July 20, 2007

(First of a five-part series.)

“Top Priority? Never heard of ’em” – Jan Wenner, publisher, Rolling Stone

1. Origins and Influences

It was the spring of 1969, and America was being torn apart by civil strife. Two years removed from the so-called “Summer of Love” and the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” year of 1967, the national spirit of love, peace, and hope had given way to a darker, more violent mood. Vietnam was raging, college campuses across the country were erupting in ever-increasing violent protest, and the positive vibes of “Woodstock” would soon give way to the Manson murders, Altamont, Kent State, and the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, Janis, and Mama Cass.

In the bucolic town of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, however, all of this seemed far away, indeed. Situated in the Merrimack Valley thirty miles northwest of Boston, Tewksbury in those days was a quiet, middle-class town where families struggled to make ends meet pursuing the “American dream”. The world was a much smaller place then – in the summer, weekends were for cookouts and mowing the lawn, perhaps a family outing to the ocean or a local lake; in winter, the snow would fall and the morning and evenings would be filled with the sounds of snow shovels scraping against driveways and walkways. In short, Tewksbury was like any number of small towns across the country at that time – honest, hard-working, moving along with the tide of the times.

Like most teenagers their age, Doug Richard and Ken Sandler were crazy about rock music. The two had met in junior high school and discovered that whatever differences they might have had in their home lives – Doug’s was just as stable, loving, and nurturing as Ken’s was harsh and dysfunctional – they shared the same musical tastes shaped and molded by the Top 40 radio of the day – The Beatles, The Monkees, the Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were favorites, with popular country artists like Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash adding a little breadth and depth to their musical influences.

After school, Doug would ride his bicycle down to Ken’s house and the two would talk and share their thoughts about music as Ken performed his afternoon chores. Ken played guitar and was actually pretty good at it, honing his technique and skills by listening to John Fogerty’s licks on any number of Creedence 45s he would plop down on his record player over and over, trying to replicate them on his acoustic guitar. While Doug hadn’t learned to play any musical instrument while growing up, he had attained a keen ear for music, having grown up listening to his parents’ Frank Sinatra, Broadway musical, and, most especially, Herb Alpert records. Doug also enjoyed writing, and he and Ken fancied that between them, one day they might learn to write songs together, make millions of dollars, and attract pretty girls.

2. The Instamatic Vibration: 1969-70

It was Ken who first came up with the idea of starting a band. He and another student at Tewksbury High School, John Dunham, a quiet, pudgy kid from the poor Brown Street section of South Tewksbury, had somehow met and discovered that they too had a common interest in making music. How Ken and Dunham had hooked up is lost to antiquity – Doug believes it might have been through the Tewksbury 4H Club – but it wasn’t long after that the two somehow learned of a drummer named Ricky Cefalo, and the three decided to try and put a band together. With two guitars and drums, Ken knew the band needed a bass player, but was unable to find one; hence, he asked Doug if he would be willing to learn to play bass. While Doug was skeptical about the idea, he too had caught the “band bug” and wanted to help out his friend, so the two punched holes in Ken’s old Sears Silvertone acoustic, slapped on a pickup, and Ken began teaching Doug how to play bass using the top two strings of the guitar. The foursome began to practice together, and named themselves “The Instamatic Vibration”.

To this day, Doug recalls the first time he ever experienced the sensation of a band playing live, with him a part of it. “We were set up in the Cefalo’s living room and it was a sight to see – drum kit, guitars, amplifiers, mike stands, cords everywhere across the floor, the amplifiers buzzing, the sounds of Ken and John tuning up, and then Ken and I tuning our guitars up. It all seemed very foreign, yet exciting to me. Then, a four-count in by Ken, the guitars playing those three chords over and over, the snap of a snare drum, and the sound of ‘Gloria’ (your classic garage band three-chord standard) pouring out at an ear-shattering volume. It probably sounded awful – remember, we were just kids who barely knew how to play – but to me, it sounded like heaven on earth. Man, I was hooked!

