Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Space Opera odyssey, Chapter 5

Frank Gutch does it again, with part five of his Homerian epic on Space Opera, the Fort Worth band from the early 70s who turned a few ears around.

Click on the headline for the link.


The Best Laid Plans of Singers & Sailors...

While Space Opera may have known what they were going to do entering the studio, as Scott Fraser had stated, it soon became obvious that their plans for the aftermath were lacking. As a result, the return to Texas was classic anticlimax. The band waited; for equipment and for a plan of attack from the label. The equipment eventually showed. The plan did not.

“We finished recording, left Toronto and moved back to Texas in July of 1972,” according to Bullock. “Then, we went to Hollywood to mix after which Cass went to Sterling Sound in New York City to create the master.

“Back in Texas, Georganne Deen and I were working on album cover design. Georganne gets most of the credit there. I was responsible for the layout of the lyrics page and the mockup of the tracking on the inner sleeve. Having artistic control meant that we did everything.”

“Rex and I were trying to push to keep the momentum,” said Mann. “We hired Boyd Grafmyre and had him working even while the band was still recording, in anticipation of hitting the ground running. I don't remember any specific shows that he booked, but he was working the East Coast. Rex had rented office space at 7 E. 84th where he owned an apartment. We had hired a secretary. We were getting a lot of pressure from everyone to get on with it.

“Initially after release, the guys from Columbia in Canada and Epic in the US were anxious to see Space Opera out playing and promoting the album. They were, however, a little frustrated with the time it had taken to record the album--- the cost, time for mixing and even getting the artwork for the cover ready.

“We shielded the band from the pressures so that they could focus on the mixing and artwork. I don't think anyone knew about the pressure from the record company other than Rex, myself and Cass, but even Cass was sheltered to a great extent because he was very much a part of the artistic process. Cass had a business head, but had his hands full working on the album with David.

“We had successfully negotiated strong artistic control, so there was not much the record company could do but wait. I think some resentment had built up because of that, but at the same time there was great hope that the album, when finally released, would be a huge success. I think (people at) both Columbia and Epic thought Space Opera had recorded an artistic masterpiece and that Georganne Deen had designed a beautiful album cover.

“In retrospect, however, because of the amount of control we had, we were a bit self-indulgent and too young and inexperienced to understand the potential consequences with the label and, ultimately, our careers.”

For the band, working at Manta had opened doors, particularly for Fraser. Sounds and effects, always a big part of Scott Fraser the musician, became even more important. Important to the degree that he felt it necessary to be able to duplicate that sound and those effects onstage. Cass Edwards was commissioned to design a full stage setup.

“Cass worked with a company in Chicago,” said Bullock, “to interface electronics found in the studios of that time such as Teletronix limiters and Pultec compressors, sought after 'retro' items in studios today. The power amps were Fender and Crown, with phasing and overdrive effects. The combination of those components could be dialed in and activated by a footswitch. Similar effects can be bought in music stores now, but in 1973, it was unheard of and sounded great.”

“For touring equipment,” Edwards elaborated, “I assembled the studio equipment used on the album as well as commissioning Model Builders in Chicago to build one of the first multi-function foot switches, customized for each players' rigs, including the chopped tops and Fender Super Reverbs customized to work with the foot switches. All speaker cabinets had already been handmade while in Williamsville by Gary Mann and Greg Boren, the band's all-around best hands.

“I was also fortunate to get Ed May to let us beta-test new speakers after he split as head of research and development for JBL and formed his new company, Gauss Speakers. The same with early experiences with Moog, who lived not so far away while we were in Williamsville, Dreadnaught Amplifiers and other equipment manufacturers.

“Also, earlier, I had had the luxury provided by various angels to acquire the best available regular gear. I had regular contact with the master luthiers at Guild and Martin as they made all of the guitars for the band. Phil had one on the first Alembic basses, and we worked with them on early improvements to their electronics and playability.”

To Mann and Farr, it must have looked like everyone was having fun but them.

“For us in New York and Canada on the business side, it was frustrating trying to set things up with no product,” lamented Mann. “With that and the band awaiting equipment, we had no band to promote.

“I think one of the biggest killers of momentum was the delay in the special equipment we were having designed, but it seemed crucial at the time that the band could play live what they had recorded. As I recall, Scott was adamant about not playing (without the equipment) and we all went along. It was a real shame because the equipment we awaited for almost six months and paid over $50,000 to develop could be bought off the shelf for a few thousand dollars today. I haven't done the math, but in those days $50,000 was a lot of money.”

Friction developed. Even Claudia Wilson noticed.

“Everybody was getting unhappy,” she commented, “and I guess this is part of putting things out of my mind, but at a certain point it became clear that, damn, what are we going to do? There was about a six month gap, as I recall, for the equipment to be ready. I feel, and I could be wrong, that the record company lost interest. They had spent a lot of money to cut that album. I mean, in 1972 dollars, it was lots of money, and when they couldn't go and promote the fool out of it, the company just lost interest and it never happened. There was no tour support. It was like the band said we're ready and the label said yeah?

