Old Ann Arbor band The Rationals gets some long-overdue exposure with new anthology
In July, after many years of wrangling over licensing issues, the Big Beat record label released “Think Rational!,” an exhilarating, two-CD anthology that captures the first, mid-1960s phase of the Rationals’ short but significant career. Significant, because the Rationals’ intense, high-energy mix of British Invasion buoyancy and scrappy rocking-soul was a big influence on the generation of bands that followed. And Morgan is still regarded as Michigan’s most expressive rock singer of the mid-to-late-‘60s.
One could even make the case that The Rationals’ mid-‘60s garage-rock/garage-soul (even though those terms hadn’t yet come into vogue) were a big inspiration for the Stooges, the MC5 and the Bob Seger System (and, later, Seger and the Silver Bullet Band) — local acts that went on to enjoy national prominence that The Rationals never attained.
That may be partly because the Rationals broke up in 1970, due to management issues and feuding within the group — whose members, by then, were still only 19 and 20 years old. Remember, this is a band that formed when the members were still in junior high, and had their first regional hit single when they were barely into high school.
As expected, “Think Rational!” has attracted long-overdue national attention to, and praise for, this seminal Michigan group. Rock critics have thrown plenty of precious metal at the feet of “Think Rational!” — not just in Detroit-area papers, but also in national music mags and on rock websites. David Fricke, the grand poobah of Rolling Stone critics, featured it in his “Fricke’s Picks” section and raved about the band and music on this collection — which, believe it or not, is the first-ever Rationals anthology CD.
And that’s pretty important for a band that only released one album in its career — and that one came in 1970, as the band was fragmenting. Big Beat plans to release another anthology next year covering the band’s ’68-’70 period.
Reviving the “brand name” So, in the wake of the disc’s over-the-moon reception, Morgan decided to revive the Rationals’ “brand name” and start doing shows consisting entirely of the Rationals’ music. His first such outing was in late July at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, and he’s talking to other promoters and venues about more such shows in the future. However, for the Bag show, he was not joined by his original Rationals bandmates — guitarist Steve Correll, drummer Bill Figg and bassist Terry Trabandt — due to geography, timing and the fact that they’ve been out of the music business for many years, and either have other jobs or are retired.
Morgan still lives in Ann Arbor, and has continued to be a mainstay of the local music scene in the 40 years since the Rationals broke up — leading bands like Powertrane, Scots Pirates, Dodge Main and The Solution, and being a key member of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band in the ‘70s, along with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5.
But Correll lives in the Upper Peninsula (he’s a retired woodworker/restorer for the University of Michigan), while Trabandt lives in South Florida and has a job driving a delivery truck. Figg is still local — he lives in Dexter — but is recently retired from being a full-time welding and fabrication instructor at Washtenaw Community College.
So, for the Bag show, instead of bringing his old bandmates together, Morgan recruited players from other Detroit-area bands he knows from his years on the Detroit/Ann Arbor music scene: lead guitarist Matt Smith (from Outrageous Cherry and the Volebeats), bassist Jim Diamond (formerly of the Dirtbombs) rhythm guitarist Chris Taylor (Powertrane), and drummer Dave Shettler (SSM).
“Due to logistics and work schedules, the rest of us couldn’t play that Magic Bag show,” says Figg. “Terry and Steve live too far away to travel back to this area for a single show. As for me, I’d enjoy playing local shows with Scott, if that’s something we could work out in terms of schedules and other commitments and such.”
The original members are talking about re-uniting for a possible European festival tour — which would probably be next year, when the second anthology is released, says Morgan.
“Screaming, jumping up and down” The Bag show “felt good,” says Morgan. “People were screaming and jumping up and down, but I wasn't paying much attention, since I was trying to remember how the songs went,” he jokes. “And the band was great. I just showed ‘em the songs .and then let them play. And it didn't feel nostalgic at all — I just got up there and belted out the songs like they were written yesterday. I closed my eyes and just tore into them... I just let it flow.” “The show was fantastic,” says Willy Wilson, the Bag’s publicity director. “I was surprised at how good the band was. I knew that they were good players, but they were so dead-on with the music and with the harmonies. The crowd was very enthusiastic and really into the show, and it was very well-attended.”
“Think Rational!” was first conceived “about 15 years ago,” relays Morgan, “when the record company started talking to Jeep [Holland, the band’s manager, producer and biggest booster during the first few years of their career]. “Jeep died not long after that, but the label was very persistent, and finally acquired the rights to all of our old songs (which were recorded on several different labels) from Jeep’s estate.“And, yeah, I do think that this is about 40 years overdue; none of this stuff had ever been released properly on CD before, although a lot of it had been bootlegged.”
