The Patch of Blues Sees the Light of Day: A PopMatters Exclusive

First, a caveat before getting into this article. It needs to be stated that I am biased on the subject of the all-but-unknown band the Patch of Blues, and there’s good reason for this.

I was personally involved in the first listening of the lost masters after their unearthing. I’m proud of this. So much so I feel compelled to share my story on how I discovered theirs. I am not here to advertise, but to familiarize. I promise. Besides, nothing is for sale … yet. This piece is also a main catalyst for my desire to write for PopMatters, and it’s my honor to inform all beholders that they will join only a small group of people who have heard the Patch before them. In other words, this is getting in on the ground floor of something cool, because nothing is cooler than being one of the first to hear, as well as being the first to tell their friends about music they’ve never heard of, especially when no one has heard it in over 40 years. Street cred, baby. Street cred.

It was a Sunday in the spring of 2012. My broadcasting colleague James MacDonald was returning from a father-and-son bonding trip to San Diego, fetching the record collection of an uncle who had passed on a few years before. MacDonald had hinted at the possibility of some undiscovered reel-to-reel tapes of his uncle’s band from the ’60s being in these boxes that were then roaddogging it in the back of an SUV, heading through Vegas towards western Colorado. He was excited. He said “get the machine ready”, so I did. I admit I was a little blasé at first about the whole thing … quarter-inch tapes marked with interesting titles and possible studio jargon, notes underneath creases, paper rips, and coffee stains. I was expecting them to have been buried in a garage next to the 30-year-old hot water heater, saturated with a full spectrum of mold and dinge, containing nothing more than baptist radio sermons and live reads for biscuit mix and chicken feed from some hokey backwoods signal.

In my years of digging through other people’s unwantables, I’ve unearthed many a trove of ’70s Christian hootenanny tapes, Lawrence Welk and Jackie Gleason LP transfers, unidentifiable mis-labels, and a gamut of old radio shows … but to run across something original, something more than a teenaged brother and sister recorded by dear ole dad singing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar pitch-perfectless, has never happened … until that day.

I had just acquired an old Otari MX5050 reel-to-reel machine from my radio job. She had been sitting in a corner of the production room collecting dust for years, but she still worked like a champ. So, I dusted off this rack-mounted goliath of a boat-anchor, gave her the equipment equivalent of a whore-bath, and readied her for work. MacDonald showed up on that following Monday afternoon with two large reels and one small. Two tapes had track sheets with them. Wow. These lost masters were recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, California throughout 1967 … yeah, the Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ Gold Star … around the same time period Dr. John would record Gris-Gris on Sonny and Cher’s leftover studio time dime. Dylan and Hendrix were walking those hallowed halls then. Neil Young was working on “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” in GSS at this point. Brian Wilson assembled the multi-generationally cherished Pet Sounds there just a year earlier. There must be something on those tapes.

I carefully threaded the take-up reel. I was so nervous, because magnetic tape becomes brittle after a couple of decades. I did not want to be responsible for any snapping or stretching … these were, in fact, the only surviving recordings. From the opening of the first song, there was the sound … that echo-driven half-distorted heavy garage vibe. Almost surf, not quite progressive, but next-level for sure. The first few tracks on the first Patch Gold Star master were young and green, but very necessary to get to the next reel, which will be discussed soon.

When the first tape started rolling, the thrill of the find for me was not immediate. It took seven or eight songs before the hurried, frantic pace of “For You” got me going. I understood the importance of these lost masters then, telling my cohort James MacDonald that this was a missing link between garage, surf, punk, and psyche. The more we heard, the more excited we both were, especially after hearing the difference in the Patch sound on the second large reel of mono masters from Gold Star later that year. “Walk, Walk” is total punk abandon. The energy is there, and it feels like the Patch could have been one of the band’s featured at the Roxy during the Rock Fight scene of Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, only far more capable. Then there’s “Mushroom Grass” … the final track on the second reel. As the name implies, it is a trippy, jazz-leaning instrumental, much like the ones the American public would see and hear in scores the following year from groups like the Corporation and Blood, Sweat and Tears. All and all, the quality of the music drove me to ask questions, and left me hungry to know more.

The Patch of Blues were a rock quintet from Monrovia, California. After a modest start in late 1966 performing locally for teen functions and church gatherings, they gathered up their own money, and booked time at Gold Star for their first recording session in early ’67. After being signed to Hollywood International Talents, indie label De Ville Records (a division of H.I.T.) apparently signed the group as well, but no singles or LP’s were ever issued. No real imprint of the band’s existence could be found easily. Mike Ostrye’s family would provide the images posted with this article. The last piece of press I was able to locate on the Patch was from the spring of 1968 (for a high-school prom performance), assembly the year of the band’s demise. What (or who) I stumbled upon later on would fill in many fuzzy details about the Patch of Blues. His name is John Collett.

Collett explains the origins of the Patch: “Mike Ostrye (lead vocals, flute) and Bob Apodaca (bass) were in a band called the Sandpipers. Mike Mills (rhythm guitar), Larry Seifert (drums), and me (lead guitar), were in another band. I don’t even remember the name of that band! The Sandpipers broke up one night after playing at a dance at Monrovia High School. Ostrye had heard us play, and suggested that we get together for a jam session. We seemed to click and the next week we auditioned for a dance at Cal State LA.”

I asked Collett about the flute, and how it came to the front of the Patch sound, and he replied “I believe that Mike brought the flute in from the start. When we played at dances, he would captivate the crowd with the flute as he roamed and danced among the people. Mike was an innovator. He knew that the flute added something that others did not have.” At the time, a flute in a rock arrangement was an anomaly … Jethro Tull wouldn’t form for another couple of months (and wouldn’t take the US by storm for another couple of years), and records from jazz flautists like Roland Kirk, Herbie Mann, and Jeremy Steig weren’t readily accessible to young white kids cutting their teeth in suburban anywhere.

