Synthedelia: Psychotronic Music of the American Sixties
director's cut, RBMA Daily, May 2, 2018
by Simon Reynolds
“Rock’n’roll is electronic music - because if you pull the plug, it stops.”
So says Louis "Cork" Marcheschi of Fifty Foot Hose, whose one-and-only album Cauldron – a pioneering collision of abstract electronics and psychedelic rock originally released in 1967 – was reissued for the first time on vinyl towards the end of last year.
Cork’s remark is a reissue too, in a way. He originally made that assertion early in ’67 when he and guitarist David Blossom were drunkenly hatching the idea for Fifty Foot Hose: a rock group that “really incorporated the concepts of electronic music not as sound effects but as a substantive part of the music”.
Fifty Foot Hose weren’t the only Sixties rockers who had this light bulb moment. Although none of these bands fraternized and were largely unaware of each other’s existence, you could group Fifty Foot Hose among a confederacy of acid-era bands who embraced synthesizers and musique concrète’s tape-manipulation techniques. Silver Apples and United States of America have been cult groups for a long while, but there’s also lesser-known exponents such as the Canadian trio Syrinx (and its avant-garde precursor Intersystems), Lothar and the Hand People, Beaver & Krause, and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band.
Since retroactively invented genres are all the rage these days (nobody at the time talked about minimal synth, or freakbeat, or junkshop glam, or ...) it’s tempting to attempt a coinage. Synthedelia, anybody?
So what defines this quasi-genre? First, all the groups are from North America. Second, the shared approach to electronics was abstract and sound-painterly, rather than the later prog-rock tendency to use synths as glorified organs unfurling frilly arpeggios; indeed, in several cases, the group’s made their own unique electronic noise-making devices, rather than use the early modular synths like the Moog and the Buchla. Third, most of these outfits had a direct connection to the Sixties avant-garde, with one foot planted in psychedelic rock and the other either in the realm of academic composition or in the Fluxus-style underground of multi-media happenings.
Fourth and finally, nearly all of these groups released just one or two albums before dispersing. Unlike in Europe, where synths were incorporated into progressive music and long careers in electronic trance-rock were spawned, the innovations of Fifty Foot Hose, Silver Apples and the rest simply didn’t take in the American musical soil. None of the synthedelic groups became a U.S. counterpart to Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk. That means that their records survive as curios time-stamped with period charm, but also as heralds of a future that never came.
For Cork from Fifty Foot Hose, his electronic odyssey began aged seventeen when his girlfriend played him Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique” on the family’s high-end hi-fi. “We were lying there on the carpet in front of a very large cabinet speaker stereo system,” Cork recalls of this initiation, which took place in his Bay Area suburban hometown of Burlingame in 1962. “I had Jeannie run through the piece two or three times because I could feel it more than hear it. I could actually see the sounds - I’ve always thought of “Poème électronique” as an audio sculpture.”
Even more mind-blowing was the 16mm movie that Jeannie’s father – an engineer infatuated with the latest gadgets – had made of the family’s visit to the Philips Pavilion, a jaggedly futuristic construction at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. Sponsored by the electronics giant Philips, this collaboration between Varèse, fledgling composer Xenakis, modernist architect Le Corbusier, and film maker Philippe Agostini was a temporary temple to the 20th Century gods of science and technology. The Pavilion was designed as an immersive audio-visual experience: “Poème électronique" and Xenakis's "Concrete PH" were fed through 325 small speakers distributed throughout the building, while a series of sombre photographic stills chronicled Mankind’s journey from prehistoric tribes to the nuclear mushroom cloud. “The whole thing turned me on to what art could be,” says Cork now. This audio-visual double whammy propelled him not just towards his electronic rock experiments with Fifty Foot Hose but into a passion for kinetic art, as pioneered by Jean Tinguely, Vassilakis Takis, Len Lye, and others. Ultimately this would overtake his musical interests completely, resulting in a successful career as a kinetic sculptor.
