Liner Notes

The Unbelievably Grim has some dark origins...but are worth checking out.
The Unbelievably Grim has some dark origins…but are worth checking out.

By Peter Gerstenzang

It’s an honor to be writing the liner notes for the re-release of the album by seminal ‘60s band, The Unbelievably Grim. Especially, since up until now, I’ve been best-known for doing the instructions for Yahtzee. Clearly, though, this work was edgier than I imagined. So it makes sense I should do something about a band whose raw, untutored sound influenced several generations of bands. Plus, I finally get to publish something without diagrams or arrows!

In 1966, The Grim’s only album sold a mere 1,000 copies. More amazingly, many of these listeners suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder. So, in reality, only 300 folks bought the disc. I know one guy who purchased it as a bond salesman, rabbi and interpretative dancer. Such was the devotion this band inspired.

The reason for its growing reputation is due to leader J. Gordon Melnick, who wrote the group’s defiant, deviant songs.  Melnick was a genius who hailed from a small Long Island, N.Y., town. At age 17, he tried experimenting sexually which, in his case, mostly meant using test tubes and beakers. Still,his frightened parents committed him to the State Hospital for shock therapy. Although Melnick later claimed no bitterness about this, his song “My Folks Are Toast” belies this fact.

At the hospital, Melnick’s life changed dramatically. Here he met fellow patient Brit Mick Reynolds who suffered from schizophrenia. That meant for half the day, he was a great viola player. But by 2 p.m., he became noted ornithologist Simon Twit. The two wrote numerous songs together only in the mornings. In the afternoons, Melnick had to listen to Twit’s lectures about the migratory habits of the Tufted hummingbird. After four months, both were released in a unanimous decision made by the entire staff.

Eventually, they hooked up with guitarist Starving Levine and female drummer Hope Fitzgerald. However, with Flower Power in fullswing, it wasn’t easy for The Grim to find work. Finally, band members came to an arrangement with a club called Doom. The band needed a place to polish its act. The club needed people to set the tables. Melnick never learned  whether knives went inside or outside the spoons.

Ultimately, the Grim recorded “The Eponymous Album.” The band had a budget for seven days. Five were spent  recording the songs with two arguing about the redundancy of the album’s title.

Still, what songs they were. Take “Marquis of Shades” about a hipster who’s “always wearin’ sunglasses,” and ends up using the wrong changing room at Bloomingdales. There’s David Bowie’s favorite, “I Could Just Strangle You (With My Feather Boa),” about cross-dressing. And why “Doin’ it near an American Legion Hall” is always dicey.

The Unbelievably Grim broke up after the failure of its debut most of which can be blamed on poor distribution practices. In fact, the album was shipped exclusively to Christian music stores. Most people who bought it, returned it the next day. Except for the folks who really wanted to make sure it was blasphemous. They kept it for several weeks.

The band’s fate? Levine and Fitzgerald now play jazz and are required by law not to say anything nice about rock and roll. Reynolds became a lounge singer until damaging his voice screaming about his missing royalties. Melnick, the group’s visionary? He recently said he’s proud of his band’s legacy. He’s working on new material and hopes to tour with a new band soon. When, he says, is up to fate. And, of course, his current employer, Raymour and Flanigan Furniture, which owes him three weeks vacation not to mention four sick days.