Great Plains’ Presidential Punk

Remember Tom Newbold?  Before he became manager of The Ferns, Tom and I once had quite the shouting match over Birthday Party’s “Release the Bats” (as previously recounted in the Zero to 180 piece, “Winged Mammal Theme“).  At the time of the incident, I was convinced that ‘Newbs’ was merely trying to provoke.  The song’s humor eluded me, it pains me to say, nor did my musical range of vision recognize the validity of “shouty” vocals or alternative approaches to melodicism.  Only years later did it occur to me that Newbold’s enthusiasm for “Release the Bats” was, indeed, genuine.

I also remember Tom playing Gang of Four’s Entertainment, which I found rather amusing, but not for the right reasons.  Newbold’s embrace of punk and hardcore was a minor sticking point, as I had yet to be liberated musically, while my political consciousness was still in a state of deep slumber.  But it was impossible not to be swept up in the intensity of Tom’s belief in the power of music as a transcendent force, so when Newbold insisted that we check out Great Plains – led by songwriter and vocalist, Ron House – who could say no?

(L to R) Dave “Manic” Green, Mark Wyatt, Ron House, Paul Nini, Matt Wyatt

Great PlainsI’d be lying if I said that Great Plains instantly swept me off my feet.  It took at least a handful of shows before I started to understand why Newbold championed the songs of House, who I just now learned was co-owner of Used Kids Records, one of my favorite Columbus hangouts on High Street, along with (the recently-departed) Bernie’s Bagels, where I got to see The Royal Crescent Mob in the mid-80s playing their ferocious brand of funked-up rock, with a rhythm section that rivaled, if not surpassed, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, it is in no way an exaggeration to say.

House’s less-than-tuneful singing voice and the band’s more shambling moments would distract some of us initially from seeing the wit and originality of Great Plains’ music.  A turning point for me came, though, when record store owner, Curt Schieber, told me one day at School Kids (upstairs from Used Kids) that a wealthy Dutch benefactor** and passionate Great Plains fan had just underwritten the entire cost for one of the band’s 45s.  The deal, unfortunately, was conditional upon the Dutchman also engineering the session, so when Schieber informed me that the recording levels were so ridiculously high as to make the single virtually unplayable, we both had a good chuckle.

1984 Great Plains LP that was, literally, born in a barn

Great Plains LP“Pretty” is an adjective I would not use to describe the band’s sound, and yet Great Plains prove they can be melodic when they want to be on this absurdist slagging of Ohio presidential notable, Rutherford B. Hayes – a song that shows the band at their ‘poppiest’:

“Rutherford B. Hayes”     Great Plains     1984

Rutherford B. Hayes” (Zero to 180’s choice for an A-side) would remain an album track, sadly enough, that was originally released on 1984’s Born in a Barn, as well as live album, Slaves to Rock and Roll and 1989 UK release, Colorized! (not to mention 2008’s Live at WFMU).

Photo of Ron House by tinnitus photography – courtesy of Big Takeover

Ron HouseWorth noting that the “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, would see fit to review Great Plains’ recordings, while Ron House would prove to be a worthy subject for a number of publications, including The American Prospect, The Columbus Free Press, Noisey, and Rubberneck, among others.  Would you be surprised to learn that Dr. Demento himself would write and record an intro for Great Plains compilation, Length of Growth 1981-1989, released in 2000?

Today’s piece was inspired by a delightfully nutty smart phone app, Presidents vs. Aliens, that my daughter loves to play.

Presidents vs. AliensBefore you go, though, Zero to 180 is compelled to ask:  How many of you learned the US presidents while drinking milk in your elementary school cafeteria?

US presidents on milk cartons

All you need to know about Rutherford B. Hayes in just 60 seconds – courtesy of PBS

** Don’t believe everything you read, kids.  This bit about the wealthy Dutch benefactor and the too-hot recording levels is yet another example of good intentions running roughshod over the truth.  Click here for a postscript that attempts to set the record straight.

Early 90s Pop Dub (Plus Sax)

Post-Fern (and pre-Zero to 180), Chris Richardson would pursue a teaching degree at (pre-“The”) Ohio State University, while enjoying the process of multi-track recording on a roommate’s Fostex 4-track “mini studio.”  Future Fern manager and musician-in-training, Tom Newbold, would attend the same university and once arrange for a group of fellow OSU students to attend their first NRBQ live appearance in 1984 — a life-changing experience for all in attendance, as the band was especially combustible that night (Newbold would also stage periodic road trips to Cincinnati to see similarly incendiary performances of The Raisins).

WGUC’s PR director pulled strings for son to be model in 1978 ad for radio guide

Zero to 180 @ WGUC-aZero to 180 @ WGUC-b

Weekly bass lessons at OSU’s Evans Scholars fraternity house would also have a profound effect on Richardson, as budding bassist Newbold would expose the future music blogger to the counter-intuitive supposition that it is possible to write intelligently (Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Robert Palmer, Peter Guralnik, Lester Bangs) about popular music, including rock and other “beat” musics.  Newbold would plant a seed that only required 30 years or so to take root.

