By Chelsea Spear
Could there be a Salem 66 reissue campaign on the horizon? Hope springs eternal for fans of the predominantly female quartet.
In the opening paragraph for his review of Captured Tracks’ compilation Strum & Thrum, Pitchfork, writer Dave Segal notes that “cerebral Homestead Records stalwarts Salem 66 are probably the comp’s best-known act.” During the ’80s heyday of the Boston music scene, the predominantly female quartet released a string of ethereal folk pop albums that were as indebted to the Fall and Throwing Muses as they were to Fairport Convention. Though Salem 66 is remembered fondly by a small clutch of fans, the release of this compilation — combined with a renewed interest in the early-’80s Boston arts scene and a clutch of idiosyncratic female musicians and bands — could make them ripe for rediscovery in the 2020s.
Prior to Salem 66, Judy Grunwald fronted the new wave band The Maps, who had released a single and played local dive bars like The Rat. After the quartet disbanded, she moved into a duplex with local musicians Michael Cudahy and Thalia Zedek. “I used to have this thing where ‘I have to get a band together now because Thalia’s putting a band together and Michael’s putting a band together and I need my rehearsal slot. They’ll fill it in if I don’t,” she recalled in a recent interview. After briefly forming a party band called Judy and the Love Boat “to capture my (rehearsal) time,” Grunwald was set up with Beth Kaplan on what she described as “a blind date” as a possible musical collaborator. In the Strum & Thrum liner notes, Grunwald remembered that “we got together and were looking at each other’s lyrics…and noticed we both used the image of a broken plate to describe a broken heart. I thought it was a sign!”
As Grunwald and Kaplan’s songwriting became more serious, they started looking for a drummer to round out the group. “We had all these drummers come through, and they would come in and play a rock beat, but they weren’t really listening. Susan (Merriam) came and didn’t know how to play the drums at all — she was in our greater friend group circle. She was this impressive person from afar.… She didn’t play the drums at all, but she came down and was playing all of these tom rhythms. They totally went with the songs! We said ‘yeah, you’re it!’ I think we approached everything that way.”
Active listening was also a key part of Salem 66’s approach to songwriting. Vocalist/bass player Beth Kaplan described bringing in songs as “the best thing of all.” She described the band’s songwriting process: “We did it on our own, but each with our respective instruments. We would come in and play the song, so we’d have the words — maybe not fully fleshed out — and the melody. I would have a bass part, Judy would have a guitar part, and we would play it for the others, and then we would start playing along. It was never like ‘here are the chords’ or jamming, but we would be really listening intently and see what we could add to it and what seemed to go, and sometimes we would change things around structurally a bit. Adding harmonies. It was magical to see that develop.”
Being part of a tight-knit music scene played a role in helping Salem 66 find an audience. “I know everybody thinks their town at a particular time was really happening, but Boston really was,” Kaplan recalled. “There were these different strains of music, from bands from the ’70s like the Real Kids and the Nervous Eaters, that whole strain, and then these really cool — the Girls, La Peste, Mission of Burma. Those kind of early…I don’t know, it was just another strain. There was definitely this share of bands that were trying to catch onto the punk thing, that were kind of top 40-ish, that would be playing at the Rat some nights, but there were some really new, interesting (bands).”
With the ascendance of roots bands like the Del Fuegos, however, finding an audience outside the experimental garage rock cognoscenti became a bit of a challenge. “There was a period where we did better out of town because the rest of the country wasn’t quite as caught up in the whole roots rock thing as Boston seemed to be for a while,” Grunwald observed. However, this would lead to a stroke of luck for the band. Not long after drummer Susan Merriam learned a rock beat, Salem 66 were playing shows in New York, when they were scouted for an influential indie label.
“We were the first band to be signed to Homestead Records, by a guy named Sam Berger. Our record wasn’t the first record to come out on Homestead, but we were the first band to be signed to Homestead. From what I recall, Homestead was new and he was sent out to find some cool bands. He just showed up and we were incredibly new. I think we’d only been together for a year or so, or maybe even less.”
