By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – Mike Scannell is a study in contrasts. By day he’s President of the North Reading Rotary Club and an active member of NORCAM, North Reading’s cable access channel. At night you can find him sitting in and performing back up vocals with a well known area band, George Belli and The RetroActivists.
So Scannell is not your average Rotary Club president. In fact, there’s nothing average about him at all.
A former fundraiser for WGBH Radio, Michael and his wife Kathryn and their children Declan and Bridget have lived in North Reading for 15 years, on Burroughs Rd., where he revels in his “million dollar view” of Martins Pond. He’s active in the Martins Pond community and very involved in all things North Reading.
But this story began 11 years ago in the old Horseshoe Cafe, which at the time still had open mic nights on Wednesdays.
Scannell, who “can play a few chords on a guitar” had been writing original songs since he was 15 or 16. “Bob Dylan got away with three chord songs, but not everyone can do that,” he jokes. Still, he used to go to the open mic nights at the old Shoe and “try out my stuff and see if I got any reaction.”
The problem with open mic nights, in Scannell’s opinion, is that the same people tend to come week after week to try out the same material, like renditions of “White Rabbit” the James Taylor standbys.
“No animosity, but to me that’s not what an open mic is for,” said Scannell. “It’s for original material, stuff you don’t expect. So on the third week or so that I was there, this guy walk in dressed in black from head to toe and when it’s his turn he gets up and sings “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols and “Up the Junction” by Squeeze.
“Both very unusual choices – my head spun around because those are both songs that I love.” The man in black turned out to be George Belli and after he was done, he and Scannell got to talking that night, and a friendship was born.
“I had tried to write songs with other people and I had some success in writing with my brother. But I also had difficulty. I would have a song idea and I had it finished in my head but I didn’t necessarily have the musical chops to get it out there.
“Because George is older, like my brother, we had this common language of music. That’s how our song writing works.” The band, George Belli and the RetroActivists, have recorded 10 of their songs but they haven’t put any of them out yet, something for which Scannell takes responsibility. But it’s still on the to-do list and because so much time has passed, they’re actually thinking of re-recording them, he said.
“We were much more of a punk/new wave band when we started, but we’ve gotten older and we’ve mellowed, Scannell explains. “George is in charge” when it comes to the band.
The group doesn’t practice much because Belli doesn’t believe in practices and he doesn’t need them, Scannell explains. “He has a catalog of songs in his head. We just get up there on stage and George starts playing and we’re all supposed to know what he’s playing and we add to that. And we do, and it’s fun. Bands that play the same set list at every gig can get very tedious. George Belli and The RetroActivists aren’t like that, and its fun.”
The name of the band means that “We want to bring back these songs that everybody knows but no one plays anymore. There’s a certain nostalgia about that – that’s the Retro part – but we’re really actively trying to keep something alive that might otherwise be lost,” Scannell explains.
“If you pull out an old Dave Clark 5 song, people haven’t heard that in 30 years, but they remember it. But we’ve branched out and every show morphs. It’ trying to find those songs that everyone loved at the time they were big.
The band has a song called “The Thread” that talks about the thread that runs through the music that made up the “British Invasion.” Then it comes back with Elvis Costello and Squeeze and the second wave of British songs.
The chorus to “The Thread” goes, “It started in swingin’ London in 1962, It’s gonna be part of everything I ever do.”
“I write the lyrics and George puts as many chords in as he wants to play,” Scannell said.
One of their most popular songs is “Ten after one after one too many,” about someone who’s had a little too much to drink.
“It just clicks. With George and me, it was a chance meeting. I was the best man at his wedding, we refer to each other as twin brothers from different mothers. It’s a real partnership.”
Scannell sits in with the band when they have a gig fairly close to home, like a couple of weeks ago at the Racks Bar in Plaistow, New Hampshire. The band is essentially a four-piece now with George and Rich Blumenthal on bass/back up voices, Jim Wayda on drums and Louise, George’s wife, on rhythm, acoustic guitar and backups.
“We do a lot of covers but we also have originals and we include them in our set. If we do that and they’re good enough, people will respond to them. Some club owners want a sure thing. What we’ve proven is, that it’s not the only formula that works. You can bring people in with covers of songs they’ve forgotten they loved so much, mixed with original music they’ve never heard before.” The band has played the Topsfield Fair every year for the past three years, he said, and will probably be back for a fourth.
Scannell is a big booster of NORCAM, “one of the most under used resources in town,” and he hopes local residents take greater advantage of its potential resources. That’s how he came to be a member of Rotary – NORCAM is always looking for ways to do community outreach, so NORCAM paid for his Rotary membership. He joined the club three years ago and was elected to a term as president for 2014-15.
“I like to think of myself as the new face of Rotary but I also do enjoy the dichotomy of leading a ‘double life,’ so to speak. I do like having my ‘secret identity’ because I need that creative outlet.”
“I’m a ham. I’ve been a ham since I was a kid. All of these things combined – the band, producing for NORCAM, allow me to express myself.
“You can be a Rotary Club president and still be in a band. Everyone in Rotary knows I’m in a band, many of them have come to see our gigs.
“It’s very different to be up on stage singing with George Belli and the RetroActivists than it is getting up in front of the Rotary Club on a Wednesday afternoon.”