The Max (possibly) recording “I Think I Love You” at WGUC’s Studio, 1980Max & Bluegills @ WGUC-1980

[L to R] Michael Andrew Frank, Keith Bortz, Chris Richardson

Post-graduation, Richardson remembers seeing early Bachelors of Art gigs in Cincinnati, where he would begin his career as a classroom teacher for a primary arts school (with a Rookwood water fountain in the main hall) located directly across – coincidentally enough – former Fern venue, Shipley’s, in the University of Cincinnati area.

This Week @ Shipleys — August, 1984

Ferns @ Shipley'sRichardson would spend his final year in Cincinnati working on a very personal piece – an ecumenical plea for peace, love and understanding – whose lush, swirling mix attempts to trick listeners into recognizing the shared humanity that binds us all.   Richardson would finish the song by taking his Tascam 4-track Portastudio into the woodworking shop owned by friend, Bruce Batté, who then whipped out his tenor sax one weekend afternoon in 1991 and (despite having reed issues that day) laid down some nice horn lines:

[Pssst:  Click on triangle above to play “One (Love)” pop dub mix]

Richardson plays bass, guitar, organ, and drum machine parts, mixing the lead guitar lines and ghostly backing vocals so that the two parts switch places, left-to-right and back again, until just before Batté’s screaming tenor sax takes over.

Richardson in studio – 1981 – with rick Mosher

Zero to 180 - 1981At one point during the recording process, Richardson would consult with Ed Goldstein (post-Head Band, pre-Big Car Jack), who also owned an Alesis drum machine.  Richardson would be intrigued by Goldstein’s advice to subvert the equipment’s intended functionality to create new and not-yet-imagined possibilities, while at the same time encouraged by the percussionist’s approval of Richardson’s decision to excise one or two of the high-hat taps to make the drumming pattern sound a little more human-like.

There would be another pivotal learning moment later for Richardson, who – when introduced to a fellow bassist – would innocently inquire, “So, you play the bass guitar?” and be met with a steely,  “No — I play bass.”   Bass as in bottom.  Bass as in the deep end of the sonic spectrum.  Bass notes that are felt but not always necessarily heard.  Year later I would hear Roger Troy lead his own band at a small club directly across the river from Cincinnati and see someone masterfully put this bass-as-bottom philosophy into action and make something “simple” look so easy when, in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Fern Bassist in Seinfeld-esque “Puffy shirt” @ Bogart’s – 1984

Zero to 180 @ Bogarts - 1984(Pre-Rocksteady Kid) Richardson would attempt to imbue his final Cincinnati recording with a particularly heavy, though supple, bottom-end sound.  After relocating to the DC area in 1992, Richardson would since discover an attic-ful of classic Jamaican 60s & 70s reissues (many on CD for the first time) that revealed the existence of a vast though mostly underground “bass culture” — a musical concept that would not percolate upward into popular culture until the latter part of the 1990s when dub-style remixes became standard operating procedure on pop radio, as well as in clubs and concert venues.

minimalist rendering of Richardson at rest – by Mrs. Zero to 180

Zero to 180 - caricature

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.

“Winged Mammal Theme”: Batty B-Side

Michael Stipe and his REM bandmates, it would appear, are bat fans, as evidenced by their non-LP B-side, “Winged Mammal Theme.”   This abstract (near) instrumental take on “The Batman Theme” – flip side to their 1992 hit, “Drive” – would be rejected, interestingly enough, for the soundtrack to Batman Returns. Thankfully, this song, as Tom Hawker observes, would prove useful as tinkly background music for The Weather Channel:

“Winged Mammal Theme”     REM     1992

Before we completely leave behind the topic of bats (as I’m running out of material), it is amusing to note that – as mentioned in this previous Zero to 180 piece about Mayf Nutter – Frank Zappa once wrote (and arranged & conducted) “Boy Wonder I Love You,” a 45 by Burt Ward, who played Robin on TV’s Batman series:

“Boy Wonder I Love You”     Burt Ward     1967

Finally, “Release the Bats” by Nick Cave’s Birthday Party – I feel strangely compelled to confess – once caused a heated argument between myself and Tom Newbold, a close friend who, sadly, is no longer with us.  Tom once played “Release the Bats” at considerable volume in close quarters, at which I took great offense.  At the time, I accused Tom of “musical assault,” while he insisted that he was simply motivated by great art that required sufficient amplification to be fully appreciated.

REM 45The dear, departed “Newbs,” in fact, directly stoked my fascination with music history as a result of my having failed colossally to help Tom settle a musical debate that should have been a slam dunk.  The issue of contention:  rock and roll’s place of origin, geographically speaking.  “Uh, England?” this hopeless Beatlemaniac meekly offered from the back seat.