HOI' POLLOI PEEKS OUT
One of the great rewards of exploring little-known LPs from the 1960s-1970s is the discovery of a band whose talent and creativity was in no way inferior to the few who "made it", but who for various reasons came up with a custom press of maybe 500 copies for friends and family rather than some heavily promoted, watered-down CBS or WB "product".
One such item I recently bumped into was the 1972 album by Indiana band HOI' POLLOI, an appealing and pro-sounding affair that certainly deserves more attention. I discuss the music in a recent review, but the band and its history has never been documented. Via some Internet-aided tracking I was able to connect with a couple of the guys involved in the LP, and they generously agreed to share not just their memories but also several never before seen photographs from the recording sessions.
Some background: the HOI' POLLOI band formed at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana in 1972. Several people were involved with the making of the LP, but the key personnel was as follows (scanned from original album insert):
Another important figure in the creation of the LP was John Schuerman, who handled the engineering and coordinated the production and mastering of the album. John remembers the project well, as do band members Dan Mack and Bruce Wallace, and their recollections form the basis for this article.
version 1.1, Spring 2007 -- details added for the CRUCIBLE 2 album below
version 1.2, 2013-July -- minor additions concerning the new reissue, Charlie Bleak's solo 45, etc
HOI' POLLOI REISSUE (2013)
A nicely done vinyl reissue has now appeared as a joint project between two indie US labels. The reissue includes substantial parts of my interviews below, along with additional material from those involved in the album. Note that the download bonus material include the Charlie Bleak and Dan Mack tracks from other Earlham College LP projects. For more on the reissue, read this.
HOI' POLLOI INTERVIEW
Q: What were the circumstances behind the HOI' POLLOI album?
JOHN SCHUERMAN: The musicians were Earlham College students at the time of the recording (excepting one). They had not really played together as a group before the recording. Therefore, a great deal of rehearsing was done as we recorded. This was the era when even famous music groups spent a lot of time in the studio recording many takes of a song, Hoi Polloi was no exception. We spent about a week and-a-half of ten hour days recording the record. "Sid Stoneman", a k a Jeff D'Angelo was the one non-student. I engineered the recording. At that time I was the head of the media department at the college.
Dan Mack, Charlie Bleak, Denny Murry (a k a "Ace Correcto")
Q: Did Hoi' Polloi exist as a performing band that played gigs, or did the band exist primarily to cut the album?
DAN MACK: Hoi' Polloi existed almost exclusively as a recording entity. To the best of my recollection the album was recorded mostly over spring break at the college. After the album was recorded we did play one gig there at Earlham for fun and for promotional purposes. Various band members gigged with each other in other bands both before and after the recording. Bruce Wallace and I lived off campus in a farmhouse with a couple of other people and some rehearsal was done there, as well as a lot of jamming with local musicians, mostly from Earlham. Charlie Bleak lived nearby and he and I also performed together intermittently. Most of the material was written before we went into the studio, but a lot of the arranging was done during the sessions, and a few of the songs emerged during the recording as well.
Q: Were the band members involved in any other music projects, before or after HOI' POLLOI?
DAN MACK: All the core Hoi' Polloi band members were in bands both before and after Hoi' Polloi, and there are a number of recordings. Charlie Bleak made a commercial solo album in the mid-70's [see Addendum]. Bruce Wallace is still performing in Florida and has a lot of recordings of his bands, but I don't know if any of them were commercially distributed.
Q: What are your strongest memories from the recording session and the production of the LP?
DAN MACK: I played acoustic guitar on most of the cuts, and sang on all the songs that I wrote or co-wrote, but there's not a great deal that stands out for me about making the recording itself. I remember putting up sound barriers of blankets suspended on music stands or chairs, not having enough headphones to go around, and some of the other constraints of low-budget recording. I recall having to transport Bruce's Hammond B-3 from our house to the school, and what a struggle it was to lug that beast around! I also remember bringing in the harpsichord for some of the recording, and that we had to tune it a few times.
