Early 80s and Late Nites “At Sunset”: Buddy Helm remembers Peter Ivers

By on June 3, 2015

We recently reached out to Russell Buddy Helm, a musician, videographer and L.A. scenemaker who appeared on New Wave Theatre quite a few times back in the 80s, and he’s allowing us to share some of the video that he’s compiled from footage shot at At Sunset, an early 80s underground nightclub right next door to the Whisky on the Sunset Strip.

Here’s part one – part two continues below (courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

In the 60s, the very same underground space, located at 8907 Sunset Blvd. in what is now West Hollywood, had been occupied by a short-lived venue called the London Fog, where the Doors played a handful of shows in 1966 before it closed its doors and then re-opened, under new ownership, as Sneeky Pete’s. The space continued to undergo transformations over the years, and more recently it was Duke’s coffeehouse, but in the early 80s, it had actually been a restaurant called At Sunset, and for a short time, there was actually a private club in the back, which was only accessible through a back door found down a long series of steps. Once you were inside you could actually see that it was kind of a sprawling space, with a large kitchen that had a walk-in cold-box, and there was a large adjacent room with red leather booths that served as the dance floor/stage area. If you walked up a set of steps you’d find two more private rooms.

After an advertisement — a John Van Hemmersfeld litho featuring only the club’s log and the address — was published in Paris Passion, a monthly French fashion/culture magazine that had been started by Michael Budman (he founded Roots as a Canadian shoe company in 1973),  the word got out and that’s when the celebrities started to show up, a hip, mostly upscale Hollywood crowd, many of whom were connected in some way to “Saturday Night Live,” like comedy writer Michael O’Donoghue, and John Belushi, who had been a regular patron until his death. In fact, Belushi had stopped by At Sunset on the night he died.

It was partly due to the fact that there was  no footage of Belushi hanging out at the club that Helm says he came up with the idea to shoot live video there, on the weekends, capturing for posterity what they were experiencing each weekend for weeks on end. Helm was shooting music videos at the time — in fact, some episodes of “New Wave Theatre” were shot in his downtown L.A. loft because it was such a perfect locale, with 14-foot ceilings and 6000 sq. feet of space.

A “duck bill” used as currency at At Sunset (courtesy of Michael Dare)

Helm says he would shoot at At Sunset continuously from Friday night until Monday dawn, with TV monitors set up in strategic spots around the kitchen and the big room which were showing the video footage from the previous weekend. The early morning after-hours crowd would walk around and watch themselves on the TVs from the previous week and then make comments about theirs or someone else’s prior conversations, and Helm would be right there to videotape what they were saying and the next week the partiers would end up making comments about that, and it went on that way for months, and Helm’s video footage became a kind of circular self-referential commentary on what it was to participate in L.A.’s early 80s underground scene. The only rule at At Sunset, by the way, was there were basically “no rules.”

(courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

Helm eventually struck upon the idea of editing all of his raw footage together to make it into a TV show, which he called, naturally, At Sunset. He was going to be the show’s host, but asked Peter Ivers if he wouldn’t mind coming in and doing some interviews, and soon Ivers was coming every weekend.

Buddy Helm:

“At Sunset was an illegal after-hours nightclub on Sunset Strip — right next to the Whisky A Go Go — which was shut down and boarded up. It’s hard to imagine the Sunset Strip shuttered, but in the early eighties there was not much going on. An entrepreneur brother of the Roots clothing company’s creator [Jim Budman, brother of Michael Budman, seen here with the duck and the girls] had got permission to use what had been the old Unicorn nightclub (where Lenny Bruce had performed). The back door was the only way to get in, and it became the most notorious private nightclub in the U.S. and Europe, the first live-video nightclub.

