More than any other band presently around the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, the Rationals are representative of the age-old prototypical Michigan band. When the Midwestern rock scene consisted of little more than free DJ hops, beach parties, and fraternity drunks, the Rationals were the best 15 year-old band you'd ever seen. The best thing about it, though, is that not many of your present day bands grew up in those dark ages, and if they did, they didn't grow up with unchanging personnel.
Obviously, a lot of changes have gone down in the past six years; despite all that though, the Rats are basically the same. They're a throwback to an entirely different era. The scene the Rationals grew up in was the high school band scene, and as a result, they've remained slightly cleaner cut and just a bit isolated from the rest of what's gone on. Their emergence now, in fact, with one of the strongest records yet out of the Detroit rock scene, is basically due to the fact that during the last year or two they've done a lot of spiritual and physical catching up (stylistically) and growing up.
Your average high school band, if you remember, was almost as much a gang as maker of music. They were really interim stops for the one or two real musicians who came out of them. As a rule, however, the guys all drifted off into the army, the factories, college or maybe just became a part of the hippie/left/dope smoking lunatic fringe. What the Rationals are then, is a continuation of that very real and essentially important mainstream of music - suburban rock, if you will. (The Rationals grew up in Ann Arbor, it's true; but as high school, not college kids. An essential difference.) Thus, the Rats remember "When everyone else was going out to get drunk we were going to play jobs." They still show us exactly what's happened to that segment of it. Or what could have and maybe should have.
The differences between the Rationals and the rest of those backwater bands are manifold - primarily the existence of a brilliant musician and near-charismatic performer in Scott Morgan, a pair of local hit records (one of which is undoubtedly the definitive white version of "Respect"), and the happy fact that the one or two musicians who usually came out of those high school bands all almost magically gravitated together in the Rationals.
The beginning was, as usual, in a basement; just a gang of dudes together to see if they could do that rock n' roll thing. All that's easy. The question, what we're trying to get at and understand, is why that kind of band would stay together for six not very profitable years.
"It's really important," Steve Correll, the Rationals' lead guitarist and unofficial spokesman, thought, "that when we did start we were all learning to play our instruments together. We all helped each other grow up. We wanted to make it with each other, not with anyone else."
As a result of literally growing up on stage (but not in any Shirley Temple sense; the Rationals looked, acted and played like their peers and, more importantly, for their peers.), they're still looked upon in Detroit to a large degree as the boyish young Rationals.
It's not entirely accidental, for a number of reasons. First, Jeep Holland (their first manager) promoted them that way. And, in all fairness to everyone concerned, it was an obvious promotional gambit; the Rationals epitomize what rock and roll stars legendarily were. They're normal the way we, not our parents, know normalcy.
Besides providing them with their image, Jeep provided them with their initial musical direction, rhythm and blues.
It ought to be pointed out that, unlike the majority of local rock bands, the Rationals derived their interest in soul from black music, and not the English mongrelization of same. According to Jeep, their original interest was kindled by the Animals/Stones; but according to the Rationals themselves, the primary impetus was Holland himself. Both contentions probably have a measure of truth; whatever, the Rationals did go on to discover for themselves, without aid of the transcontinental rock scene, some of the most important soul songs of the sixties.
Jeep joined forces with the band in late 1964, around the time of the first invasion of British groups, at the request of drummer Bill Figg.
At this point, Holland said, they were extremely Beatle-influenced. A natural enough decision when the early British rockers were arriving in droves, and American kids were marching like lemmings to the beat of a music more virile and alive than anything being produced at home.
The next move was to pick up on the black music which Jeep made available to them in plentitude. Still, though, they had doubts. "Steve used to insist that they couldn't do black music ... until I played the originals of all the white English groups' versions of the classics".
Despite the invasion of the British bands, there was still really no place to play for a white rock band in Detroit. The mid-western teen club phenomenon was still a year or so away and the circuit of gigs was fraternities, hops, parties and weddings. White bands had to play where they could, for not very much money. As a consequence, they were mostly high school kids, not professional musicians; their parents still paid the bills and whatever money they could pick up on jobs was used to pay expenses or just as extra cash. Who knows what kids did with money five years ago? Cars, records, beer.
