I know we live in an ever smaller world mainly because of our easily ability to connect with each other via smart phones, whether actual phone calls, texting, FaceTiming, Skype, social media, et. al. And while we can connect with a vast number of people, our social gatherings remained lower then previous times in history, even before this COVID-19 pandemic. Still, of all the people we have met over the period of our lives, outside of your immediate family, usually the people who know us the best are those with whom we grew up. You know, that group of people you first met when you turned five or six years old and began school, who saw you go through those awful, painful teenage years and who you all entered a budding adulthood together.
I guess I have noticed this from two different perspectives during this time of social distancing. Now, this observation is taking place on social media, mainly Facebook, but I think it could be applied elsewhere, including at class reunions, weddings, funerals and the like. First, I have observed this first hand with all the people with whom I am still connected on the medium. We all still know what buttons to push on each other to keep things stirred up. And, we have that collective memory of each other. And, we all rely on the very same knuckleheads to make us laugh just as we did while growing up.
The other way is through the interactions of all of my former students. It doesn’t matter when they graduated, or from which high school, or if they even went to college or not, those people are still connected on some other level, no matter how difficult those teen years. In a way, it is comforting to know that no matter what you have achieved in life, those people with whom you came of age still value you.
In preparing for today’s entry, in addition to researching my subject matter, I actually attempted to reach other to my high school friends to help me out. Now, in retrospect, I should have realized for what I was setting myself up. As part of the research, I was attempting to discover some photographs (pics, for the Millennials) of a concert that took place at our high school or a pic of the ticket from said concert. Instead, I got messages such as, “check the yearbook” or “I was probably in the parking lot (smoking)” or, my personal favorite, get pics of random classmates not at the concert but outside the school two years later and of random concerts from our high school years.
As the runner-up in the class voting for Class Clown, I deserved this treatment. I have kept this reputation pristine through the years, especially recently as I love to troll my friends with smart ass comments. Plus, after that yearbook research proved fruitless, I did realize that my high school friends had uniformly used one adjective to describe me: crazy. No, not intelligent, sweet, athletic, kind, or even cute (which I am not), they went with crazy. So, I guess I earned 50 years of those comments and pics. I’m cool with it. Fair is fair. Still, one friend DID come through! Mr. Gerry Purkey, thank you for your contribution to this blog entry! The rest of you, Keller is declaring open season on you.
Now, growing up in the cornfields of Indiana (yes, although I grew up in a large subdivision, there was a cornfield just a block behind my mom’s house), you discover some pretty interesting characteristics about Hoosiers. Primarily, if a person has ANY kind of connection to the state, like being born here, moving here for college or having your tire blow out while traveling through the state requiring you to stay for more than 48 hours, you are a Hoosier. That’s why we stick behind most people from Indiana (fun fact: Vice President Mike Pence would probably have lost re-election as governor if Donald Trump had not picked him to be his VP. Then, for some reason, Pence made a better VP candidate? Go figure that logic!). Look at the people who have Indiana ties: Abraham Lincoln, Axl Rose, Gil Hodges, Oscar Robertson, that dude who won The Voice a few seasons ago. And, Hoosiers have left their mark on music as well, from Hoagy Carmichael to Michael Jackson to Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon) to two-thirds of the Blake Babies to Babyface. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hoosiers have always backed their local people.
Back in the mid- to late-Seventies, Indianapolis had a pretty vibrant local rock scene. The big names that you heard on local radio back in the day were Faith Band (who had a regional hit song called “Dancing Shoes,” which Elton John’s drummer Nigel Olsson turned into a Top 20 hit in 1979, though I prefer the original!), forgotten power pop heroes The Late Show, former basketball player and future late-Eighties hit-maker Henry Lee Summer, future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp (then being called John Cougar) and perhaps the band with the biggest following at the time, Roadmaster.
Back when I first started this blog, I had written a crappy entry about Roadmaster. Today, I want to improve that entry. To nearly every young person in Central Indiana, Roadmaster was, to use the term from the day, the shit. They had the musicianship in the late guitarist Rick Bennick, bassist (and future Mellencamp glory days sideman) Toby Myers, keyboardist Michael Read, drummer Steve Riley (who left after the first album and eventually played for W.A.S.P. and L.A. Guns) and singer, and future DJ über alles, Asher “Adam Smasher” (or “Atom Smasher” or, MTV fans might remember his brief late-Eighties stint as the VJ called “The Smash.”) Benrubi. Hell, these road warriors were even being marketed as discovered by Todd Rundgren, who produced three songs on that stellar self-titled debut.
