Ride the Tide: The Saga of Buccaneer

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Somewhere towards the end of his time as lead guitarist for the band Primevil, Jay Wilfong began to dream of pirates. Primevil had formed in 1971 in Hancock County, Indiana, on the rural eastern outskirts of Indianapolis. When their sole LP, Smokin’ Bats at Campton’s, was released on the 700 West label in 1974, it looked for a moment like the group might be on its way to fame. The local newspaper, The Greenfield Daily Reporter, carried stories about them in March and April, and in late May The Indianapolis Star featured them in a lengthy piece in its Teen Star section. Local powerhouse rock station WNAP was giving the disc airplay that spring. Karma Records was carrying it in its stores and distributing it “at various outlets in eight states.”

When speaking to the press, the band members made no bones about their naked ambition. Responses to reporters’ questions brushed off any implication that art might be involved; this project was about commerce. “The album mainly is intended for employment. There are no deep messages or themes,” the Star quoted bassist Mark Sipe as saying. In March, The Greenfield Daily Reporter mentioned that the band was at that time working on a second album they hoped to have ready later in the summer. It’s not clear whether they actually ever entered the studio a second time. If so, nothing from these sessions seems to have seen the light of day.

In late 1980, Indianapolis’ other big rock station WFBQ began airing a curious ad. A cartoonish voiceover told the story of three pirates who had taken to the high seas in a search for Spanish gold. These pirates were named William Bonney, Madjack, and Lord Vendetta. It seemed that they were also a rock band called Buccaneer and had released an album. No doubt partly due to the volume of advertising dollars being pumped into the station, the LP was soon being given regular airplay. Someone was spending a lot of money, but it was all a bit mysterious.

As a teenager in 1967 and 1968, Jay Wilfong played lead guitar in The Poverty Programme, a band made up of high school students from New Palestine, Eastern Hancock, and Warren Central high schools. Having won a recording session in a local battle of the bands, they recorded a raga-flavored original called “Two Years Ahead of My Time.” The track was never released, but the band shopped the tape around and sent a copy to Mercury Records, which declined to pick it up. The drummer in the band was a young man named Jerry DeRome.

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The timeline is still somewhat murky, but somewhere in the 1970s Wilfong and DeRome reconnected and began to talk of pirates. It’s not clear whether the idea to form a pirate band was Wilfong’s alone, or whether he and DeRome dreamed it up together. At some point, bassist Jerry Dunn joined the pair to round out the trio. Whether the dream was individual or collective, its basic blueprint was that each member of the band would reinvent himself as a pirate character, a story would be created for these characters to inhabit, an album would be recorded, and then massive amounts of resources would be thrown into a promotional campaign unlike any the area had ever seen—all leading to a single massive, sold-out performance at a large venue. The intended result was that the world would be so dazzled by all of this that the trio would conquer the music industry without ever having to “pay its dues” as other bands did. This plan worked very well as fantasy but, as we shall see, did not allow for the unpredictable nature and harsh realities of the entertainment industry.

Eventually, the trio booked studio time at Moe Whittemore’s 700 West Recording in New Palestine, the same studio where Primevil had recorded. The resulting self-titled LP, which included two bonus 45s, was released in 1980 on the band’s own Blunderbuss label. In order to appear as if it were created by an actual band of cartoon pirates, the album is almost entirely devoid of informational liner notes. Despite this, I have long assumed the synth that can be heard on some tracks was played by Whittemore.

But none of this background information was known to the general public at the time. On October 18, 1980, Zach Dunkin of The Indianapolis News dedicated the whole of his regular “Rock Pile” column to the band and the mystery surrounding it. He had evidently attempted to do a bit of investigative reporting beforehand, but was able to discover very little new information except for the fact that the LP had been mastered by Randy Kling in Nashville. Dunkin’s article made it apparent that the promotional blast behind Buccaneer was much more sophisticated than just a bit of airplay and a radio ad, however: “Meanwhile, surrounding the album has been a massive publicity push of radio, television and full-page ads, record store display contests, t-shirts, bumper stickers, eye patches, posters, a trip to Florida and even a treasure hunt. The band allegedly has buried gold somewhere on the East Coast. Clues revealed on the album and in some of the printed advertisements will lead a good detective to the gold.” He went on to add that according to a survey of local record stores performed by WFBQ, Buccaneer’s LP was currently the nineteenth best-selling album in the city. It was also the ninth most requested by listeners. Perhaps stretching a bit for social relevance, near the end of the article Wilfong (speaking as William Bonney) explained the idea behind the pirate concept: “A lot of people out there are really suppressing a lot of feelings about the way things are right now and they can really relate to us because pirates pretty much did what they wanted to do.”

