Still Suspects After All These Years

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The ’80s Newport Beach punk band The Suspects at their reunion gig last week. Photo by Greg Jacobs

Last Friday night in Newport Beach, at a public golf course ballroom of all places, a piece of local punk-rock history was reborn for a few hours: The Suspects played their first concert date in more than 30 years.

Unless you are a serious punk-rock fan or a local music history buff , you may not know much about The Suspects. On the other hand, if you grew up in the area in the 1980s, and especially if you attended Newport Harbor High School during that time, you can never forget them.
The Suspects are on a short list of ground-breaking punk bands that were spawned during the late-1970s and early 1980s in the Newport Beach area. The group was formed by a trio of Newport Harbor High teenagers – Tom Cuomo, Jack Nelson and Mike Sauerbre – in 1979.

Lead singer Tom Cuomo. Photo by Greg Jacobs

The Suspects quickly made a name for themselves playing local high school parties, dances and later, when their notoriety and popularity grew, the infamous Cuckoo’s Nest punk nightclub venue in neighboring Costa Mesa.

The Cuckoo’s Nest was at the center of hardcore punk rock scene that exploded throughout California during the early 1980s.  The list of acts appearing at the Cuckoo’s Nest club during this time was a who’s-who of the American music.  From the Ramones, Vandals, Black Flag, TSOL, Social Distortion, and dozens of others well-known bands, the list is too long to list here.

According to lead singer Cuomo, the band played the Cuckoo’s Nest “at least a half-dozen times” during the two-year period when the band was going strong.

Cuomo and bassist Nelson talked to the Independent about their reunion and how their band came together some 30 years ago.

Like most musical duos, Cuomo and Nelson’s personal road to a life in music began as kids. They both grew up here. Nelson attended Monte Vista Elementary just off Newport’s Upper Back Bay. He later went to Kaiser Middle School. He also played in the school’s band and learned to play “acoustic bass, violin and even the accordion” he says, before later tuning to a decidedly more “punk-rock” instrument, electric bass.

And in typical musician speak Nelson says, “It was all to meet girls ,basically.”

Cuomo, on the other hand, had an older brother, Anthony, also a musician who went to Newport Harbor High. Tom’s interest in music began, he says, “playing baritone and alto saxophone” at Ensign Middle School.

Bassist Jack Nelson. Photo by Greg Jacobs

Cuomo and Nelson initially didn’t know each other.

“I had never heard of Tom, though I knew his brother,” who made the rounds recruiting for the Harbor High band. Nelson joined the school’s marching band and other musical programs, Tom never did.

Cuomo, Nelson and Sauerbrey also shared something you might not immediately associate with a punk-rock band – high school football.  All three played football at Newport Harbor before their musical life with The Suspects.

Despite the band’s growing popularity among students and locals, Cuomo recalls, the school administration wanted nothing to do with a punk rock band.  At one point, the band asked for permission to play a lunchtime concert at the school. Live music at lunchtime at the school was a common practice at the time.

The school nixed the idea and refused to allow the band to perform.  Cuomo says friends and other students went so far as to start a petition drive to get the school administrators to change their position.  Despite a petition signed by hundreds of students, the band never was allowed to perform on campus.

Instead, Cuomo says, the band improvised a concert venue.

“My mom’s house was right across the street from school, so one day we just opened up the garage where we rehearsed and starting playing… next thing we know hundreds of people where out front listening to us.”

The concert didn’t last long, as the police were called and everyone was forced to scatter, he says.

At another local performance, The Suspects were hired to play at a home just off 23rd Street and Irvine Avenue, near Cherry Lake. It became a massive party that was raided and shutdown by Newport Beach Police. Dozens of students were arrested or detained.

As The Suspects’ popularity grew, the prospect of commercial music success grew with it. Earning a living as musicians started to seem within reach. When the band contributed songs to a well-known punk rock compilation album called “Who Cares” that was put out around 1981, the dream was starting to seem like it could become reality.

The Suspects playing the Cuckoo’s Nest in the early ’80s.

One of the band’s most popular songs, “Hollywood Nightmare,” even made its way onto what was and still is one of the most popular and influential Southern California radio stations, KROQ-FM, 106.7FM.

A show hosted by famed DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, aka “Rodney on the Rock,” was the place to be heard for new and up and coming bands.  Major musical artists from David Bowie to the Sex Pistols, and everyone in-between trying to break into the music, tried to get Rodney to play their songs.

But despite this taste of music success, steady and substantial paychecks never materialized for the band. They ultimately broke up shortly in1982, due to what both Nelson and Cuomo say was the cliché of the music world, “creative differences.”

Cuomo remained in the Newport area, taking music theory classes at Orange Coast College end continuing to play off and on in a variety of other bands, including a stint on the “Vans Warped Tour.” Nelson went off to live in Oklahoma with his family and later attended college there, studying music as well. He also continued to play electric bass in variety of non-punk bands.

Both Cuomo and Nelson say their punk music lifestyle led to problems with their families.

“Get a job or get out” was the common refrain that Cuomo says he remembers his parents telling him at the time. He says he opted to leave, and even spent time living in an abandoned house just off 17th Street and Irvine Avenue with other punk rockers. Nelson says his parents weren’t much different.

But over the years, the punk rock lifestyle has waned.  Cuomo was married a few years ago. He still lives in the Newport area and has run his own graphics and design business. Nelson has also been married for just over nine years. He recently returned to live in Newport after spending threes years in Dubai, doing computer software work.

Both Cuomo and Nelson say they are now are planning a return to the music scene in Southern California. Although some of the music will be new, some of it will draw on the past as well.

Newport Harbor High’s class of 1982 held its 30th reunion Saturday at the Hyatt Regency here. Cuomo and Nelson where in attendance. The musical legacy and impact of Newport’s very own punk rock band, The Suspects, on those teenagers who grew up here during that time wasn’t overlooked by anyone in attendance.

In fact, it was a hot topic of conversation.

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  1. Cleaning out the garage and going thru boxes I just found a cassette recording of The Suspects from the early 80’s. About 5 songs or so. Songs about Jack King, Hitler, the IRS…wow the memories it brought back. I was wondering why Mark Allen was not mentioned as part of the original band? Was he not the drummer? I would love to hear from him again!!