(Editor’s Note: The Flies were one of the great iconoclastic bands emerging from the local scene in the 1980s. Consisting of Duane Miller (guitar & vocals); Mark Miller (bass & vocals); John Krogman (lead vocals & guitar) and Tom Dolson (drums & vocals) they were the first band ever profiled in-depth in the pages of ‘The Review’ back in 1981. – Bob Martin • Editor & Publisher
The Flies were the prototype for crash and burn, yet their music was heavenly. The guys were green and fearless. They would try anything that felt good, fretless bass – check; acoustic/electric guitars - check; electric blues guitar; spare kit rock & roll drums - check.
I was turned on to the juice by a Frito-Lay Salesman who delivered the juice. He regaled me with tales of John Krogman and his immense talent, raw and unencumbered. He told me that Krogman possessed a singular talent for singing. His vocal range was incredible and could go high or low effortlessly. He could sing like an angel and reach the high notes like a healthy Brian Wilson (soprano and falsetto).
Krogman possessed a plain spoken working man’s credo and his belief in creating something bigger had an almost religious fervor. He sang the gospel and I was a true believer. His gift inspired me to walk the eightfold path and it was Krogman who brought me back to my love for music, harmony and truth. The Flies created a strange magic and balls-up courage. They were at the precipice of fame, ready to take on anything, anywhere, anytime.
At one of their very first gigs they tore up Hamilton Street with a set that included original songs; The City Has No Lights, Roses’ Handsome Guardian, Into the Sunset along with some chesty covers by the Kinks (She’s Got Everything), Stones (Time is on My Side), Beatles (She Loves You and Tell Me Why) and the Romantics (What I Like About You). Their manager Fred Reif recorded their show and after 35 years the recording is now on compact disc. I have read & written articles about all of Saginaw’s best bands, but was most impressed by The Flies.
Review: Johnny, can you tell me about an early period in your musical journey that helped you develop your skills?
Krogman: I was always into art, drawing, you know, visual art. But I would say as I grew up my sisters were at the age when my first experience was The Beatles. That was what I grew up with… like the shadow on the wall, you know? That’s what I did. I really liked The Beatles, and I really liked the music. I mean it really gripped me. Revolver might have been the first album I ever got. The first album I ever bought was Willie and the Poor Boys, but I got access to all their music and my sisters were the perfect age for the Beatles. I listened to that stuff – British Invasion, and for a long time Buddy Holly. George Heriter played around here. He wrote a song way back in the day called the Bay City Bridge. It was on NBC, the Today Show, about when the Bay City Bridge fell in. George played the 12-string, and he did a lot of country at the time. He was playing on the weekend and I was playing during the week. When they put me in there with him, that was my first gig. I quit my job at Frito-Lay and went over there that afternoon and got an audition and I got the job!
Review: When did you start playing with other people and finding that voice?
Krogman: Well, I didn’t find it… I tried out for choir in second grade or third grade and I didn’t make it, probably because I couldn’t sing harmony or some backup. In high school I took a class for seniors. It was an experimental class where they had student instructors that taught the class, and the band director, who was supervising…he didn’t care if we learned to read music. He said, “That’s not what you’re here for. If you can show me that you can play something, I don’t care what it is, you’ll pass.” So I took it because it was a class! I tried guitar at just the right time, as they were doing guitar lessons and showing me chords. I knew the Beatle records. I could sing them acapella because I listened to them so much. I had the songs in my head, so it was an easy transformation once I got my hands to working. It just kind of took over from my love of sports. I always wanted to be in music anyway. When I was first in The Flies people were telling me that I would be the unluckiest person to ever get in a band because I was out of a job. I wasn’t a real popular … you know. Nobody would think that I would do that, that I would be a musician. They couldn’t believe that voice was coming out of me… because of my look, so I don’t know.
Review: At what point in time did you realize you had this great voice?
I never did. To this day I don’t see it …a lot of people are like that. Even when I’m watching a video of myself, I don’t like any of that stuff, I can’t watch myself without being critical and when I listen...I don’t know. It’s just the way I am. If I don’t think it sounds right, it’s not right. When I got out of school I was 18, and I wound up playing guitar. It was me and Duane Miller. I think we were known by Lone Star. We did a two-piece band that was big at the time. The Gaslight became the Old Town Saloon. Then it was the Fordney Lounge and we played in the Old Town Saloon. The fire department limited seating to 99 people who could get in, though we would have 100-200 people come to our shows. I started playing solo and Duane Miller started sitting-in and getting the vibe and somehow or another Mark Miller saw us playing this light acoustic music and he wanted to join the band. At the time he was playing with The Piles with Tom Dolson and Jerry Roundtree.
