Cover story: Never Say Die

'The band that never made it' makes it 45 years later

Starting in 1967 in San Carlos and moving through the Peninsula, the four musicians and manager of the rock band Uther Pendragon worked hard for more than a decade to make it big.

With Bruce Marelich on lead guitar, Mark Lightcap on guitar and keyboards, Martin Espinosa on guitar and Mike Beers on drums (with each taking turns on vocals), they had all the makings of the scrappy band that could.

Together, they bought a house in Menlo Park, worked odd jobs to scrape by, and saved up for a recording studio. They were teetotalers who turned down the volume when the blazer-clad Menlo Park Police Department asked. (At the time, MPPD dressed in blazers instead of uniforms as an experiment to improve police-civilian relations).

The band members took every gig they could get. They struggled hard to find a good band name, changing Blue Grass Fever to Blue Fever (they didn't play bluegrass and didn't want to confuse people), then transitioning to Timne, Hodological Mandala, Kodiac and Justus before landing on Uther Pendragon in the early 1970s. They forfeited a trip to Los Angeles, which they had won in a "Battle of the Bands" prize, in order to invest in recording equipment.

After several years, though, the demands of adult life kicked in. One of them got married, the band lost its lease to the recording studio, and Uther Pendragon eventually broke up around 1979. At the time, their work of more than a decade seemed destined to remain in obscurity.

The years passed and they went their separate ways. In recent years, the band's manager, Craig Pedersen, who had assiduously documented the band's history, created a documentary about the band and posted some of its video recordings on YouTube.

It didn't seem likely that posting those videos would lead to anything.

However, in 2013, the unexpected happened. Out of what appeared to be nowhere, a record label based in Spain called Guerssen Records, which specializes in "reissuing rare and obscure psychedelic, progressive, folk and garage albums from the 60s to early 80s," discovered the band on YouTube and reached out to its members.

Guerssen proposed remastering the band's previously recorded music and releasing it on a vinyl three-LP set and a two-CD package, which it did over the following two years. The album, now for sale, is called "San Francisco Earthquake" and can be purchased at the Best Buy, Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.

Antoni Gorgues of Guerssen Records told the Almanac he was impressed by both the band's quality recordings and quantity of undiscovered music. He describes the band's sound as "pretty unadulterated late 60s and early 70s garage rock and West Coast psychedelia," and says the recordings demonstrate the band's talent and original sound, untouched by fancy recording studio tricks.

"The fact of having such a vast archive of unknown music from that era is nothing less than a huge discovery for the fans of that type of music," Mr. Gorgues says.

For the band, it's a dream come true – proof that the years they spent creating and performing music was worthy of recognition.

The music scene

At their peak, the band members worked hard to break into the early 1970s Bay Area music scene. They vied for the spotlight and were influenced by major musicians and movements of the era.

"We were right at the tail end of Haight-Ashbury period when we started playing in earnest," recalls Mr. Pedersen.

Uther Pendragon at first followed the sound of a local band named "Fritz," whose members included Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks before their days in Fleetwood Mac. But in 1969, when band members saw Led Zeppelin perform at Fillmore West in San Francisco, they took on a more "hard rock" sound, Mr. Pedersen said.

The band name, allowed it to maintain a "mystical" component to their changing sound as it shifted from "pop psychedelic" to "hard rock and hard rock blues," said Mr. Pedersen. (Uther Pendragon, according to Arthurian legend, was the name of Merlin's father.)

Loosely defined, the name meant "father of magic," he said. The Uther part of the name soon fell off, but was brought back to differentiate it on YouTube from other bands in the 1980s and 1990s that had also been called Pendragon.

The band worked to reflect the strengths of artistic creations, such as the Beatles' "White Album," where no two songs sound alike," Mr. Pedersen said. "I think we pretty well accomplished that."

The band wanted "something more cerebral" than what the record lables were looking for, he said. After an unfruitful pilgrimage to get Los Angeles record labels to hear their demo tape, the band decided to set up its own studio.

Members pitched in to rent a warehouse in Palo Alto and built much of their own equipment. One of their friends, Warren Brown, built an amplifier that could produce a higher-watt output with smaller transformers, yielding zero distortion in the band's sound. Later when the band split up, their technician Steve Curtis traveled with the Doobie Brothers and likely helped to spread the technology throughout the industry, Mr. Pedersen said.

The Menlo Park circuit

The band lived, worked, and performed together, Mr. Pedersen said. They rented a home in Belmont, then one in Atherton, before purchasing a home in Menlo Park on Chester Street.

When the band was starting out, one of its biggest problems was retaining a drummer, Mr. Pedersen recalled. He remembered a time when the band had a gig at the Veterans Affairs campus in Menlo Park, but their drummer failed to show. The other members began asking around to see if anyone knew how to play the drums. One man, a veteran, volunteered.

"I think he knew one beat," said Bruce Marelich.

Despite the drummer's limitations, Mr. Marelich and Mr. Pedersen recalled that performance in particular with great fondness, saying it was a surprising success.

Mike Beers joined the band as drummer soon after, and stayed for the duration of the band's time together. The son of two deaf parents, he grew up in Burlingame. His parents divorced before he was born, and he credits his mother for allowing him the freedom to listen to and practice music to his heart's content. Though she couldn't hear all the band's music, he says she could feel the vibrations from the drums.

The band performed around Menlo Park and Atherton, booking gigs at St. Patrick's Seminary and at the all-male Menlo Boys School (before it became the co-ed Menlo School), where they played for prom night. "Those gigs were always fun," said Mr. Pedersen, noting they would play inside the campus' mansion. "The audience there was really good."

Several band members also worked at guitarist Martin Espinosa's business, Martin Enterprises, which built utility shelves and tables and, according to Mr. Pedersen, did some work at the Almanac offices in its earlier days.

Eventually, the band broke up and the members left the Bay Area. Today, they're all in their 60s and are retired or concluding their careers. Bruce Marelich worked as a property appraiser in Redding, California; Mr. Lightcap, who headed the Chico water district, is retired; Mr. Espinosa is planning to retire from a construction company in Florida and is now living in the Russian River area; and Mr. Beers works as a contractor in the Oakland area.

Despite their geographic separation, the members of Uther Pendragon remained close friends over the years and continued to play music. For the last decade or so, the band has gathered for annual reunions. Mr. Marelich and Mr. Lightcap play together in a band called "Bad Daddy," which Mr. Marelich describes with a laugh as "geriatric rock." Mr. Beers drums and sings for "The Hit Men," a cover band based in Los Altos.

What's next?

The band members the Almanac interviewed were thrilled that their work was finally getting recognition.

"Frankly," Mr. Pedersen said, "This has all been like a fairy tale coming true."

"I'm still pinching myself," said Mr. Marelich. When the band broke up, he said, "I figured that was it. We didn't do what we set out to do."

Mr. Lightcap said he was confident the band would someday get recognition. "I never stopped believing in Pendragon," he said. "The most important thing to me has been the journey with these people I consider family."

Still, he added, it's "nice to be validated. The reviews are glowing that are coming out."

"I am sure that all of us are in a cloud now to think that our dream has come true after 40 years," added Mr. Beers.

As for what's ahead, Mr. Pedersen said, the band will have an album release party on May 28 and 29 in Chico, California, at a band member's ranch. Personally, he's hoping to get the band booked into the hotel casino circuit.

"These guys could go start playing again," he said. "You get music in your blood and it's hard to get rid of it."

Go to tinyurl.com/uther348 for more information.

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