(Inter) Galactic Twist Queens

One of my mom’s neighbors and good friends was present at the founding of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen and served as part of an accompanying group of renegade (redundant?) performance artists — agents of history who helped to generate the band’s initial buzz.  Yet, their story remains largely undocumented.

Maggie – Twist Queen Emeritus

Maggie - Twist Queen EmeritusMaggie, my mom’s friend in Ann Arbor, was part of an ensemble irreverently known as The Galactic Twist Queens and gracious enough to share a few memories of her unique contributions to the band’s stage presence:

George [Frayne, a.k.a., ‘Commander Cody’] was working on his Masters in painting at the time of the inception of Commander Cody.  He asked his friends at art school if anyone wanted to be in the band.  Who could resist?  I was one of 3 or 4 ‘Galactic Twist Queens’ one being Pat Oleszko, a performance artist of some renown in NYC.

Unfortunately, the slides are long gone, but what they were was oil and a dab of color squished between two glass slides!  I think we also showed a few home movies of 8-year-olds tap dancing on top of the ‘psycho-dulic’ color slides.

Nobody had much musical talent at the time, but we had fun.  We were asked to open for Canned Heat at the Grande Ballroom on Grand River in Detroit.  George and the musicians were beginning to move in the direction of rockabilly, so most of the performers showed up in cowboy hats, boots and plaid cowboy shirts.  One of the Queens showed up in a pink cowgirl costume,  I wore a dress made out of flag bunting, and Pat, I can’t remember what she wore, but I remember she had a whip!

The audience, stoked on [hemp], ready for Canned Heat, couldn’t quite figure out the rockabilly band,  I think it is safe to say we were ahead of our time!”

Pat Oleszko – Twist Queen who later turned pro

Pat OleszkoFormer Twist Queen and aforementioned performance artist of renown, Pat Oleszko, was kind enough to chime in from the road, having just finished a residency at the Women’s Studies Workshop in Rosendale, New York:

“Boy oh buoy that was a long time ago.  A minor point but it was the Inter-Galactic Twist Queens.  We were community minded you know.

Well, of course the tape, the mess and bluster of the performance, which inspired a full-out brawl at one fraternity house when they realized they had hired some at least temporary anarchists to perform, was not there.  The band was a theater piece which ranged from 7 to 25, and that doesn’t get on tape.  I remember Andy Stein who play[ed] with Guy’s All Star Shoe Band on Garrison Keillor’s show one time on the show, a re-onion of snorts, introducing them as the best live band in the country.  Might i say, candidly, and without attribution, that so many years later, broken up into other musical entities, it was awful.

“One and only posed band photo” – Commander’s house – Plymouth Rd. – Oct. 1968
Chris Frayne (umbrella), Marquis du Soul, Pierre Henri Duvall de la Fontembleu,
and a cast of thousandsCommander Cody's early early years

Andy Stein, long-time fiddler (and blower) for Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band on public radio’s Prairie Home Companion, was also good enough to respond to my query about the early days of the band’s history:

“I don’t remember a Maggie as one of the Twist queens.  But The Intergalactic Twist Queens were not performing with the band that much when I joined in Fall of ‘68.  I think I was first accosted by Cody & [Bill] Kirchen on State Street between Hill & Packard in Fall of ’67 or Spring of ’68.  The Queens, as I understood, were the Green(e) Sisters, Bonnie and Sandy.  Bonnie married a close friend and sometimes bus driver/roadie for the band, Paul Noël.  Sandy first lived with Cody’s brother (deceased) and then Rick Higgenbotham, a long time roadie.  He lives in the D.C. area, as well as Bill [who relocated to Austin, TX in 2011].  Bill and especially John Tichy, who was, as I understand it, the first band leader of the ‘Fantastic Surfing Beavers’ that became CC & his LPA.  Tichy is also a college professor, so maybe his brain is in the best shape of all of us.”

