Horses (self-titled)

Horses was a Los Angeles band pieced together by the crack songwriting team of John Carter and Tim Gilbert following the success of their lysergic bubblegum anthem “Incense and Peppermints” for the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Toting a bag full of new Carter and Gilbert songs, Horses recorded one album for the White Whale label in 1969, likely expecting the excitement around the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s record to carry over to their own. However, things weren’t quite that easy, and their self-titled record went nowhere fast despite containing a wealth of great material.

The first cut on the record, “Freight Train,” is an uptempo boogie number that was apparently being considered by Johnny Cash for his winning Orange Blossom Special album. Carter and Gilbert decided not to allow Cash to record it, however, wanting to reserve it for Horses. It would have been interesting to hear what the Man in Black would have made of the tune, but alas that was never to be. Either way, it’s a driving opener, and should have made quite a single. The melodic bass work here is courtesy of Dave Torbert, who would later go on to replace Phil Lesh in the New Riders of the Purple Sage. His playing is extraordinary throughout the record, and is definitely worth checking out if you are a student or enthusiast of the instrument in a rock and roll context.

Perhaps Horses’ greatest achievement on this record is that they manage to establish a unique and distinctive sound, a lack of which has brought many similar bands to an early grave. A key component to this sound, the subtle psychedelic flourishes, is perhaps best exemplified by “Birdie in a Cage,” in which the chorus brings in an electric organ and a floating vocal melody. It can’t really be said that Carter and Gilbert’s lyrics are very extraordinary here, but they function well enough in the context of the songs, and by no means detract from the overall experience. The theme to more or less every song is either travel or women, with the notable exception being the single “Class of ’69,” which seems designed to appeal to Summer of Love sentimentality and the revolutionary atmosphere of the times. It doesn’t quite succeed, being too firmly rooted in mainstream attitudes to really catch the spirit of the counter-culture. Nonetheless, it makes for a entertaining song.

The highlight of the record may very well come with the end of the record’s first side. “Run, Rabbit, Run” has a funky guitar riff and a memorable, if somewhat weird, chorus. Meanwhile, “Horseradish” serves as a showcase for Horses as instrumentalists, and the track fits firmly into a Little Walter blues bag, replete with rollicking amplified harmonica. Even this track proves to be memorable, a rare feat for what might otherwise have been mere filler.

It’s more or less impossible to find original copies of this album, seeing as people aren’t even sure whether or not it made it past the “promotional only” pressing stage. However, Rev-Ola Records has reissued it on compact disc with an early single by one of Tim Gilbert’s earlier projects, the Rainy Daze. These two tracks are more in a psychedelic garage rock bag, and aren’t all that memorable. In fact, the first of the tracks, “Make Me Laugh,” may be the one cut on the disc worth skipping, as it has a deadpan laugh going through it that tends to be extremely irritating.

It seems to speak for the unpredictability of the record industry that Gilbert and Carter weren’t able to make Horses a success. Modeled after popular groups like Moby Grape and the Buffalo Springfield, Horses had the musicianship and the songs that many of their contemporaries lacked. Now, however, the group is best remembered for having a singer by the name of Don Johnson. No, this is not the actor Don Johnson, though most of what you read about Horses says otherwise. It’s a real shame that this unusual piece of trivia has tended to obscure a righteous record by an extremely talented group, and Horses is long overdue for re-evaluation.

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:D CD Reissue | 2003 | Revola | buy here ]

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  • Yair

    This a nice one. Indeed I’d go to Dillard and Clark from here ;)

    thanks for posting

  • Nik

    I had a question as to whether or not there really is concrete evidence that the Horses Don Johnson is different than the actor. Here’s what I came up with:

    When asked whether or not it was the same Don Johnson as the actor, John Carter replied, “Fuck, no! No way. It’s not him! You know, it’s just some guy named Don Johnson. I knew this guy. I certainly watched Miami Vice. Not…a…chance. I mean, I understand that everyone else who is at arms length here, that it’s in their best interest to create the ‘is it really him?’ thing. But…once again, I was there. There’s no way it’s him.”

