JOHN BYRNE AND THE BIRTH OF PSYCHOTIC REACTION
by Jud Cost
John Byrne-the young man who wrote "Psychotic Reaction," the noisy, adolescent anthem that vaulted Count Five to the top of the national record charts and helped put San Jose on the pop music map-died at the age of 61 on December 15, 2008 after a long battle with diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.
Byrne, who played the frantic guitar and sang lead on Count Five's only major hit (it reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in September of 1966) created a work that somehow fused what would later become known as garage-rock with the up-and-coming sound of psychedelia, headquartered 50 miles to the north in San Francisco. Although the rave-up solo section of Count Five's breakthrough recording was influenced by the Yardbirds' frenzied 1965 treatment of Bo Diddley's R&B classic "I'm A Man," "Psychotic Reaction" was a swaggering, bona fide, 24-carat original.
Byrne moved to south San Jose from his native Ireland in 1964 to live with his brother, a successful house painter, and adapted quickly to his new surroundings. Although he'd never had a guitar lesson, young John soon joined his neighborhood rock combo, the Squires, after enrolling at Pioneer High School.
Band leader Kenn Ellner and Byrne decided to change the group's name to something more English to cash in on the British Invasion sound currently swamping the airwaves. "We thought at first maybe we'd be the Counts," Byrne revealed in 1994, seated in the kitchen of his Elkins Way home under a couple of Count Five photographs hanging next to the fridge. "And then we added the 'Five' part because we were all big fans of the Dave Clark Five." Byrne even changed his onstage given name to the Gaelic "Sean," because it sounded exotically more British. Next on the band's things-to-do list was to record a hit single.
In early 1966, John Byrne was trying to stay awake in a Health Education class at San Jose City College while the professor droned on about psychosis and neurosis. Ron Lamb, a pal seated next to Byrne, leaned over and whispered, "You know what would be a great name for a song? Psychotic Reaction!" A 150-watt lightbulb flashed over Byrne's head. It was the piece of the puzzle he'd been searching for. "I'd had this song running through my head-the lyrics, the melody, everything-but that I was the missing punchline!" Byrne recalled. He could hardly wait to get to band practice that night.
When Count Five, managed by Kenn Ellner's dad, Sol Ellner, a successful South Bay insurance salesman, played the song live a few weeks later at a dance at the old West Valley College in Campbell, local KLIV disc jockey Brian Lord, emceeing the show, was very impressed. "He told us afterwards he'd like to help us get a record out," said Byrne. After a few pointed suggestions on rearranging the tune for even more punch, Lord soon put the band in touch with a couple of friends in Los Angeles, Hal Winn and Joe Hooven, about to start their own record label, Double Shot.
In the summer of 1966, Count Five-Byrne, Ellner, lead guitarist John "Mouse" Michalski, bassist Roy Chaney and drummer Craig "Butch" Atkinson-drove down to L.A. to meet Winn and Hooven at the old Decca Studios on Melrose Ave. They were accompanied by Lord who, with a flair for the dramatic, had the band play their "other" originals before unveiling "Psychotic Reaction," their ace in the hole. "I can't tell you how great it felt when those guys burst out of the control booth after we played 'Psychotic' and told us, 'You've got a record contract,'" said Byrne.
The band had no idea how well the single was doing, although a weekly glance at Billboard's charts revealed no national action yet. But Byrne was about to get the shock of his life one night when he tuned in to Los Angeles' most powerful bossjock radio station. "I was listening to KRLA on a short wave radio," said Byrne, "and their jingle was going, 'KRLA's most requested song' ... and it's 'Psychotic Reaction!'" Byrne burst out the front door, ran up and down the street, and returned home just in time to hear the song end. Los Angeles had it dead right, it turned out, as the single's rapid ascent of the national charts soon testified.
Michalski vividly recalls the first time he heard their debut disc played on the local radio station. "I was with my girlfriend going down Campbell Ave. to band practice. It came on KLIV, and I could also hear it from the car next to us, but it was out of sync. I couldn't figure out what was going on until I realized they were listening to KYA. Then I hit another station, KFRC, and they were playing it too. It was on all three Bay Area radio stations at the same time."
