By Mike Stax
Although it was released by one of the world's biggest record companies, Gandalf's self-titled album is one of '60s psychedelia's most elusive artifacts. Issued on Capitol Records in early '69, Gandalf sold poorly at the time and was promptly brushed aside and forgotten. The music though was too good to lay dormant. As is so often the case, in the ensuing decades it has been rediscovered by fans and collectors, its reputation spreading through tapes, bootlegs and ultimately a CD release on See For Miles in 1991. The band itself however, remained a complete mystery.
First a few words about the music. The Tolkien-derived sobriquet is a misnomer; those expecting fey fairytales about hobbits and wizards will be disappointed. You will however find magic of a different kind. The album's opening track, a haunting, echo-dripping cover of the old standard "Golden Earrings" sets the stage, its spellbinding, atmospheric quality conjuring up images of gypsies in cracked Victorian sepia-tones. Throughout the album, singer Peter Sando's soft, whispering vocals are reminiscent of Colin Blunstone's as they float over swirls of Hammond B3 organ, caressing vibraphone runs and the bursts of fuzz guitar.
Also released as a single, "Golden Earrings" is the record's signature tune, and the echoplexed formula is repeated on versions of several more Pop Vocal standards, most effectively Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy", which spins off from a soft dreamscape into a blistering fuzz guitar break.
There's also brilliant psychedelecized takes on three of Tim Hardin's best tunes "Hang On To A Dream", "Never Too Far" and "You Upset the Grace of Living" plus two Bonner/Gordon songs, and, best of all, a pair of stunning originals. Sando's "Can You Travel In the Dark Alone" is the record's crown jewel; sitar and vibes accent his harmonized vocal which delivers a message of strength and hope in a tumultuous sea which roils and surges, its dark crosscurrents played out by the bending bass line and panicked organ runs:
"The lighthouse on the shore
Casts a beam into your door
and there's your home
But don't you ever wonder
could you travel in the dark alone"
"I Watch the Moon" is equally powerful, casting a mood of nocturnal loneliness as it switches between soft, sighing echo-laden passages and blasting guitar and Hammond sections before climaxing in a tempest of fuzz and feedback.
Though by no means a perfect album, Gandalf has a special magic that makes its brightest spots utterly compelling.
So who were, or what was Gandalf? In a reversal from the usual sequence of events in the Ugly Things world, the band's leader, Peter Sando, tracked me down, and together we set about ending the mystery. For a start, Gandalf was not the band's original name; it was chosen in time for the album sessions in late '67 at management insistence. From 1965 until 1968 they were the Rahgoos, a tough eclectic R&B/beat outfit who were regulars on the Greenwich Village scene and the outlying boroughs of New York. The real story though begins much earlier in Tenafly, New Jersey.
PETER: From the time I was eight years old I had my ear to a record player. My older sisters were listening to the early '50s pop of The Four Freshmen, Joni James, Teresa Brewer, etc. My cousin was a jazz trumpet player and my Aunt, Dolly Dawn, had been a radio and recording star in the 1930s. Dolly was a jazz singer at the beginning of the Big Band era and was actually cited by Ella Fitzgerald as an early influence. So there was plenty of music around.
The first record that caught my ear was "P.S. I Love You" by the Hilltoppers. Then came rock'n'roll: "Only You" by the Platters and "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard. I think I played that one a thousand times when I first got my hands on it. Of course, all of the adults said Elvis sang flat and would be lost without the echo chamber, but my sister would squirm when he was on TV, and the next day there was talk at school about this weird guy who wiggled with his guitar.
At night I would hang out in her room and listen to Alan Freed on the old wooden radio. Also down at the end of the dial to the black stations: Jocko's Rocketship (Jocko Henderson) and Dr Jive (Tommy Smalls). I was exposed to real R&B from Bobby Marchan, Hank Ballard, Ray Charles and Ruth Brown. I would have to hook my sister into driving me to neighboring Englewood to get the obscure R&B records before they broke or were snuffed out by a white cover. It wouldn't be long before I was drawn to Alan Freed's Rock and Roll shows in New York.
Peter's account of his trips to the Brooklyn Fox Theatre to see rock'n'roll and R&B acts can be read on his website at www.petersando.com
By the time he hit his teens he was well and truly infected by the rock'n'roll virus, and began to explore the possibilities of making some racket of his own.
