Greg Ellis

My only introductory comment is this: I am not a big fan of 1960s popular music. That said, let me get to the heart of the matter, a newly released retrospective CD of SC's groundbreaking power combo, the Watchdogs. Pavlovian Devolution (Meridean Records) is an engaging 73 min. of pop/rock/psychedelia that contains an annotated tracklist and liner notes from former guitarist Rob Cato and roadie Tom Kerr.

I had a chance to sit down with Cato (the only surviving member of what was once the most exciting power trio south of Charlotte and north of Jacksonville) last weekend for an interesting little chat. Cato has quite a story to tell indeed. The Watchdogs were formed early in 1966 by two USC sophomores (Cato and Philip Smoak) on a lark. "We used to have these incredibly boring parties at the frat houses," says Cato, "and they'd all crank up their little Beach Boys 45s. Well, I thought it was a bunch of shit... I mean all these goddamn landlocked Columbia jocks lip-synching to 'Surfer Girl' or what-have-you. Phil and I vowed that we could do better, so one Saturday we went down to the pawn shop and Phil bought some drums. I bought an old Silvertone and in three weeks we'd written a whole set's worth of material."

The only thing lacking was a bassist to complete the lineup. This bassist was found when Hugh "Crabs" Lofting was introduced to Cato through a girl he was dating. "Crabs was a bastard, let me tell you. He had just gotten out of the Navy. He was older than us, more experienced if you know what I mean. Fucker had tattoos all up and down everywhere and he did 'em all himself! He made a fucking tattoo gun with parts from an electric toothbrush and a reel-to-reel machine." Crabs was excited about the prospects of being in a band with a message specifically tailored for the youth of the Carolinas (hailing from Darlington, Crabs was also a Carolina native). The subject matter of Cato's early lyrics is vague, but very much caught in the charged vibe of the times. Their first (self-released) 45, "Go-Getter" b/w "(I Got Nothing) I Got Nothing" was a bit shaky. The lyrics to "Go-Getter" were vague ("I'm a go-getter/I'm a real go-getter) and the flipside was a note-for-note ripoff of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" ("I got nothing... I got nothing, but I tried, and I tried, I can't GET no... no no no). Smoak had a peculiar style of drumming, which was the result of his not using a bass drum. "Yeah, Phil was pretty much a dumbass. When he bought his first kit, there was no pedal on the kick drum and Phil didn't think to look for one. Even when he discovered that other guys used 'em, he kept doing his own thing." Smoak's 'own thing' was to literally kick the drum head. The end result was inaudible but was apparently quite a spectacle for the audience. "It gave us that... violent image at a time when few bands wanted that sort of thing," says Cato.

Their quest to be different led them to hone and perfect their image on a late '67 tour of the southeast. Booked by Cato's uncle, Jess Foster (who was concurrently a Baptist minister and used car salesman), the Watchdogs played churches in places like Sumter, Abbeville, Harlem (Georgia that is) and Savannah. Word of mouth helped fill the pews, but after a few shows the tour was halted when Foster got the initial bills for damages incurred. Seems Crabs had read reviews of the Monterey Pop Festival the previous summer, how Townsend and Hendrix trashed their equipment. "Well, he only had that one bass (a Fender P) and damned if we were going to let him trash our stuff. He ended up destroying whatever else there was that was laying around. Seeing as we only played churches during that tour, there was always something holy to desecrate, like crosses and things." Asked if Crabs was on a pre-Ozzy satanic kick, Cato laughs. "Hell no. He just wanted to burn stuff." The resulting costs, filed by church officials throughout SC, nearly crippled the band, but luckily fate intervened and the Watchdogs signed with Atlanta's Prestigious Records. Crab's cross-burnings paid off. James Wheatley, owner of Prestigious, had a sister who attended one of the Watchdogs' church gigs (her name was Phyllis... believe it or don't). Wheatley knew that he could hype this band, and dollar signs hovered about his head.

The following spring the Watchdogs entered a studio in Atlanta and recorded their first album, the hallucinogenic Friendly Neighbors. Many tracks are represented on the new retrospective. Some haven't aged well, to be quite honest, particularly the psychedelic noodlings of "River of Stars" and the Jefferson Airplane-meets-rockabilly pastiche called "Haight Elvis." Despite the fact, several highlights include "Old Man Dead Man" (a codified threat penned by Cato designed to end Strom Thurmond's life aided by alien intervention... needless to say, the then 65-year-old senator outlasted his critics), "Ocean of Burden" ("That's about a fishing trip gone very wrong," laments Cato) and the chilling "Steve in Vietnam," a tune about Crab's brother Steve, who was in Vietnam at the time. It was this last tune that got some radio play, and also the first of only two songs to be written and sung by Crabs. Cato reflects, "I never understood what the hell he was talking about in that song. All I could make out was the chorus part, you know the 'Get him out/Get Steve out/' bit. It was very emotional for Crabs. We used to end our set with that one and then he'd go to town and trash the place."

