Troubadour…Give Up The Ghost

Song by Michael Snow and Bill Martin Photo by J.Otwell (Click For More!)
Song by Michael Snow and Bill Martin
Photo by J.Otwell (Click For More!)
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From The Desk…Chain Of Command

Pussyfoot by Chain of Command
Pussyfoot by Chain of Command

By the mid-eighties the rock and pop scene in Nashville was beginning to build some momentum, and with my background in the British ‘60’s scene I was getting more production work that catered to this new breed of Nashville-based artists. I entered a partnership with Steve Gibson and Bill Martin in a venture named RockBlok; we had our office right behind the storied Exit/In performance venue, and were in the thick of things. Steve, a notable session guitarist, was having mainstream success with fine pop-leaning artists such as Michael Johnson; Bill had left his position as publishing manager with Buzz Cason’s Southern Writers Group to get more hands-on with actual record-making. I was producing successful A/C diva  Orsa Lia, along with a wildly talented but off-beat band, The Smashers, who scored a major label deal with Epic Group, largely due to the song-writing talent of New Yorker Victor Lovera, and the skintight sibling harmonies of Virginia and Fagan Ahrou.

We were pretty focused on the rock and pop end of the Nashville spectrum and, as a result, one of the most dynamic live acts on the scene, The Hots, were brought into RockBlok by Bill Martin. Fronted by an impossibly pretty blonde named Katheryn Pate, with an impossibly naughty stage presence, they played scathing, knowing songs, mostly written by Katheryn husband, Andy Byrd, a fearsome guitar slinger into the bargain. It was usual that by the end of their show Katheryn would have shed most items of costuming she’d started with, but it was never done like a stripper….it all seemed to emanate from the emotion of the blazing performance style they had developed.

They were a rather headstrong group of people, so Bill invited me to co-produce with him, which I did. However, internal tensions within both The Hots and The Smashers were to prove their undoing. I managed to finish The Smashers debut album for release, but we weren’t able to bring The Hots to market, or indeed prevent their acrimonious break-up. So that was eighteen months of effort out the door. To make things worse, my relatively smooth cruise with the delightful Orsa Lia came to a grinding halt half way through her sophomore follow-up to her gold record debut album, as a result of a horrendous car crash that killed her passenger, leaving Orsa with catastrophic injuries that effectively put a halt to her career…

Steve Gibson was keeping the doors open with his continuing hot streak, but Bill and I were momentarily high and dry. However, due to a relationship we had with a cutting-edge electronics company, Valley Audio, we were beginning to get our hands on some of the emerging technology of drum machines, high-performance synthesizers and so on that would enable a new kind of music…the first stirrings of what is now known as EDM….electronic dance music.

We started to explore this avenue, although there weren’t any Nashville-based artists doing it at the time, so Bill and I decided to create an act from scratch. We began to write material and create the high-concept formula we had begun to envision.  On my still frequent returns to England I’d begun hearing a new style of girl group records, deadpan yet knowing vocals, not so much sung as chanted, epitomized by The Waitresses, and Bill had been paying attention to Wendy O. Williams, the turbulent front woman of The Plasmatics, with her dominatrix persona.

The concept evolved into something that would be consciously erotic, but with the women not portrayed as victims or sex toys, but rather as aggressively sexual superwomen. Katheryn Pate had been honing a variant of that persona with The Hots, and implied that she’d be interested in participating in whatever we came up with, which gave us a building block. We thought that a contrasting type would work, and we found that character in Aleda Pope, who inhabited a demi-monde of her own devising, somewhere between burlesque and rock ‘n’ roll, but with undoubtedly sexual overtones. She was a tireless self-promoter around the fringes of the Nashville underground, and her flyers stressed her undoubted physical assets, which seemed to emphasize the fact that she was the perfect foil for Katheryn. Brunette to Katheryn’s blonde, curvaceous to Katheryn’s slender, yet sharing a sexual boldness and willingness to show things off. We set up an initial meeting with her, and were a little surprised to find she had been a schoolteacher before embarking on her show business journey. Then we had Aleda and Katheryn meet, and the chemistry boded well for further progress.

With our characters in place, we began shaping the already composed material to suit. While neither was a powerhouse vocal talent both could sell a song and the deadpan approach to their twinned unison over the robotic drum patterns and synth textures was certainly ear-bending. Another recent innovation was MTV and music video, which seemed to be a more suitable vehicle for our rude and naughty brainchild than live gigs. Bill was in contact with a collective of young film-makers and performers led by Coke Sams, Jim May and Mary Matthews, and his pitch to them of the concept was well received.

Unsurprisingly, Aleda knew where to obtain the requisite dominatrix costuming, including thigh-high boots, chain garter belts, whips etc., and I added silver helmets, which was an idea I pinched from Yoko Ono. (I’d participated in a Plastic Ono Band session where she handed out painted helmets for everyone to wear while we were cutting.)