The rock half of the Fifty Foot Hose equation came from another profoundly formative experience, when as a young boy he witnessed the fervour of an all-black Baptist Church. “That church, it felt like it was ready to explode – they had a drummer, a Hammond B3 organ, tambourines and a choir, and they were just rocking out. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.” This rhythm-and-blues baptism sent him in search of records that had the same “mesmerizing effect” and then made him want to make the electrifying music himself.
By the mid-Sixties Cork was the bassist in a band earning a good living playing five nights a week at Bay Area clubs and that then graduated to the big time at Las Vegas nightspots such as El Rancho and the Pussycat A Go Go. But it was during a stint in Stephanie and Her Boyfriends (a vanity project built around the daughter of a prominent figure in the musician’s union) that Cork met guitarist David Blossom. After a gig, over several beers, they conceived the idea of a band that fused rock and the ideas of the post-WW2 musical vanguard. “I was telling David about George Antheil, Varèse, John Cage.”
The core of Fifty Foot Hose was Cork, Blossom, and the latter’s wife Nancy, a singer whose background – folk and the great American songbook of show tunes - supplied a piercingly pure vocal presence akin to Grace Slick’s in Jefferson Airplane. Much of Cauldron does sound like the San Francisco acid rock sound as purveyed by the Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, and others. But there’s an extra mind-bending hallucinatory element in the mix: swoops and smears of abstract electronic sound. Unlike with most early deployments of synthesizers in rock, Cork’s squeaks and bubblings weren’t decorative overlays, they churned right in the thick of the jam. “Because I’d been playing with musicians for years, it was very easy to just drop into the music – to hear what’s being played and participate with it, not just sprinkle chocolate jimmies on the top.”
Although various established rock bands were getting access to the early modular synthesisers, Fifty Foot Hose built their own sound-generating contraptions. Cork says that wasn’t because they were young unknowns with few resources and no connections, but a conscious choice: “We had the opportunity to use the Moog or the Buchla, but David and I just decided not to – we didn’t want to use somebody else’s instrument.” Instead they built a nameless assemblage that “looked like a coffin – a-six foot-long plywood box with three audio generators screwed into it. Built into the surface was a thing we called the Squeaky Box, because it sounded like you were torturing mice. And there were several sirens, whose wires we’d moved around until they ended up being like ring modulators - dirty ring modulators. We would run one thing into the next into the next into the next, and then put the signal through this beautiful Swiss-engineered tape-loop reverb unit called the Echolette and out into the audience.”
Fifty Foot Hose’s noise-making arsenal also included a Theremin and “a cardboard tube that was twelve feet long that we mic’ed and used to beat with drum sticks.” Blossom’s Gretsch Viking guitar was also sonically augmented, using components bought at Radio Shack and eased under the guitar’s pick guard. “There was a grounding screw that, when David hit it, would pick up incoming airplanes at San Francisco International Airport! Sometimes in the middle of a song he’d put his finger on the screw and you’d hear pilots talking back and forth or the people at the Control laughing.”
Live, an array of visual gimmicks intensified the disorientation for audiences. Cork used an electric grinder to shoot sparks into the audience. He’d fill an upside-down, heavy-duty speaker with ball bearings that would trampoline off the vibrating diaphragm, vault five inches into the air, and seem to “freeze” when caught in the flicker of a strobe light. A regular stage stunt involved a photographer’s dark-room clock that would be triggered for one minute, during which the band would instantly stop playing and engage in random surrealistic acts before restarting the song in perfect time when the minute was up. “Christ, that would confuse people!”
During the acid-rock gold rush of 1967, major labels swooped into San Francisco and signed everything that moved. Limelight, a jazz label in the process of transforming itself into a budget-priced home for the electronic avant-garde, scooped up Fifty Foot Hose. Recorded at the Bay Area’s first eight-track studio, Cauldron combines acid-folk song-craft (Blossom’s glassy guitar and Nancy’s Slick-a-like vocals) with anything-goes experimentation. “We drilled a hole slightly off center on the tape machine, so when it recorded it wobbled. We’d slow things down with our thumbs. It was very physical and tactile. But we’d also slip in some random radio distortion, using a FM receiver plugged into the mixing desk.”
