Sean Bonniwell 1940-2011

Sean Bonniwell, the prime force behind the proto-punk rock group The Music Machine has died of lung cancer at age 71.

The Music Machine had one national hit (written by Bonniwell), the blistering pop fuzz guitar classic, “Talk Talk”. They also had two regional hits here in Los Angeles, two Bonniwell-penned classics of tough, jaw-dropping power pop: “Double Yellow Line” and “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly”.

My band saw The Music Machine at the Thousand Oaks Recreational Center in 1966. We thought they were the ultimate in cool. They didn’t wear suits but they did sport matching clothes. The incredibly tight, solidly professional group was all in black; black boots, black leather pants, black long-sleeved turtleneck shirts, black sunglasses — and (remember, this was pre-Michael Jackson) each band member wore one black glove. Now, how cool was that?!

The Music Machine’s first LP was Turn On The Music Machine. It consisted of pop covers (Neil Diamond‘s “Cherry Cherry”, The Beatles’ “Taxman”, Ma Rainey/The Animals’ “CC Rider”, ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” and the first pre-Jimi Hendrix “slow version” recording known to me of The Leaves’ “Hey Joe”) as well as brilliant Bonniwell-penned originals. Sean’s songs were heightened by his dangerous, sexually potent vocals. This was no kid singing here — this was an angry, frustrated and highly sensual man.

After their first LP Sean fired everyone in the band (WHAT TH—?!!! His talented bass player, Keith Olsen, became an enormously successful record producer, responsible for Rick Springfield‘s #1 “Jessie’s Girl”. Olsen co-produced Fleetwood Mac‘s monster LP  Fleetwood Mac and produced albums by musicians as diverse as Whitesnake, The Scorpions, The Grateful Dead, Emerson Lake & Palmer, REO Speedwagon, Carlos Santana, Joe Walsh, Sammy Hagar, The Babys, Ozzy Osbourne and Mexican superstar Emmanuel).

The second LP was credited to The Bonniwell Music Machine. Bonniwell wrote all of the songs this time around — no covers. Sean then recorded a solo LP, T. S. Bonniwell, that completely confused his fans, as it had none of the hard rock elements of The Music Machine. The solo effort was a strictly light, mellow, folksy affair with vocals veering more toward Frank Sinatra than early Kinks Ray Davies or Them period Van Morrison.

After that, Sean Bonniwell faded from the music scene. I met Sean during the acting phase of his career. He had just appeared as a bad guy henchman in the feature film The Swamp Thing.

We were introduced to each other at a Rhino Records party (Rhino had just issued an LP of some classic and rare recordings by The Music Machine). After being introduced I was very eager to discuss The Music Machine with Sean, as my own garage bands had covered several of their songs.

Bonniwell did not want in any way to discuss his old music except to proclaim that he was a genius and his music was brilliant for its time and era — nothing more need be said except that he firmly disassociated himself from his own musical legacy.

I soon found out why.

He considered his “Talk Talk” era music somewhat impure and Satanic. His sole conversational focus immediately became a concerted effort to convince me to become a Born Again Christian, as he himself had become. I find few topics duller and more annoying (proselytizing of any religion; I was once trapped as a teen at a Mormon youth event), so I found a way to deftly yet promptly end our talk and meander over to another part of the Rhino party. My friend (and Rhino co-founder) Harold Bronson gave me a sly smile. That rascal knew what was going to transpire as soon as he had introduced me to Sean.

Regardless of Sean’s annoying proselytizing, the music he made under The Music Machine banner was (and is) amazing. Here are some CDs well worth tracking down (especially the first two):

The Music Machine – The Ultimate Turn On (Big Beat Records CDWIK2 271) This 2 CD set includes both the stereo and mono versions of the first Music Machine LP plus an entire disc of previously unissued recordings.

Bonniwell Music Machine – Beyond the Garage (Sundazed SC 11030) This CD contains the entire Bonniwell Music Machine LP plus loads of bonus tracks from the period.

Bonniwell Music Machine – Ignition (Sundazed SC 11038) 19 tracks that are (for the most part) previously unissued.

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