Chamæleon Church – official photo (1968). L to R: Ted Myers, Tony Scheuren, Chevy Chase, Kyle Garrahan.
Chamaeleon Church formed in the '60s and were part of so called Bosstown Sound. The group formed after Ted Myers of garage rock band the Lost got together with some other musicians to complete the lineup (including well known actor Chevy Chase, who was the drummer). The band only released one LP in 1968, which I would consider as one of the very best in psychedelic pop genre, but lack of promotion made this album slowly fade away. Here's our interview with Myers about how all did come together.
Did your first band, The Lost, all come from the Boston area?
No. I was born and raised in New York City. I went to college at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and that’s where I met the other musicians who formed The Lost. That was in the fall of 1964. Of the original five members, three came from the Boston area – Willie Alexander, Walter Powers and Hugh Magbie. The drummer, Tony Pfeiffer, came from the Philadelphia area. Within just a few weeks of starting rehearsals, we landed our first gig in Burlington, VT, at a club called the Cave.
The original lineup of The Lost (fall 1964). L to R: Walter Powers III, Ted Myers, Tony Pfeiffer, Willie Alexander, Hugh Magbie.
How did you form Chamaeleon Church? Did you all come from different bands?
After the demise of The Lost, I moved from Boston to my native NYC. This was in spring, 1967. An old friend of mine, Ray Paret, was managing a Boston band called Ultimate Spinach that was doing quite well. Ray introduced me to their producer, Alan Lorber, who was also producing a number of other bands out of Boston. I played some of my songs for Lorber in his office and he offered me a publishing deal, which gave me an income. He told me that, if and when I formed a band, we could make an album for MGM Records. I met Tony Scheuren through Ray as well. He was working as a road manager for Ultimate Spinach, but was an incredibly talented songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. Tony and I started writing songs together, and we clicked as collaborators. At the same time, an as yet unknown Chevy Chase, who had been in a college band with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (later to become Steely Dan), was lobbying me hard to form a band so he could be the drummer. The final piece fell together when I ran into my old lead guitarist, Kyle Garrahan, on the streets of Greenwich Village, and the band was complete. We rehearsed and wrote songs for several months, then went into the studio with Lorber and cut the album.
What inspired you to start playing music? Do you recall the first song you ever learned to play?
I started taking guitar lessons when I was 13, mostly learning simple folk songs. That same year, late in 1958, a girl in my class in junior high asked me out on a date – my first date. She had tickets to The Dick Clark Show, which was broadcast live from a New York City theatre every Saturday night. This was a concert format, as opposed to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which was a dance format. The night we went we saw The Diamonds (“Little Darlin’”), Jimmy Clanton (“Just a Dream”) and the piece de resistance, Richie Valens, doing his double-sided hit, “La Bamba” and “Donna.” I was especially taken with Richie, as he both sang and played – electric guitar – and he wrote his own songs. I bugged my parents to get me an electric guitar, and eventually they did. The moist talented musician – in fact, the most talented person – in my school was a blind Puerto Rican kid named Jose Feliciano. One day I brought my electric guitar and amp to school and jammed with Jose. I let him play lead on my electric while I played rhythm on his acoustic. I believe we played “La Bamba.” That must have been right around the time that Richie Valens was killed, along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, in a plane crash in February of 1959. In case anyone out there has not heard of Jose Feliciano, he went on to considerable success, most notably with his version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” which made it to #3 on the pop charts in 1968.
When did you begin writing music? What was the first song you wrote? What inspired it and did you ever perform the song live or record it?
I think I wrote my first song in my first semester of college. It was no great shakes, and I can’t even remember the title of it. It was slow and the lyric was very self-pitying, but at least it had a fairly interesting and original melody and chord changes. I never recorded it. At that point I had recorded once in a real recording studio when I was in high school, back in 1963. I had formed a folk trio with two sisters (sort of a reverse Peter, Paul and Mary – I guess I was Mary!). Their mother, who was a hipster, knew some guys in a recording studio, so she fixed it for us to go in there and record. We did an old folk song, “The Water Is Wide,” which I had arranged for guitar and three-part vocals. I didn’t record again until the fall of 1964 with the original lineup of The Lost at college. That’s when my songwriting really started to take shape as well. We would tape our rehearsals. A few years ago someone sent me a CD of a live tape of The Lost someone had recoded at Bard College when we went down there and played in 1964. It was pretty raw – I was surprised that a) we had the guts to get up and perform in that inchoate state and b) that people actually liked us and encouraged us to keep going. It was a very different time.