David Lee Roth and Buddy Helm (courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

There is an article in the French Playboy, 1984, about my video crew shooting in the club during the weekend madness. “Beverly Hills, 90210″ was created there with Brett Easton Ellis hanging out when he was just a typical Beverly Hills high school brat. We had the makings of a late-night TV music/variety show. All the cable networks were looking for a pilot. The concepts we shot eventually morphed into MTV. We got absolutely nothing but we had a great time. I invited Peter Ivers to come in to host some episodes. This segment starts with Peter putting his clothes back on after interviewing people while he was naked.”

Here’s part two (courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

Buddy also allowed us to share the following excerpt from his book, History of the Groove, Drummer’s story:

“Van Dyke Parks took me under his wing when I first arrived in L.A., introducing me to Peter Ivers, a singer/songwriter and Harvard grad in dead languages. He played a mean blues harmonica, jamming with John Cale and that New York Art scene. Peter was with the literati crowd including National Lampoon movie makers, Doug Kinney, creator of Animal House, and Harold Ramis, creator of GhostBusters.

(courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

I was somewhat overwhelmed by their snappy repartee. Peter could write really odd songs that eventually came to be called New Wave music. His biggest song was for David Lynch’s underground classic black-and-white nightmare movie, Eraserhead. The song, “In Heaven, Everything is Fine,” was covered by the Pixies. We also recorded the soundtrack for a Linda Benglis/Stanton Kaye art movie in the Whitney Museum collection called, The Amazing Bow Wow, about a dog that could talk. I played a saw.

He was quite an entrepreneur and got budgets for soundtrack sessions with Ron Howard. I played drums on Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard’s first feature. Peter was an underground celeb opening for the New York Dolls at the Hollywood Palladium, wearing only diapers and a harmonica. His live shows usually had a big band.

(courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

I was acquiring the persona of shaman drummer, playing percussion with strange handmade instruments, as well as congas. It was proving to be a better fit for me, since the really funky drumming style I had so meticulously developed in the deep south was not understood that well in L.A..  Peter usually had an audience full of movie people. His girlfriend, Lucy, also from Harvard, produced Alien, and The Elephant Man, and she became the first woman executive VP of Film at Warner Bros. This was all pretty heady stuff for me. I felt like a redneck even if I was from Coconut Grove, but Peter liked my drumming.

“You’ve got an infectious beat!” Peter would remark. “Shut up and play,” I would usually respond.

(courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm)

Peter wanted street cred and that was his undoing. He asked me to get him a loft in the downtown L.A. art ghetto in the early eighties. I told him it wasn’t safe, him being a Harvard grad and all that; that he should stay in safe and green Laurel Canyon. Downtown L.A. was some pretty mean streets. But he insisted, so I hooked him up with an art director who had a big loft to sublease just two blocks from my space. Peter and I went on to shoot several TV shows, “New Wave Theater” on USA cable, featuring local punk and New Wave bands in L.A. like Suburban Lawns, the Germs, X, the Go Go’s, Fear, etc. It was shot live.

(courtesy of Russell Buddy Helm – date is incorrect, as Ivers died in 1983)

I had blond hair when I was playing percussion in his band, Vitamin Pink. This era was not easy to listen to the music, but it was a lively scene. I also shot a pilot that Peter guest hosted, called “At Sunset,” which was the precursor for MTV. I’m in the seersucker sportcoat in the meat locker at the end of the video.

Peter was unfortunately bludgeoned to death in the loft I had found for him. The pain of his loss was compounding the sense of futility and frailty I was feeling about music and art, especially in the big city. I felt very guilty for Peter’s death, as well as for Tim Buckley’s death eight years earlier, and also for my father’s death, but I didn’t know that yet…even though I had only been four when he was killed. Loss and grief have no boundaries.”

(Thanks, Buddy!)

The above is an excerpt from Drummer’s History, by Russell Buddy Helm (c) 2013 All Rights Reserved.

Today, Buddy Helm’s scene can be found at Seasons — “The most unusual gift store” on Montana Avenue — located at 1021-A Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA90403. 310-395-1965. They stream live drumming meditation workshops there, three times a week. Go here for more info. Go here for Buddy’s Youtube page.

Russell Buddy Helm

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.