PETER: When I was 13 a neighbor showed me his new electric guitar. It was an off brand electric, baby blue with lots of buttons and knobs and terrible action; an intriguing beast that had me green with envy. I persuaded him to lend it to me overnight. I stood in front of the mirror with it. I picked at it, strumming the open chord, picking the open strings. Lo and behold, I discovered that if you picked the first string repeatedly it sounded like the opening to "I've Had It" by the Bell Notes. I got out the record and fiddled all night, eventually mastering most of the opening solo. Fun indeed. I asked for my own guitar.
We had a family friend, a local cop who played guitar. Evidently he owed my Dad some money so he was enlisted for lessons, kind of a barter deal. He brought me my first guitar, a sunburst Harmony acoustic with F holes. The action was a little rough, but I loved it. Although I only lasted through a few lessons, it turned out to be quite a useful experience as he taught me the basic open position chords and the entire guitar part to "Honky Tonk" by Bill Doggett. From there I could play most of the blues oriented rock songs in the keys of E, A and C. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were my favorites.
Later Peter tore the Harmony apart and used the neck and some of the electronics to build a copy of Diddley's famous winged guitar. In the meantime he began searching for other aspiring musicians at school.
PETER: I met Bob Muller in detention hall. I would get in trouble for various crimes: having my hair too long, having taps on my shoes, or opening my mouth at the wrong time. I knew Bob had a four-piece rock'n'roll band called the Clef-Tones: Bob on drums, two guitars and a sax. One of the guitarists was Michael Nouri, who went on to a successful acting career. They did mainly instrumentals like "Rebel Rouser" and "Honky Tonk" and played at the school dances and talent shows. Bob and I hit it off immediately and soon he called and asked me to replace Michael in the band. I think they had the same girlfriend. At the time I had the Chickenpox and had to decline. I was crushed, knowing that they would surely find another player, but when I recovered the job was still open and I nervously attended my first band rehearsal in Bob's basement. I got the job, Bob got the girl, and Michael Nouri became famous. (He later appeared in the awful Flashdance, among others MS)
Bob was definitely cool. He had painted silhouettes of musicians on the walls of the basement, augmented by the album covers of Here's Little Richard , One Dozen Berries and others. I felt right at home. There was a '46 Ford in the garage with glow-in-the-dark flames on the hood. A glittering Thunderbird logo graced the bass drum head. The band had been renamed the Thunderbirds. I knew three chords and they taught me the fourth really all you needed to play 90% of the songs in 1958. After the first practice the sax disappeared and we emerged as a three- piece.
The three-man Thunderbirds were Peter on lead guitar, Dick Garrett on rhythm and Bob Muller on drums; there was no bass player. "We were a typical twangy guitar band", says Sando, "with a set that relied heavily on the rock instrumental standards of the day: "Rumble", "Rebel Rouser", "Sleepwalk", "Caravan", "Night Train", "Walk Don't Run", "Ghost Riders In The Sky" and "Green Onions"." They also did a unique, original arrangement of "Exodus", an early indication of Sando's penchant for adapting and reshaping popular songs in new and interesting ways.
PETER: Competition was stiff at Tenafly High School. There was Willie Nelson & the Dukes Ricky's cousin, who was handsome and popular and he had a first rate band. He even had a record something about "Susie". The Impalas had quite a singing team in Bill Markell and Gary Wright. They did exciting two part renditions of Hank Ballard's "Annie" songs, and it had a great influence on us. We had a tragedy in our school when three seniors slid off a road on wet leaves, killing two of them. Gary Wright was the sole survivor. Shortly thereafter there was a rock show at the High School and Gary performed, although he was obviously still in shock. It was quite a dramatic scene. Little did we know that he would go on to stardom with Spooky Tooth.
The Rhythm Jesters were led by Don Cass, a cat who could play piano exactly like Jerry Lee Lewis. From neighboring Bergenfield was a band called "Red" Brown & the Rockin' Saints, a really professional act that would later spawn the Royalteens and then the Knickerbockers named after Knickerbocker Road in Tenafly. We were a bit younger than all of these groups and somewhat intimidated by it all. We sang all the great songs in the basement, but were too shy to sing in public. We stuck to the rock instrumentals of the day, pieces by Duane Eddy, Johnny & the Hurricanes, Link Wray, and an occasional original.
At our first talent show at Tenafly High we closed with "Woo Hoo", by the Rockateens. During the drum breaks, Bob got off the drums and worked his way to the front and did a split to climax the show. The kids went crazy and the principal closed the curtains in the middle of the song. Success at last!
The Thunderbirds lasted until 1962 when Bob Muller's father was transferred to California. Without their drummer, the band decided to call it quits. In Muller's absence Sando was at a loose end musically. He kicked around in a few local bands, including one called the Fairlanes, but mostly "I laid out and practiced at home with my hi-fi," he remembers.
