More On Rocktronics

Billboard's Recommended LP's (pop): OHO--Rocktronics, Clean Cuts CC 5001. Producers: Ty Ford, Jack Heyrman (EP). Mid-Atlantic quintet offers art rock with updated synthesizer accents. Seven tracks are given laudable production polish. (Billboard, July 7, 1984)
"Working with OHO through the Rocktronics project was one of those quantum leaps in my engineer/producer experience. I don't remember how they found me, but I've always been involved with local music. That was back in my days of working for radio stations. I was the in-house producer for 98 Rock; producing the station's compilations of local music. We had a good relationship with Sheffield Studios in Phoenix , MD. Sheffield's Chief Engineer, Bill Mueller, who engineered half of Rocktronics, taught a recording engineering course that later evolved into the full blown school that Sheffield has become. I had taken that first course to add to the broadcast engineering I already knew. We were a very good match then and we continue to keep in touch today. 
"OHO was very potent then; good ideas and a powerful performing ability. They were edgy and about as non-pop as you could be. So much so that after we finished the cuts for side one (yes, this was long ago enough that we were releasing on vinyl) I said I thought we needed some songs that were more consonant, prettier, maybe a ballad. Gyro and Mark came in with "Where Are We Now". Jay Graboski came in with "Diane" (lyrics co-written with co-producer, Jack Heyrman) and Gyro crooned them, but still with that quirky edge. Side two became side one because I thought those songs were more accessible. I guess they agreed.
"Rocktronics is a two-headed beastie for another reason. The first side we recorded at Sheffield in Phoenix , MD. Because everyone in OHO had been at it for some time, we didn't waste a lot of time tracking. Regardless, the money added up and before we went on to side two, they had found Steve Carr, who eventually became the bass player for the group. I recall being apprehensive about recording in a basement studio with someone I didn't know. I think I said, "OK, let's try one song. If it sucks, we need to find another solution." While it lacked the space, microphone choice and SSL console, Steve's ability to get the most out of what he had filled in the gaps and I was satisfied, so we finished recording at Steve's studio, Hit & Run, near Gaithersburg . That was in 1984. I'm still in Baltimore. Bette, my current wife, is the best!" -Ty Ford (02.17.10) (More about Ty, his interests and services at www.TyFord.com)
From the "one's man trash is another man's treasure" category: while speaking to SSA co-worker Roy F. on a 2nd floor hallway of the Security West low rise building in Woodlawn, MD sometime during the beginning years of the last decade, something vaguely familiar caught my eye, half-buried in a pile of detritus located in a wheeled canvas trash cart. 
Our agency (SSA) would periodically encourage employees to clear out their accumulated, unnecessary and insensitive "trash" by conveniently placing these bins in nearby corridors. This was before the agency went "paperless" and periodically this impedimenta became cloying. 
Roy often spoke of the itemized groceries he planned to pick up on his way home after his shift and, as interesting as this was, my eyes (and attention) soon began to wander, peering over his shoulder into one of these bins where the sheen of shrink-wrap had reflected in a gleam one of that hallway's fluorescent lights. I spontaneously reached behind him (my aim was true) & grabbed the thin 12"x12" square object, gingerly pulling it out of the stack of heavy papers where it was pinned. Voila, I held an intact, un-opened, mint copy of OHO's 1984 vinyl EP Rocktronics in my hands (the original title suggested was Nu-Rocktronics but this was whittled down by the producers to just Rocktronics). A fortunate event, I clearly remember experiencing that rare "Eureka!" sensation as, at that time, I didn't have a copy in the archives. 
It took me many years to understand that only a few of my SSA co-workers had any interest in our musical endeavors and apparently here was an instance where someone had either been gifted the record OR was one of the generous people who agreed to participate in one of my more adventurous experimental promotional schemes. 
Soon after the record's initial release and local distribution I would taxi a different person each day during the lunch break to the nearby Woodlawn, MD Record & Tape Collectors store, drop him/her off (while I waited outside with the engine running) to ask the sales clerk to fetch that customer a copy of our new record. S/he would buy it and we were able to create the fleeting illusion that this title was a popular one. 
This tactic actually worked for a while as when I would saunter into the store at the end of the month the store manager would boast of how OHO's Rocktronics EP had outsold virtually every other major release for the month of August 1984 at this specific outlet. Who knows what kind of swell might have occurred had the remaining band members done likewise in their respective neighborhoods/territories? 
