Friendly Strangers: The Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March.

– The Soothsayer, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ (Shakespeare)

We’re too loud and we’re too soft, and we’re too in between.

Say, aren’t you the fella that used to sing with B, S and T?

– The Idea of March, ‘Friends of Feeling’ (Peterik)


billdeyoungcom The Ides of MarchChroniclers of popular music history can be forgiven for confusing “Vehicle,” the one and only national hit by the hard–driving and horn–driven Ides of March, with any number of vehicles by the hard–driving, horn–driven Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Ides’ song just missed the top of the charts in April, 1970, when B, S & T was in the middle of its Top 40 hot streak.

Jim Peterik, the Ides of March’s songwriter, singer, lead guitarist and frontman, was only 19 years old when he sang the hell out of “Vehicle,” an ambitious but know–nothing kid from a blue–collar Midwestern town, and imitation – at that time, anyway – was the sincerest form of flattery.

“We got religion when we went down to the Kinetic Playground in Chicago and saw Blood, Sweat & Tears,” Peterik says. “Got real hip to their first album, with Al Kooper, and by the time we saw ’em they had David Clayton–Thomas. And they blew our shit away. I wasn’t trying to sing like him on ‘Vehicle,’ but I guess I did. He wanted to sing like Ray Charles, and I wanted to sing like him. On down the food chain.”

In many ways, the Ides of March transcended that one song. The two albums the band made for Warner Brothers in the early ’70s are like Whitman’s Samplers of musical styles from that innocently adventurous age: Ballsy rock ‘n’ roll, punchy rhythm ‘n’ blues, electric jazz, folk balladry and hippie weirdness, all laid out next to one another in an inviting and consumer–friendly package. They are, to the number, exquisitely arranged and performed.

Jim Peterik went on to a long and distinguished career in music, but the Ides of March was his first and truest love. Today, the original band is still together and making music with the same passion and poise as in their 1970–71 heyday.

“I draw so much energy from this period,” Peterik says. “When we go onstage, that’s the person I am, from that era. We were in our prime. And when people come to see us now, they take home that feeling. I’m not being mushy, but we project that because that’s the way we feel. We may look like 52, but we feel like 19.”

The Ides began in Berwyn, Illinois, with Cub Scout packmates Peterik (lead vocals and lead guitar), Larry Millas (keyboards), Mike Borch (drums), Ray Herr (guitar) and Bob Bergland (bass). In 1965 they were a British Invasion cover band called the Shondels, heavy on Hollies–like harmonies and tentative, very white R&B.

They also wrote a lot of their own material, and cut a single, “Like it or Lump It,” issued in the Chicago area on their own label, Epitome Records.

In ’66 the Shondels were “discovered” by Parrot Records, which only had one rock act anybody could think of (the Zombies). The band’s debut was “You Wouldn’t Listen,” written during an all–night sleepover on Peterik’s 15th birthday.

Tommy James &the Shondells were starting to turn up on the charts, leaving Parrot’s newly–minted teen act in a quandary. “Our record was just ready to come out, and we had to scramble for a name,” Peterik recalls. “We were all reading Julius Caesar in high school. Bob Bergland came across ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ It sounded like a name to me.”

“You Wouldn’t Listen” was a hit in Chicago, but Parrot never turned a profit on the Ides of March, and after six singles the band was dropped.

By 1968 the Ides were regularly playing James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Arthur Conley covers in their sock–hop shows, so the decision was made to add horns: Enter more school chums, Chuck Soumar (trumpet) and John Larson (trumpet and flugelhorn). Bergland began to play saxophone onstage.

Local promoters Bob Destocki and Frank Rand caught the Ides’ act when they were opening a show for Neil Diamond, and after a little negotiation took over management and started promising big things. Destocki was also a regional promotion man for Warner Brothers Records, and through his contacts he got the Ides a four–song demo deal with the label.

“We put ‘Vehicle’ last on the demo,” Peterik says. “We didn’t really value that song. The first three songs, we thought were the ones. We sent them to the label, and they went, ‘Are you kidding me? The fourth song is a smash.'”

(For the record, the other three were ‘Lead Me Home Gently,’ ‘Something Comin’ On’ and ‘The Sky is Falling.’)

Peterik had written the sexually–charged ‘Vehicle’ as a joke. “I got the idea from one of these anti–drug pamphlets they distributed in school,” he explains. “It had this picture of the sinister guy, and it said ‘The Friendly Stranger.’ It was very tongue–in–cheek.”

Produced by Destocki and Rand, the Vehicle album was recorded at CBS Studios in Chicago, which, according to Peterik, had only been used for radio and TV voiceover work. “They didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll from a hole in the wall,” he says. “They did a good job, but it was a learning curve. We were all learning together.

“I remember that kind of feeling of experimentation. I also remember 14 seconds of the master of ‘Vehicle’ being erased! We were doing background vocals, and suddenly 14 seconds were gone from the master. No way to retrieve it. The second engineer had hit the wrong button. We spent two hours thinking ‘our career is over,’ because at this time we knew we had something.

“Luckily, there was a Take One. They inserted 14 seconds of Take One, I re–did the vocals. And now I hear it every time: From the second ‘Great God in heaven’ all the way up to the guitar solo – when you hear how abrupt that first note of the solo sounds, that’s an edit. Actually, it sounds real cool.”

