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Bonus Artist Overview: The United States of America

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The United States of America (1968)

I felt the 4th was a good day to tip my hat to this band

One of the great virtually unheard bands of the sixties, a prized trophy for obscuro collectors, a groundbreaking electronic album, hardcore psychedelia that makes Jefferson Airplane sound like teetotalers, a snapshot of student radicalism, an album with one of the most alluring unknown female singers in rock history, a source of samples for trip-hop bands, a band about 30 years ahead of its time, take your pick; The United States of America were a lot of things to a very small number of people. They vanished without a trace, and their album with them; it wasn’t until The United States of America was reissued in the 90’s that they even have begun to to get their due; they remain a band known only to the rarified fringe where geek meets hipster.

While their recording sounds dated now, in its primitive electronics and its radical, revolutionary, and psychedelic lyrics, it holds up as a sonic tour de force; it’s one of those albums that any fan of late 60’s music ought to hear, as well as fans of the avant-garde, electronica, ambient, and trip hop. It’s so trippy, it’s recommended that novices don’t trip to it; “Hard Coming Love” is going to do frightening things to your mind. For a long time, information on the band was hard to find, but since their rediscovery, the story has finally come together.

Joseph Byrd was the guiding force behind The United States of America. An ethnomusicologist and experimental musician from the UCLA New Music Workshop, he approached rock from a quasi-academic direction; his concept was cerebral, but the sounds he wanted extended beyond the brain and reached the central nervous system. Byrd was born in Kentucky, but moved to Tuscon, AZ as a child. In his late teens, he developed an interest in rock ‘n’ roll and country music, and played in a series of small, informal combos. His tastes grew more sophisticated when he attended classes at the University of Arizona. He took up vibraphone, and played in a jazz band with other students in the late 1950’s.
Joseph Byrd, 2004
Byrd won a fellowship to Stanford, but instead moved to New York City in 1960 to explore the downtown music scene, which at the time was thriving with experimental and avant garde music. In New York, he first began composing his own experimental music, which gained him some recognition in high places; he met up with classical composer Virgil Thomson, then in his late sixties, an acknowledged influence on Aaron Copeland. Thompson hired him as part-time conductor and arranger, as well as assistant and gofer. Another early acquaintance was Terry Riley, whose minimalist electronic epic, A Rainbow In Curved Air in 1967 remains a milestone, and a big influence on Philip Glass, and who would also work with John Cale in the 70’s. La Monte Young was another big avant-garde name in their circle. Byrd himself was involved to a degree with the radical folk and free jazz scene, as well, although not as a major player.

This experience left an impression on Byrd, who ultimately relocated to Los Angeles after being offered a teaching position at UCLA in 1963.


UCLA

UCLA in the mid-60’s was an increasingly divided campus; it attracted bright humanities students and bright engineering students. There was a proto-hippie element and a solidly short-haired population. Byrd ultimately cast his lot in with the hippies, and moved into a beachfront commune with a group of grad students. At the commune, he was exposed to Indian music, modal playing, and most likely, mind-altering drugs (LSD was legal until October 1966). He developed interests in the use and effects of acoustics in music, as well as psychology. With the New Music Workshop, he worked with Don Ellis and explored the ideas of Charles Ives. He began his first electronic experimentations on a Moog synthesizer, an instrument then scoffed at by musicians for being a machine, and also for its $20,000 price tag.

As hippie teacher, he actively participated in the student movement at UCLA, joining protests for civil rights and against the war; he then left the school in 1967 to pursue music full time. He also became active in the organization of Summer of Love “happenings”.

This required him to have a band, and he assembled one piece by piece. His first partner was fellow radical Michael Agnello; they were joined by Byrd’s ex-girlfriend from New York, Dorothy Moskowitz, who had spent time writing and performing in musical theater. Stu Brotman, who had played bass in the seminal L.A. psychedelic band Kaleidoscope was also enlisted.

