Some things last. Some things endure, like the stones of Salisbury and the great brick structures on the shores of the Nile; like the ziggurats of the ancient Maya and the cave paintings of our cro-magnon ancestors. Like the swirling stars, and the great oceans of dust at the center of the galaxy. Some things last.

And then there’s the Arkham Sound.

Unless you were there, or are one of the more obscurantist of record collectors, you probably have never heard of the Arkham Sound. Lost in a sea of regional "sounds" that emerged in the mid-to-late ‘60’s the "Arkham Sound" never caught the imagination of the record-buying public the way the "San Franciso Sound" or the "Motown Sound" did. Instead, it vanished into the dreamscape of obscurity like the Vancouver Sound and the Swingin’ Sound of San Diego... But while it lasted, from 1966-1969, the Arkham Sound reflected one of the most interesting aggregates of unknown bands of the psychedelic era... indeed, of any era.

Arkham, Massachusetts. A small city located on the shores of the Miskatonic River, notable mostly for its colorful New England history (puritans, witches, ghosts, Indian massacres, etc.) and its several colleges, most notably the prestigious Miskatonic University, as well as smaller schools such as Arkham Tech and St. Trinian’s. This collegiate atmosphere, coupled with the large population of young students it produced, led Arkham to develop a thriving rock scene, largely centered around local clubs like The Eternal Eye and Springheel Jack’s. Relatively isolated from the greater Boston scene, local bands developed a common outlook and, despite widely varying styles, a unique local sound began to percolate, and eventually brew.

The primary characteristics of the Arkham Sound have been described as "a dark, literate feel" and this is true enough... Arkham bands such as the Gyre Falcons and the Plasma Miasma had much more in common with the shadowy, poetry-infused sounds of bands like the Velvet Underground (who played at the Miskatonic Student Union in July, 1967) and the Doors than with the poppier confections that represented the so-called "Bosstown Sound". However, rock critic Lester Bangs probably described it best in a brief blurb in the late-60’s underground newspaper "Blueprint": "The Arkham Sound is haunted, haunted by the ghosts that flicker among the decayed eaves of New England’s decrepit Victorian mansions and eldritch colonial ruins. Haunted."

Haunted. An apt description, especially considering the various fates of some of the Arkham bands.

The Howl

One of the first Arkham bands to record (discounting The Skillingtons, a white college doo-wop group best known among collectors as delivering "possibly the worst version of ‘The Great Pretender’ ever recorded" - Geoff Matarkin, Goldmine) was an outfit known as The Howl; their 1966 single, The Asp b/w Hot Potato was an indicator of how the sound would eventually develop. Though the b-side was a negligible surf-esque instrumental, the A-side with its Beatlesque harmonies and solid pop melodicism underscured by a sinuous bass riff is both of its time and beyond it... both a solid example of mid-60’s garage-pop and a harbinger of the darker sounds that the later 60’s would bring. The single, like most of the recorded output from Arkham Sound bands, was released on the "Black Patchouli" label and is quite collectible.

A followup single was also released on the same label in 1968. "Erich Zann" b/w "I See Through Time" showed an amount of growth in the band’s outlook and style, while retaining their pop sensibilities and utilization of bass-heavy hooks. Reflecting more of a psychedelic outlook than the previous single, the A-side in particular is an interesting piece of late-60’s ephemera; supposedly based on a local urban legend about a fiddler who consorted with the devil (shades of Charlie Daniels!) it seeks an answer to the Zann’s disapperance but can also be seen as a metaphor for the psychedelic experience itself, or at least that of psychedelic music: are these vistas that are opened visions of heaven or hell? The song gives no answers.

Little is known about The Howl. Their name appears on several vintage posters, but beyond the two singles they seem to have made little dent or impression on reality. A rumor that they continued their career on into the 70’s under various names could not be confirmed at press time, nor could a juicy rumor that the lead singer and guitarist died in a grisly murder-suicide at the dawn of the 80’s.

The Barrow Wights

More information is available about The Barrow Wights. They cut their first single in 1966 for the Boston "Red Hand" label. "She Loves What Lovin’ Is" b/w "Wally the Alligator" were a pair of dismal folk tunes delivered in an ersatz Peter, Paul, and Mary acoustic setting (or, more fittingly, Peter, Paul, Mary, and another Mary [Magdalen?], as one of the distinctive features of the group’s sound was its dual female lead singers, Kat McNally and Cora Maxwell), but they did show glimmers of what the group would eventually be capable of (interestingly, it is believed that a third voice on the single is that of Veronica Sharpe from The Gyre Falcons, about whom we shall learn more below).