Cool enough to drive the song to No. 2 on the Billboard chart, in line behind the Jackson Five’s “ABC.” ( “Vehicle” hit the top in the somewhat less prestigious Cash Box ). The album never got higher than No. 55.

“One Woman Man” was actually released as a single before “Vehicle.” The two songs don’t sound anything alike. “That was more like the Association, or the New Colony Six with brass. We were a harmony band with horns at that point.”

Influence–spotters had a field day with Vehicle. “You gotta realize, we were all 18, 19 years old at the time,” Peterik says. “We were still looking for a sound. Most people have their formative years in private, because they’re under the radar. Here we are, on the radar screen, still looking for who we are.

“So yeah, there’s a real potpourri there, everything from B, S &T to a little Creedence – ‘Factory Band,’ that’s Creedence, I mean, come on – we were fans of all those bands.

“And yet we do have a sound. It’s the way our voices sound together, the way we play together, it’s still the Ides of March but obviously there’s a real palette of influences represented on the record.”

One of Peterik’s most accomplished ballads, “Home,” has a familiarly unchained melody but makes its point in a sweetly sentimental way. The band’s affection for the first Crosby, Stills &Nash album was laid bare with their jazzy, extended take on “Wooden Ships” – linked, for reasons Peterik doesn’t remember, with the Jethro Tull instrumental “Dharma For One.” And they bit off a big one with a jazzy 9–minute arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby.”

“It was hard to translate the grandeur of that in the studio,” Peterik remembers. “It was very au courant at the time. I think Vanilla Fudge had their ‘Eleanor Rigby’ at the time, I think every band had their ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ It was kind of like required.

“It has its moments. But boy, if you could’ve been there in ’70 and heard it live …”

Then there was “Bald Medusa.” “It was just a phase that Mike Borch came up with,” Peterik explains. “He said ‘Bald Medusa’ and I said ‘Cool.’ Wrote a song that made about as much sense as that title.

“It’s a dirty, very hormonal song about getting’ it on. Of course, you have the double entendre. ‘I’m Bald Medusa’ became ‘I balled Medusa,’ and that’s the way we did it live. We had a lot of fun with that. It was 19–year–old hormones talking.”

The Ides of March spent most of 1970 on the road, opening for the likes of Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. “We were the kind of band that lived very economically on the road,” Peterik recalls. “And we made money. We didn’t make money on the records, because we were always working off the record company debt. But it was a very viable business.”

Peterik has been telling this story for years: “We were on a bill, Iron Butterfly, the Youngbloods, the Ides of March and then Led Zeppelin. In Winnipeg. And it was our night, that’s all I can tell you. Zeppelin had an off night, we had an on night, and the next day’s entertainment headlines said, basically, ‘Ides of March Steal the Show.’ We did our 20–minute version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and just brought down the house.”

Years later, the Guess Who’s Randy Bachman ran into Peterik at a Nashville trade show and said, among other things, that he had been in that audience in Winnipeg. And the Ides of March really had smoked Zeppelin. “I said ‘Then it was real! I didn’t dream it!'”

Understandably, the label desired a followup single. “We wanted to release ‘Aire of Good Feeling,'” recalls Peterik. “Killer song. Warner Brothers says ‘We want something more like Vehicle. ‘ Didn’t matter that it wasn’t on the album. They wanted the same song basically re–written, so dutifully I wrote ‘Superman.'”

The second and final Warner Brothers album, Common Bond, was more cohesive – and more ambitious – than its predecessor . The Ides of March were growing up (without Ray Herr, who left before recording began). “L.A. Goodbye? is the hit that never was; along with “We Are Pillows,” Peterik was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash almost as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“Mrs. Grayson’s Farm” was inspired by a tour stop to a midwestern farm, an innocent experience – they ate hamburgers and looked at the chickens – that ultimately lent nothing to the multi–layered psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll song. “Man, is that hippie, ” Peterik laughs. “I don’t know what that is.”

The album’s tour de force, “Tie–Dye Princess,” at 11:31, blended elements of jazz, folk and progressive rock (something relatively new at the time) and still managed to avoid sounding too pretentious. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we never had that kind of inflated sense of self,” Peterik explains. “We were always the kids from Berwyn going ‘Gee, are we lucky to be here.'” The song was completely re–recorded at 3:15 for a single, which Peterik is not crazy about.

Common Bond wasn’t successful, and after a couple of half–hearted albums for RCA, the Ides of March packed it in, playing their last gig at a Berwyn high school in November, 1973.

Peterik went on to write or co–write many of .38 Special’s late ’70s hits, including “Rockin’ Into the Night” and “Caught Up in You.” He formed the band Survivor and co–wrote “Eye of the Tiger,” which made him more money than he’d ever seen in his life. He’s still counting it.

When the Ides re–formed in 1990, Bergland was in property management, Borch was installing car alarms, and Soumar and Larson were in sales. Millas had been making a good living as a producer/engineer in Chicago, and Peterik was Peterik.

“Berwyn offered us a lot of money to get back together for one show,” Peterik says. “That’s all it was gonna be. And we were having so much fun, we said ‘Hey, we rehearsed three months for this one show. Let’s not waste all this rehearsal.’ And we never looked back.”