The Rising Storm - “Calm Before…” review / interview
US group The Rising Storm emanated from out of a small, but isolated scene outside of the main commercial rock circuit that was happening in and around the Boston area during the mid-sixties. The group’s main activities centred around Phillips Academy, the prep school in Andover, MA, where all six members of the group studied during the early-to-mid 1960s. The ‘Storm dug the sounds of local groups like the Rockin’ Ramrods, and the Remains – going so far as to name their embryonic group the Remnants, before hitting on the idea of a cooler, more historically poignant moniker in the Rising Storm. And, like thousands of young folks around the world at that time, they were thoroughly fascinated by the music of the Rolling Stones.
In 1967, during their final year of school, the group were able to follow their dream by booking themselves into Continental Recordings Inc., a studio in the nearby town of Framingham, where, for five days, alongside recording engineer John Flynn, they proceeded to create what, in time, would become one of the most enthralling, evocative, not to mention sought after albums of the whole 60s rock era. Originally pressed up in a run of only five hundred copies on their own Remnant label, it has since become the stuff of legend. Bootlegged in Europe during the early 1980s (when many who had begun championing the forgotten sounds of 60s teenbeat and garage punk combos would have first heard the group) before being given a more official, group-sanctioned release through the Stanton Park label, run by their friend and musical compatriot, Erik Lindgren, in the early 1990s.
Now, after years of being reunited, and actively playing various live concerts both in the US and overseas, plus undertaking the recording of some (then) new material in the studio, the group’s spine-tingling debut disc Calm Before… has once again been made available, issued on both LP and CD. This time around – and much deserved – it’s also been afforded a much wider network of distribution courtesy of the efforts of one of New York’s premier reissue labels, Sundazed. No longer will folks have to burrow through the warren of specialist lists and sales adverts in the back pages of collector-based magazines, or spend hours trawling endless Internet sites trying to locate a physical copy; par for the course for the older, more determined 60s rock appreciator in years gone by.
Fans of the Rising Storm can also now look forward to a new film documentary that’s centred around the group’s history and which, it is hoped, will have reached completion in the very near future.
The Rising Storm, 1967. From left: Richard Weinberg, Todd Cohen, Tony Thompson, Tom Scheft (standing), Charlie Rockwell (seated), Bob Cohan
THE RISING STORM Calm Before… (Sundazed LP/CD)
Since its first unofficial re-discovery through the decidedly shady but nonetheless valiant efforts of France’s Eva label back in the early 1980s, this delightful smorgasbord of colours and sounds; primal rock‘n‘roll, haunting pop melancholia and atmospheric, at times proto-psychedelic-tinged beat, from early 1967, has, justifiably so, been hailed as one of the period’s most significant recordings. As such, both vinyl and CD pressings of the album have seen the light of day down the years; also a variety of compilation sets carrying one or two Rising Storm selections.
This latest addition to the shrine is presented with pristine sound reproduction, taken directly from the original master tapes, and comes with a poster-style insert that’s packed with archive photos and includes a write-up of the group’s back story. If, however, you happen to be one of the very few who are in possession of an original 1967 Remnant label issue (BBA 3571) then consider yourself a most fortunate soul indeed as only five hundred of these were ever pressed up. A genuinely scarce garage band gem in this format – a bonafide rarity which now commands a high price whenever a copy comes up for auction anywhere.
If any reminders are needed, it‘s worth pointing out that the fellows who make up the Rising Storm: Bob Cohan (lead guitar / vocals), Richard Weinberg (lead guitar / harmonica / vocals), Todd Cohen (bass), Charlie Rockwell (organ / vocals), Tom Scheft (drums / vocals) and the group’s designated leader Tony Thompson (rhythm guitar / lead vocals) were all still in high school, busy with their final year studies at Phillips Academy, an affluent facility in Andover, Massachusetts, when this diamond-hard nugget was created. The group had been able to gather together the funds necessary from playing school concerts and so called “mixer” gigs in and around the Boston area in order to finance the recording of a selection of their favourite cover versions, together with a brace of self-penned originals; not only was this for for their own satisfaction, but also for the delight of their fans, families and friends too – a lasting testament to what was, after all, a relatively fleeting existence as a fully-fledged, teen-spirited rock group. Little did the guys know that, as the decades passed, this lone album which they cut for their own tiny label – they were originally called the Remnants – would begin to take on the status of a hallowed artefact, part of what had been a highly experimental, truly turbulent time (in all historical and cultural aspects), not to mention one of the most exciting, and still – half a century later – talked about periods in musical history.
