The Boston Sound

Depending on what you were listening to in 1968, your recollection of the “Boston sound” is either: (a) it was just another example of record company hype, with little to show for it; (b) it was a good opportunity for some creative and talented Boston-area bands to get much-deserved national attention; or (c) it was a little of both. The “Boston sound” was a record company promotion also called “the Bosstown sound.” But by either name, it was a musical trend that inspired very polarizing opinions, especially among reporters and critics; to this day, there are those who dismiss it entirely, while others believe some of the bands are worth remembering.  

         By most accounts, the Boston Sound was intended to be a reaction to the San Francisco Sound, at a time when west coast bands like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Moby Grape were becoming popular.  In the 1950s and well into the 1960s, AM top-40 radio was king, and FM was mainly home to classical music.  But tastes were gradually changing: by the mid-60s, a few FM stations began to play a new kind of music that was popular with college-aged listeners—it was then known as underground or psychedelic rock.  

         Then as now, Boston was a college town; in 1967, by some estimates, the greater Boston area had as many as 200,000 students.  While there was a strong folk music scene, by 1967, there was also a growing number of underground and progressive rock bands. One of the few places you could hear them (other than at the local clubs) was on WTBS, a low-wattage college station at MIT in Cambridge.  Today known as WMBR, it was home to “Uncle T” (real name: Tom Gamache), one of the first announcers to play this music.  By 1967, he had moved his show to WBUR-FM, at Boston University, which had a 20,000-watt signal, making his show more widely available.  (There wouldn’t be a commercial FM rock station till WBCN-FM changed its format away from classical music, beginning in mid-March 1968; the call letters originally stood for the ‘Boston Concert Network’).  By early 1967, there was also a new venue where underground and psychedelic rock bands could perform—it was called the Boston Tea Party, and it featured groups who received little airplay on AM.  

         With or without AM top-40 support, Boston now had popular local bands like Phluph, Ill Wind, and Eden’s Children, who had developed a following, and who played music in the style of the psychedelic groups.  One band that Uncle T liked was the Hallucinations, featuring lead singer Peter Wolf (later of the J. Geils Band). But the Boston music scene was not easy to categorize, since not all the popular bands fit into the psychedelic genre.  For example, The Bagatelle was an eight-piece band whose music blended rock and rhythm & blues.  

         Around this time, it was becoming obvious to record companies that top-40 was no longer reaching college-aged record buyers. Talent scouts began to visit cities with active music scenes, seeking bands that appealed to college-age fans (who bought lots of records, and were becoming caught up in the psychedelic music craze).  And that brought some national attention to Boston.

        One New York-based record producer who came to explore the Boston music scene was Alan Lorber.  He was not only a producer but also an arranger and a composer; in addition, his production company had ties to MGM Records, certainly a plus for any band wanting to get signed to a national label.  In the summer of 1967, Lorber entered into an agreement with David Jenks and Ray Paret, who ran Amphion, a Boston management company; and he began visiting some of the area’s clubs.  Among the first bands he saw was Ultimate Spinach. Lorber also saw another band that impressed him—Orpheus.  He would soon produce both bands, and they became part of the MGM roster.  (Lorber did not produce Phluph, but they too ended up on MGM, although on the company’s subsidiary Verve label.)

         Meanwhile, the Beacon Street Union, another local band with a sizable number of fans, went to New York to play at some of the clubs; they caught the eye of producer Wes Farrell, who wanted to record them.  The Beacon Street Union also ended up signed to MGM Records, which packaged them, Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach together in a full-page ad that ran in the major music industry trade publications (Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World) on January 20, 1968. The ad referred to “the sound heard ’round the world: Boston!!” Some sources have said the concept of “the Boston sound” came from Alan Lorber; others claim it came from MGM Records’ marketing and promotion department.  But there is no denying that Lorber was the first major music industry figure to recognize Boston’s hit potential.                                  

         Every trend in music, real or imaginary, needs a champion; and in Boston, an AM radio deejay named Dick Summer decided to give this new “Boston Sound” plenty of airplay and lots of positive commentary.  Summer was a well-loved announcer on WBZ, a powerhouse AM station with 50,000 watts; being on late at night, he had more freedom than some of the other announcers to play unique or unusual songs; and many of his listeners were college students.  As soon as the first Boston Sound albums came out in early 1968, he began to play them.  He was not the only Boston deejay to do so: over at his competition, AM station WMEX, Larry Justice also gave Boston Sound bands some attention.  By now, more of the bands had record contracts:  Eden’s Children was signed by ABC Records (that label’s Director of Artists and Repertoire, Bob Thiele, saw them in Boston and was impressed enough to want them on his label).  The Bagatelle also got signed by ABC, and so did Ill Wind; Earth Opera was signed to Elektra.