Soon the pool of prospective buyers evaporated and business returned to the norm. It was likely that I gave some of these records away and perhaps to people who, while politely feigning interest to my face but having no intention of ever listening to the record, forgot about it after perhaps shoving it in the bottom of one of their desk drawers where 18 years later s/he ran across it during this "clear-out," and then tossed it into this very dumpster, subsequently homing its way back into my possession. This speculation is just another bittersweet "boomerang" experience, one of a familiar variety as regards the circuitous routes that some of our musical product journeyed over the years. 
Artist: OHO 
Release date: June 1984 
Label info: Clean Cuts Records (CC 5001) 
Question: Please speak to how the Food For Worms song, "It Needs a Haircut" led to the band being signed by Baltimore-based Clean Cuts Records. Wasn't "Haircut" featured on a 98 Rock (local FM radio station WIYY) compilation LP as a result of that station's "Basement Tapes" competition? 
David (Reeve) was THE MAN during this epoch of the band in many different ways. & I would declare that, were it not for his songwriting and insistence that we make a video, the Rocktronics EP would likely NOT have ever materialized. This is one of the many reasons why we chose "Is That What You Said?" to represent OHO Mach II in this KZMU-FM program, as a tribute to his incessant work on behalf of the band/music. It is also probably my favorite song on the record with it's snappily paced, positive and jangly sounding vibe. Gyro wrote the lyric and I did contribute a bit of music to the middle instrumental section but overall this is David's "baby" and attests to his significant song-writing talent. "Is That What You Said?" ends side one of this EP with a winning groove. 
This version of OHO was really the Food for Worms band of 1983 agreeing (one member reluctantly) to a name change at the producers' behest and to cooperate with them from start to finish for perhaps the first time ever to this extent in our history. 
Mid-80's OHO lasted for just a few months from Spring until the Fall of 1984 when the bassist and keyboard player left the band--Gyro, David & I joined with keyboardist Scott Dallas and added another guitarist/vocalist in the person of Michael Barth, but this abortive arrangement did not last, with rehearsals ending 6 months later in early 1985. 
We were always angling for ways to attract outside help. This sometimes involved the relinquishing of some control over the content. Recording songs and releasing independent product is a very expensive enterprise and, aside from a couple of notable exceptions (this being one, another when OHO was signed in 1990 to Sky Records--receiving an $8000 advance) often results in a financially losing proposition, no matter how positively the music is received. Scanning the horizon for random opportunities to fly by, the former (of the aforementioned) occurred in 1982 when we answered a solicitation by local FM radio station 98 Rock for local bands to submit material for consideration for an upcoming, station sponsored, compilation LP of local artists, The 98 Rock Album. 
"It Needs a Haircut," built around a catchy David Reeve instrumental hook/riff and based on a true story overheard by another band member about a corpse that required the attention of a hair stylist, was our contribution to this LP. "Haircut" made the final cut as the closer for the album's music program and every song received a substantial amount of airplay on 98 Rock, WIYY-FM, and for a significant period of time. 
The record therefore also subsequently received extensive local promotion from the station and the concomitant distribution. There was an elaborate release party held for all the involved bands at the old Hammerjacks club in south Baltimore where I remember having a great time, cavorting and tossing back a few (there was an "open" bar) with our peers in the then local music scene. 
All this was during the MTV "music video" heyday and David insisted that our band invest in making a video. Bratt Studio engineer, Bill Pratt, had received some national exposure on that cable network with a video by his band at the time, The Gents. Finalists in the MTV "Basement Tape" competition, the Gents were bold enough to have had their ambitious video shot on film stock with its classy "look", easily making it to the last round of the competition. 
We hired a video producer, picked a tune ("Haircut" of course--it was under 3 minutes--less filming and editing time/expense), created a storyboard and rented some costumes and cheap props. The most expensive prop we purchased for $80 from an undertaker who had converted a coffin-like cadaver transporter into a more convincing coffin substitute by staining it and affixing budget line casket handles. (We eventually gave this to Trixy & The Testones guitarist, Kraig Krixer, who somewhat coveted it and upon delivery to his home put it to practical use for towel and linen storage.) The whole enterprise came to just over a grand in costs, but the response rewarded our investment in spades. 