After a couple of years of casual strumming Sando was itching to play in a real band again and the chance came when Muller returned from California in 1964. The Thunderbirds were soon back in action, with Joe Rinaldi replacing Dick Garrett as rhythm guitarist. With their confidence growing in equal stride with their competence, the Thunderbirds began to incorporate more of their R&B vocal favorites into the repertoire. The changeover from twangy guitar band to rockin' R&B was made complete when they teamed up with an authentic R&B vocalist, Ervin Artis.
PETER: Bob and I worked weekends at my Dad's restaurant and there was a kitchen man who would sing as he washed. Ervin Artis knew all the great R&B songs of the time. We invited him to a practice and we immediately became Little Erv & the Thunderbirds.
Erv sang things like "Stagger Lee", "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Money Honey", "Got My Mojo Workin'", "Shake a Hand" all great stuff!
Little Erv's strong, authentic vocals and the teenage band's enthusiastic backing were a potent combination, but the racial harmony within the group wasn't always in tune with the harsher world outside. Sando and his friends were about to learn a lesson in the state of race relations in America circa '64.
PETER: During an audition at the Casino at Seaside Heights New Jersey, Erv asked a white girl to dance and he was asked to leave. We packed up and walked with him. He was really pissed and we felt terrible. That was our taste of what black performers were enduring all over the country, with the white audience clamoring for the music, but the racist establishment fighting all the way.
Disheartened, Erv and the band parted company. However, after a brief cooling off period, Sando, Muller and Rinaldi regrouped. By this point, the British Invasion sound, spearheaded by the Beatles had taken hold. For the Thunderbirds it was time for a change.
PETER: At first I was skeptical. I had a preconceived notion that British rock'n'roll was an imitation because I had seen a TV show called Oh Boy! that featured pre-Beatle rock artists that weren't really great. But the more Beatles songs I heard, the more I was converted. They were influenced by the Everlys and Buddy Holly; Chuck Berry and Little Richard; and most of all they wrote songs that took rock to the next level musically. They inspired me to write more and renewed my love of singing harmony. When we saw them on TV, we knew immediately that long hair would be more accepted. But having shoulder length hair in the '60s was still no picnic. We were constantly harassed by the eternally narrow minded. It gave me a first hand perspective on prejudice that has lasted until this day.
In the new musical climate a strong bass was now a requirement so Rinaldi switched from rhythm to bass guitar. They also looked up an old high school pal, Paul Venturini, whom they remembered played the accordion. The accordion, however, was definitely not a requirement: Venturini was persuaded to invest in a Vox organ and the revised line-up was completed. All that was needed was a new, more "with it" name. Bob suggested Ragu, after the tomato sauce, Peter modified the spelling and they became The Rahgoos.
The sound, like the name, was very different to the Thunderbirds, focusing on songs by the Beatles, the Stones and the Zombies. Two-part harmonies were a specialty including the Searcher's "What Have they Done to The Rain" and the Everlys' "Dream" but they could also keep the crowd moving with R&B/soul covers and some of their old rock'n'roll crowd pleasers like "Keep A Knockin'"
PETER: As the Rahgoos our first real gig was at the Club Car in Greenwood Lake, New York. The drinking age was 18 in New York and 21 in Jersey, so the kids would drive across the line to the bars. We laid into the Club Car right after a great band called Ray Murray & the Travellers had left. They took their following with them and left the place empty. We started from scratch. We called all our friends and with a few cars in the lot, people started to return.
After a while we had a bigger following than the Travellers and the Club Car was our turf. Even after we graduated to New York City, we would return to Greenwood Lake on and off. The drinking age was eventually raised in New York to 21, so the club scene died. At first they all went topless, so one night we found ourselves flanked with topless dancers. We were really freaked out. At first I couldn't handle it. I found it hard to relate to a topless co-worker. I wanted to be cool, but my eyes would tend to wander. After about a week I adjusted and it was completely natural to sit and have a normal conversation. The girls were all quite nice and working hard for good money. I guess they made more than we did! When the novelty of topless wore off, most of the bars burned down within a year.
We played every summer at the Jersey Shore. Our home base was D'Jai's in Belmar. We played loud and hard, beers were five for $1, and we accumulated a big following from Jersey City State College. We played 7-1 on Friday night, 1-7 on Saturday afternoon, took dinner, and then 9-2 on Saturday night. We came back Sunday afternoon to do a grueling 1-9 shift. It could be the most beautiful summer day and all these kids were in D'Jai's right across the street from the ocean getting a "bar tan". We would extend the weekend with a Monday night show backing up "oldies" groups, attracting the weekend crowd to skip work or school. We were thrilled to work with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, the Coasters, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and other legends.
