That is, until Thurston Moore, influential alt-culture tastemaker and guitarist for noise-rock band Sonic Youth, told a British music magazine in 2002 about a not-even-obscure band from Philadelphia that had released a "mind-blowing instrumental single" called "The Zipper" that rocked his world. "We have to find out who these guys are," he said.
And he did. A generation after being recorded, the band's debut album, Notekillers, was released to critical acclaim last fall by Moore's label, Ecstatic Peace. The band has re-formed, is writing new songs, and will play the World Cafe Live on Thursday, opening for Gary Lucas' Gods and Monsters - edging toward a success that escaped the instrumental band more than 20 years ago.
Back then, the Notekillers were working-class guys from Rhawnhurst, a guitar-bass-and-drums power trio with no vocalist and, occasionally, a conga player sitting in.
They lived together in a rented house in Logan, calling it "the Notel," and rehearsed obsessively six nights a week, combining their love for free jazz and rock into music as hard, fast and tight as they could possibly play it.
Regulars at such Philadelphia venues as the Hot Club and Artemis, they shared bills with local bands like the Stickmen and national acts such as the Bush Tetras and Feelies, and would have opened for Sid Vicious if he hadn't died a week before the gig. They ventured to Manhattan in search of affirmation that they were onto something powerful and original.
"We confused and alienated people," remembers guitarist David First. "There was always something suspect about us. We had our loyal fans, but it was a bit of a lost cause."
In 1980, the Notekillers - First, drummer Barry Halkin, and bassist Stephen Bilenky - recorded "The Zipper" in a makeshift studio in the basement of Beauty on a Budget, Bilenky's father's East Oak Lane beauty parlor. It was a ripping, burn-the-paint-off-the-walls jam that sounded like deconstructed surf music. They made 500 copies, distributed them to a handful of record stores, and waited for the world to be set on fire.
"Packaged right, weirdos can sell," says Bilenky. "But we were weirdos of weird shapes and weird sizes, with weird music." They recorded a second single - "Run Don't Stop," a play on the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" - but it never came out. After a final show in Hoboken, N.J., in 1981, the band broke up in frustration.
"It got to the point where it just wasn't moving forward," says Halkin. "It left a bad taste in my mouth." They moved on, got married, raised children. Halkin, a powerhouse drummer whose kinetic playing brings to mind Keith Moon, became an architectural photographer and put his sticks down for years, before playing with an R&B cover band in the '90s.
In the '80s, Bilenky played with a Hasidic outfit called the Baal Shem Tov Band. "We called it the Rockin' Rabbi Band," recalls Bilenky, who wears an Old Testament beard. In the years since, his Olney custom bike business, Bilenky Cycle Works, has gained an international reputation for innovative design, and is featured in the new issue of Bicycling magazine.
First, who like his bandmates is 51, stuck with music. Born David Hirsch, he'd played with Halkin and Bilenky in a band called Dead Cheese while attending Northeast High. Later he studied with guitarist Dennis Sandole (who tutored John Coltrane) and free-jazz great Cecil Taylor, with whose ensemble he played at Carnegie Hall when he was 19.
After the Notekillers, the guitarist changed his name to First - an amalgam of his parents' names, Hirsch and Fischer - and moved to New York. He carved out a career as an experimental minimalist composer and instrumentalist, and has also recorded more straightforward singer-songwriter projects, such as the 2002 album Universary.
As the years passed, the Notekillers became just a box of tapes in First's parents' garage.
"It was a lost era for me," says the shaven-headed composer. Sitting in the Chinatown restaurant Penang, taking bites of a vegetarian dish, he adds, "It was stuff I had spent a lot of energy on, that I thought was great, that nobody had heard, and nobody would ever hear. It was a period of time that left its mark on me forever, and there was nothing I could show for it."
And then, the Notekillers' fairy godmother arrived, in the person of Moore, a hero to alt-rockers from Nirvana to Sleater-Kinney, who once sang: "I want to be your Thurston Moore / Always leave you wanting more."
In 2002, he was asked by Mojo Collections, an offshoot of British music monthly Mojo, to put together a fantasy mix tape. He included "The Zipper," which he and other young avant-gardists used to get off on at 99, a Greenwich Village record store and hipster hangout.
When First heard about it, he was stunned. "I just immediately felt a certain weight lifted. I don't know if you can imagine what it felt like to know that we had made a difference, that somebody widely regarded was acknowledging us."
He sent Moore an e-mail: "Thurston, that was me!" Moore was nearly as blown away. "I knew about David First," he says. "He was completely shocked about the whole thing, and I was like, 'Are you kidding? That record was so heavy for me and Kim and Lee,' " referring to his wife, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, and guitarist Lee Ranaldo.
For Moore, "The Zipper" was irresistible. "It was this propulsive guitar instrumental that was just breakneck." Unlike other "no wave" noise-making bands of the era, the band "obviously had some dexterity. . . .
"They had a big influence on me. Their songs are really concise but they were referencing all these things they were turned on by, from Albert Ayler to hard rock, which at the time, nobody else was. The music is way ahead of its time."
First asked Moore if he wanted to hear the band's unreleased second single. "As a record collector, I was like, Dude: Hit me," Moore says. First rummaged through his closets for tapes of rehearsals and live recordings, and in November Moore put out the debut album, Notekillers.
First pushed the band to get back together. Bilenky was game, but Halkin was reluctant: "I was happy to have some sort of closure with the CD, but I didn't know if I could cut it." So far, he's been fine: "I push myself as hard as I can and by the end, I'm ready to collapse." First - who found that his rapid-fire strumming and disciplined improvisations ("The idea is to rub verse and choruses together until the song explodes") caused repetitive stress injuries during the Notekillers' first incarnation - has also held up under the physical demands of the music.
The Notekillers cover photo shows the core trio sporting a futuristic look. They're joined by Thomas Johnson, a West Philadelphia conga player who appears on two cuts. The mysterious fourth Notekiller "would disappear even when he was around," says First. "He would just show up and play with us. We don't know what happened to him."
Not wanting to be a mere Notekillers cover band, First, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, painter Patricia Smith, has written a dozen new songs. Heard in rehearsal this month in a converted warehouse on Spring Garden Street, the band's new cuts, such as "Airport," are of a piece with vintage 'killers tracks such as the racing "Run Don't Stop" and the (relatively) slower "Clock Wise." More impressively, the basement-tapes sound of the CD comes roaring to life in performance, as three guys in their early 50s joyously tear into the music of their youth, at wall-shaking volume.
With Moore's imprimatur, the exhumed Notekillers have been embraced by the rock press. "Ungodly potent," said Time Out New York. "A triple-shot cappuccino ride," chimed in Signal to Noise. "I Google our name way more than I should," First says, with a grin. Plans to record a new album and go on tour are in the works.
"It's really been gratifying to have people actually cheer when we play shows," says First. "But I feel like we deserve that. It's been earned."
"We have a whole career as a band, starting now," says Bilenky. "It's like an investment in real estate that we couldn't get our return on then. We were out there alone, but now people have built nearby. And it wasn't wasted. Now it has value."
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/dandeluca.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Opening for Gary Lucas' Gods and Monsters at the World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. Tickets: $18-$45. Phone: 215-222-1400.