The year was 1961. The fledgling Beatles couldn't settle on a
bass player, President John F. Kennedy was famously asking what you could do for your country, and Vietnam was just a tiny country in muggy Southeast Asia. Somewhere in the halls of St. Paul's School, in secluded Concord, New Hampshire, a couple of teenage guys with the garage-rock ethos found in so many other suburban towns decided to start a band.
No, this is not a rock-and-roll success story complete with screaming girls and chart-topping hits — quite the opposite. It's about a band of prep-schoolers who pressed 500 copies of one record and whose bassist, 42 years later, all but owns the Democratic nomination for the 2004 presidential election.
"You can hear him at his best if you have a copy of the album," Jack Radcliffe said of his former bandmate, Senator John Kerry. "You can't sit down."
Hard as it may be to believe, Kerry began his career in the public eye by acting out this most basic of adolescent fantasies. Fellow St. Paul's classmates Larry Rand, Andy Gagarin and Radcliffe — now a teacher, a fisherman and a pianist, respectively — can't
quite remember just how it all came together, but somewhere between Rand picking up a guitar in the 10th grade and Kerry's purchase of a bass, the Electras were born.
"There were these two guys, [Rand and guitarist John Prouty],"
Radcliffe recalled, "who jammed together, if you will, and other people
were slowly added to the amalgam. Then one day, it was a band."
"There was a group from [Phillips Academy] Andover that was a couple of
years ahead of us, and they cut a record," Rand said. "Their name was
'the Invictas,' and Buick at that time had a line of cars which started
with the Invicta, and then [there] was the Electra. ... So [we thought]
if there were Invictas, there ought to be Electras."
The band became the boys' ad hoc answer to the routine of isolated
prep-school life. Along with Rand and Prouty on guitar, it featured
Radcliffe on the piano, classmate Peter Land on drums and Gagarin with
the maracas. And of course, there was that guy on the bass. Even then,
Kerry stood out. He caught on quickly and was soon an integral part of
"I have a [mental] snapshot of John sitting on the bed across from my
room learning how to play bass guitar as we were developing the band,"
Gagarin said. "I think Larry was teaching him the chords, and John
learned very quickly ... what he needed to do to stand up there and
look cool and play the bass."
For Radcliffe, Rand and Gagarin — who all readily admitted that
the bandmembers didn't share friends or hang out together much outside
the group — that's the Kerry they recall today. "I remember John
playing the bass," Radcliffe said, "and being rock-steady behind us ...
one of the people that you could sort of count on to get through the
night or the 40-minute set or whatever it was that we did."
Not surprisingly, after they'd played a few of those sets at school
dances and debutante parties, the Electras' "early surf" sound, as
Gagarin called it, caught on. A welcome alternative to standard
teen-dance fare, it soon had classmates urging the guys to make a
record, and so they did.
That eponymous record — which featured songs such as "Summertime
Blues" and "Shanghaied" recorded with one mic and jacketed with a
picture of the entire group — would eventually make it into the
hands of collector Erik Lindgren, who acquired it for a quarter at a
yard sale in the early '80s. (A copy would later sell on eBay for
$2,551.) Lindgren circled it all the way back to Kerry himself, who,
four decades later, could have hardly expected to see that bit of
memorabilia waving at him in the middle of a Rock the Vote fund-raiser
"He had a big smile on his face [when he saw it]," Lindgren recalled.
"He grabbed the album from me, and he went, 'Where did you get this?
This must be a collector's item. Where did you get this?' He was truly
dumbfounded, but truly ecstatic."
Before long, the old bandmates were getting calls from Lindgren and
The Washington Post, searching for the story behind Kerry's
stint as a teen rocker. But that moment was just that, a moment, and
the fact remains that it wasn't the music that brought the guys back
together in 2004, but a shared bond with the presidential hopeful. Rand
said he saw seeds of today's Kerry germinating back at St. Paul's, an
environment that he and his fellow Electras agree was relatively
"Whenever [our history teachers] thought we were slacking off, they would look at us and say, 'Guys ... don't you realize that you're going to be running this country in 25 years?' " Rand said. "I thought that was absolutely hysterical, because I had no idea of any of us going beyond adolescence; I didn't have that vision. [But] John Kerry was clearly well ahead of us."
For more about John Kerry's vision, tune in as Gideon Yago sits down with the candidate in the MTV News special "Choose or Lose: 20 Million Questions for John Kerry," airing Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
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