Andy Stein & John Tichy — the early years

Andy Stein and John TichyJohn Tichy, now an “engineering rock star” (i.e., Professor, Mechanical Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) would also, thankfully, chime in:

“As to my recollections, George and I were a sort of odd couple – engineering school straight guy and art school beatnik.  I vaguely recall our playing the U-M Dentistry School Ball, dental students and dates in formal wear.  At that time, if engineers were straight, dental students were straighter.  The general idea of course was to “blow their minds,” if you pardon the cliché of the era — mission accomplished.  I was as astounded and surprised as the attendees, who were horrified.  I hope their dental practices did not suffer.  The show also featured Chris Frayne’s dancing happy teeth movies.”

Zero to 180 is fascinated by the uproar caused at the University of Michigan Dentistry School Ball, as it sounds vaguely similar to the scandal stoked by The Velvet Underground (and Gerard Malanga & Edie Sedgwick, in particular, with their improvised ‘whip dance’), who were hired as entertainment for the New York Society for Clinical Psychology’s annual convention in January, 1966.

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen:  1st concert performance
Canterbury House – Ann Arbor – 1968Commander Cody - Canterbury '68

Most important of all, the good Commander himself – George Frayne – generously offered his singular take on history:

“the GTQs were anne wilson and her friend natalie whatwashernameannyway.  they were augmented by pat oleszko ” the hippe strippie” and a large woman whose name I completely forget who just stood there wrapped in an american flag.  in addition to the dance corps was always a number (aint she sweet) by the tap dancing green sisters sandy and bonnie.  added to this was a 3-5 piece kazoo section, 4-6 guitars and a sax player named hugh.  sometimes there were more people in the band than in the crowd and when we showed up at a frat house none of the ‘brothers’ would show, what with all the long hairs.  we escaped with our lives a couple of times.  we featured my delicate version of ‘Please dont Drop That H bomb on me’ done ala sun ra.  andy stein and bill kirchen joined the band, the music got serious and the GTQs and the whole xtra crew disappeared into history.”

Vintage photo from Rocky 52’s definitive CC & LPA discography

Commander CodyInteresting, too, how there seems to be more information on the web in just the year or so since I first started pulling this piece together.  For instance, Ed Ward‘s interview with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from the April 16, 1970 edition of Rolling Stone now comes up when you search “Galactic Twist Queens” and includes a few choice paragraphs about the band’s free-form Ann Arbor days, particularly this one:

“Slowly, a cult began to grow around the band.  Their appearances became marked by all sorts of bizarre occurrences.  For instance, there were the Galactic Twist Queens.  First two of them, then seven, then ten, then twelve of them — weird females who would dance while the band played.  There was Teenie Chiffon, an ex-Who groupie who is now the [?] in an American flag and do jumping jacks or get on the ground and do the breast stroke; and an aggregation called the Fabulous Greene Sisters Tapdancing Act.”

Also online now is the publishing history of the Kingman Daily Miner and its weekly companion publication, Laughlin, Nevada Entertainer, whose arts write-up used to promote a 1995 riverboat casino cruise with Commander Cody would include the following bit of band history:

“It was in that year [1967], Frayne and his pal John Tic(h)y, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, put together an offbeat rock band that was characterized as a ‘happening’ rather than anything else.  Taking their name from the Commander Cody film character of the early ’50s and with special guests, the ‘Tap Dancing Green(e) Sisters,’ ‘Pat the Hippie Strippie’ and the ‘Galactic Twist Queens,’ Frayne and the boys were toying with the music side of things and relishing in the carnival side.  But the group became serious about their music when Frayne realized he didn’t fit in the ‘actual job situation’ of becoming an assistant professor of art.”

CC & LPA:  2nd group from Berkeley to have a successful rock music career after Country Joe & the Fish — outside Cody’s Bookstore – July 4, 1969

Commander Cody - early years

Cody and His Airmen would, indeed, get serious about their music:  “This band,” Ed Ward writes at the top of his 1970 Rolling Stone piece, “wants to do for country music what [Paul] Butterfield did for the blues.”