The Remnants (oldest known photo), Tony’s dorm room, spring 1965. From left: Tony Thompson, Todd Cohen, Bob Cohan
Aside from one or two forays which probe and explore the rhythm & blues roots of the group‘s stage repertoire; highly-personalised interpretations of ‘Big Boss Man’, plus the relatively recent ‘Don’t Look Back’ by Boston‘s big hitters the Remains and, specifically, beat / blues evergreen ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ as ramped-up in the 1964 version by the Van Morrison-fronted Them which caused a storm all around the planet, the overall sound and feel of Calm Before… is imbued with an incandescent, ethereal quality. Take Love’s ‘A Message To Pretty’, for example, the way the lyrics are enunciated and the phrasing and metre changed around to suit the ‘Storm’s own style is breathtaking. Allied to this, an air of haunting beauty flourishes throughout ‘To L.N. Who Doesn’t Know’ and, deeper still, the ghostly chill of ‘The Rain Falls Down’ and ‘Frozen Laughter’, astounding, pillar selections that demand attention from start to finish. And who could forget the magnificently evocative opening couplet of the latter; after the initial “Honey is that you” greeting: “Orange shadows in the night time / fill my dimly lit mind” … hazily intoned by a vocal that superbly conjures up a twilight world inhabited by ancient, cobblestone streets, lamplit in fading yellow; perhaps some clandestine, midnight-assisted adventure too where mystery and unrequited love form at least part of the picture. It’s all there, you just have to close your eyes and open your mind to the dream-like possibilities. The group ethos, and sense of fun is infectious sounding, almost palpable on covers of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and (another local group) the Rockin’ Ramrods’ whimsical ‘Mr Wind’ and ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’, both readings as cool as, if not better executed than the original versions.
A true measure of the ‘Storm’s collective strength as a group, and a further demonstration of their power and versatility as regards their chosen material, is a seemingly effortless ability to take the listener with them every step of the way as they move from a slow-motion theatre of eerie-sounding organ notes, soft thrumming bass and subtle tom-tom work, into some extraordinary, fiery excursions of swinging teen punk, with inventive use of the guitar and organ in tandem with temperature-raising vocal exhortations that burst forth amid a battery of pounding drums and (especially during ‘She Loved Me’) stinging fuzztone. This is the scene, and the perfect setting for the triumphant nugget ‘I’m Coming Home’. Todd Cohen recalls how it came to be: “Caleb Warren was the original lead singer of our band, first known as The Remnants. Late in our 11th grade year or early in our 12th, when we changed our name to The Rising Storm, Tony became our lead singer and Cabey, an exceptional athlete, focused on sports and other extracurricular activities. Cabey wrote a song called ‘My Girl Joan’, which he and the band reworked as ‘I’m Coming Home’.” This and the even heavier coruscating crunch of ‘She Loved Me’ are the group’s fiercest original compositions. In tandem with Continental Recordings’ engineer John Flynn the ‘Storm here conjure up a pair of winning creations that would make magical cornerstones of any album; from any location and from within any timeframe anyone cares to mention. Moreover, these recordings belong to no-one else but the Rising Storm.
Even those who may only have joined the party in more recent years couldn’t fail to notice the power which these spellbinding songs are capable of wielding. For them, and for the more died-in-the-wool ‘Storm aficionados, Spain’s Penniman label issued what was to be a column-garnering 7” vinyl release in 2015, and which signalled the first ever appearance of the Rising Storm on 45 rpm! Sleeve notes on the rear of the single’s picture cover were provided by fellow Penniman recording artist and 60s / 70s rock authority Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost; infamous as front-man for Rochester, New York’s garage punk giants the Chesterfield Kings throughout the 1980s, 90s and 00s!
So, if you missed out on previous editions of Calm Before…, it’s high time to procure a copy of this brand new issue on Sundazed. Not only will you be doing yourself and all your friends a big favour, but record-spinning parties will be infinitely cooler, with enrichment and enlightenment being sure to follow in the wake of getting to know, and love the music of the Rising Storm… so what’re ya waitin’ for!
The Rising Storm, Phillips Academy yearbook, 1967. Clockwise from left: Todd Cohen, Tom Scheft, Bob Cohan, Richard Weinberg, Charlie Rockwell, Tony Thompson
The Rising Storm as interviewed via email by Lenny Helsing, March 2018
A huge thanks to all the members of the Rising Storm for taking the time to answer the following set of questions which I put to them recently. For more information check out the group online at: rising-storm.com
Lenny Helsing: Why do you think some of your songs, especially the likes of ‘Frozen Laughter’, ‘To L.N. / Who Doesn’t Know’ and ‘The Rain Falls Down’ have a seeming ability to instantly transport listeners into another time and space?
