The needle drops, and the massive arena rock power chords serve quick notice that THIS IS ROCK AND ROLL! The frenzied drums and heavy bottom end carry the tune forward until a powerhouse rock and roll voice comes screaming from your speakers. And that’s just the track ‘Crack Your Skull‘. Like a real-life Almost Famous, the story of a band called Pandora is an all too familiar rock and roll tale. A band destined for stardom, poised to break out only to fade away into obscurity. Only this time there wasn’t even any music released.
Pandora was a New York-based hard rock band formed in 1974, but chances are you’ve never heard of them simply because they never released an album. They recorded a 10-song demo back in the day but it was ultimately mothballed never to see the light of day and the band would fade into oblivion. Fast forward to the early 90s when Al Pinell, guitarist for the legendary Cleveland band Granicus, found a Flexi-disc labeled “Pandora” in a desk drawer. No one remembered anything about it including Granicus drummer Joe Battaglia – who apparently engineered the live-to-four-track demo. But it was too good to just let go.
Ugly Things Magazine’s Doug Sheppard, knocked out by the hard-rocking proto-punk-metal sound, set out to solve the mystery, alas to no avail and the demo was released on CD in 1997 by Arf! Arf! Records with the names of the musicians still unknown. It wasn’t until 2008 when Sheppard, still haunted by this mysterious rock and roll ghost, heard an album by another 70s band called Plum Nelly and something about the lead vocalist sounded very familiar. Long story short, Pandora vocalist Rick Prince was tracked down and from there, guitarist Martin John Butler, bassist Buz Verno, and drummer Frank LaRocka were identified (sadly LaRocka passed away in 2005 and Verno, in 2020) and the circle was complete, mystery solved! It was discovered that the connection was George Freije, manager of both Granicus and Pandora who flew the NYC upstarts to Cleveland in November 1974 to record a demo with Battaglia in Granicus’ rehearsal space and ‘Space Amazon‘ was born.
The story goes that Pandora would barely make it back to New York before going their separate ways and the demo was simply locked away in a drawer and forgotten. However, the members went on to very successful careers. Prince, who had sung for Plum Nelly, and Black Widow, went on to front an early incarnation of Twisted Sister. LaRocka and Verno would go on to form the rhythm section in the David Johansen Group, and LaRocka also stood in with artists like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, John Waite while Butler would form The Demons, a first wave CBGBs band before becoming an award-winning writer/session guitarist.
Now here we are in 2021, pushing 50 years since the Pandora demo was recorded and 24 years since the Arf! Arf! CD release, master archivist Jason Flower is releasing the demo on his Supreme Echo label, marking the only vinyl release beyond the original 9″ two-sided Flexi-disc, which will set you back close to $500 these days if you are interested.
So what’s the big deal? Well, one listen and it’s clear that Pandora will hit the sweet spot for anyone with a predilection for big 70s style hard rock, glam, metal, and proto-punk. Over the 10 tracks, the era is clearly represented and the future mapped out. There is Bowie-esque glam, bombastic early Queen, massive Townsend/Page power chords, and the vocals of Rick Prince, somehow blending the best of Rodgers, Daltrey, Plant, Mercury, and Bowie – a true rock and roll voice if there ever was one. Seeing that there are a number of bands that gained success with this sound much later in the 70s, like Angel, Starz, and even Montrose, Pandora, by all accounts, should have worked. ‘Space Amazon‘ is a killer collection of songs no matter when it was recorded and Pandora was a little of, and a lot before their time. Order here!
We were lucky enough to connect with guitarist Martin John Butler and vocalist Rick Prince about the release.
“The lyrics poured out of me like a river of emotions of which I had no control. I was telling my truth and my reaction to the world. The lyrics then inspired the music.”
The early 70s was quite a time: Stones, Queen, Stooges, Zeppelin, New York Dolls, Sabbath….what were you guys listening to at the time? Who do you think the target Pandora fans were?
Rick Prince: We were listening to a broad spectrum of music from Bowie, Iggy Pop, T Rex, and Roxy Music to Zeppelin, Humble Pie, and Queen to name a few. I was into everything, including the great classical composers. Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain inspired my opening to Space Amazon.
I had no target audience in mind. The lyrics poured out of me like a river of emotions of which I had no control. I was telling my truth and my reaction to the world. The lyrics then inspired the music.
Martin: Everyone found musicians through an ad in the Village Voice then, even superstars. When I met Rick, there was an instant alignment, he had an amazing voice and was a brilliant lyricist. At the first Pandora rehearsal, it was obvious to all of us something special was happening. Rick had already done a major-label album with a previous band, Plum Nelly, (which was like being in baseball’s major leagues, no small feat then), so he was the natural leader. I did have to prove myself to gain respect, but my playing spoke for itself and was in the same way Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, or Pete Townsend’s playing was, the sound of the band after Rick’s vocals.
I lived near NBC studios and would see lots of shows with every major entertainer of the day featured on the Kraft Music Hall which was filmed there. So I saw many of the greatest musicians up close, and I met Johnny Cash there. By then I’d befriended the producer Dwight Hemion and was allowed backstage to hang. Also, I used to go to the Fillmore East by myself when I was twelve years old, so I saw the greatest musicians of the era there. Traffic, The Band, Ten Years After, The Byrds, Van Morrison, The Jefferson Airplane, and so many others.
