The Swing of Things, Part 1

You know me by now. When I love-love-love something I feel compelled to research-research-research it. After the Benjamin bomb went off for me I immediately dove into finding out everything I could about The Cars, and in doing so stumbled across a whole little collection of wonderful music by an “almost famous band,” Cap’n Swing. If you didn’t already know, Cap’n Swing (CS) is the band Ric and Benjamin formed just before The Cars, and it was truly a ‘diamond in the rough.’

Coming up with the facts about CS has been harder than I thought it would be, and I have ended up with more unanswered questions than I started with. Even the most basic detail, like when they actually formed, is hard to nail down, in part because Ric and Benjamin tried several combinations of bands that wove in and out and around each other; and partly because I don’t think any of the guys were particularly nerdy-obsessive-fact-recorders… at least, not that I’ve heard. But I’ll start with what I’ve been able to scratch up:

The band was made up of Benjamin Orr on vocals, Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar and vocals, Elliot Steinberg (soon to be Easton) on lead guitar, Todd Roberto on bass, Danny Shiftlin (not sure of the spelling of his last name) on piano, and Glenn Evans on drums (later replaced by Kevin Robichaud after Glenn decided to move on).

At least four of these guys already had a history together by the time CS formed, which I believe was around 1975-76. Of course, Ric and Ben had been a team for a good 7-8 years by this time. Elliot had joined them during their Ocasek and Orr days, playing regularly at the Idler in Harvard Square around 1974-75ish. Glenn had worked with Ric and Benjamin on their recordings for an Ocasek and Orr demo tape in 1975. I don’t know any history for Todd or Danny… where are they now? Wish I knew.

One of the earliest dates I can find for a CS performance is May 11, 1976, which was touted as their “world debut.” The band developed quite a following in the Boston area in 1976, gaining the attention of popular local deejay Maxanne Sartori, who went crazy over them after seeing them perform at the WBCN Newbury Street Music Fair. She added more than one of their songs to her playlist (possibly including Come Back Down and Strawberry Moonlight), further increasing the attention the guys were getting around town.

may11
Courtesy of @Night_Spots

Excited by their growing popularity they took a shot at getting a record deal. Sometime in the fall of 1976 (I believe October 4th and/or 5th?) the band went to Max’s Kansas City in New York to play for some big name management companies, including those who handled Kiss and Aerosmith. Elliot recalls, “The general consensus was that there was great potential but that we really needed to consolidate our sound, look, and image.” (Rock Solid interview, July 31, 2014) Though Elliot characterizes their retreat as “coming home with our tails between our legs,” the guys took this constructive criticism to heart and set to making some very defined and proactive changes behind closed doors, which signaled the end of Cap’n Swing and the birth of The Cars — but I’ll write more on that in Part 2.

In the meantime, let’s get to Cap’n Swing’s music. I am addicted to this ‘crazy rock and roll!’ Many of their songs are in my daily listening rotation, and I am frequently swept away to pleasant places in my mind by that free-flowing, easy 70s sound.  It’s interesting how the personality of Cap’n Swing’s music bounces back and forth between several genres: there’s the laid-back “keep on trucking” groove, some finger-snapping jazzy snazz, a little bit of lounge music stylings, and harder rock and roll with a more driving beat and prominent guitar… then there’s some Peanuts-style cartoon music mixed in there for good measure. Haha!

The lyrics are uniquely Ric’s, of course. I feel like he was (and always is, really) on the edge of a relatable truth and it’s often something I can grasp personally, but it would be difficult to define the meaning of it for someone else. Elliot is masterful with his tight riffs, Danny keeps the music flowing along, and Todd and Glenn give the songs their backbone. My friend, Kathy B, put it this way: “I love the live music, the raw energy. The not-so-refined sound makes you feel the excitement of them knowing they were on the tip of wild success. For a band that was supposedly distant with their audience you can hear them interact at times. Ben especially on some songs has trouble containing his excitement, which is quite irresistible from our shy boy.”

Perfect.

