By Richie Unterberger

Of the many California bands who made a record or two mixing folk, rock, pop, and sunshinin' harmonies in the mid-to-late 1960s before vanishing into the small print of collector guides, the Rose Garden were among the most intriguing. In their short lifespan, they managed to land a Top Twenty hit single for one of the most successful American labels of the twentieth century; record under the direction of producers who also worked with Sonny & Cher, Buffalo Springfield, and Iron Butterfly; and cut obscure songwriting efforts by ex-Byrd Gene Clark and future Redbone mainstay Pat Vegas. Most listeners remember them, however, only for that solitary hit single, "Next Plane to London," which reached #17 at the very end of 1967.

    The band that would become the Rose Garden was founded in 1963 by lead guitarist John Noreen and guitarist Jim Groshong. Joined by drummer Bruce Boudin and bassist Bill Fleming, they named themselves the Blokes and were among the most Byrds-besotted of the mid-1960s Los Angeles acts, covering virtually every song from the group's first three albums live. Around 1966 they were joined by singer-guitarist Diana DeRose; though it was reported at the time that DeRose had moved to California in the mid-1960s from Blackpool, England, she wasn't even British, according to Noreen.

    After the Giant Sunflower had a minor hit in 1967 with "February Sunshine," the Blokes briefly played as the Giant Sunflower when a band was needed to perform under that name. In fact, the Rose Garden's version of "February Sunshine" made it onto The Rose Garden, and Noreen remembers that it was in the process of demoing the song at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood that the band met producers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone. Greene and Stone were already major players in Californian folk-rock as managers and/or producers for Sonny & Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Lind, and the Daily Flash, and would later go on to produce Iron Butterfly. With promotion manager Pat Pipolo, they would produce the sole album by the Rose Garden, as the band were calling themselves by the time the LP came out.

    "Next Plane to London," the upbeat yet slightly bittersweet tale of a woman flying to England to recapture her man's heart, was written by Kenny Gist, Jr. (aka Kenny O'Dell), a relative of Pipolo. "We were looking for a long time for a single," says Noreen. "When you get a record deal like that [with Atlantic subsidiary Atco, home of fellow Greene & Stone clients Buffalo Springfield and Sonny & Cher], all of a sudden it becomes a whole company kind of thing. They were feeding us songs; when they would come across a demo of something they liked, they would funnel it to us and see what we thought.  Through this process, it was presented to us. Charlie, Brian, and [Atlantic executive] Ahmet Ertegun all thought it was good, so we worked up a version of it." So deep was DeRose's lead alto vocal that, as Noreen remembers, "Many people were surprised that was a girl singing!"

    "Next Plane to London," Noreen adds, was actually not recorded first, with a cash-in album to follow, as was so often the deal in those days. It was just one of several songs going through the tryout process, including three numbers co-written by Pat Vegas (one of them being the aforementioned "February Sunshine"), later to found Redbone with his brother Lolly. "They kind of said, 'Here, work on these, and let's see what they sound like,'" laments Noreen. "Some of the songs, we were just trying them, but they found their way onto the album, unfortunately. A few of the songs on the album, we weren't real thrilled with. But that's the music biz sometimes. We didn't have the only say."

    Green and Stone's production talents have been heavily criticized by Buffalo Springfield, though from Noreen's perspective, the duo "were more concept people than actual technical types. And that's just [as], if not more, important. I was never thrilled with some of the stuff they were doing. But they were trying to make money. They were trying to make hit records. And I think their track record has proven that they could do that."

    Much of the album, and particularly Noreen's 12-string guitar playing, was soaked in the Byrds' bath. Most indicative of their tastes were "Till Today" and "Long Time," both penned by Gene Clark, who had only recently left the Byrds himself. Remarkably, neither of those songs were ever recorded by Clark or anyone else other than the Rose Garden. "We were Byrds fans from the beginning," explains Noreen. "We were huge fans, we used to kind of go overboard. After Gene Clark left the Byrds, we went to see him play at [L.A. club] the Ash Grove. Bruce, who is a gabby kind of guy, started talking to him and said, 'Well, why don't you come down like Sunday or something. It's kind of a talent night,' or whatever. This was before we got the deal with Greene and Stone.

    "He came down to hear us. Halfway through the second song -- we were playing some Byrds song -- he came up and grabbed a tambourine and started singing with us. And of course, we were like in heaven." That led to Clark passing on a couple of his own tunes to the band: "He wrote 'Till Today' for us, and 'Long Time' was on a group of demos he gave us, guitar-vocal demos on acetate." As it happens, another of the songs on The Rose Garden, the traditional folk tune "Rider," had been recorded by the Byrds in 1966 (as "I Know You Rider"), though it wouldn't be released for a couple of decades. The only group original on the album was "Flower Town," based on the traditional folk song "Portland Town," written by the band and Kim Fowley, who was involved with the group when they were getting off the ground.

    Oddly, the group only released one subsequent single, the non-charting "If My World Falls Through" (also penned by Kenny Gist, Jr./O'Dell), before splitting. "I felt that the band was watching out for the band, Diana was watching out for Diana, and that created some problems with the record company," says Noreen. "At the same time, Jim and Bruce were called by Uncle Sam. We were dead in the water with all that going on." The B-side of the non-LP single, the extremely Byrdsy "Here Today" -- co-written by Noreen and roadie Phil Vickery -- was probably the truest representation of what the Rose Garden's music could have evolved into, away from the demos they were being fed.

    The Rose Garden scattered and largely left the music business, except for Noreen, who went on to tour with Highway 101, play in the band Rotondi, and work as a Nashville session musician. Long out of print despite the inclusion of a big hit single, this CD reissue of The Rose Garden restores one of folk-rock's most short-lived success stories to wide availability. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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