Gary James' Interview with the leader of
Question Mark and The Mysterians
They are the true Kings of Garage Punk, the stuff that legends are made of. They are Question Mark and The Mysterians. It was back in 1966 when the group achieved international million selling pop stardom with their recording of "96 Tears".
Now, the original Question Mark and The Mysterians have returned to the studio in Bay City, Michigan, just blocks from the site where "96 Tears" originated, and recorded a new CD titled, what else, "Question Mark and The Mysterians". The group never sounded better!
We spoke with lead singer Question Mark about the new CD and the history of the group.
Q - Can you believe it's been 31 years since "96 Tears" went to the top of the charts?
A - Nope (laughs)
Q - I knew you would say that. How long did it take, between the release date of the song and the song climbing to the number one spot?
A - I believe it was September 3, (1966) when it went nationwide. It debuted at 75. October 29, 1966, it went to number one. The Monkees had come out with their new (TV) series and "Last Train To Clarksville". We were in Dallas promoting "96 Tears" at a TV station. They said "Oh, we really like your song better, but we're gonna have to go with The Monkees this week and then yours next week, because they have a new TV series." I said "if you really feel ours is a better song, then why don't you do it?" So, without The Monkees having the series, it could've been there longer. They had a hit series going and without a hit record, what would it be? The series would go downhill. So, they needed that. That's the thing about the music business, we were for real, The Monkees weren't. It's too bad we didn't have a TV series. People don't realize those two songs came out at the same time and we beat 'em to number one first.
Q - Did you write "96 Tears"?
A - Yeah.
Q - How long did it take to write that song?
A - Naturally, it has a long history. It was written even before I was in the group. I had these sounds coming into my head and I wanted to learn how to play the piano. So, I went to this old man, around fifty years old, and I sang him this tune, because I wanted to learn how to do this music. That's when I first sang "96 Tears". Years went by and we formed a group in 1962. We started jamming and were together for four years. The drummer went into the service and then the guitar player went into the service. So, I had to find a drummer and a bass player right away to fill in, and capture the sound we had, this tightness we had in four years. They couldn't do it. It sounded terrible. I was strictly into originality. No harmonies like The Beatles. I didn't want to have that kind of sound. Well, the thing is, Little Frank (Lugo) came up with the riff. I was told it was going to be a million seller. So, everything was already planned out. It just had to be brought back to the surface again.
Q - Before "96 Tears" was ever released, you were performing this song in front of audiences around the Detroit area. What was the reaction?
A - We never played around Detroit. (laughs)
Q - That's what The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll says. I also consulted Irwin Stambler's Encyclopedia of Rock History.
A - I heard that about twice. You hear so many stories. I don't know where all these stories come from. I guess that's part of the mystery, right?
Q - Right. Did you come up with the name Question Mark and The Mysterians?
A - Well, no. It was always The Mysterians. Question Mark was my name. We played around the Flint, Saginaw, Bay City area. Never Detroit. We were called The Mysterians, X, Y, Z and I was Question Mark. I thought the three letters were mysterious letters of the alphabet and my thing was "why can't those letters start the alphabet? Is there a reason why ABC has to be there and not XYZ?" When you look at it that way, everything in life pertains that way too. The DJ at one radio station kept saying Question Mark and The Mysterians. People thought it was two groups... Question Mark and the other group was The Mysterians. Nobody told people there's only one band. So, before "96 Tears", we had to go on the radio and say "when you hear Question Mark and The Mysterians, it's gonna be one group, not two groups." So, that's how it got from The Mysterians to Question Mark and The Mysterians. As far as playing around Detroit, no. The first time we ever played anywhere close to Detroit was Adrian, Michigan. That's about ten miles from Ohio. That was when we were XYZ and Question Mark. Before "96 Tears".
Q - Is it true that you put "96 Tears" out on your own label?
A - No. That was my manager's label. Pa-GoGo. I thought it reflected on go-go and I didn't like that. I didn't like those kinds of terms that were happening like Shindig, Go-Go, Hullabaloo. To me, that was stupidity, 'cause that wasn't rock 'n roll.
Q - From the PA-GoGo label it made it onto the Cameo label?
A - Right. Like I said, nobody really believed in the record except me. Not even my group did. I knew it was destined to be a million seller.
Q - Did Cameo cheat you on the royalties?
A - Oh, yeah. They gave Bob Dell of WTC Radio and another guy, Bob Schwartz from Detroit and my manager, a check to buy us all new equipment and buy us a brand new van and whatever we needed to promote this record. We didn't know that. They got the money. I was told that from a source, for the first time, last week. He (the source) saw the checks. He knew this was happening. They got us a brand new van. They got us brand new equipment. I don't know how many grand they copped. They kept it for themselves. They split it up.
Q - Did you tour with The Beatles?
A - No. But, I saw them at The Olympia when they first came out.
Q - Your record company president told me you toured with The Beatles.
A - Why do people all the time say things like that? They were out in '64. We were out in '66. He knows my story. As far as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, they started in 1962 and so did we. So, we were happening, not knowing we were we were happening. They were emulating our sound. Why would I want to copy what's happening over here? But, they had reasons to, because rock 'n roll started over here, not in England. So, they were copying our sound. Whatever was making it here...Chuck Berry, the Blues. I could care less what was happening here. Around here, if you were like The Beatles with the leather jackets and the slick hair, you were juveniles. So, you didn't want that kind of image. When they came out, they weren't for real. Neither were The Rolling Stones. They had to clean up their act in order to be successful over here. There was some kind of force going around in the world saying this is gonna start happening. Even though Buddy Holly and Bill Haley came out before, it wasn't time for their recognition as a group, like John, Paul George and Ringo. People used to say "maybe you guys should sound like The Beatles, then you'd be popular." Our fans would say that. I'd say "no, we got our own style." People have always said "do disco, do rap (laughs) Then, you'd be popular." The way today's music is, if I did that music, I wouldn't do any music at all.
Q - Is it true you were never photographed without your sunglasses on?
A - Right. That's just the way I am. The thing is, we were real. We had an attitude and look. I didn't want to have neckties and smiles. There's a different part of life I wanted people to start seeing. That was the whole thing and the attitude in the songs. So, that's where the edge of our songs comes from. And, it wasn't always gonna be that way. From time to time it would be.
Q - Did you have a follow-up to "96 Tears"?
A - Yeah. It was called "I Need Somebody" It went to 22 (on the charts) We had five singles. "Can't Get Enough Of You Baby" was my third single. The fourth single was "Girl, You Captivate Me". The fifth single was "Do Something To Me".
Q - Did you write a song called "Eight Teen" that Alice Cooper recorded as "Eighteen"?
A - No. I don't know why people say that. I met Alice Cooper before he got into the big production stuff. I told him my "Eighteen" is better than yours 'cause yours only deals with a certain age, mine is more profound.
Q - Have you continually toured and recorded these last thirty years? Did you stop?
A - No. Like I said, we were always on the road before that. I had other Mysterians. I moved to California, Montana and North Dakota. Everybody knew where I was, so it was easy to get Mysterians. I've always written all these years. So, even though I may not have been successful in the light every year, I've always been successful within myself. We've only gotten together, the original Mysterians, in 1984 and then this time here which was November of 1996. We got back together because it was meant to be.