A fabulously cool 8x10 publicity photo of the band on the front lawn of the Winchester Mystery House, decked out in their Dracula capes to emphasize the "Count" part of their name, certainly did them no harm. Who knows what good became of their much ballyhooed turning down of "a million dollars worth of bookings" to return to school-as revealed to none other than Dick Clark on Count Five's 1966 appearance on ABC-TV's American Bandstand? One thing's certain: Although other singles followed on Double Shot, as well as a full album of Count Five songs, both covers and originals, nothing caught the public fancy quite like "Psychotic Reaction," rightfully granted a memorial plaque on the One-Hit Wonders wall in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Count Five had a second life, of sorts, long after the band's demise, when legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs wrote a piece for Creem magazine in 1971 called "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" in which he rhapsodized about purchasing the Count Five album, then fantasized about an apocryphal series of post-Psychotic LPs "released" by the band. If nothing else, it helped turn Count Five into garage-rock cult heroes, especially when the story led off a posthumous Bangs compendium from 1988, also called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by noted Rolling Stone rock critic Greil Marcus.
"John Byrne was very smart, very educated," says Count Five lead guitarist Michalski upon hearing of the death of his comrade. "He had his own opinion on everything. He'd tell it like it was. If he liked you, he liked you. if he didn't, he wouldn't say so, but you knew it. He was a great guy."
Unlike the typical young person thrust into a similar situation, Byrne was always eager to return to his studies while Count Five was on tour with the Beach Boys or the Doors, says Michalski, whose nickname got a double-take from Dick Clark when he name checked the band members on American Bandstand ("Yeah, the biggest guy is always called 'Mouse,'" chuckled Clark).
"We always did concerts on the weekends because we were too busy going to school during weekdays," says Michalski. "John was so worried about graduating from San Jose State, where he majored in accounting." Just as important however, adds Michalski, Byrne was the band's tunesmith. "John was the man who came up with the songs, and we'd all add to them. That's how we became a group. Then he'd write the lyrics, which he was good at."
"What a great song those guys came up with," says Bob Gonzalez, bassist and founding member of the Syndicate Of Sound, the San Jose combo whose "Little Girl" scaled Billboard's chart (#8 in June of 1966) three months before Count Five's success. Gonzalez recalls a tour with both bands, headlined by the Rascals, that also included Neil Diamond and Mitch Ryder. "It was kind of fun, two San Jose bands out on the road, getting it done," says Gonzalez. "At the time, we didn't know the difference between John's Irish accent and one from England, so that was kind of cool. And that whole Count Five/Syndicate thing, crossing paths from time to time was very interesting."
John Byrne was such a nice guy, we kept in touch long after I wrote the liner notes for the Count Five compilation CD that appeared on Performance Records in 1994. Every couple of years, Byrne would call, excited at the prospect of recording new material and wanting me to hear it. Or that someone had told him British guitar hero Jeff Beck loved his songs. Or that he had a new band called simply, the Count.
He rang up once to tell me he'd lost his job when Montgomery Ward went out of business. The last time Byrne called, he said he'd awakened that morning unable to see out of one of his eyes. I called him back later to find out how he was doing but never got through to him again. Nagging health problems prevented Byrne from appearing for the full set of an August, 2003 engagement by a reformed Count Five at Palo Alto club The Edge (formerly Keystone Palo Alto). Byrne did make it onstage for the encore, including a reprise of "Psychotic Reaction."
The last time I spoke with John Byrne was at Count Five's 2006 installation into the San Jose Rocks hall of fame. He was seated in a wheelchair at the side of the stage on the grounds of History Park in San Jose, wearing very dark sunglasses and a black cowboy hat and looking very frail. True performer that he was, Byrne sounded fine during the band's brief set.
I made a point of telling him before they played that his group had done something that 99.999 percent of the rock bands that ever existed had never done: made a record that will live forever, long after we're all gone. He looked up at me, smiled wanly and nodded his head in assent.