BRUCE WALLACE: My strongest memories are of the sense of community and kinship that the musicians and friends at Earlham shared in those days when we were still considered freaks, especially in rural Indiana. Of course, it was just the beginning of a life of forming such relationships but it was particularly special in hindsight because we were such a minority then and there. Though my musical abilities were in their infancy at the time, the spirit of making cool music with like minded souls was blooming at the time and we enjoyed it very much. I have been a professional musician ever since, and have never lost the feeling of how important, how necessary that feeling is.
Album track list scanned from insert
Q: Were the songs written specifically for the project, or were they older things that band members brought with them?
DAN MACK: Some of both. As I recall (my memory could be wrong here), the songs that Charlie, Bruce and I wrote were, for the most part, written before the recording began except for "I Used to Think," which Bruce wrote during the recording and didn't even allow us to hear until he had recorded it! The song by Jeff D'Angelo ("Sid Stoneman") was written while we were recording, and the song by Denny Murry ("Ace Correcto") was actually a spontaneous jam that began with a lick he started playing, and went on from there. Only a portion of it ("Instead Boogie") made it to tape, though. There was a lot of creativity in the air during that time, and my recollection is that most of the arrangements were done at the time we recorded the songs. I think that "Seven Deviations" was also written during the recording.
Q: The second track, "Old Bootstrap" is one of the strongest numbers on the LP. What is the story behind that one?
BRUCE WALLACE: The name "Old bootstrap" came about one day as I was wondering what to call a song so abstract as to seem unnamable. I asked a friend who had a reputation for being lysergically inclined what I should name my song and in the true spirit of the times answered, "Old bootstrap". 'nuff said. Musically the song was inspired by two of my favorite groups of the time, Procol Harum and Traffic. Lyrically, I couldn't tell you. My guess is that it had very deep meaning at the time however.
Q: The whole LP has an original sound that is not easy to trace to any distinct source, although maybe the later-day Beatles ("Abbey Road" era) spring to mind. What sounds and works would you say influenced the Hoi' Polloi LP?
DAN MACK: It's really hard to pin down what our influences were, since they were so varied. I can list some of the music we were listening to at the time, which I suppose influenced us in one way or another. Here's what comes to mind, both bands in general and a few specific albums that I know were on our turntables: The Beatles, of course; Eric Clapton (Cream, Derek & The Dominoes, Blind Faith); The Allman Brothers; The Grateful Dead (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty); Traffic/Steve Winwood (John Barleycorn, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys); James Taylor; The Rolling Stones; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Neil Young; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Jethro Tull (Aqualung); Joni Mitchell; Linda Ronstadt; The Incredible String Band; Hot Tuna; Frank Zappa; The Youngbloods; Various folk artists like Ian & Sylvia, Tim Buckley, Gordon Lighfoot.
I'm sure there are more that I can't remember. And I have to say that one of my own strong influences was Charlie Bleak, who wrote several of the songs on the album. He and I were great friends at the time. We lost touch for a number of years, but I tracked him down about a year ago, and the re-emergence of Hoi' Polloi has been a blast for both of us. I was always blown away by the music he wrote, and back then I consciously emulated his songwriting is some of the songs I wrote. I also learned many of his songs for my solo act. I always expected that he would become a star, with his songwriting talent, outstanding vocals and good looks. I still think he should be recognized as a major talent.
Q: According to the insert, the album was recorded at Earlham college?
JOHN SCHUERMAN: The Handcock Room in which we recorded the album is a large classroom in the fine arts building (Runyan Center) used for large classes in all the fine arts. It is also a rehearsal room for the various school choirs and I believe other musical groups. We also used the projection room in Lilly Library to record a few overdubs when the Handcock Room was no longer available to us. I think either Dan or I mentioned that we did the recording over spring break. We did not finish before classes started so that is why we moved to the Library projection room.
