Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Band names reveal telling legacy

Marquette native Rick Leppanen was 17
when he played in the uniquely named rock band
Self Winding Grapefruit.


What's in a name? When it comes to band names, quite a lot, it seems.

I was reminded of that fact when my friend Ken Raisanen sent me a few emails last year. Raisanen and I have much in common. He's a music fanatic, writer, and appreciates the rich heritage of the Upper Peninsula.

A busy man, he's a school teacher, heads community radio station WOAS-FM and pens a column called "From the Vaults" for the weekly Ontonagon Herald.

Last spring Raisanen wrote about Marquette native Rick Leppanen who has worked in the Seattle area as a free-lance musician for decades and plays double bass in an acoustic jazz ensemble called Pearl Django.

In fact, Leppanen gave Raisanen (then an 8th grader) his first chance to drum in a professional setting when he was recruited to play a date with the wondrously named Self Winding Grapefruit, a group of 17 and 18-year-olds. Actually, Self Winding Grapefruit played an impromptu gig in Raisanen's basement for a Christmas party put on by his sister in the late 1960s. Raisanen found himself attending practice sessions for Self Winding Grapefruit until the band's errant drummer returned to the fold. Thereafter, the budding drummer attended every dance Self Winding Grapefruit played.

"I smiled all day the day I remembered that name," Raisanen told me.

While Marquette had its share of bands with memorable names, so did Escanaba. Two monikers which still stand out for me are Chocolit Ashcan and Insanity's Horse.

Escanaba resident Greg Tolman was a founding member of Chocolit Ashcan. The second portion of the name may have used the more exotic spelling of Ashkan, Tolman recalled. Other band members were Mike Buckley, Jim Schomin, Duane Slagstadt and Dan McDonald.

"I have no recollection of how the name came to be," Tolman said. After a short stint in Chocolit Ashcan, Tolman joined the horn section of the expanded Riot Squad.

Former Gladstone resident Doug Sjoquist played drums in Insanity's Horse. The other band members were Matt Gadnis, keyboards and guitar; Mitch Jensen, bass; Brendan Williams, lead guitar; and Phyllis Sexton, vocals.

Insanity's Horse took their name from "I Can't See Your Face In My Mind," a song appearing on the Doors' "Strange Days" album, released in Oct. 1967. The lyrics, sung by rock shaman Jim Morrison, were: "Insanity's horse adorns the sky; Can't seem to find the right lie."

While you might think the name Insanity's Horse to be unique, another band with that same name played gigs in the Detroit area for several years beginning in 1970. Lower Michigan's Insanity's Horse played at the grand opening of the Cinderella Ballroom at 13311 East Jefferson in Detroit on Oct. 1, 1971. They also performed with Brownsville Station and SRC at a concert at Bowen Fieldhouse on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ann Arbor on Oct. 31, 1970. The band took the stage again at the Cinderella Ballroom with the Siegel-Schwall band and Jackie Lomax on March 10-11, 1972.

The local Insanity's Horse never traveled outside the Upper Peninsula, Sjoquist, a professor of humanities and performing arts at Lansing Community College, recalled.

Not all band names were necessarily well chosen. During the early 1970s, Lansing was home to a rock outfit calling itself Bad Breath. They booked gigs in northern Michigan through Escanaba promoter Gene Smiltneck.

My wife Sue worked for Smiltneck's Bands Unlimited, located at 2214 26th Ave. S., during this period. She remembers working in the basement office preparing mailings with co-worker Jenny Lehmann. Using a rubber stamp, they printed the words "Do you have 'Bad Breath?' on each envelope. Whether halitosis was a good marketing ploy, however, remains debatable.

Many rock bands opted for simpler names, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s era.

The Copper Country's Rhythm Rockers recorded some catchy tunes on their own Copper Records label. The band was comprised of Dick Pantana, on sax and guitar; brother John on bass, keyboard and accordion; Mike Kadletz on guitar; and Larry Sabourin, drums. Meanwhile, in lower Michigan another band with the same name issued 45 rpm singles on Grand Rapids' fabled Fenton Records.

In fact, the Rhythm Rockers name was so common that in addition to the two Michigan groups, nine other bands with that name also released records, according to music researcher Gary E.Myers

A group of rockabilly-influenced musicians from the Ironwood area dubbed themselves the Galaxies, before cutting a pair of nifty 45s in 1960 and 1961. The popular Ford Galaxie had debuted in 1959 and consequently there were dozens of groups around the country with the same name and at least nine which issued 45 rpm singles.

The U. P. group included Greg Wynn, lead guitar; Danny Sullivan, rhythm guitar; Andy Abraham, bass; and Bernie Michelli, drums. They were referred to as Danny and the Galaxies on one of their records although that was never their official name.

Houghton-based rock band The Kinetic Energy chose its name in the fall of 1963, years before most groups started giving themselves such descriptive handles. Immensely popular in the Copper Country, fans quickly shortened the combo's name to the Kinetics, lead singer and founding member Frank Gallis remembered. Although their first 45 utilized the shorter name, the group also issued an LP called "Snow Children" which was credited to the Five Kinetics. The Kinetic Energy name was finally used on a revved-up version of "Susie Q," which appeared on Amy Records shortly before the group broke up in early 1969.

Now, back to my pal Ken Raisanen. After his drumming debut with Self Winding Grapefruit, he went on to bands called The Twig, Cloudy and Cool, Sledgehammer and Easy Money. The Twig was comprised of Gene Betts on guitar, Mike Kesti on bass and Raisanen on drums. All three shared vocal duties. The Twig lasted from 1969 to 1971, with practice sessions being held in Raisanen's basement, where he had his drumming debut with Self Winding Grapefruit years before.

"What a legacy we have in band names," Raisanen reflected last spring.

Not only that, Self Winding Grapefruit has to be the greatest group name ever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found your comment page about unusual band names when I went online to search for Insanity's Horse. It was I who first thought of that name for my band in 1970, the very band you refer to in your blog. Check out Insanity's Horse - To The Editor. I wrote it. Contact me at if interested