Before we move forward to talk about Chamaeleon Church I would like to hear more about The Lost, an incredible garage rock band you were part of. You released a couple of singles, yes?
Yes. Our college had a work term in the middle of winter, so we would vacate the campus and go get jobs during the months of January and February. We (the original lineup of The Lost) all decided to go to Boston and try to find jobs and also gig as a band. At the end of the work term, Tony and Hugh decided to return to school, but Willie, Walter and I had decided on our career path – to become rock stars – so we dropped out of college. We found two new members – Kyle Garrahan on lead guitar and vocals and Lee Mason on drums – and started our career in earnest. In August of 1965 we were “discovered” at a club in Boston called the Rathskeller (or “The Rat,” as it came to be known) and signed by Capitol Records. We became quite popular in Boston and all over New England and Upstate New York. In those days you could become a “regional rock star” – famous in your local area and completely unknown everywhere else. The Lost never had a nationally charting single, so Capitol never let us release a full album, although we recorded an album’s worth of material. Only two singles were released (three if you count both versions of “Violet Gown,” but that’s another long story), the first, “Maybe More Than You,” charted locally. We were on the bill for several big concerts, opening for The Shirelles with Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Sonny and Cher in Troy, NY, and The Supremes at Brandeis University. In 1966 we toured with The Beach Boys. In 1999, after ten years of trying to license the lost Lost masters from Capitol, Erik Lindgren of Arf! Arf! Records and I were able, with the help of Rhino Records where I was working, to license those unreleased masters and release the definitive Lost compilation on CD.
The final lineup of The Lost (1965). L to R: Kyle Garrahan, Lee Mason, Walter Powers III, Willie Alexander, Ted Myers.
Tell us about the early days of Chamaeleon Church. Where did you rehearse? Where did you play at the beginning and with whom did you share stages?
When I moved back to New York after the demise of The Lost, I rented a loft in Lower Manhattan with my wife, Eve, and this became our rehearsal space. Chamæleon Church did very few gigs. Mainly, we just rehearsed and cut an album. We appeared on a TV special on ABC Television Easter Sunday, 1968 called Preview, lip-synching our single, “Camillia Is Changing.” After the album was released and bombed, we all moved up to Boston, where Ray Paret, who had become our manager, was able to get us a few gigs. But after playing only three live dates, Kyle and Chevy decided to move back to New York. Tony and I stayed on in Boston and were drafted into the third and final permutation of Ultimate Spinach.
Chamæleon Church in their rehearsal loft, New York City (c. 1967). L to R: Tony Scheuren, Ted Myers, Chevy Chase, Kyle Garrahan.
What's the story behind the band's name?
I think it was Tony who came up with the idea for the song “Camillia Is Changing,” about a mysterious girl who blends into her environment like a chameleon, and out of that was born the name Chamæleon Church. It conveyed spirituality, which I was heavily into, and also the elusive qualities of the chameleon. We used the archaic spelling with the Greek letter æ in there, just to be tricky.
What would you say were some of the band’s influences?
Tony and I were huge Beatles fans. The Fab Four were at the peak of their popularity in 1967 and ’68 when we were writing most of those songs, and one could not help but be influenced by them. But Tony and I both had come from a folk music background, as did Kyle, so a few of our songs were influenced by the Greenwich Village folk scene. I was a big fan of Tim Hardin, Jimmy Webb and also Bert Bacharach & Hal David.
What was the writing and arranging process within the band?
The songs were all written either by me alone or me and Tony. I got Kyle to sing lead on a few of them, since he had this cool blue-eyed soul vocal delivery. We worked up the arrangements for the basic tracks in our loft and laid down demos on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, then played the tapes for Alan Lorber, who made the final decision as to which songs would be on the album.
Where did MGM catch you performing that made them decide they wanted to make a deal with you? What was the original contract?
Alan Lorber had an overall deal with MGM Records. They released anything he brought them. We had little or no contact with the label. Everything was controlled by Lorber, and he still owns the masters.
There was a pretty big promotion effort behind the “Bosstown Sound”…
The notorious hype behind the “Bosstown Sound” ended up backfiring on those who perpetrated it and cast all the bands involved in a negative light. It was like “The Emporer’s New Clothes” – somebody in the press pointed and said “but there is no Boston sound – it’s all over the map.” And then everyone in the press piled on and took great relish in ridiculing Alan Lorber, Wes Farrell (another New York producer who tried to make hay out of the Bosstown Sound), and all the bands involved. As an example of the lack of homogeny between Boston bands, Ultimate Spinach was sort of a knock off of the San Francisco psychedelic sound (which actually was a “sound”), and Chamæleon Church was clearly influenced by The Beatles and the British Invasion. Another band Lorber produced, Orpheus, was kind of pop-rock, like The Association or Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.
