California Dreaming: To Claudia On Thursday

Curt Boettcher was feeling stifled by Gary Usher.

Usher was still necessary to Boettcher’s musical plans, as his position at Columbia Records gave Boettcher the ability to do whatever he wanted musically, but even Boettcher’s closest friends described him as a control freak, and he wanted to have a project that was his own, not playing second fiddle to Gary Usher.

So while still working with Usher on the Sagittarius recordings, Boettcher started to put together his own band. Initially he worked with Jerry Scheff, Ben Benay, and Toxie French, three session musicians who had played on sessions Boettcher had produced for Lee Mallory, but they soon quit and were replaced by two members of the band The Music Machine (sometimes also known as The Bonniwell Music Machine), a one-hit wonder band whose song Talk Talk is now a garage-rock classic. Boettcher had worked with Ron Edgar, the Music Machine’s drummer, in the Goldebriars, and Edgar brought along Doug Rhodes. A third Music Machine member, Keith Olsen, did not join the new band but became Boettcher’s co-producer on the new recordings (with Gary Usher being relegated to executive producer status).

However, Boettcher wanted a proper band, with multiple vocalists capable of taking leads, and so he expanded the new group to seven members, with four additional songwriter/vocalists. Lee Mallory had recorded a couple of mildly successful singles produced by Boettcher, and had worked with him on records by the Association, Sandy Salisbury was a former member of Boettcher’s group The Millennium, and the group was rounded out with two newcomers, Michael Fennelly (who Boettcher had picked up hitch-hiking to an audition and invited to join the group), and Joey Stec.

All of these people were hugely talented singers and songwriters, but they were all virtual unknowns, so Boettcher had a group who could all contribute commercial material and lead vocals, but who would also take their orders from him, as he was the one whose contract the band were using to record their album (Boettcher having been signed to Columbia as a solo artist).

The band’s first single, It’s You, was written by Fennelly and Stec, and featured Fennelly (who was very obviously the member with most star potential), but despite getting some small amount of airplay, the song (about government cover-ups, but phrased ambiguously so it could also work as a song about an unhappy romance) had little success.

That didn’t deter the Millennium, though, and they continued working on their ferociously ambitious first album, Begin. As might be expected from a band with seven strong creative figures, one of whom was among the most experimental producers working in Hollywood, the band ended up spending far more time in the studio than the label were comfortable with, and the album, by the time it was finished, ended up costing the label more than any other record in its history, coming in at a cost of $100,000 at a time when $50,000 was a more-than-respectable budget for an album. This was mostly down to Boettcher’s habit of writing and rehearsing vocal arrangements in the studio, teaching them to the band while listening to playbacks of the instrumental tracks, rather than having the band rehearsed before entering the studio.

Despite featuring songwriting credits for all seven members, the bulk of the album was split between solo songs by Boettecher and Mallory and songs written by the Fennelly/Stec team (with a couple of Boettcher/Mallory and Boettcher/Mallory/Fennelly collaborations thrown in). The Fennelly/Stec songs were far and away the most catchy, and so it made sense that (after the brief instrumental Prelude) the first song on the album hould be another of their songs.

To Claudia on Thursday was so named because it was written on a Thursday, for Boettcher’s then-wife Claudia. Claudia (who later married the band’s drummer, Ron Edgar), was heavily pregnant at the time and apparently needed cheering up, so Stec and Fennelly came up with a song asking her to “relax and smile”. Coming after the instrumental sounding opening, which combined baroque pop instrumentation with a repetitive beat that sounded looped (so that to modern ears it can’t help but sound like a 90s dance track), the almost calypso feel of To Claudia…, with its variety of odd-sounding percussion, made it clear that this wasn’t just another harmony-pop album, although the cascading harmonies on the line “in your eyes…” showed that the Millennium were as capable of pure harmony gorgeousness as anyone.

