Frank Gutch Jr: They Shoulda Been Contenders… And, Per Usual, Notes…

Frank Gutch Jr 2

Funny.  We always remember the stars, the champions, and we always place them at the head of the class even if they were no more than a part of one.  This last weekend I spent an inordinate amount of time pondering what the music world would have been like if, say, Led Zeppelin had not become gods to so many and Hendrix and Clapton and Beck had not headed the infamous “best guitarists” lists outfits like Rolling Stone Magazine always roll out when they have nothing else to capture readers’ attentions (seriously, how do you compare Tommy Emmanuel, Eric Clapton, Christopher Parkening, and Phil Keaggy— all exceptional guitarists, all deserving of attention from most who really love the instrument and yet living in completely different worlds.

Dean Parks

Musically?  Why have I never seen Dean Parks on a list other than one for “also recommended?”  Why do lists repeat the same names over and over?  What about the others, because there have been hundreds of exceptional musicians who have lived their musical lives far from the spotlight.  Why one and not the other?  Have you ever wondered?

I have.  I occasionally slip into a zone in which my ideals overtake reality and I think of the many who really should have been contenders, some of whom butted up against the glass ceiling but could never break through, others who spent years swimming with the pack, and still others who were, not due to talent or lack thereof, bottomfeeders.  Why couldn’t each of them have broken out, become a star or even superstar?  There seems to be no real answer. Timing has a lot to do with it and financial backing sometimes and even personalities (some plain did not have the mental acumen to handle fame, I suppose, and while some dropped out, some went so far as suicide, obviously for reasons we will never know).

I see lists all the time and I wonder why we bother.  Better to speak of the talented in terms of real accomplishments, I always think, but the reality is that if you don’t sell, you get lost.  As did Cowboy.  In retrospect, Cowboy has gained a cult following but when they were together and touring, they were practically invisible, at least in terms of any regional or national presence.  The original lineup put out two albums, neither of which sold (in terms of record industry standards of the time), but they were two very good and well thought of albums.  They could have had a hit, had radio co-operated.  In those days, it was pretty much all radio.  But they didn’t and they didn’t, even when it came to songs such as this:

A mere few years later, Eric Clapton discovered the song and recorded it on his Slowhand album and damned if radio didn’t jump all over it.

What was the difference?  I much prefer Cowboy’s version but I was happy to hear the cover if only for the money it was bringing to the songwriter, Scott Boyer, but what was it that made it a hit for Clapton and not for Cowboy?  Name recognition was a huge part of it, but was there something else?  Timing?  Radio airplay?  A warp in the public’s perception toward music?

cowboypromo

I laugh as I type this because I remember almost getting into a fistfight with a guy who came into a record store I worked at back around ’74 or so (Licorice Pizza on Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A.) because when he and his buddy came in and heard Cowboy doing their version, he made the comment that he liked Clapton’s version much better and wondered why anyone would want to cover the song as it was already a hit.  I told him Cowboy had originally recorded it and it was a Scott Boyer song to which he raised his head and looked down his long nose as if to say, oh yeah?  Even after he saw the credits listed on the album, he refused to admit that someone other than Clapton had written it and I would have thrown him out but for his buddy’s insistence that I was right.  Talk about the origins of wars, eh?

An aside:  (This is for the young)  Did you know that in the fifties and early-sixties that there were artists who had regional hits, sometimes at the same time, at various regions of the country?  The most obvious to me were the versions of Ain’t That a Shame, a song written by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, which gained Domino a national following.  Half a dozen years later, Pat Boone rejuvenated the song with his own version which brought Domino’s out of the vaults and onto many charts once again.  I remember that on a couple of Oregon radio stations, the different versions were both on the charts and on at least one, both in the Top Ten!  I also remember stories about small record labels who heard songs charting in another region and fast-tracked versions of the song recorded by their own artists, hoping to curtail the originals and make their own artists stars!  It was dog-eat-dog out there— at least until they sacrificed Alan Freed for what they called The Greater Good.

But I digress.  It is not always about the song.  Most of the time it is about the artist and/or the circumstances.  I have a long list of artists I thought should have made it.  I think it will surprise many of the younger among us that topping the list is Gram Parsons.  Today, Parsons is well known and in fact idolized by many, but when he was alive, fame was elusive.  He had a following, for sure.  The Flying Burrito Brothers were one of only a handful of bands which followed the music into the ol’ corral, others being Dillard & Clark and the aforementioned Cowboy and, of course, Pure Prairie League.  But the Burritos suffered the fate of the genre.  For rock radio it wasn’t rock enough and for country radio it certainly wasn’t country and, well, if you were alive then you knew that radio was everything.  Looking back, one can’t fault the young for believing that Parsons had made it because, well, we talk about him like he had.  His influence is what made him known and the vast majority of that after death.  Like I always say, though, he should have made it.  He had songwriting ability like few others and had a sound outside the norm.  While it is no wonder that he is legend, it took that legend years to build.

