January 5, 2012

In Search of Kittery's Lost Garage Rock Legend



(Note to readers - I'm in the process of re-writing this entire post from top to bottom.)

Tens of thousands of starry-eyed teenagers all over the world picked up musical instruments in the 50's and 60's and formed bands. Exactly one of these bands became the Beatles.

As for the rest of them, maybe they got some gigs, maybe made a demo, maybe got a local record deal, maybe opened for big acts when they came to town, maybe got signed by a major label, maybe had a hit, maybe two, maybe got on network TV, maybe got their own headlining tour, maybe they captured the zeitgeist for a year, maybe more. Maybe their signature song(s) is/are still played on oldies radio. If they're still alive, maybe they're even still performing.

Somewhere at some point along the way, however, the vast majority of these musical acts fell off this path. Maybe they fractured due to egos or drugs, maybe they didn't have just the right song, or maybe it was just a matter of timing, lack of opportunity, or they never caught those mythical 'breaks.' Some of these musicians managed to stay in the industry somehow as a session musician, songwriter, producer, A-and-R person, etc, others might become teachers just to stay part of the music-making process and to pass their joy along to others. But many wind up outside music altogether and join the rat race with the rest of us.

But if they got into a studio and recorded anything, odds are it survives somewhere. And that's what's fascinating. You can't bring back a theatrical performance from 45 years ago unless it was recorded, and those rare cases were usually because they had celebrities in them. Nobody was recording community theatre in Keokuk, IA. But if there's a surviving copy of a 45 rpm single that a Keokuk IA band cut in its handful of studio sessions that still is playable today, no matter what these guys are doing today, that moment is preserved and will live forever.

Garage rock fans scour record stores and antique shops for rare treasures. Obscure tracks are digitized, compiled, traded, uploaded and downloaded. Why this obsession? I think it's a testimony to the bold diversity of that brief period. As the boundaries of guitar-pop expanded and rock music evolved from a teen fad into a musical art form, the rulebook of what one could and couldn't do in a pop song was constantly being re-written or thrown out entirely. This flush of experimentation coinciding with and fueled by Revolver, Pet Sounds, The Kinks, Sgt Pepper et al, inspired bands large and small to go deeper, or inward, or bigger, or louder. The fecund period of 1965-69 produced thousands of fantastically twisted, heady, strange, brilliant, wonderful tracks (as well as a lot of crap, obviously). Even if they weren't hits, most are worth a listen.

One such song was on a compilation I was listening to one day a few years ago; a bit ragged around the edges, but with a driving, fuzz-drenched rhythm that caught my attention. The song was called 'Whirlpool.' I noted the band's name, Alan Burn and the Ushers, and imagined a bunch of ambitious high-schoolers who probably played a bunch of school dances and VFW halls, had a whole bunch of covers in their repertoire, 'Louie Louie' chief among them, and 'Whirlpool' was their one original. Scraping enough money together for a studio session, they gathered around a single microphone and recorded their one shot at rock 'n' roll glory. It obviously wasn't to be, and they went off to various blue-collar jobs and had ordinary lives.

Well, some internet digging later, and I got a slightly different story. In the first place, it turns out that these guys were from my own backyard.  The Ushers hailed from York ME and Alan was from the neighboring town of Kittery: my hometown.  And although my instincts were right on about the Ushers - they were indeed a high school band - I hadn't expected to discover the extent of Alan Burn's exploits as a young would-be rock n' roller.

This is the story, then, of Alan Burn, who was far from a high-schooler living a momentary rock 'n' roll fantasy. He had chops, talent, and ambition, got some breaks, and came pretty damn close to breaking through. He didn't, but that doesn't mean that his story isn't worthy of being told. In fact, there's something intrinsically more interesting about someone who nearly makes it than someone who makes it huge, or doesn't make it at all. That is the essence of tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, having your goal within your reach and having it slip away. The fact that he grew up in my hometown makes his story all the more compelling to me. I wanted to know what happened to him.

Through my research and contact with a fellow songwriter, I briefly spoke to Alan on the phone, and he corrected a few flaws in my research, but apparently I got most of it correct. We hope to meet for a more formal interview when he's next in town.

His story is worthy of being told, and his music is more than worth hearing, so this is my attempt to tell it.

