6/9 Chords, Maj 7ths, and Tritones

With the departure of founding members, Michael Andrew Frank & Keith Bortz, and the arrival of the two RicksMosher & Haller — plus new drummer, Bob Mitchell, who was (get this) from a different high school, The Max had evolved into The Ferns.by 1983, most historians would agree, with bassist Chris Richardson being the lone member (though not initially) from the original Max and the Bluegills era.  This change in personnel would result in a pronounced shift away from blues-based improvisation and toward tighter songcraft with a more contemporary rock sound.

The Ferns, as it turned out, would largely be a summertime configuration that was active between college semesters.  As Mitchell expounds:

“The Ferns were interesting because we were nineteen or twenty years old playing original songs in bars and clubs, songs that were written mostly by Rick and Rick. Great songs, but unfamiliar originals nonetheless.  Therefore, the sizes of the audiences were never a serious threat to the fire code limits.  We did cover The Clash, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and [Bruce] Springsteen.

“There was never a shortage of gigs with Newbs [Tom Newbold] as our Manager.  He used to make flyers and posters that looked like ransom notes (different letters and pictures cut out of magazines and glued together).  Then he would staple them to every telephone pole in Clifton.  The venues I recall playing were Shipley’s, B.W. Talgoods, Bogart’s, and The Jockey Club.”

 Note “ironic” use of kitschy album cover  +  Star Wars spoof – with Haller as Chewie

Ferns-Live-cFerns-Live-b

 It would be a stretch to say The Ferns were contemporaries of The Raisins

Ferns (and Raisins) at ShipleysYes, The Ferns had somehow given someone the slip at Newport, KY’s beloved and bedraggled punk venue, The Jockey Club, and once played a set of their modern rock originals without incident there.

Haller, unperturbed before big Jockey Club show

Ferns @ Jockey Club-aMosher mid-point, unaware of camera      Mitchell — surrounded by pine paneling

Ferns @ Jockey Club-bFerns @ Jockey Club-c

Rick Haller (music) and Bob Mitchell (lyrics) would collaborate on a song – “Every” – that The Ferns would record on glorious one-inch tape at a 16-track recording facility adjacent to Cincinnati’s legendarily-industrious Mill Creek Valley in the late summer of 1984.

[Pssst:  Click on triangle above to play “Every” by The Ferns]

Rick Haller:  Guitar & vocals
Rick Mosher:  Guitar & vocals
Bob Mitchell:  Drums & vocals
Chris Richardson:  Bass

Mitchell recalls the creative process:

“I wrote the lyrics of ‘Every’ to address all the girls I had fallen for at that point, real and fictional, as if they were one person.  Rick Haller wrote a nice melody for it.  And, he had the best singing voice of all of us.”

One’s ears cannot help but be drawn to the shimmering 6/9 and Major 7th chords being expressed by guitarists Haller and Mosher, in case you’re wondering precisely what that is tickling your ear.  Richardson also points out that it was actually Mosher who came up with the sweet, string-bending bass line on the chorus that helps tease out the “Major 7-ness” of the C Maj 7 chord.

Fern “creation myth” crafted by Manager, Tom Newbold

Ferns-Live-dThe Ferns would delight in the considerable leap in technical sophistication at Cincinnati’s Reel Pro sound studio — a markedly superior experience to past recording efforts and one that stands.out in Mosher’s mind to this day:

“I remember there was a separate drum booth, very tight quarters.  I think the board was a small Trident?  The engineer knew his room well, and I agree, I am still blown away by the fidelity.  The engineer had a friend in watching the mix, and on ‘Nice Try,’ he used a slap back echo on the snare — he also manually panned the octave guitar part during the “what do you think” section!  This was also, I think, the first time we double tracked vocals, and I think we did some form of that on every song!  We recorded this at the end of one summer, I think the final mix was completed the night before I went back to Syracuse.  It was a great, creative experience in my recollection!”

Another Newbold notable — with sales pitch for Ferns 45

Ferns-Live-aBut alas – as Mitchell remembers – the group would not hold together much longer:

“It was the end of the summer of 1984, and we were all going back to our respective colleges.  That was it.  After we recorded these songs, I don’t think The Ferns ever played together again.”