Todd Cohen: The three original ballads move listeners because, simply put, they are beautiful songs that capture the heartbreak of adolescence. Tony, Bob and Richard transformed sadness into song. And for ‘She Loved Me’, each of us poured everything we had into making the song rock. And it totally rocks.
Richard Weinberg: What more is there to say?
Bob Cohan: Well, it’s 2018 so we are transporting listeners to 1966-67. The edge to those songs comes from that time.
Tony Thompson: The reverb and echo effects applied by our recording engineer, John Flynn of Continental Recording Studio, have a major impact on the overall sound of the band on Calm Before…, and especially on the three originals you identify.
Lenny: What was it that helped you guys decide that the time was right to go into a recording studio and cut an album?
Charlie Rockwell: While we were at PA, each year the “big band on campus” cut a record. Our senior year, there were a few other bands on campus that were talking about making a record. Since we had come into our own that year, we felt it was our turn to continue the tradition. The result of that decision has gone far beyond my wildest expectations.
Richard: We followed an established Andover tradition that rock bands would cut an album before the end of their senior year. Also, we had been working on our original songs through the end of 1966 and into early 1967, and they were at the point where they were ready to record.
Tony: We had two goals in life. One was to play the Abbott Mixer, Abbott being our sister school just down the road. The other was to make a record in our senior year, just like so many bands before us at Andover. Both dreams came true.
Lenny: Can any of you recall the actual set up in the studio and how you went about getting some of the songs onto tape?
Bob: As I recall it was a four-track studio, one large room with a room in the back, lots of baffles. We did most of the songs as a live performance.
Tom Scheft: Funny story. We were well rehearsed going into the studio, so we were able to lay down the musical tracks with only a few takes per song. We waited before doing ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ because we did it super-fast, and Bob had to be VERY warmed up to nail that first tricky lick. When we played dances, the song was always placed toward the end of the third set.
The Rising Storm, rehearsing at Andover, about 1966. Clockwise from left: Todd Cohen, Tom Scheft, Tony Thompson, Richard Weinberg, Bob Cohan, Charlie Rockwell
We’re doing the first take, and I’m supposed to switch to a little tom-tom break after the second verse, but I forget, so I stop playing. I explain what happened and everyone is fine … everyone except Bob. He’s furious. He yells at me, “That’s the best I’ve ever played that! How could you stop! Don’t stop! How could you do that!”
So we calm him down – not an easy feat – and we try it again. But now he’s exhausted himself from ranting, and – confidence slightly shaken – he botches the opening riff … Take 3. Botch. Take 4. Botch. He messed up several takes in a row, but – consummate pro that he is – he gets it, and we perform a successful take.
Fast forward to the band receiving the album back at school. We’re in Tony and Todd’s room listening to the album. We finally get to ‘Baby’. There’s that opening signature riff, but suddenly Bob says, “Wait a minute. Put the needle back to the beginning.” Tony does. There’s the riff. “Did you hear that?” says Bob.
Hear what? we all ask.
Tony starts it again, and this time, in the middle of the riff, we hear a ringing harmonic played by Bob – a pure serendipitous moment of guitar genius captured on vinyl.
I don’t remember Bob’s exact words, but I’m sure they were something like “How great a guitarist am I?!?!”
Of course, he only gets partial credit. If I hadn’t screwed up the drums and ruined the first take, it never would have happened.
Tony: We still have two of the three original master tapes from our five-day recording session in early March of 1967. The Calm Before… masters were made on two two-inch, two-track machines. We would start by laying down a mono instrumental version of a song on one of the two tracks of the first machine, leaving out the lead guitar or organ break for later. Then, on the second track, we would layer on the instrumental break and vocals. The engineer, John Flynn, would then mix down the two tracks to a single track on the second machine. On the second machine’s second track, we would add backing vocals, harmonica, tambourine, etc… We repeated this process as many times as necessary to complete the song to our satisfaction.
In the last couple of years, we digitized the master tapes. So, for those of us daft enough to care, it is now possible to listen to instrumental song versions, interim-stage mixes and single-track overdubs.
Charlie: I remember the studio as looking like a big warehouse with lots of things (I can’t remember what they actually were) loosely filling the space around us. It had a wooden floor. Using a clock face as a reference, with the control room to my left at 12, I was set up at 9. We were generally in a circle facing inward with Tom at 6, Bob at 3. Todd and Richard flanked Tom on either side, but I can’t remember which side, and Tony was at 12.
