The Fabulous Knobs: A Beautiful Hell
When it comes to the “Comboland” era (roughly 1981 – 1984) of North Carolina music, a handful of artists immediately come to mind: The Connells, Fetchin’ Bones, Arrogance, Let’s Active and the dB’s, and the Fabulous Knobs.
Fronted by Debra DeMilo, who is often described as a cross between Mick Jagger and Tina Turner for her charismatic stage presence, the Knobs’ raucous punk rock sound earned its place in music history.
I’d never know what to expect at a Knobs show. In addition to the flat-out rowdiness of their performances, I was just as likely to get a comedy skit mixed in with the blood, sweat, and beers.
In this article, surviving members Terry Anderson, Keith Taylor and Dave Adams share their journey through the Knobs’ glorious past.
Tragically, guitarist and founding member David Enloe passed away in November of 2007 due to complications from hepatitis C.
The Fabulous Knobs: Band Members Share Their Story
Dave Adams (keyboards)
In between my work with my band Glass Moon I became friends with the Fabulous Knobs. They were already a well established club band in the Triangle and had a huge following. I started to sit in with them on keyboards as a sideman which was so much fun for me. I played the Village Subway with them a lot. It just felt natural and I loved the “no pressure” vibe. Since I was a producer as well as a musician,
I felt that I enhanced the music they wrote with just adding a little keyboard spice. I never wanted to call attention to my playing, just compliment what they were doing so brilliantly. I had the pleasure of producing their second record for Moonlight which was a wonderful creative time for us. Some of my happiest times were with the Knobs.
Keith Taylor (guitarist)
David and Terry and I all had roots in east Raleigh because that’s where we all grew up. Our parents were all rural people, who were first generation urbanites. David’s father and my father were both bus drivers for Greyhound. I didn’t really know he or Terry, but I saw them around. They were a year or two older than me. I remember seeing David one day when I was leaning on the rail behind Enloe High School smoking a cigarette. He pulls up in this old Dodge and gets out–and his head was shaved. Now this was when everybody was fighting with their fathers to grow their hair longer (post-Beatles on Ed Sullivan). I remember thinking how odd it was because he was usually so cool. I asked him about it when we were in the Knobs, and he said his father bugged him about cutting his hair until he got mad and shaved his head. He was a real rebel!
Years later I was with a band called the Outtatowners. We were playing Free Advice, a club at Hillsborough Square right across from NC State. There was this tiny stage, and I’m up there singing “Dead Flowers.” In walks David. Well, I’m playing something near to his heart and he, like me, has had a few drinks, and he walks up to the stage in front of me–sings the whole song with me at the top of his lungs. At the break we chatted and we hit it off. Like meeting a brother you never knew. That was the first time we met really. Well, the next thing you know the Knobs invited me over one night and said they’d like me to join the band. I said yes. I felt right at home with them. They were irreverent like me. Didn’t get into all of the “music biz” pretense.
The Knobs period was a really amazing period of my life. There was so much that happened, it seemed like an eternity, but I was only in the band from ‘80 to ‘84. I moved into “Knob World Headquarters” on Edenton St., a big yellow house near downtown Raleigh. We signed a record deal with Moonlight Records out of Chapel Hill when I joined, so we started rehearsing right away, getting me worked into the band. Don Dixon of Arrogance would come by to see how things were going because he was going to produce, and we began recording at Mitch Easter’s place in Winston-Salem. The album was done in just a couple of days. I remember going to Winston-Salem and playing Wait Chapel with Southside Johnny for 7,000 people and thinking: Man, I’m in the big time.
We had a PA and all our gear set up in the living room. We listened and talked about music all the time. Everybody was writing and learning songs. Really working on it. There was a great vibe in the band at that time. We were gigging with Arrogance, Nantucket and NRBQ. It was all very exciting.
Once we played on the front lawn of a fraternity house on Columbia Street and the police were out there with a DB meter and kept shutting us down after about half a song. We would act like we changed something and then start again and they would shut us down again. We had those guitars honking and when Terry hit those drums they sounded like cannons going off. We just kept starting over and the crowd was getting restless. They finally gave up and let us play.
We had billboards up around town and people packing in the venues when we played. There were articles in the News and Observer and The Spectator. We outgrew the Deja Vu in the Subway and had to move to the Pier. Doug Brinson the bartender at Deja Vu was smart and let us keep our tabs open knowing that we were a thirsty crew.
I remember one night David and I got wound up and got into a spontaneous tequila shot competition. Drank 12 shots of Jose Cuervo back to back before calling it a draw. We finally had to go back and play a free weekend, where we made no money, just to pay off our bar tabs.
The first couple years were really fun. I remember David and Terry and I heading to Beaufort to play one Friday. We were listening to WQDR, which was a rock station at the time. “String of Pearls” came on and hearing myself singing on the radio was a moment I’ll never forget. We were all grinning from ear to ear. We cranked it up to 11, of course. There seemed to be lots of moments like that for a while.