Recording of "Who's Going To Help Me". Left to Right: Charlie Bleak, Dennis Deitzel and John Caldemeyer (in white shirts), Jeff D'Angelo (in front of chalk board), Dan Mack (next to Jeff), Denny Murry (in front of Dan), Jan Rieman (cello), Chris Blasdel (trombone) and Bruce Wallace (organ).
Q: There are some interesting sound effects and sound collages on the album...
DAN MACK: I remember recording the laugh track on "Last Laugh", which we did at the house Bruce and I shared using Bruce's tape recorder. Several of us gathered around the microphone and we just tried to start laughing. We had thought that as soon as we started, it would seem funny, and we'd just start laughing spontaneously. It didn't really happen that way, and the laughter didn't sound natural. I think it actually turned out better that way, since it sounds a little demonic or disturbed or something, which probably suits the track better. The next day we took the laugh tape back to our makeshift studio and added it to the track. I also remember that when we wanted to play it backwards when the laughter comes in the second time, we had to manually turn the tape spindle because the machine didn't work in that direction. That's what gives it the sort of jerky, bizarre character.
Jeff D'Angelo (a k a "Sid Stoneman") and Charlie Bleak
JOHN SCHUERMAN: Regarding "Hoi' Polloi Peeks Out" - For what ever reason, at one point in the sessions I had either turned up the playback system or had it up and put the recorder in record thus causing a delayed (due to the displacement of the record and playback head) feedback. I believe that it's Charlie saying "Hoi' Polloi, Hoi' Polloi". He or someone else was playing the drums. The next thing I did was to slowly pull the pinch roller away from the capstan on the recorder causing the tape to start increasing in speed. Then near the end I returned the pinch roller back to the capstan. During all of this I was adjusting the playback level to get a controlled feedback. Of course in playback the speed sounds like it is slowing down and then at the end speeding up. This was all spontaneous and I think it was this that gave the name to the album. The crash from which Satisfaction Guaranteed emerges is a piano crash played back at half-speed along with the sound of a maraca being slowing turn and there maybe some other percussion instruments. I do not remember but maybe Dan or Bruce can recall.
Q: Are you satisfied with the way the LP turned out, then and now?
DAN MACK: It was a pleasant surprise to listen to the music again after having gone for 20 years or so without hearing it. I was really quite pleased with most of it, and didn't remember it being that good. I think it's held up over the years, and is still very enjoyable. There are a few places that I'd like to fix--there are some intonation problems that we were aware of at the time but just didn't have enough time to do retakes to fix them. I'm particularly sensitive to my own vocals, which are not very good. Fortunately I later learned how sing better! Charlie and I were talking the other day, and he said he'd like to re-record the vocals on "Devil Song". I recall that we recorded that vocal track after a long day, and everyone was tired and somewhat cranky. Jeff really cooks on the tunes he plays bass on, and John Caldemeyer (sax) has a great solo on "Who's Gonna Help Me." Bruce's keyboard work is outstanding throughout, and Charlie's drum work lays a great foundation. I especially like the use of the malleted cymbals on "Old Bootstrap." Both Denny and Bruce produce tasty electric guitar work when called for. It's really quite amazing how well all the music came together in such a short time. I'm still pleasantly surprised at the quality of the musicianship on the album.
Original LP insert with recording
details (click for full-size)
Q: I understand the LP was recorded with the use of "bouncing" tracks"...?
JOHN SCHUERMAN: I realize this recording technique is antiquated but at the time it was a "big-deal" for us. The people at Gilfoy Studios were impressed with the quality of the recording, particularly the lack of noise build up usually found in bounced tracks. I attribute that to several things - the tube Ampex mixer, the Revox tape machines - 1/2 track running at 15 ips, noise reduction and Ampex 456 tape - that was a great tape!
Set-up for overdubs
Q: What do you recall of the mastering and pressing of the album?
