With the departure of founding members, Michael Andrew Frank & Keith Bortz, and the arrival of the two Ricks — Mosher & 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
It would be a stretch to say The Ferns were contemporaries of The Raisins
Yes, 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
Mosher mid-point, unaware of camera
Mitchell, surrounded by pine paneling
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
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 45
But 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
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
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!
“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
A little extra trivia.
Well, Ricky may have introduced Mitchell to Mosher during a break at a Raisins gig, but actually The Max changed their name to The Ferns thanks to Rob Fetters.
Every Monday we would go see The Raisins play at Alexander’s. After a while months of pestering them about how we were covering their songs and would they let us play during a break, they finally gave in. It only happened a few times (once with Bassman Bob filling in for the absent Chris), but when it did Rob would never call us The Max. The first time he says, “Are The Snowflakes here?: The next time he called us something else. Then one time he said, “Are The Plastic Ferns here?” Shortly thereafter, The Max became The Ferns and went on to record two of my favorite songs at Alpha.
Speaking of favorite songs, I think I would put Shattered People ahead of I think I Love You when it comes to our penultimate power-ballad.
Wow, just came upon this article. I used to bartend at BW Talgood’s in the early 80s and loved the music scene in those days. Also spent a lot of evenings at Shipley’s. Does anyone remember a band from that same era called M.T. Eye? I remember they had a huge following in 1982.
Yes! MT Eye had Jay Noel (so) in the band as the front man, he later went in to be the Drumbones I think?
omg I was singing along to “Every” just now despite not having heard it for at least 30 years — great stories; missing Newbs!