Swimming Through History
Les Fradkin's band, Get Wet, plays a brand of instrumental music that mixes old-school surf and classical touches, with the guitar parts played on new-tech gear. So far, the group isn't familiar to Front Range listeners. But that's not the case when it comes to Fradkin's back catalogue. He was a vocalist and session guitar player on numerous '60s and '70s pop hits, everything from Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Candida" to bubblegum hits such as the Flying Machine's "Smile a Little Smile for Me" and Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)." But there's another song that should make Fradkin's playing more familiar to locals, including sports fans.
"I was the guitarist on Gary Glitter's 'Rock & Roll, Pt. 2,'" Fradkin reveals.
"Rock & Roll, Pt. 2" (a hit for Glitter in 1971) is America's sports anthem. The song's jungle-drums intro and fuzzed-out guitar riff -- Na na nuh/da na na na -- split by the song's sole lyric ("Hey!") are as much a part of the popular sporting life as emotive pre-game renderings of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's become the official post-score soundtrack for the Denver Broncos, the Colorado Avalanche and teams in the NHL, the NFL and the college and high school ranks.
The song was first paired with sports in Colorado after the late Colorado Rockies hockey team began using it when the team scored during home games. And while Fradkin is proud of the lasting appeal and economic payoffs of his past material (he pays his bills through royalties and his appearances on various oldies tours), today he's pushing his new stuff. Get Wet plays "a mix of neo-classic and surf styles blended together in as seamless a fashion as possible," Fradkin says. "I mix the melodies of Mozart and Paganini -- or my own melodies written in the same spirit as their work -- with Ventures- or Dick Dale-oriented backing."
Fradkin plays his licks on a Roland VG-8 synth guitar (not a dusty old Fender or moldy Mosrite), a practice sure to make surf geeks scream. "What's the point of doing what everybody else does?" he asks. "If you want to hear it that way, go get a Ventures album." For his part, Fradkin feels those old records don't offer much in the way of virtuoso guitar playing. He's also outspoken about the shortcomings of his contemporaries, most of whom are "either Ventures or Safaris imitators or spaghetti-Western players. And I don't say that in any derogatory way, but Get Wet has definitely done something different as far as style goes."
Fradkin's current preoccupation with making waves as a surf artist follows a career that has bobbed and weaved through a variety of endeavors. While still a teenager in New York City, he signed a publishing deal with Tony Orlando (then a publisher for CBS), with whom he recorded "Candida" and other songs. In 1969 he was inked to Columbia records by the legendary John Hammond, whose signees included Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. After the label declined to release his solo recording, Fradkin began a career as a studio musician that stretched across two decades.
After a brief stint as a member of the Godz, Fradkin secured the role of George Harrison in the original Broadway cast of Beatlemania.He held that slot for over two years before becoming a producer for Laurie Records, overseeing recordings by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dion and the Belmonts and others. From the mid-'80s to the early '90s, he made his living composing soap-opera scores and jingles as well as touring with numerous oldies acts, a practice he continues today with Edison Lighthouse and others.
In the mid-'90s, Fradkin wound up in Arizona, where he began composing and recording instrumental surf tunes on home recording gear, playing all the parts himself. When the finished recording failed to generate label interest, he turned to the then-burgeoning Internet and MP3.com and released it under the Get Wet handle. He touted his music on Web bulletin boards and sites dealing with surf music, vintage gear, oldies collectors and guitar heroes.
This campaign paid off in thousands of downloads of his material, with each sale putting three cents in Fradkin's pocket. ("As Morris Levy once said," Fradkin notes, "'Music is a pennies business.'") The disc became a smash on MP3.com, with more than 50,000 logged downloads; the feat led the editors of MP3 for Dummies to feature Fradkin as one of the format's biggest success stories.
"I come from a business family," Fradkin says. "Fortunately, I had a father who took the time to explain business to me, and I had the sense to listen. Nowadays, what matters is numbers, not art." Fradkin paired his impressive MP3.com numbers with airplay on a number of independent radio stations. To support the CD, he hustled together the first incarnation of Get Wet, which included surf pioneer Eddie Bertrand of the Bel-Airs and Eddie & the Showmen.
Last year Fradkin relocated to Parker to marry Loretta Pieper, whom he met while performing a Beatlemania gig in Colorado Springs. Before they were wed, Pieper learned of her fiancé's contribution to sporting lore during an Avalanche game: Following a score by the home team, "Rock & Roll, Pt. 2" came over the loudspeaker, and the crowd stood and applauded. Fradkin stayed in his seat. "She asked me, 'Why aren't you clapping?' I told her, 'I never clap for myself.'"
At the time of the song's recording, of course, Fradkin didn't realize he was helping to craft a classic. He was doing session work in England's Mayfair Studios, where he also played on Glitter's "Rock & Roll, Pt. 1." That song's producer, Michael Leander, asked him to duplicate his parts on a B-side version of the single. Fradkin suggested that the song would benefit from a modified guitar sound. "The guitar lick was very fragmented; it was only a part of that idea," Fradkin recalls. "So I said, 'What if we did it this way, and [Glitter] wasn't singing at all?' The producer said, 'That's nice. We'll put it on the B-side as a throwaway.' I thought he was humoring me to shut me up."
