Thursday, February 28, 2013
THE BEAU BRUMMELS - LOWER LEVEL
The Beau Brummels. Possibly my favorite 60s group (depending on what day it is....sometimes it's The Who). SCREW The Byrds, THESE guys were the first "folk-rockers" and the first "America's answer to The Beatles".
Though they only released 5 studio LPs and a handful of singles in the 1960s, the Brummels managed to encapsulate ALL the great influences of the era - folk-rock, mild psychedelia, Dylan, teenbeat garage, country-rock - in an amazingly clear and consistent body of work. If they only had better management, they could have gone all the way, or at least be in the same pantheon as more "hallowed" groups such as the aforementioned Byrds or Van Morrison or the Stones and the Beatles (and we'd actually be able to enjoy Beau Brummels tunes on so-called "classic rock" radio).
The group's two main members, Sal Valentino (real name: Salvatore Spampinato) and Ron Elliott met in high school in San Francisco, and began singing together. After graduation, Elliott went off to San Francisco State to study music composition, while Sal sang in sleazy clubs in North Beach and cut an unsuccessful single ("I Wanna Twist") in 1962. By early 1964 Valentino and Elliott were playing in a band together with bassist Ron Meagher, drummer John Petersen and Irishman Declan Mulligan, who played rhythm guitar. Calling themselves The Beau Brummels, they soon were playing the same sleazy North Beach circuit that Sal had played a couple of years before. But while most bands were playing covers of the top hits of the day, the Brummels mostly played Ron Elliott's original songs, making them a standout from the very start.
At one gig, they were spotted by two DJ's, Bob Mitchell and Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue, who worked at KYA, at the time San Francisco's top radio station. The two DJ's had a brand-new record label called Autumn Records (so named because it was formed in the autumn of 1963) which, at that point, had one artist signed to it (Bobby Freeman) and a young record producer named Sylvester Stewart, later known to the world as Sly Stone. Autumn had just had a big hit with their second release, Bobby Freeman's "C'mon And Swim", so Donahue and Mitchell had the cash to snap up the Brummels before anyone else. Looking back, the Brummels should have waited for another company to sign them.
In December, 1964, Autumn released the Beau Brummels' first 45, "Laugh, Laugh", which showed that, even with their first single, the Brummels were a force to be reckoned with. The folk and country influence was highly apparent, and in a rock and roll song in 1964, that just didn't happen. Plus Elliott's lyrics were FAR ahead of anything other songwriters were doing, even Bob Dylan and The Beatles (what other song can you name besides "Laugh, Laugh" that uses the word "smug"?). As a result, The Beau Brummels became the FIRST rock group out of San Francisco to make it big.
Unfortunately, Autumn Records was not prepared for the magnitude of success that the Brummels were having. Despite "Laugh, Laugh" going Top Ten in many large cities (including New York and Los Angeles), Autumn couldn't keep up with the demand for the record, and even though the sales were huge, they could have been larger if Autumn wasn't such a shoe-string operation. As a result, the record only hit #15 nationally, when it should have been a national Top Five hit.
Over the next year, the Brummels had several more mid-charting hits (including their only Top Ten, "Just A Little"), two LPs, and made appearances in the films Village Of The Giants and Wild, Wild Winter (and also made an appearance as "The Beau Brummelstones" on an episode of The Flintstones). But as the year of 1965 ground on, Donahue and Mitchell were losing money (and interest) fast, and in early 1966 Autumn crashed and burned. Donahue and Mitchell sold the Brummels' contract (and the contracts of several other Autumn groups) to Warner Bros. Records.
This should have been a good thing for the group - after all, WB at that point was riding high with Petula Clark, and was becoming a major player in the industry. Unfortunately, the management team of Donahue and Mitchell screwed it all up.
