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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 4, 2002 2:37 AM. The previous post in this blog was Now the jingle hop has begun. The next post in this blog is The Funk Brothers. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Billy, it was so rude of you to leave

Sixteen years ago this week, the world lost a great rock star, cut down way before his time. So early did he die that most of the world never got to see or hear him. Those of us who enjoyed his performances over a few, brief, sweet years here in Portland will never forget.

His name was Billy Rancher, and when he burst onto the local bar scene he was hardly old enough to drink in the places he was playing. In 1980 and 1981, after he and his brother Lenny broke up their band the Malchicks, Billy assembled a new band around himself and called them the Unreal Gods. They proceeded to tear the house down with an amazing array of rock and ska influences all rolled into a brand of music that Billy dubbed "boom chuck rock." "Boom chuck, boom chuck, boom chuck -- ch-chuck" was how the drums would go. We'd all sing along -- with the drums, mind you! It was that catchy. And, quite unusual for the local circuit they were riding, the Gods were playing mostly original numbers -- only an occasional cover to be heard -- which made it all the more stunning.

Boom chuck rock was as danceable as all get-out. The little La Bamba club downtown and the big Lung Fung Dragon Room out on SE 82nd Avenue would positively steam up when the Gods hit the stage. And it was visual, too, with a pair of tasseled Goddesses who proved to all who witnessed them that, yes, go go boots could make a comeback at any moment. The scene was so theatrical, so electrifying. Hard to take your eyes off the stage, it was so intense. The charisma flowed from a lot of directions, but one thing that drew the entire audience in was how much Billy and his mates cared about this music. I remember shaking his hand in the foyer of some dive one night after his show was over. (You stayed to the end of the Unreal Gods, even if you were going to look and feel like hell at work the next day.) And the guy shook every last hand walking out to that parking lot as he sipped on a shotglass of peppermint schnapps.

Funny music, too. Tongue in cheek through at least half of it. Songs like "My Girlfriend's Drawers" (possibly referring to furniture, probably not) and "Rude Buddy Holly" ("Buddy, it was so rude of you to leave!"). A young man's outlook, but with wicked wit and wisdom.

The band cut an indie record on its own and headed down to L.A. to show it around. They signed a record deal, and I think they may have even cut an album in a big-time New York studio. Fame and fortune seemed just around the corner. But it wasn't long before the amazing journey took a major detour: Billy, in his mid-20s, was diagnosed with lymphoma.

The medical ordeal took Rancher away from us for a long time, and when he came back, the story was different. It had to be. Now on top of everything else, Billy was being a strong fighter in the face of The Big Reality. But he kept going, with songs about Christmas, songs about his girl, songs about peace. Not as funny, not nearly as raucous. But still jaw-dropping awesome.

I saw him backstage one time after he got sick, at the hotsy-totsy Schnitzer Concert Hall, of all places. The hall had just opened following its big renovation, and a bunch of performers were doing a benefit for some noble cause. It was late fall of '84, I think. I was an extra in a dance/performance art piece being done by a friend, who in those days was known as Vincent Martinez. Anyway, while a large group of us were waiting to go on with Vin, in comes Billy and another guy -- I think it was Lenny -- and they worked out a little acoustic number on a guitar or two. It might have been "Happy Santa Claus," but I may be misremembering. Knowing about Billy's medical condition, I was craning my neck to see if I could get a glimpse of how he was doing. He looked o.k. for that night, at least.

When you're a 20-something partying in a club, it's not easy to tell whether what you are enjoying so much is timeless, or just the group du jour. Your hormones are raging, you're finally grown up and trying to figure out what that means, and it may not be until years later that you can appreciate what mattered and what didn't.

But we were right about Billy Rancher. He was an Unreal God, indeed.

If you ever see the album "Boom Chuck Rock Now" for sale, and you don't have a copy, buy it. If you don't want to keep it, send it to me and I'll buy it from you. I think the CD is readily available in a few places for around $15. The vinyl LP, on the other hand, is a collectors' item. I've heard prices of $50 and $65. But you won't get mine for 10 times that.

Comments (2)

Hi Jack,

Just found your blog when searching for "Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods".

I put a cassette tape in the car player (yes this vehicle has a tape player) this morning on the way to Starbucks, one I recorded off of the EP back in '81 (I guess), haven't listened to that for years. That prompted the search.

How very saddening it was to read about Billy's fate. I had often wondered why his talent (and the rest of the group) didn't prompt more EPs or CDs and why they seemed to just fade away, RAPIDLY.

I was attending the UofW when Billy Rancher was hitting the clubs here in the Seattle area, I gradutaed in 1982 and took a job in eastern WA as a fish biologist for Grant County PUD, now some 20+ years later I am headed today to eastern WA to start a job in Richland WA as a project manager, so in commemoration I thought, hey thats what you listened to last time when you drove over why not put in the player again.

How things change, on that drive in 1982 I was in a hot pink 65 Rambler Classic where the stereo in the car was worth twice the value of the car, it belonged to a friend who had painted it pink for his girlfriend to drive. I was too broke to afford a car and absolutely loved borrowing that to go over to the other side of the state. Talk about a chick magnet! We almost alway used that car for clubbing.

I usually saw Billy Rancher and T U R Gods at the Hall of Fame on University Way in Seattle. We called that place the "Hall of Shame".

Thanks for providing the history and links at your blog. While it's sad to learn it's also refreshing to know why. If you have other informatoin about the rest of the group or what friends moved on to I would be interested to know.

Galen

billy's strat is now for sale, check portland craigslist and step up to the plate. bye

k


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