Cauldron’s high point is the title track, a full-blown musique concrète soundscape, daubed with psychedelic word-salad from Nancy Blossom and “guest weeping” courtesy of some students from St Mary’s College, who happened to be visiting the studio with a view to renting it for their choir. “We just grabbed them and said ‘Would you girls mind crying and wailing like you’re witches behind a big cauldron like in Shakespeare?.’ Meanwhile I was bonging away on this big chrome ash tray.”
Cauldron came out to bemused reviews. San Francisco pundit Ralph J. Gleason, for instance, couldn’t decide whether Fifty Foot Hose were “immature or premature”: years ahead of their time, or simply undeveloped. The lukewarm reception for the debut was one factor contributing to the group’s remarkably brief life-span: barely a year between conception and collapse. When the opportunity came for the Blossoms to join the cast of Hair, they jumped at it. Cork, for his part, decided to finish graduate school, moved to Minneapolis to take up a teaching job, and threw his energy into a burgeoning career as a kinetic sculptor.
As Fifty Foot Hose petered out abruptly, the Toronto-based Intersystems were gearing up to release their third album in a little over a year: the satirically titled Free Psychedelic Poster Inside. Despite the substantial discography, Intersystems were not exactly a rock band. They were more like an experimental arts laboratory, in the business of building multi-media environments whose components included sound, poetry, kinetic sculpture and architecture. John Mills-Cockell, the Intersystems member largely responsible for the electro-sonic component of these “experiences”, would however go on to form Synrinx: a trio whose two albums command an unique place in the synthedelic canon.
Like Cork, Mills-Cockell underwent a Damascene moment with electronic music at a tender age. When he was fifteen, he spent some months in London, working in the music department of Harrods by day and immersing himself in the cultural riches offered by the city by night. It was during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall - part of the annual Proms series dedicated to classical music - that he first heard the new music being made using electronics and tape-editing. Not Karlheinze Stockhausen’s “Studie No. 1”, as advertised in the program, but a brief example of musique concrète substituted at the last minute because the Stockhausen recording hadn’t arrived from Germany. Hugh LeCaine’s 1955 piece “Dripsody” – a gorgeous one-and-half-minute miniature sourced entirely in the sound of a single drop of water – blew Mills-Cockell’s mind. “When I heard it, I just went – ‘That’s what I want to do!” He was also struck by the fact that LeCaine was a Canadian composer. Ironically, Mills-Cockell had to travel across the Atlantic to discover the native avant-garde of his homeland.
Within a few years Mills-Cockell arrived at the University of Toronto to study under Myron Schaefer, the head of the electronic music department. He also became involved in the development of an electronic composition syllabus at another Toronto music institution, the Royal Conservatory. Uniquely, this course was open to people who weren’t at the university. Among the members of the general public who joined the first class were three young men who would become collaborators with Mills-Cockell: Michael Hayden and Blake Parker, soon to be his accomplices in Intersystems, and Alan Wells, the future drummer in Syrinx.
“Michael Hayden had been looking for someone to put poetry to these kinetic sculptures he’d been making, and he found Blake Parker. But the two of them wanted to go further in terms of techniques for recording the voice and incorporating electronics. So that’s why they signed up for this class at the Royal Conservatory.” Hayden was then asked to contribute a presentation to a February 9, 1967 event at the University of Toronto called Perception 67. “Mike wanted to build – inside a large hall - a series of rooms that each had a different sensory quality to them.” He asked Mills-Cockell to record soundtracks, incorporating Parker’s spoken-word element, for each room. Dik Zander, the fourth member of what would become Intersystems, was recruited to help Hayden construct the rooms.
Mind Excursion, as the installation was titled, was like a psychedelia-era update of the Philips Pavilion, with a modish 1967-style emphasis on senses-activation and “total experience”. “The amount of press it generated was mind-blowing. Journalists loved it – it had a hook for them. At that point, the whole of idea of psychedelia was very hot.” After this success, the four men formally took on the Intersystems name and created a series of happenings and environments. The culmination came eighteen months later in Montreal with the ambitious Mind Excursion Center. “It was a series of ten rooms, each of which had a lighting scheme and various fabrics and materials that created a tactile environment. One would be all carpet, another would be totally pitch black except for explosions of light. There was a water room, a chocolate room, and a room that was all mirrorized. Each room had a different soundtrack. And then Blake recited this amazing futuristic soap opera poem – about the romance between two kids called Gordy and René – that tracked the action and the nature of each room.”
