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Sunday, March 17,2013

Solid State Sounds: The Plagues & Frightened Trees

A new blog dedicated to Michigan-made music

by Rich Tupica
The Plagues

Welcome to the first installment of Solid State Sounds, a blog solely dedicated to recordings spawned from our goofily-shaped state.

As with most music blogs, I will be spouting about records I own and hope to persuade you to buy. (From one of our local record stores, of course – not illegally downloaded. You wouldn’t do that, would you?) Actually, in all honesty, some of the songs featured here are out-of-print, so no harm in a little “file sharing.”

In fact, some (not all) of the tunes I’ll feature are super limited pressings, so the odds of finding a copy for under $300 bucks is zilch – which brings me to my inaugural band to be featured on Solid State Sounds: The Plagues (FYI: the words in bold link to some rare recordings, so be sure to listen to them). The Plagues were a Lansing ‘60s teen-garage outfit whose old 45rpm records have sold on eBay for well over $700 – bought, no doubt, by the hugest of record collector nerds.

The Plagues gigged around their home town and across the state from 1964 to 1967.
The sharp-dressed band of high schoolers also opened a Lansing show for the Young Rascals. The band’s chief songwriter, Bill Malone (lead vocals/bass), went on to become a Hollywood director. Malone’s film resume includes the 1999 remake of “House on Haunted Hill.” Here is Rob Zombie
interviewing Malone about it.

Prior to that, while still working at the famed Don Post Studios (which made masks for films and Halloween costumes), Malone made the mold for the Michael Myers mask in the original “Halloween” movie. But before he dedicated his days to his love of films in California, Malone was Lansing’s answer to Lennon/McCartney. The band also consisted of Van Decker (lead guitar), Phil Nobach (drums) and James Hosley on rhythm guitar.

The Plagues' “I’ve Been Through It Before” 7-inch on Fenton Records is one of the most unheralded Lansing-made songs ever. I’d say it’s also the most valuable record, dollar wise, to come out of the capital city. Aside from that, it’s probably my favorite mid-1960s garage single, period. The song has all the elements I prefer in mid-sixties garage rock: dramatically well-written lyrics (“You expected me to … believe every word you said … but now those words are DEAD!”) – which is topped off with an obnoxiously fuzzed-out guitar riff, a mind-burning hook, and that primal energy only a teenager with a new guitar could muster.

The flip-side was Tears From My Eyes – a softer, melodic tune that shows Malone fully embracing his Beatles worship, which he told me about when I interviewed him for a City Pulse article back in 2010. “We were basically a Beatles band to start with,” Malone said. “We did all Beatles tunes. Then we started branching out. We also liked the Byrds and the Animals. It wasn’t long after our first show at Everett High School that we played Waverly Junior High School — we nearly started a riot. It was like something out of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ We had a big local following; there were about 300 kids in our fan club.”

The Plagues put out two other singles. One of those was the band’s original tune, Through This World,” which charted locally on WILS, then a popular AM pop station in Lansing. But eventually the teen-scene sound faded into prog-rock and The Plagues called it a day. Malone headed to Cali to work at Don Post Studios, his dream job as a teen. But before he left for the West Coast he briefly fronted another Lansing-based garage band, The Frightened Trees. The band recorded the ultra-rare "Round and Round" single in its short life, which also included "I'll Be Back" - a Beatles cover. The Frightened Trees included Malone (lead singer/bass), Terry W. Himes (drums), Henry "Hank" LaMont Markenson III (lead guitar), and Tom LaBlanc (guitar). The other members of The Plagues stayed in Lansing for quite some time.

With Malone out of the picture, Decker, Nobach and Hosley began reforming a new band in the fall of 1966. With the addition of Scott Durbin and Scott Allen, that band became the Plain Brown Wrapper, which played huge shows in Detroit with the likes of the MC5 and Bob Seger. The Plain Brown Wrapper, which eventually went through a rotating cast of members, recorded the You’ll Pay 7-inch and a few others before it broke up in 1974. Today, by chance, Malone, Decker and Hosley all live in California – Nobach is in the Detroit area. But Malone looks back fondly on his early Plaguesmania years.

“We were very energetic and enthusiastic,” Malone said. “We were funny and goofy on stage. We’d rock it out like teeny-bop rockers. We’d put on a show. Our story is very much like the movie, ‘That Thing You Do!’ I laugh every time I see it.”

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