Of all the artists that New Haven, Conn. can lay claim to, Michael Bolton is probably the most famous. Sure there are The Carpenters, but they were more of a California band. “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins was recorded in the basement of a local Catholic school, and has earned a spot in Greil Marcus’ “The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs,” but that’s just one song. There’s Hatebreed, and according to her wiki, Liz Phair. For most people it goes back to that no talent ass clown Michael Bolton. “I’m old enough to remember when he was ‘Michael Bolotin.” That’s Mr. Ray Neal from Miracle Legion; or that other band that’s from New Haven.
Miracle Legion was borne out of a punk scene in New Haven in the late seventies/early eighties that rivaled that of any other college rock buzz town. “It happened, but nobody noticed” perfectly describes the scene and also happens to be the name of the documentary on the subject. “There was a really thriving scene of painters, photographers, and bands. At the time, it was relatively cheap to live in New Haven,” Ray tells me, which is absolutely not true anymore. “We had a loft space, […] and you could put on gigs there. We brought in bands from New York to play.” If not playing at the loft, The Ramones and the rest of the C.B.G.B regulars made their way through the area, playing Toad’s or Ron’s, making the compulsory stop between New York and Boston.
As punk began to wane in popularity, a new sound began to emerge that was far less abrasive. Due to a lack of any sort of codifying criteria, almost every rock band that didn’t sound like Van Halen got lumped in to the label of college rock. Miracle Legion definitely did not sound like Van Halen, but they also definitely didn’t sound like R.E.M., the band they most often got compared to, except in the sense that you can’t understand what Mark is saying sometimes. The comparison got them airplay on radio, which landed them in Britain, where many of the left-of-the-dial bands got popular.
“It was easier to get heard in Britain,” Ray told me. NME and its ilk were clamoring for bands to fill the pages of the magazine. Miracle Legion was one of those bands getting full-page spreads. When I asked Ray why he thought Miracle Legion did so well abroad, he had a few theories. “The reason British music of the sixties and the seventies was so awe-inspiring was that you could go to art school for free.” Artists like Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, and David Bowie were essentially just that: Artists. “I don’t think that the MC5 was going for the same thing Bowie was.”
The scene back home in New Haven, where painters and photographers were just as essential to the scene as the music, allowed them to fit in with the British art school post-punk crowd. This landed them on the same record label as The Smiths, Rough Trade Records. So, because of the airplay back home, they were able to get press across the pond, which led to a record deal on Rough Trade records, which led to more play at home. It was a virtuous cycle for Miracle Legion that turned vicious.
After Surprise, Surprise, Surprise, the rhythm section left. Then there was trouble with the label. The now duo recorded Mr. Ray and Me at Prince’s Paisley Park studios, but after a label change and a last record the whole thing began to peter out. Mark ended up creating a fake band called Polaris for a kid’s TV show, at which point Ray ducked out. And that was it, until it wasn’t.
Following a personal tragedy, Mark Mulcahy came back on the scene with Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, one of 2013’s best albums. And then the fake band, Polaris, became real, and played some shows. “We had no idea anyone would care,” but the audiences came out for Polaris, and “Polaris directly led to Miracle Legion.” While other bands go out and tour behind their one hit album just to make a buck, Ray doesn’t see that happening with Miracle Legion. “If I didn’t get goosebumps, what’s the point?” According to Ray, some of the British fans were already really feeling the reunion: “There’s middle aged men [in the audience], getting into it and crying.” These people had waited thirty years to see them, or more likely didn’t ever think this would happen. And now it’s here.
And if things go well with the tour, Ray even said he’d love to write with Mark again. He offered no guarantees, but for now the renewed interest in the band’s back catalogue should keep fans satisfied. The band and the record company still need to figure out who owns what , so it is still slightly hard to get your hands on some of the albums. At the time of writing, all the albums were available on the Miracle Legion bandcamp, but only The Backyard and Surprise, Surprise, Surprise were available on Apple Music, and those two plus Portrait of a Damaged Family on Spotify. Exasperated after years of dealing with record labels and the attendant bs, Ray had only to add: “God, I hope it will all be available.”
“I think we’re the college rock version of the Velvet Underground,” Ray told me with a laugh. The line was in response to a list of influential artists who numbered themselves among Miracle Legion’s many fans. He was slightly joking, but I don’t see anything wrong with the statement. Every generation has that band that didn’t sell well, but launched a thousand careers, in the Sixties it was VU, in the Seventies it was Big Star, and maybe in the eighties it’ll be New Haven’s very own Miracle Legion.
Which would be a real boon for New Haven, even though neither Mark nor Ray lives here anymore. As the scene went away, it was easier to leave and not look back: “we always tried to promote New Haven wherever we were, which left me a little bit bitter as things started falling apart.” But there is hope. The Spaceland Ballroom and College Street Music Hall have been bringing in bands, and giving a place for locals to showcase their music. But Cutler’s is gone, and New Haven still needs a good record store to really feel complete. Who knows what scene might flourish in New Haven? We already have bands playing sets at bars and coffee shops, art going up on walls instead of in galleries. And who knows, with a miracle, we might get another Miracle Legion, or at least another Michael Bolton.
Miracle Legion will be at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn on 7/15, and playing a sold-out hometown show at the Spaceland Ballroom on 7/16.
Article: Christopher Gilson