Posts Tagged ‘ 1968 ’

Hardwater “Hardwater”

These pages are overflowing with tales of bands that came within a whisker of making it big in the halcyon years of rock: bands for which talent, originality and a fine first album wasn’t enough to propel them into the commercial big-time and which subsequently fell by the wayside. Few came closer than Hardwater; only their timing probably let them down.

Their back pedigree was immaculate; guitarist Richard Fifield and bassist Robert McLerran had been members of the Astronauts, the Boulder-based surf outfit who’d released a string of nationally successful singles and albums on RCA between 1962 and 1968 and garnered an enthusiastic following in Japan. Relocating to LA and recruiting full-blooded Apache drummer Tony Murillo and bilingual guitarist Peter “Pedro” Wyant, they were signed rapidly to Capitol as Hardwater – the name being hippie argot for ice – assigned to illustrious house producer David Axelrod and directed to record in Capitol’s famed Records Tower studios with all its near-limitless resources. Axelrod was also a top-notch composer and arranger, and Hardwater’s situation could be compared to a new but well-qualified UK outfit being assigned to George Martin and recorded at Abbey Road. Success seemed inevitable.

There was no distinctive lead singer, but effortless three-part harmonies carried the songs which were comparable with those of Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape, although the band members themselves claimed to have been heavily influenced by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. In other words, definitive West Coast folk/country/acid rock that couldn’t have come from any other area or any other era. Liberally sprinkled over the tight, taut rhythm tracks was Wyant’s remarkable lead guitar, whose unique style juxtaposed rippling Eastern raga scales with aching pedal steel simulations via a volume swell. His sound was and remains revolutionary, especially since he favoured an unfashionable hollowbody Fender Coronado guitar with low-powered DeArmond pickups. The rockin’ leadoff medley “My Time / Take A Long Look” sets out the store, while the subsequent tracks vary from the unassuming folk-rock of “City Sidewalks”, and the good-timey two-step of “Plate Of My Fare” built around a sinuous Wyant guitar riff, through the dreamy acid-folk of “Monday” and the complex, contrapuntal acoustic guitars of “To Nowhere” to the funky finisher “Good Luck” with its popping bass and eleventh chords reminiscent of the Fabs’ “Taxman”.

No problems in the execution, then, and the album should have been a biggie. The problem was that Capitol had signed and recorded a glut of top-quality acts around that time, notably the Band and the Steve Miller Band, and subsequent record label effort was overwhelmingly directed towards these other acts. Hardwater’s eponymous debut was six months delayed in release, there was no record company-sponsored tour, and like so many other praiseworthy offerings in those prolific days it failed to sell and duly disappeared, the disillusioned band fragmenting. Of its members, Wyant had the most high-profile subsequent career, having impressed Axelrod sufficiently to appoint him his house guitarist and feature him on Axelrod’s own highly-successful quasi-orchestral recordings and on the ersatz Electric Prunes’ infamous Mass In F Minor. He has since enjoyed a long and varied career whose details can be found at his website.

The CD reissue on Cherry Red’s subsidiary Tune In is brief but excellent, augmenting the original running order of around thirty minutes with the very different re-recording for a projected single of “Plate Of My Fare”. Axelrod’s production standards were as good as it got at the time and still sound good today if you don’t mind the sweeping stereo separation fashionable back then, with guitars and drums widely spaced across the plane. The accompanying booklet with historical perspective by Wyant is exemplary.

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“Medley: My Time / Take a Long Look”

:D Reissue | 2011 | Tune In | buy here ]
:) Original | 1968 | Capitol | search ebay ]

The Outsiders “C.Q.”

C.Q.

