The history of pop music is filled with stories about record companies mishandling bands. But the plight of the early 1980s Washington, DC-based 4 Out of 5 Doctors is one of the most cautionary tales. Although they were signed as a new wave band, virtually everyone in charge of their fate decided they should be a hard rock act. Disaster ensued, but luckily the band left behind two great albums, which they recently reissued themselves on CD.
The history of the four-member band dates back to the late 1970s, when guitarist/keyboardist Jeff Severson moved from Los Angeles to Northern Virginia to take a job scoring documentary films. Severson met guitarist George Pittaway, and an advertisement in the Washington Post brought them bassist/singer Cal Everett, who would go on to become the Doctors’ front man. Eventually stickman Tom Ballew was added.
Instead of playing local clubs, the group cut their musical teeth helping Severson score his documentaries, which also financed the band’s demos. “We did (a documentary) on wheat, one on gifted children, and one on trains,” Severson recalls. “I sort of wrote the music and I’d get the band to play when needed.”
By the time the clock was striking 1979, the new wavish sound the Doctors were prescribing was still the proverbial Next Big Thing. Their music blended elements of the Cars, Elvis Costello, XTC and Squeeze, using sunny day melodies as a backdrop for wry lyrical observations. Everett’s boyish lead vocals gave them pure pop appeal, and their absurd sense of humor (displayed in songs like “Jeff Jeff” and “Danger Man”) made them a precursor to They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies.
When the Doctors started playing live in DC, they became one of the city’s most commercially viable bands. Richard Harrington, the influential rock critic at the Washington Post, penned several enthusiastic articles about them. The group played a showcase in New York and caught the attention of upstart Nemperor Records and “that was really the point where the band took off,” Severson recalls. Nemperor was an offshoot of the CBS conglomerate that was run by former Beatles concert promoter Nat Weiss. “We liked Nat because every time we’d sit down and have a conversation with him, we’d bug him about telling Beatles stories,” Severson laughs.
Weiss, it turned out, was nearly the only good thing about Nemperor. As Everett tells it, the company was started by CBS to be a “faux independent” label and help CBS compete with smaller record companies spawned by the punk movement. But confusion often reigned. For example, when Nemperor released Doctors singles, the records randomly came out on the Nemperor, CBS and Epic labels. Radio program directors were probably befuddled. As was Everett. “I’ve got singles from all three companies because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” he says.
Nemperor placed the group with British producer Alan Winstanley (Madness, Elvis Costello) who constructed their self-titled debut album true to the band’s demos, but with state of the art sound quality. The recording happened in summer, 1980, but a fall release got delayed due to “some glitches” that Pittaway says had to do with the mastering process. When the album was released in January, 1981, the pop scene was changing. Radio had soured on power pop and new wave in the wake of the Knack’s unsuccessful second album and the failure of similar acts to break. Album rock radio had turned to heavy metal and hard rock instead.
All of which was a shame, since the Doctors’ album sounded like a classic-to-be. Had the band come along two years earlier, they might have been able to chart alongside the Knack. Had they appeared two years later, they might have caught the fancy of MTV, which helped Nemperor label mates the Romantics score hits.
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But in early 1981, Nemperor seemed at a loss. The company’s PR department didn’t get them any press in the premiere new wave magazine of the day, Trouser Press, and by “total happenstance,” says Everett, they got a positive review in People. The group’s concert promoter also didn’t know how to slot them. An opening spot for heavy metalers UFO at the Ritz in New York ended up having a disastrous, career-altering effect.
“We were up in the dressing room tuning our guitars and stuff,” remembers Pittaway. “The dressing rooms are way up high and there are windows where you can see down. And there was this sea of motorcycle jackets starting to crush the stage. They weren’t looking for us, they were looking for UFO. We thought ‘Are we gonna go down there and do our little power pop set in front of the motorcycle jackets?’ We rewrote the set on the spot and threw in all of our harder edged stuff.”
Despite their preparation, Everett recalls: “When we went out in front of UFO we were confronted with a bunch of pale, Quaaluded-out boys who just wanted to throw shit at us. And they did. We actually got the plug pulled on us at that show. We were not emotionally prepared for what was about to happen to us. All we had had up to this point was great venues, great shows, audiences who understood us.”