Evidently the Red Hand single didn’t perform well, for their next release came out on the familiar "Black Patchouli" label. "Steal My Breath" b/w "Somber Lullaby" was a delectable slice of folk rock, with a hint of West Coast breeziness moderated by a dour puritan overcast... the Mamas and Papas by way of the Velvets. "Steal My Breath" charted regionally and an LP was released in the fall of ‘67. The album, "Wheel Out the Barrows" is a forgotten gem of second-tier folk-rock-psychedelia, on a par with The Peanut Butter Conspiracy or The Sunshine Factory. Highlights include the raga-driven "Incense in the Air"; the slender, brittle ballad "If I Were You; the enigmatic "Dandelion Wine"; and the lengthy closer, "Hidden in the Sight of Dragons", which ended the album on an almost Doorsian note.

The Barrow Wights toured the country in support of the LP; I’ve talked to people who remember seeing them in out-of-the-way places like Greentown, Illinois and Fairvale, California. However, their hard work seems to have had little impact; "Wheel Out the Barrows" made very little noise outside of Arkham, a problem common to all of the recording acts on the Arkham scene - with one significant exception (see below). Undeterred, The Barrow Wights returned to the studio to record their second and final LP, "Flowers and Lies". Far more uneven than their previous album, this effort is weighted down by some bizarre experimental efforts and no less than three "nonsense songs" ("A-balaba"; "The Monkey Sings Like This"; "How Green is Your Lizard?"). However, several strong tracks remain, most notably the hard-edged "Granite Shadow" and the title track, an extended and heartfelt anti-war polemic.

After the album’s release in early ‘69 there seemed to be a bit of "buzz" building about the group; strong reviews appeared in the underground press, and the groups seemed poised to break out as the first big Arkham band. But after an appearance at the ill-fated "Miskatonic Acid Test" the wind seems to have left their sails (and their sales); the group broke up in early ‘70 and has not been heard from since. Local legend states that Kat and Cora went to work in the Third World, and were among aid workers killed in the M’Batu massacre of ‘79, but this is unconfirmed to say the least.

Recording logs from Fengriffin Studios show that the Wights cut another tune in late ‘69 but nothing else is known about it and no tape has ever surfaced.

Fengriffen Studios and Brandon Norquist

Here seems as good a point as any to mention Fengriffin Studios. Located in Arkham’s Riverfront district, nestled among the mills and warehouses, Fengriffin served the recording needs of Arkham and environs for nearly forty years, from 1955 - 1993. Founded by Daryl Fengriffin as an adjunct to local radio station WKAW, the ‘Grif (as it came to be known) was an inexpensive alternative to Boston studios, and was even used as such by Boston artists (log reports show several Ultimate Spinach mixing sessions were held there, for example). However, in its early years the studio was primarily used for recording local commercials - Arkhamites of the era will recall the infamous "Kratham’s Cars are Cheap Cheap Cheap" jingle (people heard it in their sleep sleep sleep, in the words of local DJ Murray Shelton), which was recorded there. It wasn’t until the arrival of eccentric young engineer Brandon Norquist that the studio began making a concerted effort to record musical acts.

From all accounts, Norquist was an interesting character, and indeed the Arkham sound itself bears his fingerprints - to the extent that there is a distinct sound to the Arkham bands one could say that this is due to the fact that they all recorded in the same studio. Given to wearing a top hat and cape well before such things became more commonplace in the late 60’s (though "commonplace" is a relative term; even at the heights of the psychedelic era such things were hardly common in straitlaced New England), he cut an odd and impressive figure in the hilly streets of Arkham, and he carried this over into the recording studio, particularly as musical styles grew more expansive - he would bring incense and colored lights into the studio, and more than one great Arkham tune was recorded wholly by candlelight.

Sadly, Norquist was found beaten to death in a Boston alley in 1971. It is believed that the heterosexual Norquist (who was romantically linked with Cora Maxwell, Veronica Sharpe, and Mitzi McCall [bass player for The Byrne Gallows], among others) was mistaken for a homosexual and was a victim of "gay-bashing" well before such things had acquired the term... however, he was eccentric, "different", and didn’t care who knew about it; such people are always a target for the dregs of society and his sexual orientation may not have mattered at all to his murderer or murderers. No one has ever been arrested in the case, which is still officially "open".