Important to point out – especially to any youngsters reading this piece – the bravery involved in the band’s embrace of the ‘country’ side of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots before it was respectable, long before Willie Nelson and his brethren helped forge a brotherhood between the “hippies” and the “rednecks” (to paraphrase from Jan Reid’s The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock from 1974).  It is not an exaggeration to say that one risked derision and even violence for playing “country roots” music at that time, as attests London’s noted counterculture publication, The International Times, who would document the early Lost Planet Airmen era and reference the (Inter) Galactic Twist Queens in this piece from 1973:

“Bit by bit the first Commander Cody band came together, with strange outriders and musicians, like the ‘West Virginia Creeper’ who played Pedal Steel and a troupe of women calling themselves the Galactic Twist Queens who would show up to up to writhe around the stage and a terrible singer called the Marquis De Soul and a drummer with a pronounced taste for Jazz and Soul.  It was the frothy mad times of 1967, there was a lot of Ozone about.  John Sinclair was a preaching the gospel of revolution, the Guitar Army thing was a gathering, the MC5 were hovering and about to land.  The promoters in the big halls around Detroit weren’t keen on bands who kept playing for free, and the audiences wanted the psychedelic drone at full volume.  The appearance of a band that played country music as well as rock and roll was greeted with hoots of outrage.  The fifties were still too close and the reaction against ‘greasy kids stuff’ was strong.”

Bill Kirchen & the Seventh Seal – 1967

Bill Kirchen & Seventh Seal - 1967, manGuitarist Bill Kirchen would leave Ann Arbor’s respected “rock and raga” ensemble The Seventh Seal in 1967 to help form Commander Cody with Frayne and Tichy.  This excerpt from an Ann Arbor News review of the ‘infamous’ 1967 “love in” at Belle Isle does an effective job of conveying the heavy musical vibes in force in Detroit and its environs, as it describes the sounds that went down at The Seventh Seal’s earlier free live shows in Ann Arbor:

Seventh Seal at West Park – photo that accompanied article excerpted below

Bill Kirchen & Seventh Seal - West Park 67“Based on ragas, the standard form of music in India, modal and dorian scales interlaced with blues and contemporary rock and roll, the music wafts from the West Park band shell with an icy chill of glittering waters sluicing from chasms in the Himalayas.  Six speakers aid in pouring out the concoction with a flexibility that allows the group to infuse ‘My Favorite Thing(s),’ a pop number from the score of The Sound of Music, with a reedy resonance, then turn on an old English ballad, ‘The Jack of Diamonds,’ with Bill Kirchen, guitarist who works for the University’s Institute for Social Research, giving the lyrics everything he’s got vocally.”

Commander Cody - early years-aCommander Cody - early years-b

As Pat Oleszko has already observed, no recording (even The Early Years) is be able to capture the multimedia/performance art aspects of the band’s 1967 Ann Arbor era.  Nevertheless, the kick-off track from the band’s debut album, Lost in the Ozone, in which Commander Cody fantasizes about forcibly commandeering a jet in his quest to flee Detroit and get back to his woman in good ol’ Tennessee, does a splendid job of conveying the group’s original absurdist bop and boogie underpinnings:

Joel Selvin would rightly include Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in his  “Top 100 Bay-Area Bands of the 1970s” – published in the December 19, 1999 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle:

“Bringing a blend of barrelhouse C&W and Southern rockabilly to the San Francisco scene, Cody and cohorts were a lovable, oddball bunch — from goofy Bill Kirchen on guitar to friendly Andy Stein on sax and violin to the cigar-chomping Commander himself.  Always underrated, Cody and company opened the door for country and western in the rock underground, and were an obvious inspiration to the whole Austin, Texas, scene.  Special mention for the holiday record ‘Daddy’s Drinking Up All Our Christmas.'”

