Rock ‘n’ Roll Rashomon

Although “Birthday” is one of the most familiar songs in the Beatles’ catalog, they never scored a hit single with it. That distinction belongs to Underground Sunshine, whose bubblegum version of “Birthday” reached #26 on the Hot 100 in September 1969. It was a bigger hit in several places, hitting #1 at KIRL in St. Charles, Missouri, and reaching the Top 10 at both WLS and WCFL in Chicago, and also in St. Louis, Washington, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Raleigh, Buffalo, New Orleans, Portland, Birmingham, Edmonton, Clarksburg (West Virginia), Gary (Indiana), and Council Bluffs (Iowa).

Underground Sunshine began as a three-piece band from Montello, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Madison, made up of two brothers, drummer Frank and bassist Bert Koelbl (brothers who later changed their surname to Kohl) and guitarist Rex Rhode. They were managed by Madison radio personality Jonathan Little. Stories vary as to how they became a quartet. In Do You Hear That Beat?: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50s and 60s, Little told author Gary E. Myers that he wanted the band to add keyboards to get a Doors-type flavor; Bert Kohl told Myers they needed a keyboard to play the solo on “Birthday.” However the need arose, the band ultimately met it within the family—Little’s sister Jane, a senior in high school who was dating Frank Kohl, got the gig. After Underground Sunshine recorded “Birthday” in Milwaukee and Little released it on his own label, he took advantage of his radio connections to get airplay for it. Before long, Mercury Records picked it up for national release on its Intrepid label.

After “Birthday,” Underground Sunshine bubbled under with a second single, “Don’t Shut Me Out.” An album, Let There Be Light (said to have been recorded in seven hours), reached #161 on the Billboard 200 in November 1969. It contained a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as well as “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” (an eight-minute fuzz-tone guitar/organ freakout), plus an 11-minute psychedelic opus called “Take Me Break Me,” which appears in a short version on the B-side of “Don’t Shut Me Out.”

The seeds for Underground Sunshine’s sunset were planted practically from the beginning, when they made an agreement with a local backer who paid for their equipment in exchange for a 20 percent commission on whatever they made. That was fine for a band playing central Wisconsin bars for $100 a night, but not for a group with a national hit. Their lawyer advised them to break the agreement, which they did—although it cost them Rex Rhode, a close friend of the original backer, who quit only weeks before the band was scheduled to appear on American Bandstand. Rhode’s replacement was recruited via an ad in the Milwaukee Journal, a musician named Chris Connors. According to one member, Connors would play a key role in the band’s demise.

The story, as told to Myers, is a small-town rock ‘n’ roll Rashomon. Jonathan Little blamed substance abuse. Jane said it was partly a culture clash between “pretty innocent Montello High School kids” and Connors’ “Milwaukee ideas and big-time thoughts,” and partly her own distaste for the groupie scene they encountered on tour. “The whole thing was really tacky to me,” she said. Bert Kohl told Myers that Jane’s parents made her quit “because the rest of the band was using pot,” and that after Jane and Frank got married, she made Frank quit. Frank said that weed had nothing to do with it. “We did some pot but none of us are pot-heads,” he said. “How many bands back in the 60s did, in fact, smoke pot?” Frank blames the breakup on conflicts over the fact that Jonathan Little was making more money than the band members, a situation Bert echoed: “The biggest paycheck I ever got was $325, and I was doing an awful lot of work.”

Whatever the reason, Underground Sunshine was over by the end of 1970. By the early 90s, when Myers interviewed the members for his book, they looked back on it fondly. “I had a lot of great opportunities,” said Frank Kohl. “Got to see a lot of the country, got to see a lot of different things.” Bert Kohl said, “Even the way it was done, I would not trade anything for it.”

3 responses

  1. I’ve seen it in the Whitburn books, but had never heard it ’til now. Like so many other records of its ilk and time, wonderfully bad or badly wonderful– whichever couplet is interpreted less derogatorily. Don’t think I have this 45 in my archives, and it hasn’t been reissued on CD. A good candidate for a nuggets or Lennon-McCartney comp. Thanks for airing this one out, JB!

  2. “Don’t Shut Me Out” was written by David Gates. Gates went on to fame with his group, Bread.

  3. […] listened to some music, too: Elton John’s forgotten first album, a band from small-town Wisconsin, the new styles of country music, and hits from 100 years ago. On the latter subject, Archeophone […]

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