July 21, 2007

(Second of a five-part series.)

4. A Band is Born: 1974-75

Feeling confident that, along with Ken Sandler, they now had a solid core to work from, Doug and Mark set about to find their fledging band another guitarist, hence the arrival of Ken “The Cat” McDougal (forefront, with Mark on drums at a 1975 practice). In a 1979 interview, McDougal recalled how he was brought into the fold: “It was around ’73 or ’74 that Mark – who I already knew from both school and church – mentioned how he and his brother were working on getting a new band together with this other guy named Ken. I only remember this because I can recall thinking we’d then have have two guitarists named Ken! Anyways, not only did I play guitar, but I had my own equipment as well – something that must have obviously impressed [them]. Anyways, it wasn’t long before I began practicing with them.” As for McDougal’s nickname? “That was a Jerry thing”, says Mark (referring to keyboardist Jerry “Keys” Palma, whom McDougal would later recruit for the band). “I don’t remember how or why Jerry gave him that nickname – I doubt it was anything complimentary – but for whatever reason, it stuck.”

Ken Sandler had always been an enigma to Doug and Mark when it came to committing himself to the band they were trying to form. Doug recalls: “It was around this time Ken was starting to break away on his own. I remember visiting him at his new basement apartment in Lowell some time in early ’74 and trying to get him to formally commit, since he would be hot to join the group one day, then cool the next. When he showed up, I mean it was fantastic! The guy could play almost anything – his musical ear was instinctive by nature – and we worked well together as a group, but he ended up marrying this local chick and that was pretty much the last we saw of him.”

Sandler’s value to the group can best be illustrated by a cassette tape still in existence where the band is working on the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”. The group attempts three takes of the song, and, while it is obviously coming along well, the takes are somewhat sterile in nature, remaining quite faithful to the BTO hit. There then follows a fourth take, and it’s clear from the sounds on the tape that Sandler has suddenly arrived on the scene – immediately, the atmosphere sounds charged and the band is clearly psyched. Starting with some meandering Sandler licks behind The Cat’s intro (he’s obviously working on his solo part), the song virtually explodes off the tape and the group nails it to a “T”. Sandler’s solo is crisp, virtuosic, and Fogerty-sounding, and the group gives him plenty of room for an extended workout. As the song comes to a crashing end, the air is filled with whoops and shouts of enjoyment: the band had cooked, and for a single precious moment, all was right with the world.

Unfortunately, that would be the last time Sandler would ever join in with the group, as he shortly thereafter, in Doug’s words, “dropped off the face of the earth”. The group now needed a new guitar player, and it would be through Mark’s boss at Tewksbury Aluminum & Hardware, Al Thibeault, that the legendary guitarist “The Bouch” would join the group. Top Priority was about to be born, and, with a new keyboard player anticipating his arrival, the rock music world would forever remain the same.

5. The Palma/Bouch Era: 1975-76

With Sandler now officially out of the picture, it became obvious that the fledging group would need to add replacement personnel. It was thus in mid-to-late 1975 that three major events in the band’s life took place: 1) The addition of keyboard player Jerry “Keys” Palma; 2) the addition of guitar player “The Bouch”; and 3) Mark’s and Doug’s exposure to The Beach Boys. All three would play a significant role in moulding and shaping the sound of the band that would come to be known as “Top Priority”.

Jerry Palma

History records that it was via The Cat that keyboard player Jerry “Keys” Palma (shown here in a 1976 publicity photo) came into the band. As Doug remembers, “Yeah, Jerry came into the band as a direct result of Ken Sandler’s lack of commitment. Even if Ken had ultimately joined the group, we still would have brought Jerry in. Not only was he a talented player who could play keyboards and a little guitar as well, he was a good guy, and not many bands back then could claim to have a bonafide keyboard player.” The other quality Palma brought to the group was his musical expertise and a wider exposure to pop music that the group was not just lacking, but, in Doug’s mind, sorely needed as well. “Jerry liked music with a little harder edge – music we hadn’t really been exposed to – stuff like Queen, Thin Lizzy, and the like. His feet were still rooted in the same Top 40 sounds that we were; he just liked the songs we ordinarily wouldn’t have normally gravitated to.” Palma’s Sound City electric piano also created a different sonic foundation for the group: the guitar-based rock of the Sandler era was now over, and the band could venture into different kinds of musical ideas.

