Saturday, March 25, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — On the Flip Side with Drummer Mike Ratti

by G. Jack Urso 

Hot Hero band drummer Mike Ratti at work on Studio 8H.

Mike Ratti is the Hot Hero Band’s heartbeat. His sound is the very first sound we hear in the series — that steady, thumping pulse in the first few bars of the theme song. Indeed, bassist Robert Brissette points out in his interview, when they were given the demo tape of the theme song, it was Ratti who first set the pace and got the groove going.

Ratti has been playing the drums professionally since the days of psychedelic rock, and a lot of rock musicians would have killed for the career he had before the Hot Hero Band, not to mention in the four decades afterwards as a hard-working, and in his own words, “journeyman drummer.” So, let’s get caught up with the long and winding Ratti road to Studio 8H.

Strange Days Indeed

Morgen’s 1969 classic self-titled psychedelic record.
Scream if you recognize the cover art!
The psychedelic band Morgen was Ratti's introduction to the music industry. He was a student in Bayside High School, Queens, when he was asked to join Steve Morgen’s band as a replacement for the first drummer. Morgen’s 1969 self-titled debut, and only, album, is regarded as one of the better examples of “heavy psychedelic rock” and a classic of the genre. I had the chance to check it out on YouTube and it not only hits every mark representing the era but also showcases Ratti’s talent as a drummer at a young age with challenging material — these are not simple 3-chord songs in a 4/4 beat.

Morgen was recorded in Jazz/Classical conductor and composer Skitch Henderson’s old studio, Studio 3, in New York City — a pretty legendary place to record a psychedelic rock album — and all on only a 4-track, an effort that took some considerable engineering, according to Ratti. It was during this time that Ratti was approached to work with Jay and the Americans, doing two albums, including the songs “This Magic Moment” and “Walking in the Rain.” Ratti then returned to play with Morgen for one last show at the Fillmore, January 10, 1970 — quite a shift in genres.

Ratti also toured with Steam (“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”), for about a year. Then, before Hot Hero Sandwich, he toured with Rex Smith (who Brissette and Mark Cunningham had also worked with). Then in the 1980s, Ratti worked with the New Wave band, The Nails. From Psychedelic to Doo-Wop, to Classic Rock, to teen idol Rex Smith, to New Wave, Mike Ratti has been there, done that, and played it all.
Caricature of Ratti by Hot Hero Sandwich writer Sherry Coben that hung on the halls backstage at Studio 8-H along with those of other band members in the Summer of 1979.

Paying Union Dues

For Hot Hero Sandwich, Ratti wanted to use the drum set he used from the Rex Smith Tour (which could constitute another article all in itself). It was a big kit that was purchased by CBS for the band. NBC, however, would not let it in. Between the suits and the unions, the red tape and paperwork required to bring instruments in was predictably a nightmare. As was the practice, the instruments on set had to be rentals. The source for these rentals was Studio Instrument Rentals (S.I.R.].

“I asked for a standard five-piece set . . . symbols and high hats . . . and I think I asked if I could bring in my snare drum . . . and they probably said no, because you don’t walk into that building with anything.”

“So it came that day and . . . I was escorted to the loading dock at the side door at NBC, 30 Rock. I went down to the side door, the S.I.R. truck pulled up . . . I went to put my hand on it and I heard, “WHOA!” I turned around and three guys said, ‘Get your hands off that!’”

“Excuse me? I said.” They go, ‘What are you doing?’”

“I’m getting my drum set.”

“They said, ‘I don't care. Those are not your drum set.’”

Mike had played enough shows to know union rules. “I knew what it was about, but I just reacted.”

“The guy says, ‘It's not your drum set until it's brought to where you're gonna use it.’ Then I realized . . . I'm talking to three Teamsters. This wasn’t my first rodeo, I knew all about it, but I just reacted. I was doing a TV show!”

Then Ratti and the Teamsters go up to Studio 8H with the equipment for probably what was a long, awkward elevator ride.