During those eighteen months, Intersystems recorded three albums in rapid succession. For the 1967 debut, Number One Intersystems, “we didn't have a synthesizer, so we built our own electronic instruments,” says Mills-Cockell. Like Fifty Foot Hose, Intersystems constructed a large box shaped instrument, which they dubbed the Coffin. “It was this five-foot-long board with strings strung along that you could pluck and hit. There was a box lined with purple satin fabric and the board sat on that. Underneath the purple fabric were concealed switches that allowed us to switch the sound between different pickups along the board and out to different speakers in the hall where we were playing.”
By the second album, Peachy (also released in 1967) Mills-Cockell had got his hands on a Moog. This would become his primary instrument going forward. Between the disintegration of Intersystems and the formation of Syrinx, he brought his intricately shaded style of Moog-play to two Canadian post-psychedelic rock groups, Hydro Electric Streetcar and Kensington Market. During the recording of the latter’s second album Aardvark, producer Felix Pappalardi (renowned for his work for Cream) spotted Mills-Cockell’s subtle way with a synth and offered to fund a solo album. When saxophonist Douglas Prindle and percussionist Alan Wells joined Mills-Cockell, the project turned into the 1970 self-titled debut album by Syrinx.
The name sounds like a mythological creature - a chimeric blend of the Greek oracles known as Sibyls and the Egyptian Sphinx, maybe. It does in fact come from Ancient fable: Syrinx is a nymph who ends up being turned into the pipes played by Pan (a legend that in turn inspired a composition by Debussy). Other musically evocative meanings and applications include being the term for a songbird’s larynx and appearing as the name of an instrument in Samuel Delaney’s 1968 science-fiction novel Nova.
The sound Mills-Cockell developed with Prindle and Wells is unlike anything else from the first decade of rock interactions with electronics: a sort of avant-garde chamber-pop whose musky and piquant sourness of tone is steeped in non-Western influences. “Doug and Alan and I all loved listening to music from different parts of the world. Doug learned tabla and sitar, Alan was studying voodoo drumming. It was part of our daily practice as musicians, so rather than trying to be exotic, it just came out of our pores.” He explains how “Ibistix” – one of Syrinx’s best pieces, from 1971’s Long Lost Relatives – was written in a scale whose second note is flat, giving the track its “very Middle Eastern quality”.
The missing link between Tim Buckley’s jazzily diffuse ballads circa Lorca and the exquisite Eighties electro-calligraphy of Japan, the Syrinx sound so thoroughly bypasses the emerging cliches of synth-powered rock, you often forget that the Moog is the trio’s primary instrument. Prindle’s saxophone, processed using an octave-doubler that created an effect like phasing, also contributes to the non-rock feeling, as does the languid pitter of Wells’s percussion.
Lacking a vocal focus, Syrinx were never going to be a chart-topping proposition, and nor would their low-key sound wow rock audiences at concert halls and arenas. Nonetheless, both albums sold decently in Canada, boosted by the popularity of Long Lost Relatives’s “Tillicum,” which became a modest hit in the Canadian singles chart after featuring as the intro theme for Here Come The Seventies, a science documentary TV program. Syrinx’s infiltration of the Canadian mainstream peaked with the live national broadcast of an orchestral adaption of “Stringspace”, a song-suite on Long Lost Relatives, done in collaboration with the Toronto Repertory Orchestra.
But after that triumph, the band were pulled in different directions. Mills-Cockell pursued a solo career with a series of Seventies albums that are lined up for reissue as the third instalment of “the JMC Retrospective”. That’s a nickname for the program of archival releases that started with a lavish Intersystems box-set (released in 2015 on the Alga Marghen label) and continued with RVNG Intl’s Syrinx anthology Tumblers from the Vault.
