Thursday, July 5, 2018

Beauregard Ajax - Deaf Priscilla (1968 us, exceptional acid psych rock, 2006 release)

Ah, we can hear you out there saying “I’ve never ever heard of Beauregard Ajax!” Of course you haven’t, and now we’re going to tell you why.

Let’s set the scene. OK, it’s the summer of 1967 and there’s this band of teenagers who hail from Oxnard, California, a city 65 miles north of Los Angeles and 35 miles south of Santa Barbara. They’re all from basically the same neighborhood, ages 16 and 17 at the time: David Ferguson (lead guitar/vocals) and John Boutell (rhythm guitar) and a schoolmate of David’s, bassist Dennis Margeson, had formed the beginnings of the band a year earlier, calling themselves The Poets, but they were mostly jamming in garages in these early stages.

By the beginning of 1967, Margeson was out, to be replaced by Clint Williams (bass), and soon they were adding Charlie Hendricks (vocals, pipe recorder), who had previously played in bands with Clint. Ferguson (who is their de-facto leader) and Hendricks soon began writing songs together, but there was a reason they weren’t able to play any shows just yet: they needed a drummer, as most rock bands do, and were soon were introduced to Leo Hartshorn (drums), who had gone to the same high school, Hueneme High, as Ferguson.

Finally, now that finals were over and they’d all graduated from high school, they had to time to focus on getting a few gigs (mostly teen clubs up in the lush coastal communities in Ventura County), and maybe, just maybe, they thought they might be able to get themselves a recording contract. At some point in ’67, the band’s friend, Patrick Landreville, introduced them to concert promoter named Jim Salzer, who was suitably impressed with the band’s sound and appearance and he soon began booking them as an opening act at his concerts as well as at his nightclub, the Starlight Lounge.

By this time Charlie had persuaded the band to change the name of the band from the Poets to the Dumplings. Meanwhile, Mike Cullen, another local musician with a band of his own, had approached Ferguson with the idea of playing shows together on a double bill, and Ferguson was receptive to the idea, so Cullen secured several performances at local venues. It was at one of these shows that Barbara Haskell, the wife of famed music arranger Jimmy Haskell, saw the Dumplings and, liking what she heard, she offered to introduce the band to one of her husband’s associates in the music industry, a man named Bob Keane, who had a record company called Del-fi Records.

Now, Keane was kind of a legendary figure by this point, having released recordings on several record labels he’d owned from the late 50s to the mid-sixties — some of his better known artists included Ritchie Valens and The Bobby Fuller Four (on his Mustang label imprint) and he’d also released albums by a lot of surf bands, including The Lively Ones.

Keane called Landreville, saying he had gotten a glowing recommendation from the Haskells’ concerning the Dumplings and he was indeed interested in hearing the band for himself. A meeting was set up, and so, at the beginning of the summer of ’67, the Dumplings soon found themselves driving down to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, actually, where they met with Keane at his offices in a two-story pink granite building, located at 6277 Selma Ave., just a few blocks from the “Record Row” near the intersection of Hollywood & Vine, and just down the street from the familiar Capitol Records tower.

The first thing the band noticed when they arrived at their destination was a new company name stenciled on the glass door — the gold and black lettering was spelling out “Stereo-Fi Records.” They climbed the stairs, leading up to offices that are actually above a Security Pacific Bank, where they meet Keane for the first time. They liked him immediately — he was an affable, handsome guy in his mid-forties, with Brylcreemed dark hair and a square jaw like a telegenic TV news anchor — and they learn during their first conversation that he’s a former musician himself — a clarinet player — and he’d performed all around Southern California with his own big band.

Keane discovers that these teenage musicians have never set foot inside in a professional recording studio, so he escorts them down the hall to a small room which turns out to be a brand-new state-of-the-art recording studio, with a transistorized mixing board, and transistorized three-and eight-track tape decks. Stereo-Fi’s studio is, in fact, one of the first L.A. studios to use a mixing board utilizing transistors instead of tubes, designed by electronic genius/recording engineer John Stevens, who had helped design the mixing board used up the street at Capitol Records’ Studio B.

It seems appropriate to mention here that Dumplings’ sound is really unlike anything Keane has ever released before, and seems to be on the very crest of a new wave of sounds that he’s been hearing, sounding like a mixture of Southern California electric folk-rock (still a relatively new genre in 1967), along with familiar touches of garage rock, psychedelic rock, with a little Beatles-inspired electric sitar-mysticism thrown in. Ferguson writes all the band’s songs, incidentally, with the exception of two which he co-wrote with singer Charlie Hendricks. He also plays all the lead guitar parts, and he and Hendricks share the vocals, with Ferguson occasionally affecting a phony Euro-mod accent. Neither have a particularly strong vocal talent, but it doesn’t seem to matter as their lilting vocals fit these songs perfectly.