Figg concurs. “A lot of people have been waiting for something like this for a long time,” he says. “I get a lot of e-mails from people asking where and how they can get the old songs. But now, people can finally hear them, on CD, and they sound awesome, plus the packaging is great, with the really extensive liner notes, interviews and old photos.”
What’s especially exciting for old-time Rationals fans is that about half of the tracks on “Think Rational!” are previously unreleased recordings: demos, alternate versions or never-heard songs. The stripped-down demos are charmingly lo-fi, nascent versions of “Someday,” “Gave My Love” and “Look What You’re Doing (To Me Baby).” Plus, there’s a playful, seat-of-the-pants rehearsal version of “Out in the Streets.” Some of the alternate-take highlights are Morgan’s “I Want To Walk With You,” the raucous cover of Them’s “Gloria” and the amped-up/freak-out medley of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” and the Animals’ "Inside Looking Out.”
Both of the Rationals’ stinging interpretations of Holland/Dozier/Holland’s “Leavin’ Here” are included. Of course, their local-hit version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” is front and center — as are many of Morgan’s fan-fave compositions, like “Feelin’ Lost.” “Someday” and “Sing” — plus a couple of engaging, never-released songs written by the whole band.
Irreverent and rowdy Some folks might not know that the Rationals recorded “Respect” before Aretha Franklin did. Their version is much closer in spirit to Redding’s original. But the Rationals, only being 16-17 years old at the time, gave it an irreverent, youthful, almost rowdy treatment that today is the very definition of “garage-soul.” (And, by the way, this critic is one who actually prefers the Rationals’ scruffier take on the song to Franklin’s.)The Rationals "Respect"
The Rationals’ initial inspirations weren’t too different from those of other young bands in the early to mid-‘60s: the Kinks, the Zombies, the Stones, the Beatles. Then they met Holland, who was a soul-music freak. “We obviously also dug Motown, because living here, we were surrounded by it, but Jeep’s the one who turned us on to the deeper soul, the Memphis-soul stuff, and the stuff that you wouldn’t hear on the radio,” says Morgan.
“Once we covered ‘Respect,’ and it got such a great response, we were off to the races with the soul music,” says Morgan. That’s what prompted their urgent, rocked-up covers of southern-soul tunes like Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Little Richard’s “Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail),” and Isaac Hayes/David Porter’s “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” and “You Got It Made” — all of which are among the previously unreleased tracks that are included on “Think Rational.”
And the Rationals performed them with such passion and exuberance that the songs just crackle out of the speakers — and also bolster their cred as the greatest “garage-soul” band of the period.
Morgan has some fond memories of his other teen-years “encounters” with soul music. “One year, Steve’s mom drove us down to the Motortown Revue at the Fox Theater, which had all of these great Motown and soul artists, like Little Stevie Wonder. The crowd was going crazy, and it didn’t matter if you were black or white. Those shows were pretty intense. Then she’d drive down later and pick us up,” recalls Morgan.
“The next year, we had our driver’s licenses, so we drove down ourselves, and on our way out, someone said that Marvin Gaye was going to be sitting in at this strip joint down the street — I think it was called The Empress. So we walked down there, and asked if we could come in and watch Marvin, but when they found out we were only 16, they said they had to walk us up to the second floor, via the fire escape, and told us we had to stay in the balcony.
“So there we were, in a strip club, watching Marvin Gaye, and he had these women onstage with him” — who were acting as though they were “coming on” to Gaye — “and we weren’t even old enough to drink. We were barely old enough to drive.”
The Rationals’ legacy When it comes to weighing the Rationals’ legacy, Morgan is modest at first — but, when coaxed, he agrees that the Rationals were one of the most influential bands to ever come out of the Ann Arbor/Detroit area.
“I think we were right behind Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, because they came before us, but I think we were next in line, in terms of playing” rocking-soul music — which Morgan amusingly refers to as “green-eyed soul, ”“because I have green eyes,” he says.
And does he regret that the Rationals never transcended regional-hero status — that they never became a big-time national band?
“No, I never think that,” he says. “I mean, it’s always nice to get paid for what you do, but, no — I don’t regret that the Rationals never got to be ‘famous’ on a national level. I just felt we were very privileged to have been involved in that scene during that era, and to have been such a big part of it.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.
Top photo: "Think Rational" CD artwork. Lower photo: Photo courtesy Scott Morgan. From left: Scott Morgan, Bill Figg, Steve Correll, Terry Trabandt.