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Charmed Life

Appearing Tonite . . .

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/30/2004

You might have heard of the Baltimore band the Ravyns. The new wavy quintet made a bit of a splash in the early ’80s after their song “Raised on the Radio” got slipped on to the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack. (“Raised on the radio—just an all-American boy, I got my favorite toy . . . ”) Heck, I think the Ravyns still do occasional reunion gigs. But did you know Baltimore was also once home to bands billed as Raven, Diane and the Ravenettes, Ravens, Ravins, and the RaVons?

Joe Vaccarino knows these other bird bands. And thanks to his new 368-page, self-published book, Baltimore Sounds: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Baltimore-area Pop Musicians, Bands and Recordings 1950-1980, you can learn about these groups and well over 2,000 other local music makers. To call this decades-spanning documentation of Mobtown musicianship—from the ensembles A New Day to Zzzap—a “labor of love” is an understatement. For Baltimoreans of a certain age, the tome presents nothing less than a sonic life story: Here are the bands from your wallflower days at local teen-center mixers, your senior prom slow dances, your boogie nights at the local singles lounge, to the celebratory waltz of your wedding reception. From cookie-cutter cover bands to up-and-coming musical pioneers, they’re all here.

“I didn’t go about this being any kind of critic,” the 46-year-old mustachioed author says. “It’s just the facts. As far I was concerned, everyone in the [bands] is on the same playing field, whether they were teen amateurs or professionals. Everybody was part the overall music scene.”

The nerve center of Vaccarino’s flashback empire is the basement of his Sykesville home, in a small room lined with some of his 20,000 45-rpm records. (“I’ve got more out in the garage,” he says of his wax stacks.) He began working on the book in earnest five years ago, but its roots go much further back than that. Vaccarino was once part of the “overall music scene” he chronicles, playing bass in rock outfit Heavy Duty when barely in his teens. From 1974 to ’78 he was a roadie for the bands Sage and Bandit. In the ’80s he helped run a music venue behind the family-owned Vaccarino’s restaurant in his native Ellicott City, called Back of the Vac. Early on he began collecting many of the band business cards and publicity photos that pop up in his book. Record collecting later became a passion, and Vaccarino—now a technician at a chemical company—is well plugged into the local disc devotees scene. After submitting some articles to the now-defunct local music history magazine Charmed Times, and inspired by numerous national rock encyclopedias, Vaccarino decided to plunge into Baltimore Sounds.

“I had no idea when I got started it would be this comprehensive,” he says. “I felt there was a niche, and it just kind of grew.”

The time frame chosen simply reflects his musical interests and realm of expertise, and it’s a sweeping sonic swath: from Ike-era doo-wop to Reagan-days punk—with folk, funk, psychedelia, heavy metal, and everything else popping up in between. Research required him to painstakingly peruse 30 years’ worth of newspaper club listings. (Anybody remember partying at the Bluesette, the Flaming Pit, Club Hi-Fi, Pink Pussycat, or Club Paree?) Vaccarino even dragged his scanner and laptop to high schools to snag onstage band photos out of old yearbooks. Personal contact with former band members was also a key fact-finding method, as was discussions with legendary former local DJ/record producer Jack Gale.

While Vaccarino says Baltimore has somewhat of a rep as a “horny” town (that is to say, home to many bands with horn sections), the existence of a Charm City Sound is hard to discern.

“I don’t know if there was ever a really generalized style of music in Baltimore,” he says. “We had a lot of different styles, and I don’t think anything was really prominent.”

Band names—be they Babies of Aggression, Dirty Socks, Fuji’s Navy, PSSST, Pzazz, or Urch Perch—appear alongside the year(s) of activity. Most listings also include band members’ names (and in some cases what they went on to do), venues played, and discography (if applicable). Vaccarino has documented some 1,500 different 45-rpm recordings of local acts, and he boasts some 1,000 such records in his own collection. (Did his own Heavy Duty ever cut a record? Vaccarino answers that question with a deadpan “thankfully not.”)

Band photos, club ads, and record label images spill across every page—often to humorous effect. (Ahh, the ’70s: age of matching, wide-lapelled tuxedos and questionable facial hair.) The central branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library hopes to mount a display of Vaccarino’s colorful artifacts early next year.

While some Balto rockers went on to see some degree of fame and fortune—Greg Kihn (the Greg Kihn Band and top-40 hits such as “Jeopardy”), Gina Schock (the Go-Gos), Greg Hawkes (the Cars)—others simply put down their axes and took up day jobs. One thing is certain: There were a multitude of bands back in the day. So did Vaccarino miss any local outfits in his efforts to forge an encyclopedic archive? Have any outraged ex-rockers called him up to complain about being omitted from Baltimore Sounds?

“I was really kind of bracing myself for that,” Vaccarino says. “It hasn’t really happened yet.”

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Period Pieces (8/1/2007)
Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation

Wild Bunch (8/9/2006)
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Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (4/19/2006)

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