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Pops Rocks 

From Animal House to the Cadillac Ranch

It started 31 and a half years ago in a frat house in Boulder, and the tradition rocks on this weekend as Flash Cadillac's traditional rock 'n' roll quartet expands to a 70-piece band for a pair of performances with the Colorado Springs Symphony.

Known nationally as the keepers of the flame for the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, Flash Cadillac has deep local roots. Original band member Warren Knight hails from Widefield, and when the two-year-old band moved from Boulder to L.A. and started looking for a new guitarist and singer, they called on Knight's old Widefield buddy, Sam McFadin.

In an interview with the Indy on stage at the Western Jubilee Warehouse Theater, McFadin recalled his preparation for joining the band. "I got all my Chuck Berry records out, went down to my basement, started drinking beer -- I knew that was a prerequisite to be able to drink beer and be able to play -- and I practiced playing my guitar behind my head."

Though their set lists are rooted in the pioneering music of another era, the band is more concerned with keeping the spirit of rock 'n' roll alive than with settling into a nostalgia groove. "It's a true American spirit that started even pre-rock 'n' roll with Louis Prima and Louis Jordan, that wild jump-jive-and-wail type thing," McFadin explained. "It evolved into rock 'n' roll with the combination of the country and the gospel, R&B. That's really what Flash Cadillac is about, that spirit, that bit of rebellion, fun, and high energy."

The band survived five years in L.A. by holding onto their Animal House mentality, renting an old mansion for $500 a month and stuffing10 people into it. "People lived in closets or back porches," McFadin recalled. "It had a big four-car garage we could use as a rehearsal hall. We loved hanging together. That's really what kept us together all this time, the same passion and love for the music and the fact that we respect each other, that we all have our own lives."

Moving to L.A. helped put the band in the national spotlight. George Lucas caught their act at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and lined them up to play Herbie and the Heartbeats in American Graffiti. The casting director asked them, "Would you like to be in a movie, can you play 'Louie, Louie,' and do you have an original song you'd like to put in the movie?" The answer was "Yes, yes, yes." Their association with the film's star, Ron Howard, led to a Happy Days episode featuring the band as Johnny Fish and the Finns, and the film's producer, Francis Ford Coppola, brought them to Manila, where they braved typhoons and dysentery to appear in Apocalypse Now as the band for the USO show alongside Bill Graham and the Playboy Bunnies.

Flash Cadillac has shared the stage with many of its heroes and has even been invited to be Chuck Berry's back-up band on several occasions -- an invitation they quickly turned down. "We're just too damn stubborn to do it anybody else's way," explained McFadin. "That's why we don't have a manager. We consider ourselves unmanageable."

Frustration with interference from previous managers and from record company executives led the band to leave L.A. in 1976. "We'd had enough of that," McFadin recalled. "We just wanted to go buy a ranch, build a recording studio, and do it our way." They bought 120 acres in the mountains west of Woodland Park at a time when you could describe what was happening musically in Colorado with one word: "nothing." They turned an old dirt-floor machine shop into a recording studio, using a pot-bellied stove for a heating system.

"It about killed us," McFadin said of the career move from the center of everything to the middle of nowhere. "Our manager said, 'If you think you're going to chop wood one day and play music the next, you're wrong.' Our comeback was, 'No, that's exactly what we're going to do.' It was hard at first, but we managed to make it work. We're still happening."

Time has taken its toll on the band. Their original guitarist Linn "Spike" Phillips III died from heart failure after a show in 1993, and their original keyboardist Kris "Angelo" Moe has had to stop touring with the band while he battles A.L.S. They're on their sixth and final drummer, and McFadin notes that "we're tough on drummers. It's like Spinal Tap. We just blow them up." The band has always played about 90 percent of its shows out of the local area, but they've scaled back from the days when they used to do 250 shows a year to a schedule limited to 40 or 50 shows, about a third of which are performances with symphonies around the country.

Like the band itself, the idea for the symphony shows was hatched here in Colorado, in 1991. "My wife cuts hair," McFadin explained, "and she cut [then Symphony conductor] Christopher Wilkens' hair. One day he was sitting in the chair and he said, 'I'm looking for new ideas for Pops for next year.' And my wife said, 'Why don't you do Flash Cadillac?" Although they laughed about it then, in February of 1992, they hit the stage at the Pikes Peak Center for a pair of sold-out shows, and the concept has picked up steam nationwide ever since.

"We have great charts; we have a great librarian," McFadin said of the reasons they've worked so well with so many symphonies. "Our charts are actually challenging for Pops charts, and orchestras love that. We've learned how to work with the symphonies, how to keep our level on stage down so we don't blast them out. Our whole idea with the symphony show is to incorporate the orchestra so it's one large 70-piece rock 'n' roll band. We're not interested in drowning them out.

"Most of the time symphonies don't take Pops very seriously," McFadin continued. "That's not what they trained for; we know that. We know ahead of time we're not the biggest thing in their lives. They get to play Mahler, they get to play Mozart, they get to play great stuff. Pops is part of what they do. Luckily our charts are good enough that they have fun with them."

McFadin describes the band's association with the Colorado Springs Symphony as "a pure joy," and he couldn't be happier about his life in Colorado Springs. "I love the climate, I love the scenery, I think the schools are good so it's a great place to raise a family. It's a perfect place for us to do what we want to do." They're mixing a new album, tentatively titled Migrant Jukebox, which McFadin promises will be "the most eclectic album we've ever done." And things are only getting better in the culturally quiet community the band moved back to in 1976.

"I think it's starting to happen," McFadin observed of the local cultural scene. "Traditionally the town has been retirees, military, transient. Because of the industries that are coming in, you're getting a lot of people from California, a lot of people from around the country who are used to paying for culture and paying for education. It's not foreign to them to pass bond issues. The fact that that has happened leads me to believe that there is movement forward in that respect. Colorado Springs should be able to stand on its own. I hope it does."

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