The Robin Boers Interview
“The Ugly Ducklings are my favourite Canadian band.” Thus, spoke Mick Jagger after ‘The Ducks’ opened for The Rolling Stones in 1966. Hailing from Toronto, Canada, The Ugly Ducklings went from practicing in their parents’ basements in 1964 to playing clubs in Toronto’s legendary, and formerly bohemian capital, Yorkville Avenue in 1965. Ultimately, ‘The Ducks’ headlined and/or supported The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Grassroots, The Beach Boys, Wilson Pickett and many others. The band released several singles in 1966 and 1967 culminating with the smash, “Gaslight”, which ironically, unseated their heroes, The Stones’ “Dandelion”, as the #1 song in Toronto. Their LP, “Somewhere Outside” has been recognised as one of the one of the most influential garage (almost punk), rock albums of all time and the first track, “Nothin’” was recently voted #33 as one of “The Top 100 Canadian Singles” in the book of the same name.
The original band consisted of Dave Bingham, (vocals and harp), Roger Mayne, (lead guitar), Glynn Bell, (rhythm guitar, back up vocals), John Read, (bass), and Robin Boers, (drums). I recently sat down with Robin, at his studio in Toronto, where we talked about The Ugly Ducklings, Toronto’s Yorkville Village scene in the mid ‘60’s, and his ongoing musical pursuits.
Terrascope: Hi Robin. How old were you when you first started playing
Robin Boers: I guess I was about 15 years old...yeah, I was a late starter.
T: So, were The Ugly Ducklings your first band?
RB: No, I had a little band before that. But, one day I came for a rehearsal, (my Dad’s basement), and all the equipment was gone except for my drums. The other guys had sold their instruments and amps to buy a dirt bike!
RB: Yeah, but before we broke up, the bass player, Howard used to get these British music magazines from his Grandmother in England. This was before anyone in Canada had heard of “The British Invasion”. So, I grew my hair long, and was looking for like-minded musicians.
T: So, you had long hair, before it was ‘cool’.
RB: Right. The slack I got from school, especially at West Hill Collegiate which was a tough school, was bad. They were all greasers with duck tails and jelly rolls. Anyway, a guy at school told me about some kind of a show at Cedarbrae Collegiate the following night. And I thought I’d check it out.
T: What year was that?
RB: Probably late '64. So, I'm walking down the halls at this school, wondering why I'm there, and I come around the corner, and there are these three guys with long hair, as long as mine. So, I'm looking at them, while they're looking at me, and I just said, "Hi, I'm a drummer". And they all burst out laughing, and said, "Well, we're a band, and we're looking for a drummer!"
T: Hahaha... amazing.
RB: Yeah, that was the beginning of The Ugly Ducklings.
T: Weren’t you called “The Strolling Bones” at first?
RB: Just for that one gig, before I joined.
T: So, who named the band, "The Ugly Ducklings"?
RB: Oh, I guess probably Glynn Bell, (the rhythm guitarist). We liked that image…the Stones, and later The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things. We didn’t want to wear the white shirts and suits that The Beatles and those other pop bands wore. We wanted to look ‘ugly’…so, “The Ugly Ducklings”. Glynn became a graphic design artist, you know. Have you seen his caricature of the band?
T: Yeah, I thought it was amazing. [The caricature was used for the front cover of the lp, “The Ugly Ducklings”].
RB: Anyway, we started rehearsing at the lead guitar player’s place…Roger Mayne.
T: And what kind of things were you rehearsing at the time?
RB: Well, at first the guys had been playing all those guitar tunes, you know....Wipe Out, Pipe Line, Ghost Riders in the Sky,...but then we started getting into Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and lots of Stones. The Stones were a big, big influence.
RB: Well, we had a manager, Bill Huard, and I guess he hooked us up. I really don't know. As a 17-year-old drummer, I was the last in the loop.
T: I know the feeling. Anyway, you started playing at a new place called ‘Charlie Brown's' in Yorkville around 1965.
RB: Charlie's was a place that held maybe 90 people. But, we used to get 470 people in there, on chairs, on tables...everywhere...man, if the Fire Marshall had come down…
T: Wow. Besides the fact that The Ugly Ducklings were a great band, to what do you attribute that kind of following?
RB: One thing was the whole Yorkville Village scene. A lot of people liked us, because they thought we were from England. We were new, we had one step up on the rest...and we had longer hair!
T: Hahaha. There were a lot of white soul bands down in the Village in '65, really clean cut looking guys...Jon and Lee and The Checkmates...
RB: Yeah, all the ‘stove-pipe’ bands, Roy Kenner and The Associates, the Rogues, who became 'The Mandala', Shawn and Jay Jackson...
