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Asylum Choir “Look Inside the Asylum Choir”

Long before Leon Russell became the albescent bearded high-priest of gritty rock’n’soul, he was a session musician in Phil Spector’s LA stable backing acts as diverse as The Byrds and Herb Alpert. Around this time Russell met the young Marc Benno, a talented blues guitarist just up from Austin, Texas who had moved to LA to also take up session work. Benno had been crashing in a closet at Russell’s place where a veritable who’s who of the 60’s rock scene would hang out and jam. It was here that Benno met Eric Clapton and many of the other famous musicians with whom he would collaborate later in his career. Benno described it as being “in the right place at the right time.” Russell and Benno decided to formally join forces as “Asylum Choir” and released the first of two LP’s in 1968, Look Inside the Asylum Choir, on the Smash imprint.

Look Inside the Asylum Choir rightly earns the oft overused label “psychedelic” for tracks such as “Icicle Star Tree” or “Death of the Flowers” which are psychedelic pop in the classical late 60’s sense, however musicians as diversely talented as Russell and Benno couldn’t help but include R&B, soul, ragtime and jazz elements along with numerous diegetic sound-bites and ironic lyrics into an eclectic musical collage that assumes a psychedelia of a higher order. The lofty words of 40+ years worth of hindsight don’t change the fact that the album was a commercial flop, despite favorable reviews from the groovy critics of the time. Perhaps the greatest commercial misstep was a marketing one: the album was originally released with a closeup photograph of a roll of toilet paper on the front cover. While perfectly in line with the deeply tongue-in-cheek lyrical irony of the album, the ablutional image offended the much more delicate sensibilities of the day.

It is this pervasive irony that both sets this album apart as a smart if gentle critique of the contemporary 60’s culture and dates much of the lyrical content. Despite this the album is quite enjoyable and musically delightful. The jaunty opener, “Welcome to Hollywood”, with its punchy horns and bouncy beat lyrically sticks a pin in Tinseltown’s balloon in jubilant vocal harmony. This is followed by the relatively straight honkey tonk ode to “Soul Food” and is a strong hint at the musical direction Russell would take later in his career. With the third track, “Icicle Star Tree”, the album takes a left turn into the sunshiny technicolor terain of psychedelic pop. The dreamy melody complete with abstruse and surreal lyrics floats over alternating cascades of shimmering keyboard and soulful telecaster for an overall heavily lysergic vibe. The album keeps this mood with the elegiac “Death of the Flowers” which tells the poignant story of Elaine “who is visibly moved by the death all around her…” The first side of the album closes with “Indian Style” that opens with a sound collage of tribal drumming eventually giving way to the sounds of cavalry, machine gun fire and war. This wordless statement abruptly ends as the upbeat honkey tonk song proper kicks in, evolving the initial statement with ironic lyrics about the mis-appropriation and commodification of indian culture by the flower children.

The second side opens with a six minute musical hodgepodge entitled “Episode Containing 3 Songs: N.Y. Op. Land of Dog Mr. Henri the Clown” that has a number of memorable moments such as a 30 second bit of “Mr. Henri the Clown” that is reminiscent of Beck’s “The New Pollution” off of Odelay, and witty lyrics about a flea who has a “little flea-osophy on organized insanity.” The heavy theme of the next track, “Thieves in the Choir”, is anticipated by the dolorous peal of church bells. The song warns of “Magic policemen who don’t need a reason to color your eye.” In deliberate contrast to this subject matter the song ironically borders on ebullient as Russell sings about how he “figured out, good guys with bullets are really quite bad.” The swinging blues closer “Black Sheep Boogaloo” rips it up pretty thoroughly, punctuated by Zappa/Beefheart-esque interludes of self-referential weirdness.

Despite its poor sales at the time, Inside the Asylum Choir remains an enjoyable listen both as a period piece and as an interesting insight into the future directions of two musicians of the highest caliber.