Always on the lookout for (especially local) music industry-related types who might help us, I had recently read a piece about Clean Cuts Records in the Sunday Sunpaper's Parade (?) magazine and was determined that we finagle a meeting. We found the label contact info, made an appointment to talk to Mr. Jack Heyrman and armed with a VHS of our video and the 98 Rock LP we made our presentation. 
The details of our meeting are now foggy but I have listened to and have held the actual record in my hands. So we must assume success. It was kind of a "we'll meet you 1/2 way" deal as I remember we paid (or partially paid) for the recording sessions (engineered by Bill Mueller) at Sheffield Studios, having in 1978 relocated from Timonium (where OHO recorded both Vitamin OHO, Dream of the Ridiculous Band, the studio cuts one finds on Ecce OHO & Dark Side's Wholesale Diamonds EP) to the Jarrettsville MD area, where under the direction of Ty Ford (who was entrusted by WIYY with the supervision of recording/collating all the songs that were included on the 98 Rock compilation LP) we re-recorded "It Needs a Haircut," this time with Gyro singing the lead (our demo featured the vocals of the keyboard player--this version can be found on The Ultimate Diet, the Food for Worms anthology). 
So at this point of convergence (the music, the band, the video, the comp LP, the airplay, the producers, the record company, et al) the project was already underway: a perfect storm. I remember the producers being present at many of our Woodlawn rehearsals (there was the quaffing of beverage and the occasional barbecue) sharing their obvious enthusiasm for the project with the band. The pair were very much "hands on" in the process of making this record. 
We recorded side two at Sheffield ("Infomania," "Detached," "Still Life" and "Haircut") then switched to Steve Carr's Hit & Run Recording in Rockville, MD where we recorded the songs featured on side one of the EP: "Where Are We Now?" "Diane" and "Is That What You Said?". We wrapped these recordings up in the Fall of 1983 and I remember we had a TV in the vocal booth so we could follow the Baltimore Orioles progress as they pummeled Philadelphia in the last baseball World Series our home team has won or played in since. 
Also of some significance was the re-introduction of female backing singers, their first appearance since Patsy Shock harmonized with me in 1975 on "Maiden Voyage"ce OHO). Karen Parr (who still does session work for Bill Pratt) & Tracy Tiernan (daughter of the late Tim Buckley's sometime keyboardist, Mark Tiernan) were enlisted to pad and/or answer Gyro's lead vocalizing and can be heard on at least 5 of the EP's 7 tracks...nice touch. 
From Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back liner notes: "I have always believed that artists are a lot more creative if you tell them what they can't do. It's...fun to explore ways of getting around the rules." While we were not actually told what to do per se & there were no specifically articulated "rules" as I remember, the underlying intent was for our team to make a "commercial" record that remained true to the band's intrinsic nature/sound. 
Decisions were made more or less "by committee" with the producers gently steering us creatively and having final approval. We softened the signature, direct, biting and acerbic wit our projects were usually known for in favor of a more subtle irony (e.g. "Still Life" & "It Needs a Haircut") and adopted a "middle way" approach that was still humorous and engaging. (The name change issue and departure of one of our key players was touched upon in the "What's Up?" diary entry for April 2009 should anyone care to revisit this.) 
This record was based on compromise and cooperation as with any successful "team" approach. I think together we made a very good sounding record (one we would have unlikely made on our own) and OHO definitely benefited by agreeing to work with the experienced Ty Ford & Clean Cuts Records with its established promotional network, financial reserves and the savvy expertise of label owner, Jack Heyrman, who had produced a Grammy-nominated album earlier in the decade. Jack had also released a pair of acclaimed LP's by Dr. John among others. He was also no stranger to humor as is evidenced by the Clean Cuts released 12" Bruce Springstone single also recorded at Steve Carr's Hit & Run Recording a year or so prior to our arrival there. 