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen:  Mid-to-Late Early Years

Commander Cody - mid-late early years

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 sax takes over.

Richardson in studio – 1981 – with rick Mosher

Zero to 180 - 1981(photo by Leslie Spitz-Edson)

At 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

Bachelors of Art: Married to Music

The dissolution of Cincinnati’s The Ferns by 1985 would find Rick Mosher in common cause with keyboardist Tim Miller (ex-Dog Pound).  Rick & Tim’s new musical unit would play out live around town – but eventually grow weary of Cincinnati’s fairly provincial views with regard to modern sounds in popular music.  The situation would come to a head.

Mosher in a candid moment – early 1980sRick Mosher - early 1980s

As Mosher recounts:

“We left Cincy in 87 and never returned.  We could not afford to live in MA, so we
lived in NH and commuted in for gigs.  The scene was way different than Cincy;
you played one 45-minute set, usually with three other bands.  You started on
Tuesday nights and had to work your way up to weekends by drawing crowds.
No one got paid until you made the weekend rotation, and then you were lucky if
you got $50.  It was a blast playing in front of strangers in a big city!  We made it to
the weekends within a year or so, headlined occasionally.”

Before leaving town, however, the band (possibly Mosher) came up with a brilliant name: Bachelors of Art.

(L to R) Rick Mosher, Mark Richards, Jim Faris, Tim Miller

Bachelors of Art-1989

The unmarried musicians, with Mosher as principal songwriter, would set to work on recording songs for their debut album, Bag.

“I wrote all of the songs on Bag, and we recorded the whole thing on a ½ inch Tascam reel to reel.  We dedicated one track to SMPTE [timecode] so we did not have to record keys to tape.  The drums were mixed to stereo and the vocals got two tracks.”

“‘No Reaction‘ was written about girls and not getting recognition as a band.  I am
sure you can hear the lead section is directly ripped off from [Bram Tchaikovsky’s] ‘Girl of my Dreams‘!  I was pretty happy about how that song came out given our limitations.  I think it has one of the best drum sounds on the record.”

[Pssst:  Click on triangle above to play “No Reaction” by Bachelors of Art]

“‘Safe to Be Alone‘ was written after I read a book [1987’s And the Band Played On] by Randy Shilts about the AIDS crisis.  I was pretty moved by the story, which documented how the disease made its way to the US and how it spread throughout our continent.”

[Pssst:  Click on triangle above to play “Safe to Be Alone” by Bachelors of Art]

The Bachelors played gigs in the Boston and NYC areas primarily over the next 7 years – even playing at storied CBGB’s, as Mosher’s ReverbNation bio notes.  “We had been in Boston for a couple of years when Bag came out,” says Mosher, “It opened some doors for us.  We found a lawyer who worked pro-bono and eventually recorded a second project [1992’s G] in a real recording studio.”

Bachelors of Art’s 1992 follow-up, GBachelors of Art-1992aa


1994 Bachelors of Art cassette EPBachelors of Art-1994aa

Mosher and Miller, moreover, “put together an exceptional recording studio, Binery Studio, and recorded many bands through 2006,” as reports ReverbNation.

The Bachelors – alas and alack – would part ways in 1994.

Unfinished Business:
Zero to 180’s Interview with Rick Mosher

Q:  At any point in the group’s history did band members ruin the story line by getting married?
A:  Tim got married first!  There were three bachelors in the group still, so we did not take issue.  When we finished pursuing the original scene, the final members of the band learned 60 covers and got a regular gig in VT playing ski lodges, very lucrative.  We changed our name then to “the good timin’, hot-doggin’, ski party band!”

