The Woggles Raise a Glass to 30 Years of Road Trips, Rekkids, and Raunchy Rawkin’ Roll
“We have literally destroyed a few stages, leaving them smashed to splinters,” chuckles Woggles guitarist Jeff Walls, remembering a concert where audience members were petrified in rapt amazement as he and bassist Patrick “Buzz Hagstrom” O’Connor “perched dangerously on the backs of their booths, picking our way from table to table like vultures,” while singer Manfred “The Professor” Jones dangled like Tarzan from the ceiling overhead.
“It isn’t unusual for a show to end with half the audience onstage, doing the boogaloo along with us,” says Walls. “The Woggles’ music is designed to bypass the brain and go straight for hipbone. Our mission every night has always been to get people dancing on the bar, rolling on the floor, and barking at the moon. If we can do that, we’ve accomplished our job.”
It’s a job the lively quartet has been accomplishing quite well for an astonishingly long tenure. 2017 marks the 30th year since The Professor first assembled The Woggles for a debut performance in Athens, Georgia, and the occasion’s Pearl Anniversary is marked by this month’s release of a new album, Tally Ho!, on Little Steven’s Wicked Cool Records label.
Drop a needle in the first track of Tally Ho! and a snarling, pedal-to-the-floorboard rocker called “Luminol Test” attacks the ears with same take-no-prisoners fury as “Mad Dog 20/20,” the opening track from their long-ago debut LP. Fans eager for one of those more hip-wiggling, shake-it-to-the-left-and-then-sway-it-to-the-right tracks – a style of songs The Woggles call “soul stompers” – need seek no further than the LP’s second number, “Hard Times.” There’s no question that this is the same band, lovingly playing the same way, all these years later. Even the cover art falls into the groove, with its goofy cartoon drawn by Jim Stacy in a deliberate homage to the late Jack Davis, of MAD Magazine and Georgia Bulldogs promo art fame, a sweet nod to the group’s Athenian roots.
“We’re like Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption,” observes drummer Dan “Eletxro” Hall. “We’ve been in so long, we don’t know how to get out.”
Hall credits the group’s longevity to many sources, quickly mentioning his love of “the music, the road, the people you meet, friends you make with fans, bands, drivers, agents, club owners, bartenders, door guys and gals,” but adds that, “the friendships, comradery, and chemistry in The Woggles is also a big part of it. The early years of building all that could be tough at times, but it was the inner drive, hard work and the joy of the good times that kept it all rolling. Also, even though all Woggles have had their parts to play, without Manfred Jones’ inner drive and efforts on the business end to keep it all going for 30 years, it would not have happened.”
“They say sharks have to keep swimming to stay alive, to force water through their gills to breathe,” says Jones. “The band keeps on breathing as we continue to move, to write, to record, and to perform. A touch of madness helps as well, since the passion far outweighs the usual tangible rewards. Amongst the members there’s an understanding that together we’re able to continue doing something that we all love dearly, making music and taking it to the rest of the world.”
“I’d say the formula is approximately one part water and three parts sand, plus a lot of free beer over the years,” observes O’Connor. “It comes down to still being ‘hungry’ for it, and the only way to satiate our collective musical hunger pangs has been to keep on doing shows and putting out music, and generally having fun bashing our audience over the head. Who was it that said playing was the best revenge?”
“In all fairness,” says Walls, who is at once the band’s oldest member (in chronological age) and its youngest member (in time as a full-fledged Woggle), “it should be pointed out that Manfred is the only Woggle who has put in a full thirty years of service. Patrick joined up in 1995, and Dan came on board the next year.” Walls, a veteran of storied regional bands such as Guadalcanal Diary and Hillbilly Frankenstein, was producing records for The Woggles as far back as their first single in 1990 and occasionally guested on guitar or keyboards, but he became a fulltime member after the death of guitarist George “The Mighty Montague” Holton some 14 years ago. “I was always ‘in the family,’” he states.
“A lot of musicians passed through the Woggles’ ranks in the early days,” continues Walls, “including Kurt Wood, Davy Giles, Eric Agner, Jeff Matthews, Martin Broocks, Donna Bowman, Lewis Bailey, Lyle Bufkin and many others. But when I became a card-carrying Woggle in 2003, the line-up solidified and remains the same ever since.”
