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The Sound Heard 'Round the World: Boston! Where the new thing is making everything else seem like yesterday.Where a new definition of love is helping to write the words and music for 1968. Three incredible groups. Three incredible albums.The best of the Boston Sound on MGM Records.
So said advertisements in January 1968 ... to which the record-buying public replied, "Nonsense!" MGM's Bosstown promotion failed miserably. Quickly, too.
The three groups that were the subjects of the first phase of this marketing campaign were the Beacon Street Union, Orpheus, and the Ultimate Spinach. A thin case could be made for connecting the first two. Boston-Cambridge was, and still is, an important center of folk music; and each of these bands, in its own way, was arguably a folk-rock unit or at least had some folk influence. But the Ultimate Spinach? Orpheus and the Ultimate Spinach could not be thrown together to make a Boston Sound. If the city could be said to have had a characteristic music style, Orpheus would be the band, out of these three, that most nearly represented it. One might say that Earth Opera did, too; and Bonnie Raitt, a very different sort of act, soon would. But anyway, as Brett Milano pointed out in the March 18, 1999, issue of the Phoenix, Boston's real contribution to rock started a few years earlier. It centered on fine groups such as the bluesy Hallucinations, the rocking Lost, and the region's pivotal band, the Remains.
The Beacon Street Union's debut album, The Eyes of the Beacon Street Union (LP, MGM, 1968), waited six months to be released. When it did come out, of course, it was an exciting time for band members. John Lincoln Wright tells of the occasion when they opened a copy of Billboard and found, not a plug for their own record--but rather, they found that "Sound Heard 'Round the World" ad. "[I]t wasn't us," he said. "We didn't even know who Ultimate Spinach was. We'd never met them. ... I think our fate was sealed as soon as those first ads went out."
None of this is intended to say that what eventually became the Bosstown promotion started as a bad business idea. Since the days of Bob Riley in the 1950s and earlier, and even more so following the success of Freddy Cannon, Boston did, in fact, have its own rock community. It is a major college town. And by 1968, Boston's institutions of higher learning had been filled, for several years, with students who grew up on rock and roll; and they bought records and represented a very big, attractive market.
The Rockin' Ramrods and Teddy and the Pandas were among the better local acts in Boston. The Barbarians had a small but memorable hit with the '60s punk-rock song, "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl." The Lost recorded for Capitol and shared stages with the likes of James Brown and the Shirelles. They opened a Northeast tour in 1966 headlined by the Beach Boys. Barry and the Remains, Boston's greatest rock band of the 1960s, recorded for Epic and opened the Beatles' last tour, including the last Beatles concert anywhere, ever.
Independent-record-producer Alan Lorber saw all this, and he judged that commercial opportunites were to be found in Greater Boston. In the fall of 1967, trade papers reported that he planned to work with and promote a number of Boston bands. Not a bad idea, as far as it goes. He signed the Ultimate Spinach and a fine new harmony group, Orpheus. Another independent producer, Wes Ferrell, had already signed the Beacon Street Union. Jim Schuh's excellent article in the December 2, 1986, issue of the Boston Phoenix describes something of a gold-rush mentality among recording executives who tried to woo the city's unsigned bands.
Bosstown had perhaps its greatest advocate in the person of Dick Summer, a disk jockey on WBZ. On Sunday evenings, he included recordings by Boston bands on his Subway radio program. Summer coined the phrase, "Boston Sound," to give the local scene a sense of cohesiveness.
1968 was a year of transition for Boston music and the youth culture that supported it. In March, WBCN's American Revolution program made its debut from the dressing room of the Boston Tea Party. The legendary Club 47 in Harvard Square closed its doors in April. Bob Siggins, the central figure in the Charles River Valley Boys, was awarded a PhD; and he and his wife Betsy, another important individual in the Boston-Cambridge folk community, moved to the nation's capital. That fall, the short-lived Ark opened on Lansdowne Street. Barry Tashian, former leader of the Remains, was back in Boston, fronting a new band. The old 47 location on Palmer Street served as Eugene McCarthy headquarters during the political campaign. In November, it reopened as a bookstore and gallery. It's name? Passim. As both the original and future owners would soon discover, the place was haunted by the ghost of Club 47 past. (Currently it is operated, at the same location, under the name Club Passim.)
