Roger Boyd Of Head East On Their New Live Album + REO Speedwagon
Conversing with Roger Boyd, keyboardist and founding member of Head East brings no shortage of adventurous stories from the lifetime that he's spent playing music. You’ll have that when you’ve been out on the road for more than four decades. As the lone constant in the Head East lineup over the years, Boyd has seen a little bit of everything, and reckons that he might have enough material for a book if he can just find the time to write it.
We can’t argue with him after hearing the story of the time the band found themselves with the FBI in hot pursuit after they had played a show in western Kansas. As it turns out, the feds weren’t big fans of the band -- they were pursuing the band members as suspects for a cornfield murder that almost instantly left the out-of-town rock and roll band as the likely suspects. They were quickly cleared of the crime, but the experience left them with a hell of a yarn to spin for future generations.
And that’s just one memorable night along the trail captured while playing rock shows on nearly every stage that would have them. Their signature tune, ‘Never Been Any Reason,’ remains a staple on classic rock radio and to prove that there’s still gas left in the tank, they’ve recently released ‘Raise A Little Hell’ to offer up a fresh document of their current live show.
Mixing old catalog tracks with a strong batch of new material, the title track also finds the band revisiting another familiar classic rock favorite, this one originally recorded by Canadian rockers Trooper and it plays like a freshly unearthed ‘70s-era Head East song that somehow went previously unheard until now.
Boyd joined Ultimate Classic Rock to talk about the new live album and what’s up ahead for the veteran rock band.
You’re nearly 45 years into this journey called Head East. That has to be pretty surreal for you.
You know, I guess “surreal” is a good term, because it depends on which particular day you talk to me about it and what has transpired and what’s an upper and what’s a downer. In particular, this lineup right now, when I say “mirror image,” these guys are like identical to the “original band” which everybody calls the band that cut ‘Flat As A Pancake.'
In fact, we just did a show at the Illinois State Fair, us and Styx and REO [Speedwagon], which was great. [It was] an all-Illinois show and we’ve all known each other since we were all with cover bands. So to get together and talk about this and that and the old times, we’re so fortunate that we came out of all of that, because there were so many bands back there. That was great and you talk about what you went through in the early days in the college club circuit.
I was doing an interview with a gal at one of the bigger publications out of Philly and she goes, “Do you consider yourself a current band or a nostalgia band.” She didn’t use “nostalgic band,” but it was something like that. And I said, “Oh no, I consider ourselves current” and she said, “Well, I really do too. Your sound on the new CD sounds up to date” and I said, “Well, that’s one of the reasons why we went back and revisited some of the old songs.
I mean, ‘Never Been Any Reason’ hadn’t been recorded by us for almost 40 years now and obviously technology has changed. So it gave us an opportunity to [do it ourselves] rather than wait for somebody else to do it. Other bands have done it [re-recorded older material] and we went back and revisited our own stuff and updated the guitar sounds, this, that and the other and then when we were doing the show with Styx and REO, one of the guys came up and said, “I just saw [former Head East singer] John Schlitt a week ago” and he goes, “Oh my god, your lead singer is identical” [to how John sounded].
So I’m kind of stuck in that, that this band is so much like that band was, which has been fun. They’re great guys to work with too, just like those guys were. But I’m also stuck in a time where trying to get this particular lineup out there with a new record is really brutal, because radio has gone south. Record sales have all but disappeared and social media going viral -- we’re not a viral band -- we’re a talented band that plays good music. It is surreal. Some days I’m really up and the show is just incredible and you go, “Okay, we’ll figure out a way to really break through the morass of the music industry” and other days you just go, “Oh my gosh,” [because] it’s just like you’re Sisyphus pushing that big rock up the hill and it just doesn’t seem like you’re going to get it up to the top.
The reality is that radio probably hasn’t had their sights set on a band like yours for quite a while and that’s really what is impressive is that you’ve held things together. How do you hold things together with a band like Head East, particularly when dealing with the constantly shifting elements of the music industry. That has to be a real challenge.
Well, actually the lineup that I have now is what has kept me in there. If it hadn’t been for them, I had pretty much run out of gas and I was pretty discouraged. Because the guys [in the previous lineup] were fine enough as musicians but really were not enjoyable to travel with and work with. Darren [Walker], the lead singer, I worked with him a long time ago on a project. He was in a little local regional act out of Kansas City called Bad Gypsy and I had the chance to work with him and I really enjoyed him. He’s a great, great person. We became friends, so we’ve stuck together over the years.
