Don't bother asking Michael O'Brien why his band the Eat has become an underground legend in punk circles. With equal amounts of humility and bewilderment, he'll tell you he has no idea. "We're all totally clueless," admits O'Brien, the 39-year-old guitarist and vocalist for the Miami quartet, whose 1979 single "Communist Radio" has become one of punk's most sought-after slabs of vinyl. "It's weird to hear that this silly thing is getting all this publicity. We never thought we'd be responsible for some collector's item. I've heard of people paying $300 for a copy of it and I can't figure out why. I know I wouldn't pay that much for it."

Seventeen years ago, the band spent about $700 to press 500 copies of the single, which they released not because they thought the chunky, anthemic rocker was a hit, but because they wanted to be the first South Florida punk band to have a record. "At the time the punk scene was mostly us, the Z-Cars, and the Cichlids," O'Brien recalls. "The Cichlids got a recording contract with RSO Records [former recording roost for punk bands such as the Bee Gees] and they were lording it over all the other bands, so we decided that we could get a record out in a couple weeks and beat them to it." They did, and after issuing the record in December '79, the Eat celebrated its release during a show at the Sunrise Musical Theater, where they were the opening act on a bill that included the Cichlids, Nervous Rex, and headliners James White and the Contortions, the New York skronk-jazz ensemble. "For some reason, after we played I just flung a bunch of the singles out into the audience," O'Brien remembers. "In retrospect, that was a bad idea."

The Eat was formed in 1978 by drummer Chris Cottie and O'Brien's older brother, guitarist Eddie, who had played together since 1972 in various country cover bands (Cottie even logged time in David Allan Coe's group). Michael also played guitar, and Ken Lindahl was brought in to play bass. "They had had enough of playing covers on the bar scene and just wanted to start doing their own original music," O'Brien says now. "So we all started writing songs and working on silly covers -- doing Sparks, Clash, Ramones, stuff like that. We played our first show in '79 at the [now-defunct] Tight Squeeze Club in Hollywood, where the Cichlids and the Z-Cars played. We just showed up and decided to try it out. We never approached the stuff like most punk rockers, though. If anything, we were an anti-punk band. A lot of them were dying their hair blond and trying to be pretty boys and saying 'Fuck you' all the time, but we were just some ugly hippie guys who decided to start a punk band. It was actually kind of contrived, I guess."

Although "Communist Radio" was available only in South Florida, the single found its way to punk fans in the U.S. and abroad. "It was rare even when it came out because it was impossible to find outside of Miami," O'Brien offers. "Somehow, the record got to a lot of weird places. We'd get letters from guys in England, Japan, all over the place." The Eat's next release, 1980's God Punishes the Eat, was titled in response to the negative press the band had generated locally. "All the music critics hated us," O'Brien confesses. "There were all these articles in the Herald and the Miami News about how rotten and miserable and disrespectful we were. But we weren't like that at all. We were nice guys who just decided to be punks and play with the volume up to '10.'"

The Eat broke up in 1983, just after releasing the Scattered Wahoo Action cassette. "My brother and his wife started having kids," O'Brien reflects. "When he left we all just decided to hang it up. We've always hung out with each other, though. We kept in touch and would go to sporting events all the time and never even talk about music." The band regrouped in 1988 to record fourteen songs for a never-released album. Five songs from those sessions were released last year on the Hialeah EP, a low-fi snot slinger that's only a little less frantic than the squalling bliss of their early stuff. Also in the works is a reissue of the Wahoo cassette on the Dutch imprint Wicked Witch, and O'Brien is talking with several labels A including Miami's Star Crunch A about a compact disc that would include the Eat's entire recorded works (close to 40 tracks, including the early singles). Until then you can sample the Eat's no-frills punk via the European reissue series Killed by Death: Volume two includes "Communist Radio," while the band's "Kneecappin'" and "Doctor TV" are located on volume three.

Although the Eat hasn't played a live gig since 1992, Michael O'Brien -- who's also in the Miami band Morbid Opera and who expresses a fondness for local groups such as Kreamy 'Lectric Santa and Stun Guns -- promises another gig sometime in the future at Churchill's Hideaway. "The band will always be around, in spurts at least," O'Brien says. "We're all old now, but I guess these days the older and more awful we look, the better. There's a good [punk] scene in Miami now, so I figure, what the hell, let's play it. There's a lot of creativity going on at places like Churchill's A an atmosphere that lets you do what you want. These bands today are lucky. Sixteen years ago it was a lot nastier. You had to worry about rednecks trying to beat you up and having people spit on you and throw stuff at you. You'd get on-stage and wonder, 'What the hell's gonna happen to me tonight?'"

Once a convenient way for record label folks to sample a variety of unsigned bands, music showcases these days have become a refuge for musicians and artists desperate to climb aboard the roster of a major record label (or an independent label A hell, who's fussy?). Of course the odds of getting signed through one of these showcases are somewhere between slim and none, but still the madness rolls on.

Anyway, if you're interested in hawking your sonic wares for industry types, you should know about ASCAP's "Best Kept Secrets" artist showcase, being held in conjunction with Billboard magazine's 1996 International Latin Music Conference and Awards, coming up April 29-May 1.

The showcases will focus on "modern rock" (whatever that means these days) and Latin music. The date and venue for the espa*ol blowout have yet to be determined, but the mod-rock event is being held May 3-4 at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge, 754 Washington Ave., in Miami Beach. If you think this could be your big, lucky break, send a cassette with two or three original songs along with a lyric sheet and a biography to Florida's Best Kept Secrets, c/o ASCAP, 1 Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY, 10023. Be sure to mark on the envelope whether your stuff is "Modern Rock" or "Latin." The deadline for submissions is March 15.

If you want to pester somebody about the date and location of the Latin night, call 212-621-6474.

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John Floyd