By Richie Unterberger
When the Ides of March's "Vehicle" roared up to #2 in the spring of 1970, it might have seemed to most of North America that the band had come out of nowhere, so swift and sudden was the single's rise up the charts. In fact, however, the groups had been recording and performing since the mid-1960s, putting in years of honing their craft in both the studio and Chicago-area gigs before the big payoff. The horn-driven soul-rock of "Vehicle" might have been what first caught the ears of many listeners, but the band's extensive experience in all forms of rock music was reflected in the Vehicle album itself, whose diverse material also encompassed folk-rock and extended progressive workouts.
Formed in the
suburb of Berwyn, the Ides of March were still in their mid-teens when
"You Wouldn't Listen" became a big local hit in 1966, going all the way
up to #42 in the national charts. Although they recorded a number of
singles throughout the rest of the 1960s (including half a dozen on the
London subsidiary Parrot), and had another sizable local hit with
"Roller Coaster," the Ides never did break nationally at this stage, or
manage to get an LP out. They continued to work as a popular regional
live act, however, in the process expanding into harder, heavier, more
soulful sounds from their original British Invasion-inspired style.
They expanded the size of the band as well, growing from a quartet to a
seven-piece, adding a horn section along the way and keeping their
multi-part vocal harmonies.
"We started as a British Invasion wanna-be band, really, kind of Curtis Mayfield-meets-the-Hollies," remarks Ides guitarist, lead singer, and principal songwriter Jim Peterik today. "We loved that sound, but as the band wore on, we started wanting to do songs with brass, like the James Brown stuff and Arthur Conley's 'Sweet Soul Music.' We got a trumpet, and that was seductive; then we got another. It was kind of a gradual process, and I think the audience kind of came with us. 'Cause we always still did the harmony stuff. We still did the 'Roller Coaster'-like material. But then we started injecting some of the brass in even one of the Parrot singles, 'My Foolish Pride.'"
As the 1960s ended, a big influence on the Ides of March was Blood, Sweat & Tears, who were doing a great deal to popularize the use of horns within a rock context with their huge hit singles and albums. "When we went down to the Kinetic Playground in Chicago to see Blood, Sweat & Tears, they had just gotten [lead singer] David Clayton-Thomas," remembers Peterik. "They had just put out the second [album]. They started the set with 'More and More,' and we go, 'Holy mackerel, this is unbelievable.' But of course, we were very influenced by the first album, with [BS&T founder] Al Kooper in it. The famous story is, I actually brought Blood, Sweat & Tears a tape of 'Vehicle,' a little demo tape of that song, kind of a rehearsal tape to see if they were interested in recording it. I don't think they listened to it till after the song was #1, and I ran into [BS&T's] Steve Katz in an airport. And he says, 'Yeah, should have listened to that song.'"
Even before "Vehicle" came out, the Ides of March had made the leap to the Warner Brothers label with the help of manager-producers Frank Rand and Bob Destocki (the latter of whom was a regional promo representative for the company). "We had one single out on Warner Brothers, 'One Woman Man,' in '69, and it didn't really chart," continues Peterik. "But the company was interested enough in the band to say, 'Look, show us what else you got.' That's when we went into the studio to cut the four-song demo. 'Vehicle' was the fourth song on the demo reel, because we really didn't know what we had at the time. They called us and said, 'My god, this is a number one record.' And we go, 'Really? Great.' So they got all excited, and they broke the record."
In keeping with part of its musical inspiration, a lot of literal blood, sweat and tears went into the recording of "Vehicle." "I didn't know it at the time, but I was doing a spot-on David Clayton-Thomas imitation," admits Jim. "I mean, people in the studio said it was scary. I thought that was it, that was the take. And Frank Rand says, 'Peterik, would you stop trying to be David Clayton-Thomas and just be Peterik?' I go, 'I am, I am.' He says, 'Just do it again.' So I did a real pissed-off take, and that was, of course, the money take." As the backing vocals were being recorded, fourteen seconds were accidentally erased from the master tape by the second engineer. Fortunately, creative editing saved the day when fourteen seconds were inserted from take one to replace the missing snippet.
"The album was recorded after the single was taking off," pitches in multi-instrumentalist and fellow Ides of March founder-member Larry Millas. "'Vehicle' was the fastest-breaking single that Warner Brothers had ever had up until that time. It broke nationally within a week, which was pretty unusual. It happened so quickly Warner Brothers sort of made a panic call to our managers -- 'We have to have an album out immediately.' Fortunately, Jim did have a bunch of songs ready to go, and we worked 'em out in the studio. The entire record was recorded, overdubbed, mixed, [and] out the door in about a week, which is pretty much unheard of."
