While Denny Lake fronted major-label acts Atomic Boy and U.S. Crush in the ’90s, the singer also led Denny and the Way Outs, the new-wave band that he started in the early ’80s as a student at the University of Denver. Lake formed the group after going back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, during summer break and seeing Billy Rancher, who was at the forefront of that city’s new-wave scene.
Armed with a broken-down Farfisa organ, Lake started penning nonsensical and immature lyrics that were fun and catchy, like “Betty Crocker Is a Punk Rocker,” “She’s So Cool She’s Frozen” and “We’d Be Grateful If You’d Die Grateful Dead.” At the time, Lake was into the Ramones, Blondie, Cheap Trick, the Romantics and the Clash, but also such Denver bands of the day as the Kamikaze Klones and Dick & the Chicks.
In the early days of Denny and the Way Outs — an act originally called Denny and the White Spots — Mark Christensen played bass, but later moved to guitar, and Brian Malone, a seventeen-year-old Douglas County High School student, joined on drums after hearing about the group through a girl who worked at the same restaurant where Lake bartended.
The band played sets of half covers and half originals at places like Walabi's, Four Mile House and the Mercury Cafe when it was on Pearl Street, a block away from Wax Trax.
“I was always a pretty serious musician through high school,” Malone says. “I was pretty certain that was going to be my path in one way or the other. This band was the first real professional band that I had joined.”
Since Malone was underage at the time, he had to get a special work permit from the City of Denver to play in over-21 venues. He says his time with the Way Outs was an eye-opening experience.
“We played these places like the Mercury, and I just remember having this idea of having drum monitors around me and hearing my own drums through these giant monitors for the first time," says Malone. "And it was just like someone had electrocuted me with this…. It was an electric and electrifying experience to hear yourself that way.”
Lake says his ambition for the Way Outs changed over time. “I was doing this at first just to be popular and get girls, but after a while, I wanted to get a record deal.”
So the musicians teamed up with Ronnie Cramer, who had been bandmates with Lake in the Pentraitors prior to the Way Outs. Cramer agreed to release the six-song EP Too Cool to Care on his new Avant Records imprint. To prepare for the recording, Lake, Christensen, Malone and bassist Ken Rayley practiced and gigged while also working on new material, including the song “Don’t Hang Around,” based on a riff that Malone, also a guitarist, brought in.
The band had booked studio time and put a deposit down at Avalanche Studios. But not long before the guys were set to make the EP, Malone was in his friend’s Opal on the way to a party the night before his high school graduation. A drunk driver swerved over the lane on Parker Road and hit the Opal head on. Malone’s friend, who was driving, died in the accident, while Malone suffered a broken arm and collarbone.
With the recording date set and Malone not being able to make the session because of his injuries, Lake hired drummer Tom Clement to be on Too Cool to Care, which was released in 1983. Malone was crushed, as were his dreams of being a professional musician.
“It actually took me a couple of years to recover from that accident,” Malone says.
Christensen enjoyed making the EP, but he was sorry that Malone wasn’t on the recording. “We always felt like we were ripped off,” Christensen says.
While Lake continued with the Way Outs for a while, the act ultimately broke up, and he moved to California to be part of Atomic Boy and U.S. Crush. Malone, who went on to be a documentary filmmaker and film composer, lost contact with Lake over the years, but Lake and Christensen stayed in touch.
Fast-forward nearly four decades later, Christensen reached out to Malone via Facebook, telling him that Lake had lymphoma. In the fall of 2019, the three of them reconnected in Long Beach over dinner. Around that time, Malone found a cassette tape by Christensen’s solo project, Max Christian, in a box in his garage.
“I record music for film all the time, and there's no reason why I shouldn't just lay down some of these songs,” Malone says. “You could do them in your sleep. It's like they're still tattooed to you. It's our version of three chords and the truth, only with a little bit stronger backbeat.”
Malone proposed that the three of them get in a studio to re-record three cuts that were originally on Too Cool to Care, a few jangly REM-ish tunes penned by Christensen, and a cover of “Symmetry” written by Rancher. The three just released the seven-song album, Unfinished Business, as the Way Backs, which is now streaming on all major digital platforms. The band also recorded a cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" as a bonus cut, and Malone says the song is "a little food for thought as we move into 2021.”
There’s also a special VIP package for those who make a $20 donation through a GoFundMe campaign for Lake; it includes bonus tracks, rare photos and detailed liner notes. The donations will offset some of Lake’s medical bills from chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant.
“When I listen to the recordings, I'm a little bit embarrassed by how my voice sounds,” Lake says, “because I was pitchy and didn’t have my usual strength — but I also had just gotten a bone marrow transplant like six weeks earlier. It was more about this spirit of being together, and the spirit is doing it. I never thought it was going to be released. We were doing it for fun. There was no agenda, just rock and roll for fun."
With Unfinished Business, Malone says the bandmates are hoping to remind people of what Denver was like in the early ’80s, when there was a happening new-wave scene.
“It was exciting,” Malone says. “And there were some good bands out there and some great clubs to play in. There was a little slice of time where Denver had a really cool happening music scene, and we were part of it.
“I was just thinking about all this crap that we're all living through now," he continues. "In a lot of ways, that was an innocent time compared to the way we're living now. Maybe this is a way to remind people of the way things used to be.”
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