They cut some demos in 1967 that landed in the hands of young Clive Davis of Columbia Records, who was looking actively for what might be the “next big thing”, and he was taken with their electronic experiments. He signed the band, which led to Agnello’s departure; he accused Byrd of working with the system, rather than subverting it. Brotman split as well; he’d later turn up in Canned Heat.

The United States of America

Undeterred, Byrd put together a new band, consisting of himself on all manner of electronic devices, primarily a Durrett synthesizer, Moskowitz on vocals, and a group of UCLA grad students; Gordon Marron on electric violin, Rand Forbes on bass, and Craig Woodson on drums. Ed Bogas, while not credited as a member on the album jacket, contributed piano, calliope, and organ and played on the band’s lone tour. The band, and their recordings, featured no guitarist at all.

The musicians tinkered a lot to come up with their sound; Forbes played an unfretted bass, one of the first to use that instrument; often the bass would be fuzzed up and used as a lead instrument. Marron’s violin had a built-in divider that could raise and lower it an octave. One trick among many that Woodson applied was hanging slinkies from his cymbals. Tape echo and vocal distortion was liberally applied as was the band’s most noticable sonic piece of equipment, a ring modulator, which provided their space-bending musical warps and rushes. Moskowitz’s voice has often been compared to Grace Slick’s, and the comparison holds, although Moskowitz had a chillier, more detached and remote style. Byrd and Marron also contributed vocals.
The United States of America: The United States of America (1968)
This lineup recorded their lone album, The United States of America in 1968. It stands as one of the only vintage psychedelic albums that attempts to take psychedelia in an electronic direction; Fifty Foot Hose, a long-forgotten San Francisco band, and the duo Silver Apples, may well have made the only others. The album begins with the tense, frightening, atmospheric, “The American Metaphysical Circus”. Its circus theme and calliope recall the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” on belladonna, but musically, it’s a whole different trip. Moskowitz sings alluringly of torture and sadism while the ring modulater sounds like a theremin in the background, and the band paces itself with a bass-heavy slow groove; as the song progresses, the stereo separation becomes disorienting, and her voice becomes filtered and distorted into a hallucinatory leer. It’s followed up by “Hard Coming Love” where the electronics take center stage, while Moskowitz’ lyrics are strongly suggestive of the beginning of a heavy trip, made explicit by the ring modulating that runs amok in its mimicry of a drug rush. A gentle lull follows in the shape of “The Cloud Song” a gentle fable adopted from Winnie The Pooh that floats on swirling electronic modalities, and then the drugs kick in again, for the scary “Garden of Earthly Delights” which is an uptempo endorsement of deadly nightshade and all other potent psychedelics; it can also be read as a love song. Also of note are the fuzz-bass driven “I Wouldn’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar”, a Byrd skewering of middle class America, the dreamy psychedelia and au currant politics of “Love Song For The Dead Che”, “Coming Down”, an update of sorts from “Hard Coming Love” in which Moskowitz speculates “there is sometimes a secondary phase” before the song worms into another psychedlic cacophany of electronic swirlies and rushes. The album closer, “The American Way Of Love” is The United States of America: the United States of America {with cover wrapper] (1968)musique concrete, a sound collage of flashbacks from earlier in the album, with some Charles Ives marching bands thrown in. The album isn’t flawless; Marron’s vocal on “Where Is Yesterday” is a little shaky, some of Byrd’s politics get a little smug in places. But those are nitpicks; the overall album is unlike any other. In spirit, it could be compared to Frank Zappa or Velvet Underground, but not in sound. David Rubinson produced, and by all accounts it was a painstaking job wiring things together for an 8-track recording.

Columbia apparantly nixed a proposal to release the album with an American flag dripping blood on the cover; bandmember photos were used, and the album was wrapped in a plain manila envelope that read “The United States of America”, and left it at that.

Commercially, the album proved too freaky for most people; it peaked at #181 and was off the charts in weeks. Still, it was an excellent showing for an avant garde album, and the album, while controversial, generally received raves from the hippest corners of the rock press.

