By Jeb Wright
Maybe you know Head East for the band’s signature song, “Never Been Any Reason.” Perhaps you admire the group for launching its own record label, Pyramid Records, in order to get its first album out and onto radio station turntables — something well outside the norm in the mid-1970s. That approach worked, by the way. A&M Records heard the band getting airplay, signed Head East to a record deal and re-released the band’s debut, “Flat As A Pancake.”
These days, Head East — which started out under the name TimeAtions and played its first gig on Aug. 9, 1969, in Carbondale, Ill. — performs 30 to 40 dates per year. In 2013, the band released “Raise A Little Hell,” a live album that features four new cuts. Head East’s lineup has changed through the years. These days, it consists of founding member Roger Boyd (keyboards and vocals), Greg Manahan (bass, lead guitar and vocals), Glen Bridger (lead guitar and vocals), Eddy Jones (drums and vocals) and Darren Walker (lead vocals and bass). Roger Boyd is the only member from the band’s peak days in the 1970s who is still performing regularly with the band. But Boyd has no plans to call it quits anytime soon, as he promised on the band’s website (www.head-east.com): “As long as I can lift my synthesizer over my head and the audience goes wild, we’ll keep rockin’ on!”
GOLDMINE: Let’s talk about the new album, “Raise a Little Hell,” a great live album from a classic live Midwestern band.
ROGER BOYD: Not only that, but I would expand that, because I think some of the Midwestern bands were better live acts than the bands on the coast, because we had a lot more opportunities to play than, say, bands in L.A. or New York; that’s just my personal opinion.
GM: I remember the days of the bands in the Midwest, and it seemed someone was always playing live somewhere. I saw this version of Head East in Tulsa with Uriah Heep, and you’re still a great live band.
RB: Our old drummer Steve [Huston] was with us that day. Our bass player was in China, so we got my brother [Larry Boyd] to play bass that night. That turned out to be a super fun show. You saw a great show.
GM: “Raise a Little Hell” was recorded on the same tour.
RB: Pretty much. Everyone asks me if this was all one show, but we always record a second show, just in case. So, it was two shows and we picked the cuts we liked the best. There is very little tweaking on it; what you hear on the album is what you hear live.
We were really trying to give something to the people who come to see us, as they can get this album and look back on the show they saw. Also, we want people who have not seen us for a while to hear this, so they can discover what they have been missing, as this band smokes.
GM: You’re the last original man standing in the band, but you have a great band. Where did you find these guys? Lastly, they have a lot of the classic sound, but they also are writing new Head East songs.
RB: There are four new cuts. Darren Walker could be (founding vocalist) John Schlitt’s twin brother. I can’t even tell the difference between them. Glen Bridger is playing guitar, and Greg Manahan does the story song “Prisoner,” a Native American story about the Deer Woman. It is really a nice song, and it is something we had not done before. We have an incredible video that we shot for it in New Orleans.
How did I come up with these guys? I produced an album for a local band in Kansas City 11 or 12 years ago where Darren was the lead singer. He and I stayed in touch, and I loved his voice and thought about him a lot.
In 1980, when the original band played our last show in Kearney, Neb., I spent a lot of years doing what I did back when I was in a cover band and was trying to put a band together before Head East was formed. Going way back, between 1970 and 1973, I was trying to put back a band with the magic we had. I played with John and Steve in the ’60s, and then they went off to college in 1970. They graduated in 1973, so they rejoined the band with the sole purpose of cutting an album. In 1974, we released “Flat as a Pancake.” We started our own label, and then A&M picked it up, and the rest is history.
After we broke up, I played in some good bands with good players, but I was still trying to get that magical combination together with that original Head East sound. We would get people in and play for eight or nine months, and it is always the little things that don’t work out for bands — one guy wants the TV on, and one guy wants the TV off.
One day I ran into Darren, and I was really looking for people who could put a band together. I wanted to find a group of musicians who already played and sang like Head East used to and then integrate me into them. As a band of guys, they would have already worked all of their issues out. The four guys had been playing and singing together for 10 years, and they sent me a CD. I knew this was happening. We got together, and they went into “Get Lucky,” and I about fell off the chair. I knew they had it; it was the sound. It was the way the original band sounded.
I have worked hard, and I’ve come full circle. I knew this was the group of guys that I would finish my career with. Except for Steve’s really low voice that you heard in Tulsa, we have everything else covered. Greg and Glen really sing better live. It has really been magical and special. When Steve heard these guys, he couldn’t believe it. We are really excited about it.