“It was a combination of things,” she attempted to clarify. “First, the band wasn't ready. Then, by the time everybody got on the same wavelength, the label wasn't there. It just never happened.”

“The band started having problems when they went back to Fort Worth and stopped playing,” said Mann matter-of-factly. “They didn't even practice because they had not yet received the special order equipment. The thing that got Space Opera where they were was their live performance, because they were a great live band. Obviously, they were good songwriters and great in the studio, but practicing and playing live was what made them a band. By the time everything was in place, equipment-wise, they started practicing, but by then most of the momentum was gone.”

“While this was going on,” said Bullock, “ Cass and I visited studios to see where we might want to record album two. We looked at A&R and Electric Lady in New York. We were very impressed with Caribou Studios in Nederland, Colorado. Had Columbia honored the second album option, we more than likely would have recorded there.

“Even with all this activity, we were growing anxious because time was dragging on and we hadn't played onstage in well over a year. We had purchased a lot of equipment and bills were mounting with very little money coming in. It was a business on the brink of both success and failure.”

“They were in Texas and Michael and I were still in New York,” said Rex Farr, “working with Grafmyre, trying to set up a tour. (We had been working on it) for six months, from before the moment the album was completed. We were paying Grafmyre and the band was getting a bit of survival money. We kept going to and from Texas and talking to them on the phone: 'Guys, we need to get out there.' We might have had one voice. They had four. Maybe it wasn't explained to them, I don't know.”

As far as booking, communication between management and band broke down completely.

“We didn't try to book gigs, we did!” Farr continued. “I said to Grafmyre, schedule us a gig, from the very first day. Mike and I sat him down and outlined exactly what we wanted. His job from the get-go was to book a tour. That was his job and he did his job. But every time he would book a gig, the band would say 'no equipment, no play.' We're out there humping and stroking the record company and it's one month... two months... three months...”

When asked if it was difficult dealing with the record company, Farr said “Hell, yes. Hell, yes. You bet it was. But they had heard the music and we explained the situation to them and they said okay.”

“It was not so much the band turning down a particular date,” Mann explained. “It was just them saying, hey, we don't have our equipment.”

Space Opera, the album...

Finally, the album hit the streets. To Talona Phelps, the head of the old Mods Fan Club, it was worth the wait. “I believe it actually said 'Take 25' or 'Take 37' on it somewhere,” she said, “the point being that they really worked hard on getting everything down exactly like they heard it in their own heads.”

“The official release date for the album was March 21, 1973,” said Bullock. “Our stage equipment arrived from Chicago two months later.”

“The first show after the album was in San Antonio,” recalled Mann. “I rented a hall (The San Pedro Playhouse), bought some radio ads to promote the show and album. We had a decent turnout. The band played fine, but was a little stiff from not having played live for so long. Again, in retrospect, we would have been better off playing a few small clubs to get back in shape, but we were more focused on promoting the album. I think we had also lost perspective and may have thought the world was still waiting for us to conquer it.

“It was weird in San Antonio because Phil had hired David McMurray, his karate instructor, to accompany the band to San Antonio. He was backstage wearing a ghee (the traditional karate outfit) with a star hanging around his neck. The band was pretty uptight from not having played. Some Epic PR guys tried to get backstage, but Phil's friend David gave them a hard time. It was silly. No one was trying to get backstage but our record company, and we kept them out. And I'm not blaming the band because we were all pretty crazy by this time.

“The only other show I remember was the Scott Theater show. Epic sent down a guy named Kip Cohn to check us out. I think the main purpose was to decide if they were going to give us another shot with a follow-up album. Again, we probably would have been better off in a friendly club atmosphere. Meeker flew in some celebrities. I don't remember who, except for Mama Cass. The band played well, as always, but there was no sizzle. It was obviously a canned show to Kip. We had no new material and not much life in the old material. We were stiff onstage and so was the audience. The band played like they were just trying to get through the set.”

“Our first concert in Fort Worth after the album came out was back at the W.E. Scott Theater in Fort Worth where we had done our 'coming out' show for the Whistler, Chaucer album four years earlier,” said Bullock. “At this concert we used the stage equipment that Cass Edwards designed and had built by Model Builders of Chicago. The stage was filled with this custom-built, great sounding equipment and we were decked out in new Morty Sills' suits. There was the proverbial 'audible gasp' when the curtain rose and we kicked into 'Country Max'. The plush 500-seat theater was filled, we were well-rehearsed and we played all of the songs from the new album, most of which our audience was hearing for the first time. It was our first hometown show in several years and we got a very warm reception.

(above: at Morty Sills'--- Phil White, Scott Fraser, David Bullock, Brett Owen Wilson)

“It was really our Fort Worth homecoming and, yes, the presentation was more formal at that time. We had a grand piano and a pump organ onstage with us and we did a lot of changing instruments to get the textures we had gotten in the studio. This was what we wanted--- to play theaters with the audience seated and listening. Our music was getting more complex and our 'show' was just performing the songs. The tape of that concert proves that we sounded great with the new equipment, and the audience was very enthusiastic.