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“Thieves in the Choir”

:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Smash | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue |  2007 | Revola | buy here ]

The Chocolate Watchband “The Inner Mystique”

The infamous Chocolate Watch Band from San Jose California are the quintessential garage psyche band; their story is angst ridden and strange. Chocolate Watch Band, originally formed in 1965, went through a relatively complex series of personnel rearrangements settling for a short while on the lineup most familiar to fans consisting of Dave Aguilar, lead vocals and harmonica, Mark Loomis, lead git and keys, Bill Flores, bass, Sean Tolby, rhythm guitar and Gary Andrijasevich on drums. It was this incarnation that earned Chocolate Watch Band its reputation as an excellent live act by becoming known for their wildness and raw energy on stage. They were regularly gigging around the Bay Area with big groups such as the Doors and the Mothers of Invention playing mostly blues covers and tracks by obscure groups from the UK. Around this time in ’67 the band was introduced to the up-and-coming studio producer Ed Cobb. The band got their kicks by upstaging headliners with their forceful stage performance. They considered the recording studio an afterthought best left in the hands of Cobb.

Ed Cobb was to have a profound impact on the legacy of Chocolate Watch Band. He penned much of Chocolate Watch Band’s original material and enforced his vision of soft psychedelia on a band that he never bothered to see perform live, a fact that he has in later days openly regretted. It was because of this that the raw garage power of Chocolate Watch Band somehow eluded him, much to the group’s chagrin. There is a notorious story of the band using entire boxes of their second single as skeet pigeons because they detested the inclusion of Cobb’s gentle orchestral ballad “She Weaves a Tender Trap” on the B side; these boys were all nails and dog tails.

But boys grow up and it was the Summer of Love… under whose dubious charms Loomis departed to form a short lived psych-folk project “The Tingle Guild”. This was the beginning of a collapse for Chocolate Watch Band as one member after another left to pursue other interests just prior to the release of their first album No Way Out.

Cobb, however, was committed to the idea of Chocolate Watch Band and recruited a new lineup consisting of previous members Bill Flores on bass and Sean Tolby, now playing lead, and newbies Tim Abbott, rhythm, Mark Whittaker, drums and Chris Flinders singing. The ostensible purpose of this short lived incarnation was to support the hastily slapped together psychedelic era oddity that is The Inner Mystique.

Released in early ’68, the conundrum of The Inner Mystique is that not only was the band lineup at the time of the album’s release almost totally different than the band that recorded the psyche-rippers on the second side, but more stunningly, the music on the first side of the album was mostly recorded by studio musicians Cobb’d together [sic] that were never in Chocolate Watch Band. Far from a detriment, its schizophrenic dual personality makes the album more interesting in my mind.

Let’s take it one side at a time. The Inner Mystique kicks off with the psychedelic raga “Voyage of the Trieste”. Drenched in sitars, chimes, meandering flute, and jazz sax breaks, the cut is propelled by a repetitive fuzzy power-chord pulsing ‘m-e-l-l-o-w’. This cut is followed a soft sitar-psyche rendition of “In the Past” featuring Don Bennett singing. This shimmering and echoey number is impressive considering its strictly studio creature origins. The first side closes with the title track, another sitar ballad that is essentially a reprise of “Voyage of the Trieste”, albeit slower and darker in tone. Altogether this side of the album is a pleasant slice of gentle psychedelia, enjoyable, but without the power of the second side to rescue it from the otherwise probable obscurity that would be its fate.

Which brings us to the actual Chocolate Watch Band on the second side. Five songs, covers done better than the originals all, composed of out-takes from their first album No Way Out and a remixed and redubbed version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from CWB’s first single released in ’66. The first cut is a burning cover of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” by the Kinks. Aguilar’s vocals simmer, coming to a rolling boil as he barks out the chorus in a punk brogue Ray Davies couldn’t have achieved. Bashing caveman drums and Fender Twins in overdrive, this is garage primitive at its best. It was at this point Cobb committed a cardinal sin – he removed the original and far superior vocals of Aguilar on the next two tracks, “Medication” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” and dubbed in Bennett’s vocals which range from unexceptional on the former to painful on the latter. Despite the mediocre vocals, these tracks still cook. The Dylan cover is excellent although the original 45 version is better as the album cut suffers from Cobb’s affinity for superfluous meandering flute overdubs. The album closes out with the wailing “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker”; Aguilar positively howls. Jangly guitars and some overdubbed bouzouki round out this killer cut.