“I’ve always believed that the experience of playing in a band where everyone’s cookin’ and on the same page, and the audience is diggin’ you as much as you are diggin’ the whole experience is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced – better than sex, better than a religious experience, better than anything. I think that’s why so many musicians go the route of drugs, alcohol, and destructive behavior – they’re trying to recapture somehow that over-the-top incredible high that playing music as part of a band unit brings.”

Unfortunately for The Instamatic Vibration, the early good times didn’t last. Ken Sandler’s work schedule got in the way, and Dunham had no money to upgrade his equipment beyond the rudimentary guitar and amplifier he owned. “His family seemed so poor”, Doug recalls. “I remember the three of us practicing in his house – well, you couldn’t even really call it a house, it was basically a tiny cabin his family lived in. I don’t even think it had rugs or curtains – it was just a wooden cabin with wooden floors and tiny rooms.” Because none of the group could really sing, Ken tried to enlist his girlfriend at the time to sing lead – something that the rest of the group resented, ultimately leading to its demise.

Doug remembers the end all too well: “Well, Ken had tried to get his girlfriend – I think her name was Joyce Boyer – to sing with the group, but no one was really in favor of it. We were a garage band – primarily Creedence, the Beatles, the Stones – that kind of stuff, while Joyce, if I remember correctly, came from a kind of a pop standard or country background – like Anne Murray doin’ ‘Snowbird’, that kind of crap. Anyways, we hadn’t played much before audiences as a group – I think we might have done one thing before some high school assembly or something like that. Anyways, Ken volunteered us for this gig at the 4H Fair in Westford, and there we were, on the Friday night program under the entertainment tent – The Instamatic Vibration! We thought it would be like The Beatles playing Shea Stadium… [Laughs]

“…Ricky must have had a sense of disaster looming and never showed. This was bad, since I, the so-called ‘bass player’ relied on an amplifier he owned in order to play. So there we were, Ken with his guitar and amp, and John with his gathered around one microphone, and since Ricky must have also provided our only other mike stand, I was left to hold the microphone for Joyce while she sang, looking like some total dork – I’ve got a photo of it somewhere. How bad were we? So bad that I can remember us taking a break after something like three songs, Joyce disappearing, and Ken and I calling out for her repeatedly over the 4H grounds PA system: [makes announcer sound] ‘Will Joyce Boyer please return to the entertainment tent by the rabbit cages…’ [laughs]; she was smart – she never returned. And that’s how that all ended.”

3. A New Beginning: 1973-74

Even with the demise of The Instamatic Vibration, Ken and Doug still continued to practice together and even began writing their first original songs. Doug recalls, “I remember Ken and I working on a number of songs – we were really into trying to compose our own music. One I remember distinctly – I don’t know why – was alled “Land of Snow” – it was kind of a folky, Paul Simon-influenced tune:

Alone in a land of snow
No one but you and me
Alone in a land of snow
Mmmm mmm mmmm…

We smile and whisper to each other,
We’re happy to be in love
And yet the cold wind blows…

“OK, it wasn’t great, but I remember the two of us asking my parents to come downstairs and listen to us perform it, and it came out good; two-part harmony. I ended up having a notebook full of song poems that Ken and I planned to put music to, and remember spending a lot of time in study hall during my junior and senior years just working on those songs. Those were exciting times.”

By this time, both Ken and Doug knew that if they were going to attempt another musical venture, they would need to upgrade their equipment – the 4H Fair disaster still looming large in their minds. As Doug remembers, “I wanted more than anything to buy a violin-shaped bass guitar like the Hofner model Paul McCartney used both early on and in the movie ‘Let It Be’. I was a huge Beatles fan, and to this day believe McCartney’s work on ‘Abbey Road’ to be the best single bass performance I’ve ever heard. It was after hearing his bass work on ‘Abbey Road’ that I decided I really wanted to learn to be a bass player. So, whether I paid for it myself in installments, or with the help of my parents, I found me a Greco knock-off and an amplifier, and began to learn how to play the bass properly.”