Over a five-year period, Salem 66 would release four charming LPs and a handful of singles, EPs, and compilation tracks for the label, working with producers like Boston music legend David Minehan and Ethan James, who had been in a ’60s proto-metal band called Blue Cheer (known for being extremely loud) and had produced some of the SST bands like the Minutemen. Their music placed a strong emphasis on lyrics and melody, but their harmony-based arrangements are what made them distinctive. This approach was no doubt inspired by the band’s musical background. Grunwald’s first instrument was the accordion, and Kaplan was trained in baroque styles before she even picked up a guitar. Describing a bassline that became a “third melody” in one of their songs, Kaplan explained the influence of baroque music on the band’s arrangements to Ffanzeen in 1986: “In baroque music, with the keyboard, there are four voices going. You use two hands and they’re both playing different voices. Each voice is a melody unto itself and each voice happens to be beautiful or strange, or something. Each voice could stand on its own. Or all four voices could intertwine, and that was really neat. That meant that the lowest one, the bass, could be a melody; you play it up higher and it could be the melody. And that had a really big effect on me as a bass player.” The vocal harmonies brought out unusual dimensions in the lyrics; Kaplan’s lithe soprano limned the lyrics with poignant joy, while Grunwald’s alto, with its well-controlled vibrato, complicated the songs with a more cautious vocal.
Despite their prolific recorded output and frequent live shows, Salem 66 never broke through to the wider audience that awaited their peers in the Pixies and the Del Fuegos. As the ’80s drew to a close, the quartet recorded their final album and disbanded. “Things, even bands, have a natural lifespan,” Grunwald noted in the Strum & Thrum liner notes. “The band was over and we were OK with that.” After playing their final shows, Grunwald and Kaplan retired from music to pursue their degrees. Kaplan became an archivist and worked at a variety of universities, while Grunwald would go to culinary school, work with nutritionists, and eventually bake biodynamic food at a Waldorf school.
Normally the story would end here, with the band members finding stability outside of music — and occasionally appearing in Where Are They Now stories — as their records mildew in the used bins. Three decades after Salem 66 broke up, however, esteemed Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks included their song “Seven Steps Down” on the compilation Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground. In a short email interview, label founder and producer Mike Sniper describes the album as “the C86 compilation America never got that tries to bridge the gap between the end of the Paisley Underground and the ’90s indie rock boom.”
Labels like “psychedelic” and “jangle” were kryptonite to the ambitious, idiosyncratic Salem 66. After admitting to describing the band as psychedelic in the early days, Grunwald bristled at the label in a 1986 interview with Spin magazine. “To use that word didn’t really connote that you were best friends with (The Dream Syndicate’s) Steve Wynn or something.” In the Strum & Thrum liner notes, Beth Kaplan made a similar observation: “We hated the jangle term. We thought of ourselves as a real rock band, which we were in our souls, even if we didn’t sound like it.” In trying to sum up the band’s sound now, Kaplan takes a more tempered approach. “You know how bands hate to describe their own music because they think they’re so unique,” she noted in a recent interview.
Salem 66’s reemergence comes at a prescient time. Books like Brian Coleman’s Buy Me Boston series and Phillin Phlash’s recent retrospective at the Time Out Market have inspired a new interest in pregentrification Boston. Singer/songwriters like Alisa Amador, Carissa Johnson, and Sidney Gish have put their mark on the local music scene with their adventurous, genre-bending approach to music. Could there be a Salem 66 reissue campaign on the horizon?
“I still have the master tapes in my garage,” Grunwald notes, adding that her husband, Dave Minehan, owns a studio in Waltham. Talking to Beth Kaplan, she said, “Let’s make a Hanukkah resolution to post our songs on Spotify next year!” Hope springs eternal for fans of Salem 66.
Chelsea Spear has written for the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and Crooked Marquee. She lives in Boston.