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Harlequin Mass : History

Information on the American progressive rock band from Portland, Oregon.

Website contents Copyright © 1978-1979, 1994, 2002-2014 by Harlequin Mass and Carl Bennett.
All Rights Reserved.

By Carl Bennett,
with contributions from
Lyle Holdahl and John Reagan

This capsule history of Harlequin Mass was originally written for the 1994 rerelease of the Harlequin Mass album on CD by Italy’s Mellow Records.

This is an expanded version of the history that appeared there.

In the late 1970s, Harlequin Mass emerged from a Portland, Oregon area music scene that was rife with bar cover bands, and saw few original bands like Quarterflash, Johnny and the Distractions and Nu Shooz. Among the bands playing original material, Harlequin Mass was an anachronism. Being influenced by a handful of mostly British progressive rock bands, Harlequin Mass played a combination of acoustic mantra-like mood pieces and longer infectious-tempo electric pieces with complex arrangements like “Love and Death.”

At the core of Harlequin Mass were three high school friends from West Linn, Oregon, just ten minutes out of Portland. After various attempts in school at filmmaking and drum corps, John Reagan and Lyle Holdahl asked Jeff Pike and (the understood-to-be-temporary) Dave Pischel if they would be interested in starting a band. With Lyle on 12-string guitar, John on drums, Jeff on guitar and clarinet, and Dave on piano and flute the band began rehearsing some of Lyle early compositions that were “heavily influenced” by The Moody Blues. Some demos recorded by this lineup survive today to embarass all involved.

Then a pivotal catalyst set in motion the true evolution of a band and its music. The release of Close to the Edge by Yes was a major influence of the current band and even some future members. “The impression was truly plutonic!” says Lyle. “And the music more intricate and longer in duration. Everything changed. Everything . . .”

Early in 1974, the band which consisted of Lyle Holdahl, bass, guitar and keyboards, Jeff Pike, guitar, John Reagan on drums, and other friends recorded demos under the band name, Aarbyn. Among the demos were those for “All in One” and the longer conceptual suite, “Land of Dream,” which included a favorite acoustic Harlequin Mass song, “In the Garden.”

Some time passed and Jeff decided to move to California, John went to college, and Lyle wrote and performed with various bands, looking ahead to performing his own material.

A new lineup of Aarbyn existed in 1975 with Lyle on bass guitar and flute, Mark Pierson on lead guitar, Collin Heade on guitar and cello, Will Miller on keyboards and his wife Renee Miller, vocals, and drummer Kenny Field. The band continued working on new material and improving song arrangements of Lyle’s older material. Sometime in June 1975 a demo of “Skycaller” was recorded. It was just over 14 minutes long; this version was a little slower, spacier, and more varied arrangement than the version that appears on the Harlequin Mass album. The recording was overall fine for a demo with Renee’s thin vocals and Mark’s jerky guitar solos standing out. It was atmospheric and textural, featuring Lyle’s Univox Echo unit. This was a turning point for the band and Lyle’s music which was maturing by leaps and bounds.

Jeff moved back to Oregon, and Lyle and John, who were now without an active band were pushing themselves into a new phase with a purpose.

Rehearsals began for the intended album project. The band needed a new name and it was decided that they needed a new vocalist. Magus was a temporary name while the band recorded test demos and auditioned vocalists.

Nancy Kaye (nee Deaver) heard about the band and tried out with the ultimate result that she recorded the album, stayed with the band, and married Lyle in 1978.

The Harlequin Mass album was recorded from December 1977 through February 1978 at Recording Associates in Portland and engineered by well-known Northwest musician Bob Stoutenberg of the sixties band The Wheel of Fortune. The previously Mass-associated musician Collin Heade provided cello and guitar, and John’s brother Mark Reagan contributed drum corp-style snare to the album.

