Sunday, June 29, 2008

My Psychedelic Shortlist

Drifting into territory mapped by Jim DeRogatis a decade ago in his book "Kaleidoscope Eyes," I wander along what bookended the punk and post-punk eras I wrote about yesterday here. You cannot separate easily the late 60s efflorescence of the acid-pot-good vibes times from the revival in the 80s and 90s that found restive punks, post-punkers, and whomever passed for malcontent alternative rockers to return and better yet revamp the sounds of the Sixties. For instance: is R.E.M. neo-psych compared to L.A. punk grads Salvation Army/ Three O'Clock? Peter Buck and Michael Quercio both knew their records. Their bands emerged from the same early-80s discovery of "Nuggets" and "Pebbles" and other stony rock collections. So, where's the difference? Many musicians listened to, say, The Byrds or Strawberry Alarm Clock or Question ? and the Mysterians. "Life's Rich Pageant" covered a song by The Cyrkle, but more as a side-ending casual closer than a serious LP track.

Still, on "Document," R.E.M. gave a nicely telegraphed version of "Strange" off Wire's début, "Pink Flag." And, as DeRogatis (who as the Chicago Sun-Times rock critic testified last month as to how he came into the copy of the sex tape exhibited in R. Kelly's trial) notes in his study, Wire as first-wave punks and leading post-punks connects somehow into psychedelic music. Robert Hilburn reviewed that LP when it came out in '77. I read about it and others long forgotten (City Boy, Deaf School) in the L.A. Times and found myself intrigued by his prediction that by '84 Wire might fill stadiums as the next generation's Pink Floyd! Hilburn and DeRogatis locate what many critics do not: the vague overlaps between electronic processing, guitar excursions, dreamy lyrics, and an underlying building up and/or letting go of tension. I guess this creates the mood I'm after. It's more akin to drony, lavish, sauntering, or sinister trails pursued off the mainstream paths into the vapors and shadows.

Now, we're getting somewhere. Anybody reading this knows ad infinitum what "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "Good Vibrations" sounds like. I'm tired of The Beatles, preferring perversely to read about them rather than hear them-- their songs are in my mental jukebox by osmosis, anyway, and one delight of my iPod lists lay in my ability to delete "Yesterday" or "Piggies" or "Michelle" or "Octopus' Garden" forever. Brian Wilson's teenaged sympathies to God remind me more of Dewey Cox with the aboriginal drummers than coherent works of art, although his ambition did drive others to heights they might not have attained otherwise, competition trumping community for hippies along with the rest of us cruel egotists.

So, the challenge for me, as a listener who was a child not in Neil Young's sense but a chronological boy in that tumultuous, blissed-out half a decade, remains to enjoy a music that--unlike punk or post-punk or college radio that followed-- did not overlap with my own maturity. I suppose I gravitate towards it out of some Platonic-Wordsworthian quest to recover the background music heard on Top 40 AM radio, on 93 KHJ, or later the sounds of KOLA that my first FM radio, around my age of ten, was able to pick up from San Bernardino. The L.A. FM stations were not as easy to pick up, and college radio at least for any underground or hip music as far as I know did not exist yet at the local Claremont campus, or if it did I remained understandably ignorant, town being separated from gown a mile south of me.

One of the first songs I liked around the time of Beatlemania was "Downtown" by Petula Clark, and then "Westminster Cathedral" by the Buckinghams. I think I may have only heard the Fab Four when I watched an ice-skating routine on TV and "Help" played as accompaniment to what must have been a strange frosty pirouette. The Monkees were more on my radar when they appeared in "beautiful downtown Burbank," where I lived from 1964-69, and of course "Laugh-In" started. I cringe to think of sitting wide-eyed as Artie Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin or Goldie Hawn, not to mention Tiny Tim, cavorted and chuckled in routines that made Benny Hill staid. I also wonder what in the world an Irish Catholic bookworm like me got out of the later "Love American Style" with its debauchery packaged, like Bob Eubanks' sneeringly smutty euphemism "making whoopie" on "The Newlywed Game." No wonder it took me so long to lose my virginity.