It was a strong debut album that showed glimpses of the Doobie Brothers, Styx and even straight up blues. But, the guys couldn’t break nationally. So, Riley bolted, and was replaced by Bobby Johns, while Smasher went to the big radio station in Indy at the time, WNAP-FM, to become the most popular DJ of the era in the city. Of course, that ended up being an excellent move for him. So, The Smash was replaced by a man with the vocals more suitable to the Album Oriented Rock sound the band was moving toward, the late Stephen “Mac” McNally. Now, the band was set with its classic lineup, so big things were expected.
Immediately, the band released their sophomore album in late 1978 to enthusiastic work of mouth reviews. The local rock stations, WNAP and WFBQ-FM, both played cuts from Sweet Music. Teens all over Central Indiana were going crazy for this band who now was playing a Rush/Styx/REO Speedwagon/Foreigner-influenced sound that was perfect for the time. The band was touring the country as an opening act for many of those aforementioned bands, along with opening slots for any big artist of the day coming through town. Hell, Roadmaster even HEADLINED a concert at the old Indianapolis Convention Center with Cheap Trick AND AC/DC, whose lead singer was Bon Scott at the time, as the opening acts. Imagine that! Being so big in a town that your opening acts were TWO future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame artists.
Still, they weren’t breaking. Roadmaster was still touring the bar/high school/college circuit. Which, leads up to that snowy night in January 1979, when Roadmaster played a post-basketball game concert in the cafeteria of our high school. Needless to say, that cafeteria was packed with the hot sweaty bodies of teenage high school students, along with the unfortunate adult supervision crew who had to smell that malodorous aroma wafting from the band’s audience.
What I recall from that night were a couple of things. Foremost, I was with my basketball buddies, since we were able to get into the concert for free since we had access directly from the gymnasium to the cafeteria. Yet, another reason for people to hate basketball players in high school, but, I will tell you who to blame for this discovery. Guys, it was me. I discovered that the door from the gym to the main hall was left unlocked for some reason, so all 24 players got into the concert for free. Hence the reason I was looking for a pic of the ticket since I never had one. We just individually walked quickly behind the “ticket gate” set up, blended in with the crowd and walked into the cafeteria.
Honestly, I really don’t think there was a ticket from the concert that night since there had not been any pre-sales. So, what I got from Gerry was a ticket to a big Labor Day blowout at a drive-in movie theater on the northside of Anderson, which only proves to what lengths these guys were willing to go to keep the band afloat.
The other thing I remember was how the band really elevated their music in the live setting. Before the concert, I really loved Sweet Music, but afterwards, I FELT that music. Little did I realize at the time as a sixteen-year-old, concerts are best in small venues. That lesson took decades to learn, but it is true. Anyway, when you are an impressionable teen, many of us at our first concert, you cannot separate the emotion from the performance so it seemed so larger than life itself. Plus, these five guys were like us, stuck in these cornfields, but attempting to use music to get out.
Like many bands and artists before them, things did not break for Roadmaster as a collective. Their local record company, Village Records, was purchased by Mercury Records, who only gave the band two albums to connect with a national audience. I am not sure if the pressure caused this, or if the chemistry between the band members was diminishing, or if it was the changing tastes of the fickle public, but their next two albums were underwhelming, even to this teenage fan. The band’s third album, Hey World, did yield a minor hit in the title song, but the magic was gone by the release of Fortress in 1980. On that last album, the band attempted to move toward a harder-edged sound, but it just fell flat in comparison to Rush’s Permanent Waves or Foreigner’s Head Games, both of which included touches of New Wave productions in their sounds. Roadmaster now sounded out of date and tired. That meant their days were numbered.
Of course, the band reunited for a well-received concert at a local club, The Vogue in 1989, which was recorded and released as the CD Live + 5. If you don’t have that CD, it will cost you about $100 for a used version of it.
In honor of the biggest local band of my youth, I present my Top 20 favorite songs by the band. I dedicate this list to all of my high school friends who made this blog possible.
