A new reissue shines a light on America’s great lost power pop band
“There’s nothing like a great rocker that’s got melodic content, and there’s nothing like a great pop song that’s kind of edgy and rough,” says Richard Orange, casually sharing the musical recipe of his 1970s band Zuider Zee, one of the most underappreciated acts of the era.
Though singer/songwriter/guitarist Orange and his bandmates perfected the balance between indelible pop hooks and rock ‘n’ roll grit, their self-titled 1975 debut album for CBS Records was given no promotion and quietly slipped into the void.
But 43 years later, Zeenith, an archival release of previously unheard Zuider Zee material, has arrived to help Orange and his cohorts finally lay claim to the power-pop crown that should rightly have been theirs decades ago. The tracks were recorded in 1972-’73, well before the CBS album, but were left unfinished. By the time Zuider Zee actually got around to cutting their 1975 album, they had a whole new set of tunes to record, but the ones they left behind were at least as good and quite possibly even better.
“After 43 years,” laughs Orange, “I guess I decided sometimes not only is less more, but unfinished is also more.”
On the face of it, the fact that an album recorded in the ’70s comes off as a contender for the most arresting LP of 2018 might seem strange. But taking the long view, to paraphrase Robert Christgau’s review of Bob Dylan’s legendary, belatedly released Basement Tapes, it would have been one of the best albums of 1973 too, and it’s sure to sound great in 2023.
A precocious sort, Orange first entered the public eye and ear when he was just 15, as a member of late-’60s Lafayette, Louisiana psych-pop outfit Thomas Edisun’s [sic] Electric Light Bulb Band, long venerated by record geeks and finally given a belated album release of their own by archivists Gear Fab Records in 2014. By the early ’70s, that band morphed into Zuider Zee, dropping the psychedelia in favor of a sound that mixed Badfinger, Abbey Road-era Beatles, et al with a harder touch some find suggestive of glam. Orange cops to the Fab Four influence, but says, “I never felt I was very influenced by Marc Bolan and T. Rex, but for some reason writers like to say that.”
Another thing commonly noted about Zuider Zee is the fact that Orange, not unlike his L.A. contemporary Emmit Rhodes, had an undeniably McCartney-like vocal quality. “In the earlier stuff,” he explains, “especially Zeenith, I know there’s these little [McCartney-esque] inflections…but when you’re 19, 20 years old, you don’t even realize that you’re copping somebody else’s thing; you’re really just trying to learn to sing. Whenever I do a hard rocker, I’m striving to sound like John Lennon. I never set out to say, ‘Well, I want to sound just like Paul McCartney,’ because it was really the kiss of death for a band to sound like someone else. But the vocal cords, they are what they are.”
Early on, Orange, bassist John Bonar, keyboardist Kim Foreman, and drummer Gary Simon Bertrand played as much as they could in Lafayette, despite the fact that their British-inflected style must have seemed out of place. “We did pretty well,” remembers Orange, “we kind of rose up a lot in the time that we stayed in Lafayette, but it was also very clear that there was a very low ceiling there—you weren’t gonna go too far.” Betrand’s mother being the proprietor of a string of gay cabarets in the area became an unexpected boon in that period. “The interesting bit to me is that my career started out playing gay cabarets,” muses Orange, “because we could always play for Giselle.”
Eventually the band relocated to Memphis where they were among similarly minded first-generation power-poppers like Big Star, The Scruffs and Prix. But Zuider Zee was never really a part of the local scene there. Instead they were on the road for much of that time, playing wherever they could.
When they got some tracking time at studios in Nashville and Memphis in ’72-’73, they made the most of it. “Haunter of the Darkness,” the only Zeenith song to make it to the CBS album (in a different version), is the most “produced”-sounding track from the sessions. Its combination of grandly unfurled guitar riffs, funky rhythm section, and greasy clavinet frames an idiosyncratic ghost story inspired by Orange’s reading the H.P. Lovecraft tale “Haunter of Darkness.” Surely the only rocker at the time (and possibly ever) to include the word “polyhedron,” it actually started out as a completely different lyric Orange rewrote in mid-session.
