LONDON, ONTARIO – London lawyer, Dan Mailer, is a generous-hearted soul with a marked love for his hometown that he is always trying to share with others. In furtherance of that fine impulse, last year he launched a bi-weekly program on Rogers TV called London Lights where he chats up various Forest City notables and milestones. Dan is a more than competent musician in his own right and heads up a band of lawyers who occasionally play gigs and release recordings in aid of charitable causes. So perhaps it isn’t so surprising that the preponderance of stories that have so far aired on London Lights have concerned London musicians.
Last fall Dan asked me if I’d care to take part in a show that he wanted to do about The Band, whose great woolly keyboardist, Garth Hudson, was London born. Other than the fact that Garth earned pocket money as a teenager by playing organ at the Evans Funeral Home, I knew I didn’t have enough Hudson lore to float a half hour program and politely demurred. “But,” I said in a bid to save face, “whenever you’re ready to explore the great musical odyssey of Thundermug, I’m your guy.”
Well, bless his heart, Dan took me up on that offer and a couple weeks before Christmas we taped this episode about my all-time favourite London band via Zoom which can now be viewed online here: https://www.rogerstv.com/show?lid=12&rid=9&sid=8358&gid=598401
As a supplement to our program – and to ease any motion sickness that my voluble hand movements may stir up in viewers of a gentler constitution – here is a subtly tweaked feature I worked up on Thundermug for London magazine in early 1989.
TWO DAYS BEFORE Christmas of 1988, there was a moment of musical truth for many Londoners of a certain age. For a special ‘Home for the Holidays’ concert at Mingles, all four members of Thundermug, were playing together for the first time in fourteen years. This was an occasion, a rendezvous with destiny fraught with trepidation for the featured artists and their audience alike. If they stunk, we all stood to lose something more than the five dollars it cost for an advance ticket. My parents refuse to watch Gone with the Wind on the tube because they know it can’t still be as good as they think it is. I was tempted to stay away from the concert for the same reason. On their way up and in their prime, even toward the end when they’d obviously peaked and their spiraling career was out of their control – this was a band that meant a lot to me. Why was I willing to risk disenchantment by attending what might turn out to be a very ghoulish resurrection? Well, I didn’t go to school with Clark Gable.
Thundermug’s guitarist, major songwriter and guiding light, Bill Durst, was one year ahead of me at Mountsfield Public School and I was witness to his very first foray onto our auditorium’s stage at the age of twelve. That first band, The Beatlemaniacs (named in total panic two seconds before the curtain went up) had an arsenal of two ukuleles and a set of bongos and they sang two or three songs, one of which I remember for certain was I Saw Her Standing There. It meant something to hear, “Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean,” coming from the mouth of a twenty-one year-old Beatle. From a trio of twelve year-olds it was preposterous, impertinent and really kind of sweet all at the same time.
Within months The Beatlemaniacs had become The Mimics, had graduated to two acoustic guitars and a snare drum (with cheapo cymbal attached) and in addition to school auditoriums they were regularly working a degrading circuit of tiny talent competitions at hobby fairs and chapters of the ‘Y’. Though he can’t remember her name (maybe he blotted it out because it was too painful) Bill says The Mimics always came in second place behind the same well-mannered girl who sang just the kind of sappy tunes (“to know, know, know him, is to love, love, love him”) that middle-aged judges found irresistible.
By the time Bill graduated from public school, he owned his first electric guitar and, quite simply, was pouring his life into that instrument. Amidst the hundred or so lads and louts I grew up with, at least half of us picked up an instrument for a year or two and tried to form bands, get gigs and see if we could make a go of it. But Bill was different and we all knew it even then. Though we might wish otherwise, most of us realized that we’d better keep at least one eye on our grades because a diploma might come in pretty handy when we decided what we were going to do for a living. Bill didn’t have to maintain this double vision.