The band’s tour was launched to coincide with the album, and they attempted to reproduce the exact sound of the album onstage; according to those who were there, it suffered from the electronic equipment failing at inopportune moments, another problem was in finding the right venues for the avant-garde/revolutionary act. At one gig, they shared the bill with the Velvet Underground. Unfortunately, the band started falling apart fast during the tour. At a key gig at the Fillmore East, Byrd and Marron came to fisticuffs backstage. At a later gig in Orange County, three members were busted for marijuana; Byrd and Moskowitz had to perform augmented by the opening act. Producer Rubinson, who was integral to the band’s sound, and Byrd also came to disagreement over the band’s sound and direction. Byrd was gaining a reputation as being a hard taskmaster; he sacked Rubinson, which apparently led to Moskowitz’ subsequent departure, followed by the others.
Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies: The American Metaphysical Circus (1969)
And that was that. Byrd attempted a follow-up, credited to “Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies” titled The American Metaphysical Circus, also for Columbia, but the album tanked; the critics didn’t like it either. In reality, it’s an interesting experiment; nowhere near the quality and adventurousness of the United States of America album, but still fairly challenging and interesting. Moskowitz was invited to apply vocals, but turned down the offer. Instead a series of vocalists, including Susan de Lange, Victoria Bond and Christie Thompson, supplied vocals. Moskowitz joined another group, a conventional hippie/folkie band, but it never recorded or released any recordings.
Joesph Byrd: Yankee Transcendoodle (1975)
Subsequent years have produced little else. Byrd’s next effort wasn’t until 1975, Yankee Transcendoodle, an album of moderately interesting synthesizer noodling. He served as producer on Ry Cooder’s 1978 album, Jazz. His next effort was A Christmas Yet To Come, from 1980, another album of synthesizer transcendoodles. Since then, he has contributed the occasional advertising jingle and film score. He did write a fascinating essay for Sundazed records’ reissue of The United States of America, which features 10 interesting bonus cuts, mainly demos. As of 2004, he owned and operated a bed and breakfast in northern California and also worked as a teacher. Moskowitz’ bewitching voice has only turned up on one other album, briefly, as part of Country Joe McDonald’s All Stars, who released Paris Sessions in 1973. She retired from music to raise a family, and currently works as a teacher in Oakland, CA. Marron gets the occasional gig as a session musician; he’s currently based in Hawaii. Woodson has appeared with Kronos Quartet and also teaches. Ed Bogas composed music for Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat, and also for children’s animation. Forbes has left the music business altogether.
The United States of America: Hard Coming Love (demo) [45] (Sundazed, 2004)
The United States of America’s legacy remains their one magnificent album. Traces of their music may be heard in the early 70’s English progressive rock outfit, Curved Air. Contemporary U.K. psychedelic/electronic/avant garde band Broadcast has cited them as an influence, and trip-hop pioneers Portishead thanked them on an album cover; their “Half Day Closing” borrows more than just a little from “The American Metaphysical Circus”.

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About uao

  • godoggo

    Never heard of ‘em, but they seem to have it all: cool, for the half of me that denies my dorkiness, and serious classical connections, for the side that revels in it. Anyways, for some reason, this page, unlike the one you linked to, has audio samples: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000011XM/002-1673650-3832052?v=glance

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Thanks for the link godoggo. I also have a complete version of “The American Metaphysical Circus” song on this page of my blog.

  • Shark

    I loved that band/album, but I haven’t heard it in probably 30 years.

    I might add that it was obscure even when it was released. It was very hard to find in record stores, and only one friend of mine had a copy — which we wore out during our stoned late-night ‘happenings’.

    Thanks for the overview, uao!

    PS: It probably should have been included in this *’review’ of mine — but as I said, I don’t own the darn thing.

    *you’re familiar with “Touch”?