Moving on wisely, what albums today conjure up enough depth for me to bother going back to that time, and to those closer in age to myself who re-created those tunes?
I consulted the top ten albums recommended for the Neo-Psychedelia genre at the excellent resource All Music Guide. I agreed with eight of their picks, so my own preferences mesh with AMG’s groove. Besides a basic Psychedelic category, they break it down into subgenres: Acid Rock, Acid Folk, Garage Rock, Psychedelic Pop, and my favorite, British Psych. That area’s best has been compiled in a second Nuggets Brit (with a few internationals) collection, which I bought with money back from the only time I got enough cash to splurge, for my fortieth birthday—a sign of my wish to return to the days if not Pet Clark then pet sounds from later that coddled, staggered, bold fling into flowers, paisley, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Carnaby St, and Edwardian whimsy (in microgrammed doses as far as I’m concerned).

Here’s a list, with briefer comments than for punk and post-punk, as more of these records may be familiar. I find after goading my memory through AMG that far more of my picks come from later than the “original” time period, but I’m sure if I’d have been more tuned in and more able to spend pocket money at the age of eighteen rather than eight, I’d have been able to offer “Obscura”—- the other sub-genre—- from that era to rival the obsessives who used to read “Goldmine” and haunted flea markets at Portobello Market long before E-Bay and BitTorrent and all those damned Deadhead-jam band trading sites.

For England, an early group that I liked, purveyors of what’s been dubbed “freakbeat,” the art-schoolers The Creation made a few brilliant singles, such as “Painter Man” (featured in the film “Rushmore”) and “How Does It Feel To Feel?” (later covered by shoegazers Ride). Inconsistent, yet with promising flashes of exuberant feedback and overdriven energy. They crammed lots of ideas into the limited blues-rock repertoire, and better known groups certainly “borrowed” from this band of exuberant rave-ups.

The better known Yardbirds LP, called at that time a generic title, later re-issued as “Roger the Engineer,” does not hold up as well as I remembered when I bought it on a pricy import ten years ago. It’s since been out, of course, on Warner Archives here. But, there’s an infectious experimentation that makes this band, especially post-Clapton, fun as well as enduring. This album, as with all the band’s efforts, does not hang together as a coherent set, but it shows their vocal range and harmonic cleverness to its best effect, as it’s the only record that the band kept control of for the masters—- one of those endless legal matters, baby.

Which brings us to The Who. DeRogatis correctly for them as later for R.E.M. separates them from psychedelia except in snippets, but certainly songs like “A Quick One,” “Pictures of Lily,” “I Can See for Miles and Miles,” (see poster below by the classic duo Hapshash & the Coloured Coat) “Amazing Journey/ Sparks,” and lesser-known curios like “Our Love Was, Is,” “Armenia City in the Sky,” “Silas Stingy” and “Rael” show that the Shepherd’s Bush lads could surpass their peers at this genre. (Inspired by Mike Watt, about whom I concluded my recent post on punk, Petra Haden later did this LP a capella, and contemplates the Kinks' "Village Green" next. Brave experiment, which on the dronier textures manages more than on the rocking tunes to express hints of The Who's undercurrent of menace and melancholy.)

Wisely, they steered clear of total identification, as did The Move. I admire this band’s “Shazam” (despite a duff cut or two too much of 1970) greatly. It’s less beholden to the classical melange that would become E.L.O., not as ‘50s-sounding as Roy Wood’s solo forays, and it does show that the band was best when they compressed their time’s hits into their own amazingly deft covers, interpretations, rip-offs, and homages. They were skilled interpreters, able to channel effortlessly any other group’s tone, it seemed, and while this may relegate them eternally to a second-tier vs. The Who (whom they imitated perfectly when they felt the urge), I find their tunes as pleasant and as satisfying as those on my favorite LP from the 60s, “The Who Sell Out.” Like The Who, The Move also possessed a sense of humor. Also check out “The Best of the Move” (A&M reissue of their début aka “Flowers in the Rain” and lots of great singles and album tracks from their brief prime.)

For all my affection for Brit Psych, I admit that few bands made consistently fab LPs. See “Nuggets II” for grim confirmation. One of the iconic songs of the time, “Paper Sun” from Traffic, reveals their own quick one that summed up the fragile raga and delicate emotions of the time well before they wandered out of Berkshire cottage retreat back into hipper urbanity. Pink Floyd’s a natural too, but Syd’ less than vicious ditties about gnomes and bikes enrage me; I prefer the longer space-rock songs off of “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “A Saucerful of Secrets.” I even like the live disc “Ummagumma” that betters some of Norman Clark’s superb ’67 engineering on the original versions. (I bought “Ummagumma” used so I did not have to purchase the dreaded second platter full of their solo efforts, one song per band member over one record, so you can imagine.) I jumped off the boat with “Meddle,” but again, half of that serves elegantly as the last hurrah for space-rock.

