It was 1968, and Los Angeles and San Francisco were both vying to be the musical capitol of America. In an effort to replicate the success of these organic movements, MGM records decided to sign several bands from Boston and package them as the “Boss-town Sound”. The Bosstown Sound went down in rock history as one of the 60s greatest misfires and was doomed from the start after the campaign was targeted by the press as “establishment hype” at its worst.
While MGM Records signed a dozen or so odd bands as part of the campaign, the three best known were Ultimate Spinach, Orpheus and the Beacon Street Union. But in hindsight we can finally learn to treasure some of the creative and downright freaky music that came out of this burgeoning psych scene.
As a rock’n’roll city, Boston was hardly a wasteland. Freddy Cannon had put Boston on the map in 1959, even if most of his big hits, ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ and ‘Palisades Park’ were about other towns. Another local boy, Richard Mansour, made big waves after moving west, inventing surf guitar and changing his name to Dick Dale. Barry & The Remains cut one of the all-time great garage-rock singles, ‘Don’t Look Back’ and opened The Beatles’ final string of live shows. Another solid garage band, The Lost, didn’t get a hit but marked the debut of local music fixture Willie Alexander.
So it made sense that late 1967 brought MGM scouts into Boston with checkbooks in hand. The psychedelic era was in full swing: FM radio playlists enabling all sorts of musical experimentation and the city, with its large college population and developing club scene, was full of freethinking musicians. So MGM threw its resources into establishing Boston as the country’s next big music hotbed, and therein lied the problem: It looked like a marketing strategy, and such things were hated by the hippie audience they were after.
Boston looked even less hip when the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story about the plan, “The Selling of a New Sound” in January of 1968 and MGM’s own publicity added to the hype machine billing it: “The sound heard rock the world: Boston! Where the new thing is making everything else sound like yesterday. Where a new definition of love is helping to write the words and music for 1968”. Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone – then strongly associated with the San Francisco scene – was among the first to call bull.
Behind the hype lay some truly over-the-top psychedelia. A song like the Ultimate Spinach’s ‘Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess’, with its sitar, finger cymbals, and weighty spoken intro (“See the glazed eyes! Touch the dead skin! Feel the cold lips, and know the warmth of the hip death goddess!”) just wouldn’t be attempted today, though you could say that it anticipated the goth movement by a couple of decades. Earnest vocals and haunting minor-key tunes are the rule. The Beacon Street Union’s magnum opus, ‘The Clown Died in Marvin Gardens’ mixes images of doom, acid and yes, Monopoly.
Most of the albums were overseen by MGM staff producer and veteran arranger, Alan Lorber, who was into experimenting with orchestration. One band who got signed was the Rockin’ Ramrods, who’d done a few good garage singles two years earlier. Lorber psychedelicized their sound, advised them to start wearing fur, and changed their name to Puff – not to be confused with Phluph, another of MGM’s Bosstown bands.
One local group who passed on the Bosstown bandwagon was the fledgling J. Geils Band, who came close to signing but felt more at home musically with Atlantic who came after them at the same time. This did, however, keep the Geils Band from playing at Woodstock. Their manager Ray Paret was offered a slot for one of his bands, but gave it to Quill, who took the MGM deal and became the only Boston band to play Woodstock (though one of the former Remains, drummer ND Smart, played as a member of Mountain). Unfortunately getting slotted on Friday evening, before most of the Woodstock crowds arrived, didn’t do much for Quill’s career. Too bad, because Quill’s song ‘They Live the Life’ – which they played at Woodstock, and made the centrepiece of their lone album – was a nice, tough-sounding putdown of the straight world; not too far from what Steppenwolf would do soon after.
The odd band out in the batch and the one that had the hit single was Orpheus. Not at all psychedelic, Orpheus was more of a sophisticated pop group in the vein of the Association or the Left Banke. Their second album, Ascending, even included a cover of ‘Walk Away Renee’. Their hit ‘Can’t Find the Time’ was a perfectly lovely record, and suitable follow-ups are scattered among their four albums (the last done for Bell in 1971). The band got an added boost when Hootie & the Blowfish covered their hit in 2000. Leader Bruce Arnold was even coaxed out of retirement to sing it live with them and then went onto form a new Orpheus line-up that performs to this day.
Ultimate Spinach also came somewhat down-to-earth on their second album, Behold & See, which sported a slightly heavier rock sound, not least due to their addition of guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who’d go onto fame in Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. But the most famous face to turn up in a Boston Sound band was none other than Chevy Chase, the future Saturday Night Live star, who played drums in Chamaeleon Church, the band formed by singer and guitarist Ted Myers after his stints in the above-mentioned Lost and Ultimate Spinach.
In photos from that era Chase looks earnest in his pageboy haircut and Nehru jacket. One can easily imagine him taking a pratfall and revealing the whole thing to be a setup. He did apparently do some comedy onstage with the band, but Chamaeleon Church’s one album has a wispy Donovan-like sound, with the drumming mostly confined to finger cymbals and other hand percussion.
The Bosstown Sound ended as ignobly as it began. In 1969 Mike Curb (later the conservative Republican lieutenant governor of California) took over as head of MGM Records and one of his first actions was a well-publicized purge from the label of all the acts that he deemed to be advocating drugs in their music. Freaks like The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa – yes, the same Frank Zappa who disdained drugs and drug users through his whole career – were among the first to go.
Eric Burdon & the Animals, who probably partook in more party favours but also sold more records, somehow survived the purge. In this atmosphere the Boston bands, even the squeaky-clean Orpheus, didn’t stand a chance. One of Curb’s first high-profile signings would be the Osmond Brothers. The 60s were ending fast, but Boston – with the success of Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band just around the corner and Boston and The Cars soon to follow – would live to fight another day.
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