These days Walls is the only Woggle currently living in Athens, but his spacious home often serves as the group’s rallying point. “Sometimes it’s a pain rounding up the Woggles,” says O’Connor, “but we are very fortunate in that Jeff has a swinging pad with a full basement for us to unleash our tunes. It’s a great setup for us, and it’s what has enabled us to keep it all together these last few years. Plus, there’s a fridge full of beer!”
O’Connor has long been based in Atlanta, and Hall in Tuscaloosa, which can be quite an obstacle when scheduling rehearsals and recordings, but when bandleader Jones relocated from Georgia to Los Angeles during 2006, some worried the end was in sight.
“But it probably helped keep us together,” laughs Walls, “as absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. I am always glad to see the other guys when we get together. Playing the first show of a tour without a rehearsal for a month is often the most fun show of the tour for us, although that’s not to say that it is necessarily the tightest musically. By the second show, we begin to function as well-oiled unit. We don’t stay out for longer than ten days at a time anymore, so we don’t have a chance to get too sick of each other.”
Jones admits that his moving to the west coast “made things challenging.” However, he proudly points out that over the years since, he’s been working with Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on SiriusXM radio, where he broadcasts on weekdays as The Mighty Manfred, adding his professional observations between tunes by kindred musical spirits both past and present. (When contacted for this article, Jones was frantically pre-recording radio shows to cover his absence during an impending road trip.)
Steven Van Zandt, a.k.a. “Little Steven,” although more widely known as Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band guitarist and as the actor who portrayed the character Silvio on HBO’s The Sopranos, has long been both a fan and a tireless champion of The Woggles. Besides giving Jones his own slot on the SiriusXM schedule, Van Zandt has made certain the Woggles turn up regularly on its playlists.
“All sorts of folks who otherwise wouldn’t have come across us have managed to hear of us via The Underground Garage,” says Jones.
The Little Steven connection has also helped with bookings. “We get to play a lot more really cool festivals,” reports Hall. “Ink ’n’ Iron in Long Beach, Road Rash Bash in Cleveland, Tiki Oasis in San Diego, Nashville Boogie Vintage Weekender, The Hukilau in Ft. Lauderdale, Lone Star Roundup in Austin – all these festivals that help pick up new fans, and let us hang out with really cool people, be they hot rod enthusiasts, tiki lovers, or other bands.”
Hall also notes that, in the years since he joined, technology has become a huge help. “It is so much easier to send song ideas via MP3’s, keep the publicity fires stoked via social media, find the club you are playing, locate nearby restaurants, learn where to do laundry while on the road, and determine the ABV of the local craft ales on tap.”
During their rare downtime, he and O’Connor also served as the rhythm section of the English neo-mod ensemble Graham Day and the Gaolers, whose frontman led the legendary British group The Prisoners. Together they toured England, Ireland, Europe, and Scandinavia. O’Connor describes it as a “fantastic experience” and a “total honor.” Hall recalls with amusement the ongoing confusion over that group’s name (“Gaolers” is an Olde English spelling of “Jailers”), especially when being introduced onstage in Dublin as “the Garlers.”
When pressed to cite a favorite Woggles touring memory, Hall points to the 2008 Primitive Fest in Rotterdam, when he and O’Connor were still working with Graham Day. “The Gaolers headlined the Friday line-up, and The Woggles topped the Saturday bill. It felt like a culmination of years of hard work, a graduation ceremony, and huge party till dawn each day, surrounded by pals and like-minded souls. That weekend probably took five years off my life!”
O’Connor most fondly recalls another event where he did double-duty. At last year’s Purple Weekend festival in Spain he not only played bass for The Woggles, but also “dressed up as a London tart in front of a couple thousand bemused people.” While in drag as a 19th Century prostitute, he was slaughtered onstage by musician Mike Stax during Stax’s elaborate re-creation of the famous Grand Guignol stage show of ‘70s rock wildman Screaming Lord Sutch.
Walls delights in his recollections of a month The Woggles spent on a tour bus with The Zombies. “Sharing war stories over breakfast and maintaining an English pub on wheels with genuine rock royalty was something that I will always look back on.”
