The Mediterranean Threesome

New York - Times Square - July 1977

Personally, I like everything The Mediterranean Threesome ever recorded. There is one song, In the Shade of the Olive Tree, an early B-Side, that sounds … different. It’s not on any compilation nor has it appeared as a bonus track on a remastered album. It’s only available on the internet as one of those videos where you get to stare at the picture of a 45 for two minutes and 39 seconds. It’s one that I revisit regularly.

At first I thought it was the quality of the recording. I listen to the song again, volume is good, sound clean. I plug in my headphones, it was lovingly ripped from the original vinyl, only one small crackle, barely audible, during the fade out. It is in mono.

I find a tribute site for the underground newspaper The Freeworld Tribune. One of those small publications preaching a modern socialism, started in 1967 and fading into history in 1971. Loved by its readers, a bunch of them got together, gathered copies of every edition ever printed, and put them online. The editor was famous for succeeding in getting the (semi-)famous to drop acid with him. The resulting interviews were interesting. As I work my way through the interviews, I find the key to unlocking the mystery of the Olive Tree. I switch over to the video site.

Among the sponsored content are trending videos, pop songs and video blogs. The landing page doesn’t have a single video that interests me. I must be managing my privacy controls correctly.

I pull up my playlist HIP (Harmonisation, Inebriation, Procreation). My version of the classic threesomes; Wine, Women and Song sounds too tame; Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll got burned out in the 70’s. I once thought it a clever acronym.

There’s a banner across the top informing me that some videos were removed from the list because they had been deleted from the site. I lament the fact that they don’t tell me the names of the disappeared. I could document my playlists but I wont allow myself to be that anal about the music on an internet site. I have already spent too much of my life cataloguing my music collection as I transferred it from medium to another. I have to draw the line somewhere.

I remember my thoughts on absurdity. I don’t understand why the thought scares some people so much, why purpose is so important, why it leads to existential crises. I find the idea very liberating. It allows me to live in the moment, not make sacrifices for some nebulous future. It grounds me, gives me a basis for making choices.

I scroll through my HIP list. I remove the placeholders the site has left for the deleted videos and for videos that are now private. I go back to the top of the list. I start rearranging, moving songs up and down the list. Why am I obsessing over the order of the songs, making sure that an artist doesn’t repeat too soon? Because I keep on hoping, fantasizing someone will see the list, recognize my genius taste, share it with the world, make me an influencer.

I scroll back to the top to see the statistics. 55 views. That’s more than I expected. I check some of my other playlists: four views, 31 views, 11 views. I go back to HIP. Maybe it’s the first song Death of a Single Man by Dick Severin, live in Bakersfield 1970. Nothing special. The concert isn’t famous; the song, one of my favourites, isn’t one of his biggest hits. Maybe it’s the name of the playlist. There’s no accounting for what works. There’s no accounting for the statistics either. I know some are under-reported. But it doesn’t really matter. The ballpark is what matters. Four, 11, 31 views: It’s meaningless compared to the videos that count their views in the billions.

I click on Play All. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the list from the top. Oh the irony of using a video site for listening, a site, that when it comes to music, is dominated by unmoving pictures.

HIP, my list of feel-good songs, songs that I sing along to regardless of the suffering it imposes on those present, songs that make me move.

I tried using the playlist at the gym once. They had renewed their machines. They went modern; individual screens; graphical representations of the programs; direct connection to a tracking application, to the house channel, to the internet, and to the video site.

It’s a new toy, I want to play with it. One and done, see what it’s like. An alternative for when I have listened to my backlog of podcasts. I am not ready to change my habits.

I listen to podcasts when working out. If I change my listening habits, I wont be able to keep up with all the shows I like, I’ll have to unsubscribe from some. It’s difficult enough keeping the subscriptions down to a manageable number.

But I like the idea of watching videos while exercising, queuing up my personalized channel, something to stop my eyes wandering to the images parading on the big screens hanging from the ceiling.

I get on the elliptic. I give it a try. It wants me to sign in. Of course it does, of course I wont. Neither the gym, nor the video site need to know my association which the other. I search for the my playlist. I scroll through a page full of misses. Followed by a second page of misses. Midway through the third, I find it, start listening. It skips a song – strange. I keep going and it continues. Then it skips another song. I slow down, play with the display. Some of the songs are marked unavailable. Available only if I sign in and they know who is watching? Once is enough, I’ll stick to the audio from the phone.