After their audition, a recording contract is offered to the band, and over the next week or so the details are ironed out between Averill C. Pasarow, the band’s attorney, and Jay Cooper, Keane’s attorney. Keane tells the Dumplings he’d like to produce their band, and tells them he’d like to record a full album, not just 45s, because, after all, we’re now in the album era by mid-1967, and it’s important to get all of their original recordings down on tape so they can decide later which songs should to be singled out for radio airplay, etcetera.

And so, from that day forward, these same five teens make this same trek down to Stereo-Fi’s recording studio, each week for the next several months. As Hartshorn later recalls, there was “a lot of layering of instruments and voices, experimenting with electronic sounds, late night sessions with numerous takes in different sound rooms.” Sometimes the band members came into Stereo-Fi’s studio excited about something they’d heard, like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had just been released around this same time, June 1, 1967. The album inspired them to write and record even better songs, and helped to foster a lot of interesting ideas about what they wanted to do for their own recordings. Keane, meanwhile, tells them that all producer George Martin has done is bounce tapes from one four-track recorder to another, it’s something he’s done before himself. But now his eight-track transistor studio is even more state-of-the-art than what the Beatles are using. Keane rolls tape and produces the songs at each session, recommending a backwards guitar part here, a sitar part there, a recorder solo…

During this same time, the Dumplings begin playing shows in L.A., nearly every weekend. After winning the second place prize in the Ventura County Battle of the Bands, sponsored by Jim Salzer, they’re added to the line-up, opening up for The Byrds, in Santa Barbara, at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. They also play shows for the Hell’s Angels and other biker groups out in the desert too, and Hartshorn says they also played at the Troubadour, and several clubs on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, during this time.

Keane, meanwhile, decides to test the waters and release one of their songs — “Feather In A Bottle” – as a single, but he asks them to come up with a new name for the 45 release. It’s at this point the band decide to call themselves Beauregard Ajax. Keane actually prefers another name they suggest, Sleep, because it’s what he thinks their moody folk-rock sounds like to him. He even writes it on one of their master tapes in his skittery handwriting, thinking it’s a name they’ll come around to. Some of the band like it, some of them don’t. Ferguson prefers Beauregard Ajax, and that’s their name.

At some point, the band learns that Keane’s Stereo-Fi record company is struggling to stay alive in a very competitive music landscape that seems to be changing each and every day, and the new company name (and the creation of Bronco, Mustang and other imprints under that new company) is reflective of a new financial partnership between Keane and his silent-partner Larry Nunes, who has infused the operation with cash, hoping for a big payoff down the line. Nunes was, at the time, the co-owner of Record Service, a “rackjobber” business that controlled record sales on racks in stores for the eleven western states, with thirteen offices from Seattle, Washington to Texas. Around this time, Nunes is selling a large percentage of all records sold in the west by all record companies. He also owns Privilege record distributors, as well as several record stores in the L.A. area.

We now fast-forward to 1968, and Keane takes the band’s mostly 8-track masters to Western Sound Recorders for a mix-down session (the date on the tape box is April 11, 1968). The Beauregard Ajax album (no album title yet) is just about finished, but there are still a few overdubs needed, a few tracks that probably need to be re-recorded, and Ferguson isn’t happy with some of his  vocal tracks either. On one tape, Keane, always trying to think of new ways to enhance a recording he’s producing, actually writes the words “needs Sitar?” where he imagines a sitar might work nicely. Hartshorn later reveals that some of the tracks were recorded on Keane’s Scully Dictaphone eight-track machine which at the time was state of the art (remember, most recordings at this time are still being done on four-track machines —  eight-track machines did not become standard until the early 1970s and were shortly replaced by sixteen and twenty-four track machines).

It’s my understanding that the band were undergoing some turmoil of their own during these final recording sessions, and towards the end, Charlie Hendricks reportedly left the band and was replaced by someone named Bruce (no one can recall his surname), who David Ferguson had met while attending L.A. City College.

It’s also around this same time that the members of Beauregard Ajax travel down to Hollywood one weekend in late April only to find that the front door of Stereo-Fi Records has a rather large iron chain and padlock on the front door. They peer through the darkened glass door and don’t see anyone inside. The lights are off, nobody’s home. They’re stunned, as you can imagine. They sit down on the curb on Selma Ave. and suddenly realize the gravity of the situation as it all begins sinking in. They don’t have any way to get in touch with Bob Keane — no home phone number or address. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t even have a copy of their own album tracks that they’ve been recording for the past nine or ten months. They really don’t know what to do. The band virtually begins to break up on their long drive back home to Oxnard.

