“Hmm. It sounds familiar.”
That was was the guy in charge of the 45s at Jerry’s Records said when I asked him about a copy of Arch Hall Jr. & The Archer’s only single, “Konga Joe.” Jerry’s is a mammoth warehouse space full of old vinyl, the kind of place that boasts an original R. Crumb illustration on their t-shirts and stacks of cardboard boxes filled with god-knows-what. And in the back is the “45 Guy,” who keeps a mental filing cabinet filled with the thousands of singles stored on his dusty shelves.
The name excited him. I could see the ignited fire of the collector in his eyes as he pulled out a ladder and got to work, pulling down box after box and flipping through long-forgotten singles.
“It was a late-fifties title, rock, early Sunset Strip era” I said, wanting to help. But 45 Guy kept looking in box after box. He was intrigued. He was hooked.
“It definitely sounds familiar,” he repeated after a few minutes of searching. A Google Image search of the 45 produced a flicker of recognition on his face. “Yeah. I don’t think we have it. But I know it. For some reason, I know it.”
I thanked him for his time and collected my purchases. As I walked up to the register, he yelled out after me, “Let me know if you find one!”
Who is Arch Hall Jr.?
In his time as a professional recording artist, Arch Hall Jr. released exactly one single, “Konga Joe” (b/w “Monkey in my Hatband,” the better song) in 1959, when he was fourteen years old. Either by typographical error or a record company attempt to get this single placed at the front of the bins, the song is credited on the Signature 45 to “Aarch Hall Jr.” Hall would go on to act in and contribute music to eight b-movie drive-in flicks from 1961 to 1965. In 2005 Wild Guitar, a compilation of soundtrack songs, radio interviews, and clips from movie trailers was released by Norton records.
And that’s it. The entire discography of Arch Hall Jr.
Yet, in those brief films and hastily recorded songs, thrown together days or even hours before the appointed studio time, there emerges some kind of magic. The talent of Arch Hall Jr is not always immediately evident. His guitar playing is rudimentary, yet forceful, influenced equally by surf, rockabilly, and the rhythm & blues playing of T-Bone Walker. The songs are simple and almost cloying.
Hall also had the distinction of playing rock & roll “stars” in several of his movies, most notably in the low-budget but surprisingly enjoyable Wild Guitar. Maybe it was wish fulfillment, maybe his father (the wily character actor and jack-of-all-trades Arch Hall Sr.) put him up to it, or maybe there was a knowing tongue-in-cheek laugh to casting a kid nobody had ever heard of as someone who gets his big break singing songs on TV.
In recent years Arch Hall Jr. has emerged as the heir to another famous “Junior:” Edward D. Wood, Jr, the unfairly maligned writer/director who was voted Worst Director of all time by the Golden Turkey Awards.
Wood was also creature of low-budget Hollywood, someone who wrote and directed films on the cheap that were shot in several days and held together with bad acting, plentiful voice-over, and lots of stock footage. Yet among all the truly bad science fiction films of the 1950s and 60s (and there are plenty of examples, believe me), Wood’s work stands apart. There’s a strange integrity to his cardboard sets and overuse of stock footage. Call it schlock, call it a b-movie, call it what you want, but Ed Wood movies look like they were made by someone who cared. And they’re still fun to watch.
So are Arch Hall movies. And once you listen to Hall’s music outside of these low-budget films, you realize that these songs aren’t half bad. In both Wood and Hall’s art, there’s a passion present. Something that drove these men to create. Maybe in Hall’s case, as a teenager, it was just a way to meet girls, ride around in a fancy car, and even star in movies!
But there’s something else at work here. By all accounts, Ed Wood truly believed he was making great work, even as wrestlers knocked over cardboard tombstones and morphine-addicted actors wrestled with fake octopi. To be an artist, you don’t just need the art. You need the passion, the willingness to set it free, the belief that it’s worth seeing, hearing, and sharing with others. This kind of passion is at odds with any calculated approach to commerce. It spits in the face of notions like “good” and “bad,” and simply aspires to be.
Arch Hall Jr, shared that indefatigability. It’s what let him release his first (and only) single at age fourteen, and then move into acting & signing professionally just a year later. In a way, Hall combined two modern ideas into one pompadoured package: The DIY aesthetic, and Fake it Til You Make It. Don’t know how to get a record deal? Make a record, build a cheesy low-budget movie around your music, and pretend like you are famous. It might work, even if your fame comes thirty years later.
The most notorious movie that Hall starred in for his father (also the only one that his father wrote and directed, albeit under a pseudonym), is Eegah. Reportedly made for around $15,000 (a shockingly low amount even by b-movie standards), the movie centers on a teenage girl and her beau (Hall) who stumble upon a modern-day caveman (played by future Bond villain Richard Kiel). The film proved immensely popular at drive-ins around the country. Hall performs several numbers (including the excellent “Brownsville Road”) and scored the soundtrack.