In fact, locally the Rahgoos were becoming a bit of a legend in their own right, a situation that was advantageous on occasion.
One Friday night, my friend Mike Rosa and I were cruising down the Garden State Parkway to the gig at D'Jai's. As I recall, we were pretty wrecked at the time and my black '66 Buick Riviera was kind of swerving back and forth on the highway. Then a flashing red light in the mirror caused us to panic.
"What should I do with the papers?"
"Throw them out the window!"
"What should I do with the grass?"
"Put it in the glove compartment!"
Flawed logic indeed. We were doomed. The trooper took one look at us and stated that he would follow us in to State Police headquarters.
We were terrified. When we arrived he marched us in to the front desk and an officer in the back of the room exclaimed "The Rahgoos!! Five for $1. We'll see you on the weekend!"
We were released, no questions asked. Mike was amazed at the fringe benefits of being a Rahgoo. We were lucky indeed.
The Rahgoos continued to hone their sound at the Club Club through '65 and '66. When they weren't harmonizing together, Sando and Muller would often switch off on lead vocals to cover the long sets.
PETER: Bob had a strong and pleasing singing voice, but was limited singing from back on the drums, so often I would play drums and he would come up front and do a showcase number. A favorite was "Crying" which reminds me of the time that I was looking down in a daze between verses and Bob didn't come back in on the "I thought that I was over you..." When I looked up, the mic was on the stage and he was gone. Then I noticed that a brawl had broken out. A local had moved in on Bob's girlfriend and he had jumped off the stage and slugged him. Bob was having a hard time keeping the punches on target as his long hair kept blinding him. He went down, Paul slipped in and picked him up, Bob kept swinging, and somebody called the cops. Chairs were flying. It was all over in minutes but the place was wrecked.
Even Tony and Johnny, the owners of the Club Car had taken their lumps. I thought we were through, but after the dust had cleared we just got a good chewing out and it ended in a lot of laughs.
The rotating singer/drummer situation was soon resolved with the arrival on the scene of hotshot sticksman Bryan Post.
PETER: Bryan was playing at a club down the road called the Long Pond Inn with a band called the Kickers. We had heard about him and went down to see him play. He was amazing! We asked him to come to the Club Car and sit in with us. I recall the first song was "Keep A Knockin'". Well, when I felt that beat kick me in the ass, I was thrilled. After that Bob switched to bass. It was great having two strong singers in the front and a great drummer. Our sound improved greatly and I was forever spoiled.
Post was a veritable powerhouse of a drummer and immediately became an integral part of the act. In fact, a highlight of the band's set was his extended drum break, taken on either "Hey Bo Diddley" or Chuck Berry's "Downbound Train". "He would do a drum solo for up to 45 minutes which was well composed and not boring at all," raves Sando, whose praise is borne out by a surviving live tape featuring a torrid rampage through "Downbound Train".
The exhilaration was compounded by the drummer's homemade light show. "He made a strobe light out of an old electric fan by replacing the blades with a drum head which had a four-inch hole cut on the perimeter and attaching a powerful spotlight behind it," explains Peter. "It really worked, and added a lot of excitement."
Around this time, the band began making in-roads into the vibrant New York City scene. Rather than going through a manager or booking agency though, they employed the direct approach.
PETER: We loaded the equipment into our cars and walked in and asked to audition. We never dealt with booking agents. Many times one job would lead to another. We auditioned at Trudy Heller's and were required to join the musicians union. I remember being concerned because we couldn't read music and I felt certain that we would be tested. So, I practiced some scales in a Mel Bay book and learned to read in the first position. When we went down to Local 802 this old Italian guy greeted us and I felt nervous anticipating my test. He said, "Raise your right hand..." and had us recite some ridiculous creed and write him a check. No test!
The Trudy Heller's engagement was shortlived, however. The club owner proved too uptight for the likes of Rahgoos. "She wouldn't even permit us to loosen our required ties!" complains Peter. However, the Rahgoos soon found regular work elsewhere in the city throughout 1966 and '67, including The Phone Booth, Scott Muni's Rolling Stone, The Electric Circus, Murray the K's World, and especially the Night Owl Cafe in the Village.
PETER: We first heard of the Night Owl when some of our local fans at Greenwood Lake, were buzzing about a cool place in the Village where you could see this great band, John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful. By the time we checked it out, the "Spoons" were gone, but the magic continued. It was a very unique room, a long and narrow storefront. The stage faced straight at a wall in the center with one church pew at the foot "the crotch watchers' bench" an aisle, and then another pew against the wall. All the other seating was to the left and right of the stage, giving a side view. The PA was very trebly and faced to the sides. The music crashed into the wall and died, leaving the vocals very bare to the bulk of the crowd to each side. You had better sing on key, or else it was a disaster. Good harmony went a long way at the Night Owl!
