At the end of 1966 the Beau Brummels were in limbo. The band was one of the bay area’s earliest rock groups and were considered America’s response to the unrelenting onslaught of the British invasion. They were signed to the small Autumn label two years earlier and with the help of house producer Silvester Stewart, later known to the world
However things started to unravel in 1966. Ron Elliot, the band’s guitar player and main songwriter, was diabetic and life on the road did not agree with this health. The band recruited guitar player Don Irving to substitute for Elliot on the road, but in 1966 Irving was drafted to the army. Bass player Ron Meagher joined the National Guard in order to avoid going into service, and drummer John Peterson decided to leave the band and join Harper’s Bizarre, another band on the Autumn label roster. To top off their woes, Autumn Records went under after it ran out of money in a futile race to compete with the big labels. An unfortunate timing for the label, as it had The Great Society with Grace Slick who released Somebody To Love earlier in 1966, and almost signed The Grateful Dead and The Charlatans before it folded.
But sometimes events unfold in mysterious ways. Ron Elliot and singer Sal Valentino were left with ample time to devote to songwriting. Moving away from their previous pop-oriented hits, they immersed themselves in acid-induced creativity, similar to many west-coast bands of the time such as Love, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Elliot remembers: “In those days I was avalanched by melodies, and luckily I got a few of them down on tape. The music we had been playing previously was very simple, it was unsatisfying for me. I could never show the band the stuff that I wanted to get done because it was possibly too complex”.
Before recording ensued for their next album, the band got a huge boost when Lenny Waronker joined as producer. Waronker was hired by Warner Bros, who bought Autumn Records’ assets and wanted to develop its newly acquired artists. Waronker was a junior A&R representative, and the Beau Brummels were one of his first producing jobs. He quickly realized the potential of the new songs Elliot and Valentino were writing: “The harmonic structure of the songs, the melodies, lent themselves to being blown up, and there was an orchestral aspect. I felt that the Brummels sound had moved on and it would be fun to infuse it with instrumentation. Sal and Ron were always open, and anything that was new and different was to be looked at, and that sort of spirit was the prevailing mindset of the time”.
The recording sessions took place at United Recorders studio, the historical Hollywood studio where Frank Sinatra cut most of his Reprise hits such as It Was a Very Good Year and Strangers In The Night and Ray Charles recorded the LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music with the hit I Can’t Stop Loving You. In the emerging youthful pop of the mid 60s , the studio which was a second home to the Wrecking Crew musicians, is forever etched in the annals of music history as the place that hosted the sessions for the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’.
Ron Meagher was able to contribute part of his time to the recording sessions, and the band, at this point a studio entity of three, decided appropriately to call its next album Triangle.
Recording sessions were in full progress when Sal Valentino brought a new song to the team in April 1967. That song was Magic Hollow. In its infancy as a demo recording, while the lyrics had a dreamy and hypnotic quality, the melody and arrangement did not sound like a standout track.
Waronker brought in long-time buddy Van Dyke Parks, who just finished working with Brian Wilson on the then-unreleased epic Smile. Parks took the song in a completely different direction by playing a harpsichord. Ron Elliot made it a perfect baroque-pop piece with a complete string arrangement ornamented with bells, accordion, cello and above all Sal Valentino’s haunting vocals.
The song was released as a single in September 1967 but sadly did not enter the charts. Warner Brothers had other acts higher in the food chain such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Petula Clark and the Association to push into the marketplace. The album and the song were critically acclaimed, but commercial success was not in the cards. Over the years the song has been covered a number of times, my favorite by the Norwegian band Ulver, who covered the song in their 2012 tribute album to 60s psycheldelia, Childhood’s End.
One of the magical musical moments of the psychedelic 60s, here is Magic Hollow:
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