With a plethora of recent reissues (Jackpot – vinyl and RPM – cd), it seemed like a good idea to backtrack to this classic record and give it another listen.  C.Q. was to be the Outsiders last album (their 3rd LP), an attempt to reach the group’s original core audience amidst a troubling commerical downfall.  Not only is this one of the best “international” psych albums but it’s as good as anything by the early Pink Floyd, psychedelic era Pretty Things or Love.  Its closest reference point is probably the Pretty Things superb S.F. Sorrow – there are no soft, wimpy moments on either of these records, just pure intensity and garage punk muscle.  C.Q. is what the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request should have sounded like.

C.Q.’s strength is in it’s consistency and diversity.  No two songs sound alike yet every experiment is well thought out and successful.  The group’s hallmark start-stop punk rhythms are firmly in place on many of C.Q.‘s tracks but by 1968 the Outsiders had grown considerably, incorporating more folk-rock and psych sounds into their repertoire.  Psych cuts such as the very European sounding “Zsarrahh” (supposedly a nod to Wally Tax’s Russian roots), the brief “Bear,” an avant garde folk-rock cut titled “Prison Song” and “C.Q.” heralded a new, more experimental outfit.   Other cuts such as the sensitive “You’re Everything On Earth,” a bluesy, spacy cut titled “It Seems Like Nothings Gonna Come My Way Today,” and “I Love You No. 2”  were folk-rock gems that showed off Tax’s soft, expressive side.  That being said, it’s the harder cuts that warrant the greatest attention.  “Misfit,” “Doctor,” “The Man On The Dune,”  “Happyville,” and “Wish You Were Here With Me Today” are masterful acid punkers.  “Doctor,” one of the group’s best LP tracks, features distorted vocals and an explosive fuzz guitar freakout.  “The Man On The Dune,” another classic and personal favorite, is a blistering psych punker with jagged guitar fuzz and a strange, unsettling conclusion.  It goes without saying that C.Q. is one of the immortal 60s albums.

As mentioned above, there have been many reissues of C.Q. To me, the Pseudonym reissue was the best as it featured three terrific non-lp tracks (“Do You Feel Alright” is an excellent cut that should have been a hit).  The recent RPM disc features six good live cuts from 1968 while the Jackpot reissue is a straight up vinyl offering with no extras.

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“The Man On The Dune”

:D Reissue | 2005 | Pseudonym | buy here ]
:D Reissue | 2011 | RPM | buy here ]
:) Reissue | 2011 | Jackpot | buy here ]

Bo Grumpus “Before the War”

I came to this one working backwards along bassist Jim Colegrove’s timeline. I’d heard Colegrove’s wonderfully idiosyncratic bass playing on Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, whence I’d backtracked him to Hungry Chuck. It turned out that in an earlier life both Colegrove and Charles/Chuck drummer N.D. Smart II were founder members of Bo Grumpus, hence my initial interest in this album.

Originally assembling in Boston as a funky jugband comprising Colegrove, Smart and guitarists Ed Mottau and Joe Hutchinson, Bo Grumpus mutated into a New York-based folk-rock outfit in the style of the Byrds and veered towards psychedelia at about the same time as their West Coast contemporaries. Indeed, Before The War has been compared to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, though IMHO it also owes a debt to Revolver-era Fabs. The harmony vocals are sometimes very Byrds-ish indeed, but at others very Beatle-ish, as are the keyboards and other esoteric instruments provided by their George Martin equivalent, the classically-trained Felix Pappalardi. The production by Pappalardi is also more sophisticated and glossy than anything the various homely McGuinn collectives ever laid down.

Whatever, Before The War is a classy folk-rock-into-psych collection in its own right with carefully-constructed songs and excellent musicianship and vocals. For no obvious reason its original release on Atco in spring of 1968 tanked completely, and the album lay dormant until resuscitated by Wounded Bird for CD release forty years later. Meanwhile Bo Grumpus had moved to Bell Records with Pappalardi when he was headhunted by that imprint and recorded a further album Home under the changed name of Jolliver Arkansaw, again featuring Felix and also a guest appearance by his future colleague Leslie “Mountain” West. When this too bombed they called it a day late in ’69 and Colegrove and Smart subsequently joined Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird. Today Before The War is readily available on CD or as an Atco vinyl re-release, but Home still awaits rediscovery and originals on vinyl will set you back a pretty penny.

