There are many categories of band gigs: teen dances, wedding receptions, private parties, and bar gigs make up the normal mix for most bands. To my personal list, I could add playing in a tent at the U.P. State Fair and gigs in churches (both in the basement and the sanctuary). Again, bands from just about any locale could make the same claim. Living in a college town, however, adds one more item to the list of gig categories: the frat party. If the term ‘frat party’ transports one back to the toga party portrayed in the movie Animal House, I can only remind readers that “it was a movie about a fraternity and it was made a up frat party with a made up band.” A real frat party couldn’t be that wild, could it?
In my high school and college gigging days, I played frat parties with all three of the bands I was in from 1970 through 1977. The first one was with The Twig and we got picked up to play for a TKE party (commonly referred to as ‘The Teeks’) at the old Cliffs Ridge ski chalet. The current Marquette Mountain Ski Chalet bears little resemblance to the building that we played in then. The room was pretty much an open space surrounded by large windows. It was wall to wall picnic tables and people with a dance area in the middle of the room that was also wall to wall with people dancing. There wasn’t a stage so we were just kind of stuck along one wall between the picnic tables. We had heard stories about the ‘wild and crazy’ TKE parties, so we were, at best, a little apprehensive for our first frat gig. We were all of 17 and 18 years old surrounded by red clad college men who could have tied us in a knot and tossed us out the window if they had a mind to. If there was a frat dedicated to football players, this might have been it because there were a lot of very large guys in TKE red. If I hadn’t known who we had been booked to play for, I would have bet it was a sorority party because the man to woman ratio was about 1 to 3 with two out of every three of the females in TKE red shirts.
Things started out with a bang. We started out with some fast dance numbers and the floor filled up instantly and stayed that way for the whole first set. This was the first and only time I can remember being booed when we announced that we would be taking a fifteen minute break. They wanted music, but frankly, we needed a break because we didn’t play any slow songs at all in the first set. We had a little discussion during our break and decided that if we didn’t throw in some slow songs, we would keel from exhaustion. Did I mention the number of bodies in motion turned the whole place into one giant rocking sauna (sans real hot rocks) by the end of the first set? To say we were sweating is a gross understatement. The towel I normally kept draped over my mic stand could have been wrung out by the time we finally took our break.
During our well deserved second break, we were sitting minding our own business on one of the picnic table benches when three girls sporting TKE logo shirts approached. It turned out they were the girlfriends of the committee that had hired us and they came bearing our check. They had some song requests to go along with the gig pay. We were surprised when the three ‘older women’ hopped onto each of our laps, draped an arm around our necks and purred, “Please?” to underscore their song requests. We weren’t exactly trolling for dates. We were there to play a gig and not get killed by the guys who hired us. In the end, we decided it was more of a stunt orchestrated to see if they could get the band a little flustered, but the fear of ‘death by boyfriend’ was enough to get us back to playing music and fast. Out of the frats we played gigs for, I can only remember the TKE group by name because we played for them a couple of times. The other groups we played for were all fun, but the TKE reputation for hard partying was as close as I ever got to an Animal House gig and as such, they were a hard bunch to forget.
The last frat party The Twig played for was near the end of the spring semester. They held it at the more formal Northwoods Supper Club and it was advertised as some sort of ‘Ball’. They guy that hired us asked if we could play ‘dinner music’ for the first set and we thought, “Oh boy, what have we gotten ourselves into?” After playing thirty minutes of the most lightweight stuff we had, the formality wore off and though they were nicely dressed for the occasion, they began to shake it up in a manner more befitting a frat party than a ball. They had a turkey buffet for dinner and at one point, a frat boy in a loosened tie sans his jacket wandered by the stage front with a humongous turkey leg in his hand. He stopped in front of guitar player Gene, smiled, and then shoved the whole thing in his face. Gene simply took a big, ripping bite out of the leg, thus giving the drumstick toting guy the idea that we all needed to share in this impromptu meal. All I could think of as he leaned over my bass drum was, “Don’t get grease on my drums.” It is very difficult to sing with a mouth full of turkey and after wiping the grease off my face, my ever present mic stand towel smelled of Thanksgiving for the rest of the night!
We had other memorable frat gigs at the Oddfellows Hall which was located on the second floor of the building that still stands on the southeast corner of Bluff and Third Streets in Marquette. It had a rickety steel staircase along the east side of the building that we had to lug our stuff up in single file formation. I hated the thought of ‘death by staircase’ even more than the thought of ‘death by boyfriend’. It was another small room, but there was a little stand in the middle of one wall that normally was occupied by an elaborate wooden throne. They would move the throne out of the room but the platform was nailed to the floor and it was just big enough to fit my drum kit on. This was another sweat box kind of gig but for some reason, the sound in this little room was terrific. I am not sure what was downstairs in this building, but I was sure we would find out one day because when the whole dance floor was rocking, the floor also jumped up and down. I can’t imagine there was any plaster left on the downstairs ceiling after one of these parties! We also liked the OFH because Gene’s guitar pickups would pick up the local radio station between songs. On cold winter nights, they frat boys open the windows to cool the room down. They also put bottles out on the window ledge to get them chilled. It is a wonder that no one was killed on the sidewalk below because I am sure that more than one bottle got knocked off the window over the course of the night. We were underaged but figured a nip or two would help us cool down while getting packed up after the gig.
I am reminded of another memorable Twig frat party gig every time I drive place the US 41 Steakhouse west of Ishpeming. This one stands out because it is the first time I can remember driving in an absolute white out. I was driving my dad’s truck full of our equipment and it was more the ‘fear of death by father if I put his truck in the sticks’ that had me nervous. When you can only drive 25 miles an hour on the highway, I am not sure how far in the sticks I could gone, but it was a white knuckle drive just the same. The weather wasn’t bad when we left Marquette, but as we climbed past Negaunee and on through Ishpeming, I got a preview of what it is like in Rockland or Mass City. When the air coming across Lake Superior picks up a bunch of moisture and dumps copious amounts of snow in the higher elevations away from the lake, those of us living on the lake shore do not get our fair share of the lake effect snow. We were the only vehicle on the road so besides breaking trail, we couldn’t see anything besides the occasional street light. When we pulled into the club, the owner assured us that the party was still on. They came, had dinner, and danced the night away. By the time we did the load out, the sky was clear as a bell and the roads were well plowed. The other lesson I learned here was the old U.P. adage, “Don’t worry about the weather because it will change six ways to Sunday before the gig is done.” I managed to remember this during my two years driving up the hill to K.I.Sawyer Air Force base for our many NCO and Officer’s club gigs.
Time to crank up Louie Louie and Shout so our WOAS-FM listeners can share in the frat party fun. In Part II, we will discuss two of the stranger frat gigs that were booked for Knockdown and Sledgehammer. In the meantime, dig out your toga and watch Animal House.
Top Piece video – I name checked Louie Louie, so here you go!