Cult Classic: MacArthur-MacArthur.

Having completed a tour of duty with the United States Marine Corps, Ben MacArthur returned home to Sagina, Michigan in 1977. By then, jobs were few and far between, and it looked as if a recession was about to hit the rustbelt. It was hardly the welcome home he had envisaged. The future looked bleak. Then he met Bill Heffelfinger, a seventeen year old musical prodigy.

Since Ben MacArthur had been away, Bill Heffelfinger had started dating his younger sister. When the two men met, Ben discovered that Bill was not just a talented musician, but a gifted arranger. One day, it became apparent that Bill wasn’t just a virtuoso guitarist, but was equally comfortable on keyboards.

Ben only realised this when he heard Bill playing the piano in his parent’s house. He was stopped in his tracks as Bill played Neil Young’s The Last Trip To Tulsa. What made this remarkable, was Bill didn’t even know the song. However, Bill could read music so was able to play The Last Trip To Tulsa. What’s more, Bill made it look so easy. Maybe Bill was just the person Ben MacArthur was looking for?

For some time, Ben had been writing poetry. This began when Ben was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. In his spare time, he retired to his bunk and wrote poetry. Ben was unburdening himself emotionally via poetry. This was maybe a cathartic process, and helped Ben survive his tour of duty. However, when he returned home safely, Ben didn’t stop writing.

After watching Bill play The Last Trip To Tulsa, Ben began talking to his sister’s boyfriend. Soon, they were talking music. Ben told Bill about Neil Young, and then began to tell him about the poetry he had written. Not long after this, Ben went to watch Bill playing with the band Labyrinth.

They were playing at a local fair. When Labyrinth took to the stage, Ben noticed that Bill was playing guitar. Soon, it became apparent that he was an even better guitarist than keyboardist. With Bill giving a virtuoso performance on guitar, he had the band eating out of his hand. Especially, when Labyrinth covered Rush’s 2112. By then, Ben had made his mind up, that he would be in a band with Bill. That was in the future.

Soon, the two men began to write songs together.They were an unlikely partnership. Ben was the senior partner, who had already written a few songs. He was fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corp, and had seen a bit of the world. Bill was just seventeen, but already was regarded as a musical whizz kid. Both men however, had time on their hands.

With jobs scarce, the pair needed something to fill their days. So they grabbed a couple of guitars and began to write songs. For Ben, writing songs wasn’t much different to writing poetry. Both men unburdened themselves through music, and quickly they realised that the songs they were writing had potential.  Bill took them away to arrange them.

Despite being just seventeen, Bill was able to arrange the songs so that they took on a classic sound. By then, Ben MacArthur knew that Bill Heffelfinger was no ordinary seventeen year old. The word prodigy had been invented for him. With Bill’s arrangements in place, the two friends began to think about putting together a band. This band would become MacArthur, who released their eponymous debut album in 1979, which was an ambitious concept album.

What they needed was a rhythm section. Ben MacArthur found his bassist in the unlikeliest of places…on a building site. By then, Ben was working as a roofer, when he met guitarist Scott Stockford. As the two men became friends, they began to write songs together. Eventually, Ben asked Scott if he would interested in joining the nascent band. However, there was a rub, Ben wanted John to play bass. Straight away, he agreed.

That day, Scott Stockford went out and bought a brand new bass. When he arrived at the first band rehearsal, Scott brought along drummer Jeff Bauer. It seemed all Ben’s problems were solved in one fell swoop.

And so it proved. Not only did Jeff Bauer prove to be a talented drummer, but Scott Stockford soon mastered the bass. He was a natural and formed a potent partnership with drummer Jeff Bauer in the rhythm section. The final pieces in the jigsaw that was MacArthur had fallen into place. 

By 1978, MacArthur began playing together regularly. They were soon honing their songs and sound. It didn’t take long for them to realise that the songs that MacArthur were playing had potential. So MacArthur decided to record an album in 1979.

Despite deciding to record an album in 1979, MacArthur didn’t play live often. There weren’t many venues who were putting on live bands. The late-seventies was the disco era, and many live venues had been converted into discos. When MacArthur played live, they combined their owns songs with covers of songs by Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd and Neil Young. However, concerts were few and far between. Maybe after recording and releasing their debut album, doors would open for MacArthur?

In 1979, the four members of MacArthur began working on their eponymous debut album. Ben MacArthur wrote all the lyrics, while members of MacArthur wrote the music. Everyone had played their part in the album. The music to Laughing Like A Lark, Generations-First Contact and Of Only Then waspenned by the four members of MacArthur. Light Up and Push Up were credited to MacArthur and Bill Heffelfinger. He also penned the music to The Black Forest, Prelude No.1 In C Major and The Shock Of The New. These eight tracks were recorded by MacArthur using what was the latest piece of musical equipment for hobbyist musicians, the four-track recorder.

Using a four-track recorder to record MacArthur wasn’t going to be easy. Ideally, MacArthur could’ve used many more tracks than four. Luckily, Bill Heffelfinger proved to be a talented engineer, and managed to record what was an ambitious album. Partly that was because of how many instruments MacArthur used to record their eponymous debut album.