Despite the intricacy of much of the playing and production and the frequently mournful and introspective hippy-trippy lyrics, this album has a carefree, floating feel to it. Most of the tracks use the same gentle 4/4 rhythm and seem to flow into one another effortlessly; it almost feels like the whole album is one suite. Colegrove’s nimble flatpicked Gibson bass work is distinctive throughout; like Paul McCartney he was a lead guitarist turned bassist, which helps explain the nature of his playing, adventurous but never intrusive. Probably by comparison to their live sound, the guitars are mostly mixed well back but provide plenty of sonic variety, with fuzz, wah and electric 12-string all exercised. By the time recording had finished drummer Smart had left to be replaced by Ronnie Blake; their no-frills styles are pretty well indistinguishable. The polymath Pappalardi contributes various keys, trumpet, ocarina and glockenspiel. The opening “Sparrow Tune” sets the template, led out by a trademark Colegrove riff and coloured by fuzzed guitar and churchy organ backing. Also notable are the overtly psychedelic “Yesterday’s Streets” with its electronically treated vocals, baroque harpsichord trills and glock fills; the string-laden “Travelin’ In The Dark” which recalls early Moody Blues, and the unmistakeably Beatle-ish “The Moon Will Rise” with lush answer-back vocals and a sublime ocarina solo. The wry “Ragtimely Love” and “Brooklyn” are hangovers from the outfit’s jugband origins.

Oh, and that name? Pappalardi’s artist wife Gail provided the name Bo Grumpus from a drawing of a fictional monster that she’d hung on their living-room wall. Perhaps that’s why the record didn’t sell; a distinctive name, but one unlikely to be taken seriously even in those hippy-dippy days. (Why they thought Jolliver Arkansaw would be an improvement is even more inexplicable.) For a lot more on this and a whole slew of related projects, visit Jim Colegrove’s website.

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“Yesterday’s Streets”

:) Original | 1968 | Atco | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2008 | Wounded Bird | get it 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 ]

Mike Stuart Span “Children of Tomorrow”

The cosmopolitan seaside resort of Brighton, Sussex – my own birthplace, as it happens – has been a Mecca for the more unbuttoned forms of the performing arts ever since the louche patronage of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Strangely, especially given its nearness to “Swinging” London, it produced only a sparse crop of memorable artists and groups in the halcyon years of pop and rock music. During their brief sojourn as a recording act, the Mike Stuart Span were the only such from Brighton – and that at the height of the sixties beat/psych era when groups were being signed nationwide in hundreds.

Like many of their contemporaries, they launched as a beat group, became a mod-soul outfit, then floated off into psychedelia before gravitating towards progressive rock. Starting around 1963 as the Mighty Atoms, they underwent numerous personnel changes and name-changes, first to the Extremes and then to the Mike Stuart Span – after their vocalist, Stuart Michael Hobday – before landing a contract with EMI Columbia in 1966 under which they released a couple of Stax-ish singles. These both bombed and EMI let the band go. Dumping their keyboards and horn section, the remaining four-piece – Hobday, guitarist Brian Bennett,  bassist Roger McCabe and drummer Gary Murphy – recorded an acid-tinged cover of “Rescue Me” and a couple of similarly lysergic originals for Decca, who branded these insufficiently commercial and declined to release them at all. Taking what appeared to be the only remaining path, the band cut, at their own expense, two unashamedly psychedelic originals “Children Of Tomorrow” and “Concerto Of Thoughts” and issued these in 1967 in a run of 500 singles on a small independent label, Jewel. The record received sufficient exposure and critical acclaim to gain them local support slots to Cream and Hendrix, a couple of John Peel sessions, a BBC TV documentary (on struggling rock bands!), a misguided pure-pop single on Fontana and, eventually, an offer to sign to the UK branch of Elektra, under condition that they change their name; this they did yet again, to Leviathan. Two fine guitar-led prog-rock singles on the new label came and went unnoticed in 1969, and sessions for an LP were completed but Elektra head honcho Jak Holzman was dissatisfied with the product. With the prospect of the album’s release fading, the band called it a day and split late in ’69, all but Bennett leaving the music industry. “Children Of Tomorrow” resurfaced as an uber-rarity during the 1980s psych revival. Interest slowly grew and a compilation (officially-sanctioned) of most of the band’s psych/prog-era studio work finally appeared in 1996.