Nick Lowe should have made it and some people would argue that he did, but I don’t think so.  He bumped up against the glass with Rockpile and had a major/minor hit with Cruel To Be Kind but has never been given credit for his long and fruitful music career.  I first found him when he emerged as an influence in the UK band Brinsley Schwarz.  I walked into Long Hair Music Faucet, a hippie record store in Portland, Oregon, tossed a hundred dollars on the counter, said let me know when this runs out and then asked what I needed to hear.  Among a stack which included If, Faces/First Step, Jethro Tull/Stand Up and a plethora of others was the first Brinsley Schwarz in all its glory.  It was to live in its own world, the second release by the band, Despite It All, already turning a country corner (the band evidently had a fascination for country music).  That first album, though, stands as a classic in my mind, the sound light but harder than it would become and the direction more album rock than anything.

Seriously, bands which play Americana and think they’re really getting it should listen to this.  It’s 1970, baby.

A handful of years would find Lowe having much more of an influence, the sound leaning more toward the smoother side of rock, many times with more than just a tinge of country.  Of course, Lowe himself had a sense of Pop more than anything and he would become the darling of the new wave set when it was no longer really new wave.  His Rockpile days were good to him but he still didn’t achieve the fame he deserved.  He’s still out there, though, cranking out albums and playing the circuits, so he’s not done yet.  Still, just based upon his years of recorded works…  By the way, dig the Textones drum head.  Pretty cool.

Steve Marriott.  There.  I have said it.  Steve Marriott should have made it.  Marriott was, after all, Humble Pie.  I had unfortunately fallen under the influence of Melody Maker or maybe it was New Melody Express (those Brits never had much of an imagination when it came to naming magazines back then), and was following the great prodigy Peter Frampton unfold his guitar-laden wings and missed Marriott completely.  Oh, I knew he was there and that he had a flair for writing Pie songs, but by the time they came to the States, it was all Frampton.  Don’t Need No Doctor and all of that.  I had to backtrack a bit a few years later to find the real talent.  Marriott was an original Small Face, you know, from ’65 to ’69.  I remember them well— one of those legendary bands we in The States didn’t really get to hear until Itchykoo Park put them on the map.

frampton and marriott

Something was wrong, though.  Subsequent pieces about Marriott and the Small Faces allowed that not all was well in the kingdom.  Not long after they charted big, their label went into liquidation, Marriott stormed offstage at a gig and rumors of a new band made the rounds.  That band became Humble Pie.  Things looked up for awhile but Marriott, it seems, had a destructive gene and eventually went off the deep end.  He made comebacks, played solo, tried to keep it together and he did a fairly decent job, but his chance at stardom had passed.  Hell of a musician, hell of a guitar player, hell of a singer, but not made for primetime.

Frampton Live

Frampton, in the meantime, jumped from virtual obscurity to the top of the heat in less than 60 seconds.  Well, it seemed that way to me.  Frampton, upon leaving Humble Pie shortly after they released the  Rockin’ the Fillmore album, did a lot of session work while recording four studio albums but had little success.  The fourth album, Frampton, contained two songs which would later become staples of FM radio— studio versions of Show Me the Way and Baby, I Love Your Way— but it would be the live versions which made Frampton a star.

framptoncomesaliveYou want to talk about Frampton Comes Alive?  Here is what I remember.  I was working at a record store in San Diego— Licorice Pizza, in fact— when we began receiving phone calls on a massive scale for Frampton’s new live album.  I checked the lists and they showed no indication of an impending album and said so.  Within two days, after telling people nothing was scheduled and losing credibility among the soft set (a term a friend always used for people who were soft in the head and refused to listen to any artists who had not charted), word came down that there would be a live album, but no date was given for release.  In the meantime, the phones continued ringing off the hook.  When people came in, I said sure, Frampton has albums, four fairly decent studio albums, in fact, but the customers were not interested.  They wanted the live album.  They had no interest in anything else.  To be fair, we did sell a few of those earlier releases, but only a few.   To make a long story short, we suffered those phone calls for a good few months before the live album hit.  I have always wondered to this day what the hell happened.  No album, no airplay, no news that I could find, yet everyone who loved Top Forty radio knew about it and had to have it.  Yesterday.  I even asked people where they had heard about it and all they would say was that friends told them.  Goddamn mystery, it was, and one that turned me against Frampton (that and the fact that for over a year, you could not go anywhere without hearing that goddamned talk box he used, the poser).  Well, against his music.  I found out later that he was evidently a pretty nice guy and helped a lot of people out while he was riding high.  That always counts for something, though if I ever hear Show Me the Way again, it will be far too soon.