Oh! One of the 55 views on the counter is me.

The music on the list favours the late 60’s and early 70’s. There isn’t an obvious reason. I was too young when the music came out and no older siblings to initiate me. Timeless? Timeless, that’s sort of what I’m going for with the list, songs that I don’t tire of (which really isn’t the definition of timeless). And not obvious, songs that aren’t the biggest of hits, the hidden gems. Songs, I am not expected to know, like when I know the songs of my children’s generation,  which surprises them more, because, as they remind me with their comments, that when I thought of my parent’s generation, it was very difficult to figure out what was contemporary for them in their youth.

It’s The Unlikes turn to fill my ears. I remember, I was in high school, when the album Classified Women was released everyone had an opinion; about the lead single Damsel in Distress, about the album, about the band, about the lead singer John Mountain, or the lead guitarist Ken Beard.

The single was too pop, too funk, too disco. Or, it was a sign the group knew how to stay contemporary, knew how to evolve, knew how to stay relevant. The lyrics were too adolescent, not befitting a group of thirtysomethings, like the transcript of a drunken conversation at 4:00 AM, when everyone else has left. Surrounded by empty beer bottles, potato chip crumbs, pizza crusts and sipping on warming beers. Dreaming of rescuing some pinup from a life of drudgery and sexploitation to sexploit her. Genius was the answer; it takes skill to create a scene like that, to make it real.

The album got the same treatment. A lot of comparisons to their “golden era.” Not experimental enough, too commercial (it’s #1 on the charts); the new guitarist is crap, the old guitarist (found dead in a hotel room on Wilshire Boulevard with a needle in his arm) was way better and played the occasional solo, the new guy only does rhythm guitar and Ken Beard is a crappy lead guitarist. Oh yeah, the new guy knows how to play slide, Ken’s better than you think, it’s the old guy that was screwing things up, improvising unplanned solos while fucked up on H. The critics are saying it’s their best in six years. And it’s #1 on the charts.

John Mountain, the lead singer, had few fans, excepting a handful of girls that would admit to thinking he was sexy, a sentiment that was hard to understand; a voice that sounded like his white-jeans were too tight, fish lips that looked ready to swallow the mic, moves (legs kicking out to the side at impossible angles) that made him look like a marionette handled by a beginner, and a Napoleon complex that came from some sort of optical illusion which made him look six inches shorter than his six feet of true height.

His character is questionable. Suddenly he was for free-speech when The Unlikes made a contractual fulfillment album that made George Carlin sound like Mr. Rogers. He was all for the freedom to do what you want in your own home as long as you’re not hurting anyone when he got busted for cocaine, all for free-love when the pictures of the orgies with groupies got out. He’d never said anything against the war in Vietnam, never taken part in a benefit show and publicly treated his exes like money hungry opportunistic groupies when asked to recognize the children he’s fathering.

Grudgingly, you admit that he has a massive stage presence, that he is a major reason for The Unlikes success, that all the other cool members of the band call him a great friend, and then you find out he is humble about his song writing abilities despite having written a lot of their greatest hits.

His son is a piece of work. An album, full of sentimental drivel, released in the late 80’s. The only semi-successful song, the single, written by a studio hack, sold on the strength of his inherited fish lips and the name. The follow-up, all self-composed, went straight to the discount bins. His calling the Rodney King riots an overreaction might have been forgotten had it not cost him his relationship (while defending his comments, he told his girlfriend that the reason he was with her was because black girls were better in bed; she told E!). He surfaced briefly in Saint Petersburg (Florida), volunteering his opinion on the Tyron Lewis case. His father shipped him off to a private island in Belize where he dreams of his father’s death, a monster inheritance and the freedom to again enjoy luxury in the world’s sin capitals. It is rumoured that every few months, he stops drinking for the morning, goes into the home studio and records a few bars of his magnum opus, his vindication.

General Shelter‘s opening salvo of dissonance brings my attention back to the music, Word-Rock, a masterpiece, the opening track to his second record, the introduction to the concept of his free-jazz inspired album, his last piece of recorded work before, like a bunch of other stars living on the edge of sanity and, not armed for life in the public eye, retreating to hermithood to spill his brain on to canvas. He’d gone on a walkabout to prepare himself for the upcoming tour. The fans waiting for him learned from an intrepid reporter that he’d stopped walking and that he was living with aborigines in the Northern Territories, talking about the earth’s vibrations, wanting to translate it for his next album, declaring it was important to capture the vibe, to share it, the message would save the world, it was his mission, his duty. Playing his old(?) stuff was no longer relevant.