An Attempt at a Biography

Young Alan Burn(s)
from a 1964 article in
his hometown paper
Alan G Burn was born in 1944 and grew up in Lewiston, Maine.  He graduated from Lewiston High School in 1962, by which time his love of music was already evident, penning numerous songs.  During summers he worked as a lobsterman off Kittery Point, where he and his mother had a summer home on Cutts Island.  While attending University of Alaska he appeared on a local talent show "Alaska Bandstand," and recorded his first single, 'Parking Meters on Lovers Lane' which he released on his own label, Island Records (no relation to the famed major label) in November 1964.  According to Alan, the music track was recorded in New York and he recorded the vocals in Alaska.

I took the above information from a Nov '64 newspaper article announcing the single's release; his and his mothers' surname is listed as "Burns."  It is unclear if this is a typo or if Alan dropped the 's' for professional reasons.

At the tender age of 20, Alan exhibits admirable independence, enterprise and industry, opting to self-produce rather shop around for a label.  Yet he wouldn't have to wait long.

In 1965 Alan was signed to Mala Records, a subsidiary label of Bell Records that existed from 1959 to 1969.  Mala released many big hits including "G.T.O." by Ronnie and the Daytonas as well as "The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby" and "Neon Rainbow" by the Box Tops, and its roster included at one time or another Chad Allan, Spooky Tooth, Billy Fury, Chip Taylor, R Dean Taylor, David Gates, Solomon Burke and Link Wray

His first single with Mala was under the tutelage of the notable songwriting and production team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer, who were having one heluva year in 1965. In addition to the songs they wrote and produced for other artists, the trio (and their non-existent arranger, Bassett Hand) released a number of their own compositions as The Strangeloves, going so far as to invent backstories for the fictional group members.  But when they scored a nationwide hit with "I Want Candy", they were forced to hire a live band to tour and make TV appearances as the Strangeloves, taking on the fictional members' names. As Milli-Vanillian as it sounds, this was far from unusual at the time. The Grass Roots existed in name only until producer/songwriter P.F. Sloan had to hire a real band after "Where Where You When I Needed You" hit the top 20.  A large number of Bubblegum Pop bands were completely studio creations.

He spent about six months as an FGG staff songwriter, during which time he recorded two of his own compositions, "Somebody Wrote Their Name" and "Beach House" (Mala 510), and collaborated on a barn-burner of a song called "Right Hand Man" recorded by Bobby Comstock (another FGG stablemate). He is also credited with a composition titled "Groovy Chick." The Mala single didn't chart, though "Somebody Wrote Their Name" was played by famed Boston DJ Arnie 'Woo Woo' Ginsberg as a 'hit or miss' single - alas, it missed - and "Beach House" was a top 10 hit in Portsmouth NH.  Meanwhile FGG had other acts that were making bigger splashes - that year in addition to "I Want Candy" and "Night Time," they also produced the McCoy's "Hang On Sloopy," launching the career of teenage frontman Rick Derringer.

Alan continued undaunted, apparently settling in Kittery, releasing other material on Island Records and later Tuesday Records, both of which I posit were his own labels, either as Alan Burn (with various backing bands like the Ushers, the World of Darkness, and the Jaguars) or credited solely as "Alan." His compositions were published under the entity Far North via BMI, and his producing efforts were known as Red Hot Productions. A band known as the Alright Five released a pair of Alan Burn compositions on the Tuesday label, but it only takes a cursory listen to identify Alan at the mic; was he attempting to follow in FGG's footsteps in creating a fictional band name as a front for himself? He also collaborated with local legend Bobby Herne on several compositions (including "Whirlpool").

(Because the name Alan Burn appears on a list of Kittery's Vietnam veterans, I had assumed that he was drafted in the late 60's, thereby stalling his career momentum.  Alan informs me that this is incorrect, and that he did not serve in the military.)

Alan's musical aspirations appear to have flagged as the decade came to a close, and presumably out of financial obligation he pursued a career with a steadier paycheck. He has since settled in upstate New York.

In 2003 he re-entered the studio to cut an album of sixteen Christian acoustic country-folk tunes called "Reality Gospels," quite a departure indeed from his pop and garage leanings nearly four decades previous. But indeed a lot can happen in that time. (According to songwriter Craig Wiser, they are currently collaborating on new material.) Alan still visits Kittery fairly regularly.

Further Googling reveals an Alan Burn who was part of a lobstering co-operative in Belize, but even with the crustacean connection it might be a stretch to suppose it's the same person.  Another member of the co-op is Billy Usher, another intriguing but probable coincidence.

