Monday, April 13, 2015

The Last Song: Roy Rutanen and his short-lived band

If you haven't seen the most recent tdats comp from last week, the heavy 'Bosstown sound', get it here.

Right....getting on for two years ago now I included a song in the second New Zealand special (link) by a guy called Roy Rutanen. At that time I had fallen for what I now know was an incorrect rumour, believing him to have been a mysterious and enigmatic figure from New Zealand.

The album in question may be described by some as loner-folk, with pastoral sounds and mild psychedelia. It's a whimsical and humorous record with some darker fuzz-filled cuts, especially "Sinful Man" and "The Trip Song". It would fit right into the late '60s San Francisco sound. I find his voice is sometimes reminiscent of Jim Morrison, and sometimes Cat Stevens.

About a year and a half ago I was contacted out of the blue by a guy in Australia called Chris Hobrough. He told me that he took the picture on the front of Roy's Album, that Roy was most definitely American, and had never to his knowledge set foot in New Zealand. With Chris's much apreciated help, I have been able to contact Roy and some of his band members. Firstly I'd like to say a huge thanks to Chris Hobrough, Mick Norris, Ian Robins and Roy himself for being such great sports and making this possible. Learning the truth has been a great feeling, so to set the record straight, here it is!

The Beginning

Roy grew up in Southbridge, MA, the oldest of four; one brother and two sisters. His mother was a 'truly good' pianist and his father was a gifted auotobody mechanic, but unfortunately a desperate alcoholic. In Roy's own words: "I had kind of a bad childhood in many ways, but normal in others". He and a friend started playing guitar as teenagers. They became a trio and played in different cities around the area. All that was to end when he was drafted in 1966 by the US army, at which time he was working in a service station.

After a stint in Germany he was sent to Vietnam. Asked for his recollections of the war, he told me "I was in rocket attacks but didn't see much more action. I saw a lot of drug use and very little support from locals. I'll bet that the people there are living the same way today as they did back in the '60s".

During his time in Vietnam, he chose to use two R&R periods to visit Australia. He liked it there so much that he decided to fly straight back on discharge from the army. His early recollections of Australia were of having good times making many good friends: "I smoked a lot of pot and indulged in other highs. I lived right on Manly Beach in Sydney and went to sleep at night with the sound of surf coming in through the open balcony doors".

Making the band

Dee Why beach
Roy started putting his name about in the scene and playing his own songs at some local venues: "I began playing at a theater called P.A.C.T. and played at other places as well". The PACT (Producers, Authors, Composers and Talent) arts company still stands to this day (link). Roy befriended Michael 'Mick' Norris, who played in accoustic band 'Marastique' and a bluesrock band called Amageddon. Then Roy moved into a flat with friends in Pittwater Road, Dee Why, a suburb of northern Sydney which also has a beach. In Mick's words: "We used to meet at this flat, have a jam and smoke pot, supplied mostly by a local bloke who lived only about two hundred metres away in Harbord Road".

Mick would take along his band-mates Ray McKeown, Ian Robins and Graham Hilzinger. Ray played drums, Ian played electric guitar and Graham played flute and sax. Mick himself was playing bass at the time.

Mick recalls that at those sessions, they would set-up and Roy would play through all his songs, almost non-stop, as if doing a mini concert. Then they would all fall into it with him, making-up their own parts as Roy continued playing without stopping to correct anyone. "Occasionally we would all stop for a puff of pot, then get back to it". The guys got together a couple of nights a week, playing for few hours at a time. Roy adds: "They were all great guys and we worked well together. It was a wonderful experience".

Roy at a wedding
I asked Ian Robins to describe his memories of Roy: "Roy was a real pistol!  Very loud and ebullient. He had a great sense of humour and I remember he loved junk food. We all got a little substance crazy in those days. Roy had a favourite expression - 'Has anyone seen my mind - don't step on it!'. He was a very good acoustic picker and song writer, fun to work with too, very focused".

Eventually they all got to know Roy’s songs by ear, Ian remembers that Roy was vey open to the ideas of the other guys and they all developed their own individual parts.

The flat on Pittwater Road
- at mid-level
When they weren't playing, the Dee Why flat was a place for fun and hi-jinks. Mick recalls one party in particular: "There was one occasion at the flat when some friends of Roy’s had arrived from overseas, after back-packing I think. They brought some 8mm film they had shot of their adventures, and they also had some LSD micro-dots which they had gotten from the USA (very clean, pure and precise in dose level). We all had a trip together, as the LSD took effect, the film was played and projected onto a wall of the flat and it was also played back-wards to the great amusement of us all.