The Bosstown promotion, as it unraveled, became, in a way, a bit like Watergate. Bosstown started with just the three not-entirely-willing bands, but it quickly hauled in other MGM acts from the city. Some groups were quite good, while others were nowhere near ready to take the national stage. John Lincoln Wright observed that "20- and 21-year-old musicians saw their dream laughed at, ridiculed."
The MGM ad copy raised eyebrows from the beginning, because it had little to do with what was really going on in Boston; and it was very much out of keeping with the times. This was, after all, the late '60s, with its sprawling counterculture. As the marketing campaign turned into a huge fiasco, nearly any band from Boston with a major-label contract became suspect. Eden's Children put out a couple fine albums on ABC. The intriguing Earth Opera did the same on Elektra. But Bosstown, in the world of rock music, had become synonymous with Boston; and it put a chill in the air. Jon Landau, in an April issue of Rolling Stone, was quite critical and suggested, prophetically, that MGM's marketing campaign could well slow the development of Boston's actual rock scene.
Much of this article is drawn from my collection of vintage vinyl and from my own memories of hearing the bands play at concerts and dances. And these musicians, like members of their audience, were themselves rock fans. The Beacon Street Union opened a number of shows at the old Boston Tea Party, but they also went there as customers. I don't recall ever being in the right place at the right time to catch one of their live performances, though I've always found things to enjoy on their records. At the time, it seemed to me the Beacon Street Union was the biggest of the Bosstown bands.
I heard Orpheus just once on what, for them, was an off night.* Yet Orpheus records always sounded quite good. "Can't Find the Time To Tell You" and "Congress Alley" are personal favorites. In the early 1970s, when theoretically their career should have been over, a late lineup of the band put out one of their best albums, Orpheus (LP, Bell, n.d. ).
Personally, I never followed the Ultimate Spinach, though friends did; but the last version of that band was quite promising. It included original member Barbara Hudson along with Ted Myers, formerly of the Lost, and one Jeff "Skunk" Baxter.
Puff was formed by ex-members of the Ramrods. I heard Puff so often at the Brewer Auditorium in Maine that songwriter Ronn Campisi should have composed a song in my honor, to open band's shows, titled "You Again?" The Robert Henderson on drums is the same person as recording-engineer Jesse Henderson, who was at the controls for the early, legendary punk compilation, Live at the Rat (2 LPs, Rat, 1976). (This album included Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, DMZ, the Infliktors, the Real Kids, and other groups that helped create Boston's late-'70s DiY punk scene.)
Several Boston bands--including more than one group that signed with MGM--made decent records that got lost in the shuffle. The album by the Bagatelle may be my favorite by a Boston rock unit from the Bosstown period. 11 P.M. Saturday (LP, ABC, 1968) includes both live and studio recordings. It's heavy on covers--excellent ones--of songs that were hits for the likes of Sam and Dave, James Brown, and Sam Cooke. Lillian Roxon, in her groundbreaking Rock Encyclopedia, noted that the Bagatelle album includes "a nice piece of musical satire." A few tracks, such as the traditional, and very beautiful, "Every Night When the Sun Goes In," vary the program nicely. "Everybody Knows" and "Back on the Farm" feature the band's pianist, the legendary Willie Alexander. "Everybody Knows" is an essential re-recording of an outstanding Alexander original that he did with his great old band, the Lost.