“The Bouch”

The impact of guitarist “The Bouch” (right, with The Cat at a 1975 practice) on both the sound and the fortunes of the band cannot be overestimated, for it was The Bouch who brought with him a disco hairdo, and a desire to not simply be satisfied making music, but to actually make money playing it. Mark recalls: “It was through Al Thibeault at Tewksbury Aluminum and Hardware that The Bouch was referred to us. Al and I were pretty close – he wanted to hook me up with his daughter – and he knew this guitar player from Lowell who he thought would be a good fit for our vacancy”. Several years later, Jerry Palma would recall The Bouch’s impact and influence on the band: “Yeah, The Bouch. No question ‘dude had a diff’rent outlook on music than the rest of us. I think we were more concerned with playing the kind of music we liked – for us, it was kind of a hobby, really – whereas he was more interested in playing music we’d get paid for. It was also The Bouch who came up with the idea calling us ‘Top Priority’, and putting us in white leisure suits with bell-sleeved, open-necked red shirts. Very ‘70s… he was definitely a man of the times.”

Mark still remembers the debate over the band’s name. “We’d been tossing around the idea of calling ourselves ‘Kittyhawk’, but The Bouch felt that the name wasn’t suitable for the kinds of gigs he thought we should be interested in pursuing, like weddings and dances. Same with Al [Thibeault], who, I think, fancied himself as some kind of enterpreneur and being our Brian Epstein, or something like that. He too thought we should have a more commercial-sounding name as well. So, I guess you could call it our first sell-out. Looking back, it’s probably just as well – we weren’t good enough to make any money as a real rock band, anyways. So, in the end, Doug and I decided we’d show them – we’d paint ‘Kittyhawk Productions Presents Top Priority’ on my bass drum head (along with the chick in the bikini standing in front of the palm tree, but that’s a story for another time…), so we kind of compromised on that.”

The band set up its headquarters in the cellar of Mark’s and Doug’s house. “We used to practice in [the] cellar”, recalled McDougal in a 1979 interview. “It was like our own private club. We painted the walls lime green and hung posters to make it a true ‘band hangout’ – a ‘Jaws’ movie poster, Olivia Newton-John, The Beatles – stuff we liked. Their parents and grandfather used to watch TV upstairs while we’d be practicing, and they sure must have gotten sick of us playing the same songs over and over, and having to turn their TV volume up loud.” The idea of a band practicing right below them couldn’t have made watching television too much fun, but Doug recalls that his parents never made it much of an issue. “God bless them, they always supported our craft and were very patient and understanding, especially since we weren’t very good. I don’t recall too much complaining on their part – maybe a recommendation that we turn the volume down, or perhaps consider trying a different song from time to time – you know, that kind of thing…”

Unlike Ken Sandler’s earthy, improvisational rockin’ style borne out his love for John Fogerty’s swampy blues-rock, The Bouch’s abilities on the guitar were far more, er, measured, and therefore, the band’s sound suffered for it. While he undoubtedly had some talent, it was hard to get him to contribute significantly and lead the group in a particular musical direction, sound-wise. Three decades later, Doug reflects on the differences between Sandler and The Bouch: “Maybe it was just that The Bouch had such crappy equipment and crappy musical taste; I think at one time he even wanted us to play that stupid trucker hit, ‘Convoy’ since he had a CB radio in his car. We were always trying to encourage him to put an edge into his playing, but that was something that was never there. I suppose we could have replaced him with another guitarist, but he had that van [to carry equipment], and we weren’t really good enough to attract any really good players. As it was, Keys was the only one in the group with any real talent, and he just played with us ‘cause he liked hanging around with us.”