This new collection, Children Of Tomorrow, represents the entire studio output of the band in all its incarnations on all labels apart from about half of the aborted Elektra album, and gives a fascinating insight into a band exploring every avenue to try to make the big-time, with talent to spare but luck totally lacking. The whole story is laid out in the splendid accompanying booklet. Of the music, the early soul-based tracks are solid and energetic if unoriginal, while the Decca efforts are worthy generic acid-pop. From here things improve markedly; both sides of the Jewel single are splendidly druggy stuff, fully deserving of their high rating. But best of all IMHO are the demos the band cut before the Elektra signing and the sides subsequently released as Leviathan singles; the tight arrangements, imperious vocals and wallpaper-stripping guitar work of “World In My Head”, “Second Production”, “Flames”, “Blue Day” and “Remember The Times” suggest that the cancelled album would have been a fine prog-guitar artefact. Allegedly the master tapes still languish in Elektra’s vaults, and Warner has hinted in the past about finally releasing the album in original form. If it ever appears, it will almost certainly have been worth the wait.

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“Children of Tomorrow”

:D Compilation | 2011 | Grapefruit | buy here ]

The Beau Brummels “Bradley’s Barn”

By the time Bradley’s Barn (Warner Brothers – 1968-) recording sessions commenced, the Beau Brummels had scaled down to the duo of founders Ron Elliott (guitarist) and Sal Valentino (vocalist). Nashville session pro contributions (guitarist Jerry Reed and drummer Kenneth A. Buttrey) tend to overshadow the strong batch of Elliott/Valentino/Durand originals written for this classic LP. Some 40 years after it’s release date, Bradley’s Barn is still considered one of the very best country-rock records. Instead of taking their cues from Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Sr. and The Louvin Brothers (see The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers), the Brummels created their own unique fusion of rock and roots music that’s arguably more original and less reliant on the C&W masters.

Highlights run across the board, making it really tough to single out individual performances. Elliott’s guitar work is nimble, Lenny Waronker’s arrangements/production sparkle (Waronker was a real wild card and major influence during these important sessions) and Valentino’s vocals are rich and expressive. There is no pedal steel guitarist on these recordings but session men used dobros, banjos, keyboards, marimbas and any other instruments they could find in the studio to create a mystical, backwoods vibe. If you think Poco rocked hard, check out the awesome “Deep Water.” “Deep Water” along with “Love Can Fall A Long Way Down”, find the group locked in and at their best – these are country-rock classics. Other key tracks such as “Turn Around” and “Cherokee Girl” have a unique spiritual feel without losing their rock underpinnings. “Bless You California,” a Randy Newman original, recalls the roots/psych fusion of the Beau Brummels 1967 masterpiece, Triangle. Other great cuts: “The Loneliest Man In Town” is the Brummels most traditional country offering while “Jessica” and “Long Walking Down To Misery” progress into excellent songs.

Vinyl originals are easy to find and inexpensive. Check out Rhino’s new double disc reissue (with plenty of great bonus cuts) of this landmark recording while those on a budget might want to consider the Collector’s Choice disc. Records such as Triangle, Bradley’s Barn and earlier material from the group’s jangle folk-rock phase, Volume 2 and From The Vaults, should be part of any serious rock n roll collection.