JOHN SCHUERMAN: The Gilfoy Studios [where the mastering was done] were located in Bloomington, Indiana. Jack Gilfoy was the owner of the studio, who I met sometime later, and learned that he was a traveling drummer with Henry Mancini. He also taught at the School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington. The pressing company, Custom Fidelity had contacts with various studios around the country where a group could record and then have the master sent to them for pressing. I had been using Cook Laboratories in Connecticut to do my pressings but they were unable to produce a disk we liked. I found Custom Fidelity by going to the telephone book. Their pressing plant was located in Los Angeles, California. I think we pressed about 500 copies if I remember correctly.
Q: There's an interesting contrast between the rather crudely designed packaging, and the actual music inside...
JOHN SCHUERMAN: Yes, the packaging was pretty crude. Working on a limited budget, not much money was left after paying for studio time and the pressings. So album design was done by the band, the jackets were screen printed at Earlham College and the notes were type written and duplicated on a Xerox machine.
LP front cover. The back cover is blank.
DAN MACK: I forget who designed the lettering, but the little man was actually a random doodle by Jeff that we decided we would use on the cover. The album covers themselves were actually all hand silk-screened. A couple of other Earlham students created the silk screen (I think it was Chas and Marcia May). I recall the night we screened all the covers--it was kind of like an assembly line with everyone helping out in one way or another, waiting for the paint to dry and trying to make sure it didn't drip. Most of the covers came out well, but a couple were smudged or imperfect in some way. So, rather than thinking of the covers as plain or drab, you could consider each one a separate and unique piece of artwork!
Q: Was the LP available in record stores, or sold within the college only?
DAN MACK: My recollection is that the album was only available directly from people who were involved in the production--band members, etc. Most of the distribution was on campus or to friends and family. I seem to recall that we had people sign up to purchase the album when we played our one and only promotional gig at the college. We then distributed it when we got the pressed copies back.
The "CRUCIBLE 2" & "SHAGGY JOE" albums
Apart from HOI' POLLOI, the active music scene around Earlham College produced several related albums. These include "Attention Span", "Sequoiah Stream", "Shaggy Joe/Crucible 1" and "Crucible 2". These contain mostly folk-oriented music from various college students and local artists.
Released in 1972 (same year as Hoi' Polloi), the "Crucible 2" LP is of substantial interest to any Hoi' Polloi fan. The reason for this can be found on side 2, where we are treated to three tracks by and with Charlie Bleak. The backing musicians include a couple of Polloi guys, and one of the tracks ("Never You Mind") features three core Polloi members.
Even more interesting is the quality of Bleak's tracks, which can only be described as outstanding. The talent displayed on the Hoi' Polloi LP is in full evidence here; in fact it could be argued that these tracks are even better than what he has on the main album. The style is singer/songwriter and 70s folk with a strong melodic component, impressive chamber music arrangements, and Bleak's terrific Paul McCartney-like vocals. Although he would see some success with his solo LP (see below), it still seems puzzling that no big 70s label in LA sweeped Charlie Bleak up and put him in a studio next to Jackson Browne... because this is way beyond what you usually find on local college project albums.
The only caveat is that "Crucible 2", like its sister albums, is pretty hard to find. Two of Bleak's tracks do however appear as bonus download items with the 2013 Hoi Polloi reissue. The third, an early version of "Never You Mind" later re-recorded for Bleak's solo 45 (below) was left off the reissue.
The preceding Earlham sampler album, "Shaggy Joe", features contributions from Hoi' Polloi member Dan Mack, three fine moody folk tracks that are included on the 2013 reissue of the Hoi Polloi album.
On a related note, Charlie Bleak cut at least one single (recorded at the legendary Owl studios in Ohio) around this period, a self-produced item that came with a picture sleeve even. "Love Is On The Way/Never You Mind" (Main One records). Read more about it here.
Addendum: Charlie Bleak LP
The Lama Workshop