Although they never got beyond cult-level in their own time, Syrinx were admired by fellow musicians and people in the Canadian art world. There was a steady stream of invitations to work with dance troupes and score short films (including one starring the young David Cronenberg). Proof of their “musician’s musicians” status came following a catastrophe that befell the group during the recording of their second album. A studio fire destroyed not only the tapes of the work-in-progress but all the group’s equipment. The Toronto scene rallied around Syrinx, organising a benefit concert that raised thousands of dollar – enough to buy every member of the group new and superior instruments. Mills-Cockell replaced his melted and blackened Moog with an ARP 3500, “the newest kid on the block in terms of modular synths”. Instead of being utterly crushed by the calamity, Syrinx were buoyed up and refreshed, and restarted the recording of what would be their definitive – yet sadly final – record, Long Lost Relatives.
The best known of the synthedelic groups, United States of America are a temporal paradox: ahead of their time and behind of their time, at the same time. The group’s founder Joseph Byrd was an avant-garde experimentalist but also a scholar of music history with a facility for the precision replication of centuries-old styles.
Starting at Stanford in Northern California, then in New York, and finally in Los Angeles, Byrd rubbed shoulders with figures like Terry Riley, David Tudor and Yoko Ono, and engaged in most of the era’s avant-garde trends, from composing and performing John Cage-style conceptual scores to creating electronic sound-poems. But simultaneously Byrd was earning a crust cranking out arrangements for a Time-Life series of Civil War albums, while also studying early music and researching Asian classical music. “I'm probably the only experimental composer of my generation who can write a crab canon, a six-part madrigal, or a concerto grosso,” Byrd once quipped. The result of all this eclectic learning was United States of America’s strange and wondrous mixture of innovation (striving to do things in challenging and confrontational ways) and renovation (pastiche, quotation, allusion). Alien and ancient meshed in the most surprising and thrilling ways.
Yet Byrd’s sincere love of Americana kept creeping into the group’s music. United States of America’s self-titled debut (and – tragically – their solitary album) actually starts with a medley of rousing late 19th Century and early 20th Century big-band music in the patriotic John Philip Sousa style, including a calliope rendition of “National Emblem” and the post-Civil War ditty “Marching Through Georgia.”
Like Fifty Foot Hose and Intersystems, United States of America developed their own unique and idiosyncratic electronic treatments. They applied pick-ups, distortion effects and Slinkies to the drums; put filters on singer Dorothy Moskowitz’s voice; and electronically adapted a harpsichord and a violin (heard to gorgeously wavering effect on “Cloud Song”). They also used a ring modulator built by a young Tom Oberheim, an engineer who would become a major figure in the invention and marketing of electronic music technology in the Seventies. Another engineer, Richard Durett, custom-built them a monophonic synthesizer.
United States of America’s arsenal of sound-warping techniques are heard at their utmost on the album’s killer track “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which sounds like nothing before but plenty since (it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Broadcast based an entire career on this one song). Shrieking synths harass the ear like harpies and Dorothy Moskowitz’s vibrato-less voice runs through the listener like a lance. As striking as the sonics, the lyrics conjure a vision of witchy feminism at once seductive and forbidding: “Poisonous gardens, lethal and sweet/ Venomous blossoms, choleric fruit deadly to eat/ Violet nightshades, innocent bloom /Omnivorous orchids, cautiously wait, hungrily loom/ You will find them/ In her eyes, in her eyes, in her eyes”. Titled with acrid irony, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” presents a daemonic view of Nature and Sex as a Venus Flytrap for the unwary male: imagine The Doors’s “Hello, I Love You” with lyrics torn from the pages of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae.
“Garden of Earthly Delights” is immediately followed on the album by another feminist statement, albeit more indirect and satirical: “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar,” the apologia of a respectable husband who walks on the wild side with his mistress, then returns to the Stepford-like safeness of suburban matrimony. The melody and title reference a 1905 musical hall ditty, “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You”. Elsewhere on the album there’s mock-Gregorian plainchant (in “Where Is Yesterday”), while parts of the finale “The American Way of Love” resemble Charles Ives meets The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Even as he critiqued the Summer of Love as a bourgeois-bohemian cop out in “Way of Love”, or lamented the lost dream of a Communist Latin America with “Love Song for the Dead Ché”, Byrd couldn’t resist weaving in scraps of Americana.