When I got with [this lineup], these guys were in one of the better regional bands that came out of Kansas City and did a couple of CDs and they just couldn’t turn the corner. To give them a chance when they didn’t turn the corner to be on a national stage was really a big deal for me and it’s really given me a lot of personal satisfaction and a good feeling. Because they’re really good.
There’s so many bands -- like when you’re talking to Styx and REO, like all of the bands that came [up] that were in Champaign/Urbana when us and REO were the two top local dogs -- all the really good talent that was there was just phenomenal and most all of them didn’t ever turn the corner, just like with professional sports. How many people really get to the NFL or Major League Baseball? That’s huge.
So that’s really been very rewarding, watching them develop and their excitement and taking them around the country. We went up to Boston, which somehow it was their first trip to Boston. One of the fun things about Head East, the original band, is that we were all from really, really small towns. So not only was becoming a national act very exciting and rewarding, musically and professionally, where we come from, people never get a chance to travel all over North America like we have and see all of the cities that we have.
To be able to do that, it’s just such a marvelous country and there are so many wonderful people out there. That always added specialness to Head East, above and beyond the music and the fact that people loved our music. They still come up and it’s important to them that we’re still playing. That means a lot to me. They just come up and want to talk about [how] we got them through the Vietnam War, or we got them through Iraq or we got them through a troubled situation with their family, things like that. Then I have friends that I see that I’ve had for 35 or 40 years that if I got off the road and said, “You know, 45 years is enough,” I wouldn’t get to see them a couple times a year and that would be hard for me to give up as well.
I wanted to ask about ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ because I was curious how that one found its way into your setlist. You talk about being a band and coming from smaller cities and going all over the world and having those experiences, there probably was some common ground that you found crossing paths with a group like Trooper that was coming out of Canada.
Well, there definitely was. We did a couple of tours across the top of the States, through Minnesota and the Dakotas and Montana, back when the colleges had concerts up there, so people toured up there. They were great to tour with and they were a fun bunch of guys, kind of like us. In fact, their lead singer used to do a song ‘Dump That Creep’ which I used to just lay on the floor, because he’d pick out a couple in the front row and sing it and it was hilarious. ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ I always loved the song and thought it should have been a bigger hit in the U.S. I feel for them -- they probably had the same record company problems everybody else runs into from time to time and it was just a missed opportunity.
It sounds like us and the other thing that we were hoping, which hasn’t panned out, but we’ll see in the long haul -- we thought that the classic rock stations, since they weren’t playing hardly any “new music,” ‘Raise A Little Hell’ is not new music -- it’s our version of an old song -- so we were hoping that we could use that in some respects to add onto [radio play success we’ve had] with ‘Never Been Any Reason,’ and ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and that they would jump on it.
In today’s market, ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ with the stuff that’s going on culturally that kind of fits in with angst or whatever it is that’s going on out there where people are at, so we wanted to use that a little bit and maybe catch some of the younger audience’s interest to “raise a little hell” without negative connotations. There were some marketing thoughts behind [doing] the song as well as the fact that we really love the song and it really shows off our vocals of course.
I wanted to talk about the new material that’s on this album. Do you guys still write fairly consistently as a band and is a new studio album possible at some point?
Well, we’re planning on doing a studio record over the winter [in] January and February when it’s cold and miserable and you don’t want to be traveling anywhere. It’s always been our intention [to do one]. You know, I have mixed emotions about it. I’m sure we’re going to go ahead and do it, [but] I’m not sure how we’re going to market it, [which] is part of the problem [that I have with doing one], because of everything that we’ve gone through with marketing the live album.
But the two primary writers, just like we had before where we had Steve [Huston] and Mike [Somerville], are Greg [Manahan] and Glen [Bridger] and both write pretty extensively and Darren’s [also] been writing a little bit more lately. So we are planning on doing a studio album this winter. We are going to bring out ‘Raise A Little Hell’ on vinyl -- we’re planning on doing that for the collectors.