The original Ann Arbor scene was just beginning and the reason is apparent. The one place where a band could play fairly regularly was the college frat house. Thus, the Ann Arbor kids had a ready source of jobs for their bands, with the University of Michigan sprawled all over the city.
"There was one band called the Renegades, and the Five and Jim Osterberg's (Iggy) first band, the Iguanas. There were other groups, but you never heard about them," bassist Terry Trabandt explained. Significantly, both Iggy and the Stooges and the Rationals are Ann Arborites from the beginning; they went to high school together and all that. They've always lived in Ann Arbor and probably always will. And they represent pretty fully what a dichotomy of people exist in that city.
The Rationals cut their initial tracks for A2 (Jeep's company) in the summer of 1965; the record was called "Gave My Love" b/w "Look What You're Doin' to Me, Baby".
With the minimal airplay that programming policies of the time allowed, a local group had to hope for whatever exposure it could get, usually from a friendly Disc Jockey or two. Even so, that minimal exposure could change the group's pattern of gigs. Which is exactly what happened with the Rationals. The local scene was beginning to move, though the Grande was a year and a half away, and the Rationals moved up in the Midwest's rock and roll hierarchy. They began appearing at places like Don Zee's Imperial Roller Rink in Ypsilanti (Zee was a local Disc Jockey), Mt. Holly in northern Oakland County (run by Bob Dell of WTAC in Flint) and further away, too, in the Thumb resort area at the Lakeland Castle. That was it, at that point, for Michigan rock and roll.
More significantly, Robin Seymour heard the band, and began putting them on his local television show. (Seymour, like Jeep, is something of a local legend; ironically, the Rationals present management comes out of Robin's office.) Suffice it to say that Seymour was a local disc jockey and the show was, predictably, a carbon copy of "American Bandstand".
In the summer of '65, they decided to do the show from Bob-Lo (what Bob-Lo is is sort of hard to explain; there's this island in the middle of the skonko Detroit River, and on it is an amusement park that you can only get to by boat and ... it's pretty bizarre.) At any rate, the Rationals were on four of those six shows, which went into half the Detroit area homes with teenagers.
"But it was screwed up, too," Figg contended. "Some of the kids would send for their stuff and never get it on time and we'd get bad-rapped. It did good and it did bad."
In the following year, the Rationals began to move up, playing the then-emergent teen club circuit, Hideouts, Hullaballoos, and Crow's Nests, while their style developed and crystallized into one of the better white groups around. Along with the Young Rascals and Mitch Ryder, the Rats had developed a white soul sound that was uniquely attractive in that it made black music relatable for a whole new audience, and it came from the same white kids who had never been able to accept it in its original form.
"One of the big things that happened after we did the Bob-Lo thing was, we did a concert and backed up Sonny & Cher", Terry remembered. "That probably got us a lot of publicity. There were about five or six thousand people there. It was the first big thing we ever did."
Jeep remembers that they did the Sonny & Cher show, then a Robin Seymour program next day, and the day after they were a household word." At any rate, this is when a lot of kids in the nether realms of the suburbs first caught hold of the mania that was beginning to surround the group.
The group's popularity had grown to such an extent that their fans formed the legendary Rationals fan club, promoted and encouraged to the hilt by Jeep. Somehow, you get the impression that they find it all a little embarrassing now (the ex-club members might, too).
"We had to answer fan mail and sign pictures and all that," Correll recalled. "Then, it never continued after "Respect".
The fan club had innumerable enchanting sidelights, including Jeep throwing out bushels-full of "Think Rational" buttons at gigs, newsletters to the fans, Scott's poetry and the usual gossip to warm the budding fantasies of any pubescent young nymphs caught up in the mania that was about to descend.
1967 produced two more Cameo singles, but Allen Klein was busy putting the companies through a bizarre series of stock manipulations prior to folding them, and nothing ever happened with either of them. In the meantime, Jeep signed with Capitol as an independent producer and, in November when the Cameo contract expired, the band went into the studio again to cut an old Chuck Jackson tune. "There were some other ones I can't remember," Scott recalled.
"I Need You", although a hit in Detroit, never gained the national success of "Respect". It was a song tailored perfectly to Morgan's voice, however, and it too precipitated panic in the hearts of many Motor City teenybops.
"After 'I Need You'," Terry said, "things started to change. We started to move more away from white soul." They also began to move away from Jeep.