“By grade six, I knew the game with school was up,” he told me. “I was just waiting until I could quit. I was born around ten p.m. and I thought they might have a record of that so I couldn’t quit on my sixteenth birthday. I had to wait until the day after.”
And the bands just kept on coming – some of them lasting less than a year. The Bright Lights: Nobody but Bill even remembers this band. Stage Seven: Two horns in addition to the usual rock band mix, played a lot of Wilson Pickett stuff. “Our manager made us buy these matching purple patent leather shoes. We looked like a bunch of waiters." The Soul Agents: A nine-piece band, four horns this time, heavy Mandala influence. Also the band where Bill first connected with the future Thundermug rhythm section; Jim Corbett on bass, Eddie Pranskus on drums. They would stick together for the next twelve years. The Testament: Bill’s first band as an ex-student. “I finally had all the time I needed. I remember leaving rehearsals where I’d say, ‘I’ll try and write two new songs for tomorrow,’ and I would.” The Pink Orange: a fairly stupid name in retrospect but it fit the time. It was supposed to be psychedelic. The music was certainly going that way. The Orange was a three-piece band – Bill, Jim and Eddie – knowing they played their instruments better than anyone else in town and waiting to nab the only vocalist they really wanted: Joe DeAngelis of The Village Guild. (The Guild was mostly a covers band but an exceptionally good one; their take on The Yardbirds’ The Nazz are Blue was sublime).
The Guild broke up, DeAngelis came over in August of 1969 and brought with him a perfect name which he’d been ‘sitting on’ for a couple years. “I didn’t even know what a Thundermug was,” Bill told me. “But it sounded so right – heavy, funny, kind of homey. My mother told me what it meant and I liked it even more.”
Conquering London was only what everyone expected of Thundermug. In 1970 it was time to head off to Toronto and launch a more global assault. Joe had a brother in a band named Choker so Thundermug moved into the same building with them where they could split the money for food and rent twelve ways. It only cost them twenty-five bucks a week each but there were many weeks when that added up to a hundred dollars more than Thundermug had.
“We had no business sense at all,” said Bill. “And in a snotty kind of way, we didn’t want any. We were artists. What we needed was a booking agent but we weren’t sure how you got one. We couldn’t get it together to arrange an interview in somebody’s office or send around some tapes of the band. When we got hungry, we’d load into the van and hit the 401 back to ‘the big fridge’ in London, mooch off our family and friends.”
When they finally did get a booking agent, it wasn’t because they’d learned how to act like professionals. “We just camped out on the steps of this agency, blocking traffic and looking haggard, until one of the agents got sick of looking at us and took pity on the band. He’d get us a job or two and then we’d disappear for months until we were back on the rack and our situation got real urgent. It was no way to run a business but it was one of the happiest periods for the band. We got real close as people and musicians. We knew each other inside out. A band is like a marriage – a male bonding marriage. At its best, it’s joyous; just being together is enough. And at its worst, it’s like a marriage too. You get real sensitive to each other. Somebody arches their eyebrow wrong and you go into a sulk for the rest of the day.”
In the fall of ’71, Greg Hambleton signed the band to a (choke) $1,000 recording deal. For a band that wasn’t gigging at all steadily and were a thoroughly unproven quantity, that wasn’t a bad price for the time. At twenty-six, Hambleton wasn’t much older than his clients and was reinventing the record business as he went along. He gave Terry Brown (who would later achieve fame as producer for Rush) his first Canadian engineering job on Thundermug’s debut album, Strikes.
“We recorded it in February of ’72,” said Bill. “I turned twenty in the studio. That first album was magic from one end to the other. Nobody knew what they were doing but nobody knew what they shouldn’t do either. We made all the right mistakes. It was a pure, spontaneous event.”
