Mad River “Mad River”
Mad River were one of the truly unique Berkeley/Bay area groups. In their brief lifetime they released one ep and two lps but have proven to be a durable psychedelic group. People often compare Mad River to Country Joe and the Fish or the Quicksilver Messenger Service but it’s important to point out that the River’s sound was much more neurotic and darker in mood.
Lawrence Hammond was the lead vocalist, principal songwriter and bass player of Mad River. Hammond was born in Berkeley but spent his childhood in the Mid-West where he was exposed to a diverse mixture of country and folk music. In the mid 60s he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was here he began studying medicine and met the future members of Mad River. The group performed in dives all throughout Ohio and in 1965 they were one of the few rock n roll groups around. To make a long story short, the group became frustrated with their efforts and eventually packed up and moved to the more progressively minded Berkeley, CA. In Berkeley the group’s lineup looked something like this: David Robinson (lead guitar), Thomas Manning (vocals and 12 string guitar), Gregory Dewey (drums), Rick Bochner (2nd lead guitar and vocals) and Lawrence Hammond (bass guitar and lead vocals). Mad River lived a meager lifestyle in Berkeley but were able to record an excellent ep off a local label in 1967. Two of the songs would end up on their self-titled 68 album albeit in different versions. One song, Orange Fire can only be heard on this great ep and is one of its highlights. Orange Fire is a minor key protest rock gem, with explosive guitar noise and cutting, angular riffs. It was both Robinson’s unique, abrasive guitar style and Hammond’s strange, quavering vocals that made people sit up and take note. Robinson’s guitar style was similar to the Magic Band of the late 60’s and much later, Television’s Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd on their classic Marquee Moon lp.
In 1968 the group were signed to Capital (along with the Steve Miller Band and the Quicksilver Messenger Service) and afforded the luxury to record the above debut. Disaster struck though, by way of an old recording engineer who knew nothing about current rock music. Thus, the recording and playback speed were not the same, so everything on the album came out faster and higher than Mad River had played it. When the record came out in 1968 it was savaged by Rolling Stone and hated by many rock critics alike.
Today, the Mad River lp sounds fantastic, unlike anything from the time and often considered a dark, ominous masterpiece of psychedelia. Amphetamine Gazelle is the gem of the album, with hard charging guitar riffs and a pulsing rhythm section that really captures the essence of speed. In Wind Chimes, they created an excellent rock instrumental that’s pure psychedelia and highlighted by dreamy eastern scales. Other tracks like High All The Time and Eastern Light are classic Bay area acid blues notable for Hammond’s piercing vocals and Robinson’s fine, sleazy guitar tones. Summary: Once again Rolling Stone proved to be wrong in their judgment and the Bay area produced another classic album of American psychedelia. Mad River would go on to record one more album in 1969, titled Paradise Bar and Grill. This album has much more of a roots rock vibe but is also highly recommended.