The working name of the concept was Bootcamp Babies, and the video people started coming up with visual scripts to fit the quasi-military erotic content of the songs. I can’t remember who came up with “Chain Of Command”, but we all agreed it said everything the content implied. Mary Matthews was expert at location and getting appropriate permissions and licences, so for the production of “Drill” we filmed at an actual National Guard base, with the climactic set piece being shot at night with War Memorial Auditorium as the backdrop.

With a top-notch video production in hand and a completed 6-song E.P., Bill and I went to New York to pitch, but were greeted with incredulity that such an outre piece of product could have originated in Nashville, the “Nashville Curse” still being alive and well bi-coastally at that time.

With momentum stalled, our female principals went their separate ways. Katheryn wanted to take it live and recruited a replacement for Aleda, but nothing really developed on that front.

The video folks were still on board, however, and so was Aleda. As a result  we went in and filmed “Pussyfoot” with a Katheryn lookalike at a Nashville sound stage. This time we tried our luck in L.A., with the same result. Total incredulity that this could have come out of Nashville, and therefore…get thee hence!

The whole thing came to a total halt a few months later when Aleda was found dead in her apartment, according to the coroner’s report as a result of erotic asphixiation. She was found hanging by the neck in her full Chain Of Command gear…..

That’s the story…See you tomorrow for the video release at 3:00pm Central

Chain Of Command: Pussyfoot Video Premiere Tomorrow @ 3:00pm
Chain Of Command: Pussyfoot Video Premiere Tomorrow @ 3:00pm

From the Desk…Hello, Goodbye Part 1

The Long Goodbye by JOtwell
The Long Goodbye by JOtwell

HELLO….GOODBYE Part 1

Winding up 2013 with the final project at my home studio before re-locating to the new facility, I’ve been thinking about the 27 years I’ve spent in this room, and the people who’ve left their own impressions on this homely humble space.

In time-honored fashion it was a garage when we moved out here to the ‘burbs from the thick of midtown Elliston Place- the Rock Block, where I had my publishing operation My partner at the time, Bill Martin, and I also had studio space in Berry Hill, courtesy of our silent partner and booster Bob Todrank, at his Valley Audio headquarters, so we were well equipped with state of the art analog equipment and cutting-edge digital innovations. The only snag was that we had to record “ off-hours”, which made for long nights, especially when our jingle operation started having some success.

The suburban house had a huge , unfinished lower story which opened out to a pretty glen, complete with a babbling creek, so it didn’t feel underground, and there were garages at both ends. But previous owners had made both inaccessible to cars, for reasons best known to themselves, so the space immediately suggested a studio, with one garage as the control room. Bob and Bill were amenable to utilizing the space, so we set up shop in 1986.

After a couple of years the jingle business was wearing us both out, so Bill asked me to buy him out of the studio portion. It was scary for me to take it on, particularly as Bill had always been “the engineer ” and I’d been “ the music guy”, and despite having years of studio experience on both sides of the pond, the mixing board and outboard equipment were largely a mystery to me.
I managed to secure a loan from dear Brian Williams at 3rd. National Bank, with the equipment as collateral, and bingo…..I was on my own.

To Be Continued Next Thursday January 9th 2014

From The Desk… SEAT OF THE PANTS JOURNALISM

A Walk Down Music Row by JOtwell (click to buy)
A Walk Down Music Row by JOtwell (click to buy)

When David Ross launched Music Row Magazine back in the day, as a hand-to-mouth mimeographed ‘zine, I helped him out from time to time. He was a pal of mine, and not too fussy about journalistic credentials, as his venture was more or less a one man operation, and he welcomed any content that might flesh his meager mag out. I was reasonably set up at the time, with a couple of rock and pop artists as production clients on major labels, an office on Elliston Place (Rokblok) that I shared with Steve Gibson and Bill Martin, and my first solely-owned publishing company. However I still had the time and youthful energy to consider other creative avenues, and had always been interested in prose writing, so when Dave suggested I could maybe contribute a feature bit from time to time, I thought it might be fun. I didn’t know how to type, and the new computer technology, into which Dave was starting to delve, scared me to death, so my only tools were legal pads, pencils, and the phone…about as low-tech. as it got, but it was mainly a giggle and a bit of a new experience- no big deal.

I did a couple of little pieces to get my feet wet, and then one day I started thinking about the various connections that The Beatles had forged with country music over time, a subject that, at that point, had largely been ignored, and I mentioned it to Dave as a possible subject, given my ties to Liverpool as Nashville’s resident Scouser, and my personal in-depth knowledge of the popularity of Country and Western music ( as it was then known over the pond) in my home town.

