In 1967, Byron Fenris exploded onto the music scene like a pinwheel rocket tinted in shades of black velvet and electric blue. His regional top ten hit "Come to Arkham (Wear the WInd in Your Hair)" ignited the quick-burning kaleidoscopic flame that was the legendary (and later, notorious) "Arkham Sound," which centered around the small city of Arkham, Massachusetts and its several colleges, most notably the venerable Miskatonic University.
The Arkham Sound was typified by dark, literate lyricism, with frequently macabre subject matter leavened by dry, wry wit and a pop-driven sound that ranged from a rainy sort of folk-rock to a midnight-black sort of keyboard-driven heavy psychedelia. Byron himself represented different shades of these styles, and through the years has developed an enviable back catalog. The Arkham Sound itself, however, is long gone, having burned brightly and swiftly, like the fuse on a keg of Acme Genuine 100% American Pure Gunpowder. If the 60s ended at Altamont, so too did the Arkham sound end, at the ill-fated Miskatonic Acid Test of Halloween 1969. (More to come on this subject).
However, even before the disintegration of the Arkham Scene, Byron was moving on in new directions with his music...
His first LP, Wear the Wind in Your Hair, was put together quickly to cash in on the success of "Come to Arkham." Mostly covers done in a folk-rock style, Byron does a respectable job on songs such as "You, Baby" and "Abraham, Martin, and John," but has more trouble with unusual choices such as "The Banana Boat Song" and "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." More successful, artistically at least, was the followup from 1968, Technicolor Daydream. Here Byron seems to have been given more artistic leeway, and delivers two sides of solid original compositions in a psychedelic-pop format, including minor classics such as "Into the OnBeyond," "She Gleams Like Summer Sun," "Incense, Beads, and Ashes," and the frequently-anthologized "Ghost Clown Marionette." Keeping busy as was usual for him in this era, later in the same year he released Epiphany Blisters, an album of morose baroque-pop which reflected the darkening mood of the counterculture following the upheavals of spring and summer. Songs like "Summer of Rage" and "The Rhythm of Falling Nightsticks" percolated with seething indignation yet were set against a backdrop of radiant harpsichords and lush harmonies. The effect was odd and jarring.
1969 found Byron's sound growing heavier and darker, matching the feel of the rapidly darkening decade. In spring he released one of his most notorious singles, "The Song of the Rat," considered by many to be a strident anti-Vietnam War allegory. The follow-up LP, Byron's Inferno, also featured many songs that could be considered "protest songs," such as "Grinning War Dogs," "Reading by the Light of a Burning City," and "I'm Not High Enough to Watch Cronkite." Some critics have called this a concept LP with a theme of the collapse of the "flower-power dream," but it's hard to tell just where the album's lone cover, a Vanilla Fudge-influenced heavy-psych workup of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "The Monster Mash" fits into the concept.
Concurrent with the recording work for this LP Byron had been approached by film producers about launching an acting career. After his small role as "Smitty" in Death Rides a Chopper brought him good reviews, he was cast in the TV series Brick MacIntosh as a"youth appeal" supporting character. Byron's character, Snapdragon, was a counter-culture muckraker whose anti-establishment values made him a natural ally for the iconoclastic private eye played by Walter Brennan. Brick MacIntosh was cancelled midway through its first season, but Snapdragon's catchphrase "That's just not my scene, man," did become somewhat pervasive in the fall of '69.
As fate would have it, the show's cancellation proved a boon of sorts for Byron. An overseas producer was intrigued by his performance and suddenly Byron was off to Italy to film a series of late-era Spaghetti Westerns. The first, Rodriguez is Coming, Will You Run or Die? was successful enough that a whole series was made, though Byron only appeared in the first two sequels, Run, Rodriguez, Run and Forty Guns Against Rodriguez? Perhaps the Odds are Even, as well as a late-80s reboot wherein his character, Carlton Rodriguez, was a tough private eye in Sicily taking on the Mafia, Pray for Your Soul, Rodriguez: the Saints are Helpless in Sicily, which was released on VHS in the USA as Godfather Takedown.
Starting with the second Rodiguez film and continuing through the 70s, Byron often recorded the theme song and even incidental music for his movies, with soundtrack efforts such as the themes to his 1972 giallo thriller The Black Cat Has 13 Claws and the interesting genre hybrid Count Dracula:Superspy well-regarded by collectors. He also recorded several collaborative singles in Europe that are prized by collectors for their rarity. Byron's film career would continue on through the 70s, though largely in overseas productions that received limited distribution in the US.
At about this time Byron had an odd sort of success: a promo photo of him from the 1970 occult comedy Uncle was a Warlock (aka Rosemary's Bippy) was released in America as a black-light poster and became a best seller in the so-called "head shops," of the era, which catered to a young, counterculture clientele. The poster was ubiquitous in dorm rooms in the very early 70s.
Because he had a lot of down-time while on tour and also on film sets, Byron started writing novels as a hobby. Finding that he had a knack for turning out quickly-read but well-written genre fiction, Byron's name became as much a staple of drugstore paperback racks as it had been in record departments and cinema marquees. Often appearing in the novels as a character, Byron's work was cheeky and partook of the irreverance of the time, spanning multiple genres. A deeper look at his written work is available on a separate page on this site; however it should be noted that, after a hiatus, he has returned to the written word, with new works as well as revised versions of prior successes due soon to a revolving rack near you.
At this point, though he had been on stages for years he had never done Stage, so when he was offered the lead in the off-Broadway rock opera Judas Nefarious he jumped at the chance. Reviews were strong but its run shut down ahead of schedule since so many shows had to be cancelled due to protests and bomb threats. Songs included "Coins in my pocket (Ringle Ringle)," "You'll Never Forget My Kiss," and "Jesus is Just Alright, I'd Be Much Better."
The ongoing stylistic shifts in rock music that dominated the seventies didn't leave Byron behind. In a move that shocked many of his fans and followers, Byron took a strange shift into country-rock with his Tennessee-recorded 1972 LP The Doom That Came to Nashville. Full of dark and strange songs like "Moccasin River," "Swamp Witch," "Locust Wind," and the Donner Pass ballad "The Long Winter," it was a tough sell to country audiences and displeased Byron's rock audience, It's lone single, "The Ol' Convertible Car Under the Tree," Dismissed by critics as "Sounthern gothic for the Hee Haw set," the album failed to chart in the US, though it was quite successful in Japan.
Concerned about his change in direction and corresponding lost sales, Byron's record company exerted some pressure for Byron to make a "more traditional Byron Fenris LP." Byron responded with a double LP of mellotron-infused progressive rock, Celestial Apotheosis, spanning four sides and three songs. Beginning with its only possible single, "Mind of a Legend (Timothy Leary's Alive), the LP then veers into the indulgent "Three Dimensional Space Suite" which continues for quite a while. The last fifteen-plus minutes of the LP find Byron testing everybody's patience with "Recorder Jam."
The record company was not happy with this, either, but at least they had a moderate hit on their hands. Byron continued in a Prog-Rock vein for his next LPs, There is No Reason to Trust Your Senses and Sounds from the Quantum Quagmire. Meanwhile his association with the supernatural led to a short-lived but fondly-remembered comic book title, Byron Fenris Comics and Stories, which featured standard-issue code-approved "horror" stories (like "The Lonliest Werewolf" and "The Curse of the Cat!") introduced by a punning likeness of Byron.