The Ides of March captivate once again

The band's music is back on sale again, via a box set “Last Band Standing,” which is s still worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
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The Ides of March, top row, L to R: Larry Millas, Bob Bergland, Jim Peterik, Scott May; Bottom row, L to R: Tim Bales, Dave Stahlberg, Steve Eisen, Mike Borch.

The Ides of March, top row, L to R:Larry Millas, Bob Bergland, Jim Peterik, Scott May; Bottom row, L to R: Tim Bales, Dave Stahlberg, Steve Eisen, Mike Borch.

By Dave Thompson

You probably already own the vinyl. Between 1970 and 1973, Chicago’s Ides of March were responsible for four of the era’s most captivating albums: “Vehicle” (1970), “Common Bond” (1971), “World Woven” (1972) and “Midnight Oil” (1973).

The first named is more or less ubiquitous on the collectors circuit — though it only climbed to No. 55 on the chart, it seemed like everyone had a copy, and a lot of people still do. The other three are trickier to locate in decent condition, but they’re out there, and so are the 14 45s the band released throughout its lifetime – the vast majority of which, much to many people’s surprise, had never even been collected in one place until Sundazed released “Ideology 1965-1968” in 2000.

Now they’re back on sale again, via a box set “Last Band Standing,” which may not satisfy the vinyl hound in us all because, after all, it’s released on CD. But it’s still worth a few hours of anyone’s time, all the same.

It’s a chunky package to be sure. Four CDs, a DVD and a booklet, slickly slipcased and celebrating 50 years of a band that — in all fairness — many people remember for just one solitary hit. But “Vehicle” was so huge, so powerful and so all-pervadingly memorable that even if you’ve never heard of the Ides of March, you know the song.

Frontman Jim Peterik, whose own 1980s career with Survivor often feels like a mere annex to the true story, describes the band as “the toy that grew up. Four Piper grade school friends, Larry Millas, Bob Bergland, Mike Borch and myself, who started a band because we liked each other and played in the grade school band.”

Together they developed, conjuring a discography that reached from “our harmony-infused Brit Invasion Parrot singles” to embrace “the horn-rock sound that hovered in the atmosphere between 1968 and 1972. We then leaned toward the country rock sound of Poco, CS&N and Illinois Speed Press. We were a band who grew up in public — but always sounded somehow like the Ides Of March. Spirit over content.”

Those Parrot singles (plus one apiece for their own self-financed Epitome at the dawn of their career, and for Kapp Records at what could have been the end) were ignored at the time, but remain many collectors’ favorite introduction to the band; 14 gloriously punchy scraps of mono that are spread out across 24 tracks on the box set. A period album’s worth of unreleased material accompanies the singles, although the Ides were never given the chance to cut a LP at the time, as Peterik explains.

“These were days (1966-69) where you really didn’t get a chance to make a full-fledged album until you had the momentum of one mega or two middling Top 40 hits. Our Parrot debut ‘You Wouldn’t Listen,’ made it all the way up to No. 42 on Billboard in the summer of ’66 but the punky follow-up, ‘Roller Coaster,’ barely scraped the Top 75. Successive tries such as ‘My Foolish Pride,’ ‘Hole In My Soul’ and ‘You Need Love’ didn’t even do that well. It wasn’t till Warner Brothers gave us a shot with ‘One Woman Man’ (in 1968) that we finally got our first LP — after we submitted ‘Vehicle’ as the last song on a demo tape.”

“Vehicle” opens disc two in its well-remembered mono single mix, and all-but closes it with the stereo album mix. Spin Cycle asked Peterik what was it about the band and/or that song which has ensured, so many years on, they are so well remembered?

“Everyone seems to have a ‘Vehicle’ story – where they were when they first heard it, who they were shagging at the time and what it means to them now. That clarion call horn riff seemed to wake everyone up in 1970 and helped make it the fastest-breaking single in Warner Brothers’ history up to that time.”

"Last Band Standing" Box Set

The "Last Band Standing" Box Set

Yet there would be no lasting follow-up. “L.A. Goodbye” still feels like a huge hit, yet its lowly chart position equated to a flop, as Peterik recalls. “It is the true Ides fan’s favorite song. [But] lots of things conspired against ‘LA Goodbye.’ The song went to No. 1 in Chicago on the mighty WLS for five weeks when it came out in 1971. Doing the math it should have been huge nationwide. Sadly, Warner Brothers was going through the transition of independent record distribution to in-house. The record got lost in the corporate shuffle.”

Disc two carries us through the “Vehicle” and “Common Bond” albums, with b-sides, unreleased cuts and even a Pepsi commercial (using Guess Which Song?) certainly proving the Ides were neither a one, nor even two, trick pony. Both albums still sound uncommonly good today, remastered with a precision and integrity that genuinely feels right. As Peterik puts it, “The kick drums on the WB master of ‘Tie-Dye Princess’ sound like cannons.”

The band was still moving forward. Switching to RCA in 1973, two further albums are highlighted across the box’s third disc, all marking their digital debut. “The tracks we licensed from RCA/Sony were the first time they were transferred from analog to digital and required the baking process in special ovens before playing, so that the iron oxide didn’t shed and degrade the sound. When we first heard these transfers, we felt like we were hearing master playback in RCA Studio B in Hollywood. Really thrilling.”

A handful of period live cuts follow; then we skip over the band’s subsequent demise and hiatus, to rejoin them with their 1990 reunion, and the string of albums they have made since then. The DVD then delivers a current lineup live show, shot at the Chicago House of Blues in 2014, plus a “from the vaults” selection of ’70s TV – “the John Byner Show, Upbeat, Dick Clark and more. What a trip!”

The whole thing winds up as what Peterik describes as “a labor of love. It was amazing going through our archives and finding the freshest copies of all the tracks.”

For the band’s latest sounds, however, we return to the dawn of disc one. “We start the set off with three brand new Ides tracks: the title track ‘Last Band Standing,’ featuring the mighty Steve Cropper, who stayed to record with us after a show we did together; our ode to the whole horn band genre ‘Who I Am,’ with the cascading brass sound of my late friends Chase; and ‘Too Far To Turn Around,’ which harkens to our more country rock phase.”

Theoretically, the leap from that back to the next track, 1964’s “Like It Or Lump It” should be immense. But Peterik is correct when he declares, “What astounds me is that despite the years, stylistic differences and sonic changes, it still sounds like the working of the same band. Odd but true!”

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