“They wheeled it to the stage. They walked away. I went over. I put my hands out to open up the top and I heard, ‘What are you doing?’”

It was yet another set of Teamsters.

“’Excuse me,’” they said, ’No, no, no, no, no, no.’ It was the stage hands’ union.”

It was beginning to sound like a Saturday Night Live sketch, apropos since it was at Studio 8H. Again, Ratti knew the stage union rules. He was young, but he had been kicking around the scene for a decade at that point. Nevertheless, the SNL stage was a big deal, so you can’t blame him for his excitement.

I wonder. Did David Bowie ever have the same problem with these guys when he did SNL a few months later in December 1979?

Ratti continued, “’You cannot touch this,’ the stage hands said, ‘Period.’ I backed away . . . they took everything out and they looked at it as if it was, you know, a dragon. They have to set them up and then I could arrange them. So they put them on the riser, they set them up upside down, inside out, left to right. Walked off the stage, gave me the nod to say, ‘Now you can do it.’ I set up the drum kit and they stayed there for the duration of all the tapings, which is the whole summer.”

Nice work if you can get it, but the lesson learned for performers and producers alike is that everything coming and going goes through the unions — particularly at 30 Rock.

It's Been Only One Lifetime
Walter Becker of Steely Dan, 1977 (Chris Walter/Wire Image).
Mike Ratti ran into Walter Becker of Steely Dan on a few occasions throughout his career. First, when he and Donald Fagin needed some drum tracks for a demo they were recording at Advantage Sound Studios in Manhattan (no longer there) which they wanted to shop around in L.A. Ratti laid down his tracks and was invited to join, but he declined. They answered simple questions like, “How’s it going guys?” with philosophical responses like, “Define how?” So, the vibes were a bit off for Ratti. This project later evolved into Steely Dan.

Of course, Mike didn’t know at the time they were going to become Steely Dan, but he waxed philosophical about it. Even if he did head out to L.A., he would have been back in New York in short order, noting Becker’s and Fagin’s ability to burn through band members.

“They used every musician and the best drummers basically out there at the time in the world and they didn't last one or three songs.”

Ratti would encounter Becker one more time.

“Now fast-forward . . . years later, and I'm rehearsing at — and I'm going to say It would have to have been either [with] Hot Hero or 212 [circa mid-late 1979] . . .  it was at S.I.R. [Studio Instrument Rentals] on 54th Street . . . it was a rainy night in Manhattan and I’m ringing the buzzer, and I see this light in the doorway right next to where I'm standing, and it's pitch black and the light from somebody taking the drag of a cigarette and I see this face and I back up and go, ‘Walter?’ It was Walter Becker [of Steely Dan], and he says, ‘Yeah?’ Now, at the time . . . and everyone knows this, he was in very bad shape with the substance abuse.”

“And he was soaking wet, hair matted down, smoking a cigarette . . . I mean, just like in some black and white Alfred Hitchcock movie . . . and I said, “It's me, Mike, Mike Ratti.” 

“He says, ‘I know. It's been only one lifetime.’”

“I went back the way I was supposed to and said, ‘Take it easy,’ and that was it.”

Becker later emerged from this dark period and went on to sobriety and a long life, passing away in 2017, but as the AC/DC song goes, “It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock and Roll.”

And some ways are longer than others.

A more recent picture of Mike Ratti . . . still playing hard!
(photo courtesy Mike Ratti)
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  1. I enjoyed every minute of this time in our lives and wouldn't change a thing.

    1. I think the fans would agree Rich - You guys look like you were having the time of your lives up there.

  2. Just want to say the chemistry, connection, and hard work of the band members of HHS are lasting contributions to fans then, and now. Thanks guys. Good work on the articles/interviews to bring this message to light. Keep it coming.

  3. Appreciate the insight with the union thing and with Steely Dan. Love the recent photo of Mike Ratti. Great job.