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Talk about timing!  Legendary Fort Worth band Space Opera had a real chance to make it.  Seriously.  They had the talent and the songs and the drive and the backing of CBS Records (their album was on Epic Records) but what they didn’t have was equipment.  Equipment, you ask?  Exactly.  The album was finished and the band had headed from Toronto (where they recorded the album) back to Fort Worth to wait.  They worried about recreating the songs onstage and if you ever heard the album you would understand why.  The music was, on the whole, adventurous and at times chaotic and sometimes operatic and they felt that without the proper equipment, they could never pull of a show playing the music they had recorded.  So when they got home, they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Now, you have to take into consideration that what they waited for was a sound system custom-made specifically for them.  A monster of a system.  What transpired was a loss of momentum so great that the band basically disappeared at a crucial point in their existence.  They waited for the album and when that came waited for equipment.  By the time the time had passed, whatever they had had in terms of the album was gone.  Let me lift that part of the story from a long piece I wrote about the band to explain:

For the band, working at Manta (the recording studio at which they had recorded the album) had opened doors, particularly for Fraser. Sounds and effects, always a big part of Scott Fraser the musician, became even more important. Important to the degree that he felt it necessary to be able to duplicate that sound and those effects onstage. Cass Edwards (who had b een working with the band for years as a self-appointed promoter and backer) was commissioned to design a full stage setup.

“Cass worked with a company in Chicago,” said (David) Bullock, “to interface electronics found in the studios of that time such as Teletronix limiters and Pultec compressors, sought after ‘retro’ items in studios today. The power amps were Fender and Crown, with phasing and overdrive effects. The combination of those components could be dialed in and activated by a footswitch. Similar effects can be bought in music stores now, but in 1973, it was unheard of and sounded great.”

“For touring equipment,” Edwards elaborated, “I assembled the studio equipment used on the album as well as commissioning Model Builders in Chicago to build one of the first multi-function foot switches, customized for each players’ rigs, including the chopped tops and Fender Super Reverbs customized to work with the foot switches. All speaker cabinets had already been handmade while in Williamsville by Gary Mann and Greg Boren, the band’s all-around best hands.

“I was also fortunate to get Ed May to let us beta-test new speakers after he split as head of research and development for JBL and formed his new company, Gauss Speakers. The same with early experiences with Moog, who lived not so far away while we were in Williamsville, Dreadnaught Amplifiers and other equipment manufacturers.

“Also, earlier, I had had the luxury provided by various angels to acquire the best available regular gear. I had regular contact with the master luthiers at Guild and Martin as they made all of the guitars for the band. Phil had one on the first Alembic basses, and we worked with them on early improvements to their electronics and playability.”

To (Michael) Mann, the band’s manager, and Rex Farr, who was working with the band, it must have looked like everyone was having fun but them.

“For us in New York and Canada on the business side, it was frustrating trying to set things up with no product,” lamented Mann. “With that and the band awaiting equipment, we had no band to promote.

“I think one of the biggest killers of momentum was the delay in the special equipment we were having designed, but it seemed crucial at the time that the band could play live what they had recorded. As I recall, Scott was adamant about not playing (without the equipment) and we all went along. It was a real shame because the equipment we waited for almost six months and paid over $50,000 to develop could be bought off the shelf for a few thousand dollars today. I haven’t done the math, but in those days $50,000 was a lot of money.”

Friction developed. Even Claudia Wilson, drummer Brett Owen Wilson‘s wife, noticed.

SpaceOperaRexFarrPhoto1

“Everybody was getting unhappy,” she commented, “and I guess this is part of putting things out of my mind, but at a certain point it became clear that, damn, what are we going to do? There was about a six month gap, as I recall, for the equipment to be ready. I feel, and I could be wrong, that the record company lost interest. They had spent a lot of money to cut that album. I mean, in 1972 dollars, it was lots of money, and when they couldn’t go and promote the fool out of it, the company just lost interest and it never happened. There was no tour support. It was like the band said we’re ready and the label said yeah?

