Mike and the Ravens
photo credit: Salla Day
by Gretchen WoodBands break up all the time, but how many crumble after the three hot rocker attorneys violate a house of worship? Well, truth be told, they hadn't yet exactly passed the bar...
The three miscreants never even rattled the doors of the church. They would've found the white steepled building open, even in the dead of night. Instead, they tumbled through a window and staggered in the dark until someone struck a match and lit an altar candle. Giddy with mischief, the teens hijacked the church's carillon system. Their mission? Replace sounds of tolling bells that'd normally greet the morning congregants at the Stowe Community Church with a sweet dollop of heaven-sent rock n' roll. Perfect for just such an occasion, one innocuous frat rock LP, nothing any collector would give a second look, nor would be missed by any teenage boy already made immortal from making rock n' roll. They cued the record and scrambled out. But the boys had screwed up the timing on the device. Just as they burst outside, a tell-tale pop was heard as the needle dropped. They hoofed it down the street. "Big Guitars" split the night. The boys ran faster, invigorated, full of adrenalin. "Raunchy" shattered sleep across town. They laughed as they gasped for air, chugging up the mountain, lulled by "Get A Job" fading in the distance as complaints rolled in from as far as eight miles away and reverberated even further in news reports far and wide.
That steeple prank effectively gutted Mike and the Ravens, the hottest rock n' roll dance band burning up the North Country circuit in '62. No big deal to the judge. The trio scored 48 hours in the hoosegow with a choice - military or school. That or serve out the rest of their 60 day sentence. So school it was, laying the foundation for law careers for Steven Blodgett, Peter Young, and Brian Lyford, all three determined to stay on the right side of the law, ya know, just in case they gotta sweeten the sounds in Vermont's Green Mountains one more time.
Steven's older brother John got off unscathed, either too chicken or too smart to let his car get recognized idling outside the church. But the stunt blew apart the dreams of their lead singer and part-time den mother Mike Brassard, and blew 'em good. The Northfield, VT ham & egger had counted on a much more concrete salvation from rock n' roll than a forbidden record blasting from a church steeple and all the hedonistic perks from being in a hot rock n' roll band. He knew he could sing. He'd hoped the Ravens would be his ticket out of blue collar quicksand. Said Brassard, "I was crushed to have that ripped from me."
Fast forward 45 years to the now dilapidated Saxony Hotel perched on New York's Northernmost shore on Lake Champlain. In the studio four flights up, Brassard and producer (and occasional PSF writer) Will Shade were working on some vocals. Shade noticed Brassard cringing in pain, another attack brought on by the crazy illness that rendered him mute only the year previous. Not one to push, Will asked his friend if he wanted to stop and rest. Mike's eyes popped. He collected himself and roared, "I've waited 45 years to sing my rock n' roll album. No fucking way am I stopping now!"
Until Brassard unleashed his big voice, he wouldn't let himself imagine another crack at singing. "I'm not one to look back," sez he. While building a string of muffler shops, had he let his mind wander, doubtful his fantasy would include three attorneys and a birdwatcher cranking out big snotty rawk behind his vocals delivered with a half-paralyzed mouth. No way he anticipated that he'd entrust the project to a gonzo sonic Frankenstein, nor settle into the studio months at a time, four crumbling floors above the old Saxony rock club where the Ravens threw down some of their wildest shows in what was once a gleaming palace for over the border consumption. Naw, kid folly like that, best suppressed, someone else's dream... but sometimes, when life looks too much like an epilogue, the Fates give out French kisses and second chances, and those are the kinds of bons bons that sweeten Mike and the Ravens Noisy Boys: the Saxony Sessions released on Zoho Roots.