GM: I love that the guitar is a little harder edged — not too much, but just enough to really rock.
RB: He is a much more 21st-century guitar player than Mike Somerville. He was melodic, but even back in the ’70s, it would’ve helped if he had been a little harder edged. “Never Been Any Reason” was harder, but a lot of the other stuff was not as rocking. Glen went through the hair-band era, and he brings an edgier guitar to the sound.
GM: On “Raise a Little Hell,” the opening song is a new song. But Darren sounds so good, and the song sounds like Head East.
RB: I tell people all the time, and they just kind of look at me until they hear us. We did a documentary in St. Louis called “Something in the Water” that is about FM rock and AOR rock music of the ’70s. There were a lot of bands that were coming out then. When the guy who was interviewing me came to see me he said, “That guy sounds exactly like your singer.”
When I was inducted into the Iowa Rock And Roll Music Association’s Hall of Fame, I had John come up, and Darren and John actually sang together, and no one could believe it. Darren does it just like John, and it was a real treat.
The 40th anniversary of “Flat as a Pancake” is coming up, and we might just do something with both of them. There are a couple of things we are working on, and it would be really neat to have them just sing harmonies together. We will see what happens.
GM: Why put new songs on a live album? Why not just do a new studio album?
RB: We are going to do a studio album. Going back to your earlier comment, we are one of the premier live bands in the business. We feel we can do what a lot of other bands can’t do. We wanted to capture that feeling, so people could hear that from us and that they could hear the Head East sound live.
We stuck a few new songs on there. I am hoping some of the classic rock stations will pick out a new song and play it. That is a long shot, as they are not even playing new songs by the Rolling Stones or Springsteen.
A couple of those songs are getting great reactions. We didn’t want them to look at us like so many classic rock bands that are under pressure from their record companies to put out new albums.
I know a number of bands that are pressured into putting out albums because the record companies tell them they have to do an album or they will withhold their royalty checks. They end up putting out live albums that don’t have anything new on them and don’t have any energy to them. We wanted to give people something better than that, and we did. We showed them we could do that.
GM: The album title comes from a song on the album that is a cover, “Raise a Little Hell” by Canadian rockers Trooper. Are they sending you thank-you notes and Christmas cards?
RB: They were wonderful to travel with back in the day. They were wonderful, and I always loved that song, and I always thought that song sounded like Head East.
Classic rock stations won’t play anything new, so we wanted to give them a song that sounded like Head East, but we wanted to give them an established song. Part of that is because we wanted to do that, and part is because it is a great song and I love it. You know it is Trooper and I know it is Trooper, but we wanted to see if that would help us get around some of the resistance radio has for classic rock bands.
GM: You also had a career as a music professor. Did you retire?
RB: I retired from the university about two years ago. I had been there for 30 years, and if you don’t retire after 30 years, they penalize you. You can go back and re-enter the system, but you can’t make more than your retirement money that you get.
My plan was that when my wife retired, she worked there as well, that I would retire. I wanted to dig up my old dean from University of Illinois — who told me when I quit school to play rock and roll that I would never come back to school — and slap his corpse around with my Ph.D. and say, “See this!”
I was really into educating and teaching the students, but universities have other goals, like bigger class sizes and money, as the bean counters are in control. I didn’t go to university to write grants. I still had the band that I played with during the summers, and I decided that this band was ready to go national again. I really want to take another shot at this, and that means that you have to do this full time.
GM: Head East is a positive band that really gets the audience involved.
RB: We were that way coming out of the college club scene. REO Speedwagon came out of that era, too. Later on, Kevin Cronin trotted out the songs he had written in high school that became huge hits. Before that, they were more like us. They were harder and more rocking, and we were always that kind of band.
We love playing in front of the crowd, and we have that kind of personality. From the late ‘60s to the mid-’70s, the college clubs is where it was at, as you could play six to seven nights a week. There was a lot of social change going on in the country, and it was a lot of fun.
I never planned on being a professional musician. I just did it because it was fun, and I could make a little money to supplement my scholarship. Playing rock and roll and being in a hot band like Head East was a lot better than studying calculus and engineering.
GM: Guys like Neal Doughty of REO and you brought the keyboard into popular music. You had guys like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep with their style, but Head East and REO was a different animal.