With their four-track recorder, MacArthur headed to the studio. This was familiar territory for them. With very few live venues where they could play, MacArthur spent most of their time in the studio. This time, though, MacArthur were about to record their eponymous debut album. So when the band began to setup, their must have been a degree of trepidation. The rhythm section of drummer and percussionist Jeff Bauer and bassist Scott Stockford would provide the album’s heartbeat. Lead vocalist Ben MacArthur played acoustic and electric guitar. Bill Heffelfinger played organ, piano, synths and acoustic, classical and electric guitar. He also produced MacArthur, bringing the album together over many a long night. Eventually, MacArthur was completed and now all that was left was to release MacArthur.

That was easier said than done. There was no record company riding to the rescue of MacArthur and offering to released their eponymous debut album. Instead, MacArthur had to find a record company that would press a small amount of albums. However, most labels required an order of 500 or 1,000 album. That was way beyond MacArthur’s budget. It also meant they could be left with piles of unsold albums. Eventually, Bill Heffelfinger’s father found a solution.

Eugene Heffelfinger was a teacher at the local high school, and had a contact at RPC Records, in Camden, New Jersey. Regularly, Euegen Heffelfinger put business RPC Records’ way. So they agreed to press 200 albums for $2,000. There was a problem

Eventually, Scott Stockford took out a loan for $2,000 and 200 copies of MacArthur were pressed. This left MacArthur to sell the copies.

Once the copies of the album arrived, the members of MacArthur spent time sticking labels on the front of plain white album covers, and then glueing credits on the back. With the money spent on pressing the 200 albums, and it was a case of needs must. After that, MacArthur concentrated on selling the albums.

The members of MacArthur spent their time travelling between Saginaw, Midland and Bay City. They sold copes of MacArthur to record shops, record dealers and at record fairs. MacArthur even managed to secure an appearance on the WKYO radio station, where they promoted the album. All their efforts paid off, and the majority of the MacArthur albums were sold by 1980.

By then, MacArthur had been well received locally. Reviews and radio stations forecast a great future for MacArthur. However, with most of the albums sold, and the members of the MacArthur were drifting apart. The band spent less time playing together, and more time completing college degrees. Gradually, MacArthur drifted apart, and eventually the band went their separate ways.

Their legacy was MacArthur, a progressive, psychedelic  concept album that looks at the human condition. Everything from new beginnings to difficulties and discoveries are considered by MacArthur, on their eponymous debut album.

Light Up, a three minute instrumental opens MacArthur. Crystalline, chiming guitars play while galloping drums join with a piano. Soon, a scorching guitar solo cuts through the arrangement. It’s panned right to left, as gradually, the arrangement builds. Already, it’s hard to believe the album was recorded using just four tracks  Engineer and producer Bill Heffelfinger worked miracles. Instruments are spread across the stereo spectrum. The guitar that’s been panned hard right steals the show. This blistering solo is played with speed and accuracy, as the rest of MacArthur jam on what’s a hopeful sounding track. It allows MacArthur to showcase their considerable skills.

Just a quiet, wistful acoustic guitar opens Laughing Like A Lark. Soon, Ben’s impassioned vocal enters. Briefly, he sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Then, the volume increases and his vocal grows in power as instruments enter. The rhythm section, synths and a droning organ combine. They accompany Ben whose vocal is a mixture of emotion, frustration and drama. When his vocal drops out, MacArthur jam, before the guitar takes centre-stage. As it drops out, rolls of drums are panned right to left, as an acoustic guitar is strummed. Each member of MacArthur gets the chance to shine. Especially Bill as another stunning, bristling guitar solo unfolds. Later, the tempo changes, and the urgency is gone. Replacing it isa much more laid back progressive sound. Gradually, the arrangement stirs as  Ben’s vocal returns and he breathes meaning into the lyrics while washes of organ accompany him. Just like the previous track, MacArthur’s playing is almost flawless as they combine elements of classic and progressive rock with fusion.

As Generations-First Contact unfolds, just a guitar laden with effects plays. It’s joined by a wash of synths before Ben’s vocal enters. His vocal is full of emotion, as he sings of an over populated world and a solution to this. Meanwhile, the arrangement is slow, deliberate and moody. A strummed guitar, drums and searing electric guitar enter, and another solo unfolds. Again, it’s flawless as Bill delivers a virtuoso performance. Then at 4.39 the tempo changes, and the arrangement slows, and meanders alone before Ben’s vocal returns. He continues to consider the problem of an over populated world. Then when his vocal drops out, MacArthur enjoy the opportunity to jam, and reserve one of their best performances for a genre-melting track they cowrote.

