They made animal noises, they taunted their audiences, they’d talk on their records. The word
‘dissonant’ doesn’t quite do the band’s auditory shenanigans justice. Even Lou Reed thought they were strange. The Godz were unpopular, unappreciated and unsuccessful in their time as a band from 1965 to 1968.
“Anybody who knew us, they claimed that we couldn’t play our music, which we really couldn’t,” said 73-year-old Larry Kessler, who played bass and sang in the band. “People hated us. I’m serious. They would scream at us because we’d tune up for a long time, then we’d start meowing and carrying on, and we were all tanked up anyway.”
Fifty years later, Kessler is still performing original music under The Godz, although it’s not as “far out.” A new album is expected to come out this summer.
Sitting outside Larry’s Record Shop, Kessler’s appointment-only Randallstown record shop four doors from his house, he recounted how the band purposefully stood in the way of its own progress, played to audiences who were on LSD and generally freaked people out.
“We did a lot of [sounds of] chickens and goats, deer, whatever, that could fit into our thing,” he said “We put 20 musicians together and have them play instruments they weren’t used to playing. If you played saxophone, we’d make you play piano.”
Although the band never quite achieved notoriety playing in Greenwich Village with folk bands, The Godz are considered seminal in noise-rock and are celebrated influences by indie rock pioneers Sonic Youth and a host of other bands. They even sold some records in later years.
It’s been quite a journey for someone who at least had a shot at a classical music career. Kessler said he was a child violin prodigy at age 5, playing in quartets and going to music school around that age.
“Of course, I hated practicing, and I wanted to go out and play,” he said.
Other than a school show-and-tell-style performance, he put the instrument away and gave up music until rock ’n’ roll — the earliest iterations from Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the like — came along in his teens and showed him music wasn’t just for old people.
“That changed my whole perspective, more or less, of music,” he said.
Kessler met his bandmates — guitarist Jim McCarthy and drummer Paul Thornton — while working at the very first Sam Goody store in New York, where he started in 1964. They would go on to form The Godz with auto harpist Jay Dillon.
From Sam Goody, Kessler got a job at ESP-Disk, a label that has released music by free jazz pioneers Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, vulgar folk-rockers The Fugs, poet Allen Ginsberg, psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and more.
“I wasn’t good at anything per se, but in that field it seemed like that was my thing, and it always has been,” he said.
Kessler recalls how ESP-Disk’s founder Bernard Stollman was angry upon finding out Kessler was a musician since “musicians didn’t work for record companies,” he said. But Kessler still convinced him to come watch The Godz rehearse.
“We played this song that we had called ‘White Cat Heat’ and it was just meowing; playing and meowing on a level that no one would have ever thought humans would do,” he said, “and he started hysterically laughing and said ‘OK, you caught me. I like it.’
“He wanted something that didn’t sound like anything before,” Kessler said. “He would have signed Yoko [Ono] before John Lennon.”
The band’s first album, “Contact High with The Godz,” came out in 1966. They would record two more albums before breaking up in 1968.
Kessler said they were “geared for not being successful” with their non-political but anti-establishment attitude, which certainly applied to the music business. McCarthy incensed a publisher whose resume included early Beatles songs. A woman who claimed she told The Rolling Stones to dress funky told The Godz to wear robes. They didn’t. Advice to get a lead guitar player was also ignored.
“We were obstinate, and anytime anybody wanted to do us any good, somehow we rejected it,” Kessler said.
Although the band did play some big shows in its time alongside bands such as The Mothers of Invention, The Rascals, The Ronettes and The Fugs, they all still worked jobs, as their band never achieved commercial success.
Years later, in 1971, legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs wrote about the band in Creem magazine, and sang the highest praises for their music, which he acknowledged had infantile beginnings.
“[The Godz] are a pure test of one of the supreme musical traditions of rock ’n’ roll: the process by which a musical band can evolve from beginnings of almost insulting illiteracy to wind up several albums later romping and stomping deft as champs,” Bangs wrote.
The band reunited and made a fourth album in 1973.
Kessler landed back in Baltimore, for good, in 1975 with his wife, Claudette, who he met in New York.
Kessler opened his own store, the Music Outlet, in South Baltimore on Light Street and sold instruments and used records, which he had bought in bulk at flea markets. A second store opened in Highlandtown. While it was tough to survive in the record business, Kessler said arcade games, and later New Kids on the Block merchandise propelled his business.
The stores would close in the early-’90s. Two years ago, he opened his shop in Randallstown, which houses thousands of records.
All this time, Kessler continued to write music. He currently releases music through Baltimore-based Manta Ray Records and performs under the name The Godz.
“It does have a distinct flavor. It definitely has Larry’s trademark on it, [but] it’s more commercial,” said Mike Diamond, who runs Manta Ray and plays bass in the band. “I like Larry’s songwriting. He really strips bare his soul. He really speaks from the heart with his songwriting.”
Pikesville resident Rick Sambuco, who has been playing guitar with Kessler for about five years, found the songs to be very melodic, even the older stuff.
“Although the songs were very noisy and sort of confrontational, they were good lyrically and they were good melodically,” he said. “You can hum them, you can sing them, and that doesn’t take away anything or make them any less rock ’n’ roll.”
The band heads to New York in July, which will mark Kessler’s first time playing there in 40 years. A new Godz album, “The End of Order,” featuring the current band, should be out midsummer.
“It’s another way to keep myself going. Not too many 73-year-old guys out there are playing in bands,” Kessler said. And these days, he seems to be getting along with the audience. “I like playing music. I like the reaction of people, which I never liked back in the day because they were always reacting like ‘eh!’ but of course I found that to be fun. So my theories have changed.”
Larry’s Record Shop is located at 10742 Liberty Road in Randallstown. Visit facebook.com/LarrysRecordShop.