Before the album’s release, the band lineup included Lyle Holdahl (bass guitar), Nancy Kaye (vocals), Jeff Pike (lead guitar), John Reagan (drums), and Sandy Santra (keyboards and rhythm guitar). Santra was added in June 1978 to augment live performances chiefly on keyboards, but before gigging began Harlequin Mass recorded a song for release on an album of Portland area bands. “A New Song” was rerecorded on 24 June 1978 in the small eight-track studio used for most of the album tracks, Sound Smith Studios in Aloha, Oregon. The album, titled The KYTE Album, was released in August 1978 by Vector Records and was sold as a charitable fundraiser for Muscular Dystrophy. “A New Song” was used by KYTE on the air to help promote album sales.

Harlequin Mass live gigs began in August 1978. Live performances were regular but rarely numbered more than two or three shows a month at first. For several months the band enjoyed appearances at Northwest clubs and interviews and concerts on university campuses.

The Harlequin Mass album was released on 2 October 1978 on Mass Productions Records. The album was released in a black & white art jacket with a white label on side one, a black label on side two — a bit of yin and yang.

Dan DePrez, in reviewing the album for The Oregon Journal said, “Rock in the serious, English-influenced mold . . . studio wizardry . . . rich and complex . . .” A Hare Krishna ashram later contacted one of Harlequin Mass’ members to get word to the band that the ashram played the album everyday in the morning. Om . . .

“Harlequin Mass songs were always about spiritual emancipation,” says Lyle. “Either the how, why, adoration thereof or fear of the nonattainment. Harlequin Mass simplified (unconsciously) conscious betterment.”

Reception at the live shows wasn’t always positive. Long time local cover-musicians (those who thought they were talented but didn’t play any original songs) taunted the band at some performances for doing anything out of the mainstream; audiences in straight-ahead rock venues were indifferent at best. But there were the other shows as well where everything went well and the music, especially the showpiece “Love and Death,” really kicked.

“Harlequin Mass was young, intelligent and talented,” says Lyle. “Harlequin Mass was also egocentric and uptight, if not scared of their future possibilities. Doing as much as it could before the bomb exploded.”

In May 1979 both Jeff Pike and Sandy Santra decided to leave the band, and on 19 May 1979 Harlequin Mass played its last gig with the original album band lineup.

Replacing Jeff on guitar was Craig Rose, and talented musician John Curtis replaced Santra on keyboards. Harlequin Mass was regularly gigging again by mid-July. Around this time Carl Bennett occasionally substituted for Lyle on bass guitar while Lyle played rhythm guitar or keyboards. John Curtis also contributed some of his original music to the Harlequin Mass show, which complemented Lyle’s material very well.

In early Fall of 1979 the band decided to move to Seattle, Washington, where the music scene was more active and receptive to bands that played original material. As the joke went (quoting lyrics from “Skycaller”), “The state we’re in may hold no promise.”

Harlequin Mass played a farewell concert in Portland on 21 September 1979, and early in November the band packed up to move to Seattle. The change was rougher than anticipated on band members and roadies alike. Harlequin Mass played three dates in Seattle the first week of December. After that, gig dates failed to come about and some of the band members were reconsidering their decisions to move from Portland. Replacing band members in Seattle was sporadically successful during early 1980, with the final Harlequin Mass band lineup being Lyle Holdahl (bass and guitar), Nancy Kaye (vocals), John Curtis (keyboards), Jon Jacoby (guitar) and Mike Goodman (drums).

After several years of developing material of a more progressive rock feel, Harlequin Mass was faced with changes in the direction of new music, and in the tastes of individual band members. Lyle was exploring different musical forms and it became obvious that the new material was not Harlequin Mass music. The creative drive then was toward a new band identity, which required a new name. Lyle thought up the oxymoron which explained much of the push-pull the band was experiencing and which helped to focus the band direction: Stubborn Puppet.