Burning Up The Charts... Nearly

The BMI online archives list over 40 songs penned or co-penned by Alan Burn, and this list doesn't appear to be comprehensive.  It also doesn't give any dates or suggest any kind of chronology.  There appears to be a change in the way BMI assigned ID #'s to his songs; his later Christian music all has sequential numbering, but the rest, when listed in ID order, are alphabetical.  So I don't know exactly when this material was actually released, but the date range is between '65 and '68, give or take.

Somebody Wrote Their Name youtube / Beach House listen (Mala 510) ~1965
Both sides written by Alan Burn and produced by Feldman/Goldstein/Gottehrer

No known compilation.

The a-side (which Alan says is one of his favorite compositions) is charming if a bit nostalgic, with a riff and a chord progression lifted from "Silhouettes" and reminiscent of the weepy teen ballads (and vocal stylings) of Neil Sedaka.  Burn laments in 6/8 time how he spied his girlfriend's name on the blackboard inside a heart with another boy's name, indicating she's no longer his.  Awwww.
Everybody's starting to talk.
There it was, written in chalk.
Your name in a heart with his
Gave me such a start, gee whiz.
As far as I can tell, this single has never been included in any garage compilations; understandable as it's pretty far removed from the garage sound.

Here's a YouTube posting for Somebody Wrote Their Name:


And here's Beach House (thanks to Dom from domsvinyl)

A breezy uptempo surf-pop alternative to the flipside, and very reminiscent of "Sugar Shack" with its organ lead.  Alan here is much more carefree and relaxed, opting to take his pick of the beach bunnies until he "meets his special chick."  Inspired, no doubt, by his Kittery summers?

The Arf-Arf Records website offers a single in good condition for $3, listing Alan Burn as a "legendary Maine artist."  I recently won an eBay auction for a near-mint copy, paying $18.50.

Plaything listen / That's How It All Began listen (Island 3/4) ~1965
Plaything by Bob Williams and Alan Burn, That's How It All Began by Alan Burn
Produced by Alan Burn
No known compilations.


Not sure who the Jaguars are, though Don Rivard of the Ushers recalls they were a high school band from Kittery.

Plaything has an interesting interplay of vocals and a bit of a Buddy Holly vibe to it.  That's How It All Began reminds me a lot of the Mindbenders' Game of Love, with a pair of verses set in the Garden of Eden juxtaposed with a contemporary boy-meets-girl tale.

I bought the single from Aram Heller at Stanton Park Records, who was kind enough to provide me with mp3's first.  The single isn't in the best of shape, as the Soundcloud links demonstrate.  Hopefully a better quality copy is in existence somewhere.

Turn Off, Next Exit listen / Tiny Tagalong listen (Tuesday 7/8) ~1966
Credited to "The Alright Five", both sides written/produced by Alan Burn
No known compilations 



Thanks to Dan at Indian Head Records for sending me the mp3 of Tiny Tagalong!

No idea who the Alright Five are, but that's clearly Alan at the mic.  Perhaps the Alright Five are one of those studio creation bands like the Strangeloves (indicating he learned from FG and G well).

Turn Off, Next Exit might just be my favorite Alan Burn track.  It's a slice of Garage Rock heaven, with a great riff and an awesome rave-up at the end.  Plus, I love the lyrics - a cynical take on the "Life is a Highway" metaphor:
Start at Mile One
A place called Conception on the Road to Self-Destruction
Proceed to Mile Two
Now you're in Childhood not so far from Subtlety
Go onto Mile Three
A few miles from Sinning on the outskirts of Temptation
If you make it to Mile Four
The one who drives the fastest will make it first to Ashes.
And who knew the penner of such winsome material as Somebody Wrote Their Name could come up with a bridge like this:
Spend your nights lookin' for some action
Laying in a motel in a place called Satisfaction
And you haunt the Bureau of Information
About the way to Self-Gratification
Tiny Tagalong is a return to his twee pop roots: an 11-yr old boy considers the continual presence of a 9-yr old girl a nuisance.  Second verse, two years later, same story.  Then during the bridge, hormones kick in and his attitude changes.  In the final verse, they're 18 and 16, and engaged.  Awwww.

This is actually a pretty rare and desirable single - a few weeks ago, one went for $400, and today (1/29) another sold for $105.