T: Right, The Ugly Ducklings were one of the first Canadian bands to look and sound like a Brit band. The Mynah Birds, (with Rick James and Neil Young), were playing in Yorkville at the same time. Did you hang out with those guys?
RB: Not really hang...they heard us, and we heard them. But here’s a little-known fact. Even though they were called The Mynah Birds, they played at a place called, 'Chez Monique', not at 'The Mynah Bird' club.
T: Strange times. Anyway, after a few months in Yorkville, you met the Rolling Stones and ended up supporting them. How did that happen?
RB: Well this girl we knew, Luba, was the president of the Rolling Stones fan club in Canada, and asked if we wanted to meet the band. This was when they played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto the first time, in 1965. Of course, we said yes! They had a whole floor at The King Edward Hotel. Unbeknownst to us, Jagger had been in his limousine, and heard our song, 'Nothin', on the radio, and said, "Whoa, who's this band?!” And he wanted to meet us.
T: Right, that's when Mick Jagger gave his famous quote, "The Ugly Ducklings are my favourite Canadian band.”
RB: Yeah, that's how that quote got started.
T: Unbelievable. So, you hung out with the Stones…it must have been hilarious with Brian Jones and Glynn Bell in the same room... they looked like identical twins.
RB: Oh yeah, we had Brian and Glynn, back to back, trying to figure out who was who. The two of them were five foot eight, and Jagger's a bit a comedian, so he's goofing around, asking "who's who?” It was fun. I talked for quite a while with Keith Richard. And Charlie didn’t have much to say. He just told me he plays what Mick and Keith tell him to.
T: Right, you opened for them that night?
RB: No, that would have been ridiculous. They asked us to play the next time they were in town, which we did....in '66. But in the meantime, we headlined 'The Toronto Sound' show at Maple Leaf Gardens for 22,000 people. We did a bit of a The Who thing, with Glynn trashing his guitar....
T: Yeah, I read about that. I was too young to see that gig, unfortunately.
RB: Everybody started rushing the stage at the end of our gig. And we were about to be trampled. But, just in time, 25 cops came out from behind the curtains, and circled around the five of us, and took us off. I was scared…Glynn and I were literally crushed in a corner, and they were trying to rip our hair off.
T: Duck mania!
T: You also opened for The Animals, and The Grassroots, and Wilson Pickett...
RB: Right, there's a story behind that. We were in Peterborough, Ontario, opening for Wilson Picket, but people were out to see The Ducks, right? Three of us were off stage watching, when Wilson Pickett said, "Come on out!" Our gear was still set up, so I hopped on the drums, and we did 'Mustang Sally', '99 and a half', 'Midnight Hour', you know...and the guitar player, four feet away.... takes some great solos, and I'm thinking 'holy fuck'...who’s this guy!?
T: Don’t tell me the guy was playing the guitar behind his neck.
RB: No, but he was playing four feet from my high hat, playing these incredible solos...I was freaked... Who is this guy?
T: Don’t tell me it was Jimi Hendrix.
RB: Well, he was introduced as Jimi James. I didn't find out till later that it was, in fact, Jimi Hendrix!
T: Man, that's an incredible story.
RB: Yeah, it was amazing…but there’s more. Buddy Miles was on drums and Billy Cox was on bass.
T: What?! That’s like…. wait a minute…that’s the future ‘Band of Gypsys’!
RB: Yeah, but they were Wilson Pickett’s backup band at that time.
T: Unreal. So, getting back to the Ducks…. you had released several singles by that point….'Nothin’, ‘She Ain’t No Use To Me’, and ‘Just in Case You Wonder’, all of which made the Canadian charts. How did the first Ugly Ducklings album, 'Somewhere Outside' come about?
RB: Well, we were finally told that if we wanted to get anywhere, we had to do our own material. So, we wrote those songs, which got picked up by Yorkville/Yorktown records....it was all "Arc Records", really. Yeah, and soon afterward, we had a whole album of material. Bill Gilliland was the one who signed us to Arc.
T: But, your managers didn't get you an American distribution deal, which is why no one heard The Ugly Ducklings in the States at that time.
RB: Well, Bill was still pretty green, as he admitted to us later. He went down to Los Angeles, and RCA was very interested in us. They wanted to sign us for 2 1/4 cents per tune, which was the going rate, in the States. We were already making 5 cents a tune in Canada. So, Bill insisted on 5 cents from RCA per tune, which was unheard of at the time in the States. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley was getting only 2 1/2 cents. He fucked up big time, and we didn't get the deal with RCA.