How did the critics receive your albums?
I don’t wish to be disparaging toward anyone, but your question forces me to confess that we (the band) all hated the way the album came out. Lorber promised to include us – or at least me – in the entire recording and mixing process. But he wrote and recorded all the orchestration by himself and mixed the album by himself – behind closed doors, as it were. We were, well, “disappointed” would be an understatement. We were appalled. At the time I regarded it as the total annihilation of 11 of my best songs. Everyone else in the band, to a man, felt the same way. So, when it was either panned or not reviewed at all, we agreed with the reviewers. Billboard magazine, a trade publication that never pans anything, called it “pleasant.” That was the kindest thing anyone could come up with!
But, in an effort to be balanced, I add this: Many years later I was interviewed on an Internet radio show called Now Sounds, hosted by Steve Stanley. This show caters to the present-day niche audience of ‘60s psych fans. Now Sounds targets an even smaller sub-group of fans, who are into the softer, loungier psychedelic rock and pop of the late ‘60s. Steve, who is several decades younger than me, told me he thought Chamæleon Church was one of the greatest albums of the decade.
Trying to listen to it through his ears, and with the added objectivity that time affords, I think I can now see some of what Lorber might have been going for. The excessive echo and watery instrumental tracks give the album a dreamy, ethereal quality, which is consistent with a lot of the songwriting. Tony and I had a strong preconception of what we wanted the album to sound like: we wanted Sgt. Pepper’s. But we didn’t play like The Beatles and we didn’t sing like The Beatles, and we could hardly blame Lorber for that. Instead of going head-to-head with The Beatles, Lorber went in a completely different direction and, although heavily flawed, the album does sound quite unique. It’s very hard for an artist to remove himself and his ego from his work, but after all these years, I’ve tried to do that with my early work, and I’ve achieved some level of reconciliation with it.
Did your debut album sell well? By that I also mean did it garner much airplay or chart in any markets?
Absolutely none. It sank like a stone. MGM put no money into promotion at all. I think it was Lorber that got us on the TV show, but that was all.
Where was your debut recorded? How long did the sessions last? Would you share some recollections from the sessions?
The album was recorded and mixed at Mayfair Studios in midtown Manhattan, the only studio in New York City at the time with eight-track mixing capabilities. I think the sessions took place over a period of about two weeks. The engineer, Eddie Smith, was an affable older guy, who, like Lorber, didn’t have a clue about “psychedelic.” It was clear early on that Lorber and I would have creative clashes, and the sessions were fraught with disagreements, which Lorber always won. To say he was dictatorial would be an understatement.
What was the dynamic between songwriting and playing?
As soon as Tony and I would finish a new song, we would try it out with the band, which would rehearse nearly every day. If it seemed like a good fit for the album (and I don’t remember writing anything that wasn’t), we would work up an arrangement. The arrangements were usually with the full band, but one – “In a Kindly Way – was just Tony and I finger picking electric guitars and Kyle played a very simple line on electric bass. The only percussion on the record was a backwards tambourine. Tony and Kyle both played guitar, bass and keyboards and Chevy was more proficient on piano than he was on drums. This was a good thing for the studio, but it was a bad thing for live shows. We found that it took a lot of time to switch instruments between songs, which made for a slow-moving show. By the time we figured out that we had to approach our live show very differently from recording, the band was ready to break up.
Did psychoactive or hallucinogenic drugs play a large or important role in the songwriting, recording or performance processes?
Most of the songs I wrote back then were informed by the spiritual and philosophical revelations I experienced on psychedelics. There were only a couple of people in my life I felt comfortable tripping with, and I don’t recall ever tripping with any of the band members. I might have with Tony, but I’m not sure. The psychedelic experience did not mean the same thing to everyone, and I couldn’t understand the people who used it as recreation. For me, it was not entertainment, but a deep exploration into my inner self and the true nature of the universe; that which is hidden from us in everyday life. I don’t think Kyle and Chevy ever did the stuff. I would never attempt to perform live or to record while tripping. I actually tripped very infrequently, because the experience was so intense, but you could certainly call it a songwriting tool.
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
Come Into Your Life
The verse melody is somewhat reminiscent of “Elenor Rigby,” and I was hoping for a George Martin- like string ensemble, but it didn’t turn out that way. I love the melody and harmonies on the chorus “And the joy will come into your life…” the melody really reflects that lyric. The lyric definitely preaches the gospel of psychedelia.