Larry Feldman, the band's present manager, was then managing the Grande Ballroom, where the Rationals had been performing regularly for some time. "They came to me in April of '68. Bill, Steve and I took a trip to the Bahamas in February, just because of the association through the Ballroom. In April, Bill came to me one day when I was up here in Ann Arbor and asked me if I would be interested in managing the group. Which completely blew my mind at the time."
The band's close relationship with Jeep, even as much as they trusted each other, couldn't survive the weirdness of their business situation; the band was in debt and Capitol wouldn't even look at anything Jeep had produced. "We did exactly what they told us to do and they turned it down", Feldman claimed. 'So you know exactly where they were at. Exactly what they were doing. But we had to wait until January of last year until we could get out of that contract. We had to wait until it expired, there was nothing else we could do."
"See they were, from a business viewpoint, they were ... pssshew! A complete utter total mess; I mean, I couldn't get anything together at all. I mean, nobody knew what the financial situation was, taxes hadn't been paid for an ungodly period of time. We're still paying taxes as far back as 1967."
The rumors began, then - the Rationals were breaking up, Scott was leaving to join Blood Sweat and Tears, they hated each other. "That was the period when everybody said, "The Rationals are breaking up", Bill agreed, then added, 'Well, we were going nuts but we weren't breaking up. We couldn't do nothing man, we were pinned down by business."
Scott was being approached, through every available media, to join BS&T. The New Yorkers had lost their "figurehead", in Scott's words, and wanted to see if they could do the injection molding job they later did on David Clayton Thomas to Morgan. But Scott, perhaps realizing that, refused to go with them; the Rationals all agree that they wanted success together. At any rate, Scott didn't leave.
The other change was a musical one; the band was finding new directions for itself and, frankly, they tried a whole lot of stuff that just didn't work. The crowds weren't too kind to their old favorites either; they weren't above walking out, for certain. The changes eventually straightened themselves out, however, with the Rats keeping on to the old R&B roots, while extending their music into Moby Grape/Buffalo Springfieldish rhythms.
The result is the new album, which begins with the Robert Parker classic "Barefootin" and ends with the eerie "Ha-Ha".
They released a single in early 1969, "Guitar Army" and "Sunset", which explores another two parts of their sound. "Guitar Army" is a screaming rock and roll song with lyrics branded, at the time, as subversive. Ironically, it is that which will be the flip side of their next single ("Handbags and Gladrags" or "Somethin's Got A Hold On Me" will be the "A" side).
It seemed that the suburban rock and roll band, in growing up, had done what a number of its high school friends had done -- pushed its talents to areas the public really wasn't ready for. "That's why 'Guitar Army' was too much for some people," Terry said. "The last thing they heard was "I Need You", then the next thing they hear we're doing something like "Guitar Army" and we're not wearing matching outfits anymore and things like that."
The third single is historic in a lot of ways. Outside of Ryder, no white band from Detroit had ever had even a local hit record. Secondly, the number was one of the most important songs of the sixties, "Respect".
At any rate, the Rationals had a hit on their hands and it's not really clear, even in retrospect, whether they knew what to do with it or even that it was as big as it was.
In at least one instance, the band's popularity got way, way out of control. The group had been booked into a free show for ALSAC, the leukemia fund, which each year provides a free rock show for kids who solicit funds for it.
Even though "Respect" was at the height of its success, the band figured that it was going to be just another gig. "I was under the impression that it was gonna be a dance," Steve recalled. "We were only expecting a couple of hundred people and there were like 12,000", Morgan added. Apparently the Rationals, up to that point at least, had no idea of their stature as teen-idols, in Michigan at least.
They did their set, closing with "Respect" ... well, almost closing with "Respect". The moment Correll and Trabandt started the song, chaos ensued. "They had to stop the show", Scott told us, "and we had to stop the song. Then we started the song again, they made us stop, turned the light on, we started it again, got half way through it and then they just turned the lights on and said, "Go". It was really cool."
The crowd was a berserk mass of screaming girls, a horrifying situation even if you're not seventeen. It was really Beatlemania, coming to surface for its last gasp, as the "underground" began to take its place in teenydom.
Scott remembers the fear connected with the release of that much energy, and the realization that you've caused it all. "It was one of those things where you get on stage and you don't have any breath and there's not any water in your mouth or nothin'. Your throat is dry and you just run on pure adrenaline."
