In his illuminating new memoir Through the Eye of the Tiger, Jim Peterik writes of the moment he first bore witness to the cover artwork of his debut album with his band The Ides of March, 1970’s Vehicle: “When we saw it there was an audible gasp and then an ‘Oh shit! This stinks!’ We wondered out loud what some perverted ‘genius’ was thinking when on the cover of our life’s work he put an image of a naked baby doll abandoned carelessly in a field with an ominous black sedan lurking in the background…We were apoplectic.” Indeed, the offbeat cover– which Peterik recalls kept the album off the shelves at the retail chain Korvette’s due to its “tasteless” imagery – hardly calls to mind a hot, young Chicago band with a set of brassy, muscular pop-rock originals inspired by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Real Gone Music has restored to print the band’s first Warner Bros. album on a new, expanded reissue with four bonus tracks.
Jim Peterik (lead vocals/lead guitar), Larry Millas (keyboards/guitar/bass/vocals), Mike Borch (drums/percussion/vocals) and Bob Bergland (bass/saxophone/vocals) had, since 1965, been steadily working on their craft, first as The Shondels and then as The Ides of March. Recording for the Parrot label and playing venues from sock hops to clubs, the band developed its own sound from roots in Hollies and Kinks-inspired white R&B. Peterik was finding his own voice as a songwriter, too, honed from years of performing covers of songs by James Brown, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Traffic and the Buffalo Springfield. Joined by Ray Herr (guitar/bass/vocals), John Larson (trumpet/flugelhorn) and Chuck Soumar (trumpet/vocals), the band entered Chicago’s Columbia Studios to record an album of both originals and time-tested covers that had worked well onstage and fit into the “heavier” sound the band was cultivating.
The title track of Vehicle, of course, was destined to be the band’s calling card. With its indelible blast of brass offering up a killer riff, it was also the first major hit song for Peterik (No. 2 in the U.S.) who would go on to pen further anthems like “Eye of the Tiger” (No. 1, 1982) and “The Search is Over” (No. 4, 1985) for his later band Survivor. With crack support from Millas’ organ, Borch’s drums, and the three horns, Peterik channeled BS&T’s David Clayton-Thomas on the title track, tearing into its over-the-top, sexually-charged lyrics. He candidly admits in Richie Unterberger’s excellent liner notes that the Canadian soul man was his vocal “idol,” and appropriately enough, it was an American Idol that helped push “Vehicle” back into the spotlight in 2005. Though “Vehicle” had been covered previously by everybody from Shirley Bassey to Chet Baker, Bo Bice’s performance of the song catapulted it back into the popular culture and onto classic rock radio, where it remains today. “Vehicle” was one of four songs recorded by the Ides of March on the demo that was sent to Warner Bros.; the searing, similarly brass-infused “The Sky is Falling” from the same tape also made the cut for the album. (A third of the demo tracks, “Lead Me Home Gently” was released as a single and is also included here by Real Gone.)
But Vehicle, the album, isn’t a one-trick vehicle. The wealth of experience Peterik and the Ides had gained playing everybody else’s hits allowed them to create a group of diverse songs drawing on varied influences. While “Bald Medusa” traded in the same double entendre and horn-fuelled sound as “Vehicle,” “Factory Band” was an homage to Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Ides captured that band’s signature chooglin’ rhythm and Peterik traded his David Clayton-Thomas belt for a John Fogerty yelp without resorting to imitation. The beautifully-arranged ballad “Home” has an early Neil Diamond feel crossed with The Righteous Brothers’ Goffin/King hit “I Can’t Make It Alone,” with sympathetic strings giving added lift to the yearning track. (The Ides of March once opened for Neil Diamond. In his book, Peterik recalls the solitary man advising him succinctly if sharply: “Next time, boys, only play your best material.” The Ides took the message to heart.) “One Woman Man” was released prior to Vehicle, the album, and was the Ides of March’s first single. It remains a mystery why the band didn’t catch fire with such a strong selection. Melding the rich harmonies of The Association with the Ides’ developing horn sound (and another memorable trumpet riff), it’s one of the strongest tracks on Vehicle.
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The two cover tracks on Vehicle were well-chosen. The group stretched out instrumentally and vocally on an extended medley of Crosby Stills and Nash’s “Wooden Ships” and Jethro Tull’s “Dharma for One.” As the Ides of March started out in a vein that emphasized their harmony vocals (see “One Woman Man”), they had a chance to utilize that sound with a modern edge on “Ships,” but they also left space in the medley arrangement for scorching solos that expanded on the haunting understatement of the original CSN recording. The albums’ closing track, the psychedelic jam “Symphony for Eleanor” was, like “Wooden Ships/Dharma for One,” a concert favorite painstakingly recreated in the studio. Though very much of its time, the trippy, hard-driving track showcases the fluid interplay between band members which was much in the manner of a tight jazz ensemble.
Four bonus cuts round out Real Gone’s reissue including the “One Woman Man” flip “High on a Hillside,” which like the A-side has tasty harmony vocals married to a catchy rock melody with brass accents. “Lead Me Home Gently,” the original demo performance assigned to the B-side of “Vehicle,” is in the lush Righteous Brothers-esque style of “Home.” The rocking “Melody” was another single A-side designed to capitalize on the bold “Vehicle” sound; the original hit single version of “Vehicle” is the final bonus.
The Ides of March released one more album for Warner Bros., and two (still awaiting CD release) for RCA Victor before calling it a day, but in 2000, the group reunited. Three years later, Rhino Handmade issued Friendly Strangers: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings with both of the group’s Warner albums and bonus tracks on two CDs. Today, the original quartet of Jim Peterik, Larry Millas, Bob Bergland and Mike Borch is still playing music together. Ray Herr and John Larson both died in 2011, the same year that Chuck Soumar stepped down from the band. Peterik and Millas have, outside of the band, continued their partnership, and both men contributed to the title track and follow-up single “Isn’t It Time” from The Beach Boys’ 2012 hit reunion album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.
Real Gone’s reissue of Vehicle – which has no remastering credits but sounds crisp and punchy, perfect for the Ides’ heavy brass-rock – is a great way to get in on the ground floor of a vehicle that’s still running today. Far more than just a “factory band,” Jim Peterik and The Ides of March are still rocking almost 45 years after the release of Vehicle and nearly 50 since they first joined together.