How Nostalgia for ‘The Adventures of Pete & Pete’ Revived Miracle Legion

Miracle Legion back in the day; photo by Michael Ackerman

Without Miracle Legion, there wouldn’t have been Polaris. Funny enough, the reverse is also true. 
Polaris was never a household name, except in a very specific kind of household—namely, the ones where weird kids devoured the ‘90s children’s TV show “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” As the cult classic’s house band, the trio wrote the theme song “Hey Sandy,” among a dozen original tunes, during a three-season run that began in 1993 but seemed to last the whole decade via frequent reruns. Occasionally Polaris members—guitarist/singer Mark Mulcahy, bassist Dave McCaffrey, and drummer Scott Boutier—showed up in episodes to inspire Little Pete to form a band, like Nickelodeon’s answer to the Velvet Underground. They were in good company, too: Michael StipeDebbie HarryIggy Popthe B-52s’ Kate Pierson, and more made cameos throughout “Pete and Pete,” establishing the show as an unlikely bastion for alternative music.

The house band gig was supposed to have gone to Miracle Legion, the New Haven, Conn. college-rock quartet that included Polaris’ members plus guitarist Ray Neal. That’s who “Pete & Pete” co-creator Will McRobb was expecting when he asked Mulcahy to write songs for the show. But by the early ’90s, Miracle Legion was in the process of slowly falling apart. Nearly two decades later, intense nostalgia among fans of “Pete & Pete” led to Polaris playing live—a first for a band that had never really existed outside the show. Eventually Miracle Legion seemed worth reviving. They kick off a tour next week and reissued their final album, 1997’s Portrait of a Damaged Family, on vinyl this past Record Store Day.
“If someone had called up out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, how about doing some Miracle Legion gigs,’ I think everyone would have said no,” Mulcahy says now. 
Mulcahy and Neal started Miracle Legion in 1983, and within several years, the band had become a mainstay of the fertile New England college-rock scene that also included Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies, along with the lesser-known bands like Salem 66, the Neighborhoods, Dumptruck, and the Gravel Pit. With jangling guitars and vocals slightly reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s, Miracle Legion’s 1984 debut EP The Backyard drew comparisons to R.E.M.Their music struck a rare balance between wide-eyed wonder and a wistful, wise-beyond-their-years sensibility that never got too heavy or self-serious. It’s no wonder that McRobb calls the song “The Backyard” “the single biggest influence” on “Pete & Pete.”

Most of Miracle Legion’s ’80s output, including the 1987 LP Surprise Surprise Surprise and 1989’s Me and Mr Ray, came out on Rough Trade. When financial difficulties bogged down the label in the early ’90s, Miracle Legion landed on Morgan Creek Records, a division of the movie studio behind Young GunsMajor League, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. “It was more high-end than other labels we’d been on, where you’d fly around to places and have some money behind the record,” Mulcahy says.
And so, Miracle Legion took six weeks to make their third album, 1992’s Drenched—the longest stretch they’d spent in the studio. They were about to head to New Orleans to record a fourth album with famed producer Daniel Lanois when Morgan Creek suddenly put everything on hold, without explanation. All the momentum that Miracle Legion had so painstakingly built dissipated. 
To call it demoralizing understates the case. Though the band found money to record without the label (and without Lanois), legal entanglements with Morgan Creek prevented Miracle Legion from releasing this music. For Neal, recently married and considering having kids, it was a sign that it was time to move on. “We’d all put in 12 years and we lived in a van and we’d never given up,” he says now. “And then to have some person in Hollywood say, ‘No, you can’t do anything,’ it never made any sense.”
Then Mulcahy called with news: There was a children’s show that wanted Miracle Legion to contribute music. “I was at the Grand Canyon with my wife, and we were spending two months just driving around America in a pickup truck with a tent,” Neal says. “So I could drive back and be part of this TV show I knew nothing about. But I said, ‘You know what, Mark, go for it.’”

As “Pete & Pete” was ending in 1996, Morgan Creek let Miracle Legion out of its contract. Finally free, the band released Portrait of a Damaged Family on Mulcahy’s Mezzotint label, which he started specifically to put out the album. The title, a wry tribute to perseverance, “was based around the idea that the four of us had made it,” Mulcahy says. “It can be very difficult on your personality, on your psyche, on your health. There’s a whole host of characters who have been associated with it, other band members, roadies, publicists and managers, who couldn’t cut it anymore.”
But by the time the album came out, Miracle Legion had essentially split up. “Ray was sick of it, I had slipped into the Polaris thing, and Scott and Dave were playing with Frank Black & the Catholics,” Mulcahy says. “I asked if we could do eight or 10 shows to promote the record. I remember we did four or five around here [on the East Coast] and went to the West Coast to do three or four there. We weren’t particularly together, but we got together to do that.”
And that was it. Mulcahy began making solo albums, while Neal played with bands around New Haven and helped run a video store before a spate of family illnesses became all-consuming. A few years ago, he remarried and moved full-time to Scotland, which seemed to eliminate whatever chance there might have been for a Miracle Legion reunion. “I was off in one direction and Mark was carrying on a musical career of his own,” Neal says. “I never wanted to rule it out. I wasn’t against it, but I was quite busy with other things for a while.”  

What changed in the meantime, while Miracle Legion’s members moved on, was that kids who loved “Pete & Pete” in the ’90s had grown up but not lost their allegiance to this absurd show about two brothers named Pete and their best friend Artie, the purported “strongest man in the world.” The cast reunions began in earnest. “All those 10-year-olds were now 26, and they were nostalgic for their childhoods and a show created by 26-year-olds who were nostalgic for their childhoods,” says McRobb, who created “Pete & Pete” with Chris Viscardi. 
Mulcahy, McCaffrey, and Boutier performed as Polaris at a “Pete & Pete” reunion in 2012, and booked the band’s first-ever tour in 2014. With three-quarters of Miracle Legion already back together, a full reunion suddenly didn’t seem like such a stretch—especially after Neal expressed interest. “We always said we should get ‘never say never’ tattoos,” Mulcahy cracks. 
Whether it’s a postscript or a rebirth remains to be seen, but there’s an appealing symmetry to the whole thing. McRobb, for one, is optimistic that this could be Miracle Legion’s moment for re-evaluation, a band lost in the cracks of time and label bullshit found once again. “I was thinking about an audience that needed to take the Miracle Legion experience in baby steps,” he says of his initial inclination to cast the band. “And now they have taken the baby steps. They’ve been trained. They’re ready.”

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