I have often asserted that the greatest rock and roll show I ever saw was The Who at a half-filled Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco 48 hours before their celebrated appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. But now, in the autumn of my years, I am able to admit to myself that I hadn’t loved them more than I’d loved The Emperors at Santa Monica High School’s Sadie Hawkins Dance two years before.
(Sadie Hawkins was an invention of the brilliant, if reactionary, comic strip artist Al “Li’l Abner” Capp. In contravention of traditional morality, it empowered girls, on one very special night of the year, to ask boys out. Oh, the cuter boys’ terror!)
After steadfastly listening to nothing but the West Side Story soundtrack album through most of 1964, I’d seen A Hard Day’s Night four months before, and it had changed my life, but I’d never experienced rock and roll first hand as I did at the Sadie Hawkins Dance. The Emperors were absolutely deafening, or at least the loudest thing I’d ever heard at the time (and probably around a fifth the volume of The Yardbirds the following summer at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium). They had actual long hair, which inspired the girls, beneath their masks of indifference, to yearn for them, and the boys, of course, to speculate that they must be…fags. I think the swarthy — Latino? — one was wearing a wig. They wore matching silver lame jackets, as though it were still the ‘50s. The drummer seemed to be having the time of his life. I was certainly having mine!
You could tell from the way they kept slipping surf instrumentals in between their British Invasion covers that they’d been around before The Beatles emerged. A lot of us forgot all about dancing, and just stood there gaping at their hair and jackets and drummer Steve Watts’ exuberant mugging. They had a guy whose sole function was to play rhythm guitar, an instrument that the power trios would banish to to the history books two years later. I thought I was looking at my future.
Now, through the miracle of modern digital communications, I am able to ascertain that they were from Long Beach (about a third of the way ‘twixt LA and San Diego), and led by Watts, the drummer, who’d put the band together in 1961, almost before there were Beatles. At some point after their Samohi performance, they wore matching platinum wigs. In the 1970s, realizing that pluralization was of an earlier epoch, they renamed themselves Emperor, and recorded unsuccessfully with the guy who produced Styx.
Miraculously, they still exist, if by they you mean Mr. Watts and a new bunch of sidekicks, with names like Randy and Chip, and horrible flame-sleeved sports shirts you’d expect to find for sale at the Harley Davidson outlet store. They will be performing many times during 2015 at a restaurant called Phil Trani’s down where it all began, in Long Beach. I am unable to decide whether I should speculate aloud about the restaurant being a favorite of South Bay crossdressers. I think maybe I won’t.
I see on their Facebook page (!) that they do a copy version of “My Sharona.” But they also do Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” as The Who, reaching back into their past to be able to play two sets of the length Bill Graham demanded, did that night at the Fillmore. Coincidence? One wonders!