"The police just took us back in this room", Terry laughed, "and we all just started hugging each other, just jumping up and down because it was so exciting."
"When they turned on the lights," Scott added, "we felt really dumb because all of a sudden we're just standing there. We didn't know what to do."
The chicks followed them outside, to the locally infamous Rationals A2 bus. They barely got inside alive (they always did), but the girls did manage to strip the bus of everything, "Including the windshield wipers and door handles", according to Jeep.
"Respect" was quickly snatched up by Cameo/ Parkway, Allen Klein's old label (before he began managing the Beatles and Rolling Stones). The record made it to the seventies in Cashbox, where it hovered for some weeks before taking a nosedive. It hit in a number of cities, but never got the promotional push necessary to make it a real success.
"We were supposed to sign with Atlantic before we signed with Cameo", according to Bill. "The guy from Atlantic (Jerry Wexler) really dug the song ("Respect"). Anyway, after it went down, Aretha picked up on the song, after they played our version for her, and you know what happened from there."
"Wexler really wanted us, the group, but we wouldn't go with him because he wanted to produce us, you know?" (Jeep had apparently decided that he, and he alone, should produce the group; at that time, however, it was virtually unheard of for a group to be signed with their own producer.)
The other strange occurrence that bore out the Rationals' popularity at this point was the emergence of Scott Morgan as the local equivalent of a "star". Morgan is diffident to the point of being shy, at least off-stage, and according to all reports, he really didn't like the glory, at least not after a taste or two (though he did like it long enough to earn the nick-name "Mirror Man"). Still, I suggested, Scott was probably the first "star" in Detroit.
"I wouldn't go that far, to say that about him", Correll frowned. "He liked it, he was really into it for a while. But there was nothing here because he knew he wouldn't be nothin' without us."
Morgan brushes it off, too, although it's obvious that it's a touchy subject. "We were all really close, so there was nothing. I don't think we went through any changes about it, it just happened to be the way it was. Like when I stopped playing guitar, it really got intense."
Still, Morgan was, and is, looked upon as THE Rational; it's been suggested innumerable times that the group should be called Scott Morgan and .... Fortunately, the band never bought it and probably saved itself from a whole hell of a lot of hassles.
Yet, it's also undeniably true that Scott Morgan is the possessor of one of the best voices in rock and roll (Rod Stewart's comment was most apt, perhaps; "Don't let Jeff Beck hear that," he said after hearing "I Need You"). He's also got some of that charisma that is essential in making a star, though he hides it too often to really emerge as a bona fide pop star.
But Terry probably has the best answer to the whole situation, the only real solution the Rationals could have found. It lends another key to why they've been together for so long. "It was good. Like, when we got deeper into the rhythm and blues thing, and he got out in front and put his guitar down, because, on the three that were backing him up, Bill, Steve and I, it really matured us quicker as musicians. We got tighter than hell."
The rest of 1966 was spent touring the country on the strength of "Respect". Playing with groups like the Young Rascals, the Rationals begin to realize their own youth. "We were really young," Steve remembered. "Now we're blending in more with competition. Back then, we played with the Rascals a couple of nights in Florida and they thought we were really great. But we were just in awe because we're about 16 -17 and they're twenty."
What, we wondered, was it like being a high school rock and roll star? "They had like a goon squad," according to Scott, "who used to go around cutting peoples hair. But they wouldn't cut our hair because we were the Rationals. There would be kids with long hair and they would get 'em in the john and sheeeew."
"I think most of the kids knew who we were, you know? There's so many kids in Ann Arbor High School, though."
Scott agreed. "I think the period between "I Need You" and "Guitar Army" was the most difficult period we ever had. I think once "Guitar Army" came out, we started to come back up again."
Just getting the album out presented a problem. The single was released independently, on the Genesis label. Stax was interested in the band, but only as vocalists and the group simply didn't want that. Then, word came that they had signed with Metromedia, but that too fell through, due to personnel changes at the company. Finally, they wound up with Crewe, Bob Crewe's label.
After all that, though, the album looks like a success. It's getting the airplay it needs and if things go right, the single should be out by the time you see this. Maybe, just maybe, they have another hit on their hands.
That'd be nice. After all, like Jeep said, it'd be nice to end the story by saying the Rationals are back!