The Killer Whales — singer/guitarist David Bethany, bassist Jim Blakeslee, and drummer Murphy Pitts — played their farewell gig in Charleston nearly 25 years ago. After putting out a string of New Wavey discs, including a self-titled EP in 1981, a full-length titled Emotional Geography in ’83, and the polished LP Big Bang in ’86, the band made an impact on the Holy City scene. All you have to do is mention the Whales to scene veterans and you’ll get a story in return.
It’s not difficult to trace the influence of the band among longtime players in the local music community. Most of the musicians who were in town during the Whales’ heyday get excited when the band comes up.
Jody Porter, a Charleston native who resides in New York and plays guitar with alt-rock band Fountains of Wayne, formed his first band, a trio of teenagers called Foreign Aide, after meeting the Killer Whales. Foreign Aide’s earliest songs so resembled the melodic power-pop and smooth rock groove of the Whales’ recordings that they were nicknamed the Baby Whales.
“It must have been around 1980 when I first heard them,” Porter says. “I spent most afternoons bumming around the Market on my bike when I was 11. One day, I heard a band soundchecking. I had been playing guitar for a few years, so I went in to ask the guitar player, ‘What year is that Strat?’ and the bassist chimed in, ‘It’s a ’33, kid.’ They became good friends of mine over the years.”
Other high school and college garage bands took their cues from the Whales, from the band’s cool, onstage demeanor to the chorus effects on Bethany’s and Blakeslee’s guitars and Pitt’s conspicuous Roto-toms. The Whales created a model for the next generation to emulate.
“I have great memories of sitting in with them at their gigs back when I was a teenaged New Waver,” Porter adds. “They had a record out with original songs, which was pretty cool for a local band. In my eyes and ears, they were the shit.”
Singer/songwriter and bandleader Rik Cribb was inspired to pursue a career in music after an encounter with the Whales. An East Cooper native who’s played music in Charleston since the ’80s, Cribb has fond memories of his first experiences with Bethany and company.
“The first time I heard the Whales was when I was walking by the old Myskyn’s on Market Street,” Cribb says. “The sound was infectious. I somehow found a way to sneak in only to get kicked out on a regular basis for being underage. I’m a sucker for a three-piece band, and I was heavy into the Police, Costello, the Clash, Men at Work, and tons of reggae — and those guys to me were a beautiful brew of all of that. They’ve inspired me from day one.”
Singer/guitarist Frank Royster, a veteran songwriter and frontman for local band the Hed Shop Boys, grew up on James Island and got into playing guitar as a teen, digging mostly into Southern and classic rock. He first heard the Killer Whales on a compilation of Charleston rock bands called Homegrown, released by radio station 95SX.
“The song ‘Marlene’ blew me away,” Royster says. “I was too young to see them in bars, but I got my chance to see them open for Molly Hatchet at the Gaillard. I was a fan. I wore their first EP out. Then I met them at Harbor Records and Tapes when Emotional Geography was released. They signed my copy, and I still cherish it to this day.”
Royster’s earliest songwriting attempts leaned toward Southern rock, but getting into the Killer Whales drew him away from the twangy riffs and boogie and toward the sophisticated, harmonious power-pop that came out of the punk/New Wave movement.
“David’s songwriting really inspired me to write pop songs,” Royster says. “And they had such a great rhythm section, too. Murphy was an awesome drummer. He reminded me of a cross between Neal Peart and Stewart Copeland. Jim was the best bassist I’d ever heard. I have played several of their songs over the years in different bands, and I still have a hard time trying to figure out the bass lines to Whales songs.”
Peter Alvanos, another James Island-born musician, grew up listening to the Beatles and the poppier side of rock. In his college days, he started keeping time with local guitar-pop bands, including Honey Wagon, the Vroom, the Ferns, and others. He’s now situated in Athens, Ga., where he performs solo under the name Fabulous Bird and plays drums with indie-rock band Elf Power.
“In the early ’80s, it was unheard of to hear a local band play originals, much less draw a crowd based on their music and their records,” Alvanos says. “It was good music too. We couldn’t figure out why we weren’t hearing them on the radio or seeing them on MTV.”
Alvanos first caught the Whales at a club called Plato’s on St. Philip Street. “They were a tight three piece,” he remembers. “Murphy had these long, anthemic drum fills, and his triplets and rolls were tight. Jim was a fine bass player who played effortlessly, a la John Entwistle, filling the low end and adding background vocals. David was a reserved and really cool guy, wearing his black leather jacket and playing his Fender Stratocaster. His singing was soulful. They had good chemistry and stage presence. Their shows weren’t typical gigs where music fans and musicians watched with folded arms. Everyone was a part of the show. It was a communion.”
Local musician Charlie Thompson remembers when the Whales first made a splash in the local scene. Thompson is well known by old-school music fans for his string work over the years with the Parrots and Flyin’ Blind, along with his recent efforts with Guilt Ridden Troubadour and the Woodies. He played with Blakeslee in a band called Twin River before the Whales got together.
“The earliest memories I have is when both bands were playing at Captain Harry’s Blue Marlin bar in the late ’70s,” Thompson says. “The Whales had captured the New Wave sound of the times and were very successful. We were all friends and rooted for each other, but I think everyone knew the Whales had tapped in the musical moment of the times and could make it big.”
As part of the Windjammer’s celebration of 40 years in business, the Killer Whales will reconvene on Saturday alongside three other classic Charleston acts. The lineup features the Whales in the headlining slot with support from soul/blues trio Johnny Mac and the BootyRanch, ’70s-rockers Free Mountain Standstill, and songsmith Ed Hunnicutt.
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