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From left: Max Chain in the 80s. The Hollywood sign after the band changed it to read "Raffeysod".
Extremes

What I Wish We'd Known Before Blowing Our Band’s Shot at Fame

Changing the Hollywood sign made us international news. Here's how you can do something similar, without blowing it.
March 29, 2021, 4:54am

This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here.

Ever since rock music hit the airwaves, young people have thought to themselves: “that’s what I’d like to do.”

I remember when Mark Knopfler hit the nail on the head with the words “that ain’t working; that’s the way you do it; the money for nothing and the chicks for free.”

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Those lines sure got my attention, and I have wanted to be a rockstar all of my life. I’ve had some success too. I’ve been fortunate enough to have performed during a period in Los Angeles when clubs would stay open till dawn, just so we could play our whole show over again. I’ve seen whole audiences mimicking our guitar player’s crazy little dance. I’ve heard thunderous applause. And I’ll tell you: there’s nothing else like it.

But one time we did something that almost took our band to that next level; to that level of fame where you make real money; to that level where you’re remembered.

This is a story of how rock n’ roll greatness came within our grasp and slipped through our fingers. Maybe it will inspire you. Maybe you’ll get right what we got wrong.

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A promotional shot of The Raffeys. Image via Raff Raffey

Get Disciplined

Back in the early 1980s I was working as a desk clerk at a new time-share sales project in New Orleans, when I met a guy named Raff Raffey. I had been playing the tiniest Casio keyboards ever made, just to kill time.

“Hey, you play the keyboards?” he asked me.

I looked down at the Casio, which was about the size of a 6-receptacle power-strip, and looked back up at him.

“Yes,” I said.

With that I joined his band, “The Raffeys”, and we rehearsed three hours every night of the week. Raff was a disciple of discipline; if anyone missed one rehearsal, we would have to rehearse on Saturday night too.

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Max, out of costume. Image via Raff Raffey

Publicise Yourself

Before I joined, Raff’s band had been plastering posters all over town. He’d even taken to dangling from freeway overpasses to spray-paint “The Raffeys” nice and big over the concrete spans. We became pretty close friends, and pulled off some even more elaborate schemes in New Orleans before we decided to go where the action was, which meant moving to Los Angeles.

I’ll stop for a moment here to emphasise a couple of points. Firstly, rehearsals are key; the band has to be as tight as possible. Then secondly, if you’ve outgrown the venues in your town, or they’re not suitable for your style of music, you gotta go to where the music is going to click. But in my opinion, talent is only a small percentage of the equation, and drawing attention to yourself doesn’t hurt—in fact it’s vital. The Raffeys were about demonstrating the power of self promotion on a huge scale.

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Think Big

So we all lived in a one-bedroom apartment halfway up from Venice Beach. We had a tiny, 6-inch black-and-white TV, and I remember that on the intros of every local news show they always showed the Hollywood Sign. One day I was looking at it, there on the news, and I had a thought.

“Why don’t we change the Hollywood sign?”

I grabbed some graph paper, and soon realised we could change “Hollywood” to read “Raffeys!!”—with two exclamation points on the end. This was just after Christmas of 1984. It felt like a great idea, but we’d have to get busy quick because New Year’s Eve was rapidly approaching. I knew that if we wanted to change the Hollywood sign to read “Raffeys!!” we’d need to do it without any police helicopters around, and NYE is the only night that police helicopters don’t patrol the skies, due to all the fireworks and partiers shooting their guns. So we had less than a week to make it happen.


For the full story on how the Raffeys changed the world’s biggest billboard, listen to the podcast. Hit play and you can listen without leaving this page:


Listen to the podcast for all the details, but the long and short of it is that I “borrowed” 164 king-sized bed sheets from a hotel, then painted “Raffeys!!” on the sheets in huge letters. It took days, but then we were all ready.

It was New Year’s Eve and the sign was huge, I mean, it’s a lot bigger than you imagine it would be. The letters swayed in the wind coming over Mt. Lee from the valley side, and they creaked eerily as we climbed to the top. Then Raff and I, along with the other members of the band, spent the whole night hoisting our sheets over the sign letters and tying them into place.

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It was a ton of work, and the safety belts Raff had purchased saved both our asses from almost certain death more than once. We kept a nervous eye on the orange glow of the rising sun, and we knew we were running out of time.