You’d never call The Pretty Things space-rockers, and their time in the ring as bantamweights for the flower people was as short-lived as their many other incarnations as they followed their rivals the Stones through the decade’s sonic and sartorial re-inventions. Norman Smith, who twiddled the knobs for this too (and worked similarly on “Sgt. Pepper” that busy year—that needs no mention more here nor do the Beatles), produced “S.F. Sorrow.” Derivative as hell, nearly a parody of itself so accurately does it mime that moment. As with The Move, it succeeds as a fine acting turn from a group that kept moving on, a bit off-kilter from the charts or trends that it could dub so effortlessly.

As silly as “Tommy,” which rock geeks know pre-dated it as the first concept album by nearly two years. But, if you’re sick of pinball and acid queens and Cousin Kevin, why not give Baron Samedi, more orphans, and a zeppelin disaster a try? I must mention here how Keith Moon’s prediction of Jimmy Page’s new band’s fate post-Yardbirds would go down like a “lead” dirigible—there, we’ve tied three groups who’s all shape this genre together.

Led Zeppelin on “III” has a few songs that I enjoy once in a blue moon as examples of a perverse freak-folk blues-rock that in turn sounds like their Sain native speakers circling the Welsh hideaway at Bron-y-Aur who on the two compilations of “Welsh Rare Beat” give a sample of Cymric responses to Brit rock and pop, and have correctly been seen by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals (more about him later) as harbingers of today’s freak-folk, practically third-generation hippies for better and mostly worse from what I’ve heard. (I’ve reviewed both of these eclectic anthologies from Finders Keepers on Amazon.) For the Irish, such worthwhile blips would have to wait until ‘72’s prog-folk fusions pioneered by Horslips on “Happy To Meet, Sorry to Part.” By then, it’s not quite psych, but it blossomed from the Dublin counterculture.

I’ve dutifully tracked down similarly shaggy Amon Duul II and Ash Ra Tempel, and while these have their moments, AD’s too anarchic, too loose, or too inattentive to lock into the drones that appeal to me from Hawkwind’s ’72-’74 period (best heard, gonzo poetry despite itself, on the live “Space Ritual” or Acid Mother Temple’s countless albums from the mid-90’s on, a Japanese collective whose own inspirations threaten to better their heroes from supposedly the golden age of psych. I can afford too few of the dozens of AMT CDs to suggest which might be their best, but AMG rates many of them highly, and they appear to be getting only better. Not sure how long they can sustain this level, or if the drugs will last, but they represent the culmination of those who’ve taken suggestions from the early-70s Teutonic-Hawkwind-Can-Faust alliance and bested them, along incestuous alliances that take them across the world, with such appealing heirs and cohorts as Ghost, Kinski, and Boris.

Over in America, there’s the same situation, great hits, lots of so-so LPs, albeit more space cowboys than cosmic rockers. A very early entry here from Austin, 13th Floor Elevators, stands as would Gram Parsons for a cautionary tale in what drugs’ll do to ya if you ain’t Keef or Mick, but “Easter Everywhere” probably’s the only album with an electric jug (what you used if you could not afford the Beach Boys’ theremin?) that will make you wistful. It captures a pivotal moment, when acid replaced pot, and when the possibilities of what chemical psychedelics could offer to give one glimpses of nirvana. Uneven, thin, and unsteady, understandably. Recorded for spare change, you can feel dessication crackle as fervent trips unfold, tempting madness. Too soon, hell opened, guns discharged and asylums opened.

Another desert skulker, Captain Beefheart, with his Magic Band also provided moments of clarity amidst many of the sound of confusion on "Trout Mask Replica." I suppose pills or smoke might help the audience here. Truly a cult album, it has far too many sax and horns moments for me, but it does anticipate the grooves of “Clear Spot” that for me proved his finest moments in another ambling career.

Back in the city from which Don Van Vliet fled, Love managed “Forever Changes” as its best LP, after a few more savage or at least sneering singles, as the best Angeleno artifact. Equal parts idealism and corrosion, which you’d feel too if the Doors had bested you in the Sunset Strip talent show. It flows better than most records of that year, but’s still all over the dappled terrain. I find partial failures more accessible, anyway. Potential, yes, but as with the previous two artists, too scattered to stick. Rather ironically named group, and I’m sure Roky Erickson and the Captain might bond with Arthur Lee and crew over another passing glimpse by misfits of a lovely summer’s autumn.