Ride the wild surf on the Internet and you'll find that some of these outfits--bands that got little respect in '68--have a following now, thirty-two years later. One such group is Phluph, which put out an album on Verve/MGM Records. Chamaeleon Church, which included former members of the Lost, is another. One member of Chamaeleon Church once told a reporter, "I was in a rock band and living in Wellesley. Remember the Boston Sound? Really heavy on violins. Our band once went on a small tour of Southern universities and pretended we were Orpheus; we all looked alike with those Nehru jackets, right? At one school in Kentucky, the audience started yelling out, 'You aren't Orpheus!' And I was playing keyboards and yelling back, 'Yes, we are!' We did all their songs--'Can't Find the Time To Tell You' and all those--and they bought it."
The name of the musician making this confession? Chevy Chase.
Make no mistake about it, Boston bands of the Bosstown era included a number of talented people. Some either continued or later resumed working as musicians. It has been a pleasure, over the years, to learn of musical performances by returning veterans, such as Bruce Arnold of Orpheus and Benson Blake IV of Phluph. Others, such as Chase, went on to success in different fields.
The Boston Sound? Well, the city did, indeed, have a sound. It was folk music. Roland Hayes (1887-1977), one of the great singers of spirituals, had a long history in Boston. (He also served as lead vocalist for the Boston Symphony and many other orchestras.) The urban folk revival sprouted locally through the talents of Rolf Cahn, Debbie Green, Eric Sackheim, Eric von Schmidt, and others. Joan Baez rose to national prominence after a start in area coffeehouses. The Boston sound was the Charles River Valley Boys, Bill Keith & Jim Rooney, Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Tom Rush, and Jackie Washington. And Boston's sound was a-changin'. Soon, along came acts with more of a foundation in rhythm and blues, including the J. Geils Band, Bonnie Raitt, and Swallow. We may even count the early Aerosmith--guitarist Joe Perry is a great fan of Chuck Berry.
A number of Bosstown musicians, such as Harry Sandler of Orpheus, have appeared in print every so often, recalling their experiences from an era when rock was going through profound changes. Wayne Ulaky of the Beacon Street Union wrote, "As high-school kids at the time, we were inspired to be rock stars because of the popularity of the British bands of the mid-'60s. We learned our 'chops' by seeing local bands of the period--the Barbarians, the Hallucinations, Barry and the Remains." Ulaky thought later Boston groups may have learned a few things from coming to their shows and listening to them.
When people would comment on what a mess Bosstown became, John Lincoln Wright answered, "Well, what were you doing when you were eighteen? When I was eighteen, I was in Vogue magazine, I was on television, I was in Billboard magazine, I was on the charts."
-- Alan Lewis, December 11, 2000
No one has yet commented on what the Boston Sound promotional campaign may have done to Boston as a music center. What it has done, in all likelihood, is serious damage to the city and to its pop-music groups. If nothing in the way of lasting value is promptly forthcoming from Boston, the audience will lose interest, and consequently the promotional value of being from Boston will be lost. Even worse, being from Boston may start to evoke an "Oh, another one of those" response from the record-buying public, and hence the recording-company executive. If this happens, being from Boston will be a stigma rather than an asset.
-- Don Law, Boston After Dark, March 20, 1968
Addendum: It's hard to say just when the ill effects of the failure of the Bosstown promotion wore off. The affair was certainly over, though, by the mid-1970s--as Jim Schuh noted in his excellent article in the Phoenix--when Tom Scholz and company named their group Boston. None of the city's bands would have done anything like that just a few years earlier.
My own view of Bosstown covers 1968 & 1969 and makes a sharp distinction between the fiction of the Boston Sound promotion, on the one hand, and the actual & really quite decent New England rock scene, on the other. The music ran the full range from marvelous to misguided, with a lot of highs, legal and otherwise. The Bosstown marketing campaign made an early exit, but many bands hung in for a while. Some groups released second and third albums, and Orpheus even made a fine fourth LP. It is of some importance to us that much of what happened in those years set the stage for Willie Alexander's indie "Mass. Ave." single ("Kerouac" b/w "Mass. Ave.", 45, Garage, ), the primal 1976 Tournament of the Bands at The Club in Cambridge, and the ragged-but-energetic Live at the Rat (2 LPs, Rat, 1976) compilation.