Later, we lost momentum and it became the old story of people beginning to point fingers at one another and blaming each other for being stuck in a rut. The fact is, we all kind of lost our focus and began to drift apart. We made an attempt to get in the big leagues by sending demos to execs at majors and playing some gigs in NYC. Turns out Debra had taken on her own management and they were shopping her as a solo act. She got a demo deal, but it didn’t get picked up. By then it was like a bad marriage where everybody needed to be apart for a while.
I look back on it now, and it makes me sad because we really did have all the ingredients. I just don’t think we ever had the right Brian Epstein type to slap us around and keep us pointed in the right direction. We could work a crowd into a lather with the best of ’em! I’ve seen it happen many times. Once we locked and loaded, well, you better hold on to something!
Terry Anderson (drums)
My first run-in with David Enloe was in 4th grade, Lewis H. Powell Elementary. When we found out that we were born 6 hours apart on Christmas Day 1956 we immediately became best buds. We hung out off and on all the way through high school. But when David got an Epiphone 335 guitar THAT’S when the trouble started! I had been playing drums since 12 with my Dad’s country band and I was ready to start destroying.
That tippy-tappy drum deal had run its course. So David and I started a little band, just the two of us, called Rooster. We never played out much, actually just once when they had “Occupation Day” at Enloe (no relation) High School in Raleigh. We played “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and all the kids in the room went crazy! Rooster got put on hold though when David’s Dad died. In 12th grade he and his family moved to a home they had in Robbins, NC. We kept in touch though and I’d go visit and rock (and drink) with him on weekends.
We both graduated that year, both by the skin of our teeth, and decided to go to Sandhills Community College. We found a concrete block house and rented that together with our friend from Enloe High School, Mike Knott. We still jammed and kept hoping that one day the right bass player would come along. The next year we put up a notice on the bulletin board at Sandhills that we were looking for a bass player.
One day, we went by the board and someone had left a note for us, his name was Jade Cordero. Jade Cordero! Are you kidding? Oh my God! This guy has got to be the one!
With a name like Jade Cordero! He sounded famous already! So we called up looking for Jade and…of course his name was not Jade Cordero–it was Jack Cornell, and he had really bad handwriting! Jack came over to our house on Mayview Drive in Southern Pines and started fitting right in. We jammed for months before realizing that we really needed somebody to sing these songs. Debra DeMilo was also at Sandhills, and one day there was a choral recital at the school and she really stood out. She was haughty, flamboyant, and perfect for what we wanted. We were on cloud nine when she agreed to come over and sing with us. Once again, we’d found a perfect fit. So along with Bob Wallace, also at Sandhills, we were complete. We played Jack’s Dad’s little bar under his TV and swimming pool shop in August, 1978.
From there, we started playing clubs around town and a couple times at the college. We all graduated and we had to decide what we could all do to keep this thing going. Jack got a job in Raleigh, so David and I followed him back home. Debra, originally from Winston-Salem, came with us, and she moved into an apartment off of New Hope Road. Eventually, we were ready to show Raleigh what we were about. One open mic Sunday night at P.C. Goodtimes (later known as The Brewery!) we did just that. I think we did “All Down The Line” and “Tumbling Dice” and left pretty much everyone there with their mouths on the floor.
Word quickly spread and the shows we did at The Free Advice were a good proving ground for us. We’d do Tuesday – Saturday nights sometimes, playing ‘till 1-2am and getting up and going to work, only to do it again the next night. But we got tight. We got REAL tight! Stop on a dime tight! And we started writing our own songs, too. And you know what? They didn’t suck. David and I were writing all the time. Jack and Debra helped out too. From 1981 until the end (September 1984) we all continued to write.
We had great songs too, like “Who’s Gonna Pick Me Up,” “Faith” (the one everyone called “Desperation”!), “Walk On Me,” “Don’t Stop,” “Long Dark Night,” “Love Letter Late,” “Romeo and Juliet” (we heard of true love, but we ain’t found it yet, cause I ain’t Romeo, and she isn’t Juliet…), and eventually our big local radio hit “Dare to Live.”
Keith Taylor had joined the band by then and helped out with “String of Pearls.” We began packing out the Café Déjà Vu and eventually began selling out the weekends at The Pier. We did all them crazy things the kids were doing back then–videos, radio interviews, cocaine, throwing mic stands at each other, trying to drive the car in the house, all-night parties before getting in the van and going to the next gig. You name it, we did it.
And you know what? I’m really glad we did. And we all (just barely) survived. David has since left us, in November ’07. We all still think about the old shitass! (Don’t worry, he’s laughing!) There will only be one of him. He’ll always be the only brother I’ve ever had. The others understand, but I do still love them all like brothers and sister. We went through a beautiful Hell together.