When United States of America broke up, Byrd’s split impulses – futurism versus tradition – continued through his next project Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies and its one album The American Metaphysical Circus, and culminated with the Bicentennial-themed 1976 LP Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer. Released on John Fahey’s folk label Takoma, the album earned praise from Greil Marcus, not generally known for his fondness for electronic music. Reviewing the record for Rolling Stone, Marcus noted the unlikely nature of the project (coming as it did from “the one-time leader of the ill-fated ‘avant-garde’ rock group The United States of America”). But he applauded its renditions of patriotic airs as “bright, lively, spunky, and full of charm; the music one hears all one’s life without ever really listening to it” and joked that “it would be un-American to pass” up the chance to listen to the album. Marcus even compared Byrd’s “playful and archival” approach to Garth Hudson, the keyboard player in The Band – high praise indeed from the author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music.
During the last two years of the Sixties, The Band and their mentor Bob Dylan were the principal instigators of a backlash against psychedelia and a return to the American roots of rock in blues, country and folk. Released only four days before the end of 1967, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding had been recorded in just two days, its spare, rough-hewn sound an implicit rebuke to the studio artifice and trippy effects of the psychedelic summer. The Band’s 1968 debut Music From Big Pink was even more influential, offering a “naturalistic” path forward for rock that eschewed over-production in favor of a weathered and somehow wood-like sound, that seemed honest and mature. Dylan disciples the Byrds dropped the blissed-out psych of Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers like a hot potato and embraced full-on country-rock with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Meanwhile the Doors recovered their bluesy mojo and Creedence Clearwater Revival dominated AM radio with lean, driving singles that renovated Fifties rock’n’roll. The content of the music shifted too, with what could be called Rock’s Historical Turn: instead of lyrics about dancing, drugs, or fighting in the street, you had the Band writing story-songs about the Civil War or the plight of farmers at the turn of the century, while Randy Newman turned his mordant satirical eye on the slave trade.
rock history have gone another way, avoiding this re-rooting of the music in
the backwoods soil of the South? Perhaps if a major U.S. band had steered hard
in an opposite direction. Intriguingly, a number of established psychedelic era
bands did toy with electronics and musique
concrète. Released in September 1967,
The Doors’s single “Strange Days” features a ghostly flutter of Moog synth. Strange Days the album includes “Horse
Latitudes ”: Jim Morrison declaiming
poetry against a musique concrète noisescape, creating something akin to Luigi
Nono’s clamorous tape-and-vocal
experiments like “La Fabricca Illuminata” from earlier in the decade.
Meanwhile, those other L.A. acid-rockers The
Byrds were also briefly infatuated with Bob Moog’s machine. Released in January
1968, The Notorious Byrd Brothers includes
synth-infused pieces like “Space Odyssey”. The sessions also generated the
consummate period piece “Moog Raga”, a droning instrumental left off the
original album but rescued for a later expanded reissue. Just seven months
later, though, the Byrds swapped synth for pedal steel on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was released August of ’68.
Up in San
Francisco, Jefferson Airplane made a stab at musique concrète with After
Bathing At Baxter’s freak-out track
“A Small Package of Value Will Come To You" and a short sortie into electronic
terrain on Crown of Creation’s
The Grateful Dead mounted a more intensive foray into the studio-as-instrument zone on 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, an album informed by the avant-classical training of bassist Phil Lesh and pianist Tom Constanten, both of whom had studied under Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland. “We were making a collage,” Jerry Garcia later recalled. “It had to do with an approach that’s more like electronic music or concrète music, where you are actually assembling bits and pieces towards an enhanced non-realistic representation.”
