Got Those Old Back to Ohio Blues Again, Again
by Byron Coley


Back To Ohio Blues LP



Release Date: July 17th 2020

Buy at your local record store

For only the fourth time in 46 years you will be able to buy a brand spanking new copy of the Back to Ohio Blues LP by Raven. And if you have not availed yourself of previous opportunities (or even if you have), I can think of about a jillion worse ways to spend a few bucks. There is so much raw dunderhead energy spread across this album it's pretty much guaranteed to generate a stupid smile on the mug of anyone who hears it. And the story behind it is worth repeating.

Unlike Blondie, Raven is not the name of a band, but rather a guitar player from southern Ohio with a taste for drugs, sex and mayhem. No early ties to garage bands have been uncovered, but Raven was obviously writing and playing songs (if only for himself) that were far outside anyone's notion of the singer/songwriter mainstream. Raven's subject matter (drugs, sex, etc.) is said to be based on the adventures he had while living down in Florida in the early '70s, where he was involved with a local biker gang whose main focus was distributing drugs. Did he ever play these songs solo at some biker dive bar along the Panhandle? I'd sure like to think so.

But what's known is that Raven returned to Ohio in '74. He had some coin saved up from his misdeeds and visited Columbus OH's Owl Studios to see about setting up a session. Owl had been started by Tom Murphy in 1972 to record local bands of all kinds (ranging from the twonky prog of the Load to the swooshy soul of Wee and so on). Owl also ran a house label, which released a few interesting records. The best known of these is the eponymous One St. Stephen LP, which despite its weak spots is generally acknowledged as the best acid rock album from the greater Columbus area.

At the time he engaged the studio, Raven did not have a band, so he called up a few “musician friends” (anonymous to this day) and went in to kick out the jams. Supposedly, none of these pals had ever heard any of the tunes before, so everybody just winged it. When I asked Ron House (legendary Columbus musician and record hound) about his thoughts on the LP, he asked, “Is it true he didn’t even know his band mates? That is Private Press at its ultimate. He is in effect performing for his band mates.” This is a detail I had not considered, but it is certainly an unprecedented sort of sideways/balls-out approach to recording!

Ron House (left) and owner Dan Dow in 1989, photo courtesy of Pitchfork

full band

Presumably cut in a single session, Back to Ohio Blues was originally pressed by Owl in an edition of 300 copies, none of which were actually offered for sale. Raven just gave them away to family, friends, friends of friends and also sent a bunch to local radio stations. Like most privately released albums of the pre-punk era, Back to Ohio Blues received nada in terms of reviews or airplay at the time, but it seems to have scratched Raven's itch to present his philosophy to the world. Not long after it came out in 1975, Raven relocated to the west coast. He eventually ended up joining the military, and spent a good few years in Germany and elsewhere before he drifted back to Ohio.

In the meantime, the world of record collecting had gone through some changes. As the '80s dawned, dealers like Chuck Warner and Crescenzo Capece started getting serious about tracking down oddball private press LPs, instead of alternate Kinks covers. Early in '80, Capece got $300 in an auction for Top Drawer's Solid Oak, which blew the mind of every Goldmine reader who heard about it. Chuck meanwhile used his mom's access to national phonebooks to track down records like Burnt Suite’s eponymous LP, Horton's Dancehall for Midgets, and other obscurities. The next generation of dealers — people like Paul Major and Veronica Breth — began to focus on this ephemeral musical netherworld, separating the endless dull vanity projects from ones displaying sparks of weirdness, madness or even genius. It was through the efforts of these fanatical explorers that the original edition of Back to Ohio Blues began to get some well-deserved notice.

The five songs on the album have a raw thuggish quality, balancing rough and casual vocals against blazing guitar leads, and a fairly basic (although strongly propulsive) rhythm section. The coarseness of Raven's vocal delivery is really the key to making the album as great as it is. In the pre-punk '70s, even scuzzy bar bands were often so drenched in the pus of Led Zeppelin that their vocalists sounded as though their nut sacs were caught in their zippers. Pinchy-ass mile-high power-squeaking was the vocal norm for hard rockers (who were mostly actually metal duds), but Raven was having none of that. He just kinda blurts out lines like, “You gotta get high/you gotta get fucked,” then the guitar takes off into off-kilter approximations of tasty licks and chunky riffs, and the rhythms keep plowing ahead. In a way, it's not really all that far from what more commercial bands were up to, but there is such an edge of freaky bad-ass raunch that even the drum solo on “Raven Mad Jam” seems sorta right in an extremely primitive way. This is crank-crazed musical loserdom in its fullest flower.

In 2007, when writer Steve Newton asked Raven for details about the LP session, he answered, “We were all toasted, and I do mean all of us. The year was 1975, and there wasn't a drug on this planet I didn't have in my body. That can tell you where I was!"