RB: We took great pride in our sound compared to the Jon Lord sound, which was a little flatter and more electronic. We called it the Organ Sound From Hell, what he did. Neal and I brought in the Hammond. You have to understand that REO was a horn band when I first heard them. Everyone was doing that then. It is a very good observation that you noticed what Neal and I were doing. I remember the first time we ever played with Uriah Heep was in Wichita, Kan. Heep had finished and we were setting up. Ken Hensley was there, so I just laid on my Hammond and his head just snapped. Kenny was a big part of bringing keys to rock, as well.
GM: Did you ever have discussions over whether the song needed a keyboard solo or a guitar solo?
RB: There were never any issues over that, but some of our later albums, we recorded in L.A., and I never really thought that was necessary, as we were not L.A. kind of guys. We were big, tall, beer-drinking guys from the Midwest. We would walk in, and all of the other bands would look up at us, as a lot of the guys in bands there were about 5 feet tall.
When we went with the L.A. producers, they wanted the guitar thing, and I thought they missed out on the sound of the band. All of the sudden, there were about 25 people trying to make the records, and that created a lot of problems. A lot of people who have a good ear for music recognize that the keyboards were a key part of our sound.
GM: On “Never Been Any Reason” you put on a strap and play the keyboard like a guitar.
RB: I still use the original mini I play on that. I think Edgar Winter started trotting his around. The crowd loves it when we do that.
GM: Legend holds that REO Speedwagon’s Neal Doughty “borrowed” your keyboard back in the old days.
RB: He did! He damn near stole it. I told him that he had to give it back, as he had it for a quite a while. When I see him now, I tell him that my keyboard is still waiting for a royalty check.
GM: Was it friendly competition back then with REO? Music tends to be friendlier than sports.
RB: Not a lot. We were not bitter enemies, but we were competitive. They were on a label, and we were independent, and they started recording before we did. But then we jumped ahead with “Flat as a Pancake.” They ended up having massive hits with “Hi Infidelity.”
Today, we love to see each other and laugh about the old days. In those days, it was very competitive. For instance, we played The Assembly Hall in Champaign before they did, and that really irritated them. When St. Louis claimed us a St. Louis band – even though we all grew up 50 miles or so from St. Louis; we had hardly ever played St. Louis then — a bunch of the St. Louis bands didn’t take it very well.
We were the new kids in town, and we had “Flat as a Pancake,” and we were hot as a pistol. The music industry was very different back then, and it was very competitive. People would pull stuff on stage, like pull your knobs and unplug chords and it was serious. Now, we are just grateful to see each other and still be playing, and we are grateful that people still listen to our music.
Head East, REO and Styx were all playing at the Illinois State Fair this year. We’ve all known each other for 40 years, and we knew each other when we were playing cover songs. To do a show like that for the people is very special and a real treat for the fans and the band.
GM: Take Head East, Kansas, Styx, REO and others: Why did it happen?
RB: I think for us — and I am sure it is true for others — REO had Irving Azoff has a manger, and he went on to be huge, even though he dropped them later on. We were in the right place at the right time. There was a transition between Top 40 music and albums. Our album, “Flat as a Pancake,” was recorded on our own label. KSHE-95 in St. Louis loved it. The deejay wanted to see how strong his station was becoming in the market, so he took an unknown album from an unknown band, and he broke “Never Been Any Reason.”
We had the right product at the right time, and we had KSHE and KY-102 in Kansas City, and it broke. Styx was out on Wooden Nickel (label), and it wasn’t happening for them, and the guys on WBBM spun “Lady” late at night, and people started calling in, and that broke Styx. Kansas, REO and we were really broke by FM stations in St. Louis and Kansas City. They were powerful in the Midwest.
GM: You were nuts, naïve or genius to put out an indie album back in 1974. How did that happened?
RB: The more people that would tell me that it would flop made me want to do it more, because we were well on our way. The bands back then were trying to do their own records and make demos. They sounded like demos. I thought we should risk it and make a finished product. I thought it would make it easier to sell. We spent $15,000 making that album. Jerry Milam, who was one of the best studio designers at the time, wanted a record to come out of his little studio that was in his hometown, and he cut us one hell of a deal. We rehearsed and rehearsed, and we went in and laid it down.
We had a product that sounded on the same quality as what they were putting out on the Coast and in Nashville. Other bands had never taken that kind of risk and made that kind of commitment. The timing was right with KSHE and KY-102.
