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Tyrannosaurus Rex “Unicorn”

Marc Bolan was one of the best known musicians of the 1970s and he’d hardly be characterized as a cult figure if it were not for his early, tragic death. But before he hit number one and became a household name with his electric glitter glam persona, an early non-abbreviated Tyrannosaurus Rex released a string of “fantasy folk” records in the late 60s that gradually progressed toward psychedelia and perfection.

Tyrannosaurus Rex was comprised of Bolan and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Steve Peregrin Took. Together with producer Tony Visconti (of Bowie fame) they recorded Unicorn very quickly in 1969, eventually reaching number 12 on the UK pop charts. In hindsight it seems like a strange feat given what kind of oddities this rather straightforward record jacket contained.

Bolan’s songs mostly revolve around open guitar chords, pitter-pat percussion, and strong two part harmonies, with the production kept extremely minimal. But even with such a seemingly limited pallet, Unicorn shines and shifts revealing layers of hidden beauty.

On songs like “Evenings of Damask” and “Stones for Avalon” Steve Took harmonizes in an otherworldly voice, perfectly matching Marc’s stray cat wail.  The percussion and various accompaniment Took provides manages to unobtrusively fill out the arrangements without ever taking anything away from Marc’s tall tales.

The lyrics are mostly unintelligible and concern all things fantasy (with far too many references to Lord of the Rings), but occasionally paint touching images like “Oh the throat of winter is upon us, barren barley fields refuse to sway/Lo the frozen bluebirds in the belfry, the blue bells in their hearts are surely prey”.

Perhaps it’s songs like “Throat of Winter” and “Like a White Star…” but this record has a persistent autumnal/winter vibe that penetrates like a deep chill. You can almost hear the cold in Bolan’s voice as he shivers through these tracks.

It’s not a stretch to say that Marc’s writing peaked with this album. It stands on its own with beautiful, mature melodies and is more stunning, original, and developed then anything he would subsequently produce. Bolan and Took parted ways shortly after Unicorn’s release, and the rest of the T. Rex story is widely known. But we’ll always have this record as a document of what Marc was truly capable of when he followed his heart.

Orignally released on Regal Zonophone/Blue Thumb, A&M has a very nice reissue of this disc that is readily available from Amazon. Original vinyl copies are highly sought after.

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“Like A White Star, Tangled and Far, Tulip…”

:D Reissue | 2004 | Universal (expanded) | buy ]
:) Original | 1969 | Polydor | search ebay ]

Afterglow “Afterglow”

Afterglow

Not too many bands were coming out of Oregon in the late 60s, and it’s not the first locale that comes to mind when you hear the sun drenched songs on Afterglow’s only record.

Originally called “The Madallions,” Tony Tucemseh, Ron George, Roger Swanson, Gene Resler, and Larry Alexander became Afterglow to record their self titled debut in 1966. Under the direction of producer Leo Lukia, a very interesting album was cut at Golden State Recorders that autumn.

Released in early ’67 on MTA records, Afterglow made hardly a dent and the group disbanded soon after. The tragedy of this is apparent when hearing such a delightful record full of pop hooks and potential.

It may have been their relatively remote location that helped quicken the bands demise, but it also added to the unique songwriting on Afterglow. If you hate the sound of the Farfisa organ, you should probably pass on this record altogether. It makes a prominent appearance on every cut, and though the production is slightly derivative the writing is extremely progressive and original for such an obscure debut. Definitely a must for fans of The Zombies, The Left Banke, and Joe Meek’s mid period freakbeat phase.

“Chasing Rainbows” is by far the best track here with it’s odd melody and rhythmic changes melding into a dizzying hook. A dark autumnal vibe undercuts the sunny arrangements, with tracks like “Mend This Heart of Mine”  and “Dream Away”.

“Love” could almost pass for a Meek production with its buzzy organs and slightly off kilter vocal sound. “It’s a Wonder” should be a staple of modern classic rock radio with its catchy hook and Zombies by-way-of the Byrds harmonies, which really drives home what a shame it is this album wasn’t heard more.

There’s an excellent reissue on Sundazed that includes some decent bonus tracks (mostly alternate versions/backing tracks). It’s available on both CD and Vinyl.

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“It’s a Wonder”

:D Reissue | Sundazed | buy here ]
:) Reissue | Sundazed | buy here ]

Harumi “Harumi”

There are many albums by  unknown artists that deserve to be dug up and reexamined (or perhaps examined for the first time). Then there are the very few that reach up and grab you by the ears, making you wonder why they were ever forgotten in the first place.  Harumi falls into the second category.

Somehow an unknown from Japan (with feminine name) managed to locate one of the most renowned producers of the day to record his self titled debut record for Verve in 1968. Tom Wilson, the impresario behind both Dylan and Nico’s best loved albums heard something special in Harumi’s psyched out English-penned originals and we are still reaping the benefits of that union today.