As dawn broke over Los Angeles, I told Raff we had to split. He was mad as hell as we scampered down the hill, because we didn’t have time to cover the “O” and the “D” on “Hollywood” with exclamation marks—but that would have taken too long, and I for one didn’t want to go to jail.

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A Instamatic photo taken by Raff as they drove away

So when we got down off the mountain we looked back to see the sign that read “Raffeysod” instead of “Raffeys!!” We were tired, stressed, and Raff was furious.

“Now, Raff,” I said, sort of backing up, “I fancy myself a writer, as you know, and looking up there I see a compound word. I see ‘Raffeys,’ and I also see the word ‘Sod.’”

He looked.

“So,” I continued, “as ‘sod’ means ‘turf,’ couldn’t that be construed to mean ‘turf of the Raffeys…?’”

He didn’t kill me. He hugged me instead.

Be Ready to Take Advantage of the Launching Pad

By the time we got home it was already on the national news and the calls started coming. My uncle in Japan had seen it already so we were also international news. We were whooping and hollering in our apartment—but that was all. We didn’t come right out and take responsibility for it. And that was a mistake.

The buzz continued for days without us. Then on January 3rd of 1985, the L.A. Times ran yet another article on the sign entitled “Hollywood Sign’s Puzzling Letters Remain a Mystery”.

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That was our final chance. We should have owned up right then and ridden the publicity, but we were terrified of facing jail time and we hid. We laid lower than a snake in the grass who’d removed his hat, and that was our biggest mistake.

Finally, a few days later, we publicly admitted what we’d done and some press showed up. We got a tiny little follow-up piece in the L.A. Times, but our moment had passed. We’d blown it.

I don’t remember who it was, but a little while later the band was in the office of some bigwig who asked: “Why didn’t you come clean that day?! I could have had you on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ that night!”

I slumped down in my chair when I heard that.

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We Were Close, But You Can Get Closer

For an unknown band, it could have been a game-changer. Instead of begging for gigs around town, we would have heard “Hey, you’re the guys who changed the Hollywood sign, right? How about next Friday or Saturday night?” We probably would have been on the national morning news shows as well. Oprah might have called.

So what’s the lesson? The lesson is that if you’re going to play with fire, don’t fear getting burned. Just do your best, hope for the best, but keep moving forward no matter what. Things are going to disappoint you at times; it’s just part of life. And there’s always a bright side.

I’ve kept going, and I have never given up on being a rock star. And how funny is it that something we did years ago is giving me another shot at worldwide exposure now? As soon as I heard about the podcast, we got busy recording a new album, setting up a website, and (shit!) for the first time having to succumb to the necessity of social media.

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Anyway, we most certainly would have caught a wave if we’d had a better plan for the huge exposure we received, so there’s no denying self-promotion is important.

But that’s not how I found myself singing to packed houses. That didn’t happen with The Raffeys or even the next band I formed afterwards, but it came. And the best bit of advice I can offer is by telling you about something I call “the magic.”

You Need to Have “the Magic”

A band either has “the magic” or it doesn’t. If you have it, things come easily to you, like a gentle river taking you on the journey. You don’t even need a paddle when “the magic” is with you.

You may not have a bunch of people at your first performance, but if “the magic” is with you then the ones who are there will spread the word. Many more will come to the next gig, and many more to the next one after that.

But here’s the rub: if that’s not happening, stop. Make changes, adapt, and go at it again. It might just be one of your bandmates is putting out a bad vibe. It might be that your ego needs to be reigned in a little, or a lot.

Not only bands, but many other entrepreneurs don’t get this; they pull into the river and immediately start paddling upstream as hard as they can. We are taught that to succeed requires hard work. I promise you that’s bullshit.

If you don’t give up on your dream, and you never quit, you’re going to have a freaking blast in life. You are going to live SO MUCH MORE than those around you, those who criticised your choice to pursue a career in music. Laugh, for they know not what they are missing. Even if you never make the “big time,” you will know it was “the journey with heart” that matters.

You can quit, if you want. You can give up on your dream and you can even have a nice little life. But you will always wonder: if you hadn’t given up, and kept going, what would your life be like now?

This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes. You can listen to the full story here, free, only on Spotify.

Follow Max on Instagram or check out his website: SirMaxAlot.com