"Some of the songs were staples in our live show, so it wasn't like we had to work 'em out from scratch," adds Peterik. "Something like 'Symphony for Eleanor,' we had been performing in concert for probably a year already. 'Wooden Ships/Dharma for One,' same story. 'Sky Is Falling' was part of that four-song demo. So we had a head start on the album, and then we went in and just did the rest." Listeners expecting variations on a "Vehicle" theme might have been surprised by the variety on the LP, though it did contain some more hard-charging brassy rock tunes such as "Bald Medusa" and "The Sky Is Falling." There was also the gentler folk-rock-pop of "Home"; the Creedence Clearwater Revival homage "Factory Band"; a long medley of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Wooden Ships" with Jethro Tull's "Dharma for One"; and a nine-minute makeover of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," here retitled "Symphony for Eleanor (Eleanor Rigby)."
"There is a lot of diversity on that record," agrees Peterik. "We made it so young. Our maturation process, we were all doing it in public. Where most bands hone their sound, and they make it or they don't make it, the public heard every transition we made. In the early days, I was just trying to be the Beatles, or variations thereof. And then when Blood, Sweat & Tears hit, my idol was David Clayton-Thomas. And his idol was probably Ray Charles, so on down the food chain."
The still-young band's extensive stage experience paid off when it came time to reinventing familiar songs as extended covers that stretched them into entirely different shapes. "If we took something that we liked, something that people would recognize, and if we made it our own, it would be successful in a live situation," points out Millas. "People would perk up and they'd accept our music if we mixed it amongst familiar stuff." The covers went over particularly well at a Winnipeg show where they went on before Led Zeppelin, and "we got a standing ovation after every song," recalls Peterik. "We only did like five songs that day, mostly extended songs. I know we did 'Wooden Ships/Dharma for One,' we did 'Eleanor Rigby,' and we did 'Vehicle.' The people were standing after every song, and during, just going crazy. In those days it wasn't unusual for 'Eleanor Rigby' to stretch out for 20 minutes or more."
The album was recorded at Columbia Studios in Chicago in March 1970, and both Jim and Larry retain basically positive memories of the experience, although they acknowledge in retrospect that some things could have been done better. "It was exciting, of course, for us," says Larry. "It was big-time. They had very expensive mikes and all that kind of stuff. The 'Vehicle' record was the first one done on their brand-new sixteen-track, two-inch tape machine. It had just been rolled in, and they were still learning how to use it on our sessions."
"I think overall, we were still getting comfortable in the studio and playing with headphones, trying to make that transition between live and studio," confesses Jim. "It was tough. The studio we recorded at [was] most noted for recording voiceover jingles and voiceovers. The whole staff was like union people. I remember being in the middle of one take and our main engineer walked out, and turned it over to the second engineer. He said, 'I'm catching my train. Goodbye.' He kind of waved to us through the glass in a middle of a take. It's a little weird when your main engineer leaves. They did a great job, but they weren't used to doing what we do. So we always go, 'Man, if we could just re-record it.'" Adds Larry as an illustration, "'Eleanor Rigby,' the version on the record is nowhere near as good as we used to do it. We chopped out sections, we shortened things. And for some reason, at that time, the studio just couldn't capture the way we sounded live. So it was a lot more tame-sounding. Live, it was more powerful and wild, and it still is live, now, when we play it. So I wish that we could have spent more time working on that."
Although the album made #55 in the Billboard charts, both Peterik and Millas feel Warner Brothers didn't maximize its opportunity, particularly coming on the heels of the smash single "Vehicle." "Most bands are very boring in lambasting their record company," chuckles Jim. "I hate to fall into that. But yeah, they could have done a hell of a lot more. We always felt like low men on the totem pole next to their big acts" -- the band's Chicago base perhaps working against them, as California artists were much closer to the company's Los Angeles offices. Concurs Millas, "We had the #1 record in the Warner Brothers food chain. The [internal company] newsletter comes in for that month, and the whole front page of the newsletter is about the Doobie Brothers. At that time, nobody knew who the Doobie Brothers were. They were nobody. But then we were like, 'What's going on here?'" "Well, [the Doobie Brothers] became very big," rejoins Peterik. "But I mean, when Van Dyke Parks is in bigger letters than the Ides of March, we're going, 'What's going on?'"
The Ides of March were likewise not wholly pleased with the artwork Warners chose for Vehicle. "I think I can speak for the band saying we were pretty appalled by the cover of the record," offers Peterik. "It was one of those moments where [we were told], 'Okay, here's the artwork.' It was kind of a Spinal Tap moment, and we all look at this naked baby doll in the grass...It was Warner Brothers' crack graphics staff."
Warner Brothers stuck with the band, however, for one more album on which the Ides of March continued to create their eclectic brand of intricately arranged and sung rock music. The story continues in the liner notes to that album, Common Bond, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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