Our Corner of the Rock 'n' Roll Life
Marc English, Boston Rock, November 14, 1983
In 1982, Judy Grunwald, Elisabeth Kaplan, & Susan Merriamformed Salem 66. Boston Phoenix columnist Polly Campbell observed that it was a time "when a serious all-female rock band was still something of a novelty."1
We have little information about Kaplan's prior band, the Insteps; but Grunwald was already well known to Boston music audiences from her tenure in the earlier group, the Maps. Pamela Noyes of Boston Rock, when reviewing a Spring 1980 Maps performance, said "the singer's coy affectations and oddly emotive voice were as original as they were endearing." The Maps released just one single. "I'm Talking to You," one of the songs from that record, is included on the various-artists collection, Mass. Ave. (CD, Rhino, 1993). The Maps also appeared on the album, Billy's Revue (LP, Memoire, 1982), which has a fine photo of Grunwald on the back. If we may judge by comparing records, though, Grunwald found her true home only after Salem 66 came together. Polly Campbell noted that Salem 66 "soon became one of the most intriguing bands in Boston."
Salem 66 competed in the 1983 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble, which included such contestants as Christmas, the Del Fuegos, Digney Fignus, Jeff and Jane Hudson, the MIAs, the Prime Movers, the Sex Execs, 'til tuesday (the eventual winners), and the Mike Viola Alliance.
Salem 66 circulated demo tapes of "The Pony Song," "Shimmery Fish," and "The Well," earning a good deal of radio-play.
Many Boston club-goers had already experienced the folk-punk of Salem 66; but the group's introduction to most of the rest of us came with the song, "Sleep on Flowers," produced by David Minehan of the Neighborhoods, which appeared on Bands That Could Be God: The Conflict Compilation (LP, Conflict, 1984)--by no means one of their best recordings, but the group showed much potential.
"Sleep On Flowers" and five demos were compiled and released on vinyl as Salem 66 (EP, Homestead, 1984).2 Homestead Records "liked [the demo tapes] so much," said an unidentified band member, "that they said we ought to press it as it was." Beth Kaplan's "Lemon Rind," in particular, gave an idea of the highs the band would be reaching quite soon. Brett Milano of Boston Rock (during its U.S. Rock phase) wrote:
"At first impression, it was their airy, mysterious sound that made the impact: the Eastern-style guitars, and the blend of Judy Grunwald's deep voice with Beth Kaplan's lighter one. But with more plays, the melodies start to catch on; and a stronger rock kick appears beneath the surface."3 Bill Abelson of Boston Rock observed that "the gap between their personal cheer and lyrical sobriety, as heard on [the] debut EP Salem 66 (Homestead Records), is astounding."4
In 1984, guitarist Robert Wilson joined Salem 66. He was quite young, having only recently left the academic world of Wayland High School. Polly Campbell reported that Wilson was nearly motionless on stage. "Although he often plays variations on Judy's lines," Campbell wrote, "his sound gives the band more dimension or as Beth puts it, 'It Makes us feel fatter.'" "Unhurried, self-contained and composed, their almost introverted stage presence and lyrics create mystery rather than obscurity. Beth explains--'I think it's good to be very personal but also have it mean something to someone else.'"5 As for Kaplan's own material, Sally Cragin of the Boston Phoenix said she "writes as if Beatrix Potter were illustrating her words."6
In the fall of 1984 or perhaps a bit later, Salem 66 released the single, "Across the Sea" b/w "Pony Song" (45, Homestead, 1984). Kaplan's "Across the Sea," one of the band's best early recordings, is interesting in part because of the uncredited lead guitar lines which slowly dance around the vocals.7 Brett Milano of Boston Rock called it strong and hypnotic and added that "if recent live shows are an indication, their strongest tracks are yet to come."8 Yet, Grunwald cautioned, "We recognize it may take years for us to reach any kind of commercial acceptance."9
A perception was growing that out-of-town audiences were quicker to embrace Salem 66. In the spring of 1985, Bill Abelson of Boston Rock reported that, recently, West Coast teenagers had been swarming around band members, seeking autographs.10
"Salem 66," wrote Polly Campbell of Boston Rock, has "developed a sound based (perhaps unconsciously) more on their own visible personalities and appearances than exterior musical influences." Speaking of a summer concert, Campbell said, "'Playground' and 'Across The Sea' especially stood out--mixing sunny iridescence with almost grim concentration: a bunch of roses with adeptly concealed thorns."11
THE RELEASE OF A Ripping Spin (LP, Homestead, 1985) was a milestone in the band's career. Paul Robicheau of Boston Rock gave the album a favorable review.