“It was a combination of things,” she attempted to clarify. “First, the band wasn’t ready. Then, by the time everybody got on the same wavelength, the label wasn’t there. It just never happened.”

spaceoperab1997-1

“The band started having problems when they went back to Fort Worth and stopped playing,” said Mann matter-of-factly. “They didn’t even practice because they had not yet received the special order equipment. The thing that got Space Opera where they were was their live performance, because they were a great live band. Obviously, they were good songwriters and great in the studio, but practicing and playing live was what made them a band. By the time everything was in place, equipment-wise, they started practicing, but by then most of the momentum was gone.”

“The band started having problems when they went back to Fort Worth and stopped playing,” said Mann matter-of-factly. “They didn’t even practice because they had not yet received the special order equipment. The thing that got Space Opera where they were was their live performance, because they were a great live band. Obviously, they were good songwriters and great in the studio, but practicing and playing live was what made them a band. By the time everything was in place, equipment-wise, they started practicing, but by then most of the momentum was gone.”

“Even with all this activity, we were growing anxious because time was dragging on and we hadn’t played onstage in well over a year. We had purchased a lot of equipment and bills were mounting with very little money coming in. It was a business on the brink of both success and failure.”

boydgrafmyre“They were in Texas and Michael and I were still in New York,” said Rex Farr, “working with Grafmyre, trying to set up a tour. (We had been working on it) for six months, from before the moment the album was completed. We were paying Grafmyre and the band was getting a bit of survival money. We kept going to and from Texas and talking to them on the phone: ‘Guys, we need to get out there.’ We might have had one voice. They had four. Maybe it wasn’t explained to them, I don’t know.”

As far as booking, communication between management and band broke down completely.

“We didn’t try to book gigs, we did!” Farr continued. “I said to (Boyd) Grafmyre, schedule us a gig, from the very first day. Mike and I sat him down and outlined exactly what we wanted. His job from the get-go was to book a tour. That was his job and he did his job. But every time he would book a gig, the band would say ‘no equipment, no play.’ We’re out there humping and stroking the record company and it’s one month… two months… three months…”

When asked if it was difficult dealing with the record company, Farr said “Hell, yes. Hell, yes. You bet it was. But they had heard the music and we explained the situation to them and they said okay.”

“It was not so much the band turning down a particular date,” Mann explained. “It was just them saying, hey, we don’t have our equipment.”

See what I mean?  Equipment could have been the main reason you have never heard of Space Opera!  Sure, the band’s decision not to play until the equipment arrived was the basic reason, but that was a choice.  Maybe it was a wrong choice.  Looking back, it is hard to tell.  I worked on the Space Opera saga for three years (not continuously, of course) and I sweated blood over it.  I had wanted these guys to make it (I was a huge fan) and hearing the story from beginning to end was at times pure torture.  But little things like this are sometimes the difference between success and failure.  Well, not as much success, let us say, because the band continued and in fact recorded a second album on their own and then, not long after the story was posted, a third was resurrected from old tapes.  If you’re a musician or someone who really loves and understands the music and the business, you might well be amazed.  One day, maybe I will post it here, but I don’t know.  Like I said, it’s long, and by long I mean lo-o-o-o-ong.

My friends tell me that Marc Bolan deserved to make it.  I don’t know.  I liked some of his music but it never grabbed me the way, say, Big Star‘s and Cargoe‘s did.  I need to revisit his music when I have some time, though.  Too many people I rely on for information about music love the guy and I could well be— well, not wrong, but wrong, if you get my drift.  Time to learn something.

Speaking of Big Star, Alex Chilton really didn’t make it— not while he could appreciate it.  The legend of the band grew and grew until they are legends in so many peoples minds, but Chilton spent most of his time as a forgotten link in Powerpop history.  Not now, of course, but pretty much while he was alive.

I could run down more of a list but I am sure you have lists of your own.  Musicians you love for one reason or another who were never accepted on a mass basis for one reason or another.

One of these days, if my brain doesn’t stop functioning altogether (it sputters on occasion these days), I will write about the many albums the kids these days (meaning anyone 40 or under) don’t understand.  Like Dave Mason‘s Alone Together.  You seldom hear Mason’s name these days while you can’t get away from the names of Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin and others.  Why is that?  Alone Together was huge!  Why don’t people place Curtis Mayfield right up there with Smokey Robinson or The Beach Boys?  The man’s track record speaks for itself.  He deserves it.  Not on Curtis Mayfield Appreciation Day, but every day.