Late in the Summer of 1980 the band began to come together once again with a four-piece lineup of Lyle (bass and keyboards), Nancy (vocals), Greg Zimmerman (guitar) and Don Milgate (drums). Greg was a strong writer himself and helped contribute material in addition to the new songs written by Lyle. Greg also wrote music to go with lyrics Nancy had written. Don was soon replaced by a dedicated drummer named Tom Dickens who stayed with the band for the next two years.

Together, the four-piece lineup recorded a five song demo with the goal of getting live performance gigs. The demos went very well for the limited equipment on which they were recorded and the band played a gig on 7 December 1980, approximately one year to the day after Harlequin Mass debuted in Seattle.

Due to personal reasons, Greg decided he couldn’t continue with the band and the process of replacing musicians began over again, just as things were rolling again.

In February 1981 guitarist Kevin Hay came into the fold, and fingers were crossed once again. Stubborn Puppet began gigging regularly in the Seattle area starting late in April 1981. The new live schedule and the new material forced an expansion of the band as Lyle moved to keyboards and rhythm guitar and Carl Bennett, who’d played with Harlequin Mass, replaced him on bass guitar.

The live gigs were very successful and very frequent through the fall of 1981. In October it was decided to return to the studio to record demos. On 6 November 1981 the band began recording at Triangle Recording in Seattle and continued through mixdowns which concluded on November 15th. Six tracks were begun, including: “Jeopardy,” “Couldn’t Be Me,” “Fabulous Angel,” “My Place,” “Meantime,” and “Mirage”; four were completed to final mixes.

Live gigging was constant through late May of 1982. More demos were recorded from April through June 1982. Six songs were recorded including another version of “Mirage” and “Raging Doubter,” Three were mixed and there was some talk about releasing a summer single of “Sample & Hold” and “I Love You, Baby.”

It was late May when Kevin Hay decided to leave the band. A replacement guitarist, Bruce Pritchard, played one gig in July with the band. Kevin returned temporarily to play a couple of dates in August and September, but this was no permanent solution. The band had been gigging constantly for over a year throughout the busiest period in its history. Again the push-pull principle came into play and major members of the band decided to call it quits; Kevin was gone, Tom decided to move on to another band, and not the least of the losses, Nancy decided to leave the music business for a while.

After the demise of the 1982 band, Stubborn Puppet got a slot on the KZOK Radio-Miller High Life KZOK Best of the Northwest 1982 album with the original cassette demo of “Jeopardy” featuring Greg Zimmerman on guitar. The demo was atmospheric but unacceptable for album release and didn’t even feature the recent lineup, so the band got back together to record new vocals and remix “Jeopardy” from the Triangle sessions. Doug Rayburn from the band Pavlov’s Dog engineered Nancy’s new vocals and remixed the song.

Stubborn Puppet grew into another 1983 incarnation, which included Lyle Holdahl, John Reagan, Carl Bennett and keyboardist Rich LaPore and guitarist Greg Shirley, that later released a six song cassette-only mini-album that was also released on CD-R by John Reagan's Big Balloon Music.

Today, of the original members of Harlequin Mass, John Reagan lives and works in Seattle, Washington. He has recorded a compact disc album as a member of the band Autophobia. He has established his own independent progressive rock record company, Big Balloon Music. Jeff Pike and his wife Kate live near Boston, Massachusetts; they have two children. Jeff and Kate have continued to perform music together. (Jeff is not to be confused with the guitarist Jeff Pike of the A1A Jimmy Buffett tribute band.) Nancy lives in Auburn, Washington, near Seattle. She and Lyle divorced in 1984. She has a daughter from a second marriage, and occasionally performs and records. She can be heard on independent releases by Talamasca [Seattle] and Autophobia, and on Seattle area band compilations. Lyle lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has a daughter from a second marriage. He continues to write, record and perform in the Philadelphia area under a series of project names, including Lyle Holdahl, Stubborn Puppet, Fire Monkey and Art & Science Projekt.