There’s just something about old albums and vinyl that you can’t beat it. That’s a market that seems to be on the upswing, so we’re going to do that anyway. But we do plan on doing the studio album -- we have another four or five songs that we’re really pretty excited about. It’s expensive to record, even today, so you have to think about the amount of investment, but at this point in time we’re definitely planning on having a studio album available by the time we start off [in] late spring or early summer next year.
The current state of the music industry is interesting, because bands have so many different options, one of which is to record their own product and sell it to the highest bidder. It’s really interesting to me that you guys had the opportunity with the ‘Flat’ album way back when and it makes for a great story when you can have big success like that with something you’ve created yourself essentially without any outside influence.
Well in my opinion, if they would have let us alone, we would have done that again for them in due time. We came close with a few songs here and there, but not close enough and part of that was some issues with record company promotion, distribution and management. But you know, all bands have those kinds of stories. Sometimes the stars line up right and sometimes they don’t.
You do have to have magic to start with [and] if you don’t have that magic -- and that’s not just a well-recorded song -- I talk about that all the time and people look at me. There’s a big difference between a really well done song and a song that’s magic. A magical song is [one] that for some reason or another, there’s something about it that hooks people in. And I’ve said everybody tries to do that and that is really difficult. It’s not a 2+2 thing, because if it was, most of us that have been around a long time are pretty good and would figure it out.
But that was special and I think it really made ‘Flat’ special and I think that especially for us, coming from small towns and doing it all ourselves, when we got signed [things changed a bit] -- because all of the sudden you’re signed and it’s 20 gazillion different people [involved] and they all feel that they have a right to provide input. All of the sudden you have too many cooks in the mix -- at least for us, we had too many cooks in the mix. That wasn’t helpful for us, I think. If we would have been left to our own devices, it would have been better, but that’s not the way it worked out.
Was there any meddling after you handed the record over, or did they just re-release it as it was?
The only meddling there was is that they wanted to know about remixing it. I mean, the record company never wants you to give them a piece of product and go “hey, this is it.” Because then that negates what they do! [Laughs] But it was already a hit in St. Louis and a hit in Kansas City, because of KSHE and KY102 [Kansas City-area AOR station KYYS-FM]. They flew me out to Los Angeles, which is pretty heady stuff for a young guy. I got off [the plane and they picked me up] in a Mercedes convertible. I walked into the studio with engineer Gary Kenny, who had just gotten done with the George Harrison album and he said, “Well, what do you think?” and I go, “Are you kidding me, dude? This is my first record, first recording, first producing job!”
I said, “It’s already hit two markets and it’s magical -- I felt that the night that we had the playback.” So I said, “Well, let’s spend a couple of days here and play around with some of the songs and see what we get?” We did and we listened to them back and maybe there was a little more high [end] here or less high there and a little more bass here and a little less bass in other spots, but basically we didn’t think that we had greatly overall improved the record per se. And so we just went up and said, “[Release it] as it is,” so they did a little remastering on it -- in fact I don’t think their mastering job was quite as good as our original, but essentially, that is the same album. No tracks were changed -- none of the recordings were changed or anything -- the only little difference was the mastering.
And then of course they changed the concept of the album [cover]. The original concept had to do with how flat the center of the state was, because it was a regional record, so we tried to make it so the patty of butter was the Assembly Hall where the University of Illinois played basketball, so all of the regional people got it. But the pancakes thing, that just put 15 pounds on each of us and we had to do all of our promotional stuff!
The band had been playing live for a while prior to recording that first album. It doesn’t sound like you guys had a lot or perhaps any studio experience prior to going in. Where did you find that comfort zone once you got into the studio?
We had gone in and gone through the songs a couple times at real funky dumpy little studios that didn’t cost us hardly anything, you know, where you go lay down eight or 10 songs during the day and then listen back to them and listen to the parts and see how they fit together. The other thing was that we played the songs so many times live that we’d already made adjustments based on the feedback from the crowd as we understood it, to the songs. So we knew that people really liked it when they started coming and requesting your own songs instead of requesting a Stones song or a Jethro Tull song. You’re onto something and headed in the right direction song-wise at that point.
We borrowed $15,000 to do the album, which doesn’t sound like much money today, but in 1974, it was a lot of money. Local bands didn’t ever invest that -- they just spent $1,000 or maybe $2,000 to do demo tapes. And I said, “Man, demo tapes -- they sound like demo tapes. Let’s do an album and maybe we can sell enough off the stage while we’re trying to hustle it and let’s give the record companies a really polished product!”