Listen to me.  I am as upset about the people who did make it as those who didn’t.  Remind me one day to tell you about Dean Parks.  And John Martyn.  And Steve Young.  And Nick Holmes.  Ever hear of Barclay James Harvest?  How about the Tarney-Spencer Band?  Or Gruppo Sportivo?  Or El Roacho?  Or… wait a minute!  Wait!  Or Heartsfield!  Ever see Artie Baldacci play the drums?  Wait!  Or….. gzarnikblipgnnnnng!  Signal lost.

NotesNotes…  Without even realizing it, as busy as things have been since either Google or Microsoft sent updates that screwed up my entire system, Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer slipped a video by me, the miscreants!  True, they are a bit busy, what with their latest album (Maritime) making waves and all and a tour of Europe on the docket, but they sent neither postcard nor email.  Jeez!  Well, anyway, here it is, another look at one of those beautiful islands and another in a string of exceptional songs, Victoria by title.  In spite of their refusal to acknowledge my existence (I think they are just playing hard to get).

Now, if I could just get Picture the Ocean to return my calls…..

Think I will drown my emotions in a bit of sunshine pop courtesy of  Sunshine Collective, who also released an album not too long ago.  Mighty sunny where they are.

Went on a drive last week and took along a new album by Love Love, this band out of Boston.  All the way through there was this bubble hovering over me with a huge question mark in it because I could not really nail down whether I was impressed or not.  When I got home, I tossed the CD on my desk and guess what?  I keep putting it in my player.  So I must like it.  I must.  The more I listen, in fact, the more I like.  The following video is of the opening track on the album, Murderpedia, which is as commercial as they get.  It’s growing on me but they have others which are picking up steam as well— Maryland (how can you not like a song with a chorus of I don’t wanna be in Maryland when I wake up…), Skin (ten listens and I am still dissecting the song, especially what I assume is the chorus, power offsetting the almost ballad-like verse in the beginning—  the use of brass is exceptional), and Winter Changes Everything (which borrows from the late-sixties and early-seventies and could have easily been recorded by Sonny & Cher if Sonny had not been such a control freak).  Like I said, this one didn’t grab me right off the bat, but it does now.  This one’s a sleeper.  Give it a chance.

Did I put the latest Fur For Fairies video in any of my columns?  I honestly don’t know and am too lazy to check.  The more I hear the album, though, the more impressed I am with Jeff Kelly‘s songwriting, especially when it comes to writing for wife and cohort Susanne Kelly.  I make no apologies for being a diehard Green Pajamas fan but also think Jeff does yeoman’s work outside the confines of that band.

I am a bit miffed at Jeff, though.  Of all the songs the Pajamas have recorded, my absolute favorite (at this moment) is Faerie Queen, Parts 1 and 2.  Neither has a video.  Not even one of those play-a-song-over-a-picture video.   Either one would be a perfect backup to any Fur For Fairies track.  Damn Jeff never listens to me.  Then again, why should he be different than everyone else?

Ah, the things that turn up.  I am doing a bit of listening to Scott Cook & The Long WeekendsGo Long album and while checking Youtube for videos ran across this one which, recorded in 2009, includes Jesse Dee & Jacquie B who evolved into Picture the Ocean.  For me, this is way cool.  A look at Jesse and Jacqui long before PTO recorded that self-titled Album of the Year (at least, I thought it was).

Holy crap!  They even have a Part One to it!

Speaking of blues, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You!  Says so right on the album jacket.  I am not as deep into the blues as some of my friends but I do get it every once in awhile.  Like, I get The Reverend, for instance.

Remember the guy who locked himself in the studio at a radio station and played Them‘s Gloria until they broke the door down and threw him out?  Actually, I’m not sure they broke the door down, but it happened.  I did the same thing at my house one day.  It wasn’t Gloria and no one gave a shit and didn’t break the door down (though a few people left because they tired of hearing the one song I played all day long).  I had to do something.  No one was paying any attention to Wilderness Road, fer chrissake!  I’ll bet a couple of old friends think of me every time they hear this song.

Segarini!  This one’s for you.  This is what Notary Sojac turned into shortly after you left Portland!

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Wednesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: They Shoulda Been Contenders… And, Per Usual, Notes…”

  1. VonRiesling Says:

    There is enough material here for a semester of study. Thank you Frank for your keen observations as well as a sense of context and musical history.

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