Motley crews

By BRETT MILANO  |  November 15, 2006

Of course, not everyone who tried to sound like the Beatles came anywhere close. And no round-up of New England teen groups would be complete without a mention of the most inept — and in some eccentric quarters, the most loved — of them all. The Shaggs were three sisters (Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin) from Fremont, New Hampshire, who simply weren’t cut out to be musicians. They didn’t look like pop stars, either: one of the few Shaggs photos shows all three sisters looking rather plain in scraggly red hair and family-dinner dresses. Yet their father apparently strong-armed them into going for it. He paid for their instruments, drilled them into rehearsals (not too well, by all recorded evidence), and one fateful day, drove them to Revere, where they recorded an album dubbed Philosophy of the World — both starting and wrapping up the whole thing on March 9, 1969. What they came up with boggles the mind. Nobody who’s ever tried to sound like a normal pop group has failed so spectacularly. By any reasonable standard, it’s terrible . . . yet somehow it’s also wonderful. Frank Zappa famously remarked that the Shaggs were better than the Beatles

But Boston in the late ’60s is best remembered for the “Bosstown Sound,” a chapter that went down in the history of misguided hypes. It sounded good on paper: looking for a rival to the San Francisco sound, representatives from MGM Records hit town with open checkbooks, ready to sign anyone who looked vaguely freaky. The bands they chose — Beacon Street Union (which included future Boston country musician John Lincoln Wright), Ultimate Spinach, Orpheus, and Chameleon Church (with a young Chevy Chase on drums) — delivered the freakiness and then some. Although those bands are remembered as quite decent on stage, their records were a mess of psychedelic overproduction, and only one minor hit — Orpheus’ tuneful “Can’t Find the Time” — came out of the batch. The hype would end as shamefully as it began, when MGM’s new president, Mike Curb — later the conservative lieutenant governor of California — axed all bands that were deemed to be drug users. At least the Boston bands were in good company. Also getting the ax was Frank Zappa — ironically, one of the only ’60s figures who never used drugs.

It would take years for Boston to live down that episode, but salvation was at hand in the form of a rougher, bluesier sound. You could have heard it at the Catacombs, a basement club on Arlington Street, where the J. Geils Blues Band was the house band. They would strike gold after adding singer Peter Wolf from a less-reverent blues-rock outfit, the Hallucinations. You could also hear what was coming at any number of college parties, where you could listen to the next best thing to the Rolling Stones: a glittery, Anglophilic group called Aerosmith. There was more action in Harvard Square, where Cambridge Common regulars included a rough-edged, clean-cut band whose singer knew just what he wanted out of life: an AM radio and a girlfriend. Jonathan Richman and his Modern Lovers didn’t hit it big, but they did inspire plenty of musicians. Among them was Ric Ocasek, who moved here from Detroit planning to do folk music but changed his plans after seeing the Modern Lovers on the Common.

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