Of course reunion albums are a dime a dozen, most deadeningly forgettable. Along with Noisy Boys, two recent exceptions are Dangerous Game by Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las and the Alarm Clocks' Time Has Come both on Norton. All three appeal to the same young rock n' roll fan that sifted through YouTube looking for footage of the Sonics '07 reunion in NYC, might've been caught dissing the Black Lips online for going with a major, or fruitlessly pine for that Billy Childish or Reigning Sound tour but instead might settle for a trip to GonerFest or the Dirty Water Club, depending on what side of The Pond from which they hail. What sets the Ravens' album apart from these other two acts is that their vintage sides never amounted to any "Leader or the Pack" kind of classic, nor were they sought after collector's items like the Alarm Clocks pounder "No Reason To Complain." But unlike Weiss, who's backed up by the young punks in the Reigning Sound, and the Alarm Clocks who are strengthened by Tom Fallon of Cleveland's New Salem Witch Hunters, no established talent hitched up with the Ravens reunny. Pretty much nobody else there but Ravens squallin' and screechin' on that album of theirs. Never mind that some of them hadn't picked up their instrument in 30 or 40 years.
Defying the prevailing tastes, Shade spotted a vital piece of musical history, a very North American missing link that fit in between the taboos of rough and sexed up rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Richard and the transformation of rock n' roll into the more palatable Beatles phenom. He also pegged a sparkle in those old records that had yet to be mined. Ring rust or no, he humbly promised, "If you trust me, I know I can do this. I'll help you get where you want to go."
And go they did. Just like they say in the title track, this ain't no grandpa rock. Noisy Boys is a freak tornado of hooky power pop and loud shredded feedback that a band half their age would be damn proud to slap their name on. The vocals run the gamut from joyful baying to a seductive purr that shifts into a fierce yowl. Lyrically playful and witty, the catchy melodies draw that CD back into the player again and again for yet another listen, and like each and every one of their Empire sides from 1962, not a cover tune in the bunch.
From his home in Florida, Brassard called the album "very satisfying. I wouldn't change a whole lot. Never felt like our Empire records captured who we were. This was the first time I walked out of the studio remotely pleased with what I had done."
From his digs at the Saxony, Shade growled. "It's a frickin' rock n' roll album that stands on its own merits."
First outta the chute, the Ravens reclaim for their own their seminal teen anthem "Rollerland." In '62, Steve Blodgett hasitly scribbled the ditty out in the parking lot before their show to "curry favor with the owner." The joint was a cavernous Quonset hut, Plattsburgh's underage hangout that held anywhere from 1,200 to 1,600 sweaty bodies. The new tune grabbed the audience, the Ravens scored the regular gig, locking them into a summer of sweltering gigs. The Ravens never pulled off a passable recording. Blodgett dismissed it for being too simple and a little kiss ass. It would fall to Wild Bill Kennedy and the Twiliters, part of the next wave of local talent, to commit "Rollerland" to vinyl. Obscure vinyl. Nearly three decades later, it resurfaced. Ozark rockers the Untamed Youth covered it in '91. In '95, Norton Recs slapped it on a three song 7" called Wail, Wail, Wail. The tune took its righteous spot as one the most infectious teen anthems conceived, yet Mike and the Ravens lost out on all the glory, that is until the kids start squealing on Noisy Boys and that opening bent backwards riff thrusts through the speakers.
Wild Bill told Shade he did it. "That's exactly what it was like on stage," while the songwriter himself admitted, "It's taken me a while to like it, but I finally see it has energy."
Back at the Saxony summer of '07, track after track, the music flowed. "I tried to think back to days of Rollerland." said Brassard. "I wanted it to sound ageless, for it to be something those boys in the Ravens would've loved."
"We hadn't played with other musicians much at all," Blodgett said. "Then you get something going, and someone pops something around that. It's like exponential for it's thrill."
For the new record, Blodgett drew on songwriting skills that he'd been honing since his first adventures with the Ravens and even when he had no audience. Known to winnow over a song for 15 or 20 years, he confessed an obsession with discovering "the mystery of the hook."
"Stevie truly has this unique take on music, but maybe doesn't realize how good he is, in a way," explained Brassard, an unabashed fan. "He prides himself on being a craftsman, but you can squeeze the juice right out. Steve's always working this fine line, but the can write 'Rollerland.' Stuff that he tosses off, that he doesn't think is important, but those things are just as good."
