VA “The Rock Machine Turns You On”

The historical importance of this unassuming album can’t be overstated. It was the first rock sampler album I ever saw or heard, and almost certainly the first such ever released here in the UK. It was in fact the first time I saw the actual term “rock” used to describe the music at all; previously the successive labels “underground” and “progressive” had been coined to cover the diverging (from “pop”) stream of album-based, art-for-art’s-sake music that had started with Dylan and Hendrix. It was the new music’s first budget release; at a time when the standard price of an album was 32/6 (about £1.63), this cost 14/6 (about 73p), just within the average teenager’s weekly pocket-money allocation. And it would spawn a whole new sub-genre of record releases peculiar to, and essential to, progressive rock: the cult of the sampler.

What came over then, and still impresses today, is the sheer quality of this dip into the CBS catalogue of 1969. Each track can be seen to have been carefully cherrypicked from its parent album, no sample being so leftfield as to frighten off the listener, though nobody venturing further into any of the represented albums would have been disappointed. Yet the overall diversity of the collection is astonishing, both in terms of styles and artists, in a way befitting progressive music. Practitioners of jazz-rock, country-rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, psychedelia and simple honest weirdness are all represented, whilst the acts featured include established big-hitters (Dylan, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel), contemporary heroes whose days were numbered (the Zombies, Moby Grape, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Tim Rose), newcomers who would fall at the first hurdle (the United States Of America, the Electric Flag, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera) and up-and-coming artists who would go on to found dynasties (Leonard Cohen, Spirit, Blood Sweat & Tears, Roy Harper, Taj Mahal).

Two tracks above all left their mark on me. The Electric Flag’s “Killing Floor” induced me to purchase their album straightaway; this powerful number remains my favourite blues-rock AND jazz-rock performance of all time, with Mike Bloomfield on cloud nine and brass work to die for, the standout track from a solid album. By contrast, despite taking a perverse delight in “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” I somehow didn’t get round to buying the United States Of America’s sole album until 2008, when a book review of it rearoused my interest. This erotically engaging ditty with its homely brassband coda merely hints at the trippy weirdness of its fellow tracks – one to grow into over forty years, obviously.

A steady stream of samplers followed as prog-rock blossomed, including the best of the lot: CBS’s double from 1970, Fill Your Head With Rock. Samplers were considered disposable, and originals are now quite rare and collectable (sadly, I disposed of all mine many years ago when thinning the collection). Whilst retrospectively compiled anthologies covering the whole life of a label are nowadays commonplace, original samplers with their snapshot of a moment in prog-rock’s history are not. The Rock Machine Turns You On is the only sampler ever to be reissued on CD in its original form – and that sadly minus Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, probably due to some momentary petulance on Paul Simon’s part. It came out in 1996 and is now a rarity in its own right, never having been re-released. Judging by the clamour on Amazon, Sony could do a lot worse than reissue The Rock Machine Turns You On and Fill Your Head With Rock in their original forms, although licencing problems mean they probably won’t.

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The Electric Flag – Killing Floor

:) 1968 | CBS | search ebay ]

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  • Len Liechti

    It was only after dispatching this post to Brendan that I found out this album was only released in the UK and a handful of other European countries – it didn’t see the light of day in North America. For my US and Canadian friends, here is a listing of the other tracks:
    – Bob Dylan: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from John Wesley Harding
    – Moby Grape: “Can’t Be So Bad” from Wow
    – Spirit: “Fresh Garbage” from Spirit
    – The Zombies: “Time Of The Season” from Odessey & Oracle
    – The Peanut Butter Conspiracy: “Turn On A Friend” from The Great Conspiracy
    – Leonard Cohen: “Sisters Of Mercy” from The Songs Of Leonard Cohen
    – BST: “My Days Are Numbered” from Child Is Father To The Bride
    – The Byrds: “Dolphin’s Smile” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers
    – Taj Mahal: “Statesboro Blues” from Taj Mahal
    – Roy Harper: “Nobody’s Got Any Money In The Summer” from Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith
    – Tim Rose: “Come Away Melinda” from Tim Rose
    – Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera: “Flames” from Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera
    Were samplers really just a European phenomenon during the prog rock years? Did any see release in the States?

