Hirsh Gardner goes back to the beginnng with upcoming New England reunion concert

Aug 09, 2014

Drummer-producer Hirsh Gardner has been a very busy man these days. Aside from his Cambridge studio chores, he‘s been organizing a reunion concert for his once nationally famous band New England. “Don’t Ever Want To Lose Ya” and many other New England originals will come alive. Gardner and his original three band mates will perform a full concert at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts on Friday, August 15, at 8:00 p.m. New England is one of those bands that have been kept alive on the internet and in the memories of fans.

“New England has been sort of bubbling under for years,” Gardner said. “The band broke up in 1983. But, we all stayed friends and communicated with each other. John Fannon, our lead guitarist-lead vocalist, he continued producing and film scoring. I was also a record producer for many years and continue to play drums and do sessions. Jimmy Waldo was living in Los Angeles with Gary Shea shortly after the band broke up. They put together the band Alcatraz with Yngwie Malsteem and Steve Vai.”

As they’ve all remained friends and still make music, reunions were certain to happen. Several of the albums New England recorded back in the day were re-released on GB Music label, which Gardner co-owns with his partner Gary Borress.

“With the re-release of everything on CD and the advent of the internet, the fans were just coming out of the woodwork,” Gardner said. “We’ve got several hundred thousand hits on YouTube. Some of the response and the comments the fans made were mind blowing. We’d talk about it on the phone to each other. We’d say ’Geez, man. Folks really loved this band.”

HirshGardner1New England placed singles in the Top 40, toured the world, opened for bands like AC/DC, Kiss, Journey, Kansas, Cheap Trick. They also headlined major theater themselves during their rise to the top. With the rekindling of interest in New England, the four played a few benefit concerts. “We just enjoyed getting together after 20 or 30 years and just playing five or six songs together.”

Next week’s New England concert at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts came about when Gardner and Regent’s co-owner and administrator Leland Stein thought it’d be cool to put on an entire New England concert. “This is actually the first time we’ve gotten together in over 30 years and played our full concert set,” Gardner said. “So, it’s going to be a wild and wonderful evening for us. When we get together there‘s this magic thing that happens.”

That New England has such staying power, rekindling interest 30 plus years after their 1983 break up, makes one wonder how they connected so deeply and personally to their fans. “I guess it’s the music itself,” Gardner said. “because that’s the main comment I hear. I would urge you to just go online; go to YouTube and look at the New England “Don’t Ever Want To Lose Ya” video, and just read some of the comments. It’s really, really heart warming to see the impact we had on people back then. People now see the video. Time’s gone on. They’ve sort of forgotten the song, and when they hear the song again, some of comments are amazing.” Many of the comments Gardner refers to are very positive, saying the song sounds as good as anything on the radio today as well as back as then.

“I love reading that we had such a positive impact on people’s lives,” Gardner said. “That really means that we touched everyone. Sometimes, it’s not the record companies that recognize the greatness or don’t recognize the greatness, it’s the general public. I’m humbly thinking to myself, well, maybe a lot of the folks out there just thought the band was great.”

HirshGardner9So, why then, did New England not become or remain a household name? “I think that the record company, quite frankly, fucked everything up,” he stated flatly. “I don’t want to go negative here. The sad part about is, (when) we played in Birmingham, Alabama. I think we played with Blue Oyster Cult. We were there in town for a couple of days. So, we decided to go out and visit some of the record stores and music shops, and we couldn’t find any of our albums in the stores. We played for 20,000 people that night and got standing ovations, encores, people were flipping out, lining up outside our dressing rooms for autographs. It was just amazing. And those kids, those 20,000 kids, I’d say there were 200 of them that wanted to go out and buy that record, the next day. Well, they couldn’t. Had there been 200 record sales in Birmingham, Alabama, on that day, Billboard Magazine, Cashbox Magazine, all the radio stations would have recognized that and heard about it immediately. But, if you don’t distribute the product at the stores, you can’t get that recognition, which we were desperately trying to do.”