Confrontational garage-punk on stage or soft studio psychedelia, whatever it was the Chocolate Watch Band had moved on just as Ed Cobb moved on to producing other bands like Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. Luckily we have these scraps and oily rags from the psyche-garage to ignite but The Inner Mystique applies the balm before the burn.

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“In The Past”

:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Tower | search ebay ]
:) Vinyl Reissue | 2009 | Sundazed | buy at sundazed ]
;) MP3 Album | download here ]

Tony, Caro and John “All on the First Day”

A couple decades before the city of Derby in the rural midlands of England was awarded city status by Queen Elizabeth II (1977), residents Tony Doré and John Clark had become boon companions at the tender age of 11. In this gentle and eminently civil environment they quickly began to play music together in various rock bands or “beat groups” as they were then called, eventually stepping up to the folk club circuit in the surrounding boroughs of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.

It is this same bucolic atmosphere of the mid-60’s folk scene in the UK with its competing elements of traditional folk and experimentation that gave rise to phenomena like the Incredible String Band, an admitted inspiration to friends, and in Doré and Clark’s own words “We were just ‘being there'”. After the summer of love the pair temporarily parted company to attend university, Doré in London and Clark in Sheffield. It is in London that Tony and Caro met and began gigging university folk clubs together. After graduation in ’70 John moved into Tony and Caro’s London flat turned sunny commune complete with Zinnias, Dahlias, homemade candles and herbal tea.

It was here that the three started recording the songs that Doré was writing onto an extremely low-tech Ferrograph tape recorder with track-to-track capabilities. The painful sounding process that required a person to play over a pre-recorded backing track with a simultaneous mixdown did not forgive any mistakes. However it is precisely this aspect that lends the recording of “All In One Day” its considerable home-spun appeal. The trio pressed 100 vinyl copies through Eden Studios of south London in ’72 that quickly sold at their shows. There are now a number of reissues available on Gaarden and Shadoks.

The music on “All In One Day” radiates a beguiling charm and simplicity throughout. The arrangements are unpretentious but not unadorned, boasting of delightful vocal harmonies, interesting instrumentation like mandolin and flageolet, and inventive musicianship for a folk album like the subtle use of bass-wah and low-key fuzz. Tony’s voice is clear and reminiscent of early acoustic Bowie, while his wife’s hazily glowing voice on sentimental numbers like “Waltz for a Spaniel” recalls Vashti Bunyan.

While there is definitely an unity of aesthetic on “All In One Day”, the album is eclectic in its musical style, ranging from the unabashedly romantic “Waltz for a Spaniel” to the personally fractured and sardonic “There Are No Greater Heroes” and on to the humorous and playful “Don’t Sing This Song” in total stride. “Sniggylug” is the cut that seems the most out of step with the rest of the album, though no less pleasant with its guitar work reminiscent of modern North African Tuareg and its tongue-in-cheek 6/8 time jazz sensibilities. “Eclipse of the Moon” is a psyche folk gem with its surreal dreamscape lyrics, chilly reverbed slide guitar, playful mouth harp, tasteful fuzz guitar and trippy delayed vocal decrescendo at the end. It is impressive that they were able to include relatively sophisticated studio tricks like the backwards guitar and the sounds of seabirds on tracks like “Sargasso Sea”, a dark metaphorical sea chantey with allusions to William Blake and Coleridge.