The cast of characters included "Jack the Rat" at the door, a frightening cat with teeth missing and dirty clothes; Joe Marra, the owner; and Annie, head waitress, who was very bossy. The waitresses all used four letter words that we had never heard from girls before shocking to four straight, naive, suburban rockers! There was Pepe, the openly gay cook (we had never seen anyone "openly gay"), and of course, all of the great bands! An interesting and happy family indeed.
We were a cover band and felt very intimidated by these cats that played mostly original material. We auditioned anyway, playing a couple of mediocre original tunes of mine and our most adventurous covers. For some odd reason, they loved us! It may have been our strange rendition of the Valadeers' "Greetings, This is Uncle Sam", a revised doo-wop song that featured Paul Venturini, our organist, as the Sergeant, and me as the lowly Private who got down on his knees and literally cried for mercy. We also did a rendition of "Shout" where Bob and I jumped over the "crotch-watchers' bench" and landed in a split in the aisle. Joe Marra, would blink the stage lights on and off, kind of a poor man's strobe light effect.
Eventually, I tore a cartilage in my knee doing this routine, and the doctor gave the order to stay off my feet. I planned on working with crutches and a stool, but my mother got wind of it and said, "No way." After much arguing, she agreed to my playing only if she accompanied me to the Night Owl. My Mother at the Night Owl? Where girls say "Fuck'? Oh well, if it makes her happy and I guess I wanted her to see that we were doing well. Ma loved it and no one even teased me to my face anyway!
In the Village in '66 everyone was talking about a new guitarist on the scene¼
PETER: All the musicians were buzzing about this cat who was at the Cafe Wha? with Jimmy James & the Blue Flames. I caught a glimpse of him hanging on the sidewalk on McDougal Street and I had a feeling he was the same guy I had seen as part of Little Richard's band at the Long Pond Inn at Greenwood Lake in '64. Richard then had a big band with horns and two lead guitarists. All the way to the right was a rather straight looking cat who could definitely play the blues. To the left was Jimi, with sort of a processed Beatle haircut and Beatle boots. Right away I knew there was something special about this guy his playing was unique, so fluid and thematic. He played with his teeth even back then. So, I tried to coerce my bandmates to go with me on our break to see the show at Cafe Wha?, but no one would spring for the two dollar cover charge. I went alone. Wow! He was now playing with only two sidemen I don't think it was Noel and Mitch as this was before he went to England and was totally freaky in his dress. It was a sparse crowd in a dinky club, but he did the whole thing anyway played with his teeth, and he burned his guitar on "Wild Thing"! Amazing.
The band continued to play outside the city, but it was at the Night Owl that they would make some of their most important musical contacts. Among these were Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who would later write hits for the Turtles and Three Dog Night and would also figure significantly in the Rahgoos/Gandalf story.
PETER: Each night two bands played at the Night Owl Cafe. We usually came in a few nights during the week as we played Greenwood Lake on the weekends for good money the pay at the Night Owl barely covered our gas and tolls. When we first visited the Night Owl, there were a few groups that really blew us away: the Strangers, the Flying Machine with James Taylor, and the Magicians Garry Bonner on bass, Alan Gordon on drums, Alan "Jake" Jacobs and John Townley on guitars. They were a funky mix of folk and soul, with roots in old rock'n'roll, which I immediately could relate to. I was especially taken by Garry's soulful voice, especially on their striking rendition of the Jaynettes' "Sally Go ÔRound the Roses". After the gig we would all congregate at Googie's, a bar on Sullivan Street. We knew about their single deal with Columbia, but before it was finished, they broke up a familiar story.
As they divided their time between gigs in the Village, uptown Manhattan and weekends in Greenwood Lake, the Rahgoos found audiences and club owners had different expectations, and in late '66/early '67 they underwent some musical growing pains.
PETER: Most of the uptown Discotheques were dominated by Rascal-clone bands like the Rich Kids, the Vagrants, and the Pilgrims. We were not immune to that as we converted to a B3 sound when we played at the Rolling Stone and Phone Booth you might hear that influence on "Me About You" on our LP but as the band progressed, we were falling into the Rascal sound too much.
Much taken with the Hammond-dominated Rascals sound, organ player Venturini disagreed and the band decided to make a change. Venturini left and soon joined the Soul Survivors in time for their big 1967 hit "Expressway to Your Heart". He was replaced in the Rahgoos by Frank Hubach.
