By Richie Unterberger
When the Beau Brummels released Triangle in 1967, it had been only two-and-a-half years or so since they had become the first American group to successfully emulate and counterattack the British Invasion with their hit single "Laugh, Laugh." Since then their sound had matured enormously, yet as a band they were struggling for survival. Their first record label had folded. Their first album for their new, much larger company was one of the most ill-conceived projects released by a major 1960s rock group. Their records weren't selling to either the mainstream or the underground. The hip critics and listeners had yet to give the musicians the serious respect they deserved. And the original quintet of Beau Brummels was now down to a trio. Triangle would change most of this, even if it never racked up big sales.
The Beau Brummels had recorded several albums' worth of fine material for the Autumn label in the mid-1960s, though only two LPs were released at the time (numerous unreleased Autumn outtakes have since surfaced on archival anthologies). Their blend of early folk-rock with British Invasion-like harmonies and melodies was an important building block of the San Francisco Sound. Yet most listeners were only aware of their two hit singles, "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just a Little." The band were often unfairly dismissed as a teenybopper act, despite the magnificence of Sal Valentino's rich vocals and the sophistication of guitarist and primary songwriter Ron Elliott's haunting compositions.
In 1966, the entire Autumn roster was transferred to Warner Brothers when Autumn went under. The Beau Brummels' stint with Warners could have hardly had a less auspicious beginning. Their first LP for the label, Beau Brummels '66, consisted entirely of covers of then-recent Top 40 hits like "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Louie, Louie," and "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter." It was a ludicrous strategy considering that one of their prime assets was their wealth of strong original material, and the album deservedly stiffed. Fortunately the group were allowed to be themselves on their early non-LP Warners singles, which included both original songs and a good cover of Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings," the latter of which just made the Top Hundred.
But commercially the band were floundering, and with the departure of drummer John Petersen for Harper's Bizarre, by 1967 the Beau Brummels were down to the trio of Elliott, Valentino, and bassist Ron Meagher. They were by this time essentially a studio group, as Elliott's diabetes made it difficult to tour. On a more positive note, Warner Brothers was at this point starting to move in more progressive and artist-friendly directions, under the influence of executives such as Mo Ostin, Joe Smith, and Lenny Waronker. It was Waronker who would produce Triangle, giving them the freedom to create their first album that was consciously molded as a coherent start-to-finish listening experience.
"Lenny Waronker wanted to do something creative, and I was up for that," Elliott told me in a 1999 interview. Triangle, he added, "was just sort of a mood swing into the world that was around us at the time. It was sort of dissolving into this drug culture. So the music became very ethereal, and sort of mystic and mysterious, [with] a lot of mood things, like 'Magic Hollow.' Some of it good, some of it strange. Just trying to capture the emotion of the time, I suppose. We had a lot of good things on there, I believe, but odd. Especially for popular music."
While the characteristically haunting sweet-sour melodies of the Beau Brummels' earlier work were still there, this was a different sort of pop music than their Autumn recordings. For all its quality, their prior songs had largely focused upon love songs, as was the case with most pop music of the period. The lyrics on Triangle were far more abstract, evoking hazy vibes and peopled with dream-like characters. There was the gypsy in "Only Dreaming Now," the "Painter of Women," "The Keeper of Time," and "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune," as well the fantasy-fiction-like destination of Elliott's favorite piece on the record, "Magic Hollow." For the first time, Elliott and Valentino wrote quite a bit of the material together, though a few of the songs were written by Elliott and his occasional songwriting collaborator Bob Durand.
The standard Beau Brummels acoustic-electric guitar blends were also embellished by crafty, varied, and sympathetic orchestration by session players such as Van Dyke Parks, who contributed the harpsichord on "Magic Hollow." The sole songs to originate outside of the group were "Old Kentucky Home," by Waronker's longtime friend Randy Newman (then yet to release his first solo album), and a fine folk-rock cover of Merle Travis's "Nine Pound Hammer." These two songs, as well as a few others, hinted strongly at a country-rock direction that would be heavily amplified on the Brummels' next LP, 1968's Bradley's Barn.
Released in an extraordinarily competitive year that saw many fine albums expanding the boundaries of rock music, Triangle's impact was light, slipping into the bottom of the Top 200 and peaking at #197. Those critics who heard it, though, were extremely impressed. In Crawdaddy, editor Paul Williams hailed Elliott as a "rock composer comparable to Randy Newman, Ray Davies, [and] Van Dyke Parks," and called Valentino's voice "as sensitive and expressive as any voice in rock, including Dylan's." In her Rock Encyclopedia, the first serious rock reference book, Lillian Roxon praised it as "the album that astonished everyone and blew a million minds," though the group's bank account would have been a lot fatter if it had managed to reach that many listeners. But it did make some surprising inroads into the mainstream, with enthusiastic reviews in Downbeat ("a nearly perfect rock album") and Playboy ("one of the best discs of the year").
The Beau Brummels
see out the decade, worn down by personnel changes that saw them
to a duo by the time they completed their final Warners album, Bradley's
Barn. It and the Triangle LP were their sole 1960s outings
a serious, album-oriented rock group, and in conjunction with their
work form a strong argument for the band as one of the finest (and
most underrated) American rock groups of the decade.
-- Richie Unterberger
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