Long before Seattle was the grunge rock capitol of America, it had a long history of rugged, tough-as-nails rock, beginning in the 1960s with garage rock stalwarts the Sonics and Wailers and culminating in the ’80s with Jim Basnight and the Moberlys, a band that evoked the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the same time, while turning out some of the decade’s finest, if unfortunately obscure, New Wave pop. In truth, Seattle is only the beginning and finishing line for the band, the city which gave them their start and to which they finally returned, with a couple other musical hotbeds serving as temporary homes during the middle part of their run. Despite the aggregate’s peripatetic career, they accumulated a consistently invigorating, distinctly Seattle body of work that stands as one of the finest collections of mostly unknown songs from the 1980s.
Jim Basnight began playing in the Northwest punk underground in its infancy in the late 1970s. He was a young man of 19 years, just out of high school, when he released his first single independently. Although advised that he would need to move to either New York (where he had already spent six months in 1977) or Los Angeles if he really wanted to make a go at a career in rock & roll, Basnight determinedly pressed on despite the naysaying. The single garnered a number of positive reviews and he put together the first lineup of New Wave/power pop band the Moberlys. The band recorded its first self-titled album in 1980 and released it on the local indie label Safety First. It was the first full-length to emerge from the scene and earned positive reviews throughout the United States and even more ecstatic raves in Europe. Unfortunately, the band had broken up just prior to the album’s release and Basnight decided to, indeed, try his luck in New York, where he moved in the fall of that year.
After playing some solo shows and sideman sessions and on back of the critical success of The Moberlys, Basnight decided to put together another version of the band with bassist Charlie Morongell and guitarist Jeremy Bar-Illan, while also putting in a call to his old drummer mate from Seattle, Dave Drewry, to try to pull the group together. They played a number of shows throughout 1981 and 1982 before Drewry decided to move back to Seattle in early 1982. The remaining trio continued with drummer Doug Kelly, playing more frequent gigs at various New York nightclubs and nearly earning a record deal. Internal conflicts, however, caused the exit of Morongell, who was replaced by another Seattle friend of Basnight’s, Al Bloch (the brother of future Fastback Kurt Bloch), who was willing to relocate. Basnight also put in another call to Drewry, who also returned to New York. This unit, however, was short-lived, with Bloch and Drewry both returning within months to Seattle, but not before they were able to record a batch of songs. The remaining duo continued on with another rhythm section for awhile, but by 1983, Basnight had grown tired of the New York scene and he moved to Connecticut for a short time, hooking up with a band called the Stratford Survivors, with a talented drummer and songwriter, Mike Czekaj (with whom he would again hook up later).
In the winter of 1983, Basnight returned himself to Seattle. Almost as soon as he arrived back in the city, he called up Drewry again and formed the third and longest-standing Moberlys, along with bassist Toby Kiel and guitarist Glen Oyabe. They released a four-song 12″ EP in mid-1984 under the guise Jim Basnight and the Moberlys and quickly became one of the most talked about bands in Seattle through a combination of originals and covers of songs by Wayne County, Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, and Eddie & the Hot Rods, as well as West Coast psychedelic bands like the Flamin’ Groovies and the Electric Prunes. Needless to say, they were far too raw to appeal to slick commercial radio (although they did set the scene for the grunge bands that followed). The band recorded another batch of songs in early 1984 and those were collected with much of the rest of Basnight’s previous output on the mid-1985 album, Sexteen, about which time the scene began to falter, necessitating a move to Los Angeles (and causing some hard feelings in Seattle).
In L.A., the Moberlys fell into the local scene and soon entered into EMI Studios to record a wealth of demos. Unfortunately, the scene began to mutate to glam/metal from rock & roll, a circumstance that was compounded by some bad handling by a manager. After a change in management, the band began getting better gigs and hooked up with R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, a big fan of the original Moberlys album. He played with them several times and in early 1987, brought them into EMI-America studios to record nearly an album’s worth of tracks (some of which surfaced on the later Basnight album, Top Pop, the rest on the Pop the Balloon French import Moberlys collection, Seattle-New York-Los Angeles). EMI shortly merged with another label, Manhattan, fired the Moberlys’ A&R man, and promptly dropped the band from the label. The band persevered and continued with various projects, including some more recording. Basnight also began writing with two new partners, Joey Alkes, who had provided the Plimsouls with “A Million Miles Away,” and old bandmate Czekaj, who was then drumming with the Fuzztones. Many of those songs later ended up on Pop Top and an album by another Basnight project, the Jim Basnight Thing. The fun had nearly vanished for the band by this time, however, and after a few more personnel changes and a final tour, the Moberlys called it quits in late 1989. A few years later, he formed the Rockinghams, a project which lasted through the ’90s.