When we did the backing vocals, depending on who was involved, we sang into a mic in the center.
Every now and then a train would rumble by, audible in the studio, thus interrupting whatever we were doing. At some point I remember being aware of the train schedule and adjusting accordingly.
Lenny: What about the kinds of instruments and amplification, what sort of backline were the Rising Storm using at gigs and did this change when you hit the recording studio?
Todd: I played a Hagstrom bass (circa 1965) and an Ampegamp (I think it was a B-15). I used no special effects or pedals.
Bob: I rocked a cherry red Starfire V Guild with a Bosstonefuzz attached. On L.N. I had an acoustic 12-string.
Tom: I had a 4-piece Slingerland kit with an undulating red swirl pattern. I still use it, and I played it at our 50th Andover Reunion. I had Zildjian cymbals, featuring an 18-inch sizzle cymbal so I could sound like the great Remains drummer, Chip Damiani.
Tony: In the spring of ‘65, during our 10th grade year, most of us borrowed our equipment from classmates. I played a cheap black hollow-body (can’t remember the make or source). In the summer or fall of ‘65, our 11th grade year, Todd sold me his Gretsch solid-body. He wanted to buy a bass guitar and had decided his electric six-string could be spared for the necessary cash. What I remember most about the Gretsch is that it was unbelievably heavy. My amp was nothing special, until my sister Marina sowed Marimekkofabric onto its grill. The colorful material was such a hit among my bandmates that Marina did the same for Tom’s bass drum and everyone’s amps.
Charlie: We never had a back line in the purest sense, as we always used our own gear. Bob played through a ‘65 Fender Twin Reverb that, if he’d kept it, could have allowed him to retire from the law. I played an inexpensive Acetone 4 octave transistor organ that had 4 presets. The amp was an Ampeg bass head through a homemade speaker cab (see the album cover pic). We did, however, always have a problem not having a PA, although in our senior year I recall we bought one. I believe if we’d had more mics, we all (maybe not Todd) would have sung more.
During the tracking of ‘Frozen Laughter’, I decided to double track the organ to emulate having a dual manual organ. After the intro and organ solo, which used the Flute preset, I doubled a chording track using the Reed preset to give some texture and dynamics that weren’t there with just the Flute sound. I couldn’t play it that way live, of course, but can today with the B-3.
The Rising Storm, 1967, photo shoot for cover of Calm Before… . Clockwise from left: Bob Cohan, Charlie Rockwell, Todd Cohen, Richard Weinberg, Tony Thompson, Tom Scheft
Lenny: I know you will have been asked this question over and over, but were you aware of just how special the sound you guys were creating was, and especially with regard to your own, self-penned compositions.
Todd: As a high school senior, I did not have the perspective or presence of mind to be aware of our sound or consider it special. I do know that for three years, every time we practiced or performed, and especially in the recording studio, we were relentless at trying to sound the best we could, which always meant trying to make it better than the last time.
Richard: When we were at Andover, our music felt special to us because it was created in the context of strong friendships and a mutual love of music. In our wildest dreams we never considered that it might be special for others.
Bob: I knew what we were doing was special – just didn’t know if anyone else would agree.
Tom: Simple answer: No. After we graduated, I went through a period of years in which I was somewhat embarrassed by the album and didn’t play it. Recently, one of my college buddies saw the piece Todd’s son Finn did on us for The New York Times. He called me and said, “I am stunned. You never even told us you were in a band in high school!” But … when we reunited, that’s when I revisited our music and really became proud and comfortable with what we did.
Tony: In the fall of our senior year, Bob, Rich and I each wrote a song for the album. We worked hard for months on those songs, so they had plenty of time to gestate. We wanted to make them inventive and distinctive. And we worked independently and didn’t much discuss the compositions until all three of us had finished. When the big reveal came, we discovered to our surprise that we each had written a bitter-sweet ballad.
I think we wanted to prove something to each other and to our classmates and friends. When the band first started out in the spring of 1965, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were on the receiving end of some well-deserved ribbing (and laughter, lots of laughter). Naturally, we developed a bit of a chip on our shoulders. But by the time we recorded Calm Before… in the late winter of 1967, we had improved – individually and as a band – and those who listened recognized that.
Still, we had no idea that the band’s music would live as long as it has or would become appreciated as it has. Fifty years on, we feel incredibly lucky to have landed this gig.