Because of the internet, people all over the world can now hear the music of New England. Music fans and musicians are finding that their music still holds up, still hangs tough, still sounds as fresh today as it did back in the day. Gardner and his New England band mates have pretty much the same story as rock and roll musicians who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. They all saw The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show.

“I was a jazz guy,” Gardner said. “I was listening to people like Shelly Mann, Buddy Rich, Gene Kupra, Ed Shaunessy. My aunt and uncle got me into all the big band swing stuff. Then, I got into rock and roll after that. We just all met in Boston. We had all played in various bands. We actually put the band together in ‘73. We played together for four or five years. This toured all over the east coast. This was just as a bar band, playing originals and covers. Then we ended up breaking up, and we ended up reforming several years later. Basically, we said ‘OK. We’ve done the club scene. We’ve done the cover music. We don’t want to play that any more. The next gig that we play has to be Madison Square Garden or something like that.”

HirshGardner5That dream actually came true. New England had holed up in their rehearsal studio for roughly two years, recording 16 songs. They got a record deal because Bill Aucoin, who was also managing Kiss, Billy Squire, Billy Idols, and many others, discovered them and signed them on the spot. “The next gig that we played was virtually Madison Square Garden,” Hirsh said. “We did the ‘79 Dynasty tour with Kiss, which was just amazing, being thrust out in front 20,000 people.”

New England got booed on their second night opening for Kiss. The other three players were plugging in their amps. Gardner played a drum solo, just to shut them up, not wanting to start off on a bad vibe. Then, the audience went nuts.

“I think we were one of, or ,the only band to get encores on the Kiss tour,” Gardner said. “You’re not just hearing this from me now. All of this stuff is on Facebook and on YouTube. To me, it justifies everything. It makes you feel pretty good about it.”

A favorite memory that stands out in Gardner’s mind is playing with AC/DC, saying he learned a lot by watching drummer Phil Rudd with the bassist and the rhythm guitar player groove. “Watching those guys play taught me a lot about simplicity.”

Another stand out memory for Gardner, as a drummer, was opening for Rush. “Can you imagine having to go on stage before Neil Peart,” he said. “That was pretty scary. But I buckled up and went up on stage and said ‘I don’t care who’s playing with me. I’m just going to kick ass and rock the joint.’ And we did. Rush is an amazing band. But, New England held their own whenever we played with bands like that.”

HirshGardner4Thanks to non stop rehearsing, New England didn’t have much difficulty nailing down their sound in the studio. They were also working with the best producers in the world, Mike Stone, Paul Stanley, Todd Rundgren. “We were all serious players,” Gardner said. “Jimmy Waldo’s our keyboard players and obviously John’s our guitar player. When we orchestrated all of those parts, we orchestrated them so the keyboards and guitars would almost be in sync and in unison. We would take one of John’s guitar parts, and we would meld it together with Jimmy’s keyboard parts. And Jimmy was very innovative with his sound. This was back in the early ‘80s, and we had all the great analog gear. We used mellotrons back then, mini moogs, micro moogs. Jimmy had Fender Rhodes, the RMI keyboards. These were all very unique instrument back then.”

It didn’t hurt that Gardner and bassist Gary Shea were a quintessential heavy metal rhythm section backing that huge, melodic, orchestrated sound. It also didn’t hurt that they had three lead vocalists in the band. “John and I blend and fit together very well,” Gardner said. “Last night, Jimmy and I were at my recording studio in Cambridge, and did four hours of just vocal rehearsal. That’s also a part of the sound. A lot of these metal bands, you got a lead vocalist and nobody else in the band sings. We sort of broke that mold.”