With that said, one can hear in the progression from one session to the next Ostrye and the Patch were looking for the fresh branch on the tree, the right vehicle for the new rock music. They sensed it was happening around them … the confluence of all music everywhere, the incorporation of experimental into the norm. The mingling of genres through new interpretations of old themes … you hear those rivers meeting in the second Gold Star tape, and a lot of that had to do with who they were listening to at the time. Collett recalls, “Love was one of our favorite bands. Their sound was definitely different. We went to Whiskey several times to see them play! They were very cool.” At the very least, their sound made an impression with Gazzari’s Go-Go Club on Sunset Strip. The Patch of Blues would play the inaugural two weeks at the popular venue, opening for the Doors.

Collett recollects about the Gazzaris experience: “We were one of three opening bands for the Doors at Gazzari’s. This was the grand opening of Gazzari’s, so it was a big break for us! At Gazzari’s, we played five nights a week for two weeks. The Doors hit, “Break on Through” had just been released, so by the second week, that place was jumping! There are several stories about our time there, but one stands out in my mind: opening night, the second band to play was the Enemys. They were British, and wore blue, military looking jackets with epaulettes on their shoulders and white pants with blue pinstripes. One member though had pants with red pinstripes. We didn’t think much of it at the time, until the Doors came on and Morrison is wearing the guy’s blue pin-striped pants! He had helped himself and left his old cruddy Levis standing in the corner of the tiny dressing room! Jim Morrison always had two beautiful girls at his side and I don’t recall ever seeing his eyes open for very long, but he never missed a beat and he always had the crowd’s attention.”

As stated before, there wasn’t much ‘flute-rock’ being released commercially in 1967. Besides “California Dreamin'” from the Mamas and the Papas in ’65, you had Blues Project’s “Flute Thing” from late ’66. December of ’67 (7 months after the last Patch of Blues Gold Star session) saw the release of the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” and Traffic’s debut “Mr. Fantasy”. Not to exclude the windy sounds on the mega-hits “Ruby Tuesday”, “Wild Thing”, and “Pied Piper” (which were all issued pre-Patch), but those lines were played with recorders, not flutes. With the evidence presented, one can see the Patch of Blues were slightly ahead of their time. But there was more to the influence of the times. “Light My Fire” along with “Like a Rolling Stone” were redefining the notion of a radio single, and progressive rock radio was forming a single-less presence, giving the first taste of these uniquely-instrumented, meandering jazz-fueled psych noodlings. Instruments previously estranged to rock were now taking center stage, but flute’s novelty wouldn’t be replaced with innovation and mainstream success until ’68, with the release of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.” Flute would soon become commonplace in the lead role, and it’s the monkeywrench in the idea that the Patch were following in the garage footsteps of the on-the-way-out LA mod scene. The new scenes were already being formed. The constraints of the old ‘three-minute-single’ formula were disappearing. The Patch had their sights set on the new, and they were in the right place to find it. Gold Star studios.

Collett elaborates: “Recording at Gold Star was a blast. We were nervous the first time because we had to pay for the recording time ourselves. We cut an album of songs that day which was a real accomplishment, and that helped us get lots of engagements all over the San Gabriel Valley.”

The question has to be asked: Why didn’t the Patch of Blues ever release their recordings, or make more of a mark scene-wise?

I wasn’t ready for Collett’s explanation: “When we signed the deal with Hollywood International Talent, most of us were 19 years old. Ostrye was 21. They wanted us to immediately go on tour before we could record. The first tour was to be during Christmas vacation because everyone but Ostrye was still going to school. As the departure date neared, we hadn’t heard any updates so we tried to contact our manager. Ostrye and I finally drove down to Hollywood International’s Office to find that the place was abandoned. We found out a few days later, that the company had skipped out on us and a few other bands. Apparently, the concert deposit money that had been received from the various tour locations was gone, and there were never plans to send us anywhere, or record any music! I don’t know exactly what date we finally broke up, but after the tour was canceled, we just seemed to lose interest in the band. Eventually, we all went our separate ways.”

These recordings are the audio equivalent of a new Egyptian archaeological-dig-site discovery that hasn’t been grave-robbed. Besides being the unreleased music of a period band that faded before they had a chance, these tapes are part of the Gold Star legacy, a legacy lost in the fire that ended their reign of creativity in 1984. In these 1967 mono masters, you hear the rough-and-ready insistence of punk (pre-Stooges and MC5), and some of the first out-stretches of garage to psychedelia, as if a mythical introduction to that first mind-alter at some impromptu celebrity elbow-rub in the Gold Star halls had broken down all of the barriers … all at once. The difference between the two Gold Star sessions plays out like the timeline between Beatles ’65 and Rubber Soul, complete with some Dylan wannabe hooking ’em up on the sly with a couple of nickel sacks of the good green on the way to studio B … and the rest was history? Well, something had to have happened between the two sessions to inspire “Mushroom Grass” … really.

Collett has another answer: “I think that we were at the Arboretum in Arcadia, and noticed mushrooms growing in a grassy area. Ostrye took it from there.”

Well, so much for that theory.

Unfortunately, the story of the Patch of Blues was forgotten history … forgotten to all but those who were there (who are still shuffling on the coil), and those around them that loved them, until now. It’s about time. Forty-plus years after the fact, all of the recordings have been located and the music transferred, ready for distribution. It’s as good a moment as any for the world to finally hear what was taken from the Patch of Blues by fraudulent music-biz hacks in the heyday of the rock-and-roll renaissance.

Better late than never. There is something on those tapes.