Monday, February 10, 2020

Ultimate Spinach - Behold & See



Biography by Richie Unterberger
Ultimate Spinach was one of the most well-known, and perhaps the most notorious, of the groups to be hyped as part of the "Bosstown Sound" in 1968. The name itself guaranteed attention, as one of the most ludicrous and heavy-handed "far out" monikers of the psychedelic era, even outdoing formidable competition such as the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. Although the group were competent musicians with streaks of imagination, their albums were generally poor third cousins to the West Coast psychedelic groups that served as their obvious inspirations.

Ultimate Spinach was produced by veteran arranger Alan Lorber, a main architect of the "Bosstown Sound." In September 1967, he announced a marketing plan in the top music trade papers to make Boston, in his own words (from his liner notes to Big Beat's reissue of Ultimate Spinach's first album), "a target city for the development of new artists from one geographical location." This automatically insured that Lorber and his groups would be the subject of some derision from the hip underground, since vital regional music scenes such as San Francisco psychedelia (which the Bosstown sound often seemed to be mimicking) have to happen on their own, rather than being manufactured. MGM was the label that released most of the Bosstown Sound groups, and it was through MGM that Lorber arranged to distribute two of the bands he produced, Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach.

On the first two of their three albums, Ultimate Spinach was utterly dominated by leader Ian Bruce-Douglas, who wrote all of the material, sang the majority of the lead vocals, and played a wide variety of instruments, most frequently electric keyboards. Their self-titled debut, released in 1967, was a seriously intended psychedelic stew, with inadvertent comically awkward results. Bruce-Douglas' songs tended to be either dippily, humorlessly cosmic, or colored by equally too-serious fingerpointing at mainstream society. The music aped the songwriting forms and guitar/keyboard textures of West Coast psychedelic stars the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe & the Fish, but sounded like ham-handed pastiches. Bruce-Douglas created some sleek, weedy electric keyboard lines on tracks like "Sacrifice of the Moon," but was sometimes so imitative of Country Joe & the Fish's first album that he crossed the line into plagiarism, as on "Baroque #1," with its close similarities to Country Joe's "The Masked Marauder." There were more graceful touches in the occasional vocals by guitarist Barbara Hudson and a Baroque-classical tinge to some of the arrangements, and the album did actually sell fairly well.

Behold & SeeBehold and See, also released in 1968, was similar to the debut album but a little more even-keeled. That wasn't all good news: there weren't any keyboard-dominated instrumentals to rival "Sacrifice of the Moon," Barbara Hudson didn't have any lead vocals (although guest vocalist Carol Lee Britt took some), and Bruce-Douglas' songwriting was still embarrassingly high-minded and pretentious. The mysterious Bruce-Douglas disbanded Ultimate Spinach after the second LP was recorded, leaving Lorber holding the bag, as a third Ultimate Spinach album had already been scheduled for release. An entirely different lineup was assembled for their third and last album, with only Barbara Hudson remaining from the one heard on the first LP. Also including Ted Myers (ex-Lost and Chamaeleon Church) and guitarist Jeff Baxter (later to play with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers), this version of Ultimate Spinach recorded III. The record was an undistinguished jumble of psychedelic, hard rock, and pop styles that sounded like the work of several different bands.
All three Ultimate Spinach albums were reissued on CD in the mid-'90s by Big Beat in the U.K..


Ultimate Spinach's second album The Penultimate Spinach (as they would make only one more LP) is a slightly more subdued continuation of the derivative psychedelia in their debut. Again, it's like a hack take on West Coast groups. There's Country Joe & the Fish in Ian Bruce-Douglas' electric keyboards (which don't play anything as good as his solos on "Sacrifice of the Moon" from the first album); Jefferson Airplane-like female vocals (by guest singer Carol Lee Britt) and songwriting on "Where You're At"; some Quicksilver Messenger Service-type guitar arrangements on "Mind Flowers"; a melody and vocal reminiscent of Kaleidoscope's "Keep Your Mind Open" on "Fragmentary March of Green"; and more. Songwriter Bruce-Douglas' lyrics are unintentional hippie parodies without any irony or humor, whether solemnly aspiring to a beatnik state ("take a trip to the center of your mind") or indicting the straight world ("he has an ulcer in his brain, from thinking of how to divorce his wife"). When the album turns to social critiques, it's uncertain whether the band is trying to mimic the Mothers of Invention without the wit, or whether they're unwittingly embodying the very kinds of groups whom the Mothers took the piss out of on We're Only in It for the Money.

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