The Gyre Falcons

Like most insular rock "scenes", there was a lot of group-hopping among the Arkham bands, especially with the more volatile personalities on the local scene. One of the most legendarily explosive (in more ways than one - see below) of these personalities was Veronica Sharpe. Born in Detroit, Veronica moved east to attend college at Miskatonic U. but dropped out after a semester and became immersed in the local "scene". After a brief stint with the aforementioned Barrow Wights she departed that band due to disgust with their "happy poppy sunshine elf-music", and formed The Bull Sharks, who split up before their first gig, as well as The Bleeding Wretched, who split up during their first gig. Undaunted, Veronica took a member or two from each group and formed The Gyre Falcons, who, she proclaimed, would deliver a "totally new sound". It is generally believed that she found this sound during a trip to her hometown of Detroit, where one assumes she came into contact with the heavy rock styles that were coming into fashion there... groups that could be said to be on the bleeding edge of rock's late-60's attempts to push rock to extremes of volume and intensity, groups such as the MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper. Whether this is true or not, it can certainly be seen that the The Gyre Falcons were as loud and radical as anything out of the Motor City. With heavily politicized lyrics and a disgusted-with-it-all stage presence, Veronica was a polarizing figure in the Arkham scene, with local critics and fans either blown away by songs such as "Twitch of the Death Nerve" and "Doll Shake" or horrified by them.

A group as volatile as The Gyre Falcons could hardly be expected to last long and The Gyre Falcons lasted only long enough to release one 45, "War Machine" b/w "Atomic Eyeball". After the mysterious and unfortunate Miskatonic Acid Test in fall of '69, the Gyre Falcons broke up, and Veronica disappeared into the underworld of radical politics becoming associated with a paranoid paramilitary outfit called Red Warning; whether the industrial-district explosion that took her life was connected to this group's activities is still debated in law-enforcement circles. Veronica's remains were identifiable only by the ring on a right index finger that was found days later by a small child kicking cans on Canal Street, and by what is believed to be her left eyeball.

The Conqueror Wyrms

Led by perpetually scowling lead singer Derek Thanatogenes, The Conqueror Wyrms were a mainstay of the Arkham scene in the mid-to-late 1960's, notable for their use of the electric twelve-string guitar in a garage-rock context. Their first single, "Where the Sun Touches the Sky" b/w "I'm Your Fallen Angel" was a sizable regional hit, going top ten up and down the Miskatonic River valley in 1966. Their label, Black Patchouli, doubtless expected great things from their followup single, "A Wind on Calvary" (b/w "The Time that Binds"); however, the single's controversial lyrics seemed to be almost deliberately offensive (referring to Christ as "The Changeling", for example) and local radio refused to air it. By the time their third single "Do You Fear the Dark (Part One)?" b/w "...(Part Two)" came out their momentum had extinguished itself and they faded quickly away.

All of the Wyrms' recorded works were original compositions with literate lyrics and an obsession with death. It is believed that Thanatogenes acted on this obsession in the early 70's and commited suicide, though there is still some speculation about the odd circumstances of his death - skeptics doubt that it is possible to sever one's own head, no matter how large the bolt cutters.

Byron Fenris

The artist that cast the largest shadow on the Arkham scene was folk-rock troubadour Byron Fenris, though what some might term his "fame" more often than not Arkham scenesters considered "notoriety". His sin? He had a hit record.

Not just any hit record, mind you. No, Byron Fenris' claim to infamy was a song called "Come to Arkham (Wear the Wind in your Hair)", a song which quickly earned the derision of "hip" Arkham for serving as an example of the music industry's plastic eagerness to seize upon what it perceived as a "trend" and strangle it to banality. Fairly or unfairly, the song was perceived as an attempt by "big biz" to coast on the back of the genuine, organically developed Arkham scene... to garner an unearned "hit" by cashing in on the groundwork laid by hardworking local bands and scenesters.

There is of course a sort of snobbery inherent in this attitude; an idea that a scene, once discovered by the masses, becomes eaten from within by its own success. Such an attitude could be easily scorned were its underlying assumption not so frequently proven.