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“Long Walking Down To Misery”

:D 2cd Reissue | 2011 | Rhino | buy here ]
:) Original | 1968 | Warner Bros | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Billy Nicholls “Would You Believe”

For a man who’s enjoyed a solid five-decade membership of the British rock establishment, Billy Nicholls must be one of its least-known figures. From being engaged as a staff songwriter to Andrew Loog Oldham’s upstart Immediate Records at the tender age of eighteen, to composer of “I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try)”, the royalties from the multiple cover versions of which should assure his pension, to MD of the Who’s and Pete Townshend’s concert activities for the last thirty-odd years, Nicholls has enjoyed a fruitful but surprisingly low-profile relationship with the industry, only recently achieving acclaim as the author of one of psychedelia’s great “lost” gems.

The history of Would You Believe is as engaging a tale as that of Nicholls himself. When Oldham fell out with the Stones in 1967 he redirected all his resources into making the youthful Nicholls a star of the psychedelic pop scene. The results were the single “Would You Believe”, which hit the racks in January 1968, and the like-titled album that followed in short order. The single has been described as “the most over-produced record of the sixties”, and with reason; a modest psych-pop love song, it’s swathed in overblown orchestration including baroque strings, harpsichord, banjo (!), tuba (!!), and demented answer-back vocals from Steve Marriott. A trifle late for the high tide of UK psych, it failed to trouble the charts. Unfazed, Oldham and Nicholls pressed on with the album, Nicholls providing a steady stream of similarly well-crafted ditties and a bevy of top-rated London sessionmen providing the backings, thankfully with somewhat more subtlety than on the prototype cut. The album was ready for pressing just as the revelation of Oldham’s reckless financial overstretch brought about Immediate’s overnight demise, and only about a hundred copies ever made it to wax, most of which somehow surfaced in Sweden. The album became one of the mythical lost albums of the sixties, and original copies now fetch over a grand in GBP.

The record itself was heralded then, and is still often described today, as the English answer to Pet Sounds, with Nicholls’s songwriting being compared to Brian Wilson’s. This is blatant hype, and the writing certainly doesn’t get close, but the album is still the epitome of sixties Britsike, a bunch of fine acid-pop songs rendered with glorious harmonies and superb lysergic arrangements that wouldn’t have disgraced George Martin. Put it this way, if you like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or A Teenage Opera or even The Who Sell Out you’ll enjoy this. The sound and the production are sometimes closer to the Stones’ “We Love You” / Satanic Majesties output, unsurprising since it was recorded in the same studio with many of the same sessioneers, including the incomparable Nicky Hopkins on assorted keys, though this is – the title track apart – a far more taut and less self-indulgent collection than the Glimmer Twins’ psychedelic endeavours. Sundry Small Faces hung around, with Marriott contributing huge fuzz-psych guitar to “Girl From New York”. Indeed there’s plenty of sonic variety, from the tight structure and Townshend-style telegraph guitar of “London Social Degree” (go figure the acronym there, folks), through the lush Byrdsy 12-string-driven “(Cut And) Come Again” which garnered a cover from Del Shannon,  to the full-on acid rock treatments of “Being Happy” and “It Brings me Down” with its trippy false ending.

After the failure of Would You Believe Nicholls took a back seat from stardom and began a belated apprenticeship in the music industry, initially working on low-profile projects with Ronnie Lane and old acquaintance Townshend whilst gaining an understanding of all its facets that would stand him in good stead for the next forty years. He released nothing new under his own name until 1974’s Love Songs, a solid soft-rock venture that deserves a review of its own here, and may well get one. Meanwhile Would You Believe is readily available as a CD reissue, or you can get seven of its eleven songs – plus three outtakes from the album’s sessions, which are every bit as good as those eventually used – on Nicholls’s fine career retrospective Forever’s No Time At All.

