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God, guns, and the band that could've been: the peculiar story of Pacific Gas & Electric

Pacific Gas & Electric
(Image credit: Gilles Petard/Adrienne Bresnahan/Getty Images)

It’s December 1968 and Pacific Gas & Electric have made the front page of the Miami Herald, and are being lauded by The New York Times as being “among the best and most underexposed talent in the country”. 

At the Miami Pop Festival, of all the rock talent on show – Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Booker T, Chuck Berry and more – and in front of 80,000 people, it was this hard-driving, multi-racial, muscular blues-rock band that blew the crowd away. 

It all started the previous year at a party in LA, when guitarist Tom Marshall met bassist Brent Block. They found singer Charlie Allen by chance and former Canned Heat man Frank Cook stepped in on drums. 

Meanwhile, across the country in Cleveland, red-hot guitar player Glenn Schwartz was about to head westwards. Schwartz had been in an early line-up of the James Gang, and when he left for California his place was taken by Joe Walsh. 

Schwartz was spotted by Allen playing in a club and once they heard him, Marshall swiftly switched to rhythm and, taking their name from the local utilities company, Pacific Gas & Electric were born.

Their first album, Get It On, was released in 1968 and it hardly troubled the charts. But they shot to national prominence after the Miami show. Glenn Schwartz was fast gaining a reputation as an incredibly articulate blues player in the same league as Carlos Santana, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman and Johnny Winter. Jimi Hendrix admired him so much he invited him to play at his birthday party, and Schwartz could also number Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck among his admirers. 

The publicity from the festival scored them a recording contract with Columbia Records. Although their first album for them, simply called Pacific Gas And Electric, failed to catch fire, the band would glean a Top 20 hit single with the anti-war title track of their next album, Are You Ready

They were now sparking on all fronts. But not for long… Despite their live prowess, it was from the stage that the first rumblings of unrest were heard. 

“Changes in the band started to occur with the recording of Are You Ready,” wrote Block later. “We were playing at a club called The Golden Bear in Huntingdon Beach California, when Glenn announced that he could no longer live the sinful life of a rock musician and left the band."

With a hit single on their hands, Columbia were keen for Glenn to stay. Interviewed later, Schwartz claimed they offered him $50,000 to stay. He said no. “They said I was crazy. And I said, ‘That’s right. Crazier than you’ll ever be.’” 

“Tom Marshall had become way too egotistical and difficult to be around, so he was let go,” Block continued. 

Block switched to rhythm guitar to allow the arrival of bassist Frank Petricca, who brought with him replacement guitarist Kenny Utterback. In August 1970, this line-up played two shows at the federal drug rehab centre at Lexington prison in Kentucky. 

Filmmaker Laurence Schiller was there to make a documentary. The film ran into legal trouble and was only ever seen twice in California while the live tapes gathered dust in the Columbia vaults. The audio finally saw the light of day as Live ’N’ Kicking In Lexington in 2007, and demonstrates their musical firepower. 

It wasn’t the end of the turmoil though. Frank Cook – who had relinquished the drumstool to Ron Woods after a car accident – was still managing the band and had been steering them towards becoming a Las Vegas resort outfit simply to back Allen.

Concerned at this looming change of direction, Block sounded out another manager; word got back to Cook and Block was shown the door. There were other issues too – unhappy that their company name had been hijacked by a bunch of hairies, the real Pacific Gas & Electric forced the band to change the name – they became PG&E.

Despite all this flux, the band were still incredibly popular across the US, and not just with white rock audiences. 

“We played this huge gig called The Soul Bowl in 1970 with James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Junior Walker,” Kenny Utterback tells Classic Rock. “I think the only white act was Rare Earth. We got mobbed for autographs, and I mean mobbed – thousands of screaming schoolgirls and we had to escape in a limo. It was a crazy Beatles sort of moment.” 

They continued to tour regularly, playing places where the sight of a multi-racial band wasn’t welcome. 