We were practicing at Duane’s and we told Mark to come over and jam with us. So he started to come over every night. We didn’t have a whole lot of money to pay him for the gigs, but he kept coming and sitting-in and eventually became a part of the band. At the time the Old Town had a real small stage. We didn’t even know if we could fit everybody up there. Tom Dolson brought a little bass drum/snare drum kit. Mark was played bass and Duane and I played guitar and sang. The first gig was exciting, no rehearsal, just hitting the spots and playing music that the band loved. From the first night on we were The Flies. It was just the four of us playing on the stage together, we just went with the feel.
Review: The Flies were an exceptional band.
Dolson: Well, you don’t realize that until after the fact. I think that’s why a lot of bands come back, the come-back tours, because they didn’t realize what they had the first time. Yeah, we deprived ourselves and then we came back bigger than ever. There was still a lingering of hurt feelings. It’s always like that with any kind of group you are in. Somebody disagrees with somebody, and that goes on. It wasn’t like anybody hated anybody. I think it was a case where we were burned out. We were together seven days a week for two years! We had burn-out going, and we needed a little break to go do bigger things. There was a time when we got together and said, “Should we try this?” Instead we put another band together.
Duane: Tom and I played for the last five to eight years, like three-quarters of that we all played together… we still all work together, but The Flies were too special to change the original lineup and original songs. We got together and tried to do it, but it wasn’t the same. It’s something rare and precious. Yeah, two years and you make a mistake and the whole thing crumbles.
Dolson: We changed, if it wasn’t us, it would have been someone else. We happened to be that band that changed. It was getting pretty dry. We opened it up to people who got it started on Hamilton Street. There were these guys who’d come out and watch us in suits and ties, like “Here’s the future, got to keep that party going down on Hamilton Street. Hamilton Street was hot back in the ‘80s when I was running back and forth between Ojibway Island and those party stores, that was cool. I had my Ginger Blue era. But I’ll tell you after those places closed down; The Fordney got a lot of recognition.
Duane: It was a unique scene at the Old Town. The Piles had played upstairs one night in the big room, the hotel. I think it made a huge difference with The Piles coming in. It was pretty wild, man. Jumping on the tables, guys jumping up and slide across the floor or whatever. The Piles were showstoppers. I remember one gig at the Rock Bottom on Bay Road; we all decided to get these silver exercise suits and we got these strobe lights going. We didn’t stop to think at that time that the suits were going to get hot. We would sweat like pigs.
The Flies were willing to try different things. I remember when we got our hair cut off. Johnny looked like Bob Seger. Then everybody said, “Great, great,” so everybody cut their hair off. All of a sudden everybody’s looking at us like we were weird. I forgot about that. Yep, we cut our hair, we dyed it. We did all kinds of crap. And then there was a rise in people getting earrings. There weren’t any pierced ears, and then all of a sudden half the people on the dance floor would come in with their heads shaved or their ears pierced except for the bikers.
Krogman: The Flies were not a fast rush from The Beatles as far as name-wise. The Beatles were my inspiration… not that we’re going to be the next Beatles but it was more like “they’re The Beatles, we’ll be The Flies.” That’s cool. That was kind of the same type of whatever.
Review: The Flies were different from other rock bands by using acoustic six-string guitars with electric rhythm. How did you come about doing that?
Krogman: Well, we were always into Neil Young. So really that’s where it came from and at the time they came out with these augmented chords and sounds and a lot of people said that they didn’t know that an acoustic guitar could do that… now a guitar can sound like a piano. That’s what happened. We were playing rock with acoustic guitars, which kind of lightened it up a bit. We were different than everybody else because other bands played dance music, disco music, or they were playing rock and roll. Several people tried to talk us into going electric which I think we did after a while and I think it was a mistake! We did have our own sound, though our sound did eventually change. We started listening to everybody else telling us that we should do this and that so we did some New Wave music. It worked great…for a little while.
In the beginning Duane and I were playing ‘60s music. We were into it. That’s what I grew up listening to and that’s what I went on to play, Stones, Beatles. I loved that sixties music. That was my music! So the newer stuff in the seventies and eighties, I had to get turned on to it. Message in a Bottle was a hot song! We just started listening to the new music. I mean it was an exciting time because it was closer to 1980 than 1970. We grew up in the ‘60s and all of a sudden there’s this New Wave music coming and we’re playing it and we’re going back to the ‘60s. Essentially we had two years of massive popularity. We had all these big crowds and a lot of support and were number one in Saginaw, but it stopped after two years. As a band, we didn’t appreciate what we had, we were young. And so there’ve always been missteps…that’s only human.