Just a picked classical acoustic guitar opens Push On. It’s multi-tracked, and panned left and right. Soon, electric guitars replace their acoustic cousins, as the rhythm section enter. as MacArthur soon are combining classic and progressive rock with folk rock. By then, Ben’s singing about fear can haunt people if they fail to deal with it.So much so, that sometimes, they have to briefly escape from it. “In the woods out in the country, there’s a secret place you go, to walk out from reality, but never let it show.” Behind him, guitars, the rhythm section and an organ combine to create a mid-tempo arrangement. When the vocal drops out, the rest of MacArthur stretch their legs. A blistering guitar solo is at the heart of the arrangement. Meanwhile mesmeric guitars are panned right and left, and join with the rhythm section in creating what’s one of the best tracks on MacArthur. Especially given the quality of Ben MacArthur’s thought provoking lyrics. 

A distant keyboard opens Of Only Then, and grows nearer.As it does, it’s joined by the rhythm section and guitar. They take care not to overpower Ben’s emotive vocal. Adding to the emotion is the keyboard, as an anthem begins to unfold. Meanwhile, Ben sings of loneliness, love, hopes, dreams and sadness. The most poignant lines are; “I won’t forget your loving stare…and now the time has come to go my weary way.” As the song unfolds, and heads into anthem territory, it’s reminiscent of REO Speedwagon, Styx and even early Chicago. Then at 3.22 the vocal drops out, and MacArthur the song becomes an instrumental. Again, this allows MacArthur to showcase their considerable musical skills. They seem to relish the opportunity to jam. Just like previous tracks, the guitar is at the heart of the song. So is the piano, which adds a beautiful, melancholy hue.

The Black Forest is a six part instrumental suite, lasting six minutes. From an understated introduction, MacArthur take the listener on a musical adventure. Just acoustic guitars play, before an effects laden guitar signals all change. The arrangement becomes rocky, as it explodes into life. Just the guitar and rhythm section kick loose, before the arrangement chugs along. Then when a bristling guitar is unleashed, and unites with the drums there’s an element of drama and urgency. It’s the scorching guitar that’s stealing the show. Briefly, it’s panned, before the drums take centre-stage as the track moves from progressive to futuristic. Later, as if spent, the arrangement takes on an understated sound with just subtle guitars meandering alone, and leaving just a pleasing and pleasant memory of a musical adventure.

Prelude No.1 In C Major is very different to previous tracks. Just a lone acoustic guitar is played in a classical style. It’s played slowly and gently, with space left in the arrangement. Then at 1.39 the track dissipates, and there’s near silence. That’s until a rumbling piano is played with power and passion. It continues the classical theme, as it’s played deliberately and dramatically. Towards the end, the arrangement slows, before reaching a crescendo. By then, this reinforces that MacArthur, a truly versatile band, were no ordinary group.

The Shock Of The New, a piano lead track closes MacArthur. Deliberate, mesmeric stabs and flourishes of piano are replaced by a buzzing synth. Music’s past is replaced by music’s future, as synths dominate the arrangement. A buzzing bass synth and whirling vortexes of synths are joined by an organ. It’s a reminder of music’s past. So are dark chords played on the piano. They’re allowed to take centre-stage, as MacArthur draws to a close. A flamboyant flourish brings to an end what surely the four members of MacArthur thought was only the start of the story.

Sadly, MacArthur was the only album that the band released. By 1980, the band had run its course. The members of the band were concentrating on careers and college degree. MacArthur just drifted apart.

Of the 200 albums that they had pressed, at most 180 had been sold. MacArthur was one of music’s best kept secrets. With its mixture of classic rock. folk rock,fusion, jazz, psychedelia and progressive rock, MacArthur was a truly timeless album. Sadly, it didn’t find the audience it deserved upon its release.

Nowadays, record collectors speak almost reverentially in hushed tones about MacArthur. Original copies were almost impossible to find, and if one became available, the price was prohibitive to most record collectors. So the reissue of MacArthur, a cerebral, timeless concept album will be welcomed.

MacArthur were a band who could’ve and should’ve reached greater heights. They oozed talent. In Ben MacArthur, they had a talented lyricists, vocalist and guitarist. Bill Heffelfinger was a virtuoso guitarist, who was also a gifted keyboardist and producer. Along with a rhythm section of bassist Scott Stockford and drummer Jeff Bauer, MacArthur were a band who were technically flawless. Part of the problem was, MacArthur had to release their eponymous debut album themselves.

They had to find $2,000 to press 200 albums, and then sell them. It must have been a soul-destroying experience, hauling albums from shop to shop, and city to city. Even then, MacArthur didn’t sell the 200 album. Ten albums were impounded by the police, when a record shop that was selling them was raided. Still, MacArthur persisted, and continued the round of record shop, record dealers, record fairs and radio stations. Eventually, the majority of the copies of MacArthur were sold. By then, MacArthur must have wondered how different things might have been if they had been signed to a record label? 

If MacArthur had been signed to a record label, one can only wonder what producer Bill Heffelfinger would’ve been able to do with a forty-eight track recording studio at his disposal? He had worked wonder with the four-track recorder on MacArthur, and created an album is a truly timeless, genre-melting cult classic.

Cult Classic: MacArthur-MacArthur.


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