Q:  Your joining The Max brought a modern pop aesthetic to what had been a power trio “jamming” approach.  The Max’s evolution into The Ferns would allow you to embrace a more structured, modern rock path.  How you describe the change in artistic direction from The Ferns to the Bachelors of Art?
A:  Well, The Raisins had a huge influence on everyone, especially me.  Going to music school for college also opened up the world of theory to me, which had a big influence on my writing.  I am still convinced that some day I will be able to craft a 12-tone pop song!  I was always a big fan of groups like the Eagles and The Who etc, which also influenced my writing and playing style.

Mosher, 1981, in the studio with The MaxMax & Bluegills - Rick Mosher(photo by Leslie Spitz-Edson)


Q:  Looking back, what are your jazz impressions of the Boston music scene in the late 1980, early 1990s when the Bachelors were plying their art?  What favorite covers did the band enjoy playing?
A:  We played some 80s classics given our instrumentation – The Cure, Blue Nile – and our drummer at the time was a big fan of Canadian music, so we played stuff that I had never hear, Blue Rodeo for one.  We always played one cover in our one set just to get a read on the crowd.

Q:  With regard to your latest work, how long did it take for you to write and record these songs?
A:  I did “release” something new two years ago — the album was released under the name Dean and was called “Closer” after the title track.  I feel very good about the recording, though it took too long to complete – two years!   I feel overall it represents some of my best songwriting and playing.  Tim [Miller] is on it somewhat, and I played with a solid drummer [Tom Evans] and excellent bass player [Clayton Young].  Unfortunately, scheduling became difficult, so after awhile, I ended up doing most of the vocals.  Tim played keys, me on guitars, keys, harmonica, and dobro.  It was a lot of fun to make and reflected my transition from marriage to being single and the changes in the structure with the kids, who were pretty young at the time.

ReverbNation adds a little more to the story:

Dean was formed in 1999 as a solo project.  The first release was more of an EP, with 7 songs, and Rick played pretty much everything.  After working through some major life transitions, death and divorce to name a few, Rick wrote a batch of songs, which were finally recorded and mixed this year.”

Link to Rick Mosher’s Dean – courtesy of ReverbNation

Rick Mosher & friend — DOUBLENECK GUITARS on Zero to 180

Rick Mosher and friend

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 ChewieFerns-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 panelingFerns @ 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 NewboldFerns-Live-d

The 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 45Ferns-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, 1985Dog 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 showFerns (& 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.


These two once substituted subversive lyrics in 2nd grade singalong

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

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 Number One).
  • 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.

(Please Not) “Steel Guitar Rag”

Just when you thought you couldn’t take another version of “Steel Guitar Rag,” this 1959 version by The Dynatones, surprisingly (despite the absence of a steel guitar) swaggers:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     The Dynatones     1959

Here’s a great swing boogie version by Rudi Wairata & His Hawaiian Boys that brings to mind the radical rockabilly sounds produced by the Brothers Tielman, featuring Andy and his 10-string electric guitar:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     Rudi Wairata & His Hawaiian Boys     1963

Roy Smeck‘s manic, rapid-fire arrangement from 1938 still amazes and amuses more than seven decades later:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     Roy Smeck     1938

Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, as you would expect, play “Steel Guitar Rag” Bakersfield-style in an arrangement that spotlights the sophisticated steel guitar stylings of Tom Brumley:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     Buck Owens & the Buckaroos     1965

If you’re curious to hear “Steel Guitar Rag” as a sax instrumental led by King Curtis, then I have good news: :

“Steel Guitar Rag”     King Curtis    1957

Check out Hardrock Gunter‘s version from 1972, with Merle Travis-style multi-track guitars that sound recorded at half-speed for that ‘Alvin & Chipmunk-style’ tinkly effect when played back at regular speed:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     Hardrock Gunter     1972

Click here to enjoy an immaculately-recorded western swing version by Kelso Herston & the Funky Guitar Band from 1971 — likewise from Noel Boggs, whose version from 1961 kicks off with bongo drums.  Jerry Byrd bequeaths to all of humanity a(n) Hawaiian-flavored version from 1950, while Chet Atkins whips up a crisp country pop arrangement from 1962John Fahey, unsurprisingly, would arrange his own bottleneck acoustic version, while Barbara Mandrell would do a cracking country jazz version on Johnny Cash’s 1976 Christmas Special.