Comparisons don’t give this music its due. Easy references like mid period Byrds or Jefferson Airplane might be obvious because of the relatively familiar aesthetic (for the time period) , but there is much to this record that greatly sets it apart from the more successful contemporary acts.

The main draw here is Harumi’s exceptional original songs and the way his drugged out voice navigates them. “First Impressions” begins with a Zombie-esque guitar and organ lick before catapulting into full pop mode with strings and brass. Harumi sounds haunting here, especially when he glides back in after the baroque instrumental break in the middle. This track drips with an endless summer vibe that spills over on the rest of the record.

Organ and jazzy vibraphone (along with assorted Japanese instruments) are present on nearly every track, filling out an already tight rhythm section. Little subtleties, like the phase effect on Harumi’s vocals on “Sugar in Your Tea”, or the Eastern sounding guitar on “We Love” crawl to the fore on repeat listens. The latter song is one of the best here- it grooves steadily through the haze and features some lyrical highlights like “Would you like to say hello to everyone that you have ever known?” and “You are me and I am you- there is no comparison for two”.

From start to finish (including the 2 extended cuts that make up the second half of this double album), Harumi is a remarkable listen that sets a very persistent vibe.

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“First Impressions”

:) Original  | 1968 | Verve Forecase | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Don’t Buy Fallout ]

Tages “Contrast”

I first heard of the Swedish band Tages through this very site, from a great post on their memorable 1967 album Studio.  Tages actually released two albums that year, and I find the earlier release Contrast to be an interesting foil to Studio (which it preceded by seven months). Both albums are filled with their signature brew of incredibly creative psychedelic rock, but I find myself more attracted to the songs on “Contrast” (with all but four being originals).

What sets Tages apart from many other ‘foreign’ psych bands of the era is their high production standards, which could be credited at least partly to producer Anders Henriksson. The arrangements and unique sounds of Tages’ records elevate them above mere copy-cat status and have helped make both their 1967 albums an interesting listen to this day.

The track “You’re Too Incomprehensible” alone is enough to convert any skeptic to a Tages devotee. Multiple movements, lush yet avant-garde strings, and a myriad of sound effects all bubble around a really lovely tune- progressive psychedelia at it’s finest. “Fuzzy Patterns” would be fairly straight forward, if not for the orchestral freakout placed right in the middle. “Prisoner 763” is an incredibly dark tune- played on a harpsichord heavily treated with delay. The line “I am condemned” hits hard, with the melody owing  much to to the Swedish folk the group was reared on.

Some tracks fall slightly short of the mark, like “Sister’s Got a Boyfriend” and “Why Do You Hide It?”, the latter of which carries the creepy lyric “I think you are the prettiest child a woman ever has born”. Both of these songs contain great production; their shortcomings are simply that they are strange songs (which may in fact be due to their troubles with English).

Opener “I’m Going Out” is an upbeat jaunt in the vein of The Zombies “This Will Be Our Year”, except with the ironic lyrics “I want to cry; I want to die”. It’s this slightly off kilter tendency that has kept “Contrast” fresh; the nuances reveal themselves on repeat listens.

Contrast stands on it’s own as an interesting record, and it was met with deserved success in Tages’ homeland.  It’s yet to be released in it’s entirety on CD, but many of the songs can be found on various “Greatest Hits” collections as well as their retrospective “1964-1968” disc.

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“You’re Too Incomprehensible”

:) Original | 1967 | Parlophone | search ebay ]
:D Anthology |  2010 | EMI | buy here ]

The Klan “Join Us”

In America “The Klan” might have some negative connotations, but to a group of kids in Brussels in 1963 it sounded like the perfect band name (good enough to have chosen it over their original name “Los Ombres“). They soon began adding a disclaimer to their name, written as “The Klan (Belgium Band),” to prevent any further confusion.

Regardless of the cheeky title, The Klan were a wonderful baroque pop outfit with one exceptional full length LP to their credit. The songs on 1966’s Join Us are incredibly musical and far more considered than the typical pop fair of the time.

Like most bands of the era, this record touches on all facets of the Beatles but mainly cops the folk rock shamble of Help! and Revolver, with heavy Harrison style vocals. The lush string/brass arrangements and studio effects occasionally take the record into mild psych territory, like on the gorgeous “And I Love It So” and “Already Mine” with it’s vaguely eastern refrain. There’s also a light flair for Spector-esque grandiosity here, with some songs aproaching the Brill Building style.

It’s difficult to pick favorites from such a solid album, but some standouts include opener “Fify the Fly” which outshines its goofy subject matter with a pretty melody and a bouncy harpsichord line, and “One of My Dreams” which could easily have been a mid-period Harrison song.

