In Raleigh’s rock and roll history, the spotlight still shines brightly on a good-time party band with a ringer for Keith Richards on guitar, a stop-on-a-dime rhythm section and a firecracker singer with a voice made to move feet – not to mention the strangest name to ever headline a Hillsborough Street bar:
The Fabulous Knobs.
In the early ’80s, they consistently packed The Pier, Free Advice or The Brewery, whipping crowds into such a sweaty, beer-soaked hysteria that, by the end of the night, the dance floor smelled like a locker room after double-overtime.
They tore up and down the East Coast in the days when bands played four sets a night, hauling their own gear in the back of an orange box truck nicknamed “The Big O.” Along the way, they built a collection of folklore that still delights their aging audience: paying midnight homage to Duane Allman in a Georgia graveyard until the police showed up; rolling a car onto the front porch of their house on Edenton Street so they could hear the cassette player from the living room; getting caught on the wrong side of the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge and partying in the streets until it opened again.
“Nobody had as much fun as we did,” said singer Debra DeMilo. “Nobody.”
And now, decades after their scene dissolved, nine years after their beloved guitarist David Enloe died, long after they took careers as florists, painters, nurses and respiratory therapists, the surviving Fabulous Knobs will resurface to rock again for the first time in more than 20 years. Put them in a room together, all pushing 60, and they conjure a grittier Raleigh up all night.
“Debra said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ ” said drummer Terry Anderson. “And I said, ‘Yeah. Before we die.’ ”
The Knobs swam in the middle of a rich Raleigh music scene – Arrogance, the dB’s, Glass Moon, The Spongetones – that predates even a middle-aged dad like me. But the legend of the Knobs lights up the eyes of any longtime Raleighite fortunate enough to have witnessed their spectacle, paying the $1 cover charge at Free Advice with pocket change.
“We had boxes of quarters,” recalled bassist Jack Cornell.
Their style gravitated between rock and soul, a throwback to the Faces and Rolling Stones records they played endlessly, though they often drifted into experimental theater that irritated club owners and strikes me now as somewhat punk rock.
In one of their onstage skits, Enloe would lie on the ground and pretend to be sleeping while the rest of the band pretended to push lawn mowers around the stage. Eventually, he would holler, “Go to Hell!” And the playing would resume. In most every show, guitarist Keith Taylor would hold a cassette player up to the microphone and broadcast a story from Jerry Clower, the country comedian who told stories about coon huntin’ and fried chicken. These stories would often last five minutes in the middle of a gig.
Taylor recalls now, “If you talked while Jerry was telling a story, man, Terry would hit you with a frickin’ drumstick.”
To me, the Knobs evoke an era of rock band when poverty and exhaustion were almost romantic.
They often played five nights a week, manning the stage from sundown until closing time, rising a few terrible hours later for day jobs such as Enloe’s, which involved making breakfast at the Holiday Inn. They traveled in the box truck without the comfort of air-conditioning or interstate highways. By the time they reached a gig in Boone, they would have wobbled down U.S. 70 or U.S. 421 through every little town, arriving for the show giddy from the heat and whatever refreshment made the ride more bearable.
They played through a hurricane at the coast, during which the club owner left the front door open against the ocean to keep from discouraging potential customers. “Foam was coming in the door,” Cornell recalled.
And at home, they occupied a band house in what they describe as prehistoric Oakwood, where they wrote songs all day and hollered them all night.
“We had an album fight one night,” Anderson said. “The dude from Savoy Brown was playing at The Pier and we had him over. We all had our own albums, and everyone was grabbing them like Frisbees and throwing them at each other. That was just a typical night with The Knobs.”
It’s a puzzle why a band with such a consistent and devoted following never got bigger, dissolving in 1984, except that the Fabulous Knobs experience was much better up-close and in-person than on their records. Their gigs were the sort I enjoy – small clubs with a crowd packed elbow-to-ear – the kind that don’t translate to a larger stage.
“If we would have made a live album,” DeMilo said, “that would have been it.”
Anderson joked that at their reunion show in August, they’ll keep the old folks entertained. But I’m going to guess the kids put the iPhones back in their pockets for this show, where their hands will be too busy waving in the air.
If you go
The Fabulous Knobs are one of many bands playing at Groove in the Garden at Raleigh Little Theater on Pogue Street on Aug. 13. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the gate and can be bought at thepourhousemusichall.com.