The (fabulous) Ventures would imbue the song with their own inimitable spirit in 1963, as The Sgro Brothers (Dom & Tony) would record a toe-tappin’ harmonica version in 1975 with the great Johnny Gimble (possibly) on fiddle.  Curious to hear a Finnish rockabilly version from The Cosh Boys?  Or the astounding Junior Brown playing a tastefully restrained live version?  Don’t forget Hank Thompson & the Brazos Valley Boysbrash and brassy, Vegas-styled version from country music’s supposed first live album, 1961’s At the Golden Nugget.  That same year, Danny & the Zeltones would feed their lead instrument (guitar? keyboard?) through a rotating Leslie speaker on a shuffle version that annoys with its oddly brittle sound.

King Curtis King 45Note:  Many versions of “Steel Guitar Rag” list three composers – McAuliffe, Merle Travis, Cliff Stone – versus the lone songwriting credit for McAuliffe, who first recorded the song with Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys in 1936 on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive (I assume it’s safe to disregard Rudi Wairata, who would also put in his own songwriting claim in 1963).  Song publishers, music historians — what sayeth ye?.

Versions of “Steel Guitar Rag” that I hope to hear some day include the one by Don & Donna & the Gennessee Country Boys, as well as by New Zealand’s own guitar army, The Multiple Guitars of Peter Posa.

Alvino Rey’s Rag of Steel

Sadly, too many people are unaware that, before Les Paul and his electronic wizardry, steel guitarist bandleader, Alvino Rey, had already developed the prototype for the first modern electric guitar and created the “Sono-Vox,” a precursor to the “talk box,” as I learned this past August.

Check out the multi-tracked steel guitar parts on Alvino Rey’s fresh arrangement of the Leon McAuliffe standard, “Steel Guitar Rag” that includes some fun call-and-response between steel guitar and orchestra:

“Steel Guitar Rag”     Alvino Rey     1961

[*Earnestly hoping this 1961 arrangement will once again be posted]

Dramatic ending — glissando effect immediately makes one think of Rey’s work with Juan Garcia Esquivel.  Since streaming audio of this recording is not currently available, “Idaho” (from the same 1961 album of “re-recordings” disguised by Dot as an anthology) is another classic demonstration of Rey’s smooth glissando technique:

“Idaho”     Alvino Rey     1961

Alvino Rey:  Musically Futuristic Coda II

As MetaFilter points out, this scene from the film Jam Session is “possibly the best available demonstration of Alvino Rey as a bandleader, showman and soloist.  Includes both the volume/tone technique and the full singing guitar treatment.  Stringy, the talking steel guitar, wins a cutting contest with clarinetist, Skeets Herfurt.”

“St. Louis Blues”     Alvino Rey + Stringy the Talking Steel Guitar     1942?

Stringy, The Talking Steel Guitar Puppet!


Leon’s “Steel Guitar Chimes”

Zero to 180 couldn’t take it any more, so it added a new category – steel guitar – and instantly populated a set of 25 pieces from the past three years that feature many of the world’s foremost steel guitarists, including today’s post, which is the first to highlight the work of Leon McAuliffe, one of the first players to use multi-neck steel guitars (as well as different tunings on each neck, according to Brad’s Pages of Steel).

Nice to see that the Texas State Historical Association has a biographical profile of the famed steel guitarist bandleader and one-time Bob Wills sideman, Leon McAuliffe, for whom Wills coined the famous phrase, “Take it away, Leon!”  Good ol’ PragueFrank confirms that the gently rockin’ “Steel Guitar Chimes” was recorded in either 1958 or 1960, possibly in Dallas, TX:

“Steel Guitar Chimes”     Leon McAuliff(e)     1958?