    Meanwhile, Tim Gilbert says, “Well, it’s Don Johnson, but it’s not that Don Johnson,” and, “No. It’s just not the same guy.”

    I’d say that these two individuals are pretty reliable witnesses towards clearing up this mystery. Elliot Mintz, the actor’s publicist for thirty or more years, also states that he has no recollection of his friend ever being in a band called Horses. Furthermore, I can’t personally find the actor in any of the band members pictured on the front cover of the album (I’m going off his appearance around the time, e.g. in the film Zachariah), but then again who knows. I reckon you would have to talk personally to Don Johnson (either of the two, or the one) in order to really sort things all out for certain. If anybody has any additional evidence either for or against whether or not this is indeed the same Johnson however, please chime in!

  • Horses does a nice job a straddling the line between mellow country and dynamic rock. This album is good for about a half-dozen songs, most of which you also noted in this review. I consider the funky “Country Boy” and the lullabyesque “Wind” to be the other keepers.

  • Jason Odd

    Great record, but don’t know about the story of “Freight Train,” being considered by Johnny Cash for his winning Orange Blossom Special album. Seeing as that album was out in early 1965, it seems somewhat of a stretch to think Carter & Gilbert were saving it for a group that didn’t exist as yet. Besides, who would knock back a chance for Cash to cut one of their songs?

    According to the December 5, 1970 issue of Billboard, The Horses LP and several other White Whale titles were issued on Cassette by Ampex, which leads one to assume that it must have had some sort of release to warrant a tape version. [Back then, it seems that many “tape” releases seemed to come out a couple of months after the LP was released]

  • Nik

    Good catch Jason. The fact that the only source I’ve been able to find for the supposed Johnny Cash connection is the writers themselves already had me a little skeptical. And as for whether it was actually given proper release at the time, I’ve got to cite the liner notes to the Revola reissue again. My own investigations didn’t turn up much of anything – if it was released, it sure didn’t make it too far, cause I couldn’t find a single trace of the vinyl.

    Maybe someone out there has, or at least knows of, a copy?

  • Jason Odd

    Hi Nik, I can see my posts were a lot briefer than intended, I figured that you’d heard the Johnny Cash story somewhere else, and one thing I suppose I’ve learned is that people tend to link things in their mind, even if they’re not recalling a lateral timeline. That’s the thing with recollection, or memory, certain events become associated with certain triggers.

    But what I meant to add to the bit about the tape version is the rarity of the LP, much like yourself I’m looked for references or actual vinyl releases. We all accept 1969 as some sort of release date, and “Freight Train” was issued as a single that year. It stands to reason, if it was issued, would have come out that year.
    Okay, all well and good, but why a massive gap between the cassette version and the LP, of course it doesn’t really answer our question, rather, it makes us wonder even more.

    I have often wondered about the “Don Johnson” issue, and enjoyed your detective work.
    He is fairly recognisable, and the cover pic always troubled me.. like you, I used Zachariah as a comparision, it was probably filmed in 1970, and as such, I suspect is a good reference.

    I’m still looking for a proper vinyl, but some records just slipped through the cracks, even on release, and White Whale seemed such a haphazard operation at the best of times, after ’69.. chaos. I’m not really adding anything here, excpet to wish us both good luck on finding a proper release.



  • Nik Rayne

    Well, the veracity of the Johnny Cash connection remains up to question, but I did just make a remarkable Horses discovery: a freewheeling recording of “Cheyenne” on Roy Orbison’s 1972 album Roy Orbison Sings. Right on…makes me wonder who else out there has dug into the Gilbert and Carter song-bag.

  • Jason Odd

    Tim Neel’s book ” Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records” lists the LP, an actual LP:
    Albums: WHITE WHALE – WWS-7121 Horses – 1970

    While “Rockin’ Records Buyers-Sellers Reference Book and Price Guide (2010 Edition)” also lists the LP under the White Whale number 7121.

    Glad to hear that Roy cut a song, I’ve heard it, but never made the link!

    LP listing as the White Whale release here:

    .. and here:

    .. although it’s worth noting they both use the exact same picture of the cover.

    I guess it was a typical super rare release from White Whale from the latter days when the distro for the label was effectively dead.


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