Camillia Is Changing
Tony took the lead in writing this. He also sings lead and I add the high harmonies. That chorus still holds up to this day, although Lorber’s production, with all that backwards and repeating echo, waters it down quite a bit. Tony and I had a good time writing together, and I think it shows here.
Spring This Year
One of my favorite songs on the album. The verse section with me singing lead and playing acoustic guitar, survived Lorber’s production pretty well, but the chorus did not. He added so many special effects (including Chevy playing the part of a carnival barker, an idea we all thought was great – until we heard how it came out) as to obscure the lyrics and the melody almost entirely.
I wrote this on my own, but gave it to Tony to sing the lead. A bit of social commentary, and throwing a pie in the face of the ultra-trendy, hipper-than-thou New York crowd, like that at Max’s Kansas City.
Remembering's All I Can Do
A ballad about heartbreak – one of my specialties. Again, I farmed out the lead vocal – this time to Kyle, because I liked his voice better than mine. I hear Burt Bacharach’s influence here.
Flowers in the Field
Again, the Beatles influence comes through (“Penny Lane,” perhaps?) and the lyric preaches the psychedelic gospel: “With everything one thing, wouldn’t that be something? Yes, indeed!”
Here's a Song
I figured if Ringo could sing lead on one song per Beatles album, Chevy could sing one on ours. He was pretty self-conscious about doing it, but I got it out of him. This song was inspired by a book I had just read and loved: Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The guru in that book kept saying how man wastes so much time always asking “why?” There was another song, in 1975, that also quoted from Cat’s Cradle, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” by Ambrosia – nearly a decade after mine.
In a Kindly Way
My favorite track on the album, and one of my favorite songs on the album. My favorite track because it was the track least fucked with by Lorber – just a voice, two guitars, a bass and a backwards tambourine, all recorded straight, without a lot of unnecessary effects. As a song, it withstood the test of time so well that I included it on my 2012 solo album, LifeAfterlife, the only song on that album that had been previously released. This time I did it even simpler – two acoustic guitars, no bass, backwards + forwards tambourine. We duplicated the beautiful lead guitar part that was written by my late comrade, Tony Scheuren, note-for-note.
Tompkins Square Park
Sometime in 1967 or ’68 my crazy wife moved out of the loft and got herself a lovely apartment on East 7th Street between Avenues A & B, the southern border of Tompkins Square Park. After one of our many reconciliations, I moved in there with her and gave the loft to Kyle and his girlfriend. So this song was written one hazy gray day, as Tony and I sat in that apartment and looked down on Tompkins Square Park. In one of the verses we mentioned “kids on a bench getting high,” and Lorber would not let us say “getting high” on the album, for fear it would be banned some places. He made us change it to “getting by,” which makes no sense at all.
Picking Up the Pieces
An uptempo rocker. We needed at least one of these, and I wasn’t writing many of them in those days. I thought the fuzz guitar track that Kyle added was a good touch for the arrangement.
Off With the Old
An obvious homage to George Harrison’s explorations into Indian music. Again, this is Tony singing lead on a song I wrote alone. The sitar and tamboura were added by Colin Walcott, one of the few studio cats in New York who played those instruments, so he was pretty busy in those days. As with all of the tracks that Lorber overdubbed, I was not consulted about the part and was not invited to the session. In spite of this, I think it came out pretty okay.
Your Golden Love
This was recorded but not included on the album. It was released as the B-side of “Camillia Is Changing.” I wrote it alone and thought it would be best suited to Kyle’s voice, and I think he killed it. I was totally blown away by his electric piano part. I had known him for years and years, we had been in two bands together, and I always thought of him as a lead guitarist. I never knew he could play piano like that. It can be heard on the compilation CD Family Circle, Family Tree that Lorber put together for Ace Records UK in 1996.
Was there a certain philosophy in the band?
I was really very much the boss of the band, and I think I laid out my spiritual philosophy pretty well above. I was really into the hippie ideal of peace and love, and spreading it for real around the world. We really thought at that time that our generation, with psychedelics and music and yoga and Eastern wisdom, could change the direction of the human race and lead us to a new state of peace, love and understanding. How naïve we were!
How big were you compared to other bands that were part of so called “Bosstown Sound”?
Not big at all. Chamæleon Church came and went very quickly. The album received no promotion or publicity, it bombed, we only played three gigs and that one TV special, and we were gone. If you sneezed, you missed us! Sorry, but if you don’t want honest answers, best not to ask the questions.