Salem 66 is sharp on subtlety, yet teases with reserve of power. Haunting hooks weave throughout the record--from the dreamy I miss you chorus of "Chinchilla" and countering harmonies of [the] recut single "Across the Sea," to the spine-tingling guitar tone of "Primavera" and whiplash riff of "Playground." The contrasting vocals of Judy Grunwald and Beth Kaplan are enchanting, new guitarist Robert Wilson Rodriguez adds depth and the rhythm section's firm.12In a 1985 year-in-review article, Steve Morse of the Boston Globe said that Salem 66 had come into its own.13 The following spring, he wrote, "These local psychedeliacs have improved greatly through the years, although they might not admit it."14
Around this time, Salem 66 boosters were becoming disappointed at the modest coverage the Boston press was giving the band. We think they may have a point--our Salem 66 clipping file thins out a lot by the end of 1985.
1986 brought the release of Frequency and Urgency (LP, Homestead, 1986), which Milo Miles of the Boston Phoenix called Salem 66's "finest moment." "Numbers like Kaplan's 'Bad News' and Grunwald's 'Broken Bottles' adopt that loose-and-lurching but oddly apt feel for timing and structure occasionally found in the earliest blues and hillbilly recordings." By the time these tracks were recorded, Stephen Smith had replaced Robert Wilson on guitar; and by 1987, Susan Merriam left Salem 66, to be replaced on drums by Jim Vincent.
If Salem 66's press coverage was down, as it seems, in 1987 the band's posterity got a big boost from its record label. Grunwald's "The Well"--easily one of the band's best tracks--was issued on the compilation, The Wailing Ultimate (CD, Homestead, 1987). Other New England bands included in that collection were Big Dipper, the Volcano Suns, and Dinosaur--a trio (Lou Barlow, J Mascis, and Murph) that would soon become much better known as Dinosaur Jr.
In the fall of 1987, Salem 66's record label issued the compact disc, 1983-1987: Your Soul Is Mine, Fork It Over (CD, Homestead, 1987), compiled from the debut EP, the band's two albums, and a single. Milo Miles wrote in the Boston Phoenix that this collection "carefully eliminates the chaff (half the initial Salem 66 EP, for instance) and retains the most fertile kernels (the whole of the Frequency and Urgency LP) of a six-year career."15
Your Soul Is Mine is Salem 66's finest release. Judy Grunwald and Beth Kaplan seem to be having more fun performing many of these songs than they do on their later recordings. Here, quite often they are at their fanciful best. Grunwald's "Holiday" has a refrain that is a little like the early Beatles, both melodically and in its arrangement. Kaplan's "Wanderlust" sounds murky and dreamlike, and it has a chorus that asks
Did you ever have a wanderlust?
Did you ever wanna break that trust?
Did you ever have a wanderlust?
Did you always put your best foot first?
Other personal favorites include "Across the Sea," "Bad News" ("How do you stick it out?)", Kaplan's percussive "Lemon Rind" ("I fell into something untrue--I fell into something I knew"), and Grunwald's hypnotically repeating song, "The Well."
According to this compilation's booklet, "1987 Salem 66 is: Judy Grunwald, Beth Kaplan, Tim Condon (guitar), Jim Vincent (drums)."
