OHO? Aha! That's a name that rings bells. Baltimore's answer to Pink Floyd, an American underground icon, a band that came out of nowhere playing music the chroniclers swore was years ahead of its time. OHO sneaks around the musical conventions that have mummified so many others, unleashing sliders where you'd expect curve balls, fast balls where you'd expect change-ups. Part of its their sense of humor, part of it their unerring humanity. A curious anomaly, the band was totally out of synch with current musical trends when they formed in late 73, a five-piece multi-instrumental, avant garde, acid-progressive band from Baltimore with a do-it-yourself lifestyle and album/label/outlook who were either seven years too late or seventeen years too early. They remain enigmatic, but certainly made some daring music in their time. Like the Residents, these guys seem to be an artistic collective of some sort having released albums, a single, various tapes and literature demonstrating their own demented aesthetic. OHO is one of those curious oddball bands who existed in the pre-dawn of the independent label revolution. Definitely, one of a kind and all in good fun...its got to be.
The story begins around 1970 at a Baltimore club called "Bluesette." Mark O'Connor, Joe O'Sullivan and Jay Graboski played there in a group known as Quinn, setting a pattern for the next quarter century and beyond. "Blues was the thing then," remembers Mark O'Connor," and the bands were doing Taj Mahal, I-IV-V chords all night and jamming. We were playing early Edgar Winter, originals and whatever we liked. So even in an alternative club we were outsiders, and we've been going against the grain ever since." In 1971 Mark, Jay, Jay's brother/drummer Jeff and Trent Zeigen formed Little Hans, a gothic-progressive quartet featuring two keyboardists, guitar and percussion. The band recorded an epic 42 minute rock fantasy based on the Peter Pan story and a trio of songs engineered by Richard Kunc, former Director of Engineering for Frank Zappa's Bizarre-Straight record label. Mark left after a year and a few months later Little Hans disbanded.
In 1973 O'Connor with friends Steve Heck and Joe O'Sullivan began a period of crazed experimentation that would lead to their most infamous incarnation. Retiring to O'Sullivan's basement, they delved into what O'Connor describes as "really chaotic stuff, just making noise, total nihilism. We had no intention of recording, it was just a release from boredom." Taking the three initials of their last names, they called themselves OHO.
Soon the guys were putting music to a stack of free-form poetry they had written, and as things became more seriously non-serious, Jay Graboski and fusion drummer Larry Bright were invited to join. OHO was the combination of several individuals intertwined before and since in various ways. This latest collaboration resulted in a debut album that people are still reacting to.
"Okinawa" is OHOs first album now available as a 4-10" vinyl set so strong it comes in a metal box. Recorded in January 1974, it is astonishingly full of weirdness that falls somewhere in Syd Barrett-era Floydland: some psychedelia, some art noise, some bizarre theatrics; but all-around inventive and well crafted. OHO combined the theater-rock-dialogue format of Genesis with the crazed-rock styles of "Wild Man" Fischer and Capt. Beefheart. Musically more progressive than psychedelic, an hour of "Okinawa" and you'll be carried away, via a weird pastiche of post-Zappa logic and Christopher Milk-like Anglo worship, to the tangerine jungle of marshmallow madness. Germany's Hanf magazine called it "Sgt. Pepper's for the advanced listener." The record was released in July, 1974 to less than enthusiastic response, offending the conservative Baltimore community with its rawness and disregard for convention. "Okinawa" was one of the first albums released independently by an American band in the '70s. The group went through a series of harrowing experiences with individuals who said they could sell the album and ended up giving most of them away, relegating the original edition of this great album to its current staple status on the collector circuit where it usually commands a substantial minimum bid.
In June, 1974 OHO disappeared into Sheffield studios to record the follow-up, "Vitamin OHO", a different teapot of mackerel. "Vitamin" is a colorful collision between Henry Cow and Henry VIII, adventurous, jazz-flecked, elemental, chamber music fusing psychedelic and progressive moves into one fascinating whole. More acceptably prog-complex than its forerunner, this disc still has enough screw-loose guitar, Canterbury-odd lyricism, and genial psychedelic whatsis to make a aurally arresting piece of a sonic puzzle that's slowly coming together. "Vitamin OHO", released in 1991 on Little Wing, has enough mellotron, synths and Frippian guitar work to satisfy the most discerning prog-rock fan and is reminiscent of the days when albums were visits to miniature cerebral universes.
These psychotic eruptions from the hinterlands of Towson either put Baltimore on the map or removed it entirely. In 1974, during the "Vitamin OHO" sessions, the group met with Paul Rieger who recorded OHO in various basements for a university radio program. In '75 Rieger introduced the band to producer Thomas Apple who had ironically made a small fortune by investing in the wrong company at the right time. Under the Apple auspices the band recorded the tracks that comprise the final installment of the OHO album trilogy, "Dream of the Ridiculous Band." Though these sessions '75-'76 were uncharacteristically distinguished by the band's often forced acquiescence to the taste and whim of an outside producer, O'Connor credits Apple with revitalizing the band financially, attracting prospective recording contracts with A&M and Capitol records respectively both of which OHO charmed their way out of. There were more live performances with the quintet playing city fairs, outdoor rock festivals, the occaisional college concert and anywhere anyone would allow them to perform. "OHO was incredibly interesting," recalls Paul Rieger, "just way ahead of their time. They played The Steel Workers' Hall and it was a disaster because no one knew what was going on...There'd be someone onstage dressed like a pig carrying an axe or even crucified. Later, they started getting more serious, working hard on the music and getting standing ovations which was unheard of. Back then very few local bands were using synthesizers and mellotrons." OHO's garage-progressive iconoclasm ran four years ahead of the new wave. They were called everything from proto-punk "space toads" to the strangest American band since The Residents.