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Hi Shark;

    I’ve never heard of Touch, but your review has whet my interest; I had no idea any of the Kingsmen ever attempted anything further. I’ll look into ‘em more.

    I did used to have the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s second album back in my personal late-60’s (which was actually the early 80’s for me). Your write-up on them is one of the best I’ve seen.

  • Shark

    uao, thanks. I just hope to turn a few people on to some of my obscure 60s faves.

    I’d love to know what you think of the Touch album. It’s pretty friggin’ incredible, and still holds up after all these years.

    Lemme know when you get a listen.

  • Diane

    I love this album!!!!! I’m only 22, so i’ve been trying to discover great obscure bands from the sixties, since i wasn’t born yet during that time, and this band, the usa is incredible. i really want to try to find out dorothy’s or joe’s email address to tell them to regroup and go on another tour. just for me! (ha ha like they’d do that)

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Hey Diane, always gald to hear from someone else who enjoys this record as much as I always have.

    By the way, I did find email addresses for both Moskowitz and Byrd on the web. I won’t post them here, because I don’t have their permission. But here’s a hint: they both teach at schools in California. Use some creative Googling, and you’ll find them; I “borrowed” the Byrd photo from the university site where he teaches.

    If you can get ‘em back together, let me know. I’ll buy a ticket.

  • Jordan

    yeah, this is an album i put off buying for a few months now. I’m 21 and i missed the 60’s, of course… These guys are absolutely amazing. Consider my mind blown to the 8th dimension. The music, the lyrics, everything. I’m glad to see such a detailed review/history of the band somewhere on the web. This band has affected me musically for the rest of my life. Just a completely obscure gem of sorts, that everyone should have a listen to- in my opinion. God bless, The United States of America. And thank you uao for this article you have written about them.

  • Shark

    Young kids checking out history and their musical inheritance: cool.

    Diane and Jordan’s comments make me think there’s hope for the future:

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Hey cool, Jordan. Age is irrelevant when it comes to music; I was still wearing diapers when this album came out myself.

    Thanks for the kind words; I like to think this is the most comprehensive piece on the band on the internet right now (I couldn’t find any more detailed ones, and I really looked hard).

    I’ll second Shark’s comment that it is cool to hear from young people about this band; that’s why I write these things, to help those just starting out in their musical odyssey know the context and history of music they may have missed.

  • Janio

    I Just love this album. I heard them through the band Broadcast that cited them as their influence. I can see how. Well anyway, I got a hold of a burned copy from a friend(I know burning is bad). But I just had to have it. Anyhow, I wanted to know if anyone had a copy or a website for the lyrics. Sometimes it is hard to make out what Moskowitz says. Especially on the first track there are parts that I can’t comprehend. Oh, yeah and are there lyrics on the real copy. Just wondering since I will
    be getting one soon.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Heya Janio–

    I always love to hear from fans of this band.

    Like you mention, the original vinyl copy of the album had the lyrics printed on the back cover (incidentally, aside from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was one of the very first albums to do so)

    I bought that vinyl way back in 1983, but no longer have it. I bought a CD of it on Edsel records while in Japan in the 90’s, but I don’t recall the CD having the lyrics on it.

    There is a “deluxe” CD that also included a sizable number of outtakes and alternate versions (including stuff from the 1967 session mentioned above, including “American metaphysical Circus”) on Sundazed records. I’ve not found it in stores, but Sundazed sells it on their site.

    Not sure if that reissue restored the lyrics though; maybe you could email them and ask.