Unfortunately, one of the experiences that rock musicians often have in common is having their equipment stolen. So in January 1988, friends of Salem 66 held a benefit at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain to replace the group's purloined instruments. On February 5th, Salem 66 headlined the Bang magazine anniversary party at the Rat. In the Boston Globe, Brett Milano wrote
Still led by singer-guitarist Judy Grunwald and singer-bassist Beth Kaplan, the band has been through some recent changes: Guitarist Steve Smith and his fuzz-boxes are gone, making the sound less garagey and more moody; more like the haunting folk-pop of the band's earliest days. Kaplan and Grunwald still make a lovely vocal blend; the new material is subtler than the old but sounded highly promising.16
Natural Disasters, National Treasures (CD, Homestead, 1988) was issued that year, evidently in March. In the June 17th issue of the Boston Phoenix, Milo Miles expressed the view that Your Soul Is Mine "and the new Natural Disasters, National Treasures, present a tough argument that Salem 66 is the most undernoticed band in the city." Could be, but not if Brett Milano had anything to say about it.
Milano wrote that Natural Disasters, National Treasures "clearly came from a painful year."
The songs allude to the death of a friend, the breakup of at least one relationship, and general self-doubt. But the adversity, along with a changed lineup, has put a new sharpness into Salem 66's playing.
"The band still has the folkish melodies, the floating vocals and the trebly guitars but this time the feel is less like airy psychedelia and more like murky, late-night blues." Milano called this Salem 66's best album.17
Milo Miles wrote that
Beth Kaplan constructs tunes with more brevity and moment-to-moment pressure than Grunwald, who prefers oblique reflections or extended mataphors that sometimes become so extended they dissolve, only to re-coalesce later. Kaplan also incorporates more of what are conventionally understood as hooks, pithy bits of words and riffs, combined to implant a song in the mind.
Natural Disasters, National Treasures contains a reasonably consistent collection of songs. Instrumentally, the band is sharp; and this is arguably Grunwald's finest recorded outing as a singer. The melodies, vocal arrangements, and accompaniments are simpler than on some of their earlier recordings; and old-time fans might be surprised at the big instrumental sound on a few tracks.
From "Street Sheet," Boston Phoenix, June 10, 1988
On June 10th at Axis, Salem 66 played a show that evidently was arranged to lead into the 1988 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble. Milo Miles published the following colorful description: "Grunwald retained her unique visual hook, a sort of slow writhe that worked up from her black pixie boots and ended in a sharp shake of her black Jean Shrimpton cut."
Proof that Salem 66 don't need to lay so low erupted with "Widow's Walk," which hit all the right targets of longing, anger, and finally a ringing kiss-off of an absent lover. Grunwald even dredged up a hair-wilting scream during the encore. If enough fans heard that, Salem 66 wouldn't stay undernoticed for long.18
Salem 66 led off for the Wipers at the Paradise Theater on January 19, 1989. The Globe's Jim Sullivan noted that "Boston's Salem 66 opened with a catchier repertoire and a crunchier set than we last heard. The guitar sound is bigger, noisier, more brash, and vocalists Judy Grunwald (guitar) and Beth Kaplan (bass) are less airy and ethereal, although still winsomely bittersweet."19
Grunwald and Kaplan had grown as songwriters; and Beth Kaplan kept improving her singing skills. But the core members didn't drift far from their folk-punk origins. Meanwhile, the Boston music scene had gone through many changes and was shifting yet again. Paul Kochanski and Jamie Walker, who started in the Lines not long before Salem 66 got going, had moved from new wave through blue-eyed funk and were at this very moment--through an intoxicating mix of Hank Williams Sr. and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street--transforming into a curious breed known as Swinging Steaks. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman was riding high, following the success of her debut album. The Pixies were setting the stage for the '90s with their curious brand of proto-grunge. And the New Kids on the Block were in the news every day.
THE MEMBERS OF SALEM 66 went their separate ways in September 1989.20 Beth Kaplan told Polly Campbell, "We put so much into that band, and it was really worth it, but now we're kind of mourning it." She added, "I'm incredibly glad we made as many records as we did. It's just so good to have something to show for it that other people can see and appreciate."
Before breaking up altogether, Salem 66 recorded Down the Primrose Path (CD, Homestead, 1990). Polly Campbell wrote:
Completed with the knowledge it would be their last album, Down the Primrose Path is Salem 66's most vivid recording. Rather than the splintering of a band breaking apart, it captures the sound of two songwriters stepping out of self-consciousness and uncertainty, and a band fulfilling their potential.21
"On a lot of our records," said Grunwald, "a criticism that could be made is that there's a static quality to them, almost like a fear of getting really emotional in the studio." "We always thought we sounded aggressive, but we didn't, really." "The lyrics were important, the mood was important. Maybe with this one we just figured subconsciously that it was our last chance to get that mood. Anyway, I'm really happy that at last we broke through that barrier."