We got a break from Jerry Milam and Golden Voice Studios. He’s one of the bigger studio designers in the country and he really wanted to get a [hit] record out of his studio. He cut us an incredible deal which let us really make wonderful use of the money that we had. There’s no way we could have bought that time like that anywhere else. We rehearsed essentially almost around the clock [before going into the studio]. So we were as prepared [as we could be].
We’ve never been that prepared for an album ever, again. We were so prepared that we really cut that album in 100 hours, basically. So when we got in the studio, we just played like we did as a live band and we just zapped right through it. We didn’t spend more than seven or eight hours in the studio on any of the days, so we weren’t tired and we weren’t worn out. It wasn’t like in L.A. where you have to pay for 14 hours whether you use ‘em or not and you feel like you’ve got to run until you drop dead. That made a huge difference in my opinion.
Obviously, you probably had a bit of a hint from previous crowd reaction, but when you recorded ‘Never Been Any Reason,’ did that feel any more magical than the rest of the stuff you had laid down?
Actually, because AM radio was still pretty strong, we thought ‘Love Me Tonight’ was going to be bigger than ‘Never Been Any Reason.’ When we cut the record, FM AOR radio still hadn’t broken huge. In fact, other people felt that, because the Bay City Rollers wanted that song [‘Love Me Tonight’] really bad. But then we couldn’t record it if we let them have it, so we decided not to let them have it because we thought that that would be our follow-up song after ‘Reason.’
Well, ‘Never Been Any Reason’ got so big that everybody wanted something a little heavier, more like ‘Reason,’ so that kind of stomped on ‘Love Me Tonight’ a little bit. But we felt that one of those two songs was definitely going to do something big for us. I mean, when I listened to the playback, I at least knew we were going to get our money back, which was huge, as far as that was concerned.
It was just Mike and myself and the engineer, but you could just feel it and the record, I just felt as a whole, it flowed well, the songs were really solid and the recordings were good. It was good straightforward clean recording with really excellent songs. I can still throw it on today and make my spine tingle a little bit.
We make all of these lists and I have to think that your keyboard work on ‘Never Been Any Reason’ probably has a spot on a future keyboard solo list somewhere down the line.
Yeah, I’ve done some interviews on that, especially with electronics stuff and that’s nice to see. You know, I had to help get the franchise [rolling]. It was so new when the Mini-Moog came out, it had just been a big box that looked like a big kitchen cabinet that you had to hand patch. I bought two of them to get the local franchise and I let the local guy in Champaign go ahead and sell them then.
Back then, you could buy a piece of equipment and actually be a little bit ahead of the game and it was a unique sound and I was really interested in it. Unfortunately, I did some experimenting with it and I should have stuck with it, but I was producing and doing this and that instead of writing, so I went off on a different tack.
That’s [also] my synthesizer on ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out.’ REO didn’t have it and I had to send it down to Neal [Doughty, REO Speedwagon keyboard player] and then I almost had to go down to get it, because he wasn’t sending it back! [Laughs] He had it for about two and half or three weeks and I finally said, “You gotta send it back!” So I always kid him and we always laugh about it and talk about it. I tell him my synthesizer is still waiting for its first royalty check.
That was part of what led to the way the song was written and of course the way the song was recorded and the uniqueness of not only was it a really good song, but it was a unique sound at the time and it still is. I still play it, although I carry it around -- I’ve cut it in half and I carry it around now. Every time I unload that, guys in the industry and the road crews gather around to look at it.
That’s crazy -- ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ was the second song that I thought of, after yours. Of course with the Illinois connection, it makes sense.
Oh yeah, that’s my synthesizer on there. And the thing about that sound is that I never let anybody work on it but my one road guy. He’s north of Denver now and he still does electronics -- he’s an electronics whiz and he’s got four or five patents. But I had to have it worked on one time and a guy brought it back to me and he said, "Man, it’s ready to go and I really cleaned it up for you and I replaced all of those oscillators so that it stays in tune” and I go, “You did what?” and he said, “I replaced ‘em out.” I said, “You’ve got about 30 seconds to get those oscillators back or you are a dead man! That drifting sound that those oscillators make -- that’s the sound!” He, of course, put them back in.