Unlike most of our dealings with independent record labels over the years (the relatively useless legal relics of agreement filling an overstuffed folder in our archives), the Clean Cuts contract was effectuated verbally. The tunes were published by Jack's Erikanian Music (named after his daughter) and if the record sold perhaps we'd make another. This did not happen but making Rocktronics spanned a 2 year time period and we participated in everything from composing the music to licking the stamps when sending out the promo copies, one of these BTW I recently purchased on line. The cover has yellowed but the disc is in excellent condition. The lower right hand corner had been trimmed indicating it to be a promotional copy. This was confirmed when inside the sleeve I found our promo one-sheet signed by Gyro that reads: 
"MAY 23, 1984 
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT LORI LANDON. TOM STITLER OR JACK HEYRMAN AT CLEAN CUTS." (this specific announcement was personalized in his own cursive handwriting with this message: "Hope you like it, Gyro") 
Having had some prior dealings with independent record exec, Greg Shaw, his Bomp! label/fanzine and Voxx Records in the late 70's (Waves Volume II) and early 80's respectively (Battle of the Garages), we had some experience with these types of loosely constructed business agreements. Bomp's Suzy Shaw writes on page 150 of BOMP! SAVING THE WORLD ONE RECORD AT A TIME: "As far as Greg was concerned, business was a serious inconvenience. He had very important work to do, having everything to do with the creative process and nothing to do with money. The endless forms and legal matters that piled on his desk were generally ignored, and phone calls and letters were easily dismissed." 
Assuming we were among the lucky ones, I located a photocopy of a Bank of America Bomp Records, Inc. check dated 12.12.81 made out to me representing $63.80 in royalties for the 09.80, 03.81 & 09.81 business quarters. Despite rumors of many of Greg's checks bouncing we were able to cash this one. And that was about it as far as any further royalty payment from Bomp/Voxx Records. 
It is notable that in 1989 our music attorney, E. Scott Johnson, Esq., when petitioning ASCAP and BMI for any unpaid royalties that may have accrued in the interim, nothing showed up. I remember Scott being a bit surprised at this as Greg's publisher was Bug Music, a fairly prestigious LA based music publishing company. What's the expression? "Fake it till you make it?" Well, we have addressed the topic of the futility of expecting to be paid. 
Still, it's difficult for me to accept that Greg "has flown from this earth" and, royalties or no royalties, the independent music world has not been quite the same since his passing in 2004. I saved all the correspondence with Greg (spanning the period 1978-1981; there was a final letter from him in 1994--that I cannot find--after I had updated him with everything that we had recorded since '81, with emphasis on the then-current Lunar Merchant live-to-digital-2-track recordings). These 15 letters, some filling up to two pages with his text (Greg was primarily a writer) on psychedelic yellow BOMP! stationary, are preserved & archived in a small binder. Greg Shaw championed "the garage" as THEE sacred space for the creation of the quality raw & independent rock/pop music that often originates there. 
Jack then petitioned a famous, internationally published, music journalist to write the Rocktronics liner notes and here they are: 
"OHO? Aha! That's a name that rings bells. Baltimore's answer to Pink Floyd (never mind what the question was), an American underground rock icon, a band that came out of nowhere playing music the chroniclers swore was years ahead of its time. That was much after the fact, though, because most of the praise arrived too late to save OHO from becoming yet another counter-cultural memory. Was the band disappointed, resentful? Nobody ever said so, but it wasn't long before the force realigned itself and the band's Dark Side emerged. Once again, the lads made the right moves at the wrong time, and while their contemporaries headed out to the garage to fulfill the promise of punk, the Dark Side were but rumors in their own time, legends in their own room. Fortunately, like Luke Skywalker, the force was too strong within them for the Dark Side to remain dominant. That chapter of the band's history was soon dead and buried, mere Food for Worms, and the OHO saga remained deep underground. 
"Now OHO is back, but don't expect them to simply raise the flag on Okinawa and proceed as before. This isn't resurrection but rebirth, with new songs, a new sound, a new approach. Bright and tuneful, the selections here arrive right on time, hitting the basics of contemporary pop, but adding just enough of a twist to grab your attention and hold it. Rather than go to glitz, OHO sneaks around the musical conventions that have mummified so many others, unleashing sliders where you'd expect curve balls, fast balls where you'd expect change-ups. Part of it's their sense of humor--who else would write a hi-tech hymn like "Infomania" as a synth-pop polka?--part of it their unerring humanity. Mark, Mike, Dave and Jay manage to play even the most precise rhythm vamps without coming off like the latest-generation Bowie clone. 
"''Where Are We Now?' asks the record, and the answer is in the grooves in more ways than one. OHO isn't just back, but on its way out of the underground. They've been ahead of their time for too long; for OHO, the time is now, and this record offers seven good reasons why."--J.D. Considine 
"The cover of the album, by the way, was done by New York transplant Andrea Schamis, a graphic artist who could not make the bash (06.16.84 LP release party at The Marble Bar) because she was up in the Big Apple discussing the terms of her book 'A Closer Look,' which is due to be published soon."--Laura Charles, The Sun, Sunday June 24, 1984. (Husband Larry Charles later went on to be a successful Hollywood producer--e.g. HBO's Entourage series.) 