The Watchdogs' shows began attracting crowds of misfits in Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte. Their infamous church gigs from late '67 had left an impression, and their managers (co-managed at this point by Foster and Wheatley) insisted they wear choir robes emblazoned with their salivating dogs emblem. The crowds became larger‹nearly 5,000 copies of Friendly Neighbors had been sold at summer's end. The band decided to take some time off. Cato and Smoak had already dropped out of USC. They spent the time writing new material for what would be the Watchdogs' next (and final) album. Crabs had gotten preoccupied with hallucinogens and had taken up several eccentric pastimes. He still loved to watch motor-racing with his family in Darlington, but he had recently become infatuated with the Inertia-Gravity-Energy consortium, who practiced the now-forgotten art of slapdiving. During the late sixties, this obscure southeastern cult existed in quiet. In order to achieve a form of spiritual enlightenment, the 'gravvies' practiced jumping from diving boards into emptied cement pools. It was during one of these "exercises" on October 6, 1968 when Crabs was nearly killed. He landed awkwardly and ended up with two broken legs and four cracked ribs. "He was in a bodycast for a few weeks. It really fucked us up. We had to wait until spring to finish the next record." It was a difficult period. The new record finally hit the shops in July 1969, during the same week in which Armstrong landed on the moon. To play off that summer's "moon hysteria," Smoak had designed nifty cover artwork featuring a purple dinosaur on the moon. The record was called Apollosaurus (it was also at this time that Cato suggested they drop the "The" from their name, making them simply "Watchdogs"). The album was experimental and bombastic in nature. The first song, "In the Beginning," is six minutes of Cato asking religious questions over a mellotron track. Bogged down in drugs and studio gimmickry, the only song that really rocks out is "Dirty Little Mud," which is a testosterone-driven ode to... something. The most risky track (at home in SC anyway) was the heart-felt, pro-racial integration rant (complete with a rather impressive "slap-bass" riff courtesy of Crabs) called "Barstool Vacant."

Well the food's no better/at the other end/of Harden Street baby,/but hark what's this I hear?/what's this I see?/move your whiteness amos/move your whiteness andy/down to the other end/of the counter/ebonition has come to town/wants fries with that amos/move your white ness monster/it is time for soul.

Again, many tracks are contained on the new retrospective, but not the artwork. "Yeah the cover was pretty good, but, you know, the Barney legal retribution factor. You never know," laughs Cato.

Around this time some negative press began to appear, caused by some comments Crabs made in an interview with the Atlanta Constitution's "Hip Beat" reporter Karen Stanley. In the interview Crabs referred to the Beatles as "shitters" (and Paul McCartney particularly as "prickless cadaver"). It only added distress to ongoing problems within the band. Phil Smoak was arrested in Charlotte, NC, in August for driving under the influence. In his backseat a nude woman (identified later as his then-girlfriend Ramona) was found unconscious. In his trunk police found 14 g's of PCP, two automatic assault weapons and a dead kangaroo (riddled with bulletholes). When asked to explain the accident Smoak pleaded ignorance. The rest of the year was taken up by court dates and miscellaneous hospital visits (thanks to Crab's increasing fascination with the IGE consortium). Sensing the proverbial dead-horse and the whip, Cato decided to pull out of the band.

They played their last show at the Regal Club on Two Notch Road in Columbia the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving. In January they recorded two more tracks for a single that was never released. For the first time, on the new compilation, the tracks are available. One (the intended A-side) is called "Myth of Me" and is a plaintive ballad about life in the fast lane, with vocal harmonies by Smoak and Cato. The intended B-side, "Cement Ending," is an ode to one of Crab's cult-member friends who had recently been killed during a ritual.

At any rate, the new 'greatest hits' CD features the most cohesive and interesting aspects of what is now a musical legacy. The only post-Watchdogs product of notoriety is Crabs Lofting's self-released solo effort, I Do Not Wish to Cause... a Scene. After an abortive tour, Crabs died early in 1973. Predictably, he was found at the bottom of a drained pool in Camden, SC. The apparent cause of death was internal bleeding. "It was really strange. We all knew he would get snuffed out one way or another," says Cato. "Last time I saw him was about three months before he died. He was still really bitter about the Watchdogs' breakup, and he had all kinds of crazy ideas about why his solo thing didn't go over well. Like... he really thought it had something to do with a subversive pact involving Carly Simon, David Frost, and NASA." Cato will say no more. "The guy was just gone okay? I mean he was from Darlington. Let him rest in peace, man."

Philip Smoak went back to school and graduated with a BA in Sociology. He moved to southern Florida in the late 1970s and was reportedly killed by irate migrant workers sometime in mid-1992. He was working on a book called The Glass Floor: Migrant Workers in Today's America. Cato still lives in Columbia and works in a sandwich shop on Gervais St. He is divorced and has two daughters. Cato has no musical ambitions at this point. He can sometimes be seen at small venues like Rockafella's (I even spotted him at the Senseless Beauty Café a few years ago when my old band Salvo Rain played a show). "Yeah I try to keep track with what's happening with the kids these days. Some of them are really cool, but I hate this whole retro thing. All these dopey tennagers wearing flared jeans and listening to their parents' Joni Mitchell records. It's fucking creepy isn't it?" Despite being jaded toward popular culture, Cato remains a kind and genial person, always more than willing to share anecdotes regarding his sordid past as a Watchdog. He hopes to get some modest royalties from the new retrospective. "I need to get the transmission fixed in my van... so please tell your friends to please buy the damn thing." Pavlovian Devolution is available right now via Meridean and Distribution. Only 1000 have been pressed, and once they're gone the Watchdogs will no doubt return to where their cultish Columbia audience wishes them to remain... in obscurity.

Greg Ellis lives and writes music in Rock Hill, SC. His current band, Safe Return Doubtful/Metrolina Damage Control, plays quite likely the best rock 'n' roll you will ever hear. Their music can be procured by request.

Tell Mr. Ellis you want it: greg@the2ndhand.com