Now let’s jump forward to 1996 or ’97 (I forget which year, it’s all a blur to me now). Let me just digress here to describe how I, your humble author, ended up working at Del-Fi Records, which had come alive again after a very long period of dormancy. The owner, Bob Keane, had resurfaced again and started up his Del-Fi label, and I’d begun working at the label shortly after that, in August 1995. We began reissuing CDs of recordings that the Del-Fi and Stereo-Fi companies had put out from early ’59 until about 1967 or so. I wrote liner notes, worked in production and did publicity and marketing related stuff for the label.

One day, one of the other employees at the Del-Fi label was going through Keane’s master tapes and trying to catalog the Del-Fi discography in order to figure out what we could actually reissue on CD, and he found a segued master tape marked “Beauregard Ajax.” It was also marked (with a grease pencil) “Sleep.” We knew one was an album title, and one was an artist name, but we didn’t know which was which. He took the tape home, where he made a cassette copy of the unfinished album master, and the next day he brought in a DAT and a cassette for us to listen to, and we all agree, it’s a great album, and it doesn’t sound like anything that Del-Fi has eveer released. We’re excited about the prospect of putting it out on CD, but we know absolutely nothing about the band and Keane can’t remember anything either (he’s in his mid-70s at this point). He didn’t have anything in his vintage file cabinet. No contracts. No photos. Nada.

Unfortunately, David didn’t really want to deal with Keane again, and we couldn’t come to any kind of royalty agreement and a contract anyway, all of which is understandable, but Ferguson also wanted to re-record a few things because there were pitch problems on some of the vocals, which he felt were too embarrassing, and there were mixing issues. He really didn’t want one track, “Happy Brontosaurus,” to come out at all, telling us it was just something they’d come up with with while they were joking around. Not only that, but everyone in the band that we came in contact with felt that it was best if the album was never released. It should remain a relic of the past, a buried treasure from 1968.

Fast-forward again. In 2005, a vinyl and CD reissue label out of Germany got a hold of one of the cassette tapes I’d sent out to one of those garage rock fans, and much to my surprise, they decided to release Beauregard Ajax’s album, calling it Deaf Priscilla (after one of the LP tracks — not the name I would have chosen for the album, though). Drummer Leo Hartshorn and Guitarist John Boutell each provided a brief paragraph for the skimpy CD liner notes, mostly regarding their roots in Oxnard, California and, according to one review I’ve read, “the different, seemingly less exciting musical projects they all went on to do.”

The thing about the ownership of this particular record is that is sort of exists in a state of limbo: when Rhino purchased the Del-Fi and Stereo-Fi master tapes in 2002, the Beauregard Ajax tapes seemed to have disappeared. In some cases like these, ownership of the masters would have reverted back to the band, but in this case, there are no tapes to return and there is no band to return them to. When the subject of royalties come up, well, there have been no album sales to generate royalties to begin with, no advances given to recoup, and no contracts to refer back to, nothing whatsoever in the files — so the album doesn’t truly exist because it never came out, and yet…if you’re interested, you can probably track down copies of Deaf Priscilla. I think I’ve seen them on Ebay. The vinyl pressing was apparently limited to 350 copies. Not sure about the CD copies, but if you can find one today, buy it.

Listening to Beauregard Ajax won’t change anyone’s life, we realize that, but they were a great little garage band who were pretty good, and getting better. Their career was cut short, through no real fault of their own. We don’t even know how unique their story is, but we still think the tale deserves to be told — and their music still deserves to be heard, forty years later. Unfortunately, they probably had the worse case of bad luck of any band I’ve ever worked with before — their great album failed to come out not once in their lifetime, but twice, and no one really knows their story until they read about it on the internet, in blogs like this one. You can find scads of glowing reviews about the Shadoks CD and LP release, and lots of praise for a band that very few can remember even seeing live. Ask around.
by Bryan Thomas
1. Loneliness Is A Sometime Thing - 2:16
2. Goodbye Again - 2:28
3. I Will Be Looking Away - 1:54
4. Dr. Jebediah Webb - 3:07
5. Is Tomorrow Thursday - 2:27
6. Dead Woman Blues - 2:14
7. Blue Violins - 3:31
8. Things Will Work Out Fine - 2:40
9 .Happy Brontosaurus - 1:59
10.Deaf Priscilla - 2:23
11.Feather In A Bottle - 2:04
12.Take You Far Away - 2:02
13.Love Is A Prize - 2:02
14.Kaleidoscope - 2:27
15.Blue Violins (Version 2) - 3:32
16.Dead Woman Blues (Version 2) - 2:14
17.Goodbye Again (Version 2) - 2:28
18.I Will Be Looking Away (Version 2) - 1:52
All songs by David Ferguson, Charles Hendricks

Beauregard Ajax
*David Ferguson - Vocals, Guitar
*Charlie Hendricks - Vocals, Pipe, Recorder
*Clint Williams - Electric Bass
*John Boutell - Vocals, Guitars
*Leo Hartshorn - Drums

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