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“London Social Degree”

:) Original | 1968 | Immediate | search ebay ]
:D Anthology | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

The Easybeats “The Shame Just Drained”

The Shame Just Drained was a collection of Easybeats material that slipped out on vinyl in 1977.  The album contained 15 unreleased tracks from the group’s mid 60s prime, 1966-1968.  Most of these songs date from aborted studio sessions with Glyn Johns (Central Sound Studio Sessions – 1968-) and Shel Talmy (Olympic Studios Sessions – 1967).

There were many fine Aussie rock groups in the 1960s but none of them exploded onto the scene with as much excitement or anticipation as the Easybeats. Their live performances and chart smashes firmly established the Australian rock n roll scene. They recorded several fine albums (Friday On My Mind is probably their best) and waxed many classic Oz singles throughout their fabled career. Late 60s tracks such as “Land Of Make Believe,” “Peculiar Hole In The Sky,” “Falling Off The Edge Of The World,” and “Come In You’ll Get Pneumonia” were as good as anything being released in the UK or US at the time. Then there was “Good Times,” a song which famously caused Paul McCartney to pull his car over and ring the BBC to ask for a replay. While some of their best songs were recorded in the late 60s, the groups final albums, Vigil and Friends, are considered major disappointments.

By 1969, drugs and management issues had reduced the Easybeats to a bland good-time pop group, lacking the muscle and adventure of previous years. While their sharp demise was sad, when the Easybeats were on, they were surely one of the best.

The Shame Just Drained strongly recalls the Kinks from Something Else, or more accurately, The Great Lost Kinks Album – a mishmash of aborted late 60’s sessions and raw, mid 60’s material. Great power pop numbers such as “Wait a Minute” and the fiery “Baby I’m a Comin” hold hands with observational Ray Davies-like numbers “I’m on Fire”, “Mr. Riley of Higginbottom and Clive” and “Kelly” – this is the late 60’s Easybeats at their finest. Other songs such as “Amanda Storey”, “We’ll Make It Together” and “Where Old Men Go” are also excellent, featuring more a psych pop vibe with mellotrons, tinkling piano and sophisticated arrangements.

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“Baby I’m A Comin'”

:D Reissue | 2005 | Repertoire | buy here ]
:) Original | 1977 | Albert | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Holy Mackerel “The Holy Mackerel”

Paul Williams first pop group was the LA based Holy Mackerel.  While he would go on to greater success writing classic pop hits for Three Dog Night and the Carpenters, the music he recorded with the Holy Mackerel is more adventurous and psychedelic.  The group’s only album was released by Warner Brothers in 1968.  While it wasn’t a commercial success, the LP features some great material.

The best tunes on The Holy Mackerel are on par with great Millennium and Sagittarus tracks.  Sure, there’s two or three weak tracks throughout the album but much of The Holy Mackerel is given over to quality stuff.  “Scorpio Red”, “Wildflowers”, “The Secret of Pleasure”, “10,000 Men” and “1984” are excellent dreamy soft psych tracks.  “1984” is probably the album’s magical highlight although “Wildflowers” features interesting distorted vocals and plenty of swirling sitar.  Many of the songs on the LP are psychedelic folk-rock but there’s a few country-rockers (“Somewhere in Arizona” and “The Golden Ghost of Love”), pure folk (“The Lady is Waiting”), and bouncy Nilsson-like pop (“Bitter Honey”) dispersed throughout ; these cuts are vintage late 60s LA pop.  There’s a lot of ideas at work here but the group manages to pull it off, making The Holy Mackerel an artistic success.  Highly recommended to those who appreciate intelligent sunshine pop/soft psych sounds.

Now Sounds reissued The Holy Mackerel in 2010 with plenty of extras.  Also worth checking out is Paul Williams 1970 collaboration with Roger Nichols titled We’ve Only Just Begun.

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“Bitter Honey”

:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Reprise | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2005 | Collector’s Choice | buy here ]

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 ]