See Susie Run listen / Information (Help Me Please) listen (Tuesday TR-SRR) ~1967
Credited solely as "Alan," music by The World of Darkness (a-side) and The Ushers (b-side)
Written by Bobby Herne and Alan Burn (a-side), Alan Burn (b-side)

Both tracks on compilation "Upstate NY - Both Sides Now"


Thanks to Chuck, who made the above compilation, for sending me the mp3's!  Haven't heard "See Susie Run", but I've heard "Information" on a podcast (scroll to approximately 20:12 in - I can't isolate it to make an MP3 of it) and I think it's great!  A charmingly garage-y tune worthy of the Monkees, Blues Magoos, or any popular guitar-pop band of the time. Two guitars (and two chords!) and an organ with bass and drums, with vocals laced with tongue-in-cheek humor as Alan seeks some assistance from Ma Bell in nursing his broken heart:
One... Two-One-Two...
Five-Five-Five... One-Two-One-Two...
Information, can you help me? Here's my situation
I need the numbers of the girls in your town
I don't mean to mess around, but I've been put down, yeah.
Help me, Information!
Recently an original 45 sold on eBay for $97, not a bad price.

Whirlpool YouTube / Lion in Love (Tuesday 11/12) ~1967
Written by Bobby Herne and Alan Burn, music by the Ushers, produced by Alan Burn
Whirlpool: included on compilations "Total Raunch" and "A Funny Thing Happened"
Lion In Love: No known compilations.


According to their guitarist Don Rivard, the Ushers were students at York High School; he was class of '67 and the rest class of '68.  He came up with the name Ushers after the outfits they wore onstage, a cross between usher suits and Nehru jackets. They gigged regularly throughout the area but pretty much broke up after graduation. Alan hired them for a number of gigs and recordings - Don recalls that Alan was one of the region's best singers, although his vocal talents may have been better exhibited on his earlier singles.  The lineup was Gary Boardman (voc), Don Rivard (g/v), John Stewart (g/v), Barry Bracy (b/v), and Bob Bowker (d).

As Don recalls, Alan booked a studio at UNH for a studio session (where presumably they recorded most if not all of their tracks - at least Whirlpool and Information since the drum sound is so similar); Bob replaced the drums with trashcan lids due to echo problems - and doesn't that just give these recordings legitimacy as 'garage' in the coolest sense of the word!  During the recording session a foot of snow fell, and their van spun out at least twice on the way home, but they all made it home alive.

Musically, this is archetypal mid-60's garage rock.  A 4-beat rhythm with a descending G/F#/Em chord progression, organ and possibly two guitars (one fuzzy lead and another rhythm guitar) with bass and drums.  Alan sings lead alongside Gary Boardman.  It sounds like a pretty rushed affair, his singing is a bit timid going into the bridges, and at the end he goes into the chorus but the rest of the band doesn't follow. Another vocal take might've been in order, but perhaps there wasn't time - though he is credited as producer. Nonetheless, it has a ragged glory to it that I find quite compelling and interesting.  So do many garage rock enthusiasts and collectors, who can ask over $100 on eBay for the handful of surviving 45's.  Listen for yourself:



The lyrics paint a portrait of someone going through some pretty substantial existential angst.  What a progression from his first single!  As a writer and a person, he sounds as if he's endured some traumatic real life experiences that have left permanent scars on his psyche.
Milling in my mind
Are a billion sands of time
It's an hourglass of wrath
Where no man makes a path
     [...]
My life was wasted 'til I tasted sin, sweet honey
I got things that just cannot be bought with money
I lost my miiiiiiind! 
Other singles from this era include... (thanks to Erik Lindgren of Arf!Arf! Records)
Alan: Stop, You're Killin' Me / Shadow (both w/Ushers) (Tuesday, no number)
Alan Burn: Agatha Abernathy / Tiny Tagalong (flip is same version as the Alright Five 45) (Tuesday TR-2)
Alan: Catchin' Spies / Kathy Cryin Heart (Tuesday 5/6)

The BMI Archives also list these titles - unknown if they were ever recorded or released.
Crib Sheets, Crime Doesn't Pay (w/Bobby Herne), Dusty Country Roads, Gotham City, Hang Up, Little Things Like That, Okay Okay, On My Honor, Outplayed Outsmarted Outloved, Teardrops Can't Paint The Town, Two Thousand Tears, and Under The Lights.

Erik Lindgren of Arf Arf Records also claims to have unreleased Alan Burn material in his vaults, provided to him by Bobby Herne before he died... could an Alan Burn compilation in the works someday?