Without an instrument in his hands Benjamin channels his energy and creativity into his vbwben2ocal work. His voice is sultry, demanding, sardonic. He goes high and low, growls roughly and harmonizes beautifully. He fiddles with pronunciations, experiments with his word endings and adds melodic variations to lyrics he has to repeat multiple times, playing with syllables and stretching out vowels with more freedom and abandon than he would later display in The Cars. If you ask me, some of Benjamin’s best vocal work is preserved here in these Cap’n Swing demos.

I do get a little impatient with the music in one respect.  In my opinion, Cap’n Swing hadn’t quite mastered the skill of knowing when to end a song, or how to limit the performance of one instrument in such a way as to make it effective without dragging the song down. Solos from the lead guitar, piano, and bass often carry on for quite a while (one of my pet peeves, as you know), and even seem to be competing with each other from time to time. I’m over it now, but it took some effort. ::wink::

mustacheMy other gripe probably only exists because of hindsight. Danny’s playing on the keys is great, but I miss the sheer variety of sounds that Greg brought to the table with his synthesizers, saxophone, and general noisemakers. Of course, had I been sitting in a bar listening to Cap’n Swing live I’m sure my ears would have been thrilled, but since I can’t unhear Greg’s amazing contribution after the fact, I find it lacking in CS whether I want to or not.

[Heck, who am I kidding? If I had been sitting in a bar listening to CS live I wouldn’t have even known there was a piano player in the room, or anyone else for that matter; it would have been all about the Benj!]

Sorting out their songs has taken a bit of work. I’m just including titles that I have at least *some* concrete evidence for, and given Ric’s reputation for prolific song writing, I’m sure there are many tunes the band played that I am not aware of. I think I’ve got it straight, but help me out if I’m off track, would you?

Okay, here goes, starting with the easiest to track:

On July 13, 1976, Captain Swing recorded a series of demos at Great Northern Studios in Boston. The finished product included the following eleven songs:

  1. Bye Bye Love (Ric on vocals)
  2. Strawberry Moonlight
  3. Jezebel
  4. Goes On Sleeping
  5. Twilight Superman (Ric on vocals)
  6. You’re Always Brighter
  7. City Lights (Ric on vocals)
  8. Dream Trader (shared vocals)
  9. You Can Have ‘Em (also known as Blue Moon Saloon, or Sleepy Wasted Afternoon)
  10. Come Back Down
  11. Magic Pants (also known as Crazy Rock and Roll)

While I am unsure of the details, I think at some point they recorded another set of demos, which would include:

  1. Indigo
  2. So Far Away
  3. Lover and a Holiday (also known as See Through My Eyes)

The band played gigs together as late as October of 1976. A few live songs are floating around that weren’t on the demo tapes. These two can be found on youtube by searching for ‘capn swing orono mn.’

  1. Start It All Again
  2. Will You Still Love Me Tonight

Several Cap’n Swing numbers continued on as Cars songs with some reworking, though most did not make it to vinyl.

  1. You Can Have ‘Em (also known as Blue Moon Saloon, or Sleepy Wasted Afternoon)
  2. Bye Bye Love, which of course showed up on the debut album, sung by Benjamin Orr
  3. Strawberry Moonlight
  4. Come Back Down
  5. Lover and a Holiday (also known as See Through My Eyes), sung by Benjamin Orr
  6. Indigo came back as Wake Me Up
  7. Toby Goldstein asserts in her book, Frozen Fire, that Cap’n Swing was playing You’re All I’ve Got Tonight as well.

With all of these great songs I am hard-pressed to try to pick a favorite. Come Back Down was the first CS song I listened to, and it blew me away; it is certainly one I never get tired of playing. But then again, I feel the same about Strawberry Moonlight, So Far Away, Jezebel, You’re Always Brighter, Twilight Superman… Oh heck! All of them! Let me just encourage you to give each one a try. With the diversity of genres CS was fooling around with you’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy.  Let me know what you end up with!

It would be truly unfair of me if I neglected to say that I am VERY grateful for the answers, direction, and best guesses of two amazing Cars encyclopedias, J and J. They were both unceasingly patient with all of my questions and clarifications, even though I’m sure I drove them crazy. I continue to find the Fanorama to be such a terrific group of people!

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