Titfield Follies 

One of VCU’s all-time weirdest bands gets the reissue treatment.

click to enlarge The guys from ’70s freak rock VCU act Titfield Thunderbolt are still making strange music. They are Bristol S. Limey, Batman Sportswear, Key Ring Torch, Bo Janne Valvoline, Stymie the Hermit, Foot Fetish.

Bill Altice

The guys from ’70s freak rock VCU act Titfield Thunderbolt are still making strange music. They are Bristol S. Limey, Batman Sportswear, Key Ring Torch, Bo Janne Valvoline, Stymie the Hermit, Foot Fetish.

Sure, there's the legendary rock story about the shark and the groupie. But forget about that — have you ever seen a lobster play keyboards?

At the String Factory, on the corner of Broad and Laurel, one of Virginia Commonwealth University's all-time most abstract bands, Titfield Thunderbolt, took the stage Sept. 27, 1970, to open for a rising rock star named Alice Cooper.

The band was in fine fettle with drummer Bo Janne Valvoline (real name, Bo Jacobs) thrashing his drums with two frozen mackerel while Foot Fetish (Barry Fitzgerald) played electric piano holding two live lobsters.

"Their claws just started going up and down the keyboards," Fitzgerald recalls. "I was just the facilitator." Lest anyone complain about animal cruelty, he packed the two giant crustaceans in an icy bucket of seawater with an aquarium pump he bought at the pet store.

"Interesting," Cooper said, watching from the side of the stage, before suggesting that Fetish seek professional help. But he must have liked the show because Titfield opened for him again in Annandale three months later.

It was the early 1970s. The VCU campus was humming with a psychedelic swirl of musical influences: Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett, to name a few. Minimalist composer John Cage made annual pilgrimages to the art school, planting microphones in wall cracks and amplifying them to make music.

During the next decade an explosion of innovative bands grew out of the university: Idio Savant, the Orthotonics, Big Naptar, Bomis Prendin, the Tom and Marty Band — "a flipped-out cornucopia of cranked out free-noise, pre-punk stomp and other affronts," according to music blogger Christopher Stigliano.

But first and foremost, there was Titfield Thunderbolt, which provided a refreshing musical performance alternative to the song-structured rock of the late 1960s.

"Rock bands write and rehearse songs to be played the same way over and over," Fitzgerald says. "We spent hours and hours and hours coming up with outrageous titles first."

After four decades, the original band members are alive and recording again. In addition to Fetish, there's Key Ring Torch (Billy Burke), Stymie the Hermit (Steve Wall), Batman Sportsware (Bob Hartman), Bo Janne Valvoline (Bo Jacobs) and Bristol Limey (Ed Franz). They may even play some shows in celebration of a vinyl LP tour of the band's musical history from 1969-1973, set to be released on Steady Sounds record store's label imprint by this summer.

"They seemed like such outsiders for the city at that time, doing this interesting thing, self-releasing a single," Steady Sounds co-owner Marty Key says. "They put out a 7-inch when most bands were just trying to get played on the radio."

Named appropriately for a zany Ealing Comedy — a series of British films of the 1940s — the band's inception story is fuzzy.

"Steve Wall, Bill Altice [Big Naptar] and I went to a VCU talent show," Burke recalls "There was a midget, Jerry the Midget, he went to VCU. He got up on stage and sang Three Dog Night's 'Easy to Be Hard.' It was emotional, heart-tugging, over the top, it was bizarre." After that, he says, there as discussion "that we all thought we could get on stage too."

"The first show was just me and Billy," Wall says. "I don't exactly remember how it happened. I never said, 'I'm going to start a band today.'" The duo soon was toting trumpets, saxophones, walkie-talkies, sparklers and a shortwave radio onto a stage. After the first few shows the band grew, with members playing various instruments and whatever found objects they could gather. "I could read and write music and play trumpet. That didn't stop me from playing anything else," Wall says, recalling shows where the five band members intentionally switched instruments after every song.

On the song "Born on the Wrong Planet" [see Sound of Richmond sampler], Wall plays guitar one string at a time. "I have to concentrate," he says. The song was released as a single on the band's own Diskord record label and has become something of a cyber-cult hit. The classic cover "Louie Louie" also was a favorite. Burke recalls Wall singing the lead vocal "with a sock in his mouth."

Most of the existing songs from the period were recorded live (in one case from a bathroom) on quarter-inch mag stock. For the vinyl LP, Wall paid to have these digitized. Something of a video and sound whiz, he cleaned up the tracks and "tried to identify them" before distributing them to his former bandmates to make a list to give to Steady Sounds. A longtime fan of "Born on the Wrong Planet," Marty Key is still arranging the vinyl play list for the album.

But even as you hear these songs, seeing them was something else entirely.

At one venue in 1973, there were two microphone stands set up on stage — one with a telephone, the other with a microphone pointed at the phone. Hartman was out of town on family business and phoned his horn parts in. Voila! A practical solution and a Dali-esque touch of surrealism. At another venue, they played an endless game of "Go Fish" on a card table while the audience grew restless. "We played until we heard the audience squirming," Jacobs says.

The band was all about trying to get a reaction from the audience. "Sometimes, people would just get up and leave," Wall says. "At one point, I was standing there holding my trumpet and Billy was doing one of his long drum solos and the thought occurred to me that maybe some of those short-hair guys in the audience might beat us up."

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