Things might have turned out very differently for the Ides of March, a Chicago-based band that formed in the mid 1960s and had a minor regional hit with “You Didn’t Listen”, a tight, yearning British-Invasion style single built on chiming guitars and harmonies that would fit right in on Rhino’s four-disc Nuggets set. (In fact, it’s shocking that it’s not actually there; perhaps there were licensing issues.) The band recorded enough quality material, the most memorable songs being “Roller Coaster” and “Girls Don’t Grow on Trees”, to ensure themselves a minor legacy among garage aficionados akin to such well-respected but somewhat obscure bands as the Beau Brummels, the Knickerbockers, and the Gestures. (All this material is collected on a highly recommended Sundazed compilation, Ideology, which is not to be confused with the 1992 reunion album of the same name.)
But then something unfortunate happened. The band, which had evolved into a lite Buckinghams-like combo with the addition of trumpet players, went to a Blood, Sweat & Tears show and witnessed firsthand its bombastic brass arrangements and the full-throated belting of lead singer David Clayton-Thomas. Under that baleful influence the Ides of March recorded “Vehicle”, a BS&T sound-alike that went to number two on the Billboard chart. Taking Blood Sweat & Tears’s marching-band-jazz-prog suites—“Spinning Wheel”, “And When I Die”, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”—and streamlining them for AM radio, “Vehicle” slotted in perfectly next to other one-hit wonders from the era: “The Rapper” by the Jaggerz, “Ride Captain Ride” by the Blues Image, “Hitchin’ a Ride” by Vanity Fare. The single broke nationwide, and the record company pressed for more material so it could rush out an album and capitalize. This inchoate hodge-podge of an album is the result.
Besides “Vehicle”, the album features a couple more BS&T knockoffs (“The Sky Is Falling”, “Bald Medusa”), a shameless CCR rip-off stocked with clichés about working-class life (“Factory Band”), a Neil Diamond pastiche (“Home”), a sunshine-pop-style track more reminiscent of their early work (“One Woman Man”) and a few punchy, brassed-up R&B numbers (“Time for Thinking”, “Aire of Good Feeling”). On vinyl, each side of the album closed with an epic cover: side one with a medley of “Wooden Ships” and Jethro Tull’s “Dharma for One”, side two with an interminable (okay, nine-and-a-half minute) reimagining of “Eleanor Rigby”, which the Ides call “Sympathy for Eleanor”. On these tracks, the band is as portentous and overblown as you might expect—like Vanilla Fudge with horns. It’s enough to make you yearn for the relative restraint of an Argent record.
Despite its initial massive success, Vehicle receded into obscurity for a few decades and became a campy lost classic, cherished for its sleazy lyrics. They document the seduction strategies of an apparent pedophile (“I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, won’t you hop inside my car? / I got pictures, got candy, I’m a lovable man and I can take you to the nearest star”) before launching into the ludicrous central metaphor (“I’m your vehicle, baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go”). Something is so perfectly inappropriate about the word vehicle in a romantic context that it inevitably inspires chuckles. Perhaps if that line impressed a woman, one could graduate to “I’m your hydraulic lift, baby, I’ll elevate you 40 feet.”
Unfortunately, the song lost all its redeeming comedic qualities when General Motors adopted it in 2001 for an extensive national ad campaign, truncating it, denuding it of its context and rendering it suitable for brand-identity building. Now it’s near impossible to hear it without thinking of auto dealerships and trumped-up sales pitches. Though the Ides of March would release several more albums, the band would never again achieve the success of Vehicle, thus the band’s legacy in the minds of just about everyone who knows their name (and doesn’t think “Vehicle” was actually performed by Blood Sweat & Tears) now consists of a jingle. Lead singer Jim Peterik, however, was not finished wreaking aesthetic destruction on American culture. Ever versatile, in the 1980s he would write songs for .38 Special, including “Hold On Loosely” and “Rockin’ Into the Night”, and would become the mastermind behind Survivor, the band responsible for “The Eye of the Tiger”, “The Search Is Over”, and “High on You”. Talk about dubious legacies.