The entire concept was obviously well funded, which led to Dunkin’s suspicion that a “sugar daddy” promoter intending to reap a large profit was behind it all. But Wilfong made it clear that this was a self-financed enterprise: “The only sugar daddy we’ve had was us going out and running PAs for bluegrass bands for seven years and sleeping in the dirt and putting whatever money we could get together into this dream of ours.” If this statement is taken literally, it means that the idea of Buccaneer existed as early as 1973, while Wilfong was still a member of Primevil.

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The band’s “world debut” finally came on Wednesday, February 26, 1981, in the first of two shows at the Indianapolis Convention Center. After an opening set by local band Dutch, the lights were lowered and the sound of ocean waves could be heard over the sound system, followed by “a boastful pirate laugh.” A voice with a decidedly Hoosier twang began telling the tale of this little band of pirates. Because of bad sound, however, it was extremely difficult for the audience to make out the words in order to follow the plot. The lights then came up to reveal that the stage had been set up like the deck of a ship, with cannons, barrels, netting, ropes, and a red-eyed skull atop a single mast. Standing on the deck of this theatrical ship were not three, but four pirates, dressed in elaborate costumes like the villains in an Elizabethan morality play. Though not credited on the album, the band had added vocalist Nathan Crook to the line up for the live shows. It’s not clear whether this was his real or his “pirate” name.

Reading his review of the show in the next day’s Indianapolis News, you can almost visualize Zach Dunkin straining over his typewriter trying to put the best spin on what was obviously a total fiasco. According to Dunkin, the band performed perfectly well, but the technical aspects of the show were so badly executed that it destroyed the whole effect. Like the album, the show was designed as a concept piece—the tale of a group of pirates trying to capture a legendary Spanish ship carrying a fortune in gold—with a taped narration advancing the story between the band’s songs. But the narration sounded muddy and was hard to understand, the band’s live sound was poorly mixed with frequent feedback, Madjack’s drums were “not much stronger than the noise of a man pounding on pillows,” and special effects such as cannons and flash pots misfired or didn’t go off at all. Dunkin reasonably concluded that when a band chooses to present itself in such a theatrical manner relying on complex technical effects, that the whole package must be critiqued, not just the band’s performance. But he still held out hope that the band could overcome its technical challenges. “After all,” he opined, “Columbus’ voyage in 1492 was a failure, too, when one considers his destination was the West Indies.”

Garry Finley, the manager (and later owner) of the Karma Records branch in Greenwood, was present at the first show. He was backstage and remembers the band sitting around in their pirate finery, seemingly despondent. Besides the problems with the performance itself, there was also the fact that only 2,000 tickets were sold for the initial performance, less than one third what the venue could hold. The band had hoped to sell out both nights, or at the very least to play to very full houses.

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Mike Crowder, at the time a junior at Southport High School and later a long-term employee at Karma Greenwood, was also in the audience. He recently told me that witnessing Buccaneer’s performance was one of the weirdest experiences of his life. He jokingly added that, “Christopher Guest had to be in the audience, because Buccaneer was the inspiration and template for Spinal Tap.” The band performed its second show the next night and then hung up its doublets and ostrich plumes forever.

Because private press records emerge not from corporate boardrooms but from the rank and file, each one carries a story of real people trying to communicate a vision to the world. But what happens when that vision is more concerned with creative ways to achieve commercial success than with creativity itself? Had the members of the band been a bit more realistic in their ambitions and put their resources into first touring regional night clubs with a scaled down version of their epic, they might have worked out the kinks, become confident in both the musical and technical presentation of the act, gained a few fans along the way, and grown the concept from there. The band’s strategy to put all its resources on one turn of the roulette wheel became its downfall. But had Wilfong and his bandmates been less ambitious in how they executed their colorful plan, the resulting story would be watered down, or might not exist at all. For the tale to endure, Icarus can only make one attempt at flight. Had he succeeded, there would be little to tell. The story only intrigues us because he flew too close to the sun.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Photos of Primevil, circa 1974

Buccaneer: “Introduction” & “Ride the Tide”

 

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