As the party progressed, most of us set-out in groups in different cars to go driving around the northern beaches, all in different directions. We had an amazing time laughing and hoo-harring all over the place. At one particular time, a few of the cars arrived at the same intersection all at the same time, all coming from different directions. Not having been in contact since the magical mystery tour had started, that was an amazing coincidence. We all just sat there at the intersection looking at each other, cracking up with laughter".

Before Roy's get-togethers with the nucleus of what was to become his recording band, he had been very enterprising. While recording a demo on his own, a local studio put him in touch with Jack Argent, MD of Leeds Music publishers. Jack liked what he heard and organised a deal for an album with MCA.

Making the album

The album was recorded at United Sounds studio in Sydney (link). Roy played classical acoustic guitar. From the Dee Why jams was Mick Norris on bass, Ian Robins on electric guitar, Graham Hilzinger on flute and Ray McKeown on drums. Some more players were added; John Hayles played second classical guitar, and on tracks "Plastic World", "The Old Man" and "Hitchin" steel guitar player Kenny Kitching can be heard. Kenny has since become one of he most renowned steel and Hawian guitar players in Australia. On this subject Roy said: "Kenny was brought in, I'd never met him before. I didn't know he'd done so well, since. He was very interested in the track(s) he played on and I appreciated his interest!"

Ian Robins had this to say about the recording: "I played all the electric guitar. I had a Gibson ES335 back then, a guitar I always regret parting with. It must be worth a fortune now. One song I recall, 'Plastic Jesus', was about the commercialization of religion".

At the time Roy told Mick that MCA were winding-down their activity in Australia, and so a meagre budget had been allocated for the sound recording and production. MCA was pushing to get it's contracts fulfilled quickly. As most of the players were by now well-practiced and knew their parts well, the album sessions went smoothly. Roy points out that most of the tracks were put down together as a band instead of over dubbing. A few things, like the flute, had to be put down later.

Label, Side 1
The record was released in the latter half of 1971, catalogue number MCA MAP/S 5100. The full track listing is:

A1 Searchin'
A2 Plastic World
A3 The Trip Song
A4 Anti-stink Song
A5 The Old Man
B1 The Country Song
B2 Hitchin'
B3 Sinful Man
B4 The Last Song

Things had moved on by this time, Roy had moved again and was working in a record shop on Pittwater Rd. He had also met his wife-to-be, Margaret Gray, from Narrabeen, NSW. The album cover shows Roy sitting under a tree strumming his guitar, with an attentive blonde-haired girl in audience. This girl is Margaret. The picture was taken by Chris Hobrough, a photographer friend of Roy's. Chris had this to say: "The pictures were taken in the garden of his place at Newport, Sydney. I remember positioning myself right on top of an ant nest to take some of those shots - they didn't appreciate it. 40 years and I still remember that".

The credited engineer is Spenser Lee, who quite amazingly was engineer on the first three Buffalo albums slightly later. The album was produced by Alan A. Freeman, ex-head of A&R at Pye records in England and CEO of MCA Australasia. Older readers may be interested to know Alan was a regular panelist on ATV's Saturday night talent programme, New Faces.

MCA did put out a single from the album, choosing 'Plastic World' with a flip-side of 'The Old Man'. I have just discovered another single that MCA released, which Roy confirms was recorded prior to the album sessions. That single was "Your Day Is Comin" (youtube) with flip-side "Hey You" (youtube). Thanks to Bill Stevens for uploading those two. Bill also got some info out of Roy: "The single 'Your Day Is Comin' was written on Manly Beach in Sydney and reflects my disillusion with the Vietnam War and war in general. 'Hey You' is another single but more of a love song".


Tragically, it would seem that the public had very little chance to even hear the finished album. Chris Hobrough offers his opinion: "The album wasn't a commercial success, mainly because the record company put zero effort into promoting it. It was basically all left up to Roy. That was quite a tall order, back then, for a young musician just starting out. Perhaps it would have been easier now with the Internet. Anyway, it wasn't enough support for Roy to develop his art, and I think that was a big disappointment for him".

