Aug. 3 2011 10:38 AM

The veteran punk rockers raised hell, became local legends and fizzled too early, but they wouldn't have had it any other way

The Penetrators
It's a story as old as rock ’n’ roll itself: They were a band ahead of their time and who never got the big break they deserved.

The Penetrators’ career is a lesson in what-ifs: What if they’d signed to a major label? What if they’d been from L.A. instead of San Diego? What if their first album cover hadn’t been so caustic? What if riot-gear-clad police hadn’t broken up all those shows?

But if you talk to members of the band now, more than 30 years after they formed, you won’t come away thinking they regret anything. They incorporated elements of surf, rockabilly, ’60s-era R&B and even what came to be called new-wave, but singer Gary Heffesays the band was punk in delivery and attitude.

“We wanted to be like The Clash,” he says. “The people’s band.”

Bassist Chris Sullivan, drummer Joel Kmak and guitarist Scott Harrington formed the original incarnation of The Penetrators in 1977. They were looking for a singer when they stumbled upon Heffesinging at a house party. Kmak was later replaced with drummer Dan McLain (later known as Country Dick Montana, most famous for his work in The Beat Farmers), and it didn’t take long before The Penetrators started earning a reputation as the best live band in San Diego. They all seem to agree that it was a legendary gig opening for The Ramones in 1978 that cemented it.

“As soon as we started playing, the people just started tearing over these tables in front and they made us stop the show,” Hefferecalls. “We were offstage and the people in charge were warning us, ‘Hey, if you guys don’t behave, The Ramones aren’t gonna play.’ But The Ramones were standing by the side of the stage and saying, ‘This is totally cool!’”

Once they got the OK to continue, Heffesays, things got worse. Or better, depending on how you look at it.

“Dan just looked at me and was like, ‘Go! Go! Just fucking go wild!’”

“Yeah, depending on what you read, everybody pretty much said that it was an amazing show and that we upstaged The Ramones,” Sullivan says. “We hit the ground running.”

Harrington quit over The Ramones gig and was replaced by Chris Davies. Jim Call was added on keyboards in 1979 when it came time to record the band’s first single, “Sensitive Boy.” With the lineup complete, the band opened for every big name who came through town: David Johansen, Meat Puppets, Iggy Pop and The B-52s, just to name a few. Their headlining shows became infamous, with a California Theatre gig ending when Heffehit a bouncer and nearly got arrested for inciting a riot. He escaped handcuffs but came home to see the show’s aftermath, complete with police in full riot gear, on the evening news.

By 1980, The Penetrators were touring regularly and scored a regional hit when their song “I’m With the Guys” began getting airplay on taste-making L.A. radio station KROQ. A&R people from Atlantic, Capitol and A&M Records scouted their shows; Penetrators manager Paul Sansone recently confided to Call that the band may have missed an opportunity to sign with Island Records. Keith Richards and Ron Wood even showed up to a gig.

So, what happened? To hear the band tell it, there’s no definitive answer. It just didn’t happen.

“The band had various reasons for not jumping into bed with any [record label] for the deals that were offered. Reasons we thought good at the time. Reasons that I still think were good,” Call says. “Making it big was never a personal goal of mine.”

The band released its debut album, A Sweet Kiss from Mommy, in 1982. The album cover was a photo collage of bare butts shot by Call—many record stores wouldn’t display it. It was a point of contention, but the band was already drifting apart. McLain left in ’83, and The Penetrators officially split in ’84. There weren’t any monumental, Behind the Music-type blowouts. Times were changing, and everyone just seemed to want to move on. Heffewas also struggling with cocaine and heroin, which led him to move to Seattle, where he lived for more than a decade before settling in Finland.

The Penetrators reunited in 2005, marking 10 years since McLain died of a heart attack, and again in 2009 for The Casbah’s 20th anniversary. Yes, they’re playing again, but they’ll stop short of reuniting for good. The accolades, the times they shared and the legacy they left behind, however brief it was, appear to be enough for them.

“I’m totally blown away by it,” Heffesays. “My heart has been so touched by it, really. I thought this was a chapter in my life that I had pretty much closed.”

Call says people still come up to him and tell him how much The Penetrators meant to them.

“Over the years, that actually has been a pretty regular occurrence. I’m always touched by it,” he says. “That shared sense of community and camaraderie will be with all of us who lived it. Forever.”

The Penetrators play at the San Diego Music Awards on Monday, Aug. 8, and with The Bedbreakers and Manual Scan at The Casbah on Saturday, Aug. 13.