On Down the Primrose Path, most of the singing is unusually low in the mix. The instruments seem to have seized control from the vocalists. In a concert setting, the singers would have to strain to make themselves heard over the accompaniment. The effect is somewhat similar here. At a couple points, the band actually sounds a bit like Tribe. Among the songs, personal favorites include "Bell Jar," "Lost and Found," and "Primrose Path." It is probably no mere coincidence that, on those tracks, the vocals can be more easily heard. Though Primrose Path is a good album, most fans will remember Salem 66 for Natural Disasters, National Treasures and the excellent compilation, Your Soul Is Mine, Fork It Over.
A couple years ago, an Internet search turned up only two significant items about Salem 66 (along with a number of basketball scores). Last week, both those pieces were conspicuously missing from my various hit-lists. With any luck then, this profile will be a step toward bringing band members the recognition they richly deserve. Salem 66 gave us a ripping good spin.
-- Alan Lewis, August 20, 2001
1. Boston Phoenix, 10/12/1990.
2. According to the Polly Campbell piece already cited, Salem 66 was "the first band signed to Homestead Records."
3. U.S. Rock, 2/28/1985, Issue 60.
4. Boston Rock, 5/29/1985, Issue 63.
5. Boston Rock, 8/27/1984, Issue 54. Judy Grunwald's guitar playing was often described as "Eastern," having an effect not unlike a sitar.
6. Boston Phoenix, 10/9/1984.
7. Some contemporary writers took this to be Robert Wilson's debut recording with Salem 66. It seems most likely, though, that the track's unnamed guitarist is David Minehan of the Neighborhoods, who produced this single.
8. U.S. Rock, 2/28/1985, Issue 60.
9. Boston Rock, 5/29/1985, Issue 63.
10. Boston Rock, 5/29/1985, Issue 63.
Three years later, in his June 17th Boston Phoenix column, Milo Miles reported, "Word has it that the band lacks honor only in its own Boston country (and recent raves from Los Angeles lend credence to the notion)."
Having been born in the little town of Milo, Maine, I have always wondered whether Milo Miles was the writer's actual birth name. Anyone know? And while I'm on the subject ... it seems worth mentioning that Nelson Bragg appeared on Boston's WCOP Hayloft Jamboree as "the Merry Mayor of Milo, Maine."
11. Boston Rock, 8/26/1985, Issue 66. This notice describes a sort of performance that present-day Boston alternative-rock audiences love. Perhaps Salem 66 was ahead of its time. A "sound" based on things visible is an astonishing confounding of the senses.
12. Boston Rock, 11/25/1985, Issue 69.
13. In Boston Rock, Issue 83, Paul Robicheau called A Ripping Spin one of the best albums of 1985 by a Boston band.
14. Boston Globe, 12/29/1985, 5/30/1986.
15. Boston Phoenix, 6/17/1988.
16. Boston Globe, 2/8/1988.
Many journalists, such as Brett Milano in this instance, expressed appreciation for the vocal blend of Grunwald and Kaplan. Thus, the following in Milo Miles' June 17th Boston Phoenix column is strange but worth noting:
17. Boston Globe, 4/28/1988.
18. Boston Phoenix, 6/17/1988.
19. Boston Globe, 1/21/1989.
20. Our source for this information comes from more than a year later--Boston Phoenix, October 12, 1990. We don't know whether it took that long before band members announced the breakup--probably not; but it does appear that word got around really slowly. In the January 3, 1991, issue of the Boston Globe, Paul Robicheau recalled that the breakup "went by without fanfare."
This just in (9/15/2001), though a dozen years late: "Boston band Salem 66 is reportedly breaking up. They'll be missed." -- Steve Morse, Rock Notes column, Boston Globe, 11/10/1989.
21. Boston Phoenix, 10/12/1990.
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