Time moved on. Another decade, another reporter. He’d built himself a shack and the yard was decorated with his“abstract paintings.” He told the reporter he was trying to crack the code, the earth’s vibration’s too difficult to transcribe using traditional musical notation, he was now trying to represent it visually, putting the sensations on wood, on rolls of paper. Soon after, he stopped welcoming visitors.

Occasionally, a lucky reporter, disguised as a lost wanderer would come back with an update. He was still trying to capture the earth’s vibrations. He’d had a breakthrough, he had tried inventing a new type of musical notation and discovered painting was the answer. The flow, the message, could be drawn but it wasn’t meant to be reproduced musically. Everyone had to hear it for himself, get it on their own frequency. If he tried to reproduce it, he would be reproducing what he had heard. Only the Earth was capable of producing individualized vibes. But he could capture it images, because pictures opened the soul, made it receptive, because eyes are the windows to the soul.

Shelter’s Word-Rock becomes Ray Parrott‘s The Doctor. I hesitate. Should I skip the song? When does art become too polluted by who the artist is? Does there need to be a smoking gun? Is there an epochal discount?

I remember the first time, walking down Arbutus towards Kits beach, I heard the song. I was ready for sun fun with a book (probably an A.A. Fair from the used-book store), a towel, my cheap small boombox, and listening to the Fox Rocks’ classic hour. The Doctor comes on, I slow down, I want to know who’s playing, the name of the song. A mild panic: Was I too late? Had they announced it before playing it? The song ends, the deejay comes on “Aaand that was Ray Parrott’s 1968 classic, The Doctorrr.”

It takes me a while but one day the conditions are perfect. I get the “Coming Up” heads-up, there’s a cassette ready in the box, and I hit the record button at just the right time.

I mentally review his biography. Ray Parrott, born in war time L.A. His father was a studio engineer, an acoustics wizard who’d soundtracked tens of musicals before going away to war. The father returned shell-shocked, started drinking. His parents’ marriage was over before the 40’s were. Ray was known to describe the relationship with his father with “When I saw my father, it was usually in a rundown studio where he was recording shouting blues by day and sleeping it off by night. He had great and was a master at leakage so he always had a place to sleep.”

He enlisted at the age of 17 and was stationed in Europe. After his enlistment, he returned to L.A. and started hanging around the recording studios in Hollywood. Unable to convince anyone he was the next Joe Meek, he gathered a bunch of studio musicians, using a case of whisky for payment, and recorded the novelty hit Frankenstein’s Place! The fact that he could not tour with it because the song was unreproducable live did not bother Parrott. He wanted, and, after a quick tour of the TV shows, got work as a studio engineer. The next time he was on the other side of the mixing board was in 1968 for his seminal hit The Doctor, a song rumoured to be about his dealer. He returned to behind the glass and stayed there until 1978 when he recorded the critically acclaimed Self-Indulgence. 1992 would see him record 50 years as a birthday present to himself. Originally intended for gifting to his friends and acquaintances, he released it officially after the bootlegs started showing up.

There’s so much missing when you look at only his releases. The first tales come from the UK during his service. He was obsessed with John Leyton‘s Johnny Remember Me. The story says he’d monopolized the jukebox and was playing it exclusively. A voice from the crowd shouted: “Enough with that song already!”

“Listen! Listen to how they turned the drums into galloping horses, listen to how they filled in…”

“It’s a death song! Are you trying to curse us?”

Ray should not have laughed in response. Two weeks after the brawl, Ray was on his way back to the US to finish serving his enlistment there.

Unlike other engineers who also found success as artists, producers, promoters, talent managers, and as a label executive, Ray’s passion was engineering sound: playing with acoustics, microphone placement, sound compression, stereo pans, overdubbing. He’d once told a friend, who suggested he psychiatrist about his issues, “Some daddy issues are best left alone. Mine pay the rent.” He already had many lifetimes of rent in the bank but that was not the point.

Even for the music he recorded as the artist, the motive was sound engineering. His first song was a proof-of-concept and his other recordings were the result of a desire to record music that nobody was asking him to produce.

The Doctor was a five year journey. One that took him from using booze of doubtful origins to bribe musicians, to creating soundscapes for pop songs, to searching for new sounds to record.