“There was a special guest in the audience that night--- Cass Elliott of The Mama and The Papas. Jim Meeker had met her in Los Angeles and invited her to hear us play. After the show, we all went over to Meeker's house to unwind and meet Mama Cass. Several of us sat together and chatted. Cass said that she enjoyed our music, particularly our harmonies, which was understandable since hers was primarily a vocal group.

“Before we headed home for the night, someone picked up a guitar and Cass joined us (or rather, we joined her) in singing 'I Call Your Name'. That was a thrill. She was a genuine star and had such gravity about her and yet was so gracious and sweet. It was really sad, a year or two later, to hear that she had died from a heart attack.”

“The morning after the concert,” Mann said, “I drove Kip to the airport. He was polite when I pressed him on giving a recommendation, but he was noncommittal. Evidently, the recommendation was not good.”

Mann felt the stress of the Epic deal as much as the band and, at this time, maybe a bit more. The delays had taken a lot out of him, as it had the members of the band, and communication between them lagged.

“Not long after the Scott Theater gig, I believe I went back to New York,” he said. “There was not much in Fort Worth for me to do, and evidently not much for David either, as he soon after moved to Dallas. Maybe I should have stayed in Texas, but I don't know if I could have made a difference. Besides, to me it was too depressing in Fort Worth. There was nothing there for me anymore.

“I think the band thought it would be a step down, playing clubs, and there was no money to promote our own shows. As crazy as it may sound, I never imagined we were really coming apart until I got the phone call from Phil telling me to come home and pay the bills. I was somewhat unaware of the state of mind the band was in at Fort Worth because I was totally focused on business and really didn't want any part of Fort Worth. I guess we had all become more disconnected that I thought. Only recently, talking to David, have I come to understand what they were going through.”

The band played only three more live shows before deciding to call it quits. On the evenings of Nov. 19th, 20th and 21st, they played a club in Dallas called Gertie's. At that time, they had no idea that it would be the last time they would be onstage together, at least as major label recording artists.

“Looking back,” Bullock said, “it's hard to explain the frustrations and emotions that would cause the band to split up just nine months after the album release. But, for one thing, we were no longer in New York, in the swing of things. We were in Fort Worth, with few prospects and few resources.”

Obviously, the lines of communication between the band and Epic failed shortly after the album's release. Communication was lacking, at best, and most of that dealing with the delays. What little help the band expected came in terms of a small number of ads posted in rock magazines like Rolling Stone and possibly a few regional radio spots. For all intents and purposes, Epic disappeared. Columbia/Canada vanished with them.

“I never expected the record company to support us in any major way beyond paying for the album production and distribution,” Bullock explained. “That's all they were obligated to do. It was always up to the band to promote its recordings by going on the road--- that was the prevailing business model. In fact, it was an industry dictum that 'a band makes its money on the road.' Our manager had never had problems finding work for us, yet he was unable to do so at the most crucial point. For the first time since we started, we had no work to do, so we dissolved the band.

“We decided to play a farewell show at the HOP, where we had gotten our start. It was on December 23rd and all our friends in town and all those who had scattered--- everyone was home for the holidays. That night, as we came through the back door of the club, we heard familiar music, “... late again...”, the refrain from Phil's song Outlines, playing on the radio over the club PA. KAFM-FM radio was doing a tribute to the band and announcing our split-up. Our families were there, as well as fellow musicians such as T-Bone Burnett, the Ham brothers and Cahoots. It was a warm, diverse crowd of about 80 people enjoying a loose and relaxed evening. We played all our songs as well as the music we loved by The Byrds and Bob Dylan and BB King. We didn't say anything about this being the last show, but we didn't have to. Everyone already knew. After three hours onstage, we ended the night by playing “Country Max” and said good night. Outside the club, we shared a smoke, shook hands and went our separate ways.”

One can only imagine the frustrations at that point. The handshake was not the end, but the guys did not know that and it must have been more like ending a family than just a band. To have been so close and yet so far...

“We were a young band with a new major-label album which had received great reviews and developed industry buzz,” remembered Bullock, wistfully. “We could duplicate that album onstage with a revolutionary sound system. We should have signed with an established booking agency. With or without support from the label, we would have thrived onstage. Despite all the frustrations and delays, we would not have dissolved the band if we'd been able to start playing again on an ongoing basis.”

But they didn't. Though the handshake was not a death knell, it closed that period of Space Opera for good. Future efforts, as good as they were, were never again looked upon with such favor by the major labels, and Space Opera knew too well that without them, the dream would not happen.

In retrospect, there was equal amounts of frustration and accomplishment. Still, failure rankled. White looked back with a shake of the head. “Basically, what we're talking about here is a lease deal,” he said. “We've got the product done and we lease it to you and use your machine, which includes distribution, promotion, vinyl pressings and things. (We thought) that was really all we required of them. We didn't feel like we required any help. We thought we had that down and that's why we did what we did and those guys in the offices did what they did.”

In a 2005 interview with The Oklahoman, Fraser capsulized the whole Epic experience in just a few words. “We ended up getting creative control and we paid the price,” he said, “because the trade-off was that we were pretty much left on our own. But the good thing is, all these years later, we can say, 'Well, that's our record. We did it, we're entirely responsible for it, and we're still proud of it.'”

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