Friday, January 14, 2000

The Silicon Chips

In the ninth grade, in Chapel Hill, circa 1979, during what has been called a Golden Age of Music In North Carolina, I started a band called The Silicon Chips. The Chips were a middle school punk band, whose name was a direct homage to The Boomtown Rats single, 'I Don't Like Mondays'. There were punk rock bands in North Carolina before the Chips, notably The Psuedes (which featured Sara Romweber), The Secret Service, Th' Cigarettes, the X-Teens and the Durham Dots –but the age range for those bands' members were mostly college kids or older, and not many of my peers even knew who they were. In fact, there didn't seem to be any Triangle bands under the age of 18, and certainly none tapped into the emerging new wave.

It was a pre-MTV era, when the three primary flavors of American popular music were Rock, Country and Disco. Everything else was relegated to late night new music transmissions from Chapel Hill's 89.3 FM, WXYC. I no sooner admitted my fascination with David Bowie one day at school than to instantly learn that mere admission to being a fan of any European act, especially a gender bending drag queen, charted me somewhere off-center a graph measuring normalcy. But it was into this venue that the Silicon Chips were born, and to other newly minted Triangle teen agers, we must have seemed downright bent combining rockabilly with European flavored, sexually ambiguous rock'n'roll.

The Silicon Chips were, in fact, an international band.

My songwriting partner and our deft lead guitarist Tony Scott,  was an American, as was our pseudonymous drummer, Zeke, and our pianist, Kevin. But our bassist, Lars Mage, was Danish, and our rhythm guitarist was a German kid named Klauss. I was myself fresh from two years in Mallorca, and a childhood in Puerto Rico before that. Needless to say, being out of the loop, I didn't quite understand yet that American kids didn't generally like The Sex Pistols and Giorgio Moroder, much less both at the same time. So, like refugees in small town, somehow we found each other, and together we formed a rockabilly flavored, Euro tinged, Socially conscious, New York Dolled up Jr. Highschool punk rock band. Not only were we determined to challenge small town American pubescents with our idea of Avante-garde music, but I was absolutely certain we were The Next Big Thing.

To that effort, The Silicon Chips performed our one and only show  at the 1980 Guy B. Phillips talent show, lighting up the beginning of each act with one original song: 'Ann', and 'Radio Men' (Scott/O'Gara).

'Ann' was written about (and for) three different girls actually –all of them named 'Ann'–and none of which I had the courage to speak to, but any one of which I thought would have made the perfect girlfriend. Hello, ladies, available rock star here, for the taking. Only thirteen; get me before the rehab and groupies show up. Didn't happen, though.

She's into being flexible
Keeps her freedom
It's tedious ecstacy
But it feels good

Oooh Ann–

Other performers that evening included two amazing drummers that would both go on to have notable careers: Rob Ladd and Martin Levi. In high school Rob would become a founding member of The Pressure Boys and then after that, go on to  play on Alanis Morissette's international hit album, Jagged Little Pill.  Marvin Levi became drummer for the way-ahead-of-their time band, The Veldt.

Anyway, after that gig, that was it. I would like to say that if you saw the Behind the Music documentary, you would already know by now that between the excesses of hedonism, failed relationships, band tensions, internal litigation and Tony constantly bringing his design school girlfriend to rehearsal, that we finally just decided to split our millions and call it quits. But of course it didn't happen that way.

Tony's parents, who were college professors, simply re-located to where, I never found out. One day he was there, and the next he was gone, like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix.

Kevin, also, left town, returning to Wisconsin.

Didn't either of their parents understand what they had on their hands? Apparently not.

So, like every legendary band, we lived fast and died young –with out the speed or death part, of course.

For about ten years thereafter, all through the eighties, the Chips recordings increasingly sounded dated to me. But then punk came back repackaged as Seattle Grunge and when it did, it went wildly mainstream. And all of a sudden the Chips, too, sounded positively contemporary. In fact, I pretty much convinced myself that Nirvana stole our thunder.

In my head, I still have conversations that run like this:

"Dude, U2 is cool, but I wish you could have seen the Chips live."
"It's amazing how their music influenced just about everyone. It's like even the name of the band was prescient. Are any of the band members still alive?" 
"Well, just a rumor, but I read in Rolling Stone that O'Gara is living the Irie life in a shack in Jamaica, and Tony Scott writes movie reviews under another name for some Indy press."

Without a band to front, or another collaborator with whom I shared such artistically combustible chemistry, I bought a MiniMoog and began my high school reinvention as a solo electronic music artist. Indeed, when Tony left town forced me to stop thinking myself as only a lyricist and to get my own musical chops in order. While contemporaries like Dexter Romweber appeared as Flat Duo Jets and Michael Rank's ragged-around-the-edges Snatches of Pink came on the scene, I called myself Teri O. and performed with a microcomputer and a Radio Shack TRS-80. I think Teri O. probably sounded a lot like Brian Ferry by way of Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.

In 1985 I also left Chapel Hill, finally landing in New York City, where I ended up producing music for TV commercials, radio and newly emerging interactive media.

This Silicon Chips had long fizzled but Mommy's little rocker had finally grown up and figured out how to fit into America.

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