Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Concrete Rubber Band: Believers From Kansas

When I first heard of the Concrete Rubber Band, I was intrigued. A three-piece early 1970s teenage band--two of the members siblings--from rural Kansas, proclaiming their love for Jesus with a unique mix of rock and classical music? Right up my alley. 

Named in allegiance with the acid-rock bands of the day, the CRB had songs, skills, and some fine equipment, but no outside help and little ability to effectively reproduce their sound.

The review in the wonderful Acid Archives called the band’s album, Risen Savior, the "only album of its kind in the world.” Its heartfelt songs, springing from committed young people, are haunting.

The music has grandeur and grunge, sass and peaceful acceptance, beauty and ugliness. Guitars thrash away, but don’t quite sound like guitars. Layers of analog synthesizers make holy and unholy sounds. A brother and sister harmonize, but their vocals whip in and out, sometimes sounding like frightened skylarks trying to escape a haunted house.

Like many other bands of the time, the trio decided in 1974 to have a local company press up the results of their recordings onto an LP (in a run of 500) and sell them at gigs. Most copies have long since disappeared, having been thrown out or lost. Spares are hoarded by collectors, rarely turning up for sale.

These kids were real, their music unfettered by anyone else, but also without sophisticated methods of recording their music. The album suffers sonically from this, but the limitations of the band’s technology also gives Risen Savior a sound of its own.

Day jobs and relationships meant that CRB’s time came to an end. Singer/keyboardist Jan Long went to graduate school; she currently serves as a state representative (!) in Kansas. Drummer Bobby Rhodes moved west. Duncan Long, guitarist, keyboardist, singer, and songwriter, continues to play electronic music and spent a period working for ARP Synthesizers, but is best known as a superb graphic artist.

His music—unknown at the time—could have been lost to the world it not for music freaks and record collectors. Many performers whose work had no chance to enter the commercial marketplace were truly talented, and the best examples of what is now called "private-press" music belong square inside the pantheon of popular music.

Risen Savior soon developed a reputation in the rock underground from collectors of obscure 1960s and 1970s rock, both secular and those devoted to the harder side of the era’s Christian music—which was then called “Jesus Rock.”

Here is Risen Savior's second song, “What Shall We Do?” (It's not the LP's title track, despite the labeling on the video.) it as much as any on the album, captures the group’s facets: the hard rock drive, familial harmonies, biting but hopeful lyrics, startling tempo changes, and billowing, bubbly, overpowering synthesizer fills.

Sometime in the 1990s, a fanatical record collector burned a copy of the now-sought Risen Savior, had it pressed onto CDs, and released it (without Long’s permission) on a label called Radioactive. Soon after, the small Hidden Vision Records label worked with Long on an expanded, authorized CD issue. The new product included two extra songs from the album’s original sessions and improved sound—the result of using the actual master recording tapes rather than a dub from an old album.

Hidden Vision was eventually forced to shut down because of losses incurred fighting bootleggers such as Radioactive. In 2007, Long worked on another re-release of the album, this one with the GTR label, and provided twelve previously unreleased extra songs. (GTR has an excellent catalog, re-releasing artists ranging from American pop star Gene Pitney and Canadian hard rockers It’s All Meat to experimental British saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith.)

Having heard them, I wanted to know more about the Concrete Rubber Band. What drove them? How did it feel to be in the band? How did they write and record and play? What was their contemporary reception? 

So I contacted Duncan Long, who graciously agreed to answer my questions and share his recollections. I thank him for his music and his time.

Q: What are some of your early musical memories?
My folks were both pretty good musicians. So I grew up in a house where music was performed. My mom played the piano and my dad guitar – and a little mandolin, banjo, and violin.
Q: What got you into playing music?
 I was sort of late into playing music, starting as a young child with piano lessons but dropping out. Later in junior high I wanted to play piano so my folks got me started on lessons again. But I think [that] starting at that late a date sort of left me without some of the innate skills that seem to develop with a child learns at instrument at an earlier age. In high school I took up the trombone in the school band and taught myself to play mandolin. Later in college I picked up the bass guitar and electric guitar. I guess I just was drawn to music.

Q. Did you grow up a Christian? If not, when did you begin your path?
My whole family was converted at a revival meeting when I was in seventh grade. That made quite a change for all of us and we were sort of all at the same level of Christian maturity for the coming years. A unique experience, I think.