Joe Harvard says that Boston's '70s rock underground first got sparked into life around 1969, and we believe he's right. Rock in New England reacted to the Bosstown fiasco in the way rock usually does, by going back to its origins. In this case, it was mostly a return to suburban garages. But while that was going on, circumstances conspired to put the Velvet Underground onto the Boston Tea Party stage really, really often. Peter Wolf once told Brett Milano of the Boston Phoenix that his first band, the Hallucinations, opened for the Velvet Underground a good forty times.
As the VU seemed well out of step with the High Psychedelic Era, so did a regular member of the audience, Jonathan Richman. Jo Jo did some performing of his own not much later. Chris Hamel wrote in the October 19, 1987, issue of the Springfield (MA) Union-News that
We used to see Richman in the '60s as a solo act in Boston clubs. He sometimes got tremendous ovations, simply because his sets were finished and he was finally getting off stage.Thus, a legend was born. Richman was joined by John Felice, then by David Robinson, and finally by Rolfe Anderson in the Velvets-inspired quartet, the Modern Lovers. By Spring 1971, the band had morphed into the classic lineup of Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison, Jonathan Richman, and David Robinson. This foursome stayed together up to Fall 1973, all the while putting a lot of first-golden-age memories into the heads of a whole bunch of punks. The Modern Lovers cast a very long shadow here in New England.
Even before Jonathan Richman got the VU bug, Boston had another local band with an out-there influence. While many New England rockers were busily wearing out copies of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and, later, the Beatles' White Album, members of the Crow were all followers of the Mothers of Invention. If this doesn't seem strange in and of itself, it's worth considering that lead singer Donna Summer became one of the biggest dance-rock stars of the '70s and trumpeter Mark Gould went on to a career with the pit orchestra of New York's Metropolitan Opera.
As a rock underground came together in the wake of the Bosstown mess, so a new rock mainstream was born. Guitarist J. Geils started packing an amplifier, and his formerly all-acoustic trio is said to have tried out a vocalist/drummer. Apparently this experiment didn't quite work out. Meanwhile, the band, the Hallucinations, was coming undone. By late Summer 1968, Steven Jo Bladd and Peter Wolf left the Hallucinations. They began looking around for another outfit to join until something better might come along, and soon enough they hooked up with the J. Geils Blues Band. The new quintet (Bladd, Geils, Danny Klein, Magic Dick, Wolf) shortened the name to the J. Geils Band, giving its first shows in September 1968. By 1970, the J. Geils Band had gone national, evidently without ever feeling the stigma of Bosstown. That same year, the band that fully broke the Bosstown curse was coming together on the shore of Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.
Ex-members of Chain Reaction, the Jam Band, and Justin Tyme formed a new group, Aerosmith. After a period of playing shows in rural New England, Aerosmith moved to Boston, got signed to Columbia Records, and had a regional hit with the single, "Dream On." The music of Aerosmith was championed by DJ Maxanne Sartori of WBCN-FM. After "Sweet Emotion" became a national hit for Aerosmith, it seems fair to say that the harm that the Bosstown promotion did to the Boston scene was a thing of the past.
The Bosstown campaign led off with these words: "The Sound Heard 'Round the World: Boston! Where the new thing is making everything else seem like yesterday." So, is there any truth to be found in that claim? Well, yes, if we can think along a very different plane. For a generation that grew up on Top 40 AM radio, the new free-form broadcasts of WBCN-FM were incredible. Better make that INCREDIBLE! Maybe starting in 1968, and for years to come, it was the free-form approach and often alternative rock of WBCN that represented the true Boston Sound.
-- Alan Lewis, January 13, 2003
THE BEST JOHN LINCOLN WRIGHT PROFILE I remember seeing is "John Lincoln Wright" by Joel Bernstein in Country Standard Time, November 1997, posted at www.countrystandardtime.com/johnlincolnwrightFEATURE.html