[link no longer active = awaiting replacement audio]

“Steel Guitar Chimes” would actually be included on a different Starday LP – Mister Western Swing, released 1962 – than the one pictured in the video clip above

Leon McAuliff Starday LP-aaBillboard would review Mister Western Swing in its June 23, 1962 “Music Week” column:

“Leon McAuliff and His Cimarron Boys turn in a fine flock of performances here on such Western classics as ‘Steel Guitar Rag,’ ‘Panhandle Rag,’ ‘Waterbaby Boogie,’ ‘Steel Guitar Chimes,’ and ‘Cimarron Rag.’  McAuliff infuses them with his inimitable Western dance band beat. featuring sock steel guitar work.  A solid set for Western fans and one that could grab plenty of pop action as well.”

“Steel Guitar Chimes” originally began life as a 78 released in 1938 by Roy Acuff And His Crazy Tennesseans, featuring the dobro work of Cousin Jody (née, James Clell Summey).

Link to 7-minute video documentary, The Steel Guitar Rag Story with Leon McAuliffe. about the origins of Leon’s classic steel guitar instrumental.

One question that will likely never get settled:  is Leon’s surname spelled “McAuliff” (as it says on the album cover for Starday LP Swingin’ Western Strings of Leon McAuliff) or “McAuliffe” like it says most everywhere else?

Dune Buggy Racing Instrumentals

Interesting to see Kelly Gordon and (especially) Shorty Rogers attempt to muscle in on the hot rod scene with a late 60s concept album — contemporaneously titled Bug-In! — that pays musical tribute to the hot rod’s off-road counterpart, the dune buggy.  Gordon and Rogers splurge on a gatefold album design packed with photos – but alas, no musician credits.  Can only conclude that Los Angeles studio musicians (á la., “Wrecking Crew”) are the unnamed members of Gordon ‘n’ Rogers’ Inter-Urban Electric A & E Pit Crew and Rhythm Band.

Capitol LP – 1969

Bug In LP

The final track on side one, “Baja Boot,” caught my ear — here is an edited version (just under two minutes) that makes the song even more radio-friendly:

Pssst!   Click on the link above to play a (shortened) version of “Baja Boot” by Gordon n’ Rogers’ Inter-Urban Electric A & E Pit Crew and Rhythm Band

The barely-legible text on the front cover points out how Gordon & Rogers’ contribution to the racing community fills a dunester niche that only now is being filled:

The newest [illegible] on wheels … actual sounds of the various buggies in action … musical themes capturing the total emotional input of the drivers … music recreating the unique visual characteristics of the different dunesters.

Silodrome – a website that highlights aspects of our “Gasoline Culture” – reveals the fascinating story behind the Baja Boot:  a 450 hp dune buggy built in complete secrecy by top GM automotive engineer, Vic Hickey (in just under 4 weeks) and then raced by Steve McQueen in 1968 and then again in 1969.  How did the “King of Cool” (and cinema’s own Cincinnati Kid) fare with the massive 4×4 dune buggy, the ‘Baja Boot’?  Click here to learn the hilarious outcomes of both events – more info at Steve McQueen Online.

Steve McQueen (or possibly Mad Max) racing his Baja Boot

Steve McQueen & the Baja Boot

James Glickenhaus would buy Steve McQueen’s renowned dune buggy in 2010 – although ScoutDude would loudly question its authenticity on this blog’s comment section.

Sad to discover that the dune buggy is the neglected stepchild of the musical hot rod world, as very little has been written since The Surfaris released “Dune Buggy” in 1964.  Other notable songs that celebrate the lowly dune buggy?  Zero to 180 wants to know.

Shorty Rogers (Zero to 180 readers might recall) released a “Tequila” cash-in 45, “Cerveza,” in 1958, using the alter ego, Boots Brown.