This was a beautiful package with that high-gloss import finish, great cover art, flattering liner notes and great music mastered carefully on quality virgin vinyl. We were all very satisfied and proud when we finally received our own copies. 
OHO's EP garnered some positive record reviews. Ken Tucker, in his The Village Voice "PAZZ & JOP" Product Report (basically a numerical rating system from -10 to +10) gave Rocktronics a solid 8, his highest mark in this June 5, 1984 (0L.XXIX, NO. 17) edition, tying with Jerry Lee Lewis and beating out releases by Johnny Winter (5), Steve Perry (5), Alan Parsons Project (3), George Jones (1), Roger waters (-1), Ultravox (-4) and Joe Jackson's Body and Soul (-3). 
"OHO blends in new wave sensibilities to a deftly textured backdrop. OHO has assembled an above-average package. Best stuff: "Where Are We Now?", "Diane," "Infomania," and "It Needs a Haircut." --Patrick Gilbert (Detroit Monitor, 06.28.84) 
"Very snappy electronic group that does have solid chops and a good feel with dazzling hooks. Unique EP with a lot on the ball that should sell through beyond the terminally hip level and actually come to grips with popular acclaim." 
--Midwest Record Recap; May, 1984 (Vol. 7, #13) 
From the Baltimore City Paper (date unknown): "OHO, who came to fame with Okinawa, a record that still sounds ahead of its time, are together again on a new seven song mini-LP on Clean Cuts Records. At the record release party, Mark O'Connor (kb), Jay Graboski (guitar), Gyro (vocals), Mike Kearney (bass) and Dave Reeve (drums) will treat you to future hits like "Infomania." 10 pm Marble Bar, 306 W. Franklin St., 727-5336." 
NOT having been afforded sufficient run through time for even a coarse adjustment of our rather complicated stage set up (we had a quartet of synthesizers/keyboards, a drum machine & 3 vocalists aside from the guitar, bass, drums and assorted acoustic percussion to establish & balance audio levels), our sound had necessarily then to be tweaked by the sound engineer "on the fly" during the first songs of OHO's "white" set (all members dressed in white--diametrically opposed to our 2nd or "black" set with all members being dressed in black garb). This he did successfully and, under the circumstances, quickly. Nevertheless we somehow managed to present ourselves and our music favorably. 
OHO's EP release party was held at Baltimore's The Marble Bar (venue manager Leslie Anderson even provided us with a dressing room upstairs in The Congress Hotel). It was very well attended with complimentary promo OHO and "Rocktronics" buttons being handed out (courtesy of Clean Cuts Records), a guest list of notables, stage props created by our friend and artist Connell Byrne, and all video taped by Jeffrey Albaugh (I think). Aside from an initial and lengthy obfuscating overload of "fog" from David's cleverly constructed, home-made smoke machine (basically an oil drum filled with dry ice and an exhaust fan), it went off without a hitch and all had a wonderful time. 
"The album release party at The Marble Bar on June 16, 1984 was a smash. The album 'Rocktronics' was performed by the group Oho, and members of the band and friends all gathered to toast its release. On hand was producer, John Heyrman, who was, crablings, nominated for a Grammy a few years back for a Phil Woods album he produced." --Laura Charles, The Sun (06.24.84) 
By Spring 1985 the carriage reverted back to being a pumpkin and reduced to a duo, David and I began yet again. 
We stay in touch with Ty. Aside from agreeing to pen a pair of germane paragraphs to kick off this month's "What's Up?" diary, he graciously attended our CD release party in March '08 for Bricolage and remains active in a variety of musical endeavors, not the least of which is running his own music/video production studio. 
I last spoke to Jack Heyrman (Clean Cuts continues to thrive, having successfully branched out into all sorts of related business areas) in the early to mid "aughts" when he mused of releasing a compilation CD featuring choice tunes from the entire Clean Cuts catalog/history. "Where Are We Now?" was to represent OHO on the proposed package. He was preserving his catalog at that time by baking the master tapes, converting analog tracks to digital files. Clean Cuts later generously provided us with CDR copies of the Rocktronics digital transfer & we are currently able to enjoy and share this music in perhaps its highest quality version to date. CC has seen to it that this music is available at CDbaby.com "

Click to listen at CDBaby


Leave a comment

Add comment