The song was clearly the most commercial thing on the album, and should have appealed to the same audience that had been buying the Association’s singles, with its simple lyric about taking life easy and being happy, but for some reason (perhaps an over-light mix — compare the early version later released on the compilation Again, and you’ll hear how much thicker the song could sound, rather than the airy trebliness of the final version) the song did nothing on the radio. Released as the third single off the album (after Salisbury’s 5AM), it sank, and with it the band’s career.

The band briefly started work on a second album before Columbia pulled the plug, unhappy with the album that had been delivered, the money spent on it, and the band’s unwillingness to tour to promote it, but even before that there were clear tensions within the band. Fennelly and Boettcher, in particular, didn’t get on (Boettcher felt that he could have moulded Fennelly into a star if Fennelly were more interested in being a teen idol and less in playing rock music), and Boettcher’s control-freak tendencies were asserting themselves. Boettcher had complained about Gary Usher doubling Boettcher’s vocals on the Sagittarius album, but was now doing the same to all the vocalists in the Millennium, creating Frankenstein leads in just the way Usher had, and imposing Boettcher’s vocal sound on all of the singers in the band. There was clearly no democracy here, but rather Boettcher making use of others’ talents for his own ends.

The album marked the end of Boettcher and Gary Usher’s relationship with Columbia. Usher soon started his own record company, Together Records, which released a second Sagittarius album, The Blue Marble, before collapsing, leaving other projects such as a Sandy Salisbury solo album (co-produced by Boettcher) and an orchestral tribute to Brian Wilson unreleased. Both Usher and Boettcher would continue making records throughout the 70s, but their moment had passed.

To Claudia on Thursday

Composer: Michael Fennelly and Joey Stec

Line-up: Curt Boettcher (vocals, guitar), Ron Edgar (drums, vocals), Michael Fennelly (guitar, vocals), Lee Mallory (vocals), Doug Rhodes (horn, keyboards, vocals), Sandy Salisbury (guitar, vocals), Patrick Shanahan (drums), Joey Stec (guitar), Red Rhodes (pedal steel), Doug Dillard (banjo)

Note, these are the credits for the full album, and not every member may be on every track.

Original release: Begin, The Millennium, Columbia CS 9663

Currently available on: Begin, Sundazed CD

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3 Responses to California Dreaming: To Claudia On Thursday

  1. dm says:

    I dip in and out of the California Dreaming posts, depending on my familiarity with the subject. I’d never heard of this song or group before and couldn’t tell you why I decided to read this particular post (other than the fact that I am a huge fan of your music writing). But jaysus, what a tune. That prelude is probably the highlight, and the crunchy drum loops sent from the future are mind boggling. To me they sound more like 90s and early 2000s white alt hip slop (not a real genre) along the lines of Beck, Butthole Surfers and Gorillaz. When you hear a production technique as ahead of its time as this in a relatively obscure track, you wonder what direction pop music would have gone in had anyone actually bought the record. I’ve heard reports that the unpronounceable Boettcher’s arrangement and production skills had a part in Brian Wilson’s mental collapse. I can see the potential truth in this: overall I don’t find the album too compelling, but stuff like the prelude is far more interesting and innovative than anything on Sgt. Pepper.

  2. dm says:

    (I certainly prefer Martin’s and Wilson’s more, uh, compressed and slightly scrappy production work [it feels weird to call such innovative producers ‘scrappy’ but I hope you get what I mean] to Boettcher’s clean, clear stereo dazzle, but that prelude is an incredible calling card- “listen to all the stuff I can do that you can’t!”)

  3. Michael Cedeno says:

    One of my favorite albums from the 60’s. Of special note is the track titled “Karmic Dream Sequence #1”, a dreamy but complicated mix of hauntingly beautiful harmonies, which concludes with a more subtle version of the “Prelude”. Unfortunately the CD version cuts out the last line of “Some Sunny Day”, however I still have the original vinyl version. This album is a must for fans of The Association and The Sunshine Company.

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