With all the Beatles references aside, The Klan wrote some fantastic material and although they did not achieve much notoriety outside of their home country, these songs definitely deserve to be heard apart from their mid-60s context to truly appreciate the unique perspective on this record.

“Join Us” has yet to be reissued on CD, but LPs do turn up on eBay frequently (especially the 1967 Brazilian pressing).

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“Fify The Fly”

:) Original | 1966 | Palette | search ]

Emerald Web “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales”

Emerald Web was the wind playing electronic duo of Kat Epple and Bob Stohl.  Although they’d become better known for their work scoring nature documentaries (including many collaborations with Carl Sagan), Emerald Web’s 1979 debut album was a milestone in electronic psychedelia- rooted in the prog of the mid 70s and foreshadowing much of what would come in the early 80s.

Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales mixes analog synthesizing with the heavy use of wind instruments, augmented occasionally by the angelic vocals of Kat Epple. The sound is incredibly unique. There is a very haunting experimental quality to this music that prevents it from sounding like muzak, although it occasionally veers in that direction.

The Lyricon wind controller makes a very early recorded appearance on this album and is one of the reasons the many sounds heard here are hard to place. The line is constantly blurred between live flutes and the electronic approximations, even occasionally mimicking bird calls. It’s these sound combinations that give the songs an otherworldly quality- like hearing indigenous music from another planet.

Although some pastoral vocal songs show up here and there, eerily dreamy instrumentals make up a little more than half the record. These are certainly among the highlights and show Emerald Web’s talent for crafting soundtrack music that would come to the fore later on. “The Flight of the Raven” is a brief but gorgeous piece, summing up all that is good about this record in under three minutes. Fleeting melodies give way to dramatic clashing synths, fading away at just the right moment. “The Powerstone” recalls early King Crimson, especially the vibe of “Moonchild”. It’s on this track that Emerald Web’s knack for creating natural sounding tones and soundscapes from very electronic instruments is most evident.

This record is highly recommended for fans of golden era progressive and electronic music. Originally released as a private pressing on Stargate, Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales LPs are somewhat rare these days, although they do turn up regularly on eBay.

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“Fight of the Raven”

:) Original Vinyl | 1979 | Stargate | search ebay ]

Tiny Tim “God Bless Tiny Tim”

Love him or hate him, there was no one else like Tiny Tim in the late 60’s.  John Lennon was reportedly a fan, and Tim was a staple on late night television of the time. In 1968 he released his debut album on Reprise- a blend of American popular songs and extreme weirdness that often veers into psychedelia.

God Bless Tiny Tim was promoted as a joke record, but beneath all the camp and novelty there are some stunning gems on this very musical album.

This is an early example of outsider music and Tim did exactly what he wanted here, aided with expert production by Richard Perry. Some moments recall the whimsy of Van Dyke Parks’ debut, or even that of Randy Newman’s first with dense dynamic orchestral arrangements supplementing a full band. Tracks like “Strawberry Tea” and “The Coming-Home Party” and the brilliant version of Irving Berlin’s “Stand Down Here Where You Belong” are completely straightforward pop songs and would have been coveted by any self respecting psych band of the era.

The creepiness of “Daddy Daddy, What is Heaven Like?” is overpowered by Tiny Tim’s sincerity. His knowledge of American musical tradition and dedication to music hall and vaudeville allow these songs to come to life in very satisfying ways. It’s somewhat prophetic that in 1968 Tim was singing “The ice caps are melting…”, and there is a definite vibe that Tim’s not only in on the joke, but is really the one laughing here (which he does hysterically at one point).

The between-song narration occasionally stifles the flow, but it gives us a little glimpse into Tiny Tim’s mindset- his intentions were clearly to open himself up to the world and put on a show; his tastes, interests, showmanship, and quirky personality are all clearly present here. It’s the perfect production and it’s Tiny Tim’s consistently entertaining performances that really elevate this record above mere musical comedy status.

God Bless Tiny Tim is available from Rhino Handmade as a single disc or the 2006 “God Bless Tiny Tim: The Complete Reprise Studio Masters . . . And More” box set.

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“Strawberry Tea”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Rhino Handmade | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Reprise | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Truck “Surprise! Surprise!”

Despite turning in one of the best forgotten pop records of the psych era, not much information can be found on the Malaysian band Truck. This may be due to their somewhat generic name, though I suspect it was their incredibly short lived existence as  a side project from the group “The October Cherries” that relegated them to obscurity.

Comprised of a fellow named Diaz and two brothers named Shotam, Truck released only one album, 1974’s Surprise, Surprise. The songs are solid throughout and certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on American radio of the time. On first listen, “Surprise, Surprise” certainly recalls “Odessy and Oracle”, but a few spins will reveal a strong Paul McCartney influence, especially the Wings-like use of the moog.

