A pre-Beatles garage band returns to rock
Several years ago, Mike Brassard got an unexpected phone call. "This guy said he was Will Shade and asked, 'Are you Mike Brassard from Mike and the Ravens? I've been looking for you, dude, for a long, long time.'" At first, he thought Shade was nuts. Turns out, Shade was nuts, but in a good way. With his help, Mike and the Ravens, an early 1960s Vermont rock 'n' roll band, were reborn.
This summer, the Ravens -- Brassard, Stephen and John Blodgett, Brian Lyford and Peter Young -- and the Bacchus label will release Nevermore, a double-CD dose of forgotten, gritty, homegrown rock from decades past as well as three songs recorded last fall by the original Ravens, all of whom are now about 60 years old. One listen to "Durham" in its fuzz-toned glory shows they can still rock.
The Ravens played what's now called garage rock. This loud, basic music sprouted in the wake of the Beatles and the Stones, who inspired thousands of kids across America to start bands, rehearsing in garages and releasing 45s. Today, small labels put out CD compilations of those old records for new fans, while new bands, including the Strokes and the Hives, carry on the tradition.
Shade, the mysterious caller, had managed a neo-garage band in Sweden. When he landed in the Plattsburgh area to take a job editing the Lake Champlain Weekly newspaper, he got to wondering whether his new home had any interesting bands back in the 1960s. He found enough material to put together the Heart So Cold CD, which featured the Ravens, the Twiliters, the Thunderbolts and other 1960s-era Lake Champlain-area bands.
But the Ravens stood out for him. First, they recorded dozens of songs when most bands were lucky to record a couple. Second, they wrote all the songs themselves, which was rare back then. Third, they did it all several years before anyone in America had even heard of the Beatles.
Miraculously, most of the old Ravens songs had been saved. The band members and their families dug bits and pieces from attics and closets. As the Ravens decided what would make the new CD, the songs sparked a lot of memories.
Young, Lyford and Brassard grew up in Northfield. Young remembers Brassard and Lyford singing at a church bazaar in the late 1950s. Wanting to join in, he got an old drum set. Things got hotter in 1960, when Lyford and Young spent the summer working as golf caddies in Lake Placid, where they met Stephen Blodgett, a guitar player from Stowe. That fall, they all hooked up with Brassard to form Mike and the Throbs -- short for "heartthrobs," they hoped.
In the summer of '61, Lyford joined the military; he returned to the band in 1962. The group brought in Stephen's brother John, who had a real Fender electric guitar -- still a rare thing in those days -- and could play lead. As a joke, they dubbed him "Bo," after Bo Diddley. It stuck.
Young remembers the first time he heard their first single, "Mr. Heartbreak," by the renamed Mike and the Ravens on the radio. "We were driving in the car and a chill goes up my spine. I think I pulled over. It was a babe magnet. We were then 17 or 18; that was something else."
One of the Ravens' favorite places to play in those days was the Rollerland skating rink in Plattsburgh. It was a Quonset hut with a curved roof made of corrugated metal. "There were about 1200, 1600 yelling kids crammed inside," Brassard remembers. "It was very hot, like a pressure cooker. Mist was rising off the audience."
"We all dressed in black suits and white shirts," he adds. "We looked like hoods -- or thought we did. We just wanted to rock. On stage, I was constantly doing splits and yelling. I couldn't contain myself, I was so happy. It was singing and chicks, and there were a lot of both."
They played Rollerland, the Air Force base, high school dances and frat parties at UVM, Dartmouth, even Wesleyan and Yale. They also went on tours of New England, opening for national bands such as Brian Hyland, Tommy Roe and the Drifters -- big acts that had hit records.
The dream ended on Labor Day weekend, 1962. With the weekend off, Stephen Blodgett, Young and Lyford decided it would be fun to play some rock music over the huge, hi-fidelity carillon speakers in Stowe Community Church. "To us, it wasn't a church at all. It was simply an amplification system," says Lyford. "It just happened to be in that building. We weren't intending to offend anybody."
They jimmied a window to get in, put on a record, and then set the carillon's timer to go off at 2 a.m. and ran up the hill behind the nearby school. "We heard the needle striking the record -- skrit, skrit. We knew it would be really loud," Lyford recalls. They watched lights go on all around town, hearing the angry shouts and finally the needle being yanked off the record. Then, blessed silence.
Blodgett's mom called the sheriff, having figured out who was responsible. "The next thing you knew, we were in court in our band coats," says Lyford. "We went to jail for two days. Mike heard about it from a Paul Harvey newscast." The boys' names weren't mentioned, but "he couldn't imagine anyone else in Vermont that it could have been."
Their parents laid down the law, and soon the boys were packed off to college -- except for Brassard, who put together a second Ravens group. He later owned Midas Muffler shops in New York and Vermont, and now lives in Florida. The other Ravens are still in Vermont. Stephen Blodgett, Lyford and Young all became lawyers, and John Blodgett works for the Vermont Agency for Transportation, tracking traffic volumes.
Produced by Shade, the first Nevermore CD mixes songs from the original band with vintage radio clips and tape snippets of the guys goofing around. It opens with Brassard soloing at age 16, whistling a folk ditty on WDEV's "Hi-Fi Club." Then it kicks into two solid blasts of teen-rockin' mayhem, "Dum Duvey" and "Two-Ton Jenny." On "Mr. Heartbreak," Brassard's voice ranges from a low, earthy Elvis-ish growl to an ethereal Roy Orbison quaver. The second CD features various groupings of one or more Ravens from the 1960s to the '90s, the new songs, and even radio jingles from Stephen and Mike's Hammer Sound Productions.
Like a hot rod assembled from parts from different cars, the Nevermore CD isn't exactly seamless. Even computer technology can only do so much to improve the sound of the earliest Ravens cuts. But the engine under the music's hood is revved up with horsepower to spare and a roar that can't be muffled.
"You shudder at some of the things you did, but at least you did it," says Stephen Blodgett, who has always written songs and is working on new material for the band. "I mostly would like it if some new stuff we were doing drew some interest. It's fun to do it but in the long run, if people like the way it sounds, then it's a success."
Last November, for the first time in 42 years, all of the Ravens gathered in the same room to play rock 'n' roll. Brassard came up from North Carolina, where he'd been undergoing treatment for a serious illness at Duke University Medical Center. Young and John Blodgett hadn't played drums or guitar in 30-odd years. Lyford had been playing music with his children, but not much else.
On "Durham," John Blodgett rips out a fierce guitar riff on a borrowed fuzz box -- an item that didn't exist when the band broke up. As Shade tells it, "He nailed it on the second take. Hadn't played guitar in 32 years. He's this 62-year-old dude with this grin on his face, and he just said, 'I like fuzz.' It was the coolest thing you ever saw in your life."
The upshot is that the four Vermont-based Ravens are rehearsing in Young's basement -- right back where they started. This summer, they plan to start recording all-new Ravens songs. "All the old farts are up and on our feet and having a lot of fun," says Lyford.
"Your heart doesn't change," muses Brassard. "When you get to be 62, you will still have the same heart. We'll find a way to do something that people like and say, 'Yeah, that's cool, that rocks.'" His booming voice drops to a whisper. "God, that'll be great."