On that same Strip, earlier the Byrds had already found weird scenes inside their gold (record) mine. By New Year’s Day, 1968, they’d followed Beefheart back to the country, if a less arid place than the Mojave or the Texas plains. The album they cobbled together contributes thoughtful lyrics about war, peace, and futility amidst the constant infighting and “musical differences.” “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” may be another imperfect LP from a collapsing group of Beatleized Dylans turning from pop-folk to raga-rock to C&W, but any ensemble who could replace departed David Crosby’s face with a horse’s rear for their album cover merits a place in my pantheon. Beautiful moments of clarity amidst storm clouds. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” remains dazzling as a three- minute summation of 67’s aftermath, and those who refused even to follow the "starmaking machinery behind the popular song," as Joni Mitchell sang about David Geffen. It’s one album before Gram arrived.

I wish I’d found a San Franciscan souvenir worthy of inclusion, but if I cannot honestly find a perfect specimen among my hometown’s array, what of our municipal rival? All Music Guide ranks “Anthem of the Sun” from the Grateful Dead as the #1 exemplar of this genre. Yes, I tried. But sampling it in a used record store last year, I still could not be swayed for $8.99 to its remastered edition. Moby Grape’s “Omaha” remains one of my favorite tunes ever, but again, that once-hyped cult-favorite later hyped’s as disparate a collection of musicians at variance with one another as the Byrds, Love, or Traffic. Although Jefferson Airplane's “After Bathing at Baxter’s” has been recommended to me—- by one who was there when—- as an accurate depiction of how acid could enhance a band in the studio, again I have not been swayed to S.F's charms. As with the Dead, that city's vibe remains an enigma to me. The urchin's earnest, trust-funded, paeans leave me indifferent. All these assurances of affection long before the son of Paul Kantner proved to be a total gay-bashing, French-raised, tantrum-spouting, spoiled &%^hole when he rented an apartment from us. But he did have a cool Pez collection.

That’s about it for those who were there at the crown of creation. I find it insightful that XTC’s alter ego, Dukes of Stratosphear, ranks #1 on the Neo-Psych AMG list. “Chips from the Chocolate Fireball,” I have heard, resulted from a track-by-track correspondence where you can look at one song and say, hmm, Electric Prunes, hmm, Donovan. But I like not to know what the band knew here, clumsily preferring my own guesses. The wisely chosen John Leckie produced to superb effect. It’s suitably lavish, half-baked, throwaway genius, over-the-top, and as erratic as its inspirations, and for this homage that cannot be distinguished from a “real” compilation succeeds all the more, as if Nuggets 3.

This 1987 e.p. and LP combo issued as “Chips” began, as we Paisley Underground nerds remember, as a tongue-in-cheek side project, but by English market-town musos just old enough to have had their formative years molded by the real Age of Aquarius, as I had by punk ten years after. So, one of Britain’s finest exponents of whatever New Wave became turned its best interpreters of their own beloved past. Like their peers The Jam, they took the Kinks’ and The Who’s examinations of their kingdom’s literate and imaginative traditions and filtered them through sparkling pop with an intricate foundation rooted in traditions that they celebrated as often as challenged. By the way, “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society” ranks in my Top Five 60s LPs, but cannot easily be claimed as psychedelic. “Wicked Annabella” or “Phenomenal Cat” sound more like the Dukes! Both great songs, but you feel that Davies and pals, like "Magic Bus"-vintage The Who and their own erstwhile ventriloquists The Move, could try on and then doff any costume they wanted, three minutes later, and keep rummaging in their melodic wardrobes with aplomb. Come to think of it, see "Satanic Majesties" and, well, "Sgt. Pepper" snaps.

The imitators of Ray Davies clutter many effete or elfin singer-songwriters’ efforts that for lack of a better niche get shelved with neo-psych, but the Kinks stayed aloof by the later 60s from any trends. Their refined peak, moving and world-wearily wise, with their literate LP streak from ’66-’71, arcs with that of their period’s most brilliant music, but they became more English than their peers in a sort of defiance to their decade and its cant. Tomorrow, it's off to explore imitators and successors and even those who may, with added insight, have benefited from musical and cultural hindsight. In the 1980s, they resurrected this genre for postpunk's era.

Hapshash & the Coloured Coat (Michael English & Nigel Weymouth): Lisergia Visual site: The Who, "I Can See for Miles"

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