The Beach Boys

Unlike the arrival of “The Bouch” on the scene, the impact of The Beach Boys as a musical force and inspiration upon the band was cataclysmic, and cannot be overstated. Doug recalls, “One day in early ’75 my friend Bob Noftle brought over this album, a double album ‘The Beach Boys In Concert’ and tells me something like, ‘you gotta hear this, man, these guys are great!’. The two of us had been close friends in high school and huge Beatles fans, but ever since they had broken up, we had been kinda looking for the next ‘big thing’, music-wise. Mark and I had been big into Pink Floyd for several years – even before ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, but Bob wasn’t much into their sound. Now, while I had heard some Beach Boys music before, and had even liked a number of their tunes enough to steal an 8-track of one of their ‘Best of’ albums while I worked at Zayre’s department store a few years before, I was totally unprepared for how the music on that album blew me away. I liked their look too – they looked kinda hairy and cool looking, so I immediately went out and bought myself a copy. When I played it for Mark, he was blown away too. We were both totally hooked, just as if we had smoked crack cocaine for the first time. From then on, it was pretty much all Beach Boys, all the time for us.

“Mark and I attended a Beach Boys concert at Boston Garden – it must have been in late ’75. They had the most incredible stage set we had ever seen! Very retro, kinda like the film ‘Chinatown’. Everything seemed white – white amplifiers, white Fender guitars, a white grand piano with a tiffany lamp on it, palm trees, oriental rugs – the works. Of course, we had to emulate that, so we immediately went out and bought phony palm trees and cheap oriental rugs that we could bring with us as part of our own stage setup. If we could have figured out how, we probably would have repainted our black amplifiers in white. As it was, Mark built a piano stand for Jerry’s keyboard that we of course painted white. The white color for our leisure suits might have also been a result of that concert experience, ‘cause I think a number of the Beach Boys were dressed in white at that concert, and we thought that was pretty cool.”

Mark continues: “We then started buying up every Beach Boys album we could find, and since at that time America was also re-discovering them in a big way, a lot of their late ‘60s/post-surf era stuff was starting to get re-packaged. There were these double album re-issues of their ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘20/20’, and ‘Smiley Smile’ and ‘Friends’ albums, both with watercolor pastel paintings of a bikini-clad girl standing on a beach in front of a big palm tree on the covers. Doug and I both went bananas over this, to the point where I actually ended up painting one of those album figures on my drum head, then accentuating it by rigging up a light that would flash inside the drum so that the girl and palm tree would light up whenever I wanted. The funny thing was, we weren’t really good enough as vocalists or players to do a whole lot of Beach Boys music, but their impact on us at the time was tremendous.”

The Music

As Top Priority, the band came to learn a wide range of music and styles – after all, weddings and dances required a lot of songs and a varied repertoire. Doug remembers, “We were big into Top 40 rock and pop – stuff like America, the Eagles, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Creedence, The Doobie Brothers – you know, stuff that people could either dance to or listen to over dinner. For weddings, we’d load up on instrumentals and soft rock: I remember inventive arrangements of ‘Yesterday’, and Olivia Newton-John‘s ‘Let Me Be There’ that we’d enjoy doing, and The Bouch could warble ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ OK. On top of this, we’d play the usual kind of wedding stuff you still hear today – ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’, ‘The Hokey Pokey’, ‘Misirlou’ for the Greek dance, ‘Tea for Two’ for a cha-cha, Bobby Vinton’s ‘Una Paloma Blanca” for a polka, some disco; a little bit of everything. Nothing great, mind you, just a lot of stuff that was passable for a band being paid on the cheap. We were just a little combo playing local gigs here and there that no one else would ever think of doing.”

But, as Mark recalls, that didn’t mean the band wasn’t also capable of some fine performances. “I suppose we considered BTO’s ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ and the Bay City Rollers‘ ‘Saturday Night’ our signature tunes, as The Cat did a great job singing both those songs and they always got a good response. Some of our other best stuff? The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’, America’s ‘Ventura Highway’, Creedence’s ‘Green River’, and the Doobie Brothers’ ‘China Grove’. My brother did a great vocal on ‘Get Back’ and Jerry would do The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’, but The Cat sang lead on most of our stuff, and he was OK.” Doug says the group also prided itself in playing songs that were not so well-known but simply because they liked them. “The Cat really liked Cat Stevens, so we’d do a few of his tunes, like ‘Father and Son’; I also sang lead on Creedence’s ‘Cross-Tie Walker’, and, of course, we did Beach Boys stuff that few people would have heard before, but did them simply for the enjoyment of learning and playing them.”

Next: Glory Days: 1976

—————–

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.

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