Mick Norris has similarly negative things to say about the album's promotion: "As was a usual practice, MCA, or one of their agents, managed to have a review of the album published in the appropriate 'what’s going on' music page of one of Sydney’s main newspapers, giving the album 'record of the week', but it was not as if MCA showed any high hopes for Roy’s success. It seemed that they just wanted to get their contract obligations met at the cheapest possible cost, and I don’t recall how many copies of the album were pressed".

Ian Robins in
recent times
Ian Robins has equally melon collie memories of the time: "It would have been nice if the album had gone somewhere. Who knows how it may have changed one's life, eh? I feel bad for Roy though. He put a lot of energy and effort into the album."

Roy himself says that he made no money at all from the record, aside from the band's basic pay during the recording sessions. This immediate disapointment hit Roy hard. Soon after he was married and had a young daughter on the way, so he made plans to cut his losses and return to the US where he would be in a better position to support his new family. He does not remember any promotional efforts from MCA what so ever: "We should have gone on the road to promote it, but by that time, I was headed back to the states. I never saw it in a store".

Just after the release of the album, Mick Norris went on with Ray, Ian and Graham to form a new incarnation of the band, while Roy was drifting away from the original gang: "The rest of us carried on as a band in the Narrabeen/Mona Vale area, and we recorded a soundtrack for an Australian surfing film producer Bob Evans, the name of his film was 'Family Free'" (link).

Around the same time the band was approached to hurriedly come-up with a soundtrack for another locally-proposed surf film; of which Bruce Usher and Russell Shepherd, from Mona vale Beach, were the producers. Due to the urgency of needing original music finished within this film's strict time frame, Mick made contact with Roy with the hope that he might have some material, or be able to come-up with some fresh material. Roy did come to meet the producers at Mona Vale, and things started to move, with Roy showing keen and coming up with ideas. "Some how the wheels fell off the whole thing, and I don’t recall seeing Roy again, I think that was about the time that he and Margaret got married. It's hard to recall now, but I think that delays with the film’s production didn't help".

Back in the USA

So that was the end of Roy's personal and musical life in Australia: "In total, I lived in Aussie for just over two years. After I got married and had a daughter, I wanted my family in the US to meet them, so we left for Massachusetts in the early '70s. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and in retrospect, I never should have left".

Back in the US, music just wasn't cutting it any more. With a daughter and wife to support, he decided to go back to school in Boston to study broadcasting. He worked for a while in radio and TV advertising, then: "From Connecticut, where I was living at the time, I got a job in Hyde Park, New York, at a small AM station working for a fat guy who was a little unstable. From there I became a program director for an FM station that was country when I got the job. With me it became a rock station, and a big hit in the Poughkeepsie, NY area".

Roy in 2010
Roy moved to Texas where he got into TV news: "My time in San Antonio working for KENS-TV was a highlight of my career.  From there it was back to radio in San Diego, California before returning to New England. I won several awards along the way and got to see a lot of the country. I went back to Australia in the mid 80's while working as a TV journalist and revisited Sydney - I'd like to go back there again some day. Back in New England I did something I'd always wanted to do and that was driving big rig trucks. I did that for three years and enjoyed seeing the country, but the business was tough. Now I'm retired".

After the impossibility of the public getting the chance to hear Roy and the gang's great album when it should have done, we can thank the power of the internet for allowing many to hear it easily now. Thanks to Roy and his efforts over 40 years ago for bringing us this great music!

© Richard Sheppard / / Roy Rutanen

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  1. some great investigative journalism. i've had this album for years......and always thought he was from new zealand too. great story!!!

    1. Similarly, so have I, It was a great revelation to get this information :)

  2. More info re the man than I ever hoped to find. Glad I could be a small part of it.
    I found the single in a remainder bin in September, '71. Bought 4 singles that day, all on the MCA label, all for 25 cents each (I used to catalogue them back then).
    Never heard him on the radio (I'm in Australia) & knew nothing about him for more than 40 years. Caught my eye because I was into singer/songwriters & "Hey You" lasts for 7 minutes. Liked it because of the sentiments expressed on the A side & the tastefull nylon string work.
    Only recently been exploring on the net & kept on coming across this idea he was a Kiwi which didn't quite gel.
    One of the musos on the LP told me he had no recollection of the songs so they may have been recorded at a different session. Certainly, the way you describe they rehearsed would explain the rambling nature of "Hey You".

  3. Thanks Richard.
    From my recollection, this article quite accurately describes what happened, and it's good that you have set the record straight about the incorrect New Zealand connection.
    Best wishes, Mick Norris.