Rock CD Review: Remembering the “Bosstown Sound”
We Bostonians are a tough bunch and the Remains had a tough sound. That’s what Boston music should be remembered for.
The Rising Storm Calm Before…; Ultimate Spinach Ultimate Spinach; and The Remains Live 1969 (Sundazed Records)
By Adam Ellsworth
Boston is never mentioned when the great cities and scenes of rock and roll are discussed. The Hub is not considered in the same league as Memphis, Liverpool, San Francisco, New York City, Manchester, or Seattle. It isn’t rated with Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Athens, London, Chicago, or D.C.
It’s not as if Boston hasn’t produced any bands of note. We’ve given the world everything from the mega-successful (Aerosmith, Boston, the Cars) to the mega-influential (the Pixies, the Modern Lovers, Mission of Burma). Still, we are treated as a rock and roll afterthought. Maybe our reputation as a sports-town, or our connection to so much Revolutionary history, somehow overshadows our musical and cultural contributions. Or maybe it’s because the one time someone tried to put a spotlight on the music scene in Boston it was a complete disaster.
“The Bosstown Sound” did not go as planned. As fellow Arts Fuse critic Brett Milano notes in his excellent 2007 book The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll, MGM Records signed 14 Boston bands in the late 1960s to record for the label. The idea was to market these bands under the banner of the Bosstown Sound (tagline: the sound heard round the world: Boston!), and sell the groups and the city as the new hip center of rock music.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the country smelled a rat and saw the blatant marketing for what it was. In the end, not one of the 14 groups MGM signed made any real dent in the charts or the history books, and it would take Boston until the next decade to finally start launching bands into the mainstream. Not that these bands were ever associated with a true Boston “scene.”
Earlier this month, Sundazed Records released three records recorded before, during, and after the Bosstown Sound debacle: the Rising Storm’s Calm Before…, Ultimate Spinach’s self-titled debut, and the Remains’ Live 1969. None of these bands broke nationally, but each of these releases offers a glimpse of what Boston in the 1960s sounded like.
Of the three releases, the Rising Storm’s Calm Before… offers the most interesting backstory, though that doesn’t always translate to the music itself. The album was recorded in 1967 by six students from Phillips Academy in Andover who wanted an album they could sell to their classmates. Funnily enough, their peers weren’t chomping at the bit to buy Calm Before…, but over the past half century the record has turned into a collectors item, with one copy recently selling for $6,500. While the band has performed at various times over the past 50 years, it never made it over the long haul; for all intents and purposes, The Rising Storm ended when the members of the group earned their prep school diplomas.
The group’s story has been recounted by outlets from the Boston Globe to NPR, and in its own chapter in Richie Unterberger’s 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Through this coverage the album has gained notoriety as a lost classic of the ‘60s garage era, though I can’t help but think that it was the “lost” part of that description that carried the most weight. Now that the album has been reissued and is readily available (and affordable) for anyone who wants to hear it, I’m skeptical that it will gain any more fame than it already has. If anything I’m wondering if it might be knocked down a peg or two.
This is not to suggest the album is a dud. On the contrary, it is a listenable, and actually quite enjoyable snapshot of mid-1960s rock and roll. It also offers a nice look at Boston rock and roll; it opens with a cover of the Remains’ “Don’t Look Back” and features two songs from the Rockin’ Ramrods: “Mr. Wind” and “Bright Lit Blue Skies.” The disc also includes a particularly lovely version of Love’s “A Message to Pretty,” though their original arrangement of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” does beg the question, did we really need a reworking of “In the Midnight Hour?” Isn’t the original kind of perfect? Kudos for the effort though.
Of the five originals on Calm Before…, “She Loved Me” is the standout. If alternate universes exist, then there’s at least one in which “She Loved Me” makes it as a (minor) chart hit in 1967. The tune has just the right mix of pop sensibility and teenage swagger though, if I’m being honest, it could use just a little bit more swagger and consistent attitude. In fact, it’s attitude that is most missing from Calm Before…. You’d think six high school kids would be more unruly. To say the album is “tame,” wouldn’t be fair. But it’s also not as wild as it could have and should have been and, in that sense, the album is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps now that the record is gaining a wide release, the Rising Storm will become famous the world over and be dubbed the Rodriguez of 2018, and I’ll be proved wrong. If so, I’ll get over it.
The Rising Storm recorded their album only a year before MGM’s Bosstown Sound campaign, though compared to Ultimate Spinach, Calm Before… sounds as if it comes from a different era (or perhaps a different dimension) altogether. For better or worse, Ultimate Spinach was one of the groups that epitomized the Bosstown Sound, and their self-titled debut is very much a product of its time. To devotees of psychedelic music, it is at least a minor classic, with Mojo listing it among the greatest psych albums of all time.