In a letter to the editor of Tape Recorder, commenting on article describing a recording technique for purposefully introducing a controlled buzz, he said: “I like the inventiveness of American musicians but no one does better audio work than the British.” He thought the British engineers were creative because of lower budgets, forced to invent techniques to get the most of the equipment they had. The Americans with their big budgets and know-how always had the latest equipment which allowed the musicians to get more creative. Or so his theory went.

He was very convincing when explaining his theories. He was very convincing when doing business. He was very convincing when he wanted something. He had the ability to agree with you, help you develop your argument, and, by the time the discussion was finished, you had gone so far down the rabbit holes, that when you back above ground, you were expressing his point of view. The songwriter who’d come in determined to keep his independence, to hold on to his copyright, to control his future would leave with a cheque for $50, having signed a long term exclusivity contract for songs and management.

Experienced artists would come in complaining about the industry and how it always screwed the talent. He would ask questions, encouraging them to talk about every which way they felt cheated. And he would reveal a few tricks they did not know about. And he had them talk about how they would fix things, their solutions to the music industry’s problems. And at the end of the meeting they would sign with him, sure they made a step towards changing the world. And when they would come back suspecting things weren’t quite what they’d thought when signing, he would listen, sympathize, ask questions, and at the end of the evening, they would leave certain that one day David would beat Goliath, would become Goliath. And they would bring their friends over.

And young men, not far removed from their first cigarettes, would find themselves coughing cannabis smoke. And the young women would be introduced to the local music crowd, visits to the Hog Farm, parties at the Psychedelic Temple on Ambrose. And no one ever complained, and no one spoke of the memorable evenings, and, somehow, everyone always ended up feeling a little dirty; the men like they’d sold their souls, the women like they’d also sold themselves. And what little was known came from the others that happened to be there also.

He went to music’s edges to find sounds, hung around in the happening places, went to Lysergic A Go Go, opened his mind, tasted his tongue talking. He fell in love with the sonic delirium of Pow R. Toc H., of Sister Ray. By the time 1968 arrived, he was hungry to go where no one else was going.

He found a drummer and had him slowly pan a microphone from left to right and back. He got two guitarists to play the same lead, a Les Paul for the left channel, a Telecaster for the right. He borrowed a left-handed guitar and played it right-handed. And he wrote a bluesy rock song with a driving beat called The Doctor.

The 70’s saw him cut his hair, move on to cocaine and become part of the music establishment. First he stopped managing talent to take over a label, then he stopped managing the label because it was keeping him away for the mixing board. He celebrated his return to studio work with the album Self-Indulgence.

After an initial burst of production, he settled into a routine of discovering new talent, producing their first albums, managing them for a few years and dropping them when they developed substance abuse problems. There’s something unsettling about the number of artists that, after working with Ray, finished penniless, and, if still alive, in rehab. It’s creepy when you include the stories of the sexual excesses with the female artists who crossed his path. It weighs on the legacy of the artist who had produced from behind the mic, in his 12 minute opus The Doctor, a sound that most engineers could not reproduce in the booth. He is called the Master Enabler; officially because of the success of the acts he produces; disturbingly, you’re left with the feeling he gets the irony of the nickname.

His brother, John Parrott, five years younger, went in to the family business, sort of by default. After graduating from UCLA, he became an A&R man, signing the acts his brother didn’t have the time for. After a few years of consistent, boring success, he was given a label to run, where he continued with his formula of working with his brother’s acts and avoiding mistakes. One of the early a victims of Napster, he retired in 2003.

What to make of the brother act? One playing with fire, the other eating hot food. Some just dismiss him as a parasite. I wonder how clean he is; even if he never rolled in the mud. You are what you eat.

I know the songs on the playlist so well that I listen to them, sing along to them, tap my foot to their beat and realize that I have no memory of what I just heard.

My eyes drift down to the comments section below the video. The site, like a lot of the internet, has a reputation for nasty remarks, name calling, and users using language they would not dare use in public. Music videos are mostly spared the ugliness, or, perhaps, I am blind to them, my vision trained from the hours of practice of ignoring them, of avoiding the outrage trap. I know they exist, I am not ignoring the problem, it’s reading them that is unnecessary. Here I go justifying myself again.

I don’t get why people have to comment when they discover a song via a TV show or a movie or some other cultural reference. I do understand it intellectually, the human desire to form groups, find like-minded people, to be special along with thousands of others, part of the insiders, those in the know and to get validated.

