On January 3, 1979, Wipers opened for the Ramones at Portland’s The Earth Tavern, which was located on NW 21st Avenue right next to where Cinema 21 currently sits. Wipers guitarist and vocalist Greg Sage landed the New York City punks there after earning the trust of the bar’s owners by booking and playing two shows every Monday night for three months.
At the time, Portland was nowhere near the music hub it is now. Sure, it was magical if you were experiencing it firsthand in ’79, but from an outsider’s view, Portland might as well have been Kornfield Kounty (or, in reality, a remote lumberjack outpost). Take this exchange between original Wipers drummer Sam Henry and Joey Ramone at a punk house on Lovejoy Street after The Earth Tavern show.
Ramone: “Wow, this is fuckin’ weird, man.”
Henry: “Yeah. That was fun playing with you tonight.”
Ramone: “Ahh, it was fun playing with you, man, but what the fuck is this shit about? Who are these people?”
Henry: “Yep, this is Portland.”
Ramone: “Eh, it’s not so good!”
But the seeds of a thriving music scene had already been planted because of the tenacity of bands like Wipers, Neo Boys, Smegma, Sado-Nation and the short-lived The Products. And it’s here where Wipers started making a name for themselves in 1978 with their single “Better Off Dead.” The band’s landmark debut LP Is This Real?—released in 1980, one year after that monumental show with the Ramones—solidified them as an underground phenomenon, both beloved and misunderstood.
“Punks didn’t know really what to think about it because it had guitar solos,” Henry says with a laugh. “It was too psychedelic for the punk scene, but we got thrown in the punk scene because KGON wouldn’t play it. Nobody would play it back then. It was really ahead of its time, probably at the perfect moment in time.”
Wipers helped reignite Portland’s music scene, which had more or less laid dormant since the late ’60s, both with their music and their push for all-ages shows. Sage was intent on making things happen somewhere. Anywhere.
Before calling themselves Wipers, the original trio of Sage, Henry and bassist Dave Koupal (who’d been playing together in the band Hard Road since the mid-’70s) moved to Cape Coral, Fla., to try and make a living playing music. When things fizzled there they returned to Portland, before doing stints in New York and Los Angeles. (Wipers played an infamous St. Patrick’s Day show at the Elks Lodge in L.A. where a riot broke out after The Go-Go’s set.)
“We were actually not trying to be in Portland, that’s the weird thing about it,” Henry recalls. “We were just kind of out there in the universe trying to do something, and traveling around trying to be a band.”
Things certainly didn’t play out the way Sage had planned. It’s well documented that Wipers were originally intended to be a studio-only band. Sage’s goal was to make 15 records in 10 years, then disappear. That’s insane to think about on many levels, especially when considering what a powerful live band Wipers were. They captivated audiences, whether it was teenagers trying to find their way, or musicians who’d been around the block.
Fred Seegmuller hit his teens at the perfect time. He saw KISS at the Paramount Theatre (today, it’s the Schnitz) in 1975, after offering to write a review for the local paper. In 1977, he and a friend started their own zine called Noize (Wipers would later play a benefit for them), and by 1978, Seegmuller was attending 100 shows a year.
“They were more polished and put together than any other band playing the punk shows,” explains Seegmuller, who shot the photos for the “Better Off Dead” single. “They had a passion and vision that made them local favorites in just a couple of performances.”
While it could be argued that Wipers truly found their sound on 1981’s Youth of America and 1983’s Over the Edge, it was that passion and vision of the original lineup that makes Is This Real? the ragged little gem it is. Songs like “Return of the Rat” and “Alien Boy” (inspired by friend James Chasse, who would become the subject of a documentary after his death at the hands of Portland police in 2006) would become the blueprint for bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney almost a decade later.
Recording for Is This Real? began in the fall of 1979, upon the band’s return to Portland from Los Angeles. Sage, Henry and Koupal convened at Recording Associates, a studio then located on Powell Boulevard that was used primarily for making country records. The first takes were lifeless. The answer? According to Henry: “Greg said, ‘I don’t like these recordings. I want to go remodel the studio.’”
It’s no secret that Sage was a fastidious studio guy dating back to his youth playing around with four-tracks. And he made good on his word, taking out the ceiling and some of the walls, and laying down plywood on the floors. Sage also spent two or three nights rewiring the 16-track board. While guitar overdubs took care of some of their concerns, the end result was still a pretty lo-fi affair.
“We were all unhappy with the album when it was done,” Henry says with a laugh. “But still to this day everybody loves that record.”
Everybody loved that record in 1980 too. Is This Real? was huge in underground music circles. And Wipers performances gave the songs new life, even if it never was Sage’s intention to present them that way.
“They were seriously one of, and still probably are one of, the best live bands I ever saw in my life,” Toody Cole says. (And you can still experience it, to some extent, on one of the numerous official live recordings that are out there.)
By 1980, Fred and Toody Cole had been involved in the music scene for more than a decade, and had just fired up their pre-Dead Moon band The Rats (which Henry joined when he left Wipers). Cole, whose energy at the time mostly went into raising their kids and running the couple’s gear shop and hangout, Captain Whizeagle’s, was blown away by what she saw.
“They just had a certain chemistry, that original three with Greg and Sam and Dave. They were just very intense and personal, and Greg was incredibly shy, even on stage. The whole band was just kind of into what they were doing and oblivious of the audience. You just got caught up in it. It’s almost kind of like they became a huge deal before they even realized what happened.”
That remains true today. Hell, even Henry is happy with what they accomplished on Is This Real? four decades later.
“It turned out to be pretty cool, actually,” he says. “Greg’s songwriting was awesome because he was talking about what everybody was afraid to. Even to this day it surpasses time. The songs. Everything.”