“We had lost a gig at the University of North Carolina and they had sold it to a redneck bar,” says Utterback. “And they did not like to see black and white musicians playing together on stage. The story goes that there were shots fired at the van as we drove away. I didn’t hear them because I was in one of the cars, but the other guys swear it really happened.

"A week later, we were supposed to play this night club in North Carolina, but we were so freaked out that we cancelled. The guy who we cancelled on sued us and got this lawyer to come to an outdoor festival we were doing with BB King to impound our equipment while we were still playing. 

"So Charlie, our black singer, gets up and says to the audience of about 30,000 people: ‘They’re gonna bust us and you’re a bunch of jive-ass motherfuckers if you let them.’ Of course, back in those days everybody was ready to fight the police. So somebody has to jump and say, ‘No, no, this isn’t about the police, everybody calm down! It’s just this one guy who is trying to cause trouble. We’ll sort it out.’”

There was more gunplay, this time too close to home. 

“We had all been drinking Jack Daniel’s like water for some time,” recalls Utterback. “And a couple of us were now seeing the downside. Charlie continued to have mini-psychotic episodes in reaction to his coke and drinking and scared us a number of times.” 

Charlie and bass player Frank shared a place in North Hollywood. Utterback says that Frank once told them that Charlie had been doing coke until it ran out. 

“Realising he had none left,” says Utterback, “Charlie proceeded to go out on the balcony and take a few shots at Jinx Dawson, the singer from Coven. She was sunning herself on the roof of the house down the hill from Charlie’s place.” 

With no more hit records, the band were running out of steam. PG&E was released in 1971 – it took a year to make and was four times over budget. A final album followed in 1973, which was little more than a Charlie Allen solo album with studio musicians. By now, apart from Frank Petricca, everybody had left or been fired. Utterback quit just before they went to Europe 

“We had been on the road for six months when the road manager was robbed of all the large bills by a lady of the night,” he says. “We were only earning a quarter of what we were before, and Charlie’s drinking and general attitude were alienating everybody, sometimes even entire audiences. I felt like I was jumping off a sinking ship.” 

Utterback was right. Neither album sold, and Columbia dropped the band. Pacific Gas & Electric burned brightly, briefly, and were done. Guitarist Glenn Schwartz continued preaching the gospel through rock’n’roll alongside his brother Gene. 

Writing for CleveScene in 2004, Steve Francis caught up with the Schwartz brothers, still out playing the bars and ending the night preaching hellfire. Francis reported that Schwartz had been living in a van he had painted with thousands of scripture readings, and that he relied on friends for provisions when he wasn’t rummaging through bins for food. 

Utterback had heard that he doesn’t play the bars any more; “Glenn is pretty much a street person with the guitar. There are still people who regard him as a guitar god and help him all they can and defend him to the end.” 

Tom Marshall simply vanished. It was Utterback who finally tracked him down through two documentary makers who had made a film about him, called Falling Home.

In May 2006, Brent Block got word that Tom, now homeless, had been found semi-conscious by a bus stop and rushed to hospital. He went to see his old buddy: “I learned there is a foundation that treats musicians with a chemical dependency. We put Tom up in a hotel that night, not wanting to lose track of him again.”

But after talking to experts, the consensus was that Marshall’s mental state was too far gone for the centre to help, and he wasn’t prepared to accept that he needed treatment. They had no option but to see him walk off to the nearest subway station…

There were no second chances for Charlie Allen, though. He died in 1990, aged only 48, after years of heavy drinking. Brent Block took up music teaching and, until recently, Petricca and Utterback played in a reunion band, Chicago Gas & Electric.

Although Fleetwood Mac – who, ironically, were on the same bill as PG&E in Miami – lost members to drugs and God and took years to rebuild, PG&E couldn’t ultimately survive the loss of their star guitarist to the call of The Word.

The herald angels may sing, but it’s hard to argue against the Devil having all the best tunes.

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 188, in September 2013. Glenn Schwartz died in 2018 at the age of 78