July 24, 2007

(Part 4 of a five-part series.)

7. The Post-Bouch Era: 1976-77

In the summer of 1976, the country was coming together for it’s Bicentennial celebration: groups of ‘Tall Ships’ were arriving to huge crowds packing the Boston waterfront, and towns and cities across America were celebrating its 200th birthday with concerts, parades, and fireworks shows. It was a celebratory time. For the members of Top Priority, however, relations between lead guitarist The Bouch and the rest of the band were at a low ebb: disagreements over the band’s musical direction were starting to come to the fore, and there was an overall feeling of weariness over playing the same tired songs at the same kind of tired venues.

Ken “The Cat” McDougal would later admit, “It was a low point for everyone. There were differences – differences over what we were going to play, where we were going to play, even what we should be wearing when we played. After a while, there came a point where we just weren’t as concerned about [Boucher’s] feelings as we once were. He was a nice enough guy and all, but the whole commercial wedding scene had started getting stale for us.”

As Mark remembers it, the primary area of dissatisfaction was on The Bouch’s playing: “There was this practice where my friend John Ellis recorded us on his 8-track recording system, and one of the songs we did was, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’. Hearing it played back with The Bouch taking the lead was, in a word, laughable – I mean, his guitar had this clipped, twangy elastic band sound to it. Remember, we still had that recording with Ken Sandler playing that same song, and hearing the two together played back to back was like night and day. One of the main reasons we had kept him on as long as we had, to be honest, was the fact he owned a van, which made playing gigs a lot easier, but after weighing the pros and cons of it all, we knew he had to go. I think that recording just affirmed to us what had to be done.”

Jerry Palma would later recall: “What did The Bouch bring to the band? An idea. A concept, perhaps, that after a while we just weren’t able to buy into. I mean, the guy had virtually no stage presence whatsoever, which, if you wanted to play rock and roll back then, you just had to have. He’d just be up there, content to pick away in the shadows, shuffling back and forth, and we’d kind of get on him because of that whenever his back was turned. As a guitar player, he knew the chords OK, but we needed more from a lead player. He had this big Gibson that made kind of a twangy sound – it probably would have sounded fine backing Loretta Lynn or someone like that, but for the kind of music we were playing, it didn’t add much, and, in our view, became expendable after a time.”

Doug remembers a conversation between the four band members following a particularly uninspiring practice. “There was a moment of clarity. Not just as far as The Bouch was concerned, but for us as a band. I mean, it suddenly became clear to each of us that we were never going to be anything better than what we already were, so the feeling was, why are we dealing with this CB-toting, disco dude whose guitar leads sounded like an elastic band being plucked? So, when an opportunity for another gig came up – I think it might have been some dance in Bedford – we just didn’t tell him about it. Then, after it went over really well, we just avoided the whole issue by telling him we were folding the group. I think we all knew the whole [Top Priority] thing was starting to go south, and we figured, if that were the case, we might as well enjoy it while we can.”

The Cat would later recall the Bedford dance as an important stepping-off point for the group: “We were asked to play this dance. I remember Doug’s and Mark’s cousin manning the lights and our performance being very well received. We opened with ‘California Girls’ just as The Beach Boys would do in concert, and we played a number of songs we never would have done if The Bouch was with us. What I remember most is the crowd asking us to play an encore – which was very neat and something new to us. I remember being totally psyched about our performance that night.”

For a period of time, the group considered adding a new replacement guitarist. Doug remembers: “Mark doesn’t remember him, but I do. There was this guy where I worked named George Duda, who said he played guitar. We actually had him come by for a couple of practices (pictured: Duda, The Cat, Doug, and Keys), but I think by that time we were pretty happy just (if you’ll pardon the expression) playing with ourselves, and really didn’t feel like having to go through the hassle of breaking in another new guitarist. He did have some decent equipment, I recall. Why we didn’t invite him in I don’t remember – mighta been us, mighta been him.”