Mitchell would subsequently form a new group, (pre-Snoop) Dog Pound (“after The Ferns wilted”), with Haller and bassist Newbold (a ‘protege’ of Richardson, who gave lessons to the future Fern manager in exchange for 6-packs of Tab cola and lyrics to Raisins songs written primarily from memory), along with – foreshadowing – keyboardist, Tim Miller  (trivia:  Richardson’s second-grade classmate).  Mitchell would later join forces briefly with tight Cincinnati power pop trio, The Castaways.

Zero to 180 (using Newbold’s bass) guests with The Dog Pound – Columbus, 1985

Dog Pound + Zero to 180

Principal songwriter, Rick Mosher, meanwhile, would be preparing to make his big move eastward

Ferns & Tritones at Cincinnati’s Bogart’s — Next friday:  male fantasy show

Ferns (& Tritones) @ Bogart's

The Tritone, as I would learn, is the interval exactly halfway between (i.e., 3 whole steps) a root note and its octave.  Together, the root (e.g., C) and its augmented 4th (F#), or flatted-fifth (however you want to look at it), make for a sinister pairing of notes (commonly known as “the devil’s interval”).  Dr. Willliam Irwin, in his October 31, 2012 piece on Psychology Today‘s website, “Black Sabbath and the Secret of Scary Music:  The Devil’s Interval – Is Evil in the Ear of the Beholder?” would point out the irony of heavy metal’s lumpen reputation, given its origin in the complex and intelligent realm of classical music:

“From the opening riffs of the song ‘Black Sabbath‘ through most of their classic albums, the music can sound downright evil.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that the secret to this sound is something known as the Devil’s Interval or diabolus in musica. The sound is so ominous that this interval was supposedly banned by clerics in the Middle Ages for fear that it would raise the devil himself.  Still, what actually makes this musical interval sound evil?  The diabolus in musica is also known as a tritone (or diminished fifth).  Spanning three [whole] tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener.

“You might suspect that the boys in Black Sabbath rediscovered this tritone in a dusty old tome and purposely used it to create a sinister sound.  But no.  The tritone came to them by way of classical music.  Geezer Butler was a fan of The Planets, an orchestral suite by the composer Gustav Holst.  On the day before Tony Iommi came up with the epoch-making riff for the song ‘Black Sabbath’  Butler played ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ on his bass.  Guess what figures prominently in ‘Mars’?  The tritone.  It must have stuck in Iommi’s subconscious because out it came the next day.  The tritone became a signature element of Black Sabbath’s music and a mainstay in later heavy metal music.”

 1983 Ferns 45 proves that Keith Bortz initially served as the band’s percussionist!

Ferns 45

“Stern Productions”:  playful nod to long-time Fern fan, Joe Stern

 

Ferns Trivia:  Six Raisins of Separation

Legendary Cincinnati band, The Raisins – who would exert a strong influence over the group’s overall sound and musical sensibility – played matchmaker in bringing together The Ferns, when Raisin keyboardist, Ricky Nye, in fact, introduced Mitchell to Mosher during a break at a Raisins gig.

Maximum Schlock & Roll

Drummer Keith Bortz of The Max – formerly Max and the Bluegills – was instrumental (so to speak) in getting permission to stage a concert in the group’s high school auditorium on a Friday afternoon in April, 1981.  Students were gouged at the door — one-dollar admission!  Cannot recall whether band members received a cut of the gate (not to mention whether the boys even divvied up the proceeds with pre-headliner, Trilogy).

The Max – WHHS Auditorium – Cincinnati, Ohio – April 24, 1981
[photos courtesy of Chatterbox Photographer, Doug May]

Max & the Bluegills (live)-a

The previous year, the group secured its first paid gig as entertainment for the bar mitzvah party of our high school counselor’s son (again, entirely due to Keith Bortz’s negotiations).  $225 divided by three players — never again would The Max even come close to earning that much money in a single engagement.  Although it wasn’t for lack of trying:  the band once placed an ad in The American Israelite as a bar mitzvah rock band – only to discover their name misspelled as Max and the Gluegills!