Any Liverpool musician was familiar with Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and the rockabilly boys-it was all American music to us, and influenced us every bit as much as the Rhythm and Blues music with which Merseybeat later became more closely identified. Ringo was a very knowledgeable fan of the genre, his solo spots with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes usually featuring his take on a country hit of the day, and he brought that repertoire with him into The Beatles. George Harrison was crazy about Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins, and John and Paul’s harmony vocal chops were already informed by the “brother act” tradition of The Everlys and Louvins, to name but a couple. Liverpool even boasted a full-bore country band, Sonny Webb and The Cascades, who had actually traveled to Nashville to cut some sides under the watchful eye of Owen Bradley at his Quonset Hut recording facility.

The magazine was starting to get a bit of a footing, largely due to Dave’s tireless hustling, and he thought it might be an appropriate time to take on a feature that had some depth and scope, while also having a solid hook to Nashville, so he told me to give it a shot.

I was already friendly with Ernie Winfrey, who had worked with Paul McCartney on several tracks during the Wings visit to Nashville in 1970, and I had a nodding acquaintance with Pete Drake, who had put together Ringo’s 1974 homage to country music, “ Beaucoups Of Blues”, also recorded in Music City. Most relevant was the fact that McCartney had just issued his post-Lennon album “ Tug Of War”, which had involved Carl Perkins’ participation in a significant way, so there was also a current reason to examine The Beatles Country Connection, which was what the piece came to be called.

As I assembled a list of my potential sources, my confidence grew that this might be something worthwhile. Getting Ernie on board was no problem, and Pete Drake proved to be quite amenable to sit for an interview, so I figured that getting Carl would be the icing on the cake. Asking around, everyone said that he was the nicest, most easygoing guy you could hope to meet, and I managed to get his home number in Jackson from somebody, so I went ahead and called-cold…stone cold, I swear. The man himself answered, and whether it was my Liverpool accent or what, he agreed to an interview, but explained that as he had no plans to be in Nashville in the immediate future, we should do it by phone.

In addition to my other journalistic shortcomings, I didn’t know how to take shorthand, so I ran over to Radio Shack and bought one of those primitive telephone microphones that could be stuck on a phone, then plugged into a cassette recorder, and prepared for the following day, when Carl allowed he’d be available after he’d mowed the yard .I called after lunch, with a 90 minute cassette loaded….I ended up using three of them, as he was not only a warm-hearted guy and a natural raconteur, but ended up covering his entire history with The Beatles, going back to the start of their career, when he’d attended a party they threw specifically for him, and the session that followed, where they cut their classic Perkins covers with him on hand to witness it. His affection for the lads seemed totally genuine, and over the course of the two and a half hour conversation he gave me a wealth of material, both old and new.(A couple of years later, I actually met Carl face to face at a rockabilly festival at The Brickyard in Indianapolis, where I was playing with Del Shannon on a bill that included The Crickets and Carl. Remembering my name and the circumstances of the interview he said to me “Heck. If I’d known you were a picker, I’d have told you more!”)

Over the following days I transcribed every word in longhand, with rising excitement, so when I met Ernie, and thereafter Pete Drake, I was well pumped. Ernie allowed me to use one of his private photos of the McCartney sessions, and I planned to use as a lead image an early picture I’d snapped at Hamburg’s Star Club of the front line in all their leathered glory.

After the Drake interview, I had a more casual conversation with Jerry Shook, a studio acquaintance of mine who’d participated on the Ringo sessions, and an equally casual chat with the legendary drummer, D.J. Fontana, who’d also been on board. I now had a mountain of yellow legal paper, which I rewrote and edited over and over before presenting the whole thing to David. From his reaction I gathered that this was maybe more than he’d been expecting, but he went at it enthusiastically, and when the magazine hit the street it was well received, and I’d like to think that the timing of the article maybe helped Music Row attain the next level of it’s development.

Seeing a prose piece of mine in print did wonders for my confidence and so my next brainwave was to suggest a feature on the legendary Quonset Hut, which resulted in an interview with Owen Bradley, and a memorable sit-down with the delightful Brenda Lee, plus a more cursory one with Grady Martin, who seemed like he had better things to be doing with his time. Mining my connections, I then tapped Brent Maher for an overview of his career, which also included a cameo print appearance by his then new discoveries,The Judds.

The magazine was experiencing a growth spurt, and David linked up with Robert K. Oermann as a contributor, who was the real thing, a bona fide wordsmith and musical historian, with all the requisite technical skills I was so sorely lacking. David suggested that my stacks of yellow legal pad scribbling were becoming a bit too time consuming for the efficient working of a burgeoning venture, so I went back to my day job, still bereft of the tech. savvy I would need down the road, when I would devote more time to authorship, but with my appetite whetted for the world of prose, having seen those early efforts seductively displayed on the printed page.

It was an eye-opening interlude for me, and probably not something that one could get away with in the much more formal setting of the industry’s current media structure. Great fun!