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The growing pains of a Boston band, Guns & Butter

Combining Classical, Jazz and Rock

By Peter R. Mueser

"The agent asks me, 'Who do they sound like?' I tell him they don't sound like anyone, and he says. 'They've got to sound like someone.' So what can I say?" The laments are those of Neal Grossman, manager of Guns & Butter, a Boston band whose first album will be released in early February on the Atlantic-Cotillion label.

As far as I can tell, he is right. The group's attempt to "bring jazz and classical influences to bear on rock music" (as their promo sheet puts it) has resulted in a music for which comparison is difficult. The album's combination of jazz and classical motifs in a rock format suggests a potential for schizophrenia, but clever blending has given the music continuity.

The pervasive use of violin in most of their music is effective, whether in duet with a flute carrying an easy, pretty melody, or in an introduction to a piece developing a theme strongly reminiscent of Bach.

Lead singer Jeff Lyons's voice is sharp, almost piercing, and at the same time very melodic. It has a distinctive quality, and coupled with the violin, gives a sense of continuity to their otherwise widely varying music.

Violinist Lenny Federer, who was trained in classical music wrote the album's first cut, "I Am," and says that he never really listened to rock music until a few months before he wrote it. The cut, which he says is his "rock-and-roll statement," frequently changes rhythm and key. "I Am," along with the other two cuts which Federer helped compose, have a Slavic feeling, which one of the band's musicians described as being similar to Dvorak.

"I'm a violinist who can write some music," said Federer, "while Rich is a composer who can play." Richard Ploss, who plays flute, saxophone and clarinet, had a hand in writing six of the nine songs which appear on the album. Now a junior studying composing and arranging at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Ploss has the most diverse training in music. His musical interests range from 13th-century chamber music and baroque to modern 12-tone composition and jazz. "I would like to be able to emulate all of them so I can use them in doing something different. It really is very necessary if you're trying to do anything innovative, if not completely new."

"The Wanderer," a flowing ballad with a haunting melody, like several of his other composition, shows the baroque influence. Ploss's "Lady Grey," however, is more in a jazz-blues vein.

While most of the album's cuts are so original in approach as to make classification impossible, there are two which resemble typical AM rock. "Look at the Day' is the type of music that a 14-year-old girl would like," Lyons said. "It's very optimistic." The bouncy bass and smooth melody contrast with the sombre, driving beat which is common to many of their other songs. It is very light music. The sentimental, though slightly saccharine "Our Album" is reminiscent of McCartney. Just the same, both "Look at the Day" and "Our Album" add a dimension to the record, and neither are bad listening.

Guns & Butter has its roots in the local band scene. Vocalist Jeff Lyons and bass guitarist Peter Cohen have been together in various Marblehead bands since they were 12, while Paul Cohen (guitar) and Peter Tucker (drums) have been with them since they were 14.

In the early years it was a typical group, playing "schlock rock--whatever happened to be popular at the time," in Lyons's words. "We would go to a Jethro Tull concert to see how he played a song so we could play it just the same way. If he changed the way he played it, we changed too. We figured, why not improve with him. There was no creativity."

The band was popular--as local bands go. They played at dances, and won a local "battle of the bands" for which they received an impressive plastic trophy.

In the winter of 1970, they took on Richard Ploss, then a freshman at Berklee. They adopted "Guns & Butter" as their collective name and began to work on creating music of their own.

"What the hell are we doing just ripping off our music from big name bands?' we asked ourselves," Lyons commented, recalling the time. The spring and early summer was a low point for the band. As they attempted to develop original work, their local following declined.

During the summer at why Lyons called "just about the lowest point," they met violinist Lenny Federer at the Stonehenge Rock Club in Ipswich, where they were practising. Although the members of the group were surprised when the violinist asked whether he could jam with them, the hour-and-a-half session turned out well. After they had jammed together several times. Federer asked if he could join the group. Still not without reservations about having a violin in a rock band, the group agreed.

Federer's musical background, in contrast to the rest of the group, had been strictly classical. He was born in Lithuania. His parents sent thim to music school to study violin at the age of five, and the continued to study music until he went to Israel six years later. After four years on a kibbutz, where he did not play, he emigrated to New York where he enrolled in Manhattan's High School of Music and Art. He again took up violin, and when he entered Boston University in 1965, he planned to major in music.