“By the beginning of the third take [of the original version] I just said ‘Hold it, hold it!'” he recalls. “I ran upstairs to the control room and said, ‘I need 20 minutes or so, let me go and rewrite this song.’ I was reading a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft; having read that I borrowed some of the thoughts in it. Then I went out and sang ‘Haunter of the Darkness,’ I did it word for word the way I wrote it in that 20 minutes. Once I set up the premise that there was this thing that was coming for you, I’ve got quite an imagination…I was able to make it my own little imaginary story.”
“Ackbar Didedar,” a sunny-sounding acoustic track with a gracefully elongated melody and seamlessly shifting time signatures, was written as a warmhearted salute to Orange’s Iranian immigrant neighbor. The first 30 seconds of the track are actually an unrelated ditty that was never identified as a separate composition. “It was called ‘Space,’ explains Orange. “It’s not actually a part of the song ‘Ackbar Didedar.'” Nevertheless, the track was the first thing Orange heard when Bertrand initially recovered the Zeenith tapes.
“When Gary finally managed to track them down in an old storage room in New Orleans,” Orange relates, “he didn’t really know what he was finding until he found some way to play them all. He had to hire out a studio that actually had a 15½ IPS [inches per second] analog recorder that could even play them. He rang me up and one of the first things he played for me was ‘Ackbar Didedar.’ I hadn’t remembered that song even a single time. Tears welled up in my eyes because it just floored me. I’d been very close to the songs in those years but they were long gone, I didn’t have any demos of them, I didn’t have any copies. But when he played me ‘Ackbar Didedar’ I literally started crying. You’ve heard songwriters say that their songs are their children. Well this was like one of my children that had gotten lost and went to an orphanage in a storage room [laughs]. I was just terribly moved.”
However, the prolific Orange was writing so many songs in those days that by the time Zuider Zee signed with CBS, they had a whole new set of songs (apart from “Haunter of the Darkness” they wanted to record for their 1975 release. But as was often the case with major labels in those days, for some reason CBS did nothing to promote the record, never even releasing a single. The album made little commercial impact, and Zuider Zee never released another before splintering by decade’s end.
Retrospectively, admirers of Zeenith’s unpolished feel have noted the CBS release’s comparatively slick sound. “Our manager at that time, he played a heavier role in the production,” remembers Orange. “I didn’t have final creative control in those days. I can’t blame him totally, because I was there, but there were some other people from CBS Records that were there, and they ruined a few sessions. You know, everybody wants to be a producer. We had a couple of high-level CBS guys come in drunk, passing tequila bottles around, and everybody’s throwing in, ‘Do this, do that, put a piccolo on your nose.’ It was over-compressed, I think that’s one of the reasons people think it’s so slick. My manager, who took credit for producing it, he just loved that compressor…it got so over-compressed everything got quashed. I think that took a lot of the edge away on many things.”
After Zuider Zee, Orange eventually became a staff songwriter penning tunes for other artists. First he worked for the Dick James publishing company [famed for its Beatles association] in the late ’80s, and then with the pop arm of Motown in the early ’90s. During that period, he had his songs recorded by a broad swath of artists, including Cyndi Lauper (the international hit “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China),” Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin (“Paper Heart”), Brazilian pop star Deborah Blando (“Other People’s Houses”), and more.
In the mid ’90s, health problems in his family began to demand Orange’s attention, and took him away from music. ” I just had to lay down the guitars and jump in there,” he relates. “So I lost about a decade of doing things I might have done because there were so many family issues I had to attend to.” Later he released solo albums under his own aegis, and he remains an industrious songwriter to this day. “I have so many unreleased tracks still,” he says, “several albums worth. My hopes are that people will still be interested enough in the kind of music that I like to record and perform to give me a chance to make up for that lost time, because I literally have hundreds of songs to cull from.”
In the short time the music of Zuider Zee has had to play catch-up, it’s already caught on considerably more than ever before. “Many people prefer the Zeenith album to the CBS Zuider Zee album,” says Orange. So maybe the world at large is ready for Richard Orange’s blend of roughness and refinement at last.
Zeenith is out now on Light in the Attic Records.