Newest Bluegill, Rick Mosher, at left — 1981 High School Concert

Max & the Bluegills (live)-bNo doubt about it, The Max (as the school paper’s arts critic would note) would suffer from “intonation” problems, the group’s vocals would be “mediocre,” and tightness, indeed, “did not abound when outstanding rhythms were attempted.”  Fortunately, the audience managed to enjoy itself (i.e., inmates running the asylum) despite the band’s failings.

Local press yawns:  Concert review in school newspaper

Max & Bluegills @ WHHS-1Max & Bluegills @ WHHS-2

And yet one magical evening, the original power trio would channel the spirits and rise above their youthful inexperience for an extended moment in time.  The three musicians would exult in triumph later when they played back their home-spun recording, assured that (for once) the band had something fairly worthwhile on tape … only to discover that the tape had run out prematurely!  The boombox, alas, would only capture 2 minutes 20 seconds of an especially inspired Max & the Bluegills performance:

[Pssst:  Click on triangle to play “Unnamed Instrumental” by Max and the Bluegills]

This unnamed instrumental would be used by the group as a yardstick against which all future endeavors would be measured.

Photo of The Max in Color – one of few in existence

Max & the Bluegills - Chez MosherInterestingly enough, “I Think I Love You” — the Max & the Bluegills song featured in the previous post — had already been recorded the year prior at the (no-frills) sound facility inside classical radio’s WGUC-FM, located on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The 2-hour recording session had been a birthday present from the station’s public relations director and mother of Zero to 180 founder, Chris Richardson.

Shh!  Carol Richardson at University of Cincinnati’s WGUC-FM —
historic site of Max and the Bluegills’ 1st recording session

Carol Richardson @ WGUC FMLink to the next chapter in the Max and the Bluegills saga.

Early 80s Cincinnati Power Ballad

If it’s true that Aerosmith invented the “power ballad” in 1973 with their prom-rock classic, “Dream On,” then let history take note that Cincinnati teen rockers – Max & the Bluegills – would enter a sound studio 8 years later to record their own aching power ballad about unrequited love’s endless torment.

Birthday cakeZero to 180 would thus like to celebrate its 3rd birthday in nepotistic (and bittersweet) fashion with what proved to be the swansong of its founder’s high school rock group:

Pssst!  Click on the link above to play “I Think I Love You” by Max & the Bluegills from 1981

Guitar & vocals:  Michael Andrew Frank
2nd guitar & piano:  Rick Mosher
Drums:  Keith Bortz
Bass:  Chris Richardson

I Think I Love You” is a personal plea written just a couple short years before the singer’s departure to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, where his art would explode into a dazzling multitude of vectors (as celebrated in this Zero to 180 piece from July, 2015).

Michael (left) Sharing Vocals with David Stallings

Art shot of Michael & DavidBy this point, the band (whose name had been shortened to simply The Max to save time) would find its original power trio – Michael Frank, Keith Bortz & Chris Richardson – augmented by second guitarist, Rick Mosher.  But alas, 1981 would see Bortz and Mosher take their final high school.exam — and the band their final bow by year’s end.

(Clockwise from left) Keith Bortz, Mike Frank, Rick Mosher, Chris Richardson
[image courtesy of Sheva Weeks]

Max & the Gluegills

Link to encore Max and the Bluegills piece!

Zero to 180 Milestones to Date

  • Inaugural Zero to 180 post that establishes a bona fide cross-cultural link between  Cincinnati (via James Brown’s music recorded and distributed by King Records) and Kingston, Jamaica (i.e., Prince Buster’s rocksteady salute to Soul Brother #1).
  • 1st anniversary piece that features an exclusive “Howard Dean” remix of a delightful Sesame Street song about anger management (with a special rant about how WordPress’s peculiarities made me homicidal the moment I launched this blog).
  • 2nd anniversary piece that refuses to acknowledge the milestone but instead celebrates the under-sung legacy of songwriter and session musician, Joe South – with a link to South’s first 45, a novelty tune that playfully laments Texas’s change in status as the nation’s largest state upon Alaska’s entry into the Union.