PETER: Bryan knew Frank Hubach and he was very inventive more British. It was purely a musical decision and it wasn't easy, but I think bringing Frank in was a good move; he really contributed to the sound and he certainly inspired me. I was happy when Paul hooked up with a charting group. Their liner notes say that they met as a result of a car crash, but I don't know if that's hip or hype. I never saw them perform, but I thought that they were one of the more blatant Rascal copy groups, but hey, they got farther than we ever did. In the long run, we remained friends. Paul was involved at T-Neck Records and even brought one of the Isleys to one of our practices. Nothing came of it, but it was a cool gesture.
There was another line-up change when Bryan Post was claimed by the draft in '67.
PETER: Unfortunately, when the Vietnam War escalated he was called on active duty in the Navy Reserve and we had to scramble to replace him. Mike Rosa from the Myddle Class came on for awhile but then left to pursue an A&R career at Elektra and form the Quinnaimes Band with his former bandmates David Palmer and Danny Mansolino. Dave Bauer replaced Mike.
By this time, the Rahgoos had several songs in their set that would later make it onto the Gandalf album, including their dynamic rearrangement of Tim Hardin's "Never Too Far" and a stunning original of Sando's called "In The Dark Alone".
The band had acquired a Binson Echorec, a tape echo unit which they employed extensively. Mike Esposito of fellow Night Owl habituees the Blue Magoos used a similar device for lead guitar with dazzling results, but the Rahgoos went further, often running the vocals through it to give Peter's vocals an eerie, disembodied quality. The trick was particularly effective on the band's revamped arrangement of the old standard "Golden Earrings", best known in a hit version by Bing Crosby,
PETER: My sister Toni and I thumbed through a fake book and picked "Golden Earrings" out as a prospect to arrange for the band. It was from a 1947 movie with Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland. The minor key and mystical gypsy lyric lent itself well to a psychedelic treatment.
Bonner and Gordon caught a Rahgoos set at Scott Muni's Rolling Stone and were impressed by the band's evolution and by "Golden Earrings" in particular. On their next visit they brought along record producers Charlie Koppelman and Don Rubin to see the group.
Koppelman and Rubin's production company/publishing catalogue already included the Lovin' Spoonful and Tim Hardin, as well as Bonner and Gordon. Suitably impressed by the Rahgoos, they offered them an album deal with their newly formed Hot Biscuit Disc Company, which was distributed through Capitol.
They had some specific conditions, however. "They were looking for a concept sound based on ÔGolden Earrings"," explains Sando, "and we complied."
Another thing would have to change: the group's name. This did not sit well with the group, who had worked for over two years building up their fan base as the Rahgoos. Eventually, after much heated discussion, they again complied.
PETER: During a gig at the Rolling Stone, drummer Davey Bauer was passing the time reading Tolkien's The Hobbit while the rest of the band went through the ritual of brainstorming a band name. Davey chimed in, "How about Gandalf & The Wizards?" That name stuck.
Work on the album began almost straight away, and the band scrambled to find suitable material.
PETER: I didn't have many songs, and we were admirers of the Magicians, so it was natural to do some of their material. They played us a bunch of demos and we chose "Me About You" and "Tiffany Rings". I was inspired by Tim Hardin from the Night Owl days and he was a K&R writer, so that worked too. I arranged three of my favorites.
Sessions were held in late 1967 at Century Sound Studios in NYC with Don Rubin working closely with engineer Brooks Arthur to recapture the unique atmospherics the group created live with "Golden Earrings". Unable to recreate the sound with the studio equipment on hand, the band hauled their PA into the studio along with the Binson and the track was recorded right off the PA speakers. The final result was stunning.
The Psychedelic Pop Vocal Standard formula was equally effective on "Nature Boy", which Sando had picked as "a twin" to "Golden Earrings", but a subdued version of Harry Belafonte's hit "Scarlet Ribbons", sung by Bob Muller, was somewhat less engaging.
As mentioned earlier, undoubtedly the album's highlights are Sando's two original compositions, "I Watch the Moon" and "Can You Travel in the Dark Alone", which the singer nailed in one take, harmonizing with his own voice on the overdub.
PETER: I wrote the lyric for "Can You Travel In The Dark Alone" as a poem in Accounting class at Fairleigh Dickinson U. It was originally called "In The Dark Alone", but Don Rubin changed the title on his own accord. As it stands, it is too long and incorrect, as the actual lyric is "¼could you travel in the dark alone." I have always loved lighthouses and especially Barnegat Light in New Jersey, which you can see photographed in my new CD. The symbolism is obvious. On the record I used a Danelectro Electric Sitar that really worked well with Frank's B-3 improvisations.