"Vitamin OHO" and "Dream of the Ridiculous Band" reveal OHO as a highly competent progressive band with hints of Crimson, Genesis and Grobschnitt: a very un-American sound. Like contemporaries Happy The Man, they were inventive, with accents on complex structures, unusual time signatures, dynamics and the exceptional interplay among the two guitarists Joe O'Sullivan & J.P. Graboski, keyboard whiz Mark O'Connor, bassist Steven Heck ,aka Nuna, and drummer "Gentleman" Jeff Graboski (aka Spink). "Ecce OHO", a collection of heretofore unavailable alternates and out-takes, features this line up. These selections from '74-'75 incorporate 6 studio tracks, 3 live-in-concert tracks and one four track, Paul Rieger recording.
By early '77, entropy had OHO in tow. Wanting funds and enthusiastically bankrupt, the group was unable to sustain the previously successful fusion of five creative and volatile personalities. David Reeve replaced Jeff Graboski in providing the band with its beat (Jeff died in September, 1987). A fourth aborted album, "OHO House", was intended to move toward a more basic style of music with straightforward arrangements. A handful of songs were begun before things fell apart, with "Nazi Hund" and cassette recordings of pre-practice jams being the most remarkable. Mark O'Connor muses, "We never had a lot of high artistic notions about the whole thing. When people didn't like the music it wasn't 'we are artists,' it was just 'piss off.' We only cared about having a good time." By then the good times had been had...for the time being.
Jay and Mark continued to play through the new wave in Dark Side, Trixy & The Testones and Food For Worms but each of these bands is subject enough for a story of its own. The 1984 version of OHO recorded "Rocktronics", a 7 song EP produced by Jack Heyrman and WIYY DJ Ty Ford for the former's Clean Cuts records. The line-up consisted of Mark O'Connor, Jay Graboski and David Reeve from the original band, with frontman Gyro and bassist Mike Kearney from the Balkan-Bop band, Food For Worms. Roctronics' OHO was a snappy electronic group which blended new wave sensibilities before a deftly textured musical backdrop. Discouraged with the direction in which the band was being taken, O'Connor resigned. Graboski and Reeve left with the name six months later. They retired to Hit & Run studio in Rockville, MD, where over the next four years they wrote and recorded their next LP. The OHO moniker became synonymous with the word persistence.
In 1990, the eponymously entitled "OHO", released on Sky Records based in Norcross, GA, Recorded at 'Hit and Run Studio',imaginatively explored the affect of post-acoustic guitars...warily, with acid-folk edginess and trademark lyrical unpredictability. Combining Grace Hearn's stellar, unwavering vocals, bassist/engineer Steve Carr's crystalline production, Jay Graboski's assiduous songwriting and David Reeve's muscular rhythms, "OHO" encompasses elements of rock and progressive pop within impressively intricate arrangements and was listed as an "editors' choice" for 1990 in CD Review (06/91 Vol. VII Number 10). Three selections feature Jay's employment of the unorthodox, new-standard, C Pentatonic guitar tuning (C-G-D-A-E-G, from the lowest to the highest string) introduced to him by Robert Fripp in November 1985 at Guitar Craft VII near Charles Town, WV. Graboski, who has been experimenting with this tuning in his playing and songwriting ever since, remembers Fripp as having "very little respect for" the old standard tuning, calling it "an arbitrary botch."
In 1991 OHO signed with Little Wing Of Refugees based in Kastl, Germany. The label was founded in 1988 as an answer to all the counterfeit rubbish that overflows the market, to the purpose of giving a wider audience the chance to hear great records that might be unaffordable for most as originals and unheard up to now because of their rarity. Little Wing records and compact discs are produced very carefully. Cover art and graphics are conceived in an early seventies tradition and necessary efforts are taken to guarantee the highest fidelity while remaining true to the intended sound of the master source. The label is dedicated to the release of important, but lost music of the seventies. Through the relentless persistence of label rep Ann Neumayer, Refugees revealed the scope of their musical vision by releasing "Vitamin OHO" in 1991 and reissuing "Okinawa" in 1995. The latter includes the unpublished 15 track balance from the original sessions. "Dream Of The Ridiculous Band", seething in its own juices for the last 22 years, is scheduled to be unleashed sometime in 1999.
In July 1995, Mark O'Connor, Steven Heck, Joseph O'Sullivan, Jay Graboski and David Reeve reunited after an eighteen year pause for the worthy cause. The band continues to play locally off and on. Mark O'Connor also collaborates with ex-OHO member Gyro and OHO aficionado Bert Taylor under the acronym of BLAMMO (Beleaguered League of Artists Meeting Mass Opposition). David Reeve, Jay Graboski and Steve Carr who have teamed up with former Little Hans keyboardist Trent Zeigen are recording an album of Zeigen's techno-symphonic, progressive lounge arrangements of their music at Carr's Hit & Run studio. Since 1974 Jay has also played guitar with ex-OHO bassist Mike Kearney in The Weaszels, having released one CD, "Whack 'N Wild!", playing live and making appearances on various compilations over three decades. Aside from the projected Little Wing releases (which inevitably include putting out "Vitamin OHO" on CD), Graboski and Paul Rieger are currently editing OHO's "Churinga!", an assemblage of the best of Paul's basement 4 track recordings from '74-'75 and "Jammed", a compendium of improvisations, instrumentals and an interview from the "House" period ('76-'77). There is even talk of recording an album of new material, "Balder the Beautiful Is Dead, Is Dead." And as the circle is concentric, look for it around 2016.