Their luck held up when the album was released later that year. With no payola and precious little promotion, radio stations picked up on the band, even a few stations south of the border. The second single, Africa, went top ten in most national markets and Bill remembers their reception in the music press as “Just unbelievable. Every major magazine reviewed us. Performance magazine called us ‘London Ontario’s answer to Led Zeppelin.’ Rolling Stone magazine said the album ‘shuddered with the power of the early Who.’ Billboard singled out Africa as the ‘Pick of the Week’. We had every chance in the world with that record but we didn’t know what to do with it. The embryonic state of the music industry in Canada was partly to blame. Today any band in the world would know what to do with those breaks, would parlay those breaks into the launching of an international career. I can still get sick when I think of the opportunities we were given and wasted.”
I thought Bill was selling himself short by glossing over the accomplishment of that first album.
“I know what we did. We were the first heavy Canadian rock band who managed to release a record with their sound intact. Remember Edward Bear? A totally schizophrenic existence. Live, they were great – a lot like us. On record, they were wimps. That was the Canadian experience and we changed it. No, I’m still proud of that album. We did it right. But we were terrified too because we didn’t know how we’d done it; how we’d ever follow it up.
“We didn’t have the maturity. It’s still hard to explain how quickly everything got twisted up. We lost touch with our instincts. Everyone was telling us how fantastic we were and giving us their advice. It got beyond our control – largely because we let other people make the decisions. The choice of studio and engineer for the second album were disastrous. We didn’t even have control over which of our songs to record. And the day before the Orbit album was due to be released, we woke up. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t us. I phoned Greg Hambleton and told him we didn’t want it released. Our maturity and responsibility were finally kicking in but, of course, he told us it was too late. He’d spent this many thousands of dollars, people were expecting it, blah, blah, blah. Now if I was redoing the situation, I’d tell him, ‘Go ahead, release it but we won’t tour in support of the album and we’ll publicly disown it.’ But we went along instead and that was the point where the whole thing turned rotten.”
Joe left the band in ’74, shortly after the release of Ta Daa, their third album. Thundermug went three piece for a while, picking up a few interesting tours largely on the strength of that first album and both with and without Joe, recorded about two albums worth of good material which no label was willing to pick up until Polygram showed some interest in 1979 – a full year after Thundermug had officially disbanded. The four members scattered to other cities and bands, a couple even took on day jobs which can be construed as a kind of death and a kind of relief for terminally frustrated musicians.
For the most part, Bill spent the last decade on something like automatic pilot – writing some songs, playing as a hired guitarist for other people’s bands, driving cab, working at the Western Fair. He was licking his post-Thundermug wounds, brooding over the breakup of his musical marriage and quietly, secretly, trying to sort out why he’s still a musician at all. The answer seemed to burble its way up about a year ago.
“For me, the process is the most important thing. Writing the songs, creating the music, playing for people, sharing it. That’s the process. That’s what drew me to music in the first place and that’s what I want to do until the day I die.”
Toward this end, Bill moved back to London this year and has been plowing the profits from playing in a ZZ Top clone band into buying studio time, producing his own independent cassette called Father Earth. “It’s the best stuff I’ve ever done and I’ll stand by it. I’ll sell that thing off the stage. I’ll carry it into record stores and radio stations myself. This is homemade but it isn’t a demo. If some record company wants it further down the line, well – there it is. I won’t go into someone else’s studio and remix it because this is how I want it to be. I’ve got control of the whole process and I won’t give that up again.”
And what about that reunion concert? They played every song off the first album, token selections from the next two, a few cover versions of Led Zep, Mountain, The Beatles and The Kinks. All of it was good but the early original stuff was golden. I went there risking disenchantment, expecting some embarrassment, and instead got totally swept up in a musical rite of reaffirmation. Rock music hadn’t seemed that important or meant that much to me in years. When Bill paused to thank the crowd before launching into their final number (third last number actually, as nobody would leave Mingle’s until they’d delivered two encores) you could see he was on the brink of tears and so were half the people in the house. What a bloody hard road it’s been. But who would have it any other way when you can achieve a peak like that one?
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