Do they realize how silly they look to those who knew the song from before it appeared in a soundtrack? It’s like showing up at a bar with a hundred of your new best friends and declaring the place the new “in” spot. The previous in-crowd is just going to sneer and may try to chase the newcomers.

The one-song wonders with almost hits attract the extended family. It’s easy to imagine the scenario, like a plot borrowed from a book. The family is gathered for a Christmas dinner, talk goes to the parents’ younger days, Uncle talks about his day in the band. The next day, an internet search, and a comment added “It’s my Uncle on the bass guitar.” Sometimes it’s the Uncle, or an old friend of the band, reminiscing publicly, with, when lucky, an interesting story.

A new set of comments appear as the song changes to In the Shade of the Olive Tree. It has a “I’m 70 now and still rocking to this tune” as its most popular comment. The type that gets a lot of replies, an age competition: 72, 67, 15 (with the attempts of out-nostalging the original fans: it was the best time for music, I wish I was young then, today’s music is crap, those were the days, no plays like this anymore).

The video’s description is a cut and paste of their biography. I know it well.

The Mediterranean Threesome were a Canadian rock trio that formed in Toronto, Ontario in September of 1965, when Jean Bouville (bass guitar), a recent transplant from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, was introduced to Yiannis Laspispoli (guitar) and Nino Fangocitta (drums) by a Sam the Record Man record clerk. Children of immigrants they chose their name based on their shared Mediterranean heritage (Bouville – France, Laspispoli – Greece, Fangocitta – Italy).

They found almost immediate success with their first single, the garage classic Love in the Wheatfields. Originally released on Red Leaf Records b/w In the Shade of the Olive Tree, it became a local hit, was repackaged with a new B-Side and re-released by Elektra Records in the US. The song peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1968 and made it to number one in many markets, including Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The band wend on a tour of the Northeast during which they wrote most of their eponymous début album.

The band would end up recording four more studio albums before breaking up when Jean Bouville, tired of the non-stop touring, moved to the south of France where he became a regular of the Antibes, France jazz scene.

It’s Nino’s telling of the origin story in the March 24, 1968 edition of The Freeworld Tribune, just after the pro-Yippie editorial, which gave me the clue as to what made In the Shade different.

NINO: I knew Yan (editor: Yiannis Lespispoli, guitarist for the Mediterranean Threesome) from the local bar scene. We’d both been in a bunch of groups and our last bands broke-up about the same time. One night, after a concert, I think it was the Ugly Ducklings (editor: Canadian band), we were both at, we went out for a couple of beer. We both liked the same type of music and decided we should find a couple more guys who also dug what we were into and get another act together.

Now, Yan is the type of guy who knows everyone and he got things going pretty quick, telling everyone he knew we were on the lookout for members, just getting the word out. So one day this guy Neil from one of the record stores on Yonge Street tells us there’s this new guy in town who’s interested. Jean joined us and it just took off from there.

INTERVIEWER: It went pretty quickly. Most groups have to work at it for years. How did you guys get to record a single so soon after getting together?

NINO: More Yan magic. He had all these hustles happening. Trying to sell songs, jingles. Jean had just joined and we were supposed to rehearse. Yan shows up, yells studio time and tells us to throw our gear in car. He’d done it a couple times to me. He’d find out about some big group that had prepaid and not shown. We’d jump into the car and cut a demo or two. I know he’d already sold a couple of songs in the past. Money’s in royalties he’d say. Anyhow, we recorded Wheatfields and he had Jean lay down some vocals on top of a song demo we had made earlier. He takes it over to Red Leaf and before Jean or I know what’s happening we’re hearing it on CHUM (editor: Toronto radio station). It just took off from there.

INTERVIEWER: Recording and hitting the road like that. You guys didn’t have a lot of time to get used to each other. Was it instant chemistry?

NINO (laughs): We weren’t perfect at first but we’d all played in a lot of bands. Yan switched over …

INTERVIEWER: Switched over?

NINO: Yan is good with anything with strings so we packaged ourselves as rhythm section figuring it was easier to find a guitarist but when Jean came along he went back to the guitar.

And there was the answer to my mystery, the why the track sounds just a little different compared to all the songs they recorded. In the Shade of the Olive Tree is the demo with Jean’s voice laid on top of it. The demo recorded before Jean joined the group, before Yan switched over. The threesome playing as a twosome. There’s no guitar.

I listen closely. Yan could really play anything with strings.

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