Naturally, the British invasion was my biggest influence. My mother was British and I was in England until I was four years old. That connects to the British influence in Pandora. Roxy Music and David Bowie were big stars then, and The New York Dolls were making a big noise in Manhattan, so there was a lot of energy and style happening. Pandora took the hard rock influences of bands like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, and The Who after, and blended them with the raunch of the Stones and the Glam rockstar era. Pandora wanted to reach the audience that Bowie AND Zeppelin reached.
Martin, what was the reaction of the three others when they discovered you were so young?
Martin: When Pandora began, I was only a few weeks from turning seventeen. Frank and Buz were a little more than two years older than me and Rick was two years older than they were. I began performing when I was five years old as a vocalist, doing shows at schools as a soloist with the school’s Chorus. Before Pandora, I had a band while in Lincoln High school that played college gigs, sold out The Gaslight on Bleeker St., and won our battle of the bands with all original music I’d written.
During one summer I formed a band with friends and we earned a residency at a well-known Brooklyn Blues and Jazz club in downtown Brooklyn called Dodgers Bar. For a young white guy to stand up and play Rock & Roll and Blues to a mostly black audience, I had to be good or I’d get my ass kicked. So I took it seriously and worked hard to gain my chops. I was tall and looked like I was over 18, and I knew how to stay on the down-low, so everything was cool. That was a true professional experience. In fact, I made $85 a night there, which is more than $500 in today’s money!
“…by the time I’d hooked up with Pandora I was already a seasoned pro. My age was mostly irrelevant, if you could do it, you could do it, and that was all there was to it.”
So by the time I’d hooked up with Pandora I was already a seasoned pro. My age was mostly irrelevant, if you could do it, you could do it, and that was all there was to it. Frankie LaRocka and Buz Verno were world-class players, you couldn’t lag behind players of that caliber or you’d be gone in a minute. There was only a little of the “he’s just the young guy attitude”, but that was dispelled rather quickly once we got to playing.
What skills, personality did each member bring to the table?
Rick Prince: We each were our own neighborhood rock stars, natural musicians, and dedicated followers of fashion. It was perfect casting. Verno – sarcastic, flippant, and very funny. LaRocka – a sweet quiet character. Butler – very respectful, as his guitar, found a sweet spot to match a machine-like rhythm section.
Martin: Rick had experience and a gift of a voice, Frankie and Buz are part of what is now referred to as the Staten Island mafia. That one small area produced way more great musicians than any single area in the states. Earl Slick, Thommie Price, Kasim Sultan, and many others. So they were as good as anyone making records at the time, and they set a very high bar for anyone that worked with them. Rick was a born frontman, flamboyant, and a natural communicator. Frankie was very funny, but in a sarcastic way, he would say anything he wanted to anyone. Buz was the personification of cool, spoke when he needed to and everyone listened. Those guys were all so handsome they carried that self-confidence with them unconsciously, which was a big plus for any aspiring Rock band!
“I wished we’d had the chance to work with a proper producer in a proper studio. I can only imagine how great that would have been considering the demo that became the album was done live in a loft with only a few lead guitar overdubs on a four-track Teac tape recorder. Still, the magic of the band was somehow captured there for all to hear now.”
How did the band feel about George Freije’s unconventional approach to managing the band? Do you think it hindered the trajectory of Pandora?
How did the end come about? Was there a discussion about dissolving the band?
Rick Prince: We were very young and naive. We thought everything was going great. George may have been mysterious, quirky, and unpredictable, but having a manager so that we could focus on the music and a record deal was our top priority.
Things moved very fast, George disappeared, and other opportunities for our talented young band members came knocking. I don’t remember discussing anything, it was very organic. Verno and LaRocka went to David Johanssen, I went to Twisted Sister and Butler had the Demons.
Martin: Freije made a real effort, but really was a hustler, not a music guy. He saw the potential but didn’t have the money, savvy, or clout to get us the break we needed. That said, we wouldn’t have been in Cleveland in Joe Battaglia’s loft recording live if he didn’t foot the bill. Supposedly there were three record company offers after we did a showcase at Max’s Kansas City, but it took so long that Frankie and Buz were offered a chance to join David Johansen for touring and recording, so they jumped ship while Pandora faded from memory. No one spoke to each other about it. I was pissed off because I knew then that as great as going on tour internationally was and making records was, they were still hired hands. Had they had stayed with Pandora, they would have been full partners and reaped the rewards if we had signed with a major label.
Also, I wished we’d had the chance to work with a proper producer in a proper studio. I can only imagine how great that would have been considering the demo that became the album was done live in a loft with only a few lead guitar overdubs on a four-track Teac tape recorder. Still, the magic of the band was somehow captured there for all to hear now.
How do you feel about this release?
Rick Prince: I feel great about it, it’s long overdue. Our combination of Punk Rock, Hard Rock, and Glam Rock with classical overtures that fueled Heavy Metal, later on, was ahead of its time. This is part of an ever-growing appetite for nostalgia and pop culture. Love it!
Martin: I’m thrilled by the vinyl release. The remaster sounds great, the booklet, liner notes, and photos are incredibly well done, thanks to Jason Flower. For Pandora’s music to have survived as a testament to a great band that was lost in time to me is a minor miracle. I’m grateful for all the music lovers and writers whose efforts brought it to light.
‘Space Amazon’ is set to be released April 16, 2021, on Supreme Echo Records featuring all 10 songs engineered by Joe Battaglia (Granicus) meticulously remastered by Audu Obaje. Detailed 16pg booklet with bio/photos.
All Pandora photos by Chuck Pulin and Greta, courtesy of Supreme Echo.