Ravyns in 1983

The Ravyns: Surviving on the Baltimore Rock Scene - Is it Love or Suicide?

Story and Photos By David Zeiler

Published in The Greyhound of Loyola College, April 15, 1983

I asked Kyf Brewer, the Ravyns' keyboard player and lead vocalist, to define the band's sound. "Well, if you put a gun to my head, ... you'd probably have to shoot me."

Actually, the- Ravyns' music is not quite that indescribable, but the unique sound of this popular local rock group had been entertaining area rock aficionados for several years now.

Having evolved from Climbadonkey in late 1978, the original Ravyns made their public debut on January 2, 1979. Brewer, bassist Lee Townsend, guitarist Bobby Hird and drummer John Tracey had picked up guitarist Rob Fahey from the band Hollins Ferry in the fall of 1978. The three composers (Brewer, Fahey, and Hird) pooled their original material and the Ravyns soon became one of the area's top local bands.

Trouble started in February of 1981 when Tracey left for Crack the Sky. Another drummer, Vince Crist, replaced him just as the Ravyns began working on their first recorded material -- a four-song EP.

The EP, which Crack the Sky nerve center John Palumbo produced, took much longer than anticipated and failed to generate a deal with a major record, label. For lack of a recording contract, the frustrated Ravyns decided to break up in August of 1981-- at about the same time their belated EP appeared.

Townsend and Brewer formed a band called Passion with present Ravyns guitarist Dave Bell. Hird joined Tracey in Crack the Sky. Fahey packed up his demo tapes and went in search of a record label.

Before long, the Ravyns decided to re-form with Dave Bell, but they needed a new drummer. Tim Steele was the unanimous choice.

Steele had been playing for a group called the Stand, which, he said, "was having problems with motivation and getting along. Kyf [Brewer] called one day and invited me to join the Ravyns, and I accepted. It was the perfect situation, because I tend to make a commitment and see it through. The Stand had gone as far as it could go. Now, I'm committed to the Ravyns. If they asked me now, I wouldn't even join a re-formed Led Zeppelin.”

By early 1982, the new Ravyns were again performing in local clubs and re-establishing their reputation as one of Baltimore's premier bands. When the Cars were touring in the area, Fahey managed to get a Ravyns demo tape to Ric Ocasek through one of the Cars roadies. "Raised on the Radio" appealed to Ocasek and to Elektra/Asylum, for whom the Cars record.

On August 2, 1982, the Ravyns made their major label debut with the single "Raised On the Radio," (which was backed with Don Felder's "Never Surrender") released in promotion of that summer’s film blockbuster Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Things went sour with Elektra/Asylum shortly after the single was released -- the Ravyns claim the company failed to promote the song properly. "They were disorganized and had distribution problems," as Fahey explains the group's decision to dump the label. Recently, Elektra/Asylum closed its West Coast offices.

"After 'Raised On the Radio' it got frustrating," Bell admits. "We were turning down offers and being turned down ourselves. It was hard to find the right record company."

The Ravyns have been negotiating with another national record company for some time. Although a recording contract seems imminent, the band at the present time could not yet reveal the company involved. Hopefully, this record company is the one that will make the Ravyns a well-known name not only in the Baltimore-Washington area but all over the country.

Throughout their career, the Ravyns have always been known for a show that balanced solid originals with a carefully selected covers of songs by other artists.

"We put quite a bit of effort into our songwriting," Fahey says. Fahey and Brewer write all of the current Ravyns songs (each generally sings his own compositions), most of which concern various aspects of romance.

A number of considerations go into the creation of a Ravyns song. A primary requirement for all Ravyns songs right now is danceability, because the band makes its living by playing nightclubs like Maxwell's, Girard's, and the Seagull Inn. The more artistic, "listening" songs will have to wait for the Ravyns' first album.

The lyrics of a Ravyns song are never slapped together simply to ornament a catchy melody. "Every song can't be a heavy statement, " Fahey explains, "but we don't want to sound silly, either. I'm very critical of the music I hear on the radio, I want to say things in a new way.”

Brewer agrees: "Some other people don't think about hearing the same old love song lyrics all the time, but we do."

Fahey and Brewer write their songs individually, then they bring them to the other band members for additional input and final polishing. "The final arrangement is a group effort," Fahey says, "which gives us a more unified sound than the old Ravyns had."

