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Albums Of The Week: The Rubinoos | The CBS Tapes

The power-pop pioneers cut loose with an irreverently entertaining studio session.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “On Nov. 2, 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. The events of Nov. 3 were less earth-shaking — it was the day the power pop pioneers The Rubinoos recorded this album. The group walked into CBS Studios on Folsom Street in San Francisco to, as band co-founder and singer Jon Rubin recollects, “have a ‘set up and get comfortable in the studio’ kind of affair.” Guitarist Tommy Dunbar, who started the group more than 50 years ago with his childhood pal Rubin, recalls they were told “something like, ‘OK, the tape is going to run, just go ahead and play anything you want’.”

The CBS Tapes chronicles that occasion, and its previously unreleased 11 tracks certainly reveal a wildly diverse set list that includes, yet reaches beyond, the power pop that the band is well known for. Selections range from The Modern Lovers (Government Center) to The Meters (Cissy Strut); King Curtis (Memphis Soul Stew) to The DeFranco Family (Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat). The Rubinoos also tackle the bubblegum classic Sugar, Sugar, the iconic surf instrumental Walk Don’t Run, and a couple of Beatles tunes (She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand), along with a trio of now-rare originals (All Excited, I Want Her So Bad and Nooshna Kavolta).

The CBS Tapes captures something unusual — a look into the recording process before it begins in earnest. This isn’t a lo-fi, sloppy rehearsal tape, a stripped-down demo, or a polished finished product. Done without second takes and overdubs, the band’s loose, unencumbered live performances exude a joyful energy that embodies the band’s spirit. These recordings do benefit from Glenn Kolotkin’s engineering and mixing on the fly. By 1976, Kolotkin had already worked with acts like Janis Joplin, Journey and Jimi Hendrix, and would go on to produce Santana, Joan Jett and The Ramones.

The Rubinoos’ performances also are rather rude and juvenile; not really surprising since Rubin, Dunbar, and drummer Donn Spindt were still in their teens — only bassist Royse Ader had finished high school. Listening to these tapes after so many years made Dunbar think, “What a bunch of foul-mouthed little punks we were,” while Rubin felt their obnoxious behavior and crude language reflect the irreverent, bratty attitude that has always been part of The Rubinoos’ makeup.

Although still teenagers in 1976, these guys weren’t inexperienced. Dunbar and Rubin first formed the Rubinoos as 13-year-olds in 1970, so they could play a dance at their high school in Berkeley. Spindt took over on drums a year later while Ader became the bassist in 1974. The band joined the fabled U.S. indie label Beserkley Records (home of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and Greg Kihn), through Dunbar’s brother Robbie, the guitarist in Beserkley’s first signee, Bay Area rock stars Earth Quake. The Rubinoos’ cover of The DeFranco Family’s Gorilla appeared on Beserkley’s Chartbusters sampler.

The Rubinoos’ 1977 self-titled debut attracted attention and accolades, being branded “the best pop album of the decade.” The group appeared on American Bandstand and their version of I Think We’re Alone Now reached No. 45 on the Billboard Top 100.  Success continued with second album Back To The Drawing Board, featuring the hit single I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and the band opened for Elvis Costello on his Armed Forces U.S. tour. The ’80s began with an ill-fated third album whose demos were released on 1994’s lauded Basement Tapes. The Todd Rundgren-produced mini-LP Party of Two contained the popular If I Had You Back. The Rubinoos returned triumphantly in 1999 with Paleophonic, and the 21st century has seen The Rubinoos still going strong. They have released three albums (Automatic Toaster, Twist Pop Sin and 45), an all-covers set (Crimes Against Music), a children’s album (Biff-Boff-Boing), three live albums and several compilations, including a 63-song retrospective Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Rubinoos.

The Rubinoos reached another career high point with 2019’s From Home. Their first national release in 40 years featured the band’s steady lineup since 1980: Rubin, Dunbar, Spindt, and bassist Al Chan. From Home was instigated by acclaimed indie-rock troubadour and lifelong fan Chuck Prophet. Now, with The CBS Tapes, you can experience The Rubinoos’ unadulterated boyish innocence in all its unfiltered glory.”