T: What a drag. "The Top 100 Canadian Albums" (by the book of the same name), rated The Ugly Ducklings lp, "Somewhere Outside” #72, and the single, "Nothin'", #33....all time. But, your biggest hit single "Gaslight”, (#1 on the Toronto chart), was written by Robert Hailey, a Yorkville Records staff writer, which was recorded with the Ducks' singer Dave Bingham, and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show Band in New York…. without any of the other Ducklings knowing about it….
RB: It became a toothpaste commercial.... McClean’s toothpaste.
T: Really? But, how did the rest of the band feel about not being included on that session?
RB: Well, the immediate knee jerk reaction was we were pissed off. But then we heard the story of how the song had been offered to Gene Pitney, who turned it down, and they offered it to our singer, Dave. So, we figured out how to play it, which wasn't very hard, and we added it to our set.
RB: Well, Dave Bingham and Roger Mayne basically ran the band. I was the last one to know anything. He may have been into the chicks more than the music. So, they just decided to hire Howie Smith, our road manager, to play bass...who was a much better bass player, by the way.
T: OK…. but then Roger Mayne left, shortly afterwards. I think Dave and Roger weren't getting along, as per Dave Bingham’s new book, “Noise from The North End”.
RB: Yeah, well, I haven’t read Dave’s book. And maybe there was a thing between Glynn Bell and Roger, too. I don’t know. I was the last guy in the loop.
T: So, The Ugly Ducklings got Mike McKenna in the band as the lead guitar player. He's a great player, but it wasn't the same anymore after that, was it?
RB: Well, we did "Hangman" which was a cool tune...
T: Yeah, but it wasn't The Ducks anymore, was it?
RB: No, but did Dave tell you about our Ramones connection? In 1996 or so, The Ramones covered "Nothin'". Finally, I got a copy of it, and I'm listening to it, but I'm wondering who's playing that guitar? It sounds just like Roger. Well, they had flown Roger Mayne down to L.A. because their guitar player couldn't play his way out of a paper bag. It is Roger Mayne on that cut.
T: Hahaha....amazing…. Roger and The Ramones!
RB: Nor did ‘The Nomads’ from Sweden do a very good cover of us...they did "She Ain't No Use To Me".... but they didn't have that raw edge.
T: Nobody sounded like the Ducks.
T: OK, getting back to the end of the original Ugly Ducklings…. Why did Glynn Bell leave the band? He seemed like one of the most determined members.
RB: Things just started falling apart around late '67. Maybe it started with Roger and Glynn, as mentioned. I don't know. The other four wives wanted them out of the music business. Ironically, none of them are with their wives anymore. There were a lot of things....
T: So, the band broke up in the late '60's, and you went down to L.A. Who did you play with down there?
RB: I started playing with Neil Merriweather, (originally Neil Lilly), he was with "The Just Us" , which became "The Tripp" and then he did "Livingstone's Journey". He was a bass player living down in LA working with Rick James. They had done some stuff with Eddie Roth, and the band left Neil or something like that. Anyway, Neil got me and the old "Nucleus" keyboard player, John Richardson and Jack Velker. So, the first album we did down there was called "Neil Merriweather, John Richardson, and Boers".
T: Yeah, that's a great album.
RB: But it didn't sell much. So, then we had singer named, Lynn Carey...she did a Penthouse spread. So, we ended up as "Mama Lion", which had a single that did quite well...
T: "Be Bad with Me"?
RB: I don't remember, but my name's on the back cover. Bobby Roberts, (the manager) who was with The Mamas and The Papas, said "What were going to do with Mama Lion is play 50 University towns in two months, at $2,000 per night”. This is in the early '70's. Good bread. But, Neil and Lynn decided they wanted to hang around town for the summer. "Hang around town?", I said..."you could hang around town after the gig!”, I said. “We're talking about $100,000!" That was a lot of money in 1971!
T: So, everything fell apart?
T: What did you do after that?
RB: Well, I played on a BB King session, and then I came back to Toronto.
T: OK, The Ugly Ducklings got a record deal in the late '70's and recorded the album, "Off The Wall". You had to re-group, because you hadn't played together in years. But, I think a lot of punk bands were influenced by you guys.
RB: That's what I heard, yeah. It was in 1980, with Roger Mayne's company, Razor Records. He had done "The Viletones", and all these punk bands on his label.
T: Roger Mayne produced The Viletones?
RB: Yeah, they're on Razor Records. So, we did "Off the Wall" at Nimbus 9 Studio, in Toronto, with Jim Franks, who did Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper.
T: But, that album doesn't sound as cohesive as the first lp.
RB: No, that's because a couple of the guys in the band hadn't been playing for a few years. And by that time, I was a well schooled musician. So, I had to lay my tracks down first. It's not the same as playing off the floor, like we basically did on the first lp.