This doesn’t change the fact that the album sounds incredibly dated. The spoken-word intros that start off some of the songs here are simply embarrassing, and the lyrics throughout are cringe-worthy. The nearly nine-minute “(Ballad of) the Hip Death Goddess” contains both an unintentionally hilarious spoken intro and some really awful lyrics (“Kiss my lips for they are very nice/Kiss my lips and you will turn to ice”). Despite this, it is a truly hypnotic track with eerie vocals provided by Barbara Hudson, and a tripped-out spacey backing. It’s downright spooky–The Velvet Underground & Nico meets “Interstellar Overdrive.”
The more traditionally lengthed “Your Head is Reeling” is the album’s other highlight. Again, there is the ridiculous spoken-word opening and lyrics that range from the cliched (“Look out big brother is lookin’ at you”) to the head-scratching (“Flowered children dressed in a shroud/Are enveloped by a great flannel cloud”), but the doom laden song is so urgent that it is able to rise above these bum notes. Even the unoriginal “Look out big brother is lookin’ at you” becomes less tiresome and more terrifying by the time the group’s leader Ian Bruce-Douglas repeats it for the second time. Had the Bosstown Sound not blown up in everybody’s faces and Ultimate Spinach reached a more receptive wider audience, it’s at least possible that history would have remembered “Your Head is Reeling” as one of the more prescient songs of 1968.
The remainder of the album is less successful. The light-hearted “Funny Freak Parade” is ‘60s-by-the-numbers and the political “Dove in Hawk’s Clothing” is a poor man’s Country Joe and the Fish. Like the rest of the songs on Ultimate Spinach, (“Your Head is Reeling” and “(Ballad of) the Hip Death Goddess” excepted) you’ve heard hundreds of songs just like these before, and most of those hundreds are superior.
Calm Before… and Ultimate Spinach each have their high points, but the gem of the three Sundazed releases is the Remains Live 1969. Outside of Boston, the Remains are best known (if they’re known at all) as the U.S. touring partners of the Beatles in 1966. Following the tour’s August 29, 1966 concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Beatles never toured again and the Remains broke up. Over the years the band remained active — they were so close and yet so far from stardom. An “almost overnight almost success” is how bassist Vern Miller puts it in the linear notes for Live 1969. Besides opening for the Fab Four, the group was signed with Epic Records, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and had a quasi hit with Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.” Still, the breakthrough never came and they called it quits.
Two and a half years after the Remains split, they regrouped for a one-off show at the city’s preeminent venue of the late 1960s, the Boston Tea Party. Per the linear notes, they didn’t rehearse, they just got up and played, and the results are thrilling.
Singer/guitarist Barry Tashian (who recently found the tape of the concert while going through some boxes, thus making the release possible) is performing without a net and the band is right there with him. Near the end of the set, Tashian asks the audience if they’d rather hear “I’m a Man” and then “Diddy Wah Diddy,” or if they’d prefer the songs ordered the other way around. As the crowd shouts its preference, he audibles and plows into a ferocious version of “La Bamba” instead. It takes some balls (and a deep knowledge of rock and roll) to pull that song out of your back pocket on a whim. The lyrics aren’t even in English!
At first glance, the track listing of dated covers ranging from the opener “Hang on Sloopy” to “Johnny B. Goode,” might seem strange for a concert in 1969. Even the covers of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” each only a few years old by ‘69, read like strange choices at a time when rock was moving so fast. But the Remains show was no oldies revue. On the one hand, these songs were picked because the band had been broken up for more than two years…it’s not like they could break out any new material. On the other hand, these songs were picked because they never go out of style, not the way the Remains play them anyway. It’s not too dissimilar from what the Stones were doing on tour in 1969 when they would roll out “Carol” or “Little Queenie.” For pure energy though, I’ll take the Remains’ performance.
The Remains Live 1969 has all the attitude, swagger, and energy that the Rising Storm only hinted at on Calm Before… Live 1969 is unhinged. Like the very best rock and roll, the performance feels like it might fall off the tightrope at any moment. But for all the wobbling and shaking, it never plunges into the abyss. Given what the Remains were trying to do that night at the Tea Party, it’s probably not fair to compare Live 1969 to Ultimate Spinach. The albums are aiming for totally different things, after all. But listening to the two of them, it is fair to wonder if maybe Live 1969 is what the real Boston sound was and is. We Bostonians are a tough bunch and the Remains had a tough sound. That’s what Boston music should be remembered for.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.