After the release of “All In One Day”, the trio added musicians here and there and started playing under the moniker “Forever and Ever”, an irony however in that they never released another album and were eventually swallowed by time. The overall feel of “All In One Day” is relaxed though at times bittersweet and poignant, almost as if Doré unconsciously realized that by the early 70s something precious had come and gone; the Zinnia’s and Dahlia’s are now dried and pressed into the volume of Shelly’s poems on the mantle, the candles are burnt, but the music of Tony, Caro and John speaks to us still in our comfy chairs by the hearth.

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“Eclipse Of The Moon”

:D CD Reissue | 2002 | Shadoks | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | UK | search ebay ]
:) Vinyl Reissue | 2010 | Gaarden Records | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Vernon Wray “Wasted”

Born at Fort Bragg, NC in ’24, Vernon “Lucky” Wray is the much lesser known but no less talented older brother  of the original Shawnee rocker Link Wray of “Rumble” fame. Having learned to play guitar by the age of 11, Vernon played rhythm guitar and bass behind Link for the better part of Link’s career.

Vernon was a tortured innovator. He ran one of the country’s first DIY record labels called Rumble Records named after the family hit in 1958, and was host to an American Bandstand knock-off out of DC called “The Milt Grant Show”.  Around this time Vernon acting as manager and producer of the Ray Men, decided to set up a family recording studio, which had a number of temporary homes that included the family grocery store before coming to a temporary rest in a ramshackle shed on the family property in Accokeek, Maryland where it was famously dubbed “Wray’s Shack 3 Tracks”. This humble set-up produced a genuine musical treasure trove which included the classic Ray Men cuts on the Swan imprint, the spectacular Link Wray LP as well as a bevy of recordings from other local musicians.

Despite his success, life on the east coast was just a bit too hectic for Vernon. In the spring of ’72 he packed up the back wall of the recording shack and high-tailed it to Tuscon, AZ to “mellow out”. In Tuscon he rebuilt the recording studio renaming it Vernon Wray’s Record Factory after upgrading it to eight tracks from three. It was here that Vernon was able to put to tape his much mellower solo work released in two batches as “Superstar at My House” and “Wasted”. The former being released exclusively on cassette and 8-track tape, and the latter by Vermillion Records on vinyl in a run of about 400 copies sold only at shows in Tuscon. Both albums are extremely rare and prized.

Prized for good reason. “Wasted”, released in ’72 is rare in more ways than just its limited availability – as a lost classic it’s pure gold. Laced throughout with the sparkling guitar work of his brother Link, the tasteful drumming of his other brother Doug, Vernon’s understated piano and a host of interesting stereo production effects, the album has a lot to offer musically.

More countrified in its spirit and laid-back in tone than his earlier work with his brother at the front, “Wasted” is lyrically lonely and heartfelt while managing to not become mired in depression.  On songs like “Facing All the Same Tomorrows” and “Prison Song” Vernon’s smooth honey voice is balm to the world weariness that he speaks to. The heavy themes Vernon sings about are at the same time personal and universal as exemplified by the cut “Faces in the Crowd” in which Vernon confronts the isolation that he must have felt in the cities of the East coast and offers the hope of a salvation tendered by “Mother Nature out West”, as embodied by the lively flute playing in the background.

Even though there is a common thread of world weariness throughout, not all of it is expressed in a heavy musical manner. Vernon romps through the swampy floor stomper “Tailpipe” in which he likens the effect of his latest romance on his person to a dilapidated car – you can decipher the analogy in the title. The relatively upbeat country bar-room “tear in my beer” vibe of “When I Start Drinking” has just the right amount of twangy drunken camaraderie to make you smile.

The casual listener might find some of his lyrical themes dated or trite on songs such as “God is Color Blind”, however someone familiar with the other songwriting of the early 70’s Wray brothers can see the unabashed sincerity shine on in a way that is still relevant. Vernon wanted a better world. I hope he found it in 1979 after he passed away. Our world is about to get much better as “Wasted” has recently been licensed for a vinyl rerelease by Sebastian Speaks out of Nashville.

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:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | Vermillion | search ebay ]
:) Vinyl Reissue | 2011 | Sebastian Speaks | order here ]