Black Country Rock: We Are the Rock Stars
Part Two: The Fall
Almost a year to the day of recording the first ‘EP .1’ Black Country Rock was back in the studio tracking ‘The Second Annual Report of Black Cuntry Rock’. This time we ended up recording in a home studio of a dentist named Ron Jacobson. The studio, RBJ Productions, was the fanciest home studio I have ever seen. Apparently it was designed by some Hollywood hot shot sound engineer, who’s name I can not recall, the dentist told us but the name escapes me. The home part was strange. There were kids to pass on the way to record and the lounge was full of their toys. On one hand we are making a rock record on the other we are minding our mouths because the children can hear us.
The recording focus was the song “Doppelgänger”. The song came together really quickly one night when Ryan and I were writing with the Roland 770 drum machine. I was playing my Fernandes bass run through a Boss ODB-2 Bass Overdrive Pedal. We improved the intro and worked out the verse and chorus pretty quick. Michael came in with some lyrics. He said he had heard The Cars “My Best Friend’s Girl” and was inspired to write lyrics to the melody. I was really opposed to this idea of lifting from the Cars but once we ran through it I could hear we were onto something and in the end there really is no similarity to “My Best Friend’s Girl”. Like most BCR songs I then wrote the bridge, worked out the structure and changes. The drummer we had at the time, who we called “the Wheel”, had gone from bad to awful. When he started playing with us it just seemed like “the Wheel” just needed to rehearse more but as time progressed it became apparent there was something wrong with his brain and he could not remember the changes. We made the record without him and brought Dylan Ryan in to play on “Doppelgänger” the rest of the songs were done with a drum machine unfortunately as the sound suffered and BCR had moved in a live drummer direction . The lead engineer was John Slywka who dialed in a sweet set of Steve Albini esque tones and we began recording.
We tracked every song live with a scratch vocal then overdubbed where necessary. “1994” was a grunge rocker. “Think” (short for “I Think We’re Alone Now”) was our take on the Tommy James and the Shondells classic. We blended it with some of the feel of Tiffany version like the disco beat and the keyboard solo. “Doppelgänger (reprise)” was a slowed down swing version of the lead track where Michael got to scat and Right Eye Rita showed off her piano skills.
We left the studio the first day and Ryan (the guitar player) and I were pretty energized so we went back to the rehearsal space. Since almost all our gear was in the studio we played with the few things we had left and came up with “Music for the Death Factory pt. 1” A very loose and experimental song inspired by Throbbing Gristle. I played keyboards and programmed drums on a Roland 660 drum machine. We brought the idea to the studio and Michael played guitar with oven mitts on top of it with a lot of fx running. There was duck tape that I used to cover Ryan’s mouth after chasing him around the live room taunting him. This was intended to be our hidden track after eight seconds of silence like the song “Endgame” had been on the previous EP. When we were mastering ‘The Second Annual Report of Black Cuntry Rock’ (named so as a nod to Throbbing Gristle’s land mark album ‘The Second Annual Report’) we collectively decided it would be a bright idea to start the record with eight seconds of test tone followed by “Music from the Death Factory pt. 1” playing in reverse (reverse version referred to as pt. 2). (“Music from the Death Factory pt. 1 & 2” have been combined as a bonus track along with all the other BCR studio songs here.) The idea was originally to create a hidden track in the pregap that the listener would have to scan backwards from track one to get to. The idea was referred to as a “track zero” at the time/. The Mastering facility did not have the technology to make a “track zero” so the reversed track with test tone started the cd and probably pissed a lot of people like T.F. at the Illinois Entertainer.
Black Country Rock learned everything by doing. There was no one to ask and no rule book to check so we dove in head first. We learned how to book shows, promote, record, write, manufacture merchandise, run a web site and web store and so on. I learned life skills like how to bluff my way into a bar and drink for free when I was way underage. We did everything all in. In the beginning the band was a tight gang. The gang would change dramatically as we had a Spinal Tap like revolving door of drummers that would lead to falling back on the drum machine. Right Eye Rita quit and returned. Everyone gained and or lost significant others. September 11th 2001 turned the music scene upside down and shook it. Radio went from Britney Bizkit to Sandy Vagina Emo. There was a palatable sea change as the audience feeling of childlike invincibility was shattered and a desire to find music that was sympathetic and consoling rushed in like the tide. We prided our live show on it’s spectacle and flash but with the coming of age of the crowd the wind in BCRs sail shifted from blowing to blowhard.
