Allen Ravenstine's Terminal Drive

September 7, 2017

Allen Ravenstine is best known as the influential modular-synth player in Pere Ubu, Cleveland’s most famous underground band. But around the time the group was recording its debut single (1975’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”), Ravenstine was creating one of the most intriguing items in his catalog, a 15-minute work called Terminal Drive. Joined by bassist Albert Dennis, he constructed the recording using concrète sounds and a primitive, yet powerful analog synthesizer—the EML ElectroComp 200.

Allen Ravenstine, seated next to his EML ElectroComp 200 (top) and keyboard-based ElectroComp Model 101 (below).

Although sections of this legendary piece have surfaced over the years (most notably as the track “Home Life” from Pere Ubu’s 1996 Datapanik in the Year Zero), the complete version of Terminal Drive was long thought to be lost. Yet through a still-murky series of events, a tape recently surfaced, and Smog Veil Records scheduled a release of the track this September.

During the period that Ravenstine recorded Terminal Drive, the availability of affordable, user-friendly synthesizers was on the rise. He chose one by a relatively obscure company called EML. “I wish I could answer why,” Ravenstine says. “I don’t remember doing a lot of research and deciding.” He does recall that the Connecticut-based company’s back story impressed him. “Whether it’s true or not I can’t honestly tell you. But my understanding is that EML was contracted by the state of Connecticut to design a synthesizer that could be used to teach school children the basics of electronic music. And it had to be indestructible.”

For Ravenstine, the simplicity of EML’s Elec-troComp 200 was a plus. “It had no internal patching whatsoever, and it had no keyboard. And that was fine with me because I didn’t have any use for a keyboard, anyway.” He also thought the unit was aesthetically pleasing. “I liked the fact that when you wired it up, it looked like an old switchboard. It had a lot of appeal on a physical level.”

Ravenstine also liked the fact that whenever there was a question or problem with the synth, he could just pick up the phone. “Usually when I would call over there, somehow, I’d end up talking with the guy who built it,” he notes. But when he explained that he was planning to use the 200 in live performance with Pere Ubu, the people at EML were skeptical. “They were surprised that anybody would try to use it in a live situation. So, they helped me come up with some extra pieces that might make it more friendly.” The upgrades included an EML 300 controller unit featuring a primitive sequencer and a 4x4 matrix of buttons that could be used to trigger sounds.

For Terminal Drive, however, Ravenstine used only the ElectroComp 200. “It had one button, so you could organize things and then trigger an event with that one button,” he says. “So, it wasn’t completely reliant on knobs.”

The structure of Terminal Drive straddles the line between composed and improvised. “I worked then exactly the same way that I work now,” Ravenstine explains. “I come up with something that’s interesting to me, and I play it. So, in that sense it’s improvised. And then I lay it down on a track and listen to it. Then that thing suggests another thing to me.” On-the-fly composition might be an accurate way to explain Ravenstine’s process. “It’s never happened that I sat down and had an outline for something that I was going to try to make.”

The proto-ambient Terminal Drive is evocative of Ravenstine’s situation at the time: He lived in a seedy, low-rent section of Cleveland, a city then characterized by an industrial, polluted landscape rife with urban decay. “All of us are products of everything that ever happened to us and the way we see the world,” he says.

Yet Ravenstine found a kind of beauty in his surroundings. “The Cuyahoga River is a very winding river; for a number of miles in Cleveland, it may have more bridges over it than any other river in the world.” Those iron bridges, many of which were built in the 1800s, feature giant rivets. “They were very attractive to me structurally,” Ravenstine says. “The environment had a lot of appeal to me; it had a black-and-white-photograph kind of appeal.”

But it was scary, too, especially for a white, 25-year-old from the suburbs. “I didn’t really have any exposure to the inner city, to crime, to any of that kind of stuff,” Ravenstine adds. “So that was very much a rude awakening to me. And I’m sure that it affected me in many ways.” All of that—the industrial beauty as well as the sense of lurking danger—is reflected in Terminal Drive.

Albert Dennis contributed bowed bass parts to Terminal Drive.

“My method, when I’m thinking about a particular sound, is not to try to find a way to duplicate it, but more to try to evoke the essence of it.” The icy, buzzing, throbbing textures of Ravenstine’s EML synthesizer and Dennis’ bowed bass combine to paint an aural portrait of the then-crumbling Cleveland and its environs.

Ravenstine admits that he doesn’t know exactly how and why the full version of Terminal Drive suddenly showed up some 40 years after its recording. A couple of years ago, Robert Wheeler (Ravenstine’s replacement in Pere Ubu) phoned him and let him know that a label had expressed interest in releasing the fabled recording.

“I told them I’d be delighted to let them have it,” Ravenstine recalls. “But I didn’t have it, and I didn’t know who did. I didn’t have any idea what happened to it.” Still, he promised to look for it. “I did everything I could do to find it.”

He contacted Suma Recording, one of Cleveland’s premier studios. “I thought they may have been involved,” he says. But he had no luck and eventually gave up. “I just wrote it off as, ‘whatever—not gonna happen.’” Not long after, he was contacted by Frank Mauceri of Smog Veil Records, who sent him some audio snippets and asked Ravenstine to identify them.

“It was very odd. It was sort of like when you’re at the airport and they have an announcement: ‘If you lost your wallet, please return to Gate 12 and be prepared to identify it.’” He believed that Mauceri had access to something, but wasn’t sure if it was the real Terminal Drive and didn’t want to reveal the whole thing until the deal was finalized. Ravenstine listened to the brief clips and told him, “You know what? I think this is it.” Mauceri worked out a deal with the person who had possession of the physical tape, and a release was scheduled.

More recently, Ravenstine reached out directly to that individual in hope of obtaining the original tape. “I asked him, ‘How in the world did you end up with it?’ And he didn’t know. That’s what happens: After forty years, there’s an awful lot of things people don’t remember.” But talking to the unnamed individual, he did learn one thing: What had been found was not the quarter-inch original master, done at 15 ips on a TEAC machine. “I think that what Frank got from this seller in Ohio is a cassette,” Ravenstine says. In any event, the fidelity of the new release—from an unknown-generation dub—is surprisingly good, a testament to the technical quality of the original.

Looking at a chronology of Ravenstine’s musical credits, one notices a lengthy gap. Not counting retrospectives and box sets, his prodigious output stops completely after 1991 and doesn’t pick up again until 2013, when he recorded a pair of releases (Farm Report and City Desk) with Wheeler. In fact, Ravenstine quit music for many years, becoming a commercial airline pilot. It was only around the time that the documentary I Dream of Wires was being filmed that his interest in making music was reignited.

Ravenstine was invited to appear in the documentary, and when he learned that Wheeler would also be featured, he had an idea. “I said, ‘Robert and I have never played together; would it be possible for us to do that while we we’re in the studio doing this movie?’” The result of that collaboration is the pair of CDs released in 2013.

In addition, Ravenstine released The Pharaoh’s Bee in 2015, a solo work, while another album is in the can, and yet another is nearly finished. Along the way, he introduced a number of instruments to his rig: He received a Moog Theremini as a gift, and later added a Doepfer Dark Energy and Rare Waves Grendel to the setup.

“Today I work with analog synthesizers, some digital synthesizers, digital recordings of instruments, and Apple Logic,” he says. And, of course, he still has the original EML ElectroComp 200 he used to make Terminal Drive.

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