The vocals are reminiscent of Graham Nash, although I actually prefer Truck’s vocalist better. His doubletracked voice expertly navigates the songs, from the confident recitation of “Earth Song” to the soulful emoting of “Broken Chair”.

The most surprising aspect of this record is how consistent the songs are. There really isn’t a dud here- even the goofiness of “Take me Ohio” dissappears after multiple listens and becomes one of the more enjoyable tunes .

Surprise Surprise is a superbly crafted record, and it’s a shame not much more was ever heard of Truck. Luckily it has been reissued on Spanish label Guerssen, so it is relatively easy to find.

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“Surprise, Surprise”

:D CD Reissue | 2004 | Guerssen | buy here ]
:) Orig Vinyl | 1972 | search ebay ]

Alain Goraguer “La Planéte Sauvage” (Fantastic Planet Original Soundtrack)

Alain Goraguer first made a name for himself as a sideman and arranger for Serge Gainsbourg, including the arrangement for Gainsbourg’s 1966 Eurovision grand prize winning song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”.  In 1972 he scored the bizarre and moving French language animated feature “Le Planet Sauvage,” released in the States as “Fantastic Planet.” The soundtrack blends funky psyched out jazz with gorgeous woodwind, choral, and string arrangements. There’s also a few subtle appearances by the theremin.

The main descending theme appears many times, mostly on the flute or sung by an ominous choir. The standout example of the theme is “Le Bracelet,” layering clavinet and vibes under a breathy flute, with spooky pauses thrown in. If you brave the chaotic opening of “L’oiseau”, you’ll hear some beautifully dissonant glissando strings which break into an incredible version of the main theme, this time over a major key. Tenor sax solos make brief appearances here and there and there are some songs that could be outtakes from Obscured By Clouds or Dark Side of the Moon. The solo on “Générique” would be a dead ringer for Gilmore if not for the sighing strings beneath it.

The songs which deviate from variations on the main theme are the most interesting, with “Conseil de Draags” and the breathtaking psyched out waltz “Le Fusées” definitely some of the best of the 25 songs here. The jazzy “Strip Tease” comes to life in a brilliant mix of flute and sax in the middle section, married beautifully to the animation in the third act of the film.

Perhaps because of it’s function as a film score it may come across more progressive than intended, but I think it’s that twist that allows the music to stand on it’s own. It’s masterfully written and has not one boring moment. I highly recommend watching the film at least once. And see how long it takes before you start whistling the main theme.

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“Strip Tease”

:) Original Vinyl | 1973 | Pathé | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]

The Honeycombs “All Systems Go!”

Before the dust settled on their million-selling debut single “Have I the Right?” produced by Joe Meek, the Honeycombs released their self-titled debut LP on Pye records in September of 1964.

Dismissed by some as a novelty act for having a female drummer (bandleader Honey Lantree), they cut consistently good material at Meek’s Holloway Road home studio throughout 1965 and released their finest effort All Systems – Go! on Pye in December of that year.

Mostly a mix of freakbeat and the bubblegum-pop of their singles, All Systems- Go! also features some great experimenting from a band trying to maintain their success. It’s these genre hopping tracks that make this a solid record, but also account for some of the lesser numbers.

There are a few throwaways, like the light R&B fare of “Ooee Train” (which starts strong but dies at the verse) and “Don’t Love Her No More” (which has a great guitar sound but a terrible chorus). The version of “I Can’t Stop” featured here is not as catchy as the single, but the Honey-sung “There’s Something I’ve Got To Tell You Baby” has been improved from the Glenda Collins version. This time it’s slowed down and more sincere, replacing the strings with a mellow organ and classical guitar musings. “Our Day Will Come” expands on the exotica vibe of “Totem Pole” and displays Honey Lantree’s strong prowess as a drummer. The rhythm section is especially tight on this album and really pops out.

“If You Should” could be mistaken for an early Brian Wilson production, and is easily among the best here. “Nobody But Me” stands out with its persistent guitar line and another solid performance from Honey, but the title track is the most single-worthy, with its anthemic full band chant of “ALL…SYSTEMS…GO!!”. Most of the songs here were written by Howard & Blaikley, with the exception of the Ray Davies penned “Emptiness”, which was never recorded by The Kinks. It’s very Kinks-like and bears a striking similarity to “Something Better Beginning” which had also been recorded by the Honeycombs earlier in the year. The disc closes with the Roy Orbison sounding “My Prayer” that works strangely well and highlights the uniqueness of Denis D’Ell’s voice.  Probably the most grandiose recording here, it shows the Honeycombs as far from their core sound as they ever got, but also comes across as the most confident.

Forty six years on and All Systems Go is still an interesting and rewarding listen. It’s full of unique sounds and rhythms and is definitely one of the best of the few LP’s Joe Meek recorded.

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“All Systems Go”

:D CD Reissue | 2fer | buy here ]
:) Original LP |  1965 | Pye | search ebay ]