Lenny: We know the Rising Storm was knocked out by the sounds of US groups like the Remains, Love and the Rockin’ Ramrods… not to mention your heroes the Rolling Stones, but how aware were you of other groups operating around the likes of Boston and the New England area in general. Would you have been aware of Travis Pike’s Tea Party, for example, or the Fifth Estate?
Richard: I heard of the Fifth Estate, but not Travis Pike’s Tea Party.
Bob: Had to love Moulty and the Barbarians.
Tony: We played a gig in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we opened for the Hallucinations, a celebrated Boston blues band fronted by Peter Wolf that later morphed into the renowned J.Geils Band.
Lenny: During that initial lifespan, were the Rising Storm ever offered a deal with any recording labels to release a 45?
Tony: As students, I think we would have been struck dumb had anyone offered us a record deal.
Lenny: Staying with the 60s era did the group play many concerts outside of their home turf, and if so where has been the farthest place the group traveled for a gig?
Todd: The only gig I can remember outside the Boston area was in New Haven in June 1967, a week or so after we graduated from Andover, playing at a dance at the 25th reunion for the Yale class that included Richard’s father and my father.
Richard: During our senior year, we also traveled to Boston to compete in a battle of the bands.
Tom: The Yale Reunion was a blast. We were a confident, polished band. As for the battle of the bands, we won the first at the Boston club Where It’s At. We lost in the last round, although Charlie won concert tickets for outstanding performer.
Tony: We traveled to any number of girls’ schools to perform at Saturday night mixers. All of them were within an hour or two of Andover or Boston. We also played some private parties and at least one wedding.
I would say that, during the Andover era, our post-graduation appearance at Yale was our best and most fun performance together as a band. It was also our last until later years, when we were no longer so young and well-practiced.
Lenny: I know that once the group disbanded you all went off to careers in the professional sector… but did any of you embrace the whole psychedelic / hippie culture that was sweeping into the many young music-centred lives at the time? And if so / or not what was your experience of this new era?
Todd: Rock music was organic to what was going on back then. I never stopped listening to rock and roll, or playing it on my bass. But what got me involved in the changing times was newspaper work, not music. From the time I was a kid, I wanted to be a reporter. I worked for the student newspaper in college – a tumultuous time, to say the least – and have worked in the news business ever since.
Richard: I also grew my hair long and grew a beard in college, but as my career became focused on biomedical research, I had little time for either the psychedelic or hippie lifestyle. When I got to medical school I cut my hair short and trimmed my beard. Decades later, a considerable amount of my hair began falling out.
Bob: I was totally immersed. Followed a few Indian Gurus, joined VISTA, the U.S. branch of the Peace Corp; I wanted to make a difference.
Tom: I’ve always avoided reality-altering substances, but I’ve embraced the ideals of love, peace, tolerance, and awareness through education. When we graduated from high school, we found ourselves in an amazing historical period – a time of the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism, and the Civil Rights Movement. As Bob mentioned, I also wanted to make a difference, and being a teacher offered that.
Tony: In college, I was a war protester, but I was not a radical. Along with my friends and classmates, I enjoyed the ‘60s experience and most of what it stood for. But I didn’t get swallowed up by it, and I didn’t even go to Woodstock (something I regret to this day).
Charlie: After graduating from PA, I went to Middlebury College in Vermont. Being somewhat isolated, the “hippie” movement was slow to take hold, but did so in a vengeance starting with the 68-69 school year. I played in two different bands sequentially for my four years at Middlebury. Concurrently, I was an Army ROTC cadet and a ski instructor at the college-owned ski area. As a result, I never participated in the drug or protest culture. I did, however, have a rather eclectic group of friends.
My last two years of college, the band I was in consisted of drums, bass, guitar, keys, and vocals. Our guitarist, Lincoln, who at the time was under contract with Capital Records as a songwriter, and Linda were lead singers. Keys and bass were the backing vocals. That line-up gave us huge flexibility in the songs we could do, many originals, male or female leads, or duets. One of my favorites was an acappella version of The Beatles ‘Nowhere Man’. We played a lot, and I particularly enjoyed the music explosion of the era, especially Santana, the Doors, and Steppenwolf. Getting my first Hammond organ and electric piano really helped a lot.
The Rising Storm, Maine, August 2016. From left: Bob Cohan, Tom Scheft, Charlie Rockwell, Tony Thompson, Richard Weinberg, Todd Cohen
The reuniting of the Rising Storm in the early ‘80s energized me to get back to playing in a band, and I have been doing so ever since – the peak being in four different bands at the same time. Things have slowed down a bit though, and just The Jim Gilmour Band remains.
– Lenny Helsing
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Good feature and interview, another interesting discovery.