But after recording another expensively studio-addled album with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead joined the general retreat to the raw and the rootsy, with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
The effect on American rock was like a sudden switch back from Technicolor to black-and-white (or even brown-and-white). Given the plain palette of so much 1969-70 rock - jammed-out bluesy boogie in the Canned Heat and Allman Brothers mode, nasal pseudo-country harmony singing a la CSN&Y and their afterbirth - it is tempting to imagine an entirely alternative history for rock. A parallel world where Fifty Foot Hose’s Cauldron, United States of America’s self-titled album, and synthedelic oddities from Syrinx, Silver Apples, Beaver & Krause, and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, were just the run-up to a giant leap into the electronic future. But in this world, they remain tentative steps towards a path not taken.
SYNTHEDELIA – THE BEST OF THE REST
This New York duo comprised percussionist/vocalist Danny Taylor and a fellow who went by just his first name Simeon and who identified so strongly with his self-made electronic instrument he named it The Simeon. Resembling a computer console from a science fiction B-movie flipped onto its back, the Simeon featured 86 manual controls that modulated nine audio-oscillators. Not content with wielding this formidable contraption, Simeon also warbled and occasionally strummed the banjo. Indeed an unlikely (if also Joseph Byrd-redolent) element of American traditional music occasionally surfaces in the midst of the Silver Apples futuristic delirium, with the bluegrass-flavored "Ruby" and "Confusion." “Oscillations”, their first single and opening track on their self-titled 1968 debut album, is the group’s defining song, with Simeon and Taylor yowling about "oscillations, oscillations, electronic evocations... spinning magnetic fluctuations" in a high-pitched, highly-strung quaver. Contact followed in 1969, featuring the wonderfully baleful and accusatory “A Pox On You.” Then Silver Apples split. But in response to cult interest stimulated by an unofficial reissue of their two albums, Simeon reactivated the group in 1996 and they subsequently recorded three all-new albums, most recently 2016’s Clinging To A Dream.
Lothar and the Hand People
Lothar was the theremin, of course. But the main visual attraction of the band’s live show was an intermittent presence on their 1968 debut Presenting... Lothar and the Hand People, which mostly showcases a winsome psych-pop group somewhere between The Beacon Street Union and The Left Banke. Tantalizing wibbles of theremin and Moog fill the gaps between songs like “Kids Are Little People” and “Ha (Ho)” but do not disrupt the twee proceedings themselves (more’s the pity).
Still, “Milkweed Love” is a full-blown electropop ballad, a rolling, sea-sick drone of detuned synth; the demented audio-collage “It Comes On Anyhow” would be sampled twenty years later by The Chemical Brothers for their psychedelic Big Beat juggernaut “It Doesn’t Matter”; the twinkling electro-tones of “Paul In Love” look ahead to Nineties IDM. The group’s second album Space Hymn is a more full-blown foray into electronic rock. Songs like “Today Is Only Yesterday’s Tomorrow” and “Wedding Night for Those Who Love” are spattered with detuned droops and tonal smears. The high point is the title track, an ambient expanse that begins like a parody of a meditation or self-hypnosis record (“imagine there is nothing but you and the sound”) then shifts into a vision of the earth as a gigantic space vessel.
Tonto's Expanding Head Band
There were two humans in Tonto’s Expanding Head Band: Malcolm Cecil, a British music industry veteran with a background in jazz and blues, and Robert Margouleff, maker of soundtracks for underground movies and producer of the first Lothar and the Hand People album. But just like with Lothar, the band was named after its lead instrument, T.O.N.T.O. An acronym for "The Original New Timbral Orchestra," it was not so much an all-new invention as an assemblage of existing ones. Moog and Arp synths, modules, sequencers, keyboard controllers and other gadgets were coordinated into a monstrous mega-synth so large that both Cecil and Margouleff could play it at the same time.
T.O.N.T.O was designed to be “the first real-time performing electronic music instrument” and parts of Zero Time, the 1971 debut album, were indeed laid down live in the studio, as opposed to programmed and assembled at the mixing desk. But the best pieces on the album are those that depart the most from the light touch and nimble grooviness of conventional musicality. “Jetsex”, for instance, is a whooshing and clanking mechanism that anticipates the sinister “Doppler Effect” section of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”. Listening to the album’s other high point, the shimmering vocoder-psalm “Riversong,” it’s hard to understand why Tonto have received so little credit as electronic pioneers. Perhaps if they’d pursued a recording career more single-mindedly (there’s just Zero Time and 1974’s not-as-strong follow-up It’s About Time) rather than being subsumed into Stevie Wonder’s operation as his synth technicians, Cecil & Margouleff might be rated as highly as Hutter & Schneider.