Be that as it may. The career of Byron Fenris is an interesting one, beyond any fame he may have gained as the primary popularizer of the Arkham Sound. Born in Hudson, New York, to bohemian parents, Byron was exposed from an early age to a wide range of popular music. Famous vistors to his parents' home included Pete Seeger, Alan Ginsberg, Burl Ives, Rod Serling, and, interestingly, Roy Cohn, who had apparently attended school with his father. Fenris absorbed as much as he could from his parents and their friends, then set out into the world to make his fortune as a folk singer.

His early days in the Greenwich Village folk scene were marked by encounters with future stars such as Phil Ochs (said to have been inspired to record "The Bells" by Fenris' own interperetation of "Annabel Lee") and Bob Dylan (who once flipped a spoon at him during a rendition of "Froggy Went a-Courtin'"). However, Fenris was only marginally successful; an album of folk standards was cut for the Gladstone Label but it was unsuccessful both artistically and commercially.

However, once the success of The Byrds launched Folk Rock as a viable musical genre, Fenris' fortunes improved. Recorded with New York studio musicians (including a young Lou Reed, according to legend), his album "Ten Sides of Byron Fenris" is considered a minor gem of folk rock, including as it does Byron's lovely composition "The Wreath by the Grave" and a revved-up version of "It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" that borders on garage-rock.

Though Fenris' star was clearly ascending, financial mismanagement doomed Gladstone Records. Fenris landed on his feet, and was quickly scooped up by a new label, Portent, who had high hopes for the young singer. However, their idea to match him with a swing-band for an album of traditional ballads cannot help but seem quixotic. Did they mean it to be taken ironically? If so, they were well ahead of their time.

Burned by the cost and failure of "Byron Fenris Gets Under Your Skin", Portent cast around for a new hit. Fenris, who had played Miskatonic University on a recent tour (thankfully without the swing band), suggested a song about the rising Arkham music scene, a song that would mirror similar songs about San Francisco and other "rock" cities. Portent liked the idea, hired a songwriter, and "Come to Arkham" was born - the hit that created and defined the "Arkham Sound" to the world, created by an artist who wasn't part of it who had only been to Arkham once.

Byron's post-Arkham career is of only marginal interest; he recorded several follow-up singles and albums, in various styles from psychedelic to heavy rock to country; by the eighties he was touring state fairs with oldies shows. A "comeback" LP was issued in 1995, with a trendily just-one-step-behind-the-times "grunge" sound. At least he never tried to rap.

The Arch Angels/ The Arch Angles

Founded by a trio of students at Miskatonic U's College of Architecture, The Arch Angles enjoyed confounding expectations by also appearing under the moniker The Arch Angels. Their one release, an album, Shine on the Black Patchouli label, didn't help straighten matters out; they're listed as The Arch Angels on the front cover, but as the Arch Angles on the back! Naturally, the LP is quite collectable. Their sound was layered and absorbing, "full of strange curves and protruding gargoyles" according to a review in The Miskatonic Eye, a college-based underground newspaper of the time. Propelled by the shadowy vocals of lead singer Gabrielle Coriander (further confusing matters, she's listed as "Gabriel" on the inner sleeve of the fold-out LP jacket), songs such as "Lost in Space" and "Spirit Fall" have a ghostly elegance, and the album's centerpiece, the nearly side-long "With a Pale Strange Light She Shines" is a hypnotic gem of sprawling psychedelia.

The group broke up after college and went their seperate ways, though bass player Sherm Felton made news in the eighties when he died in a spectacular fall from a parapet of a building he designed, skewering himself onto the large Modern Art sculpture in the courtyard. Removing his body necessitated an almost day-long effort and caused irreperable damage to the sculpture, a study in brass and steel entitled "God's False Eyelashes".

The Plasma Miasma

Easily the most important and influential of the Arkham bands, the Plasma Miasma were the band most observers felt well deserved the sobriquet of "Most likely to succeed". They had the sound, the look, the songs… a dynamic stage presence in the form of singer/keyboardist Randall "Fire" Brisbane, a first-rate psychedelic guitarist in John Symonds, and a killer rhythm section composed of bassist "Wild" Eddie Falcon and drummer Danny Hawthorne. Their three albums had shown strong sales potential regionally, and their single "(Help Me to) Get Out of my Mind" went top ten in many New England markets (Number One in Arkham, of course), even nudging into the bottom of the charts in Boston. Everything seemed to be lining up for the Miasma; the stars seemed right…

And then they played the Miskatonic Acid Test.