Reality Gospels (self-produced CD, 2003) listen to samples here
Credited to "Alan," all songs written by Alan Burn

The Man Who Lives Under The Bridge / Are We There Yet / His Handiwork / Color The Sky / Raptured From Jerusalem / Angels In Disguise / Single Mom / It's Not Magic / Move My Spirit / When Was The Last Time / They Might Have Been / Temples Made With Hands / So Many Souls / Anchor in the Storm / Whatever Time I Have Left / As Long As There's A Song

When I started looking for more information about Alan a month or so ago, I was surprised to find that he had made much more music than I'd expected, had rubbed shoulders with industry heavyweights, etc.  I hadn't expected to find that he's still making music today, and that he released an entire album not too long ago.  The direction his songwriting took also was a surprise; the angsty and cynically humorous garage punk edge of his heavier early material has faded into a gentle groundedness with an devoutly intense underlying piety.  "Reality Gospels" features sixteen mid-tempo acoustic country-folk songs accompanied by Celtic fiddle.  On the one hand, he has a very caring spirit for homeless people and single mothers (the '64 article strongly suggests he was raised by one), yet he doesn't conceal his strong opinions on abortion, new-age spirituality, etc.

So what is there to say about Alan Burn, and why am I so interested?  He was as worthy of success, if not more so, as any of the garage artists that blossomed into one-hit wonders.  He definitely had talent and chops, if not outright genius, as a songwriter; "Somebody Wrote Their Name" could've been cut by Neil Sedaka had it been written five years earlier.  Had he hailed from New York or LA he could've sold a song like "Information" to a publisher and seen it recorded by a flavor-of-the-month rock band.  Perhaps it was a lack of persistence, opportunity, connections, timing, or any number of factors that kept the brass ring from his hands. Also, people a generation or two ago seemed far more practical and nuts-and-bolts about life than mine - rather than pursue a fanciful dream, people got settled into careers. As I ponder my own pursuit of my own brass ring (as a would-be professional stage actor) and contemplate where I am in my quest, I look to people who didn't make it despite their talents to get a sense of perspective.

Alan Burn Discography-In-Progress
Text color indicates how I have access to these songs:  
Red - vinyl plus audio file Fuchsia - audio file only

Mala 510 - Somebody Wrote Their Name / Beach House
(speculative: Island 1/2 Parking Meters on Lovers Lane / ??)
Island 3/4 - Plaything / That's How It All Began (w/ the Jaguars)
Tuesday 5/6 - Catchin' Spies / Kathy Cryin Heart ("Alan")
Tuesday 7/8 - Turn Off, Next Exit / Tiny Tagalong (as "The Alright Five")
Tuesday 9/10 - ???
Tuesday 11/12 - Whirlpool / Lion In Love (w/ the Ushers)
Tuesday (no #) - Stop, You're Killin' Me / Shadow ("Alan" w/ the Ushers)
Tuesday TR-SSR - Information (Help Me Please) ("Alan" w/ the Ushers) / See Susie Run ("Alan" w/ World of Darkness)
Tuesday TR-2 - Agatha Abernathy / Tiny Tagalong (apparently same recording as Alright Five)

self-produced album: Reality Gospel (Alan, 2003)

Note: I found a listing for a single by Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne, I Who Have Nothing / I Can't Go Back on Tuesday 1/2.  I'm reasonably confident that this is incorrect.  There was such a single released on a Utica NY label called Hurd; perhaps Alan re-released it on his own label?

4 comments:

Ed Kelleher said...

Checkout The Alright Five on Tuesday Records
Next Exit/Tiny Tagalong both sides written by Alan

Becky Walker said...

The Alright Five was a band from Eliot. Ralph Dame Lead , Elroy Dame Bass, Rod LaVigne Drums and myself, Gary Walker Rythmn were the members. After Alan left the band.... we restructured and became Little Don and the Roulettes.

Becky Walker said...

The Alright Five were from Eliot Maine. The lead guitarist was Ralph Dame, Bass was Elroy Dame, Drums was Rod Lavigne (later played with Jimmy Woods and the Woodsmen) and me, Gary Walker playing Rythmn guitar. We recorded upwards of 10 tracks with Alan in the studio at UNH in Durham. After Alan left the band - we regrouped, added a sax player, Don Kail and a new lead singer Don - and became Little Don and the Roulettes. I still have a box of our Tiny Tagalong Record which we had pressed at RCA.

John said...

Thanks, Gary!