But that’s not what Eegah and Arch Hall Jr. are known for. In 1993, the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured Eegah in episode 506. For those unfamiliar with MST3K, each episode features an entire film, usually a low-budget sci-fi, “riffed” on by a cast of one human and two robot/puppets. One of the first truly post-modern TV shows, MST3K inundated the viewer with pop culture references, jokes at the filmmaker’s expense, and exposed thousands of people (including myself) to terrible movies they might have never seen.
Eegah is the perfect movie for an MST3K episode; it’s slow, directed poorly, and features numerous laughable technical mistakes (“Watch out for snakes”). Hall comes in for his share of derision, with the hosts mocking his songs (including the admittedly so-so “Vicki”) and at one point saying that Hall “looks like the bat from Ferngully!” Later, during a host segment, the robots come up with a surgical torture device designed to turn their human companion, Joel, into Arch Hall Jr, complete with pistons that “smush his face up to look like a sunburned baby.”
Surely this is no one’s idea of fame.*
And by the time Eegah achieved something more than casual recognition among b-movie aficionados, Hall was already gone. He had quite the movie & music scene in 1964, to get his pilot’s license and go respectable. He didn’t play again publicly until a reunion performance in 2005 at the Ponderosa Stomp festival.
Was Hall tormented by his coming so close to stardom, but always missing? Was he tired of acting like a rock & roll Icarus, starring in film after film, playing sets around Los Angeles, and watching everyone else pass him by? What twenty-one year old gives up rock & roll music to become an airline pilot?! Yet Hall walked away from it all.
The sad thing is that he was just starting to get really good.
Just as you’ve made peace with the goofy soundtrack songs, the unfulfilled promise of “Monkey in My Hatband,” and written off Hall as the Ed Wood of Rock & Roll, here comes “Watch Your Step.” It’s a live cover of Bobby Parker’s legendary soul classic, recorded at the end of a Southeastern US tour in Pensacola, Florida. The song starts with little promise; a tinny keyboard tries to fill in for the full horn blast introduction of Parker’s original. Yawn.
But then! A heavy fuzz guitar slides into the mix, and starts hammering away on the Parker riff that would be “borrowed” by everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin without credit. Arch Hall and his band join in on the vocals, and while their singing suffers due to what sounds like a cheap microphone, the guitar cuts through everything else. In the radio banter leading up to it, you can hear the fire & fun of youth, the camaraderie of bandmates who are having a great time together. Their bonhomie informs the song, fuels it, and gives life to their performance. It’s a fiery piece of work, a perfect mesh of raw energy and distortion, proto-punk surf rock in 1962.
This from the guy who sang the simpering teen love song “Vicki” by the pool in Eegah?
Yep. Turns out that Hall was an accomplished guitarist who had mastered the idea that the feeling of a song was more important than the skill level behind it. Too much is made of music that is crafted endlessly into perfection. We like to think that it’s a noble cause to pursue an idea until every aspect of it is perfect in every form. Or at least, that’s the story.
The truth is that nothing is perfect. Every artist looks at their finished canvas and sees only what they would change. Every writer cringes at a certain passage or paragraph. Every musician listens to a song and hears only how they would change a lyric, or use a new drum fill, or change a bass line. Art is only done when it’s ripped out of someone’s hands at a deadline, or when the money finally runs out and the record company insists it’s time.
So maybe someone with a budget and a vision can take a year crafting an album. Or two years to make a movie. Good for them. But what about the Arch Hall Jrs of the world, where a movie had to be shot in two weeks, a soundtrack recorded in a few days, and a hit single pumped out in less than twenty four hours.
There’s a nobility to the artists who put their heads down, picked up their tools, and got to work. Imperfection isn’t what ruins art; often it’s what makes art memorable.
Perhaps the best statement on Arch Hall Jr. comes from the man himself, in his dialogue at the end of The Choppers, his first movie. Hall plays a teenage delinquent and rock & roll fan who falls into a life of crime, stripping cars for parts in between playing songs on his guitar. At the end of the movie, when the gang is finally apprehended, a television reporter (played by Arch Hall Sr.) interviews him before he’s led away:
REPORTER: You got anything to say, son?
Hall pauses, and looks around.
HALL: Yeah. We had a ball. A real ball.
* In 2014, I witnessed some kind of retribution on Hall’s behalf. MST3K creator and host Joel Hodgson was engaged in a Q&A with an audience at the Monster Bash convention in the aptly-named Mars, PA. Arch Hall Jr and his band were also attendees at the convention. As Hodgson spoke, Hall emerged from the back of the stage with a pie in his hand, sneaking up behind Hodgson. Finally, Hodgson turned to see what the crowd was laughing about, and Hall hit him square in the face, then took the microphone and proclaimed “That was for Eegah.” The bit was clearly planned, but people went crazy.