Q. Who were the musicians you admired as a young man? When CRB began, what music of the time were you attempting to emulate or extend on?
J. S. Bach and Beethoven were always favorites of mine, and I suspect there’s a lot of classical music behind all our music, at least to some extent. On the pop side, the Electric Prunes, 50 Foot Hose, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix were big influences. But it’s sort of an odd thing because none of us listened to the radio much or had that many LPs. We just sort of made our own music to fill the void.

Q. Without sounding in the world did you learn about an obscure band like 50 Foot Hose while living in a small Midwestern town in the early 1970s? How did you buy/consume music in those days?
Although I didn't listen to much radio, there was a station down in Oklahoma that broadcast all sorts of weird rock music late in the night. I happened to tune in one night and heard them…and remembered the unique name. Later when shopping in a record store in Wichita (probably in 1971) I found their albums being sold at a discount (a dollar an LP, as I recall). So I bought one and fell in love with most of the songs.

I think most of our music came from large stores (Willey's was one) that had small book and record departments. Oddly enough I can't remember actually buying most of the records I owned, or where we bought them. Sort of strange how many holes there are in our memories.  I suppose had I used drugs, I might have some truly massive gaps  :o

Q. Did you find any difficulty in being a Christian and making rock music?
Making the rock music was easy. Getting anyone to listen to it was hard. We were unaware of the “Jesus Music” movement, being out in the sticks of Kansas. Churches were very conservative and not too interested in having rock music in their sanctuaries, so we were sort of the Lone Ranger of bands. Churches just weren’t into guitars and drums in church the way they are now. So we didn’t really get to perform in a lot of places other than for a few youth groups and a couple of churches wanting to have some sort of special service to reach out to their youth. There was very, very little money in it and we often played for free. It was a labor of love for the most part.

Q. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, did you listen to rock music of the day? Christian music? The classics?
By the early 1970s we were listening to a variety of music, but our style was pretty “set,” so I don’t think you could see much influence between what we listened to and what we performed.

Q. Were you or your bandmates involved in the pastimes of the day (politics, drugs, promiscuity, school protest), or did you live very much a quiet small-town life?
Our town had a population of 200-some, so long hair and loud music were already an amazingly rebellious thing in the eyes of our peers. There was a lot of alcohol abuse in our tiny burg (Alden, Kansas), but the three of us in our band were pretty straight-laced.
My sister and I went to Sterling College (Sterling, KS), which was a Presbyterian School, so it was pretty straight-laced as well, though there was some drug abuse there (the mid-1960s; many drugs were still legal at that point). But none of us ever got mixed up with the drug scene or such. I think perhaps our early conversion to Christianity spared us from a lot of the trips a lot of young folks fell into during that period.

Q. Some of the lyrics on Risen Savior seem to address the real-life concerns of teenagers. Did you feel it was important to do so?
I think it was more of a need to express our own feelings rather than make some big statement for the masses. Again, the fact that we were playing for small audiences and not that often sort of made it less about sending a message than about expressing a message.

Q. When you decided to record an album, was there any thought toward trying somehow to get it on an established label?
I’m not sure we ever even sent any demo tapes anywhere; I don’t think we did, or at least can’t remember ever doing so. I was a music major at Sterling College, and at the Music Educators convention [I] noticed that school bands were getting their own records pressed by vanity press labels for a very small investment. This of course struck me as a way to create a record without much of the expense while keeping full control over our music and our sound. So it just seemed like a “quick fix” for getting an LP of our music out there.
Sadly, we made the master tapes before we really hit our stride; had we made them a year or two later, the sound would have been much more refined and polished. I have always regretted that our best sound isn’t there for people to hear, but that’s just how it is.
I am not sure how many records were pressed, but I’m guessing maybe 500. We each put up the money and then divided the money from the records. When the band dissolved, we divided the remaining records between us. I gave most of mine away to the students in the school where I taught.

Q. With the sounds you created on Risen Savior, did you ever feel that you were really going “far out”?
Well, it was certainly perceived as far out by some listeners of the time. But basically we just made the music the way we wanted to hear it without any eye toward making it weird for weirdness’ sake.

Q. What was the division of labor between you and your sister you in terms of playing keyboards?
Jan handled the electric piano (an RMI – Rocky Mountain Instruments harpsichord/piano) which I’d rewired so the keys on the lower end were bass-boosted. We then put the lower half of the keyboard through a bass amp so we had a bass guitar sound even though it was actually the electric piano. We also had a Vox electric organ that she played, sometimes one hand on each keyboard. I generally played electric guitar, especially when we started performing. But as we added synthesizers (an ARP 2600 and Pro Soloist) to our band, I alternated between them and the guitar.
Sometimes we put the ProSoloist atop the electric piano and my sister would play both (I think…I’m a little unsure, as we tried all sorts of combinations when we practiced and recorded, some we never used in performance). Toward the end we also had a string machine for string-like sounds but I don’t think we used it on our LP.

