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The origin of the ultimate New England garage band playlist

The Rising Storm are among the hundreds of bands included in Aram Heller's “Till the Stroke of Dawn: A Discography of New England Garage Bands from the 1960s,” records that Ryan Walsh painstakingly compiled into a YouTube playlist.

During the Summer of Love in 1967, the music business descended on San Francisco, looking to sign all the groovy new bands. That’s a familiar story. Less celebrated is the follow-up attempt to shift the focus onto another city brimming with young people and fresh weirdness: Boston.

Alan Lorber’s 1968 campaign on behalf of MGM Records featured an ad that played off the city’s revolutionary history — “The Sound Heard Round the World” — and a claim that there was a site-specific style of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll that would make “Bosstown” the new hub of pop music.

His plans didn’t quite pan out. Commercial success mostly eluded bands such as Orpheus and the Ultimate Spinach, and the Boston Sound went down in music history as a wayward footnote.

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But Lorber, who’d worked in Nashville and with Phil Spector, was in fact onto something. Since the early ‘60s, Boston’s big student population had hatched a peculiar sound that seized the imagination of would-be rock stars across New England.

Decades later, one Bostonian set off on a quixotic effort to catalog the long-forgotten bands that helped define the Boston Sound. Newton native Aram Heller was the founder of Stanton Park Records, home of the Bags and the Voodoo Dolls. Over countless hours of gumshoe research — these were the pre-Internet years — Heller identified more than 500 singles released by bands from Connecticut to Maine. Bands that often had a gnat’s lifespan, with names such as Metelica, the Fabulous Frauleins, and Satan’s Breed.

Bands that, in many cases, deserved a better fate.

Some years ago, Ryan Walsh sat down with Heller to talk about his fringe discography. Walsh, leader of the Boston band Hallelujah the Hills, was writing his book “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” (2018), which would become an instant classic of underreported Bostoniana. He wanted to immerse himself in the sound of an era he was too young to have experienced firsthand.

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As it happened, Heller himself had not heard many of the songs compiled in the 64-page book he published in 1993, “Till the Stroke of Dawn: A Discography of New England Garage Bands from the 1960s.” Many of the singles proved impossible to track down.

“I studied history in college,” says Heller. “One class was about African history and how so much of what we know is from the oral tradition. It’s kind of what I feel a lot of this was. There was no Wikipedia then.”

Looking for the songs Heller compiled, Walsh soon found that most had since been uploaded to YouTube by collectors, and sometimes by former band members. When the pandemic forced him into lockdown, he used his ample spare time to create a playlist of every song noted in Heller’s discography. Walsh recently published an article on the obsessive music site Aquarium Drunkard about the treasures (and, often, fool’s gold) of Heller’s deep dive.

There’s an odd thrill to discovering old music that sounds familiar, but slightly off, Walsh says.

“Some of these songs are just as earworm-y as the songs oldies radio has played so endlessly for years,” he says. He compares Heller’s work to benchmark examples of musical detective work, from Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” garage-rock compilations to Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

Heller, who served several years as a latter-day member of the Rising Storm, one of the better-known bands collected on his list, released a companion album in 1993. “Relative Distance” featured tracks from the What, the Fumin’ Humins, and Mickey and the Motions, among others.

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“One thing a lot of this music does is it tells you what it was like to be a teenager back then,” he says. There really was a specialized quality to New England’s version of garage rock, he says. Most garage bands defined themselves by playing loud and heavy: “If you listen to these guys, most of the drummers were not playing that hard. There’s a different sense of balance there, a different sense of chords and harmony.”

His goal, Heller says, was to encourage fans of “new” music not to neglect what came before.

“You’ve got to have support for a healthy music scene,” he says, “but you gotta know where you came from, too.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.