Before Grunge and Macklemore, The Heats rocked the Northwest
Back in 1980, a local band called The Heats was just about the biggest thing around. And everyone was convinced they were only going to get bigger.
The Heats wrote and performed their own catchy original songs like “I Don’t Like Your Face.” It was pop music at its finest. It was Beatlesque, to be sure, but it had just enough country twang to make it uniquely Northwest.
The band sang tight harmonies in packed local clubs, and sold thousands of copies of the records they produced themselves. They were charismatic showmen with a sense of humor who clearly enjoyed what they were doing on stage, and who truly connected with their audiences. They played a big show in Seattle with The Kinks, and toured around the US with Heart and The Knack.
“They were top dog,” said fellow Seattle musician and KJET/KNDD personality Jim Keller. “Opening for them was like opening for a major concert artist, with barricades to keep the fans back at the front of the stage. “And more than any other group, they made it cool for Seattle bands to do original songs.”
Local music legend Buck Ormsby, who was a member of The Fabulous Wailers in the 1950s and 1960s, and who later played with Jr. Cadillac, laid it out plain and simple for The Seattle Times back in June 1979.
“They’re not just some sing-a-song-for-5-years tavern group,” Ormsby told the Times. “I hope that within a year, they’ll be on the national level, on the level with any major group in the world.”
But something went wrong along the way, and The Heats never made the big time. They played their final show on New Year’s Eve 1983 at the old Astor Park at 4th Avenue and Lenora in the shadow of the Monorail tracks.
Ken Deans was The Heats’ original drummer. He’s an articulate unofficial spokesman and historian for the band, though he probably wouldn’t like to be called that. It’s clear that he’s thought a lot about what the band meant, and about why it’s still worth remembering and trying to understand.
“We [weren’t] punk enough for the punk crowd, and we [weren’t] pop enough for the Top 40 crowd,” Deans said, explaining why he believes the band never got that big label recording contract.
Along with Deans, the original Heats were Steve Pearson and Don Short on vocals and guitar, with Keith Lilly on bass. Pearson and Short had met around 1975, Lilly and Deans had gone to school together in Kenmore since Kindergarten. Pearson, Deans and Lilly were all Inglemoor High School grads; Short is from Mercer Island.
Deans says that they began jamming together around Thanksgiving 1978, playing covers of songs they liked by artists such as The Cars and Tom Petty, and British artists that Short had grown enamored of while living briefly in London. But Deans says that from the very first practice session, the band also worked on their own songs.
The band’s first gig, Deans says, was at a high school dance on the Olympic Peninsula. They were known as The Heaters then (another band beat them to trademarking the name and the Northwest Heaters later shortened their name to The Heats). At that tiny high school, The Heaters played those cover songs they’d been practicing, and an appreciative teenage crowd danced along.
“Then we played like 10 of our own songs and people didn’t know the difference,” Deans said. “We all just looked at each other, and go, ‘[Forget] this, we’re gonna do our own songs. I think this is gonna work.’”
Over the next several months, the band played more and more gigs at local clubs including the Shire in West Seattle, the Hall of Fame in the University District and the Old Mill in Bothell.
Making it big
Fame came fast for The Heaters. In fact, literally overnight. “We didn’t know how to take it,” Deans said.
It was in May 1979 that the band made their first big splash in the local media, thanks to Seattle Times columnist Erik Lacitis. The band sat for an interview with Lacitis, and for a photo session at the Shire with noted Times’ photographer Greg Gilbert.
Later that week, Deans and Lilly were driving home from a Friday night gig and pulled off at a 7-11 to get an early copy of the Saturday newspaper to see what Lacitis had written about them. Deans says what happened next was a “light switch moment.”
“I looked through the entertainment section, and there’s nothing,” Deans said, assuming the story had been cut from that edition of the paper. Bu then Lilly remembered that Lacitis wasn’t an entertainment writer, so Deans flipped to the front of the local section.
“I didn’t know what to do. Above the fold was a half-page picture of us, and below the fold was the article, and it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Deans said.
Lacitis lavished the band with praise. “It would be easy for local pop music fans to never hear of The Heaters, which is too bad,” he wrote in the first line of the story, “because they’ve got to be the best rock band in the Northwest.”
Go and see The Heaters, Lacitis continued, and “[y]ou’ll see a band that plays great music that you can hum and dance to. You’ll see four musicians who have fun on stage, jumping up and down, doing leg splits, running with their guitars onto the dance floor. You’ll see a group not yet jaded by too many compromises.”
Thanks to that over-the-top publicity, word got out that Saturday. Where only 15 people had watched Friday night’s show, Saturday night was packed with a line down the street.
In an email, Lacitis recalled why he wrote that first column, and why he continued to write about The Heats so glowingly throughout their short career.