With their problem guitarist now out of the scene, the band began a series of intense rehearsals, both indoors and outdoors, in order to rework their playlist, dropping a number of Boucher-era songs and adding new ones into the mix, emphasizing songs the band enjoyed playing instead of those more identifiable to dance audiences. The realigned group then unveiled its new look and new repertoire at a backyard concert played on the Palma’s back deck. There, playing before an enthusiastic crowd of friends and neighbors, the band played one of its better performances. Mark remembers the day well: “It was probably my favorite gig we ever did. The Bouch was gone, so we were able to recapture some of the feeling of those pre-Bouch days, where we played music simply for the joy of it. I remember we played ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘California Girls’ – fairly ambitious pieces for us to be sure, but they went over very well with the crowd.”

With two well-received performances under their belt, Doug felt confident enough about the band’s new lineup and repertoire to volunteer it to provide live entertainment at the Billerica Masonic Lodge for the Lodge’s theater group following its final show that year. Doug remembers: “The band was looking for some more opportunities to play without The Bouch, so when this opportunity to play came along, I volunteered us. There’s a cassette tape of that performance around somewhere.”

Indeed there is. And, hearing the tape three decades later, one gets the sense that this is a band not at all in transition – quite the contrary, they’re coming from nowhere and heading the same place. The two sets played are a mix of uninspiring pop instrumentals (“Let Me Be There”, “Yesterday”) combined with passable Top 40 pop covers (“Get Back”, “Ventura Highway”, “Saturday Night”, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”), all played to a lot of background noise and conversation: clearly this was a crowd that could care less about the band and its performance. A request by some young girl asking for Golden Earrings’ “Radar Love” – a current hit of that time – can be heard above the din, but it seems apparent that the band is content to play what it knows and what it wants to play, and then then get the hell out of out Dodge – and fast.

The last live performance of Top Priority took place just before Christmas 1976, and, ironically, it was one of their best. Doug recalls: “We were contracted to play a Christmas dance somewhere in Lowell or Tewksbury, and once again we brought along our cousin Gregg to run the lights. Keys also brought his brother Tom (we called him ‘TP’), and he and/or some other guy he brought along with him might have played the trumpet or some kind of horn. Whether it was because of the lights, or the horns, or the setting, or the vibes, I recall we played a very good dance – one of our best. We ditched the wedding crap, rocked a little harder, and played the kind of stuff we always wanted to play – a few obscure Beach Boys tunes – ‘Do It Again’, ‘Back Home’, and ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’, I think, and, as I recall, a fantastic bluesy-version of ‘White Christmas’ done in a ‘Scat Jacobs’ kinda vein. I think Tom Palma might have played a backing horn on that one.”

The Christmas dance turned out to be Top Priority’s “Candlestick Park” moment; by that time, the band had ceased actively pursuing gigs, and none magically appeared before them, either. While occasional practices still produced some new fine original work – Jerry’s unreleased “Rhythm and Blues, Parts 1 & 2″ was one – by the spring of 1977, it was becoming clear that the clock was starting to run down. The band was starting to put something less than ‘top priority’ on the music, and, as Doug remembers, its members were starting to think about larger things. “Mark and I would go to Mac’s Two Lounge in Billerica – this was before it became a strip joint – or the Band Box and just talk about life – you know, where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do – that kind of thing”. Everyone was starting to think about their futures and getting restless, wanting to make a big change.”

As Palma would recall later: “Around [1977], we were getting together less and less as a band to practice. Both The Cat and Mark were feeling the need to change their lives in a big way. Sometime in late spring, Ken told us he had enlisted in the Air Force, then a few months later, Mark enlisted in the Army. By late August, both were gone.” Doug adds: “I remember things pretty much falling apart on their own. I don’t recall anyone shedding any tears over the band’s demise – we had had a good time, and had made some money playing dances. It was just time for everyone to move on.”

Next: Postcript and legacy


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 01:17 | Comments (2)
  1. Doug and I saw the movie “A Bridge Too Far” (several times I believe,great flick) It was then that I’d been bit by the military bug.What a life changing experience! So was “Top Priority”!

    Comment by Mark — July 30, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  2. Maybe Top Priority could be considered “A Band Too Far”, eh, bro? Mr. Cugini did a nice job on the series though, didn’t he? He’s a nice guy – a little misguided, I think, but a nice guy nonetheless.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — July 30, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

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