Review: Did anyone influence your music or the arts scene in general during the eighties
Duane & Dolson: It was Bob Martin hands down. Review came out just about the time that we established The Flies. Bob wrote insightful articles, and he liked John. He would meet friends at The Hut Restaurant. We would all hang out. Bob was just starting to develop the Review paper with Jeff Scott and he never stopped. He’d write a lot of stuff you didn’t see in The Saginaw News. He’d tell you about the bands and artists. He’s had the entertainment paper for years. A lot of bands have made that cover and been in that paper. He’s a great supporter of music. He did the same with us. We are friends to this day, personal friends. Bob’s done a lot to help the music scene! He wants to help everything, even politically. He’s not afraid to print something about what he thinks. (John) He was a friend and I always trusted his judgment.
Duane: When we had The Flies, Bob would be hanging out in the lot at AHHS high school. Bob had that fine tuned sense of where it’s at, what was popular and what was bogus. Bob, Jeff Scott, Mike Hanley and me. We had a school newspaper. I was only in about the 10th grade when they were seniors. They formed The Democratic Voice at Arthur Hill and they’d print stuff in there. They’d get in trouble with the school system, you know. They went over to Jack Kelly’s, Dr. Kelly, who was on the school board.
Duane: Right before the band started, John and I would do that two-piece thing. We were working all the time. We were going to go out west. John and I went out to California. You know, we were out there all summer checking things out. We got a couple jobs, got on TV in Los Angeles. We were talking to people who knew the score; looking at work in a restaurant to make more money. These dudes are like, “It took me this many years to get in there.” They’d been playing around town, but they’d always had these other jobs. You had to pay to work. You want to book this bar; you have to guarantee these many seats. We knew this isn’t like Michigan where we’re working all week. You come out here and it’s a rough time. So we came back and hooked up with Tom and Mark. It was just like pow, pow, pow. We couldn’t have a bit of a day off. We had some days off, but we were a working band.
Dolson: We got a lot of action started up in Saginaw. Something comes out. Sometimes it’s something totally new or nobody’s ever heard and probably never will. That’s what creativeness is about, it’s the same thing, whether it’s music, poetry or whatever; art is art, one way or the other.
Krogman: After Fred Reif left, I got tired of booking so I hired Rob Anderson to be our manager. Rob was going to handle all the details. I didn’t have to worry about that so I could concentrate on playing and singing. He was going to organize us like we had a business. Some people didn’t like that because it would cost money, take money out of their pocket…so the pot got smaller.
Review: Did you have any other management?
Krogman: We started getting a little notoriety, and then we did a WSAM rap. It went nationally. At that point Bob Cheevers approached us and Fred Blondin became our manager. I didn’t really know Fred very well. If I would’ve been a little more mature, more business-minded, cooperated more with him, we might have gotten more notice. It was like when you’re a big fish in a small pond…it’s a whole different animal.
Review: On a typical gig what would you make?
Krogman: I think at the time we were getting probably about $40 a piece per night; $200 for the band. There were different amounts, but I would say half the time we made $50, $60 a night. That was pretty good money back then. We did this tape at the time at the Old Town Festival. We went on first and we started playing and the first song that we did, the PA problems started. Maybe we just should’ve just let it go but we recorded it, and it was copied and sold. Fred was selling the recordings, and there were two originals and several cover songs on there, and the folks that owned the rights to the music threatened to sue us if we didn’t stop selling that tape; it was a big hassle. I had a private video tape of that whole thing.
Review: Any final words about the Flies?
Dolson: We all had a couple different off-shoots, but we all grew up in the same town. Pretty much our whole generation, we grew up around the same thing, just a different community. I listened to all the rock and roll, but I listened to what my parents would come up with. We’re all in this generation that was influenced by Viet Nam, everything. As musicians we’d branch out and we’d check the scene and try to learn a different style or approach to our music. And sometimes it would work!
Review: What was your final straw?
Krogman: When it came to the final straw I was at a meeting at the old Schuch Hotel. Tom Dolson was there and told me he was going to quit the band. So at that point I just stood up and told him that I quit the band too; but as I look back the biggest thing about The Flies is that we wanted to be different from everybody else…we tried to be original. I think that when the original four of us put it together and saw what happened, we could not sustain that kind of pressure.