron Powell who had a lot of clout in the music industry in 1974. We wound up signing a management contract with him. Unfortunately he was a con man, although it took us a while to figure that out. Even though we signed what was at that point the biggest contract in the history of the record industry for an unknown group, none of us received anything out of it because we were taken to the cleaners by Ron Powell. Eventually he was taking all the money from the concerts and the albums and investing it in all kinds of illegal activities. He ended up getting busted by the Inland Revenue Service and thrown into jail. He spent a lot of his life in jail. I just found out a few weeks ago that he's dead, and I can't say I shed a tear for the guy.
PT: So all you got out of it was the music.
SS: The only thing we got was the legacy of Pavlov's Dog, which isn't all that bad because we recorded some unbelievable music, music which I think will last forever. The first album, 'Pampered Menial', was actually written and conceived before we signed to a record label and in my opinion it was the best thing we ever recorded. It was before we had 'producers' assigned to us by the label, which in my opinion screwed up the music completely by the time we got to our second album, 'At The Sound Of The Bell'. By that time we were being creatively stifled, they were trying to make us sound how they wanted as opposed to how we really were.
PT: Did you tour much?
SS: We were doing a lot of major tours across the States and we really weren't making any money; everybody in the band was on $180 a week. We had the opportunity to go to Australia and Europe and do concert tours there, but it wasn't in Ron Powell's best interests to let us do that so it didn't happen. In fact, the sooner the band split up the better it was for him, because he'd taken all the money from the band and was using it for other business ventures so once the band split there was less chance of him being caught. In the end that was the demise of Pavlov's Dog - if we'd been handled right by the record company and managed properly and not by a crook I believe that Pavlov's Dog could have been one of the biggest bands in the world. Unfortunately we weren't though, and that's the way it goes...
PT: You had a different drummer on the second album.
SS: By the time we got to the second album Michael Safron just couldn't work with the producers so he wound up not being on the album and we wound up doing what the record company wanted us to do, which was to hire Bill Bruford as our drummer. It was an idiotic experience for me because Bill was not into the music at all, he was just a hired studio musician making a lot of money out of the gig. He probably made more money out of working for us for a couple of weeks than I made in the entire career of the band!
PT: What's the story behind the third album?
SS: Well, by then our manager was in jail and the record company was telling us we had to either get rid of him or they'd drop us from the label - and that's exactly what happened. We didn't act fast enough to secure a new management and there was a lot of disharmony within the band, so the label dropped us. We did finish the basic tracks and some of the overdubs for the third album and sent the tapes to New York where the producers added all sorts of studio musicians. The only song that remained the way it was supposed to be was the one I sang, 'It's All For You'. I refused to let them touch that.
PT: The album only came out as a bootleg entitled 'The St. Louis Hounds'...
SS: The original title was 'Has Anybody Here Seen Siegfried', but then we were dropped by the label and it never came out. Everybody was pretty burnt by the whole experience. There was just no reason to keep it together any longer and that's when we broke up.
PT: That must have been pretty hard to face, the end of such a special band?
SS: I was broke and broken hearted. I just didn't have it in me to keep pushing forward with my professional career, so instead I opted to play in Top 40 bands around Florida. I made a pretty good living and actually had quite a lot of fun over the next three years. Then I joined some old friends from R.E.O. Speedwagon days in a St. Louis band called Gulliver and spent a couple of years travelling around the country with them. About four and a half years ago tragedy struck my life when a girl I loved committed suicide one night after coming down off a cocaine high. I was devastated, I stopped playing rock music and removed myself completely from the rock & roll environment until a year or so ago. About six months ago I put together a three-piece rockabilly group called The Memphis Underground, started playing the clubs around St. Louis and people really seemed to like it. I met up with David Surkamp again who sat in with the band and it was so successful that we decided to combine forces, so now The Memphis Underground consists of David and his wife Sarah, myself, Eddie Nickeson and Billy Costello on drums. We're starting to write music, which is great because for so long I've been unable to write anything - for a while after my girlfriend died I couldn't even play guitar. David and I wrote a song recently called 'The Sins Of Loving You' which I'm really proud of. David also wrote a song called 'Blowing Out Of Memphis' which is really catchy. The creative juices are flowing, the gigs are packed out and you can't really hope for more than that. I've also spent a lot of time collecting Hawaiian guitars in recent years and those are being incorporated into The Memphis Underground which really creates a different sound, so I'm looking forward to it all.
As any fan of the Pavlov's surely should be as well. We'll keep you informed of developments.
Admirers of David Surkamp's voice should also hunt down Michael Quatro's 1976 album 'Dancers, Romancers, Dreamers & Schemers' (Prodigal P6-1001051) for his marvellous appearance on the track 'Ancient Ones', both HiFi albums on Butt Records ('Moods For Mallards', HAI192 and 'Demonstration Records' FUNEP12-3) and the David Surkamp single, 'Louie, Louie'/'Summertime' (MGL5003).
Written and directed by Mick Dillingham Produced and arranged by Phil McMullen, (c) Terrascope 1992