.Chocolate Watchband is Still Around

Legendary garage band’s story isn’t over yet

They’re far from a household name, but among aficionados of sixties garage and psychedelic rock, the Chocolate Watchband is spoken of in reverent tones. 

The band’s convoluted history is confusing—they aren’t even present on some of the recordings issued under their name—but their legend lives on. They got their start in Los Altos in 1966, and a recent concert in LA seemed to be the final chapter of a long, fascinating saga. But it just might not be the end of that story.

In 1966, David Aguilar was a student at San Jose State University; the so-called British Invasion was in full force. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and other groups had inspired a generation of American youth. “The music scene in the mid ‘60s was very vibrant,” Aguilar recalls. “It was happening everywhere. It was amazing. All the kids that were in band in junior high and high school were now forming bands.” 

He says that in those days, young bands had endless opportunities to play in front of audiences. “If you could get three songs together, you could play at fraternity parties, sorority parties, roller rinks, churches, schools.” If you could learn a few chords, you were a musician; it was that simple. 

Across the country, rock bands formed in most every city and town. And each city’s scene seemed to develop a character all its own. While San Francisco was a major hub for music, the rest of the Bay Area had its own coterie of groups, like the Golliwogs from El Cerrito and The Count Five from San Jose. 

“When bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Dead and Santana got together, some of them started writing music very early,” Aguilar says. “They weren’t doing covers of other people’s songs. And because of that, they each had a distinctive sound.” 

Those groups were playing in nearby places like San Jose, influencing younger aspiring musicians. “They were three to five years older than us,” Aguilar says. 

The Syndicate (of Sound) was another one of those San Jose bands inspired by their San Francisco heroes. They’re remembered today for their biggest hit, “Little Girl,” included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum’s “one hit wonder” exhibit. “They were amazing,” Aguilar says. “A new Beatles song would come out on a Friday afternoon, and by the weekend they would have learned it, and then they played it live.”

But the Chocolate Watchband, fronted by lead singer David Aguilar, took a different path. “We decided that we were going to pick obscure b-sides of 45s—many of which had not been released in the United States—rearrange them, and do them ourselves.” 

Aguilar says that if the group had stayed together longer, they would have moved toward all original material. “But we were too young. We were just beginning to get our chops together and understand what our sound was,” he adds.

Quickly building a buzz, Aguilar’s group played the Fillmore in San Francisco, sharing a bill with Frank Zappa’s Mothers and Lenny Bruce (in his final performance). They even appeared in a legendary teen exploitation film, Riot on Sunset Strip

The Chocolate Watchband were something of an underground success, but their progress would be confounded by record industry meddling. The band made three albums in the ‘60s, but—without the group’s knowledge—their producer recorded many songs with studio musicians, passing those tracks off as the real thing. Nonetheless, the group waxed a fistful of classics, including “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-in)” and “Let’s Talk About Girls.”

Aguilar left in 1967, and by 1969 the group was no more. That might have been the end of the story, but the music of the Chocolate Watchband would be rediscovered by subsequent generations. 

In the ‘70s, Lenny Kaye curated Nuggets, a compilation of garage and psychedelic tracks including “Let’s Talk About Girls.” A 4CD boxed set reissue in 1998 featured two more songs from the band. 

That same year, Bay Area author-historian Richie Unterberger’s book, Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll featured a chapter that untangled the complicated history of the group. Renewed interest led to a reunion of sorts, spearheaded by Mike Stax, editor of influential music magazine Ugly Things and leader of garage revival band The Loons. 

For his part, Aguilar had long since left music, going into the aerospace industry and working at Harvard. But he took part in the reunion, and that endeavor inspired new Chocolate Watchband recordings. For the next two decades, various lineups of the band mounted occasional reunions and tours, all of which were well-received.  

Last December, Aguilar sent an email to his fan base, announcing an upcoming performance at Hollywood’s famed Whisky-a-Go-Go, billed as the final concert by the Chocolate Watchband. With most of his old bandmates long having since passed away, he had been carrying the torch. In part, the email read, “Silently standing next to me will be Mark Loomis, Sean Tolby, Billy Flo Flores and ‘Killer,’ aka Gary ‘the kid’ Andrajasevich. Together we will play the tunes that appeared on our albums for all the world to hear and enjoy one last time.”

For that performance, Aguilar had hoped to rally the most recent lineup of the group, but it wasn’t to be. “When the request came through, none of the band members wanted to do it,” he explains. “There wasn’t enough money for them; they had other projects.” So Aguilar reconnected with his old friends Mike and Anja Stax. “I had played with the Loons in San Diego and in Europe,” he says. “I liked them, and they were younger than me. They were energetic.”

So backed by The Loons, Aguilar took to the stage on Jan. 11. “I blessed them just before we went on stage,” he says with a laugh, “and I made them all official Chocolate Watchband members.” 

By all accounts the show was a success. “They were loose, and they were strong,” Aguilar says. “And it amazed me how well they knew the songs. I felt like a kid up there again.”

That Whisky show might have seemed like the close of the long and winding Chocolate Watchband saga. But Aguilar has other plans. “We didn’t have hit records, and we didn’t get to travel the world,” he concedes. “But I’ve been in countries where they barely speak English, and our music is huge. And to see an audience singing these obscure songs back at you at the same time you’re singing them, it’s truly astounding.”

Aguilar reveals that he has a massive trove of unheard material. “It’s a mixture of stuff,” he explains. There’s an album’s worth of unreleased Chocolate Watchband songs from 2000, and piles of tracks he has made either by himself (“I play everything except lead guitar,” he says) or with an assortment of fellow musicians. 

He says that these songs are very personal, designed to fill what he sees as a void. “I miss creative music that talks about the here-and-now and what’s going on in the world,” he says. “So you’re going to hear a song about everybody who wants to have their own YouTube page. And there are songs that you’re going to listen to and say, ‘That sounds like the Mothers of Invention!’ I love variety.”

Aguilar promises a half dozen albums’ worth of new Chocolate Watchband music in 2024. But don’t look for it in your local record store, or on Amazon. Conjuring the spirit of the ‘60s, he’s giving it away. “I will announce it on Bandcamp (thechocolatewatchband.bandcamp.com), and post a news release to let people know that it’s coming,” he says. 

Long after most of his contemporaries have passed on or retired to a quiet life, Chocolate Watchband frontman David Aguilar has much left to do. “There have been so many wonderful surprises and opportunities to meet the people who have listened to my music,” he says. “For me, that last show was a really nice thank-you. Who would have thought that at this point in my life, I’d be putting on red and black striped pants and jumping out there on stage? And for that hour, I am 19 years old, and I am just loving it.”

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