On April 2, 1968, Rudy ‘?’ Martinez was one of three men picked up by Michigan state police in a lay-by near the Zilwaukee Bridge, not far from his home town of Saginaw, the trio arrested for possession of “several tubes of glue and brown bags containing glue”. In the wrong place at the wrong time with very much the wrong drugs, the perma-shaded
? And The Mysterians singer thus found himself about as far from the psychedelic action as he could have been, an improbable local success story recast as something of a laughing stock.
Naive, sci-fi crazy, Mexican-American youngsters from a blue-collar backwater two hours’ drive from Detroit, ? And The Mysterians contrived to record the second-biggest-selling US single of 1966 (outsold only by The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’”) in a basic studio in Bay City, Michigan. A wounded rant with a killer keyboard sound, “96 Tears” sold a million, but the two albums the band released – now back on vinyl after a long spell in legal limbo – went largely unnoticed, with mismanagement, racism and more goings-on elsewhere helping to seal the band’s fate as a one-hit wonder. As ? whoops presciently on the debut album’s “Ten O’Clock”: “You miss your train, now your name’s erased”.
However, for lovers of garage rock – the genre post-rationalised into existence following Lenny Kaye’s 1972 compilation of overlooked small-time 7” singles, Nuggets – ? And The Mysterians’ underachievement remains heroic. These crystal-clear new versions of
96 Tears (1966) and Action (1967) show a band impervious to the psychedelic winds of change, persisting in playing lascivious, Brit-style R&B at teenage velocity, in blissful ignorance of anything The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – or indeed anyone else – had done since 1965.
Once a covers band, ? And The Mysterians hit on a neat gimmick when ? renounced his birth name, but seemed fated to go nowhere, their first attempts at recording vanishing after the studio owner was murdered in Detroit. They got a second chance, with “96 Tears” going viral after receiving a limited release on the tiny Pa-Go-Go label, becoming a hit in Saginaw, then Flint, then Detroit, before a deal with the Cameo-Parkway label helped propel it to the national No 1 spot in October 1966.
With future Casablanca disco mogul Neil Bogart whipping them on, the Mysterians recorded two albums in the space of six months, guitarist Bobby Balderrama and 15-year-old Vox Continental wizard Frankie Rodriguez providing tunes for their hyperactive frontman to adorn with campy yelps and rather less subtle come-ons. Quite how
no-one at the relatively strait-laced Cameo-Parkway noticed him muttering “girl, you masturbate me” on Action’s fuzztoned calling card “Girl (You Fascinate Me)” is anyone’s guess.
If they were young and a little unsubtle, ? And The Mysterians were not the musical lightweights some latter-day fans would perhaps like them to be. Frankie Gonzalez’s sly drop of a passage of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” into “I Need Somebody” – the opening track from the debut album – is evidence of a band that knew their history. Fellow Saginaw keyboard king Stevie Wonder slipped a bit of the same tune (on harmonica) into his 1963 No 1 “Fingertips”.
The instrumental “Set Aside” and “Midnight Hour” show that the Mysterians had jazz and blues chops too, but if they aspire to the alpha-male thud of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep On Running” on “Don’t Break This Heart Of Mine”, ?’s Prince-pitched vocals subtly queer their pitch. He comes on like a repentant Little Richard on a take of “Stormy Monday” – the only cover on 96 Tears – and plays the wounded innocent superbly on the featherweight “Why Me”, a wet lettuce approximation of Love’s “My Little Red Book”.
Producer Bogart perhaps recognised this appealing androgyny in ? when he forced the soppy “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” (previously recorded by “A Lover’s Concerto” hitmakers The Toys) on to the band for Action. The hackneyed attempt to graft the keyboard line from “96 Tears” on to this potential comeback hit sounded clueless to the teenaged Balderrama (see interview), but ?’s slightly mocking delivery suggests he may be in on a joke somewhere.
Toughened up by an intense bout of touring, the Mysterians essay the streetwalking cheetah bit rather more convincingly on Action. Groovy, laidback and nasty, “Smokes” does the Muddy Waters “I’m A Man” bit as ? scowls: “I don’t care if you’re blue or red/I’ll take you any time anywhere in the night”. The fade-out to the hard-edged “It’s Not Easy” is similarly lusty, the singer promising: “I got kisses and I can hug you and I can… I said I can…” Meanwhile, the jaunty “Don’t Hold It Against Me” is a gaslighter’s excuse for infidelity on the lines of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, ? sorry/not sorry as he keens “you were gone and she was there”.
If the Mysterians can pass as leathery road warriors, ?’s hard-man act continues to mask a more delicious ambiguity. In the intro to “Girl (You Captivate Me)”, he has a strange premonition of Patti Smith as he intones, “Dark alleys and streetlights I’d walk a lonely sleepless night/The shadows were all I had until you came into my life”, a knowing wink – perhaps – to a love that might have been wary of speaking its name in Saginaw. Elsewhere, he delights in tossing off romantic cheese like “Just Like A Rose” and high-kicks his way through the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” while the “la la la”s of his own “I’ll Be Back” show that he may have missed his true calling as a Ronette.
However, as a commercial proposition, ? And The Mysterians were not about to be anyone’s baby. Even at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the colour of their skin probably closed doors for them, and ?’s eccentricity perhaps did not help (he was liable to tell interviewers that he was from Mars, and had been walking the earth since the time of the dinosaurs).
Cameo-Parkway kept vainly chasing another hit, the band putting out further doomed singles plus would-be novelty hits as the Fun Sons and the Semi-Colons? for the label, which went bust in September 1967. Beatles lawyer Allen Klein picked up ? And The Mysterians’ back catalogue in the subsequent fire sale, but his ABKCO label blocked any large-scale reissues until relatively recently. Meanwhile, the band barely survived into the 1970s; Capitol put out a one-off single, “Make You Mine”, in 1968, but a third album – recorded for Ray Charles’ Tangerine label – remains unreleased.
“96 Tears” fared pretty well without them, though. Recorded by Aretha Franklin, Eddie & The Hot Rods and Suicide among others, it provided minor hits for Big Maybelle, The Stranglers and Thelma Houston, as well as the “I’ve got 96 tears in 96 eyes” hook for The Cramps’ ’50s slasher “Human Fly”. ? And The Mysterians’ two LPs don’t quite live up to that improbable hit, but they at least highlight the subtle musical smarts and off-stage drama integral to a story where the sweet smell of success gives way to the disorienting fog of solvents. Read between the lines and you’ve got a novel.