The Brummels had recorded a third LP for Autumn, full of Ron Elliott songs, that was basically finished. But when Autumn folded, and Donahue and Mitchell sold out, they tried to play slick with Mo Ostin at Warners. They sold the Brummels to Warner Bros., but not their recordings, either in the can or released already. So Donahue and Mitchell, after getting x amount of dollars for the Brummels, tried to squeeze more money out of WB by offering to sell them the third, unreleased Autumn LP. Warners told Donahue and Mitchell to shove it up their collective asses, and whisked the group into Mira Sound in New York to record an LP of cover versions of current hits. Called "Beau Brummels '66", the LP completely destroyed the group's credibility, guaranteeing that whatever they put out next would be cruelly ignored.
Also, the group was having internal problems. The line-up wasn't stable. Declan Mulligan either left or was booted from the group just before the second LP was released (he later sued them). Ron Elliott, a diabetic, couldn't handle the rigors of the road, and so was replaced for live dates by Don Irving, who became an official Beau Brummel on the "Beau Brummels '66" LP. But after that disaster was released, both Don Irving and John Petersen left the group (Petersen joining Harpers Bizarre, Irving drafted into the Army). And then there were three - Sal Valentino, Ron Elliott, and Ron Meagher.
With Elliott's diabetes (and move to L. A. to work as a session guitarist) making touring impossible, The Beau Brummels became a studio-only group. Ironically, the decision to stop touring resulted in the group's best work. The trio of Valentino, Elliott and Meagher recorded "Triangle", one of the best LPs of 1967. Released in July, 1967, it combined mild psychedelia with Tolkeinesque fantasy with a little country thrown in. It was an absolute artistic triumph for the group. Unfortunately, the record barely sold, only hitting the #197 spot on the LP charts. But it truly is a beautiful piece of work, right up there with Love's "Forever Changes" in the artistic winners circle of 1967 ("Sgt. Pepper" doesn't even come close.)
A month later, the above 45 was released. Most discographies place "Lower Level" as the B-side of the record, but I think the Brummels meant for this to be the A-side. They were well-known for releasing singles independent of their current LPs (examples: "Good Time Music", "One Too Many Mornings", "Two Days 'Til Tomorrow", "Here We Are Again" - none of these were on their original LPs, and in some cases are still hard to find). Also, while the flip of this single - "Magic Hollow" - is one of the highlights of "Triangle", it's not exactly single material. "Lower Level" fits the bill a little better. Warners didn't help matters by not designating a "plug side" for the single, but ultimately it didn't matter anyway, because almost no one bought it. Other San Francisco groups like the Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Sly and The Family Stone (the Brummels' old producer) became the darlings of the music press, while the original San Fran rockers, The Beau Brummels, were left in the dust.
A lotta people missed out. Starting with traffic noises, "Lower Level" plods along with Elliott's softly strummed acoustic. Then Sal's voice comes in, softly but firmly, singing about an elevator ride that's either an allegory for an LSD trip or life - "lower level now is clear / if you want to park it here / though we may seem cramped, we're not / you'll get your ticket stamped on top". Despite some nice guitar flourishes, the record really belongs to Sal Valentino's voice; expressive, soothing, soulful.
"Lower Level" went the way of "Triangle", destined for the cutout racks. Ron Meagher got drafted soon after the LP's release; Valentino and Elliott made one more LP for Warners, "Bradley's Barn" (another masterpiece which takes more of a country-rock stance) then called it quits. Valentino recorded solo for Warner Bros., later joined Stoneground, and hung around the San Francisco and New York rock scenes, highly respected by those in the know. Elliott stayed in L. A. as a session musician and songwriter, and worked with Van Dyke Parks on his legendary "Song Cycle" LP and with the Everly Brothers on their seminal 1968 country-rock LP "Roots". He also recorded a solo LP, "The Candlestickmaker", which is highly sought-after today. In 1975, the group reunited for a one-off LP and tour.
If it weren't for the mass stupidity of the record industry (and the Brummels' management), these guys would have been the superstars they deserved to be, instead of a nice little secret us cool kids know about. Still, I can't help but think Ron Elliott was watching the whole arc of their career with humor, with this line toward the end of "Lower Level":
"1, 2, 3, when we drop / it sure was nice to be on top".
The Beau Brummels - Lower Level (Warner Brothers 7079) - 1967