Recently I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting a member of the Ides of March, a Chicago-based band who scored a major hit, “Vehicle,” in 1970. Interestingly, the group exemplifies how a group can radically change their sound to achieve success. The Stax-like quality of the soulful “Vehicle” greatly departed from the band’s origins.
In 1964, four teenage boys from Berwyn (a western suburb of Chicago) formed a band; like many teens, they were inspired by the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Led by Jim Peterik, the band dubbed themselves the Shon-Dels and began playing local sock hops. As their popularity grew, they realized that their name sounded too much like Tommy James’ group, the Shondells. After reading Julius Caesar during a class at their high school, Morton West, the group decided to rename themselves the Ides of March.
Meanwhile, Peterik grew as a songwriter, penning tunes that experienced some local success. Their first single, “You Wouldn’t Listen,” brought the Ides of March from their parents’ basements in Berwyn to the radio. Reaching number 42 on the Billboard charts in 1966, the song also became a Chicago radio favorite and reached number seven in local sales. A product of its time, the track sounds like a cross between the Beatles and the Byrds, with the delicate guitar riffs and harmonies slightly resembling those from “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Peterik’s songwriting contains dark elements, a feeling of danger and creepiness in addition to typical love sentiments. “I said he’s watching you…/So watch what you do…/Or you’ll wreck your life too,” Peterik sings. He says he gave his lover “plenty of warning…/Now you’re in mourning/I see that you’re in a mighty bad way.” Concluding this apparent lecture, he informs the woman that “now you have gotta pay.” Clearly the words tell the story of a love gone terribly wrong, and the narrator seems to have little sympathy for the jilted, possibly damaged lover.
Fueled by the song’s minor success, Peterik continued writing songs, but also urged the band to change their sound. Perhaps he believed that the folk-rock genre would become dated. Therefore he integrated a small horn section, recruiting two trumpet players from Morton West and Morton East High Schools. The horns added a soulful element to the group, giving their rock sound a major jolt of R&B. To showcase the new Ides of March, Peterik wrote “Vehicle,” a funky song of seduction. Like Peterik’s other lyrics, “Vehicle’s” words contain a dark edge. When I first heard the tune, images of “Stranger Danger” went through my head:
Hey, well I’m the friendly stranger in a black sedan
Won’t you hop inside my car.
I got pictures, got candy, I’m a loveable man
And I can take you to the nearest star
In this case, the narrator tries to seduce the woman, saying “got to have you child” and “great God in heaven you know I love you.” He promises her anything–if she “wants to be a movie star/I’ll get a ticket to Hollywood.” If she would give in, he sings, he would be her “vehicle,” taking her in any direction she chooses, and make her dreams a reality. Peterik’s raspy lead vocals communicate the narrator’s confidence; his energy, improvisation, and no-holds-barred performance reflect blue-eyed soul vocalists more than typical rock singers.
Having left their original label, Parrot Records, the Ides of March signed with Warner Brothers in 1969. The label then released the single “Vehicle” in 1970, subsequently issuing the same-titled album. Instantly the track gained a massive following, eventually reaching number two on the Billboard charts. Drawing comparisons to Blood, Sweat, and Tears, the now-soulful group began touring with Janis Joplin, The Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin, according to their web site.
Their last hit, 1971’s “L.A. Goodbye,” sounds completely different from “Vehicle” in that it harkens back to their folk-rock roots. Instead of reflecting the 1960s sound, however, it recalls Three Dog Night hits such as “Out in the Country.” While Peterik’s lyrics extol the virtues of Los Angeles (“And as I board my plane/Something inside my brain/Hates to wave L.A. goodbye”), he also nods to his hometown: “Now I feel light years away/From the west side of Chicago,” he writes. “L.A. Goodbye” peaked at number 73 on the Billboard Hot 100, and would be their last hit.
After a change in band personnel and labels (RCA Victor), the group drifted apart. Peterik formed the rock band Survivor in 1978, and five years later scored a massive hit with “Eye of the Tiger,” which he co-wrote and co-produced. The early 1980s saw numerous Survivor singles: “The Moment of Truth,” “I Can’t Hold Back,” “The Search Is Over,” and “Burning Heart,” just to name a few. After leaving the group in 1986, Peterik collaborated with a variety of artists, including the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. In 1990, the original Ides of March members (including the two trumpet players) reunited to play a music festival, and began recording again. With two new band members, the band released three albums: Ideology (1992), Age Before Beauty (1997), and Still 19 (2010).
Today the Ides of March still play live throughout the Chicago area, and “Vehicle” continues to be a staple on oldies radio stations. In 2005 American Idol finalist Bo Bice covered the track, exposing the classic to a new generation. Indeed, “Vehicle” remains a tasty slice of pop-soul, and shows how four regular kids moved from practicing in their parents’ basements to the stage. While they can claim credit for one of the best hits of the 1970s, they recently achieved another goal: in September 2010, their hometown named a street after them, right in front of their old high school, Morton West.Powered by Sidelines