Being a rock star on tour with his band and with the fans and with the press was only a surface joy for Gardner. “Being a rock star is just a by product of being a great musician,” he said. “Every musician has a huge ego. Some people have a positive ego, which I believe we all have. Some people have a negative ego, which is like ‘I’m better than you. Fuck you.’ That type of ego is harmful. But I believe that in order to get up on stage, you have to have a pretty big ego to get up there and do it. But, it’s got to be a positive ego, so you’re up there pushing your art form forward, but at the same time, it’s entertainment. We want to get up there and we want to be a rock star. It’s all part of this weird, wonderful business we chose to do.”

HirshGardner3Being a rock star has been a bit confusing for Gardner’s children. At a restaurant with his two daughters, he was recognized by a New England fan who sought an autograph. His girls were like “Huh? Dad’s a rock star?” Gardner said it’s heart warming to be recognized for what he has loved to do his whole like.

For the Regent show, Gardner said he and his New England band mates will play all of the major songs that were played on the radio back in the day, as well as some forgotten gems they never played live, and a few acoustic numbers. “This is a special event for us,” he said.

Years ago, Gardner put aside his musician hat and became a producer. Yet, he still got to play on people’s albums when they needed a certain part, guaranteeing he’d still be a musician. “One of the greatest things about being a producer,” he said, “is that it’s like joining a band every couple of months. You have to become a member of the band. As a producer and as an engineer, I have to know the songs as well as they do. I never wanted to give up my musician chops, nor did I ever have a chance to.”

The greatest personal joy of being a producer is pushing the artist to be the best he can be. “It’s so gratifying when you finally sit back and listen to the song and see what you pushed your band mates, because now I’m in the band(while working with the band) and see what you’ve pushed these people to come up with.”

Being a drummer first means that the first thing Gardner listens to in a band he’s producing is their drums. He feels that the drum track is the most important part when putting a song together, because everything is built on it. “It’s got to be solid. It’s got to be in time. The fills have to be perfect, and the drummer has to execute every single one of those beats or hits for the entire four minute song,” he said. “I would make sure that everything that they had laid down was just about as perfect as it could be. If I hear something as a drummer, I would say ‘Hey, listen. Don’t do that fill. It doesn’t work there. Let’s save that fill for this spot where it works a little bit better because back there, your fill is walking on the lead vocal.” Gardner said drummers may appreciate the feedback or that they might put up a fight.”

HirshGardner10“You’ve got to work with these guys,” he said. “You’ve got to be a psychologist. You’ve got to nurture these people. You’ve got to baby them sometimes. Sometimes you have to yell at them because you’re working really hard to put four or five or six different instruments together to make it a great song.

When asked what’s been the most rewarding thing about his lengthy career, he said “Having a career this lengthy.” He has also had a life long commitment to helping other musicians. It began when he was a teenager who had gone with his friends to see a famous orchestra with a famous orchestra leader. After the show, outside in the freezing cold by Lake Ontario in Toronto, near the stage door, they got invited in after telling an orchestra member who came outside that they’d like to meet their boss.

The famous man was sitting at a mirror with light bulbs all around the mirror. He motioned to his band member to let the kids in. The orchestra leader asked them if they enjoyed his show. “This gentleman spent 15, 20 minutes with us, after spending two and a half hours on the stage, and he was an older guy, and he was constantly giving. I think that was the lesson I learned that night was that you always have to give something back to people, as a musician.”

Near the end of this story, Gardner revealed who he was talking about. “Duke Ellington did that for me that night,” he said. “It meant so much to me to meet him.” With that credo in mind, Gardner has done benefit concerts. Some of the New England Regent concert proceeds will go to Ernie Boch Jr.’s program Music Drive Us., which buys musical instruments for school music programs.

“We’ve got plenty of money to throw at football teams, and basketball teams, and baseball. But, they’re pulling money away from the arts, and I think that it’s really important that we give something back,” Gardner said. “This show has some meaning. If we can present Ernie with a check then he can go buy some kids some musical instruments, we’ve done our jobs.”

Gardner said he and his New England band mates would love to see all of their old friends at the show. “It’s going to be a wild night,” he said.

Special guest Jon Butcher, a well-respected national musician, will also entertain.