Formed in 1982 by Jeffrey Clark (vocals, electric guitar) and Kelly Foley (vocals, acoustic guitar) and disbanded by late 1983, the Torn Boys lived out their one and a half summers fusing dreamscape lyricism with ultra-’80’s synth rhythms and “Fripp meets Carl Perkins” electric guitar textures, leaving behind a scant recorded legacy before dissolving like the afternoon fog of their Stockton, CA home.
Clark and Foley had been doing various projects together since they were teenagers, recording Dada-esque radio plays on cassette tape, making stoney Super-8 films and generally trying to stay out of trouble. In ’82, while Foley was also playing in a local avant-garage group called CRLLL, he and Clark began gigging at parties, small clubs and cafes, performing acoustic versions of songs by Television and the Velvet Underground, along with a handful of originals and an oddball cover of ‘Mack the Knife’.
Friend and local musician Duncan Atkinson volunteered to record a few demos for the duo, as well as act as sound engineer, but was soon programming his Pro One synthesizer and drum machine for their live performances. By now this included weekend stints at Stockton’s Blackwater Cafe, where the duo-turned-trio was now officially booked as the Torn Boys, and an avid following began to gather.
Honing his songwriting skills, Clark forged a primitive, three-stringed descending riff with acidy, stream of consciousness lyrics to create ‘See Through My Eyes’. A dog-eared thrift store copy of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, overlayed with some Everly Brothers-style harmonies by Clark and Foley were given a motorik beat by Atkinson to bring forth ‘Fountain of Blood’.
With each live performances the Torn Boys drifted further (and louder) from their acoustic cafe origins. A stint by CRLLL guitarist Paul “Klaus” Ghidossi (notorious around town for performing in a shabby clown suit) lasted only a shambolic gig or two, but in the Spring of ’83 nineteen year old Grant-Lee Phillips (lately of local group Bloody Holly) was recruited on lead guitar, where his “Chet Atkins-plays-Scary Monsters”-influenced sound added an indelible and unique ingredient to the band’s alchemy.
Phillips describes his encounter with Clark and Foley as pivotal: “…what Jeff and Kelly were doing, you just didn’t see that kind of thing happening in Stockton… so we connected right away over a mutual obsession with the alluring fringes of music, art and film”.
An in-studio college radio performance at UC Davis that May captured this final version of the Torn Boys at their most hypnotic and dynamic (as two of this release’s tracks, ‘Mystery’ and ‘Mack the Knife’, perfectly prove).
In the Fall of ’83 Phillips relocated to Los Angeles, joined soon after by Clark, where the two went on to form Shiva Burlesque. Atkinson carried on locally as a guitarist and sound engineer, and Foley, a visual artist as well as a nexus of an unusually fertile music scene in Stockton, continued to perform with a number of other groups, including Broken Toys, Toadstool Theatre and Gary Young’s Hospital.
Now emerging from that mythical mist for the first time is 1983, a comprehensive selection of studio and live recordings, hit singles that never were and enticing stray oddities. Forty years after the fact, the Torn Boys recordings still fend off basic categorisation, conjuring the darker corners of neo-psychedelic California, infusing New Wave-era sensibilities with the moodier angle of home-grown, art-punk-surrealism.