Beaver & Krause
Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause were the go-to guys in the Sixties when it came to the Moog synth. Sometimes individually and sometimes in tandem, they contributed synth-playing to records or coached rock stars through their fumbling attempts to grapple with the new instrument. The clientele included George Harrison, the Byrds, the Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, and even the Monkees. In 1968, Beaver & Krause were hired by Nonesuch Records to create a kind of demonstration disc for the new technology, resulting in the double album The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music, which came with a 16-page “syllabus” booklet explaining the technical nitty-gritty of sound-synthesis. Beaver & Krause then signed to Limelight and released 1969’s Ragnarök, on which forbiddingly alien soundscapes like “Circle X” and “33rd Stanza of a Hymn To Sancho Panza” alternated with wimpy acoustic-guitar ballads like “The Fisherman” and bouncy electro-ditties like “Moogie Blues Funk”. On In A Wild Sanctuary (1970) and Gondharva (1971) environmental sounds joined their identity confusion of electronics and acoustics, songcraft and ambience. Results were variable but on the plus side include chilly gems of early electronica like “Spaced”, “Nine Moons in Alaska,” and “So Long as the Water Flows”. After Beaver’s death in 1975, Krause sporadically released solo albums (including a New Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music in 1981) but dedicated most of his energy to his work as a bioacoustician and documenter of natural soundscapes. Tragically his archives and recording equipment went up in smoke during last fall’s California wildfires.
Nik Pascal Raicevic
Not much is known about Nik Raicevic, who recorded under various permutations of his own name, such as Nik Pascal, as well aliases like Art In Space and 107-34-8933. First through his own Hollywood-based label Narco Records, and then via the major label imprint Buddah, in the early ’70s Raicevic released a series of abstract, rippling Moog mindscapes with titles like The Sixth Ear and Zero Gravity that anticipate the extended odysseys of Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler. His music’s relationship to the drug culture could hardly have been more blatant. Head, for instance, featured tracks with titles like “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” and the 17-minute “Cannabis Sativa,” and came with a stoned-to-say-the-least bit of text: “The sound of numbers for soaking in soft dreams. Sweet moments and private notes making a rhyme into a habit. An album that creates the ultimate environment for the smoke generation. Taste it.” If the framing is a little dated, the music itself achieves a zonked timelessness. Highly – pun intended – recommended.
Other possible candidates and edge cases:
Ned Lagin, Seastones
Lagin was an associate of The Grateful Dead, some of whose members had a background in academic composition. Members of the Dead like Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh are involved, along with other California acid rock types like Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden (from Jefferson Airplane), David Crosby from CSN&Y, David Freiberg (Quicksilver Messenger Service) – but more as source material for Lagin to rework than as full-blown collaborators. Seastones was originally released on the Grateful Dead’s label Round Records, and then reissued some years ago in its original, full, much longer form as a double CD. The CD was designed to be played in shuffle mode, because each track in the composition was designed to be self-contained, what Lagin called a “moment form” – like a pebble on a beach. Lagin started the composition while at MIT which probably accounts for the inspiration he drew from geology, paleontology, organic and biochemical synthesis, physics, quantum mechanics, language and linguistic structure, as well as from abstract visual art.
The original 1975 release tantalizing points to a path not taken by the American psychedelic bands – Grateful Dead, Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and others all dabbled with musique concrete and Moog synths and so forth in the late Sixties, but quickly reverted to a more American rootsy (blues, country etc) influenced sound, in the case of the Dead becoming the godfather of jam bands. This release shows a kind of counterfactual Grateful Dead that would have been more like Kraftwerk or Terry Riley.
The Spoils of War
(largely for "At the Mountains of Madness")
Not really anything to do with rock but....
Mother Mallard / David Borden