"I Watch the Moon" was one of the many songs of loneliness and teenage angst that exemplified the '60s. I always loved the Hank Williams line, "The moon just went behind a cloud, I'm so lonesome I could cry." I was quite pleased with the arrangement like the Ronettes meet Procol Harum. I never liked the mix in the refrain the background vocals hanging out too far, not enough drums and bass. I'd love to remix it, but no one knows where the original tapes are.
Once the basic tracks had been laid down, the band's work had ended. None of the members were invited to the mixing sessions. The tapes were left with Koppelman and Rubin and the wait began for the album's release. Nobody in Gandalf expected the wait to last more than a year.
PETER: After we cut the album, I expected to do more overdubs and production, but they played me "Golden Earrings" with the beautiful flute and string lines and I loved it. We were led to believe that they would enhance the rest of the LP. Then there was what seemed like an eternal silence.
Meanwhile I had moved into an apartment on Gramercy Park Garry Bonner lived there and got us the spot. We were all on the same floor, along with Libby Titus, also signed with K&R. She co-wrote "Love Has No Pride" with Eric Kaz and later married Levon Helm. I became focused on songwriting, so I still had some contact with K&R but I didn't press the Gandalf issue. It was caught up in red tape and that was that. We still played a few gigs back in Jersey, but were still being billed as the Rahgoos that's who we were to our following.
As the weeks of waiting dragged into months, the band members were becoming more and more disillusioned. A rift developed which soon became irreparable, and Gandalf or, more accurately, the Rahgoos split up before the end of 1968.
PETER: I suppose it started long before that, I was always focused on the music and when we were confronted with recording I became obsessed. The rest of the band probably wanted to gig more. Then came the delay on the LP release. As I recall it, the guys gave up on K&R while I was hanging on hoping to get a publishing deal. The band just fizzled.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Koppelman and Rubin's deal with Capitol began to unravel. Eventually the production team parted ways with the agreement that Capitol would put out two final Hot Biscuit releases.
PETER: When the Hot Biscuit Disc Company deal bit the dust, we were sure that the LP wouldn't be released. I think Libby's was, but not promoted. After months of assuming it was dead I got the word that our LP would be released on Capitol. For a moment I had visions of an opportunity, but Gandalf got lost in the maze of new "underground" artists being released at that time and nothing developed.
Finally scheduled for late '68 release, fate had one last trick to play on Gandalf. After the first run was shipped it was discovered that the Gandalf sleeve contained Lothar & the Hand People's new album, and vice versa. The LPs were recalled en masse and it was early 1969 by the time the LP finally appeared in record stores.
After waiting so long for the release, Sando was disappointed when he finally got to hear the finished record. After all the work they had put into "Golden Earrings" the producers had done little to enhance the rest of the tracks, and the overall mix was more subdued than he had envisioned.
PETER: We had been totally excluded from the mixing dates and the remaining tracks were left bare. I wasn't happy with the mix. We were a lot better and a lot heavier live. The drums seemed buried to me, but a lot of people like the sound. I must say that that I am honored by all the positive response I have received from fans all over the world.
With no band to back it and little promotion, the album flopped. I believe there were ads in Billboard and Cashbox , and a few FM radio ads in New York. "Can You Travel in the Dark Alone" received a flurry of FM play. The late Allison Steele, "The Nightbird", on WNEW-FM New York, would introduce the song with a lengthy dose of her inimitable psychedelic poetry.
Despite the airplay, the album quickly disappeared. Meanwhile, in the waiting period before the Gandalf release, Peter had become involved in another recording project, with Bonner and Gordon.
PETER: As I became more frustrated with the Gandalf delay, I got a call. Alan Gordon was always bursting with ideas and I guess he wanted an outlet for some of the songs that he and Garry were churning out. So he asked me to do this single with a studio group that would be called the Barracuda. I wasn't crazy about the idea; I hated all the manufactured groups that the New York bubble machine was churning out, but I couldn't say no to Garry and Alan. I was flattered that they had asked me and I honestly liked the song, "The Dance At Saint Francis".
They hired Leroy Glover to arrange the session and he put together a mini wall-of-sound session that really rocked. The flip was the Magicians song "Lady Fingers". It was released on RCA and the single jacket had a cartoon of four hoods hanging out in front of a church I guess that was supposed to be the band. It did chart high in some cities and went to #86 in Record World . We had some fun with that one. I believe that if they hadn't broken the rhythm to a 3/4 in the bridge, it would have been a huge hit.
Released on RCA in November 1968, "The Dance at Saint Francis" is a great pop song with some psychedelic touches, but as Peter points out though, it was probably too off-the-wall to break through into the charts. "Lady Fingers" is a strong, moody version of the Magicians' B-side, perfectly suited to Sando's vocal style and very much in the Gandalf mold.
Encouraged by the minor success of the Barracuda single, Bonner and Gordon scrambled to get together a follow-up single.
PETER: Next they asked me to sing "YouÕre Free", another Bonner/Gordon song. They had a beautiful track with the little Righteous Brother, Bobby Hatfield, singing lead. I realized that they were going low budget when they took his voice off and had me sing over the same track. It was way out of my range and frankly I was scared shitless. I couldn't sing it! I felt that I had failed and it really knocked the confidence out of me. We ended up putting together a smaller group for the second single, with Russ Sevakus on bass, me on guitar, and Dave Bauer on drums. They arranged it with a razor blade and it ended up being a pretty weird record "Julie (The Song I Sing Is You)". It was promoted heavily, but fell short. That was the end of the Barracuda.
After the shortlived Barracuda project, Sando and Bauer revived Gandalf, and Peter continued to play out with various musicians (including old Raghoos drummer Bryan Post) under the Gandalf name until 1971.
PETER: Dave and I played around a bit with other cats as Gandalf, but we weren't trying to promote the LP. We were just playing the same old smoky bars for a few bucks and trying to find some magic. We performed "Golden Earrings" and "Me About You" along with the usual rearranged covers. I would experiment with new originals, but I had lost my desire to play in bars.
Dave went with Albert King; I believe he played the Fillmore with him. I settled in to study Classical Guitar and write songs. Dave did drag me to LA to play one last stint with a band that he had hooked up with. There was a cat named Chris Flinders who wrote a great song called "Love's Bruise" about a hickey. I mean, it was really a good song. Chris, if you're out there, I love that song! Anyway, that lasted about two weeks and I ended up house sitting for some friends a band called Country Funk on Polydor on a hill in Malibu overlooking the ocean.
While they were on tour, I had a chance to write and get my life in perspective. I had split with my wife and somehow miraculously we came back together there. I wrote "No Earth Can Be Won" walking on that hill.
A gentle reflection on the Vietnam conflict "No Earth Can Be Won" was one of several demos cut by Sando in 1971, and with it he began his new direction as a singer-songwriter. From the same era, "Days Are Only Here And Gone", with its haunting vocal melody, stands as one of his strongest compositions to date.
Over the years, Sando has continued to work as a songwriter and solo performer, slowly perfecting his craft. His latest album , Creatures of Habit, was released in 1998 on his own High Point label, and showcases his maturation as a writer. Listeners won't find any of the psychedelic exotica of his Gandalf work, but there are some fine songs, including the stark, solo acoustic "Consider Me Somebody Else" and an interesting paean to early American legend John Brown.
PETER: My new CD is a homegrown project of the best of my songwriting from 1974 on. "John Brown" is a song that kicked around in my head for about ten years. I was intrigued by this historical character whom we have all heard about everyone knows "John Brown's Body" but there's much more to it. He was an enigma; today he would be labeled a terrorist and a hero in the same breath. Historians still argue about his sanity and his story is fascinating. The song just needed time and ultimately wrote itself.
Sando has also worked on some film soundtracks with keyboard player Joe Delia, once a member of the Bruthers of "Bad Way to Go" fame. Most recently three of their songs was used in the recent movie, Time Served, a dodgy women-in-prison movie starring Catherine Oxenburg and Jeff Fahey.
Live Peter still dips into the Gandalf songbook on occasion, as he demonstrated when he appeared on WNYU's "Plastic Tales From the Marshmallow Dimension" in August 1999. Accompanied by Delia he performed spine-tingling versions of "Can You Travel In the Dark Alone" and "Never Too Far" along with "Desert Flower" and the title track from Creatures of Habit.
As for the rest of Gandalf, "Bob Muller and I are still great friends," says Peter. "Frank Hubach lives in Berkeley, California, and I lost track of Dave Bauer." Bryan Post can be found playing drums on Creatures of Habit.
At the time of writing, Sundazed Music are planning a reissue of the Gandalf album, which is likely to include previously unreleased bonus tracks (including an excellent demo version of "Golden Earrings", and hopefully a wild, live version of "Downbound Train"), plus of course their usual high quality mastering and packaging.
From Rahgoo Sauce to Gandalf Sorcery to Sando solo, the story continues... ¥