Despite its title, Back to Ohio Blues is much less of a blues record than a sort of hard rock/real people crossover. I've seen it compared to George Brigman's Jungle Rot, another album from the kinda nowhere year of 1975. But Raven's sound eschews the guitar effects that make Brigman's record such a stoner classic. Back to Ohio Blues is much more monolithic in its approach, which somehow projects more inherent danger. It might even be closer to Mike Rep & the Quotas' “Rocket to Nowhere” single, which was also recorded in Columbus in '75 (although not released until '78, when Dave Gibson put it out on Moxie). There's a special kind of dead-end-ness to the sound on both these records that really catches your attention when you make the effort to notice their detailing.

The album first came to my attention in 1991 when it was reissued by the great Texas archival label, Rockadelic. I asked Rockadelic's former co-owner, Rich Haupt, about it. “That was many brain cells ago,” he replied. “It was a project that Mark Migliore handled. [Mark was Rich's late partner at Rockadelic] The way I remember it was that Paul Major turned us on to the record and Mark contacted the studio where it had been recorded. Being the novices that we were, we felt we needed to create new cover art, which in hindsight was pretty dumb. But we were flying by the seat of our pants and never imagined anything we were doing would get any real attention.”

Rich Haupt with his brother John, photo courtesy of It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine

The new cover art — a purple pot plant — did seem a little off, but no one in my immediate circle had ever seen the original, so none of us knew any better. And people attuned to the crude end of the psych scale were pretty chuffed by the music. Even the title track, utilizing a structure that is fairly formulaic blues-vom, sounds much better than you'd imagine. As Ron House notes, “Back To Ohio Blues restates the Classic Rock themes of getting fucked and getting high with monomania and menace. The hopelessness is endearing.” This sentiment was shared by most of the folks who managed to get ahold of the Rockadelic reissue, and the album's reputation continued to expand, even as the rumor spread that Raven had died soon after its initial release. This was obviously not true, but Raven's lyrics made an early demise seem not unlikely, and no one came forward with any contradicting info. Several years later, Raven's brother-in-law heard the album was rare. He put one up on eBay and cleared over a thousand bucks on it. About this time, Raven himself was back in Ohio. When he heard about what had happened, he was more amused than anything else, but someone suggested it might be time for a new authorized edition of the record. In 2007 a fully approved reissue of the LP came out with tasteful new cover art (Raven wearing a suit!) and liner notes by fellow traveler, Mike Rep.

When asked if he had heard the record prior to its first reissue, Rep says, “I did know about the album, but it was always impossible to find even locally. It was a pure vanity project for Bobby (Raven). He gave a few to his friends then split Ohio for California. From there he joined the military and was in Germany for many years. Then he came home and settled down to a 'normal' life having NO IDEA anybody cared about that record until his 'Bro-in-law put one up on eBay and it went for a grand. The grand was used towards a reissue & the rest is...”

Raven, photo courtesy of Cleveland Scene

“That 1991 boot is inferior quality. The reissue the brothers did was from the original Owl master tapes and sounds even better than the original. It's much better pressing. More people knew about the album in record collectors’ circles than did locally. The original Raven band never really existed. The players were friends of Bobby's who came into the studio and helped him make it. My understanding (from the Smith Bros. at Owl Records) is that the whole LP was done pretty quickly — mostly live tracks with vocals dubbed on top.”

The reaction afforded Back to Ohio Blues in 2007 was a whole lot better than it had been in 1975. And this time, Raven was ready to play live. So, even though the original unit had never done a single gig, a few dates with the new ensemble were set up. About this period Ron says, “I got to meet Raven and see him play. He was both gruff and amiable and smelled like cigarettes. The show itself was hunched over and introspective.”

Asked about subsequent live shows with the new band, Rep says, “The new version of the Quotas played with them at Beachland Ballroom in Clevo. Great night! We, the Quotas, did a cover of ‘Can't You See’ (from Back to Ohio Blues) in tribute to them. They were a very loose aggregation and totally bonkers characters. I loved 'em to death. They were kind of like the Pink Fairies at warp speed time-wise; they fell apart like a quasar exploding after about six months.

“The 21st Century version of Raven played NOTHING from the first LP,” Mike continues. “They played songs that Raven wrote with the new band, which they recorded at Musicol and sold as a CDR at their shows — Back to Ohio Blues II. There were maybe 50-100 of those made. It is VERY strong stuff, and in my opinion just as interesting as the first LP, especially song wise. There's no blues riffing, it's all hard garage rock. I don't think anybody that liked the first LP would not dig the second one. Lyrically it's just as out there as the first. I think a good comparison would be the difference between the first Stooges LP & Raw Power.”

What will happen to that material is anybody's guess. Mike reports Raven died suddenly a few years ago, of a heart attack or stroke. But the description of that second album is pretty juicy! So maybe some visionary will embark on the process of getting it out into the world. In the meantime, Permanent has done a great new reissue of Back to Ohio Blues with its original cover art, and a very sweet mastering job. If you like the sound of rolling dunder, you'll be sure to piss yourself with pleasure while it spins. If not, well you'll make a great designated driver.

Byron Coley