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Encore: Deja vu all over again with Max Load

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2013 - Jason Ross was a fan of the band Max Load well before he moved to St. Louis in the late ‘90s. By that point, he’d already heard of Max Load’s 45, a two-song release that was primarily-to-only sold in St. Louis in the early ‘80s. Upon moving to town, he tracked down a copy at the old Record Exchange on Cherokee Street before bumping into bassist Mike Yaffe at a St. Louis record collectors show.

There, Yaffe was selling copies of Max Load’s single. Ross gathered that Yaffe was in the band and the two exchanged numbers. At the time, Ross says, “I filed the information and just enjoyed the record.”

But Ross isn’t just a top-flight record collector, the kind of guy who goes to extremes to fill in the holes in his personal collection. Instead, he’s taken his interests in the label direction, releasing plenty of ‘70s and ‘80s punk, garage and power pop through his own Rerun Records. Teaming up with Matt Harnish, he extended the brand with BDR Records, an STL-only concern that has dedicated itself over the past half-decade to releasing the hidden, lost and underappreciated albums of that same, bygone era.

In Harnish, Ross found a kindred spirit. While Ross had begun his label and co-hosted the show “Scene of the Crime” on KDHX for the better part of a decade, Harnish has long held a post at Vintage Vinyl, while also playing with the group Bunnygrunt, releasing albums under the name the Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars and writing for local publication. Currently, he’s penning a column on local sounds for Eleven Magazine. In many respects, it was a perfect fit, considering the interests of the two and how well they intersect.

Even in working terms, the duo makes sense.

Harnish says, “For me it’s good because Jason has a lot more patience for the nuts and bolts of record production. He doesn’t mind getting the record plated in one place, the cover run at another. That’s good because I’ll usually go the easiest route. And I’m always happy with the final product. But with Jason, things even turn out better. It’s always nice having two sets of eyes to look at things and we’ve split up writing the liner notes, which has worked well.” 

As BDR, the pair tracked down a variety of recordings, either re-releasing them or giving them a first life. With the blessing of longtime Jet Lag publisher John “The Mailman” Korst, they re-released the multi-band “Test Patterns” LP as a CD. They found a new life for the band Raymilland, piecing together studio recordings into a comprehensive CD/LP collection. They even tracked down physical 45s by the band Dear John, re-releasing them with a newly pressed jacket.

Ross says that with each project that made money (and not all did), they were able to roll the small amount of profit into the next release.

“The Philosophic Collage 45 that we just put out,” Ross mentions, “was paid for by the other projects. We definitely don’t take money out of it and nobody gets raked over the coals. We just re-invest everything into the next one.”

But at this point, the duo aren’t sure that another BDR release is coming out. Which brings us back to the story of Max Load.

From Belleville they came

The story of Max Load is succinctly told on the Rerun Records website: “Max Load was formed and began playing live shows around Belleville in 1978. They soon were playing in St. Louis as well, but they never would be treated as equals. They were often forced to play first, before much less competent bands, or dead last, when the St. Louis crowd was anxious to get to the after-party. Last often meant playing to an empty room, rather than being the coveted headlining spot. Outshining most of the Missouri bands around at the time, they released a scorching two song 45 (‘X-Rod’ b/w ‘Magazine Sex’) in 1979 on their own label...

“Although Max Load started out with a fairly traditional punk sound, by 1981 they started writing more post punk and art punk influenced material. This new direction can be heard on the included 4-track demos. Like so many other bands, they never got that record deal or big break they were hoping for. By late 1982, most members had moved on to new projects and the band was gone by 1983.”

Once BDR began as an official entity, it was only a matter of time before Ross would rekindle the idea of releasing that original 45. But he knew that bandleader Terry Jones would have to sign off on any re-release. And that’s where Ross’ skills as a collector turned him into something of a detective.

“Nobody knew where Terry was at the time,” Ross says. “It turned out that he was temporarily living with his dad, so his name wasn’t on any lease. Originally, I sent letters to every T. Jones or Terry Jones that I could find living in southern Illinois. Eventually, Greg ‘Frog’ Kessler ended up getting me either Terry’s dad’s address or phone number. He was living in Freeburg. He’s not a hermit, but like a lot of people, he’s more of a homebody. Once I was finally able to locate Terry, he turned up a couple cassettes of demos, including 4-track demos that they were submitting to Epic Records. We got together pretty quickly after that. He came to my house and we listened to the tapes and decided that this was an album.” 

So the initial idea of simply re-releasing the 45 was now out of the picture. There had to be more. As mentioned above, the cable show “Street Beat” didn’t just capture a few songs; they recorded 20 tracks. There were 22 cuts recorded in various audio forms, beyond to the two-song single. Suddenly, the project had taken on a whole new life. In addition to the sounds and visuals, Ross tracked down any written stories, so some Jet Lag pieces by Tony Patti were now worked into the possible mix.

According to Harnish, the sudden wealth of material made them “decide to go all-out and make it the super-deluxe edition.” 

And that’s what they’ve produced. The full “Max Load” package includes: a 20 song DVD, also featuring a period interview; a 14 song vinyl album; and a 24-song CD. Pretty much every track the group wrote is now represented in this one purchase.

The whole project was brought to life with a fan’s perspective in mind.

“It is one of my all-time favorite, Midwestern punk 45s,” Ross says. “It’s not just because they were local. I definitely would’ve wanted to release this, no matter where they were from.” 

Tides of technology

In 2013, labels are facing some interesting trends. True collectors will often pay a premium price for vinyl. A larger majority of buyers is happy to find their music through digital buying. That leaves a shrinking market for the primary musical delivery form of the last two decades: the CD. Ross says that releasing CD-only projects was never the goal of BDR.

"I think CDs are still really good as a promotional tool. It’s a good way to get your music out there," said Ross. "Some radio stations won’t do downloads, so the CDs that we send out for airplay contain some of the songs, but not the whole thing. I think, though, as a sellable medium, it’ll be pretty much gone, unless you’re selling them for $3 or $5. In time, I think it’ll be completely gone.

“I’m just not really interested in CD-only releases for BDR from this point on,” he adds. “Basically, the sales aren’t there for something as obscure as a band that was only heard in the St. Louis area. It’s a work of love as it is, but you can’t lose money on everything. And it’s pretty tough to make your money back with CDs; you have to sell about 75-80 percent of your run. We’d love to do something like a ‘Test Patterns 2’ on vinyl, but that one just doesn’t warrant the cost of vinyl; there’s frankly, just not enough interest in terms of sales. That’s just the fact of the matter. With Max Load, it definitely deserved vinyl. There’re some other bands from that era, with material that’s really great, but there’s not not enough interest to do a full-blown album; and that’s no slight to any of those bands, but a lot of them only had two or three songs recorded in a studio.”

So the door’s open? “If there’s something that comes up,” Ross says, “we would be interested.” 

Ross says, with some degree of confidence, that the pair has unearthed the key pieces of missing punk and new wave from the BDR era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Finding out about the Retros’ “Inner City Rockers” LP was perhaps the find of their time together, as the album was a ready-to-go package of songs already.

“We’ve done enough research,” Ross says. “I’ve been through every issue of ‘Jet Lag.’ I don’t think I’ve come across a band that I haven’t asked somebody about. We know of some legendary bands, but there were no recordings. I challenge anybody to prove me wrong, but I don’t think there’s a great lost album of St. Louis out there.” 

And if there is, Harnish and Ross will find it.