Distrust and ego had crept in to the band and in the end the final coffin nail was drugs. The band would break into camps me and Ryan vs. Micheal, Micheal and Ryan vs. me and in the end me and Micheal vs. Ryan. Ryan (the guitar player) eventually screwed the pooch when he could not control his habit and was a fucking chore to deal with. He would show up late or not at all. One of the last shows we played March 22nd 2002 at the Underground Lounge he missed load in and sound check. I did not believe he was going to show but he did…right before we were to go on. Ryan came down the stairs and walked full force right into a wall. This was symbolic of the tipping point. Not only was Ryan fucked up but he had also become an ego maniacal dick. My best friend had become a person I no longer recognized due to drugs. It was incredibly disheartening. Michael and I tried to intervene. At various points we spoke to Ryan, his girlfriend, his parents, and frankly any one who would listen. Watching my band mate, as well as one of my best friends in the world, on a downward spiral hurt immensely. I was hardened, increasingly stand offish, and uninterested in interacting with the band outside of being on stage. What to do when you are not getting along with your band? Gig everywhere and anywhere you can. The BCR mantra was “If you can’t be famous be infamous, like cock roaches”
April 6th 2002 marked the last BCR show and that was the end. I don’t remember any discussion at all. We did have another show offer on the table and I rang Michael just to run it by him. He said “Nah. Not unless we can find a replacement on guitar.” And I said, “Right. Well, that’s it then.” For me, pure exhaustion of trying to push the boulder up the hill had kicked in. Ryan was useless and Michael seemed distant and apathetic. Right Eye Rita read the writing on the wall and moved on. On the plus side, I had written many good songs that the band had shot down. In the last year or so of the “band” Ryan would refuse to play any song he did not write part of. While Ryan was shooting down ideas he was hardly writing any of his own. I would have to trick Ryan into thinking he wrote a part for a song I had already worked out. It was dubious but necessary to get anything done. It did not take me but a few months post BCR to gather up songs of my own and by October of 2002 I was in the studio recording the first Ahab Rex EP “Rollin’ with the Ahab Rex Quintet” (this was the EP, an LP of the same name came out in 2004). Three of the four songs were originally submitted to BCR and rejected. Rita and I would work together on and off. She has played piano on a few Ahab Rex songs and most recently we ran into each other at the grocer market and spent over an hour blocking an isle and shooting the shit. In the time after BCR Michael, Ryan, and I would maintain some distance until Ryan, seemingly cleaned up, wanted to make a record under his, at the time new, moniker Nerve Exhibit (more on this in the future). He asked me to produce it, not because he wanted my input but because he did not know how to make his own record. It was easy enough to connect him with the right people and produce the tracks consisting of minimal keyboard sounds and effected vocals to achieve a pour man’s Skinny Puppy. This would get me Michael and Ryan talking again but Ryan betrayed Michael shortly after the recording wrapped, and my loyalty as well as my heart went to Michael’s side. Michael and I would fall in and out of touch over the years and we have had our rough patches. Eventually, I ended up playing some Black Country Rock songs including “Doppelganger” in his band Sheriff Scabs, as well as podcasting together in “We’re with the Band”. Ryan got back into drugs. Last I heard about Ryan was when someone forwarded me a police blotter from December 16th 2008 that Ryan had been arrested stealing $239 from a Burlington Coat Factory in Gurnee Illinois. I truly feel sorry for Ryan and I would like to hear from him.
Time has been kind to my Black Country Rock memories and I am proud of what we accomplished and the music we made. We were a very ambitious band and in a lot of ways way ahead of our time. I regret the way we parted company with Ryan and to this day I wish we had recorded more of our songs. Black Country Rock would spawn a number of knock off bands in Chicago for example Fashion Bomb. It is no coincidence that the first line up of Michael’s post BCR band, Sheriff Scabs, would consist of ex-Fashion Bomb members. I have very little in the way of memorabilia as Ryan was the record keeper and maintained the website when the band was active. He would be the one with the most photos and videos. I did send him a letter for these remembrances but I unfortunately received no reply. I had a girlfriend through the BCR years who kept every press clipping, photo, flyer and ticket stub in a scrapbook, but she tossed the scrap book when we split many many years ago (she is happily married and with child now). I compared notes with Michael and he has equally little but graciously contributed what keepsakes he does have for this remembrance. All of the Black Country Rock studio recordings along with some outtakes are available at http://blackcountryrock.net/
- Ivan Russia 02/28/14