Q. Some songs don’t have drums. Was that a proactive decision?
I did a couple of tracks on my own on the Risen Savior LP and those would be the ones without drums. I’m not sure exactly why it was done that way, looking back. I think part of it was that as I picked up more skills on the synthesizer, I wanted to hear more of an orchestral sound to the music, and thus needed to lay down lots of instrumental tracks to do that (the synthesizer being a single-note instrument at that point).
Also, I think Jan had headed off to Law School, or at least wasn’t available to do the music at that point, but I might be wrong about that as time has made memories of “what” and “why” a little hazy.
Anyway, I had to layer all the sounds on those tracks by overdubbing, recording one track along with the next and hoping the balance wasn’t all out of whack, and it was basically a one-man job. At that point I only had a two-track Akai recorder to work with, so those multiple layers basically resulted in a mono recording with one extra track on one side for “full stereo” (ha).
Sadly, our PA had so much hiss that we had to run our microphones into an Ampeg tube amp for the vocals, which made our vocals pretty muddy by today’s standards.

Q. When you recorded the Risen Savior album, did you think that it sounded like anything else around at the time?
We were pretty much unaware of what else was going on, especially in Christian music where most of the stuff was Gospel or such. It wasn’t until years later that we even heard of the Jesus Rock movement.

Q. Were you a “gear-head”? Did you find it easy to learn how to use tape recorders, mikes, mixing boards, amps, effects, synthesizers, etc.?
Yes, I seemed to take to it like a duck to water. I was constantly tearing into stuff and rewiring it, building synthesizer modules, and such, some from scratch and others from kits. I can remember spending hours with a soldering iron and playing around with the then-new ICs (Integrated Circuits) that allowed frequency doubling, square-wave generation, and other weird things when the electrical output from a keyboard or guitar was pumped through them. Probably the neighbors were glad when I quit experimenting and went to bed   :o)
Mixing boards were a luxury we couldn’t afford, so we basically just winged it with on-the-fly adjustments and care in controlling the volume of our instruments as we performed.

Q. Was there a reason The Concrete Rubber Band “broke up”?
Mostly we just had to earn a living and each went our separate ways. There had never been even the suggestion of a dream that we could earn money with our band’s music. So after finishing college I found some music teaching jobs nearby and we continued the music in the evenings and spare time.
But when Jan headed to law school some distance away (at Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas), things started to get less and less viable for the band. Bob Rhodes (our drummer) and I tried to perform places, with me on the keyboards sans guitar. And for a time we had other people try to play the keyboards. But it just wasn’t the same and when I got a job some distance away, that was the end of the band. The proverbial “not with a bang but a whimper” death.

Q. Do you think that the Concrete Rubber Band album has any parallels in rock music?
I’m sure it does, but not being all that aware of the musical history of the Jesus Rock bands—or even rock music in general—I really don’t feel like I’m in a position to comment on that in any meaningful way. We just sort of did our thing with little regard to what others were doing and that was basically it.
I suppose that many other groups did the same thing and, being creatures of our society and the pop music scene, likely the various “sounds” of many bands were quite similar, especially given that the electric guitar and various pedals were being fielded to a large market of players. A guy always hopes that some of what he did was unique, but sometimes that is a relative thing and best decided by unbiased reviewers and historians.
I suppose that in the end we were just another of those little garage bands that sprang up in the 60s and 70s, made some nice music, and then moved on to other things. I wish we’d had a few more breaks and could have continued creating music a little longer since we basically quit just when we were hitting our stride, but that’s sort of how things are in a society where the arts are a bit of an afterthought—especially with churches—and people need to earn their livings.
But it was a lot of fun while it lasted and I have no regrets. I do have a lot of good memories when it comes to making music in our band.

You can buy the CRB album, and learn a lot more about the group and about Duncan, here:

Thursday, July 25, 2013


This is a blog about music on records. Or, if it's not available on records, then CDs. Cassettes. Whatever.

I usually find myself having about ten records out near my stereo at any one time. A few are new acquisitions. Some are old favorites. Some are ones I'm transferring to digital. But it's usually around ten, hence the name of this blog.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy.