Bra-Burners Do Fernwood

:: Deadly Nightshade - Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ::

Let me tell you a story about the first true feminist rock band. Deadly Nightshade actually go back as far as the mid-sixties, when bassist Pamela Brandt was part of a five piece all girl rock band called the Moppets. Even though they were essentially a cover band, they generated a lot of attention because they were a bunch of girls playing guitars and drums and stuff, and they were written about in the New York Times, as well as Life and Look magazines. Even with this kind of national exposure, no record label would take a chance on an all girl band.

The Moppets broke up and Brandt started playing with Anne Bowen and violinist/guitarist Helen Hooke in a band they called Ariel. Once more, the band got good press and played gigs up and down the east coast, but again, no record deal. Ariel broke up in 1970 and the women went their separate ways. In 1972, Bowen asked Brandt and Hooke to form a band to play at a women's festival in Massachusetts, and Deadly Nightshade was formed. By that time, the three ladies were sick to death of the music business, especially because of it's deeply entrenched sexist aspects. However, things had begun to change. The whole country had become familiar with the concept of "women's liberation", and were perhaps ready for a band that truly represented that movement.

They were signed to RCA subsidiary Phantom Records in 1974, and released their self titled debut the following year. Produced by Felix Cavaliere of the Young Rascals and augmented by a fleet of studio musicians, the album was well received and virtually jump started a musical genre still going strong to this day (see Indigo Girls, Lilith Fair, etc.). Their second album, "F&W" (or Funky & Western) came out in '76, and continued exploring the new world of Women's Music with songs like "Ain't I A Woman". Although their sound could basically be called "rootsy", incorporating Hooke's fiddle into a country/folk/rock hybrid, the single from the 2nd album, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" went a long way toward explaining the "funky" part of the album's title.

Some of you might remember "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman", The TV show. I actually loved this show back in the day. It was essentially a parody of soap operas, but with a decidedly feminist twist. It was created by Norman Lear, who a few years previous brought us All In The Family and The Jeffersons, thus revolutionizing television. MH2 starred Woody Allen's ex, Louise Lasser as Mary, a middle class housewife from Fernwood, OH who's main concern seemed to be which brand of household cleanser might make her kitchen floor shine the brightest. It's easy to see why Deadly Nightshade found MH2 attractive, but the decision to record their own version of the show's theme song is one of the biggest "Huh?"s ever.

The theme itself would have been utterly forgettable, if not for us MH2 addicts hearing it 5 nights a week. In fact it was meant to be as bland and depressing as any daytime soap theme, so the Nightshade decided to spice it up a bit. Produced by jazz vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and session guitarist David Spinozza, the track features a who's who of NY studio whores (all male of course). Still, I don't know what anyone involved with this production was thinking. The single charted at #68 which just goes to show, you can put a disco beat on anything and it'll sell.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008 1:39:00 PM

Hey, Mike--

I'm Pam, The Deadly Nightshade's bass player. And you're sure right about our version of the theme from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" being a, "WHAAAAA?" kinda cut.

It started as a joke. We were playing a Sunday afternoon show at Passim-- that famous coffeehouse in Cambridge where Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan played early on--and Anne, our rhythm guitar player, broke a string. Normally, we could've just taken a short break, but Passim used to do a radio broadcast of their Sunday afternoon shows. Five minutes of dead on-the-air space wasn't an option.

So to kill time, I said that we had an exciting announcement about our next recording; it was going to be a disco version of the theme from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman". This was clearly ridiculous, what with us being a country/rock trio-- a very loud one, but still a band with no drummer, much less a horn section, strings, etc. But it served its purpose. The audience totally got into the joke, yelling out fake questions about the project until Anne got the new string on and we went on with the set... and with real life.

However, on the drive back to New York, we decided it'd be fun to see how far we could push it. On Monday, we went into Phantom's offices and proposed it as a serious recording project to the label's president, Bud Prager.

Well, he actually took it to RCA (which was the money company behind Phantom). And it turned out that, like, 11 other groups had already submitted disco versions of Mary Hartman's theme! RCA was going to make a decision about which one to release by the end of that week.

But Bud said we could record our version if we could manage to do the whole thing in three days.

So we stayed up for the next 72 hours and did it. Michael Mainieri, a famous jazz player whose band we'd played with in Woodstock, said he'd produce. He brought in all the top studio players he knew, which were... everybody. And the string section from the NY Philharmonic, too.

Meanwhile, Helen and I wrote the arrangement. And we also wrote a whole second half to the TV theme-- which is indeed, as you noted, quite depressing. After the original theme plays through once instrumentally, the whole B section, which is much longer and vocal as well as instrumental, is ours from scratch.

As well as new music, we wrote lyrics, layers upon layers of them-- the main "Uh huh, ya got me every night, lookin' at you lookin' at me, Mary, Mary", as well as many others that are easy to miss. But they're pretty cute, including some references to Louise Lasser's then-recent coke bust that were subtle enough that they didn't catch them and sticker the record.

And we orchestrated the whole thing-- wrote charts for all instruments, including the horns and strings.

Studio musicians played it. But we sang it. That part wasn't unlike The Deadly Nightshade. We always did elaborate vocal harmonies in our real songs.

Anyway, we made the deadline, and RCA picked our version. It did chart as high as 67 nationally, and went top 10 in a few markets, like Miami. It was a little tricky touring to support the record, since naturally we could not play it. But audiences liked our normal stuff, so it worked out fine.

Oh, btw: Helen and I never made a cent of writers' royalties even though we did write more than half the song from scratch. And we weren't credited as co-writers, either. That's because in all the rush to record and release the thing, Phantom/RCA didn't negotiate for any writers' rights. By the time that came up, it was either sign away all our rights to money and credit, or the record doesn't get released. So we signed.

--cheers, Pamela Robin Brandt    

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