To get the song's unique guitar tone, Fradkin recalls, "I took a Rickenbacher six-string bass and a Vox guitar and ran them through some distortion booster and a crappy amp that they had in the corner of the studio, and I made that noise. He heard it, and like every good producer who knows something good when he hears it, he said, 'That's it! Do that!' and there it was." Fradkin says he bounced the tracks between ten and fifteen times to get the sound that's heard today.
The tale of "Rock & Roll, Pt. 2" might have ended there if not for Kevin O'Brien, a promotions man with the NHL Rockies, who preceded the Avalanche in Denver. While working for the Kalamazoo Wings, a minor-league hockey team in Michigan, O'Brien discovered the song in a box of 45s in his basement and began using it during games. In 1977 he was hired by the Rockies and continued to use "Rock & Roll, Pt. 2." The song hit home with Rockies fans. O'Brien, now the marketing director for the Long Beach Grand Prix in Long Beach, says that once the song became the Rockies' theme song, the team sold copies of it at McNichols Arena concession stands. A KHOW DJ, Harry Smith (who went on to fame with CBS and A&E) added the song to his playlist, boosting its popularity.
When the Rockies relocated to New Jersey, O'Brien says, the Broncos, Nuggets and University of Colorado picked up the tune as their crowd-revving anthem. Other teams in the NHL and NFL then picked it up as well, and within a couple of years it was being played by professional, college and high school bands around the country. "The rest, as they say, is history," O'Brien says with a chuckle. "It's one of those unique songs that has incited crowds all over North America. Unfortunately, I'm probably one of the few who haven't made a dime off of it."
After discovering that "Rock & Roll" had become a sports staple, Fradkin set out to make sure he received his due. He hired an attorney to pursue additional monies for his part in the song (he was originally paid 200 pounds for it). "I felt I had made a very significant contribution to the song becoming a hit," Fradkin says. "A judge agreed with me." Dell paid him a lump sum as settlement in 1997, Fradkin says, though the terms of the settlement prevent him from revealing the amount.
In 1999, the popularity of "Rock & Roll" waned when Glitter (whose real name is Paul Gadd) was charged with sexually abusing a fourteen-year-old fan and downloading thousands of child-porn pictures from the Internet. A small number of NHL teams stopped playing the track at games, though the Avalanche continued to use it. ("Our fans have come to expect the song," says Harlan Hendrickson, the Avalanche's music director. "It would have been more strange to not play it.") Glitter was found guilty of possession of child-porn images and sentenced to fourteen months in prison. The child-abuse charges against him were dropped.
Fradkin doesn't expect Get Wet's output to reach the status of his oldies hits, but he's seeing impressive results all the same. Get Wet's MP3 numbers have been boosted by a new disc, A Day at the Beach, which includes reworked covers (including the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and a surprisingly cool take on Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") that feature speedy picking, underwater guitar tones and layers of reverb-soaked symphonic touches. The record's harder songs are muscular and meaty, and so is Fradkin's playing. Classically minded cuts come across as the Ventures backed by ELO -- Nokie Edwards playing over 21st-century backing. Fradkin's composition skills are as hefty as his playing chops, and his VG-8 system admirably re-creates a wide range of vintage guitar tones.
He's now hired a new group of area players (drummer Keith Axelson, bassist Marc Lutz and guitarist Mark Steinhauser) to back him live, note for note. "I'm a trained classical composer, so I treat this music like it's completely through, composed. I don't just write a melody, then go up to the guys and go, 'Let's figure this out.' I compose every aspect of the piece -- drums, keyboards, whatever. We sound exactly like the record. I come from an era when that's what you did."
Fradkin also continues to apply his entrepreneurial spirit to his PR campaign. He recently landed a deal with Phantom Guitar Works, an Oregon company that builds replicas of Vox Phantom and Teardrop guitars. The deal gets the band retro axes (Fradkin's houses a VG-8 pickup) at a reduced cost while putting the music before new listeners. "Mars Music is now interested in who we are because of the guitars," Fradkin says. "I don't think they would have cared about us otherwise.
"Without the business aspect of all of this," he adds, "nobody would have heard of Get Wet. You have to be more of a businessman than a musician today. I'm not twenty anymore, and these major labels don't believe a rock instrumental group can have any impact on anyone anymore. I think that's erroneous thinking. I'm proof that with a little business sense and hard work, you can be a successful musician without being on a major label."
A stroke of luck doesn't hurt, either.
"I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and I had a knack for coming up with great licks that people liked," he says. "But 'Rock & Roll, Pt. 2' becoming a hit wasn't an intention on the part of either me, the producer or Glitter. It was an accident of fate."
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