However, after six hours of daily practice throughout his freshman year. Federer decided that classical music was not for him. Although it meant that he had to repeat his freshman year, he transferred out of music--majoring instead in psychology. In the next four years. Federer played soccer (he was captain of B.U.'s team) and gradually gained an interest in non-classical music. He improvised on the violin with records of Eastern music, mostly Ravi Shankar. Federer left B.U. in 1970 just one course short of graduation, unsure of what he would do. August saw him at Stonehenge jamming with anyone who was willing--including Bo Diddley and finally Guns & Butter.

Just after Lenny joined them, Neal Grossman, a Boston-based manager, offered to take on the group. "We thought he was kidding," recalled Lyons, but the group entered into an agreement and Grossman assured them of a recording contract.

In the next few months the group made little concrete gain. Grossman made a tape of them and fought his way into the offices of several record company executives, only to be given the classic "don't-call-us-we'll-call-you" routine.

Lyons recalled that the band had trouble finding places where they might practice through the fall, and at one point rented a small storefront in Swampscott where he said they nearly froze. But Federer added, "We were finally getting our own music, getting up on our own feet. That was enough to keep us happy." That winter they received miscellaneous jobs at dances, including several Harvard mixers.

The big break for Guns & Butter came when Lennie Sogoloff, of the renowned club Lennie's on the Turnpike, agreed somewhat reluctantly ("Well, it doesn't knock me on my ass," he said) to let them back up the James Cotton Blues Band for one night. That night G & B stacked the house with relatives, friends, anybody they could convince to pay the cost of admission. "They started yelling for us to do encores before we even came on." Lyons recalled. Sogoloff wasn't fooled, but kept them on another night to see how they'd do. They did well enough for him to keep them the whole week.

From there the route to success was more certain. Sogoloff had them back again in March, but this time as the feature attraction. In search of experience and exposure they landed jobs in concerts and at small clubs. "It really helped that we could say that we'd played at Lennie's," Lyons said. "People would give us a chance."

It all led up to an audition for Marshal Chess, business manager of the Rolling Stones, and director of Rolling Stones Records. A contract through Chess--coming just as Lyons and Peter Cohen graduated from Marblehead High School--with Atlantic Records followed in August, 1971.

They recorded the album late last summer and have given a few college concerts since then. For the last few months, it's been something of a waiting game for them. "We want to get out and play, but we have to wait until the record comes out before we start touring." Lyons said. "The strategy is to be in each town just as the album is released there. It seems like we've just been sitting on our asses, waiting since we started..."

We were sitting in Neal Grossman's apartment discussing Guns & Butter with Jeff Lyons and Lenny Federer. We had just finished discussing the group's history.

"We're really skipping all the stages a rock band goes through," Jeff said. "Some bands spend years backing up other bands at concerts before they put out an album. We're kind of jumping to the top right away. In some ways I think we suffer."

"The band would grow up smoother--mature more--if we were going slower," he added.

We wondered exactly what he meant.

"We were up at Rochester a little while ago, and the audience wanted to hear schlock-rock. So they didn't like us, and we just turned them off completely. We played just for ourselves. That's a very poor attitude."

We weren't quite so sure. We asked where one should draw the line in music between the art and the product.

"You're innovative when you write music, but beyond that it's a product."

Jeff quickly qualified himself.

"We aren't just musicians. If you're going to play for people, you have to try to reach them."

"That's what being an entertainer is," Lenny interrupted.

Jeff continued: "I never wanted to be an entertainer. All I wanted to do was sing. What the hell do I want to be an entertainer for?" And then finally: "But I'm going to have to accept the fact that that's what I am."

The conversation bounced on. We were curious how important the audience should be to a band.

"You can't let yourself get so much into your own ego trip that you ignore the audience," said Lenny. He was adamant. "This is the last thing you should let happen. If you do, there's no reason for you to be up there."

"That's the difference between an amateur and a professional," he added. "When you're a professional you've got to put out a good show all the time."

"Like a poet who recites a poem before an audience: he may do it so many nights that he just doesn't feel like it every time. But he has to display the mannerisms and tone of voice which give the audience the feeling in the poem. He's got to put on a good act."

"You should always do the best for the audience of what you can do.

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