20. “Looking for the Day” (Hey World, 1979). This tune is a Survivor-like song recorded before their was ever a band known as Survivor, from the positivity of the lyrics to the sound of the band.
19. “Higher and Higher” (Sweet Music, 1978). One thing Roadmaster could do was soaring epics. This one has Styx DNA running throughout.
18. “Love Me Baby” (Roadmaster, 1976). This song was screaming to be covered by a hair metal band in the Eighties for their big power ballad. It was a good decade ahead of its time.
17. “It’s Been So Long” (Roadmaster, 1976). I can imagine the boys opening up their sets with this song, which reminds me of some lost Doobie Brothers song. One of three songs produced by Todd Rundgren.
16. “I Still Wanna Love You” (Roadmaster, 1976). Smash’s vocals are more soulful and funky than the late Mac’s, which are used to great effect here. This was the second Rundgren-produced song.
15. “You Come See Me” (Sweet Music, 1978). A great slice of AOR, this song just wailed in the live setting.
14. “The Swan Song” (Sweet Music, 1978). The boys showed their sensitive side with this acoustic bit that would have sounded right at home on Heart’s Dog & Butterfly album.
13. “A.M.-P.M.” (Roadmaster, 1976). The boys’ blues workout is a fantastic display of their musicianship.
12. “Ya Move Me” (Sweet Music, 1978). A throwback song to the Smash hits that soars way higher because of Mac’s vocals. Still, there is some vocal help from Smasher on the chorus, which only adds to the looseness of the tune.
11. “Been Gone Too Long” (Sweet Music, 1978). If my memory serves me well, I think this was the set opener at our high school concert. If not, it should have been.
10. “I Must Be Dreaming” (Sweet Music, 1978). The second cut on the band’s best album is one of their most rocking Styx-influenced songs.
9. “Who Can Sing like the Fat Boy Do” (Roadmaster, 1976). This was Adam Smasher’s calling card. He used it at the beginning of every DJ show in the early days. In it, Smash proclaims that no one has a voice like him, he plays the “Electric Throat.”
8. “New York, New York” (Fortress, 1980). This song was the only throwback to the band’s original sound on their last studio album. Too bad it was buried in some truly uninspiring work.
7. “Say You Wanna Be with Me” (Hey World, 1979). Toby Myers wrote this rocking gem that would have been worthy of a Night Ranger cover.
6. “Sunala Jones” (Roadmaster, 1976). This one kind of reminds me of Pablo Cruise or Ambrosia but in a great way.
5. “Circle of Love” (Sweet Music, 1978). One of the highlights of the band’s sets, “Circle” allowed the band’s musicianship to absolutely shine in the studio and in concert.
4. “Hey World” (Hey World, 1979). This song was such a perfect summer song in 1979 that I remain baffled why it never caught on outside of Indy.
3. “That Magic Feeling” (Roadmaster, 1976). The absolute best song on their debut album. Once again, I will never understand why radio did not jump on this Todd Rundgren-production that year. Remember, this was the year that “Convoy” hit number one.
2. “Sweet Music” (Sweet Music, 1978). No matter how you cut it, this song is the band’s calling card. The boys could stretch out in the live setting and simply go wherever they wanted to take it and still the song remained fantastic. It falls somewhere between Zep’s “Dazed and Confused” and REO’s “157 Riverside Ave.” In other words, it’s long, musical and fun.
1. “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” (Sweet Music, 1978). THE lost Hoosier artist single of all-time. Period. It is the kind of song that if it had been done by Styx, would have gone to the top of the chart. But, because it was recorded by some Hoosiers who named their band after either a Buick or a bicycle, radio stayed away from it. To this day, if I get a song stuck in my head, fifty percent of the time it is still this song.
If you are from Indiana, I hope you go back to listen to these albums again; I know you still have them. And, if you are outside of here, please find these songs because I feel as though they will give you the best overview of the band’s catalog. One day, I am going to write that worthy screenplay where the soundtrack will consist mainly of songs from Hoosier musical acts, beside the transcendent Michael Jackson and his family. And, rest in peace band members Stephen “Mac” McNally and Rick Bennick. And, a big thanks to the surviving guys from those four albums: Toby Myers, Michael Read, Bobby Johns, Steve Riley, and, of course, Adam Smasher. Long live Roadmaster!