T: Right. But, the original band got back together and played a few gigs. That was about the time I saw you guys at the famous El Mocambo, (where the Stones recorded a live album) around 1980. That's when Glynn walked on with his leather pants on, and his fly down.
T: But, you guys sounded great. The place was packed. Everybody was singing along...all the old Yorkville hippies…and some young punks, too.
RB: Yeah, that was fun.
T: So, "Off the Wall" didn't sell, and you started teaching?
RB: Yeah, and I still am... for the last 35 years or so.
T: And all of a sudden, Roger wanted to do another Ugly Ducklings album...around the year, 2000, which became your third lp, "S.N.A.F.U".
RB: They hooked up with Jan House, who was with EMI...and was interested in world wide distribution...and there would be some gigs involved. They said, "Robin, are you interested?" I said, "Sure", but the drummer, Kid Carson had been playing the demos at that time, and they had a falling out. Jan House said, "There is no deal, unless Robin is in the band".
T: So, as I understand it, you listened to the demos, wrote out your drum charts, and recorded them.
T: That's a great album. You got a great drum sound on that.
RB: That's Peter Moore, the producer.... three Juno’s, and two Grammy's....he had close mics on the bass drum and snare drum, and other mics 6 feet away...and then mixed them together.
T: So, what happened with the worldwide distribution.... what happened to "S.N.A.F.U"?
RB: I assume it went out somewhere, I don't know.
T: It seems it didn't go very far, unfortunately, but I thought it had some strong songs on it.
RB: Yes, it did.
T: OK, so let's talk about what you're doing now.....The Robin Boers Trio.
RB: Well, after Buddy Rich, I was really into the original Hendrix band with Mitch Mitchell. And then, I got into Tony Williams with Miles Davis. So, I went to see him a Massey Hall, and who's playing drums but Jack DeJohnette… That really turned my head around. Then, I got into some of the spiritual books...The Alice Bailey books were a big influence...The Tibetan masters.
T: Mitch Mitchell was really the first jazz/rock drummer, don't you think?
RB: "Third Stone From The Sun".... he sounds like Elvin Jones!
T: And all his stuff on "Axis, Bold as Love"....
RB: Right, so I always wanted to get a band together that wasn't boring jazz...you know? I started writing complicated tunes for an acoustic trio. Hilirio Duran was in the band. Bernie Seninsky played with us...Wayne Kelso...
T: Yeah, monster piano players.
RB: But, things got crazy, as they often do. And I thought, I'm going to get my Jimi Hendrix band together. So, I've got Mike Freedman on guitar and Kevin McCloskley on bass.
T: Right. I've heard a few of your songs on YouTube...."July 12", "Blue Spring", "You'll Know". Great jazz-fusion tunes. Did you write them all?
RB: Yes, and I wrote "Arrival" for my daughter, 24 years ago, a week before she was born.
T: That's great.
RB: That was off the first album. A lot of the stuff I write are for my students, now. I recently wrote a tune in 5 1/2 / 4 time.
T: You mean, 11/8?
RB: No, I'm a stickler for this type of thing. Where do you hear the beat? It's on the quarter note. It just happens to be 5 1/2 quarter notes to the bar.
T: Robin 'Stockhausen'!
RB: Hahaha....But, I'm not a stop and start soloist. No one is counting bars. My high hat is playing 1/8 notes, so those guys know when to come in, even though I'm playing all these poly-rhythms.
T: Like, Pete Magadini? He had all those poly- independence charts…
RB: Look at my poly filler tutorial. I've taken Pete's thing further. Pete was nice enough to tell me so, himself, after a gig at Cafe de Copains, in Toronto. He said, "You must be from New York"...because that's how I aggressively I played. I said, sorry, "I was born in Holland!"
T: Hahaha. OK, so do you still keep in touch with the other Ugly Ducklings?
RB: Well, Dave Bingham lives in San Miguel, Mexico, now. Glynn Bell is still in Kingston, Ontario, doing graphic design, as far as I know. John Read...the last time I saw him, he was really upset that he didn't get called for the S.N.A.F.U. album... because we had Stan Endserby play bass.
T: And unfortunately, Roger Mayne had a heart attack, and passed in 2004. He was only 58 years old, wasn’t he?
RB: Yeah, that was a real drag. But they confused me with Roger, at the time. I got stuff like, "Robin...I heard you were dead".... you know, "Roger"..."Robin"....it was weird.... I said, "I'm not dead, yet!"
T: Yes, it was tragic to hear about Roger. He was an amazing and influential guitar player and producer.
T: But, you’re still teaching at The Ontario College of Music, and performing and recording with The Robin Boers Trio. Thanks, Robin.
RB: It was a pleasure.
Interview: Rick Skol for Terrascope Online November 2016