  • Len Liechti

    My mistake, TRMTYO was indeed released in 1968, not 1969. Just to complete the record, “Killing Floor” was from A Long Time Comin’, “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife” was from The United States Of America and “Scarborough Fair / Canticle” was from Parsely, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme.

  • Thanks Len.
    Although I wasn’t born when these samplers came out I did buy a fair few when I started discovering records including both the ‘Rock Machine’ ones, I remember the United States of America track making a big impression. These records were always cheap in the 2nd hand stores of Edinburgh- as you say they were considered disposable- and a great way (if not the only way) for a cash strapped kid to hear things like Nirvana’s ‘Rainbow Chaser’ (on Island’s ‘You Can All Join In’) and the MC5 (‘Age Of Atlantic’ – great plasticine sleeve) in pre CD reissue days.
    Although not a sampler as such, another similar record was the Easy Rider soundtrack, which was always in the cheap 2nd hand racks with the samplers, though maybe that was a full price record back when it came out?

  • Len Liechti

    Indeed it was, Christopher, though still top value when you consider the track listing. It was almost like a sampler for the very best of contemporary US psych/prog, in that it contained well known stuff like Hendrix and The Byrds, but also some wonderful leftfield stuff, eg. “Don’t Bogart Me” by the Fraternity Of Man, “If You Want To Be A Bird” by the Holy Modal Rounders and “Kyrie Eleison” by the Electric Prunes. And the two brilliant Steppenwolf tracks turned me on to that particular, then largely unknown in the UK, outfit. I guess Dennis Hopper chose the tracks? A great album and a great movie which still stands up today. The idea of selected rock soundtracks for movies has become a cliche, of course, but in good hands, eg. Quentin Tarantino’s, still an incisive weapon.

  • Gerard

    I’ve got a cd called The best of The rock machine turns you on. No S&G, Dylan or Dolphin’s smile but also some tracks from the Rock machine I love you sampler. 1989 Caste Communications CCSCD224

  • Anonymous

    Allegedly selling for £165 GBP on Amazon, Gerard. I’d stash it away somewhere very safe if I were you!

  • Huub Lammers

    Thanks Len for your interesting story about this fantastic sampler. I’ve got it myself as well as
    Fill Your Head With Rock . But I’ve got another sampler from the CBS lable called: “Rock machine I love you. 1968 CBS SPR 26. Here is a listing of the tracks:
    Blood,Sweat & Tears (more and more), Laura Nyro (Stoned soul picnic), Mike Bloomfiled & Al Kooper (Stop) , The Byrds (you ain’t goin’ nowhere), Grace Slick and the Great Society (somebody to love), Brandenburg Concerto from the LP “Switched on Bach” , Leonard Cohen (thats no way to say goodbye”) , Simon and Garfunkel ( America), John Simon (my name is Jack), The Electric Flag ( see to your neighbour), Don Ellis and his orchestra (excerpt from “The TIhai”) , Big Brother and the holding company ( turtle blues), Dino Valente (time) and Taj Mahal (a lot of love)


  • Mike Edgar

    Now you’ve got me going… going to dig through my vinyl collection, I souuld have a bunch of samplers from 68/69/70… this album opened my mind… and those of my friends too… clearly remember waiting outside the record shop in Dublin (Ireland) for the arrival of Rock Machine 2 as we called it…remember smoking my first J to Leonard Cohen’s “Songs Of” after hearing “Sisters” on this album… now I’m nearly 60 & my kids are listening to the music I found back then

  • Dan Day

    Was lucky to snag TRMTYO in the States in 1969 when my local Indiana department store filled a bin with English imports. Also picked up Traffic’s Mr. Fantasy with much better sleeve and different track listing than U.S. Heaven Is In Your Mind.

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