A Brief History of The Retros
(Liner notes from the Retrospective CD set)
ago, a band called The Retros formed in Portsmouth, Ohio. When
I had the recent brainstorm to resurrect the band's well-preserved
original recordings and re-mix them to CD I knew that it would
be a labor of love if nothing else. Throughout this process I
often thought back to that fateful year, 1980, and found myself
marveling at just how unique this band truly had been.
Perhaps what made this band so unique were the rather startling facts of its existence. In our short lifespan of less than a year (the band formed on January 14th and broke up in December of that same year - about three weeks after John Lennon's murder) we had managed to record a total of thirty-three new, original songs on my trusty old Teac 4-track tape recorder. This was really quite a feat, especially considering that the songs were complete from start to finish and that we were also playing gigs all over the place throughout most of this same period. Furthermore, the songs were all recorded in only 6 separate sessions that were carried out randomly from March through December - all in the cramped, damp basement "studio" of my apartment. The "control room" for these recordings was located two flights up in my living room and each take (and re-take) consisted of my cuing up the recorder, running down two flights of stairs, strapping on my bass and then tearing into the song of the moment, praying that we didn't have to do yet another re-take! We played the music tracks live (guitar, bass, and drums for each of three tracks) then over-dubbed the vocals on the remaining fourth track.
But what about the most important thing - the actual music itself? My opinion is naturally biased so I won't even attempt to comment - but I will say one thing: the music is definitely unique. Its uniqueness results from the marked diversity of vocal and songwriting styles between myself and Mike, who were The Retros' principle songwriters and lead singers. Our diversity of styles is blatantly apparent here, even to the casual listener. I was undoubtedly the pure pop, commercial-type guy and Mike the experimental, non-commerical-type guy. But the resulting music was surprisingly cohesive and an interesting blend of both of our diverse influences. Much of this was a result of good chemistry within the band and Jeff's uncanny ability to provide the backbeat to it all.
This band took its music very seriously. Our main priorities were to play our music as flawlessly as we possibly could - both in the studio and out on the road. As a result, a typical Retros gig didn't consist of heavy partying and messing around but instead the execution of a tight set list of crisply-played, high-energy original songs. We were absolute fanatics about technical things like being in perfect tune and having the sound just right. To put this rather stringent prioritizing into context, consider what was happening musically at the time. We were smack dab in the midst of "new wave" which was a very straight-forward, no-nonsense era of music that tended to meld the '60's with the present. (ala, "The Retros.") Bands like The Cars, Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Talking Heads and the Police were all huge at the time. Music had suddenly taken a very refreshing direction back then in the form of new wave and punk but like all good things didn't last very long.
My fondest memories of this band center around a handful of our more rewarding gigs, taking our first "publicity shots" at Roosevelt School in the waning daylight using a tripod and the self-timer (was this some kind of omen?) and the recording of these songs, which represent our entire repertoire. There were also a few special people involved who had embraced The Retros back then and never failed to give us their enthusiastic support. My special thanks to Roger Anderson (who has always wanted to see this happen), J.R. Douglas, Phil Waddell and the rest of the "winos" - the guys who had booked most of our gigs, bought us most of our drinks, and generated virtually all of our publicity in Columbus. I'd also like to thank John, Paul, George and Ringo for being the Beatles and the greatest thing that ever happened to kids like us - they changed our lives forever.
Much has happened to me since the days of The Retros. Shortly after we broke up, I moved to New York City for seven years, started a different band that eventually broke up, began a career as a professional photographer, moved to Columbus, got married to my wife, Marilyn (we have a daughter, Lori), returned to college to get an art degree and teaching cerification, and then began my present profession of teaching high school art classes. I rarely play music anymore (I'm on visual art mode now) but this project has allowed me to get back to my roots and simultaneously expand my artistic intentions. I've throughly enjoyed undertaking this project and hope you enjoy the results as much as I and the rest of the band enjoyed making the music.
-Scott Wittenburg (bass, vocals)
One day the thought stuck me that the recordings we made as The Retros were getting old and may start suffering from tape deterioration. I was thinking that as a precaution I should dub my cassette copies onto my DAT machine. Then, about a week later out of nowhere, Scott called to tell me he had gone back to the original 4-track tapes, remixed them, and burned the songs onto
CDs. An odd sequence of events like this makes me wonder about my own psychic abilities, the alignment of the planets, and the explanations for why Hollywood always seems to make two movies about the same obscure subject at the same time.
When I work on a music project I often find it difficult to separate myself enough from the music to be able to judge it objectively. The twenty years between the time we recorded as The Retros and now should certainly be long enough for me to have gained perspective. I had not listened to these
recordings in years - and particularly not as a complete set, until hearing this two CD set.
My only suggestion to Scott about this project was to start the listener off with our later recordings, then go back to the earlier ones. If you want to listen in the sequence we actually recorded, start with disc two then listen to disc one. Our first of five recording sessions was on March 1, 1980; the
last was on December 23 and 24, 1980. I feel like we came into our own during that last recording session, which starts with "Only Wanted You" and ends with "Planning for a Catastrophe." The songs from that session are not only recorded better, but they also illustrate our dramatic evolution as a band, as composers, and as performers - and all within just ten months!