Putting the “What’s Your Favorite Road Story?” question to singer Jones unleashes a torrent of memories, from soaring over the audience’s heads on a zip line at Athens’ Hoyt St. Station, to watching another band’s members practice setting themselves on fire during a soundcheck in Japan, to breaking into a Munich hotel long after closing, only to discover it was the wrong hotel.
“There were also a number of themed shows,” he says, “that included the band dressed as the cast of Gilligan’s Island, or me flanked by go-go dancing nurses while Jim Stacy, dressed as the Grim Reaper, came out and challenged me to various games, dice, cards, etc. I did die eventually, but as you know, was resurrected.”
“One major difference over the last ten years has been the level of our touring accommodations,” says Walls. “We have always preferred to stay at friends’ houses. This isn’t so much a financial consideration as it is a personal preference. We place great value on the friendships we maintain with our many patron hosts coast-to-coast, and we enjoy catching up with them during our annual visits to their homes. But in the last ten years, many of our friends have settled into respectable jobs and have become pillars of the community. While we were sleeping on floors in the Black Forest, they were moving up in the world and acquiring unbelievably cool homes. This fortunate development has afforded The Woggles the luxury of five-star, diamond-status accommodations in our recent travels. We don’t find ourselves fighting over who must crash on the cold kitchen floor so much anymore, or who has to use the dog’s bowl as a pillow. We even get our own bedrooms now.”
When asked to select a favorite Woggles recording aside from the new album – because musicians always answer, “The new album!” – each Woggle replies differently.
O’Connor consults his “mood ring color” and settles on 2013’s The Big Beat. “I like it because it has a splash of everything Woggles. There’s some soul stomping, some garage, some Las Vegas (‘Jezebel’) and even a dash of country. It’s got each band member’s influences and it speaks to the split personalities inside my head.”
Jones declares the question impossible to answer. “I love all my children,” he says, “and as the good father it would be cruel for me to show favorites.” But he offers brief summations of various discs. Teen Dance Party (1993) represents “the heady time of our first cross country trip, recording and playing shows in Seattle and Bellingham, WA.” The Zontar Sessions, a 1994 collection of their early singles, “marked our first pairing with Jeff Walls as a producer and set the stage for his eventual inclusion in the band; it also has the late Montague Holton’s first composition, ‘Flash Flood.’” Get Tough (1997) heralded the band’s first extended tours, “and we still play a smattering of those songs.” Immediately after it came Wailin’ with The Woggles (1998), a 10” vinyl release whose accompanying “Ramadan Romance” video played on MTV Europe and “whose success overseas laid the foundation for us to tour there ever since.”
Hall zeroes in on the latter. “Wailin’ with The Woggles,” he asserts emphatically. “Of all the formats, I dig 10-inch records the most. Concise and to the point. Wailin’ captures our push and our sound at that moment in our history, very lean and very raw.”
For his part, Walls defiantly ignores the rule attached to the question. “The new album sounds the best, the most like what I want a Woggles album to sound like. That is completely due to the production genius of Jim Diamond. Jim was an indispensable member of our recording team – which also included David Barbe, Drew Vandenburg and Rodney Mills – and he was able to get the recorded sound that I’ve always dreamed of getting, damn him. Every one of my past productions with the Woggles has been the sound of me groping towards what Jim managed to capture on Tally Ho! It has most bad-ass guitar, bass, and drum sounds that we’ve ever achieved. For the first time, I can listen to a Woggles record that actually fits in sonically next to the classic ‘60s rock albums that I’ve always held up as The Holy Grail.
“The Woggles are my dream rock ’n’ roll band. I’ve always envisioned myself in the Keith Richards/Pete Townshend/James Williamson role, backing up a wildman lead singer who looks cool and who isn’t afraid to get a little deranged and engage an audience. Manfred plays the frontman role as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. I remember going to see bands like The Who and The Stooges when I was a teenager; it was such a visceral experience that by the time the show was over, you would be covered in sweat and your heart would be racing. That’s the kind of show we like to do.
“Everyone in the Woggles likes to have fun and party,” he concludes. “Our lifeblood is playing live, making cool new friends, and seeing the world as a traveling band. We work hard, and we play hard. The Woggles are rock ’n’ roll cyborgs; when we’re on the job we don’t sleep, we don’t whine, and we don’t fall down.”
Photo by Jennifer Boxley.