The Plasma Miasma arose out of the ashes of The Nifty Preps, a vocal quintet formed by guitarist Symonds during his days at St. Trinian’s College. Their horrid prep-rock sound, while in keeping with other New England bands of the late fifties, was not what Symonds had envisioned (an mp3 of their self-recorded 45, "Muffy’s Got New Shoes" b/w "Michael, Throw the Stoat a Boar" has circulated widely on the Internet after an apparently mistaken rumor that future Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman was the group’s bass player). Symonds hooked up with Falcon and Hawthorne, who had been playing in the frat-rock band Rod Hall and the Emus. Naming themselves The Miasma, the band played a sort of post-Beatles garage rock with a bluesy edge. They released one 45 under this name, the hard-to-find "She’s a Lie" b/w "Fever Dream". The a-side was negligible, but the b-side featured some interesting Yardbirds-esque psych flourishes that pointed the way the group would eventually evolve.

Randall Brisbane had been playing piano in local jazz clubs when a chance meeting with Symonds led him to propose that The Miasma might benefit from two things: keyboards and a name change. "Plasma" was added, as was Brisbane, and a new era of the group impended. Quickly garnering a strong local following on the strength of their songs and on Brisbane’s theatrical vocals and stage presence, they entered the studio in late ’66 to record their first LP, "This is the Plasma Miasma", an album whose spooky ambiance was of a piece with concurrent work by The Doors, Love, and the Pink Floyd. Highlights included the regional hit single, "(Help me to) Get Out of My Mind" , the bizarre love song "My Death Goddess" and an extended epic, "The Halloween Tree". Even stronger was the followup LP, "Cold Dreams of Winter", which was highlighted by an extended suite on side two, a song-cycle inspired by Poe’s "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which contained the local hit singles "The Cold Fathom" and "The Winter Sun" as well as "The Last Light of Day", a poetic piece told from the point of view of a seaman whose ship is trapped in arctic ice. Strong work, but their best was still to come.

In late ’68 the group began work on their third and final LP, "The Great God of Madness", which is in many ways a masterpiece of forgotten psychedelia, an album on a par with the CA Quintet’s "Trip Through Hell" or Aphrodite’s Child’s "666". And the comparisons with these two LPs are especially apt due to the albums singular focus on images of death, horror, and metaphysical madness. "I Scream in Empty Caverns"… "Alas, Sisyphus"… "Stygian Darkness"… "Flame and Shadow"… these songs, as well as the title track, an intense extended epic, give the feel of the album. Released to critical acclaim, the record marked the emergence of a band who were fully capable of competing on the national stage and… who knows?… possibly even defining the direction of rock for the oncoming decade. But, alas, it was not to be. A brief tour of area halls ended on Halloween, 1969, with a performance at the Miskatonic Acid Test, an event which was an attempt to recreate a sort of west-coast rock experience in New England, an event which featured many of the other Arkham bands, with the Miasma headlining. But something happened at the concert… reports are sketchy and much of the event has been shrouded in myth, with tales of the concert stretching as far as to include attacks by hyperdimensional monsters! What appears to have happened was that somehow a batch of "bad" LSD was introduced into the punch, and sometime during the Miasma’s set a sort of "mass freak-out" occurred. Panic ensued and several people were killed (reports indicated that somehow they had been "ripped apart", though trampling was obviously a more likely cause of death). The Miasma never played again; Symonds, in fact, underwent a sort of mental breakdown as a result of the event and has been institutionalized since. Hawthorne and Falcon retired from music, and Brisbane has been rumored to have died, though someone claiming to be him has posted to various psychedelic newsgroups in recent months.


During its brief heyday, the Arkham Sound was an interesting and creative subset of the overall New England rock scene. Much of the music is or should be of interest to serious students and collectors of the genre, and many of the records would be well-served by modern CD reissues, were it not for the convoluted legal status of many of the copyrights due to the late-70’s demise of Black Patchouli records. Still, many Arkham songs are available on quasi-legal garage/psychedelic compilations., especially later volumes of the "Psychedelic Moose and the Soul Searchers" series as well as the New England-centered "Chunks of Granite" series.

Excerpted from "One Big Groovin’ Kaleidoscopic Calliope: New England Psychedelic Music 1966-1975" by Raoul Penderghast. Used by permission.