A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Title track of second and final album released by “Bosstown sound” mainstay band. Released August 1968. Failed to chart in any city, state, country or other jurisdiction I know of, though I imagine the hip Boston stations probably gave it a couple spins.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Highbrow allusions for the win. It took me three listens to catch the musical references to Chopin’s Funeral March. For a psychedelic band, that’s pretty subtle: Most of the BSU’s peers would have had a fuzztoned lead guitar play three minutes of variations on it.
2. An arranged marriage. I dunno whether the BSU did their own arrangements, or hired an outsider.
Either way, “The Clown Died…” gets much of its charm from an interesting and relatively light-handed arrangement.
It’s full of musical touches that come and go — the four bass-drum booms as the cortege treads slowly by; a carnival organ that submerges and rises again; a harpsichord; strings; some dark, eerie flute licks; lead singer John Lincoln Wright’s one-word break into harmony on the word “hotel;” and those never-ceasing maracas (or whatever it is that sets the percussion groove.)
3. Mind your ah’s. Lead singer Wright — born in Boston; raised in Sanford, Maine — handles his R’s pretty well for most of the song. They lean a little toward H’s, but acceptably so, in a standard semi-tough lead-singer sort of way.
Then we get to the payoff line of the song, and Wright coughs up some Beacon Street:
The ground dried and hardened
After the clown died in Mahvin Gahdens.
I mean, he doesn’t even try to pretend he’s from anywhere except New England. The Bosstown sound, indeed!
4. High concept. A mashup of circuses and Monopoly as some sort of comment on the human condition? I have no idea what it means but I’ll buy it for a dollar.
The album cover is pretty good, too — five longhairs and a dead clown. I woulda taken a flyer on that if I’d stumbled across it in a record store bin in 1968.
(Unfortunately, they devoted Side Two of the album to throttling “Baby Please Don’t Go,” rather than further exploring their Ringling Brothers Barnum & Boardgame motif.)
5. Turn it up. BSU guitarist Paul Tartachny is not usually ranked with Joe Perry and J. Geils among Boston’s great guitar exports, but he rips off a good solo when he finally gets a chance.
(Any time the lead singer says something about “a lion trainer that’s gone maaaaaaad!” and looks in your direction, you gotta deliver the goods.)
Some of it is the same kind of scrambling modal raga-ish stuff every lead guitarist this side of Nigel Tufnel was serving up in 1968.
But it builds up a good head of steam, especially when Tartachny whips out some stuttering licks that bring to mind Berton Averre on the long version of “My Sharona.” (Listen at the very end and you’ll hear them, over what sounds like a berserk funeral procession.)