Thursday, November 15, 2007

Band revives French Church tune

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The Cyril Lords

By STEVE SEYMOUR

When Detroit garage rockers the Cyril Lords recorded a tune called "Slapneck 1943" in a bowling alley in 2005, few in the audience realized they were covering an old rock song about a tiny community in the Upper Peninsula.

At the time, guitarist Marty Morris and drummer Mayuko had just added bassist Sean Ellwood to their new band. Looking for fresh material for an upcoming gig, Ellwood suggested "Slapneck," a song he liked from a Michigan garage music compilation.

Originally recorded by a Marquette rock band called French Church four decades ago, "Slapneck" became a staple in the Cyril Lords live show for quite some time. When the band approached record label Nu Gold to release a single, owner Eric Silvenis insisted "Slapneck" appear as the record's flip side.

"I was hesitant to record a cover song at first," Morris, also known as Mother, told me. "I decided to record the b-side at the Garden Bowl, a bowling alley I was working in at the time-- the nation's oldest-- to attempt to have a sort of foil to the heavily produced, pop a-side called 'Ginger.' We set up and played a free show," Morris said.

"I think we played "Slapneck" twice that night to make sure we had a good take. We made $50 from the bar and handed it over to Kevin Peyok, the gentlemen who produced the live recording."

Not long after, the band had a brand new seven inch vinyl single to promote, their original tune paired with a song, credited to Spratto/ MacDonald, plucked from the past.
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John Spratto and Gordon MacDonald composed "Slapneck" in 1967. "We actually were out squirrel hunting when we came upon an old sign for Slapneck. I came up with the idea for the song and it took all of five minutes to come up with the melody and chords the next time we were at practice in my parents' basement. Gordy helped with the words and as the say, 'the rest is history,'" Spratto recalled.

"That was the first time we traded song and lyrics, so John gets the credit for the punk rock sound of January, 1968," Gordon added

With Spratto on guitar, Gordon on bass, brother Warren MacDonald on drums and vocalist Mike Cleary, French Church rehearsed their new composition as arrangements were made to record it.

The band paid to have owner Fred Krook record "Slapneck" and "Without Crying" at his Princeton Studio, located in the basement of a lumber company in downtown Marquette. French Church had recorded other tracks for the label in the winter of 1966 when it was headquartered at Princeton Post Office, near Gwinn, Gordon remembered.

The four young men taped a legendary version of their new song, which included the catchy chorus, "Slapneck, come along with me." Two characters mentioned in the song, a milkman and a restaurant owner named Mrs. R. J. Green, were completely fictitious. The original song also contains a third verse about Mr. Green returning home from World War II, Gordon noted.

Released in 1968, "Slapneck" garnered airplay and sales while boosting the band's profile. During the year, French Church opened for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, which had a handful of current hits, during an appearance in Ironwood. The Marquette band also shared the stage with the McCoys, featuring Rick Derringer, during a show at the Northern Michigan University Fieldhouse that same year.

Warren remembered getting a check from BMI in 1969 for $12.50 which covered performance rights for "Slapneck." He thought "Without Crying," at one-minute 38 seconds, may have received more airplay because it was shorter and "we all know disc jockeys love to talk."

Starting on drums in kindergarten, Warren today is owner of MacDonald Music Store in Marquette. He continues to play and even got together a few years ago with other members of French Church to record 15 or 16 songs including a new take on "Slapneck."

Although Warren was well aware the two French Church songs were included in a compilation LP in 1985, called "Highs in the Mid-Sixties, Vol. 19," he didn't know "Slapneck" had been covered by the Cyril Lords. He still owns a few dusty copies of the original single.

Today, the original "Slapneck" 45 is highly sought after by collectors for its stunning punk feel and originality. With the version issued by the Cyril Lords, the song's fan base continues to grow.

Meanwhile, the speck of real estate about five miles east of Chatham in Alger County known as Slapneck remains largely untouched by the fame brought by its namesake song.

Named for John F. Slapnick, who surveyed the region, the moniker was soon misconstrued as Slapneck. At its peak, the area contained large farms, a railroad depot and a one-room schoolhouse, which enrolled 40 students in 1926. A centennial celebration at the Elmer Wanska farm on Aug. 5, 1995, attracted 500 people. Although the community feeling remains, only a few hardy people live in Slapneck these days.

The song, the hamlet which spawned it, the two bands which committed it to tape and even the places where it was recorded, have become part of the "Slapneck" legend.

Now, you know the story behind "Slapneck 1943."

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Marty "Mother" Morris here, from the Cyril Lords. I think it is really nifty that Steve wrote this article. I found it interesting and informative. I would love to chat more with the French Church gang and get the lyrics Gordon mentioned. If they happen to read this, I can be contacted at thecyrillords@yahoo.com. Thanks so much and have a great '08!

XOX,

M

Paul said...

I'm from Marquette, class of 78, and I had no idea there was a 60s garage scene in the U.P.! Way cool!

Is there enough good stuff to do an entire U.P. rock compilation?

Remember Kauppila's Store, on U.S. 41 right there by Teal Lake, with the flashing Bunny Bread ears? That was my dad's parents' store.

Hey Warren, got any copies of that single left (ha! not likely I suppose.) I'll be there in late July/early August.

Steve Seymour said...

Hi Gordon Macdonald and John Spratto,
Thanks so much for your comments! I've included them into the blog entry above.
It's great to know that you, Warren and John may release some recordings this year.
I'd love to hear them.
I'm especially curious about the recordings for the Princeton label as I've been trying to complete a discography and perhaps a future column on this subject.
If you could contribute to this, would you be able to email me at steveseymour4005@sbcglobal.net
Thanks, Steve