Fast forward three or four years. Doug’s brother Mark had gotten interested in music and the idea of playing the drums in a band. Mark recalls: “I was working at a place called Tewksbury Aluminum and Hardware, it was right across the street from our house. Anyways, the business was owned by a couple named Hank and Rita Fleury, whose sons had a band that played various lounges and supper clubs in the area – the Bandbox and the 3 Bs in Billerica, the Oaks and the Branding Iron in Tewksbury, small places like that. I remember their son kept his blue drumset in the back of the store where they also had a small music shop – nothing big, just guitars, music, stuff like that. They also had this beautiful red set there, and Doug bought it for me.”

For Doug, the idea of including Mark in a band came naturally: “I don’t recall if it was directly related to me and Ken practicing at the house, or whether we came up with the idea between us – more likely, the latter. I do remember us being hooked on the same kinds of music around 1970-73 – Pink Floyd especially, but other stuff as well, like the Doors, the Eagles and the Beatles’ early solo stuff. We’d take these long drives up to the North Shore and just listen to the radio and our 8-tracks and talk; it was probably during one of those drives that we decided we should just go ahead and start a band of our own.”

Tomorrow: A Band is Born: 1974-75


Excerpted from “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority” by Victor N. Cugini, soon to be published by Permanent Press.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:15 | Comments (10)
  1. […] * The new Top Priority band shrine at the Kitthwawk Productions website (www.kittyhawkproductions.com) is just about to go live, with an official kick-off scheduled for Labor Day weekend. Oh baby, there you’ll find everything for the Top Priority fan in your family – autographed photos, their new “Anthology” CD, pre-ordering for their upcoming book (excerpted here at Goodboys Nation), and even historical tours ($18.75 per person with 2 weeks advanced notice) of landmark sites in Top Priority history. A must with Christmas just around the corner! […]

    Pingback by GoodBoys Nation - Archives » A Damned Fine Night — August 28, 2007 @ 6:39 am

  2. When and where is the book available? Who is Victor N. Cugini?

    Comment by BeatleTracks — February 14, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  3. Thanks for the comment, BeatleTracks. Mr. Cugini is a blogger and long-time, not-so-well-known observer of all things Top Priority and the Kittyhawk Productions scene. Does this satisfy your curiosity, and if not, how might I assist you further?

    Comment by The Great White Shank — February 15, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  4. This story sounds so familiar… I can almost “Imagine” this story as if it were “Yesterday”. “The Instamatic Vibration”, what a great name for a band. This story reminds me of a story I wrote with a friend in junior high about an olive green Ford Maverick. I too am a huge Beatles fan, and started a Beatle band in 2002 (www.beatletracksband.com). Very strange, also own old Sears Silvertone guitar with holes in it. That’s weird.

    Comment by BeatleTracks — February 15, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  5. Hmmm… a Sears Silvertone guitar with holes in it. Now this is getting interesting. If you are who I think you are and you’d like to make contact, drop me a line with your contact info at darichard@att.net. This could get very interesting indeed.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — February 16, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  6. Sears Silverstone guitar? I knew a guy by the name of Ken that owned
    one thru high school who looks a lot like Ken Sandler of BeatleTracks

    Hey GWS – I think you can add another “Blast From The Past” to your list!!
    That “Long And Winding Road” truly is bringing us all back!!!

    Comment by Tightwad — February 17, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  7. After checking out some of the YouTube vids and listening to a few of the live tracks, I’d say Mr. BeatleTracks has done well since the 4-H days!

    Comment by Tightwad — February 17, 2008 @ 8:21 am

  8. […] Q: How difficult was it to find material sufficient enough to satisfy the die-hard fans of Top Priority? […]

    Pingback by GoodBoys Nation - Archives » Q & A: Top Priority’s “Anthology” - I — February 17, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  9. […] Greetings, Top Priority fans! I wanted to let you all know that there has been a recent uptick in the number of requests for the book almost all of America has been waiting for: “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority”. […]

    Pingback by GoodBoys Nation - Archives » Top Priority Update — February 18, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  10. […] of course, lasts forever, and by the time 1975 came I was doing the Top Priority thing with my brother Mark and we were losing our collective heads over The Beach Boys, so, beyond […]

    Pingback by GoodBoys Nation - Archives » Music Collection: George Harrison — January 6, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

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