Ultimate Spinach sounds like a made up name for a fictitious group, like Blue Acorn, but this was a genuine, successful group from Boston. Ian Bruce-Douglas enrolled at Berklee School of Music in Boston when he was 16 years old but soon transferred 600 miles south to the University of Virginia. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Richard Farina, he started to write music but, suffering from poor mental health, he returned to live in his parents’ house. He formed a band with four friends (Barbara Hudson, Keith Lahtenein, Geoff Winthrop and Richard Nese) and they became the house band at The Unicorn Club in Boston, calling themselves The Underground Cinema.
Ray Paret, who had studied aeronautical engineering at MIT and cabbie David Jenks formed a music management company in Boston. They were keen fans of Dick Summer, a DJ on the local radio station WBZ, who played one “liquid rock” song every hour and coined the phrase “Bosstown” to give a sense of unity and cohesion to the local bands. One night, Ray Paret and David Jenks visited The Unicorn and saw The Underground Cinema. They were impressed by Ian Bruce-Douglas, dressed in a white robe, reciting enigmatic lyrics in a toneless voice to a musical backing of monotonous noise. As the band started playing a spellbinding riff, 18 year old Barbara Hudson stepped to the microphone and had the aura of a siren, singing about the transient nature of reality.
David Jenks was friends with the brother of a New York producer/arranger called Alan Lorber. When Ray Paret, David Jenks and Alan Lorber got together with Ian Bruce-Douglas, a management contract was established with the proviso that the band change their name. Ian Bruce-Douglas says that he named the band based on experiences in an acid trip: “One day, in 1967, I was in my room, tripping on some really pure LSD. I started looking at myself in the mirror and my face was doing funny things. I had a bunch of colored markers I used to draw with. I grabbed a green one and started drawing all these psychedelic designs on my face. When I was done, I looked at myself and said ‘Whoa! I am ultimate spinach. Ultimate spinach is me!”
Alan Lorber signed many other bands, including Beacon Street Union and Orpheus and due to his previous work with MGM records, a recording contract was finalised. In order to promote these new bands, MGM took out a full page, colour advert in Billboard magazine which proclaimed “The Sound Heard Around the World; Boston!! Where the new thing is making everything else seem like yesterday. Where a new definition of love is helping to write the words and music for 1968. Three incredible groups. Three incredible albums. The best of the Boston sound on MGM.” The simultaneous release of the debut albums by Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union and Orpheus marked the beginning of the short-lived Bosstown music scene.
The liner notes to Ultimate Spinach’s eponymous debut album were written by Alan Lorber. In part, they read “The first Ultimate Spinach LP is a result of the creative genius of producer Alan Lorber. The ever-changing fabric of sound and unique concept of the album is a highpoint in the Lorber career which has been dotted with numerous successes.”
The sound of this album is very similar to the great psychedelic music coming out of the West Coast. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band perfected this sound with a sustained use of fuzz, echo, tremolo, feedback and distortion. The music on “Ultimate Spinach” is similar and also includes prominent keyboard playing to give a sound reminiscent of The Doors. Personnel changes meant that they keyboard playing was less conspicuous on subsequent albums which were not so well received. Lyrically, the album is an anti-war concept album with lyrics such as “I got a little telegram from LBJ which said, ‘Come on down the weather is fine, but first we’re gonna check you out and teach you what to do. So buddy better stand in line. We’re gonna strip you naked and build you up again and then we’re gonna mess up your mind. Then we’ll send you in the jungle. If you’re lucky you’ll survive and learn to dodge a plane or mine. You’ll be a dove in hawk’s clothing. Yes you will'”
The album was well received and MGM’s publicity machine obtained the band supporting gigs with Big Brother And The Holding Company and The Youngbloods. However, their success led to a change of management which resulted in greater interference with Ian Bruce-Douglas’ musical vision. Ed Abramson, who was Alan Lorber’s accountant, became their manager and he wrote an article in “The Wall Street Journal” which included the following. “Ian Bruce-Douglas has a conception in mind that anything he wants to say or do is fine. My job is to control this aspect. I had a meeting with him recently. It had to do with his overall attitude. On solos, for example, Ian might feel that he wants to take a guitar solo and go on forever. I will tell him he has to limit himself.” This is contrast to the story about Brian Epstein making a suggestion to the Beatles, who were recording a new song. John Lennon told him to shut up and go back to counting the money.
Ultimate Spinach made two more albums but only one with Ian Bruce-Douglas. A completely new lineup was formed after he walked out/was fired (depending on who you believe). The record company decided to call their third album “Ultimate Spinach”, the same as the first album although it is now known as “Ultimate Spinach III”. By this time, Jeff Baxter was in the band and he went on to be a member of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers.
In 2008, the album still retained its presence as a psychedelic classic when it was listed at number 36 on Classic Rock’s “Greatest Psychedelic Albums”.
“The Hip Death Goddess” has a fantastic instrumental section with a long languid, menacing guitar solo, great bass playing and a poignant Nico-esque vocal from Barbara Hudson. It is a perfect example of 1968 experimental psychedelic music.
“See the glazed eyes. Touch the dead skin. Feel the cold lips and know the warmth of the Hip Death Goddess. Touch my hand and you will grow old. Touch my hand, your heart will grow cold. Come let me take you in my arms. I will keep you safe from all harm. Kiss my lips for they are very nice. Kiss my lips and you will turn to ice. Look at me and I will turn you on. Don’t try to think because your mind is gone. Come and look into my frozen eyes. Come and let me free you from life’s lies. I am the Hip Death Goddess of your dreams. Life isn’t all that it seems.”