You have to get the stars to line up. We had them line up for us, and it was great, and then there were a few times they did not line up. An example of that is when Rainbow stepped all over us with the song “Since You’ve Been Gone.” That may have been the difference between us becoming mega huge and just really big. People ask me about that all the time, but I can’t sit around and moan and groan about that. We are still playing that song 35 years later, along with other great songs; who can complain about that? I have a great band and a new album and great new songs, and I am still playing music.
GM: “Never Been Any Reason” has a great arrangement to it. How did it go from just a song to “the” song?
RB: It became “the” song because the public loved it so much. We actually thought “Love Me Tonight” was going to be the song, because AM radio was still big at the time. The Bay City Rollers wanted “Love Me Tonight.” We said, “No, we are not going to do that.”
Mike put “Never Been Any Reason” together really well. We played that song and the other songs on the album for 10 or 11 months in the clubs, and we were able to fine-tune them. That is really how we got that all worked out. We realized that song was magical, and we just knew it.
GM: “Jefftown Creek“ is another great tune that Steve wrote.
RB: Steve and I met at an essay contest in Washington, D.C. We were from these tiny little towns, and we won this trip. We were at the hotel, and I brought my guitar. We were at the Marriot along the Potomac River, and he sang a Beatles song, and I knew this guy had it. We decided that when we got back, we were going to play together. We went to his house, and he took all of these drums out of the barn, and they had straw and hay all over them.
He wrote “Jefftown Creek” when he was out of the band in 1969, when he was in college. It was about the first time he got stoned in this campground not too far from his house in southern Illinois.
Most of our stuff was about trials and tribulations that we had. Our stuff is pretty uplifting, as we took stuff in stride instead of going into depressing styles of music that you hear far too often today.
There is always the discussion of “Is art a reflection of what is happening socially?” But there was a lot going on back then, and we were all from small towns. It is almost unimaginable for guys who came from where we came from to do what we did, so that is a lot of what we wrote about.
GM: Why did you do the Russ Ballard song? Were you out of ideas and just decided to take on “Since You’ve Been Gone?”
RB: Mark Spector was with CBS Records East Coast, and he came out to see us in a little club in Chicago, and he didn’t think much of us. I think he had a New York attitude and just saw us as a little bar band. I was like, “OK buddy, go away. We are already selling our records on our own label.” He went back to New York, and he shows up as the head of AOR for A&M Records.
Mark found that song for us. CBS West Coast wanted us, but they knew we were going to sign with A&M. They were an excellent label; we got paid, but they were not the best rock label.
GM: Did you get the name Head East from a criminal who was a roadie named Baxter Forrest Twilight?
RB: That is bit harsh to call him a criminal. In the late ’60s, he culturally imbibed in things, and he was an earth muffin. He came in and saw the sun come up one day, and we were looking for a new name. He said, “Let’s call the band Head East,” and we liked that. Head East it is.
The first time we played as Head East, we thought we were getting paid, and we set up on Sunday, and then we found out we were playing for free. We were already there, so we decided to play.
Monday night was audition night, and everybody would come to the club and throw all this sh*t at the bands that were only mediocre. We had learned all of this heavy vocal stuff, like Crosby, Stills & Nash, and we were polished, and we blew everyone away.
That club kept us six nights a week through the fall. They even paired us with other bands; that’s how well we did. Then John and Steve decided to go back to college, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” That guy did come up with the name, but he was not a criminal … he just didn’t want to be drafted.
GM: Tell me about the cover to “Flat as a Pancake.”
RB: We were coming back from Chicago; up there, you played the bars until 4 o’clock in the morning, which was brutal. Bands would burn out playing the clubs in Chicago, because you would play seven or eight sets a day for week after week after week.
We were coming back, and central Illinois is totally flat. Someone goes, “Man, this is flat as a pancake.” We thought that would be a great name for an album. Because we were from Champaign, we did a pancake floating in the heavens with syrup dripping off the edge. It was like the earth was flat and the syrup was falling off the edge of the world. The patty of butter was the assembly hall, which was the basketball arena at the university, so geographically it showed where we were from. It was just a regional release.
When A&M gets the album, they turn the cover into this “eat pancakes” thing. We had to eat pancakes everywhere we went, and we all put on about 10 or 15 pounds. The shot that we did on the back at the diner was difficult. We were hot in St. Louis at the time, but we couldn’t get anybody to shoot the picture. We went to 25 or 26 places, and no one would let us shoot there. Finally, the Rite-Way Diner said we could do it there. It was a fun shoot, as the place was packed and there were people out in the parking lot. They still have pictures there on the wall, and people still talk about it. GM