         Unfortunately, the diversity of musical styles in the Boston Sound proved to be a problem for critics who wanted to find an easy way to describe it. (And interestingly, even some of the bands themselves wondered whether trying to unite them all under the banner of “the Boston Sound” was a wise decision.  In an interview with Record World in March 1968, several members of the Beacon Street Union said they disliked “being lumped in with a lot of other people as part of the Boston Sound…We want to be ourselves.”)  

         So, what exactly was the Boston sound?  Some bands were easy to classify– they fit into the psychedelic genre—Ultimate Spinach got placed into that category.  But other bands, like Orpheus, featured melodic pop that could, and did, get airplay on numerous top-40 stations.  In fact, their song “Can’t Find the Time” was boosted by influential columnist Kal Rudman, who wrote “Money Music” for Record World magazine.  Rudman was convinced the Boston Sound was for real, and he predicted that Orpheus would have a big hit.  (The song did especially well in New York and Boston, but it got airplay in other cities too.)

         However, critics who were unsure what the Boston Sound meant weren’t shy about expressing their skepticism; they saw it as more hype than anything else.  Robert Shelton of The New York Times wrote in early March 1968 that this alleged new trend was “mostly [record company] puff.” But he then acknowledged that some of the bands were talented, and might go on to have some success.  Shelton was kinder than some critics, especially Jon Landau of Rolling Stone (who, ironically, was a former writer for local publication Boston After Dark).  In an April 1968 article headlined “The Sound of Boston, Kerplop,” he called Ultimate Spinach “pretentious” and the Beacon Street Union “inept.”  And he called the music of Orpheus “shlock.”  But on the other hand, some critics were very favorable:  Newsweek magazine spent two pages in late January 1968 extolling the various Boston bands.  And a critic for Cashbox who saw Phluph perform at the Psychedelic Supermarket came away very impressed with them.  

         By late 1968, MGM reported to the trades that Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach had done especially well, sales-wise. The two bands were said to have sold more than $1.2 million worth of singles and albums.  Orpheus’ first album had sold 60,000 copies, and the single “Can’t Find the Time” had sold 100,000 copies.  (Some of the Boston Sound bands prided themselves on not having a commercial sound, yet one of them– Ultimate Spinach—still carved out a niche. The band’s first album sold 110,000 copies.)  Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach turned out to be among the more successful Boston Sound bands; but the majority were unable to gain any national traction.  

         Ultimately, no matter how much praise Dick Summer and Larry Justice gave the Boston Sound bands, and no matter how often Alan Lorber insisted they were destined for greatness, most never lived up to expectations.  Perhaps Jon Landau was right about one thing—amid his negative view of the Boston sound bands, he noted that some might develop and grow beyond record company hype.  Years later, Boston-based rock critic Brett Milano called the Boston Sound “one of the more spectacular flops of its era.” But Milano believed the problem was that record companies were seeking any bands that sounded like they would appeal to the hippie culture of the late 1960s, and many of the groups they signed were not that good musically. Former Tea Party manager Steve Nelson, who booked many of the acts, has said there never was a “Boston sound” as such; just different bands playing different kinds of music, an eclectic mix of rock, blues, R&B, jazz and folk which Boston became known for.  Many of the musicians did have talent and a local following; they just weren’t ready to have a national spotlight shined on them.    

         It was not surprising that when a new president took over at MGM, any bands that weren’t selling well or didn’t fit the label’s new image were dropped.  Eventually, the same fate happened to the bands signed by ABC and Elektra.  For example, Earth Opera, which had received positive reviews in trade publications like Billboard, and got airplay on quite a few FM album stations, still had the same problem as many of the Boston Sound bands: they did not do well on the sales charts.  And since many bands lost money for the labels that had signed them, this contributed to their being dropped. By 1969, for all intents and purposes, the Boston Sound was over.

         While Alan Lorber and the various record companies might have misjudged what the youth culture wanted, some of the Boston Sound bands did have talent, and some of their songs sound good even today.  Had these various bands been allowed to stand on their own, without being artificially tied to a “sound,” they all might have been more successful.  And one final note:  since the “Boston Sound” met its demise, many big hit singles and albums have come from the greater Boston area: J. Geils, the Cars, Aerosmith, and (of course) Boston.

(By Donna L. Halper)

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