Although, Brassard is a little dismissive of his own in the moment, off the hip songwriting process, that taking the time to finish risks wringing it dry of "the juice." Blodgett was quick to say, "Mike's a much better songwriter that he gives himself credit for... He's the main ears I write for." Also noting, "His duty is to his voice, so we approach it from different starting points."
Only Big Mike Brassard's effusive style could have conjured up the title track, a seven minute and forty second cacophony of shrieking, pounding drums, snotty distortion, electric violin, and one "tight little pop song in the middle of all that chaos that makes it all come together," as Steve puts it. The tune could have turned into one dreadful long pile of tedious mush with all the layers of sound, but it deserves to break out of that three minute golden rule. That it exposed Brassard's unlikely love for enduring noise weirdoes Half Japanese in the same song that takes a swing at 'grandpa rock' effectively shatters a lot of presumptions. For one, how many bands claim Half Japanese as an influence? Even more unusual, how many of them are 65 year old men?
"We didn't bring up the term grandpa rock. Somebody threw it at us, and it fucking pissed me off!" said Brassard. "It's insulting to assume that guys over 65 have nothing relevant to add to rock n' roll."
That prejudice has already smacked the Ravens, losing a magazine cover because the staff refused to listen to the CD made by "old guys". More insulting on a different level was that the reason wasn't sufficiently embarrassing for the editor to even sugarcoat why. It didn't feel any better when a pert local news reporter casually asked Brassard on camera, "So what's up with all these old guys who think they can play rock?" Through the gray rage, he managed to keep his composure on the air.
"It's hell to get old. You get a choice," he explains. "You can fold, stop going out, stop having fun, and curl up on the couch, and become a goddamn couch potato and live your life the way other old people do, OR you can be just as goddamn juicy as you want. That's what this album is about."
Keeping it sounding "juicy" was up to Shade. Even though Blodgett had a "knack for hooks any power pop band would die for," Shade knew that the craftsman was gonna need a kick into riskier sonic territory. Lead guitarist John Blodgett hadn't picked up a guitar in at least three decades, so he never unlearned his signature growl. Drummer Peter Young didn't even own a set when the project started, and Brian Lyford certainly had not kept his bass playing chops any fresher. But Steve Blodgett on rhythm guitar, the one guy who had been picking, and crafting and strumming all during the Ravens' long hiatus, was in for some unlearning.
"I'm not interested in music. I'm interested in the politics of noise and chaos," Shade would declare as he badgered Steve, calling grandpa rock on him, leaving it up to Brassard to thread the opposing perspectives together into a cohesive song. Despite the antagonism, Blodgett has called Shade "a master" and "force of nature."
"The way he played us was really something," said Blodgett, adding, "He was good about saying, 'You're doing grandpa stuff there.' "
Whether by calculation or incredible luck, the creative tension fused with a spectrum of reckless tones fed through amp after amp, unorthodox choices in gear, like the crummy Japanese fuzz pedal described to Will as "not so much producing tone, more like a construction site," and extreme measures like crawling through a flooded stone cellar 100 ft below the studio just to capture the sweetest reverb against the fluke of three feet of water. Shade giggles about the incident, but Brassard was horrified when he spotted floating turds.
Brassard credited Shade's "energy, fortitude, his belief in us, wackiness, and willingness to experiment" for carrying the Ravens through the project. "He puts everything into it, and it's for the band, not his ego. It's all about how he can draw out the best in these guys."
"We had no fucking idea what we were doing," said Shade. "We were flying by the seat of our pants, cut and paste, DIY all the way."
This summer Mike and the Ravens have regrouped once again, rehearsing for what would have been their first live dates in 46 years, that is until Brassard's declining health interrupted plans. The change threw a rod in the Ravens machine. In an email to the band telling of his decision to pull the plug, a note that dripped with exhaustion and defeat, Shade lamented over missing out on that precious Hollywood ending.
Through the gloom John Blodgett, the reflective birdwatcher of the group, wrote to all, "But I thought making the album was our Hollywood ending."
"John's right," said Brassard, the noisiest boy of them all. "This album's a bloody miracle!"
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