“[They] were a local power pop band that were simply joyful to hear and watch. They were rock ‘n’ roll at its happiest. They had that charisma that grabs audiences. You had to be at their shows to experience it,” Lacitis wrote. “Their melodies reminded me of the early Beatles.”
Throughout 1979 and 1980, the accolades and the big gigs piled up. The band released a single produced by Buck Ormsby, with “I Don’t Like Your Face” on one side and “Ordinary Girls” on the other. It sold 15,000 copies. Next came an LP called “Have An Idea” that was produced by Heart guitarist Howard Leese and sold 12,000 copies.
Manager Jon Kertzer
Radio guy, record promoter and musician (and future ethnomusicologist) Jon Kertzer became The Heats’ manager in 1979.
“There was this really great rapport they had with the audience. I really liked the artists they were covering, and when I heard their originals it was great,” Kertzer said. “So I ended up going to work with them with Ken Kinnear, who managed Heart.”
“I went on the road with them on the tours, and I wore lots of hats,” Kertzer said. “I was the tour manager, I did the lights and merchandise, and ended doing a little bit of everything.”
Kertzer isn’t sure why the band, which had so many positive things going for it, never hit the bigtime.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Kertzer said. “I mean, I worked really hard to try to make that happen. That was my job as manager to try and get them national attention and we did have several national tours. When we went to places like New York, I would take their music around to all the record labels, and talk to them about getting signed. And they came pretty close,” Kertzer said.
“Our timing was a bit off,” he continued. “By the time we were talking seriously to labels, it was just a little late, and the rage for power pop sound had passed.”
After all the hype around The Heat’s “next big thing” status, failure to sign with a label began to take its toll on the band.
“We started not believing in ourselves,” Ken Deans said. “And it was just like, ‘How do The Romantics’ get signed and we don’t?’ And we did a short kind of co-headline thing with Loverboy and their record took off, and it was just like, ‘You know, we’re not the red-leather jumpsuit guys, you know we just want to play.’”
Relationships in the band became strained. Bassist Keith Lilly left, and was replaced by Wayne Clack. Then, Ken Deans left, too. Rick Bourgoin took over on drums.
“[Leaving felt] really bad. It was one of those experiences in life where you had just spent the last three years of your life pouring your blood and guts out on the floor with these guys, and then you weren’t,” Deans said.
The years seemed to have softened any hard feelings, however, and Deans is philosophical.
“That was the hardest point in my life because it was like, ‘Wow, I got to be part of this experience that I know was amazing, but we couldn’t quite grasp the brass ring,’” Deans said.
Deans went on to a long career in management and production in the music industry, and has lived in Los Angeles for many years.
Heats records have been out of print in vinyl, but have been reissued on CD by foreign labels. Thanks to Facebook and YouTube, The Heats’ music has never been easier to find, and it still holds up.
“It’s withstood the test of time as far as pop music goes,” said Kertzer of the band’s studio recordings.
Ken Deans makes a “guilty confession” that he still listens to the band’s live recordings, made right off the mixing board at places like the old Showbox Theatre.
“I gotta be honest with you, I’m pretty proud of [those tapes],” he said, laughing.
“They hold up,” said Erik Lacitis, via email, of The Heats’ songs. “I’d put some of them right up there with ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ I wish they had had better recording, because the bass from their live stuff isn’t there in the recording. But it still comes through.”
The last column about The Heats that Lacitis wrote was in late December 1983, just days before the band’s final show. Don Short had told the others a month or so earlier that he didn’t want to continue. Ironically, the duration element of Buck Ormsby’s “some sing-a-song-for-5-years tavern group” ended up being almost eerily prophetic.
“So long, Heats. Has it really been five years?” Lacitis wrote in that final column. “Those days of innocence sure seem a long time ago.”
If there’s a direct connection between ‘those days of innocence’ and the explosion of Seattle less than a decade later as a global force in music, it’s most evident in the people who went to the shows, bought the records and who then went on to create the next generation of Northwest bands.
Before launching into the opening riff, Dederer told the crowd, “Okay, anybody over 40, this song was a big hit, and I’m just gonna give it a little introduction, ‘cause this was maybe the first or second song I ever learned off a record, on the guitar. The Heaters, the Heats, they were the hot stuff in 1979, 1980.”
Those “hot stuff” years are now almost four decades ago. But Ken Deans is old enough and wise enough to appreciate his time with The Heats, and he’s grateful that the band has a legacy, and that it remains influential.
He keeps in touch (with varying frequency) with the other guys, some of who still play music. To hear Deans tell it, they can look back together on the ups and downs they shared on the way to the not-quite-big-time, just like veterans of any hard-fought battle.
“We were really lucky and really fortunate, and it’s something that we all get to hold onto,” Deans said. “We kind of all have this Purple Heart that we all get to keep, and no one can ever take that away from us.”