    I used to know most of ‘em by heart; here’s the lyrics to “American Metaphysical Cicus”, I think I got ‘em 100% right here (comment #2 has a link where you can hear it):

    At precisely 8:05
    Dr. Frederick Von Meyer
    Will attempt his famous dive
    Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire

    In the center of the ring
    They are torturing a bear
    And although he cannot sing
    We can make him whistle Londonderry Air

    And the price is right;
    The cost of one admission is your mind

    We shall shortly institute
    A syntopicon of fear
    While it’s painful it will suit
    Many customers whose appetites are queer

    Or for those who wish to pay
    There are children you can bleed
    In a most peculiar way
    We can give you all the instruments you’ll need

    And the price is right;
    The cost of one admission is your mind

    If you’re harder yet to please
    We have most delightful dreams
    Our recorders will preserve
    The intensity and passion of your screams

    For we only aim to please
    It’s our customers who gain
    As their appetites increase
    They must come to us for pleasure and for pain

    And the price is right;
    The cost of one admission is your mind

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Bummer– some of the pics in this article went dead over the past year.

    I can’t fix it here after it has been archived, but they’re back on my blog here, if anyone wants to see the original piece with pics intact:

    Artist Overview: United States of America

  • Janio

    Hi, Thanks for the reply, I forgot to mention that
    I’m 20 and also discovering old bands from the 60’s and 70’s. Like The Incredible String Band and
    my favorite, Leonard Cohen.

    Wow, those are some really weird and interesting lyrics. Is the song about capitalism and how we are the consumers. “The cost of one admission is your mind.” Very much like Radiohead. This is like an early version of OK Computer. The song Fitter Happier best explains what I mean.
    Anyway if it’s not too much trouble, do you think I could get the other lyrics as well. I mean, if you can’t, that’s okay.
    Oh, and by the way I’m using Firefox and all the pics come out fine on my browser.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Hi Janio–

    Well, I don’t actually have the lyrics printed anywhere, my copy of the album is a rip.

    However, someone else also emailed me recently asking if I had the lyrics, too. So maybe as a little project, I’ll try to transcribe the lyrics and post them here, if I can’t find ‘em anywhere else. Check back in a couple of days…

    OK Computer is an apt comparison; I hadn’t really thought of it until now, but when you mention it, I can see a similarity; good call.

    Broadcast, as you’ve noted, is something of a spiritual grandchild of this band, and if you like “American Metaphysical Circus” you’ve gotta hear “Half Day Closing” by Portishead which has that same ominous bassline and similarly paced and fuzzed vocals.

    Worth looking for the Joseph Byrd and the Field Hippies LP too; I know it turns up on filesharing sometimes; the CD exists but is hard to find.

    For an older band that shares some similarities, try out Curved Air, an early 1970’s British prog-rock outfit featuring Francis Monkman in a Joseph Byrd-like role on synthesizers and keyboards, and Sonia Kristina in the Moskowitz role. By far their best album is Second Album from 1971. Phantasmagoria from 1972 is also pretty good. Not nearly as mind-warping (or good), but an interesting variation on the USA’s sound. Some good songs by Curved Air include “Back Street Luv”, “Young Mother”, “Puppets” “Jumbo” “Marie Antoinette” “Metamorphosis” “Cheeta” “Vivaldi” “It Happened Today” and “Purple Speed Queen”. Police drummer Stewart Copeland joined in the mid 70’s (and married the singer, I think), but their earlier, first four albums are the best.

    Leonard Cohen and Incredible String Band, eh? Here’s a couple of offbeat other albums you might find interesting: Al Stewart, Love Chronicles, anything by West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (Shark agrees), Pearls Before Swine (who cover Cohen’s “Suzanne” and sound kinda like ISB), and maybe even Ultimate Spinach, if you’re into offbeat 60’s obscurities.

    I’ll see what I can do about those lyrics; stay tuned…

  • Janio

    I’ll make sure to check on the lyrics in the future.
    And thanks for all the suggestions. I’ll give them all a listen when I can. I have Portishead’s Dummy album. But not that song. Oh, and I noticed that on Joseph Byrd and the Field Hippies LP there is a song called You Can’t Ever Come Down.
    Which is also on The USA as a bonus track,(I found out from Amazon.com) are these two the same songs or just different versions.

  • karl

    The lyrics here are as presented on the original lyric sheet. But she sang: “If you’re harder yet to serve” (rhymes with “preserve”).