Now that I can look at the band objectively, our American pop roots stand out much more than I realized at the time. Still, in the context of the era we were definitely part of the new wave. The most telling of that fact was our performance at Peter O's in Portsmouth. Before, after, and between our sets the club played its usual style of music: disco. When we played, the disco crowd went outside. When the disco music was on, our crowd went outside. By the end of the evening not much of any type of crowd was left around. We also helped open a few clubs in Columbus to the new music. We were the first new wave band to play at Ruby Tuesday's. We were the first local band to play at Crazy Mama's. Whenever we played anywhere but the campus areas of Ohio State and Ohio University, we were met with a confused audience and shouts of "do some 'Top!" Our best fans were the press and other musicians who were amazed that three guys could make so much sound. It's unfortunate that our live shows couldn't be recaptured because that is when we were truly at our best.
Like so many bands, we broke up for creative reasons. I have second guessed that for years because The Retros was such a good band, but here we are. I have continued to work on music and have built a recording studio in my house. Music is still my passion. Rejection letters from recording companies quit bothering me once I accepted the fact they I may only be appreciated after I die. I can live with that. I will not, however, cut off an ear to show my dedication--all body parts are important for musicians.
Twenty years from now we'll be able to look back and see if the ability to burn one's own CDs and to market them over the internet really was the next great opportunity for musicians who do not want to become part of the corporate music structure.
I remember that as a teenager in high school English class I wondered why most of the famous literature was written by angry young men when it should be written by people in their 50's who have experienced more of life and who should therefore have more to say. The time is rapidly approaching for me to become one of those angry 50 year olds with something to say! Look for my own self-released CD later this year under the name Bamboo Harvester. It will be angry and it will be different.
A few other random thoughts about The Retros era:
*I actually used the word "babe" in a song.
*Did I whine about my divorce much?
*Speaking of whining, my decision to drop my vocals down to a lower range was a good one. My throat especially thanks me.*The woman I was singing about in "Set For Life" wanted to support me so that I could dedicate all my time to working on music. She makes a six-figure income now. What was I thinking?
*I really miss my analogue effects. Can't anyone out there fix them?
*Why did we ever waste our time doing cover songs? Oh, that's right, back then we supposedly had to do them in order to get booked. See, the DJ thing is a good thing. It allows a band to be more than just a juke box.
I should thank the winos and our other friends who boosted our morale and our egos. We certainly weren't in it for the money and we certainly were too serious about the music to be in it just to pick up women, so we really needed your support. Thanks Scott for being patient and crazy enough to remix all these songs. Thanks Scott and Jeff for a really great period. And to all those people in those redneck bars who yelled, "do some 'Top!," I'll bet that you're into country music now and that you've missed a lot of other great music over the last twenty years.
-Mike Bryan (guitar, vocals)
It was a great experience being in a band that wrote original music - this band in particular because we ate, slept and drank music. We were serious, starting on any given day in the morning hours (around 9 a.m.). We would meet with only an idea and by evening it would be a full-blown song, complete with vocals and harmonies. Most were inspired by loves, loves lost, good times, bad times, people we met and people we would rather have not met. Some were just off the tops of our heads. I still think of those days and the three guys who got together that cold January day, wondering what might have been. We had the ability, the want to do and the people behind us who were our friends and eventually became our managers in Columbus: J.R. Douglas, Cat Dadio Phil Waddell and Chris Nicely (who took some of the photos seen here.) A special thanks to those guys. Hey you guys, this Bud's for you!
(drums, backing vocals)
The following article appeared in the October, 1980 issue of The Monthly Planet, a Columbus music magazine covering the city's music scene at the time:
The latest onslaught to break through Columbus' barricade against new wave comes from Portsmouth in the person of the Retros. The line-up features Scott Wittenburg on bass, Mike Bryan on guitar and Jeff Porter on drums.
The Retros have been an active performing unit for about seven months, rocking at such places as Peter O's in Portsmouth and the Frontier Room in Athens. The trio has now set its main performing interest in Columbus, appearing last month at Mr. Brown's and later at Ruby Tuesday's. In addition, the Retros opened for Hammer Damage at a recent Crazy Mama's concert.
Three-fourths of the Retro repertoire is made up of original tunes penned individually by Wittenburg and Bryan. The diversity of their musical interests gives the band a unique variety. Bryan's influences are in reggae and jazz, while Wittenburg tends toward the Beatles and early Kinks. Depending on whose songs are being performed, the group can sound like European pop or a kind of Appalachian reggae. Unusual covers also feature in their performance, such as the Stones' "Mona" or a hyper arrangement of Bert Bacharach's "Little Red Book" that takes audiences by surprise. Most of the cuts are new-wave short - or as they say, "to the point."
On stage, the Retros are loud and powerful for a three-man act, highlighted by Bryan's intricate guitar work without the facial agony that many rockers adopt. The vocals are crisp, the beat steady and infectious, bringing dancers to their feet in areas not ideal for dancing.
On tap for the Retros is an impending 45 of two band originals, "Worry" and "Set Me Up." The trio will also be back at Ruby's for an October 27th gig.