Were you friends with those bands?
I knew people in Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach (a band I ended up joining after Chamæleon Church fell apart). I’m still very close friends with Harry Sandler, who was the drummer in Orpheus and who I met again when he moved to L.A. I think I met some of the guys in Beacon Street Union and Earth Opera. I no longer remember which bands were considered part of the Bosstown Sound. I was friendly with Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band since high school, and Barry & The Remains were very close friends with The Lost back in 1965 and ’66.
What was the actual scene in your city? Where did you hang out? What clubs were hip?
I guess I should preface this by reiterating that Chamæleon Church were not a Boston band, we were based in New York. In the early ‘60s I would hang out in Greenwich Village a lot and frequent the folk music coffee houses, where I would rub shoulders with people like Richie Havens, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. When I moved back to NYC in 1967, the cool hangouts were the Tin Angel on Bleecker St., where I met Joni Mitchell and David Clayton Thomas. Across the street was the Garrick Theatre, where I saw The Mothers of Invention in their year-long residency in 1968. And, of course, there was Max’s Kansas City, where a lot of the Warhol set would hang out, but I was not too crazy about them – a bunch of zombies! And there was Steve Paul’s The Scene, which had live music, and where I heard some epic jams, including one night when Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and Peter Green all got up on stage with The McCoys (who were the house band) with John Lord of Deep Purple on organ. Unbelievable!
What happened next?
As I mentioned previously, Tony and I joined the Boston band Ultimate Spinach in fall 1968. They had recently fired their founder, leader and songwriter because his behavior was causing all the original band members to quit and he was alienating audiences as well. Tony and I alternated as lead singers, with Tony filling the keyboards slot. There were already two guitarists in the band – Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (who went on to Steely Dan and Doobie Bros. fame) and Barbara Hudson, so, although I played on the album, in our live shows I got to be front man/lead singer sans guitar. Tony and I wrote and cut the third album with them, which bombed, then we went on a tour in the winter of 1969, which culminated with a two-week residency at a club in Aspen, Colorado. Upon our arrival back in Boston, several members of the band were busted for marijuana and, in April 1969, I took off for California, ostensibly for a two-week vacation. I never lived on the East Coast again.
Have you been involved in any musical endeavours following the dissolution of the band?
I feel very fortunate that I have been able to make my living at doing music for my entire adult life. After moving to California in 1969 I was signed to a publishing deal by Tree Music. In 1972 I wrote a song for a movie, X, Y and Zee with Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine. It was recorded by Three Dog Night and showed up as the B-side of a hit single and on two multi million-selling albums. I was subsequently signed to a number of publishing deals, but didn’t land another record deal until 1977, when I recorded the album Glider for United Artists Records. (Um, please don’t ask how many copies that sold, or if it received any promotion or good reviews!). I formed and fronted one more band, Incognito, in the ‘80s and recorded an album’s worth of masters that were never released. In 1989 I started my career as a compilation producer at Rhino Records, where I worked for eleven years, picking up a Grammy nomination along the way. After that I worked for Concord Music Group for another four years. Between 2006 and 2012 I recorded one last album (my first solo!) called LifeAfterlife I released it quietly on my own imprint in 2012. If you look, you can still find it on Amazon, CD Baby, etc.
Ted Myers’ 2012 album, LifeAfterlife
Would you discuss some of your most memorable moments in The Lost and Chamaeleon Church and what made them so?
When The Lost was signed to Capitol less than a year after we moved to Boston, I thought “This is it – nowhere to go but up from here!” But that did not turn out to be the case. The Lost felt like rock stars, though. People in Boston used to recognize us on the street. It was a great time to be alive and making music. During the Chamæleon Church era, Chevy started working with this improv comedy group called Channel One, who would record their bits on video tape and show them on large TV monitors in their little theatre. In one bit, Chevy had us play a naked rock band to Ken Shapiro’s overdressed lead singer. We were actually all naked except for our instruments. Meanwhile, Kenny, who was a short, fat guy with glasses, was dressed like a cross between Janis Joplin and Liberace, with lace-trimmed bellbottoms and dripping in love beads. It was pretty funny.
Thank you very much for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Sorry if some of this came across as a downer. You wanted the real skinny about Chamæleon Church, and you got it. But I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s. The important thing is the journey and the lessons learned. You’ll be able to read about all this and much, much more in my forthcoming memoir, Making It: Music, Sex and Drugs in the Golden Age of Rock. Watch for it in bookstores and gas stations everywhere!