If their journey into headbanger land had made the Doctors ill, their promoter thought he had just the cure: play more hard rock! They were put on their first full-fledged tour as the opening act for Pat Travers and Rainbow. Severson, Pittaway and Everett agree that it was this tour that killed their momentum. The band wasn’t appreciated by Travers’ and Rainbows’ audiences — to put it mildly.
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As the tour wrapped up its West Coast leg, they learned Nemperor hadn’t placed their album in any stores west of the Mississippi. Says Everett: “So even if one person – one silly person in this sea of hard rock — liked what we did, they couldn’t find our record anywhere.” During a break in the tour, the Doctors were offered a choice: continue on or head down south and open for the newly-revived ZZ Top. When Everett got a call from his wife saying she was pregnant, the band decided to simply head home.
Meanwhile college radio was playing the singles “I Want Her,” “Modern Man” and “Waiting for a Change.” The group finally caught a break when they were placed on a tour of colleges in mid-1981 with Hall & Oates. Everett says he remembers audiences knowing their material better than the songs of Hall & Oates. Dates with the Clash and Cars followed.
But when the band got ready to record their sophomore album, Second Opinion, the suits from Nemperor paid little heed to the expanding college radio market. Instead, they continued to push the band in a hard rock direction and inappropriately paired them with Kansas producer Jeff Glixman. According to Everett, Glixman insisted the band strip down its sound and wouldn’t allow any overdubs on the hard rock songs that made up most of the first side of the album.
While recording the album in Atlanta, the Doctors caught a glimpse of music’s future when they met the members of the then up-and-coming R.E.M. – the very band whose popularity would cause the college market to explode. But all that was a world away from “Second Opinion,” which was conceived at a time when the music industry was looking for the next April Wine or REO Speedwagon. Everett calls Second Opinion a schizophrenic album: “One side was reflective of what we thought had to be delivered to appease the record company and the second side was more what we wanted to do.”
But all that became irrelevant when a bigger problem arrived. “By the time the album was released we had already received our letter from Nemperor saying ‘We’re not picking up your option,’” Everett remembers. “Which means ‘We’re not putting any money into you.’” Second Opinion received so little promotion that many fans didn’t even know of its release at the time.
Ironically, “Never Say Die,” the single pulled from Second Opinion, started to do well in several markets. Severson says radio stations in the Midwest picked up on it and the band “received more royalty payments from that song than any other.” Had they not been dumped from their label, “Never Say Die” would likely have been a hit. The song was a proto-power ballad par excellence and would have fit right alongside the Motels’ “Only the Lonely” and the Cars’ “Since You’ve Gone,” two similarly mellow mid-1982 hits.
With no label, Everett says the band’s manager farmed them out to local DC management which had them play rural towns in Maryland, where audiences wanted to hear cover songs. “We ended up back in the position we were before we got signed,” he observes. Despite the hard times, Severson says the band’s writing actually improved at this point and they started both a third and fourth album at a DC studio where Severson was a recording engineer. By 1984, they had called it quits.
“We made a group decision that rather than beat the horse to death and just do occasional gigs, we would let it fade away,” Severson recalls. “We were disheartened by the music industry.” As a sidenote, Everett remembers the band bringing a song to Nemperor executives and mooting it as a video for the then-new MTV, only to be told there was no future in video and “it was a flash in the pan.”
The 4 Out of 5 Doctors story has a somewhat happy ending. Fans never forgot the group and kept requesting the albums on CD. Both were compiled on a disc called Reconstructed. To mark the release, the band reunited at a club in the DC region, Jammin’ Java, and drew a sellout crowd.
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The group was so happy with the response to the reunion gig they decided to do it again in 2009 and for one final time July 17, 2010. They also collected songs from both their unreleased final efforts for the CD Cruel and Unusual. The first reunion gig received an ecstatic review in the Washington Post. “The brightly polished songs have aged well,” it read. “And it’s not hard to imagine the Doctors could once again be regulars on the local music scene.”
“It didn’t strike me back in the ’80s when we were playing, but it finally sunk in that these tunes that we wrote had an impact on people,” Severson says. “It warms my heart to know this material we wrote wasn’t just something that faded away. People still listen to it.”
Visit 4 Out of 5 Doctors at their official site.