The old Ravyns' problem was that Hird was the third main songwriter -- "one too many," according to bassist Townsend. “Each writer was going in a different direction. Now, Kyf's and Rob's styles are blending -- they're sort of like apples and oranges. Before, we lacked unification and direction."

In the present Ravyns, both Bell and Steele write songs, but as yet the group has not been able to use any of them. Steele realizes that "with two main songwriters, it's difficult to get any exposure. We've got too many [originals] to play now."

The creative spark for a Ravyns tune can come from anywhere; "it can be personal, or any kind of inspiration," Brewer says. "Sometimes I'll get a [song] title first, or a riff, or a melody, and I'll work from there. A lot of times I'll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea."

The Ravyns' style ranges from old-fashioned rockers like "Rampage" to soft ballads like "No Regular Woman" and "Crying About It Don’t Do Any Good" to punchy songs of romance like "Lessons of Love," "Like Her So," and "Love or Suicide." The last category is the Ravyns' forte. These songs almost invariably feature an appealing, often aggressive, hook, a bouncy, danceable rhythm, and easy-to-sing-along-with refrains.

The Ravyns say that no particular artists have had a major influence on their music, although the Beatles contributed to each of the group's members taking up music in the first place. (In case you're wondering, the average age of the Ravyns is approximately 27.5) In fact, Steele says that the Ravyns can play many Beatles songs without first rehearsing them -- and did just that a few weeks ago when they performed "Money" (which actually predates the Beatles, but the Fab Four did the definitive version of it) for an encore.

The Ravyns choose the songs they cover as meticulously as they write their originals. Most of the covers are of recent releases by progressive, MTV-exposed artists, such as the Stray Cats, A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, the Clash, Peter Gabriel and the Producers, although the Ravyns have always played Clash songs.

“Really, the covers are for the public," Fahey says. "Still, you can compromise without selling out. We've always done at least 60 percent originals. " Many people will not see a local band unless they are guaranteed they will hear something familiar.

"When you're living on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese you realize that you'd better play something that will get you jobs playing in clubs," Brewer explains.

Most of the covers, however, are compatible with the Ravyns' style-"What I Like" by the Romantics, for instance, is often mistaken for a Ravyns original. One cover, "Good Lovin" by the Rascals (also done by the Grateful Dead) has become such a concert favorite that the Ravyns may include it on their upcoming album.

Yes, the Ravyns are, and have been working on their first LP. When the band finally secures a record contract, they will select a producer and will begin recording the album. What will be included on the long-awaited disk?

"We have an abundance of material," Brewer says. "We must have over two hours' worth of originals already, and we're always working on new songs. We'll try to emphasize our new material on the album, although the record company and the producer we get will have a lot of input on the actual song selection." "Raised On the Radio" is the only definite inclusion at this point.

"We'll have to choose our songs carefully because we'll be playing them [to promote the album] forever," says Brewer. "We're already sick of playing some of our old stuff."

The production schedule for the Ravyns album is sketchy at best. "We really wanted an album out by Christmas of '82," Fahey says, "but now we're hoping to have it out by this summer, or at least by the end of the year."

While the Ravyns crave success as much as any other band, they don't want to be on top of the charts for just one hit single or album and then forgotten. "That would be worse than never making it at all," Brewer says. "If we get one hit record, then we'll have to come up with more."

"We want to be known for quality albums, and not just hit singles," Fahey adds. "Otherwise, the only good Ravyns album would be the Ravyns Greatest Hits. "

The Ravyns' strategy for success not only includes producing. quality music, but also the utilization of such media devices as MTV. "We're working on scripts for videos," Fahey says.

Townsend has seen the video explosion coming for the past three years. "It's more than necessary – it’s imperative. MTV and its competitors are creating a new perception of music, visual as well as aural."

In addition to video, Steele would like to start playing more out-of-town dates. "With an album to promote, I think we could easily play in clubs in Philadelphia, New York -- all around the country. It's great that our fans can see us at Maxwell's all the time, but playing there every week can get boring after awhile. We need to keep things exciting by expanding our audience."

So when will the Ravyns consider themselves a success? "Of course, we'll always want to get better," Brewer says, "but I get this picture of somebody we've always idolized coming up to us and saying 'You've made it.' That'll be it for me."