I know it’s fashionable to mock what’s now known as “Art Rock” — but if ya weren’t there on that sorta burned-out commercialized teenage landscape in the sixties, you might not understand the appeal or significance of music that is more complicated than three chords accompanied by some childish, cheezy, romantic lyrics.
Well. Sit tight, you young, impatient, ethno-culture-centric assholes.
See, it’s the mid-1960s…
My friends and I have just started smoking pot and doing acid. (And that’s just on the way to school in the morning!) We’re starting to see god more often — and experiencing that transcendental feeling that we’re one with Universe, time is meaningless, and Love Is All You Need.
What we need is some cooler music.
Why? ‘Cause we’re gettin’ kinda sick of the three-chord, domesticated primate, testosterone-soaked, silver-backed carnivorous-predator stuff that is coming out of American garages, English pubs, and rock music and pop radio in general. We’re TRANSCENDING, fer-christ-sakes — and we need a soundtrack as complex as our meandering minds and our holy hallucinations.
5/4 time. More instruments. More ‘colors’. More weirdness. Something to challenge the mind. Something to raise the consciousness.
Yeah, I know that all sounds slightly naive and pretentious to someone raised on greed, MTV, and the pursuit of MBAs from impressive-sounding universities — but that says more about the contemporary young than it does about us old hippies. Transforming consciousness was a primary goal of life. And so, of course, it came to be associated with our music.
Cut to 1967. A band appears with the pretentious, yet timely name of “The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band”.
Hell, with the likes of a young Andrew Warhola shaking up the visual art world, I’ll buy the album just because I love the name of the group!
…Not to mention the covers! — some of the most memorable art works in the history of rock — especially the album I want to mention first:
WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTATL BAND – VOLUME III
Volumes I started out good, Volume II was better (and included a later radio hit, “Smell of Incense” — for a cover band called Southwest FOB) — but Volume III turned out to be their masterpiece.
West Coast consisted mainly of two brothers, Shaun and Danny Harris. The had a history of music training, since their father was the famous and world-renowned composer Roy Harris. They played a number of instruments, sang beautiful close harmonies, and wrote ethereal, folkish-rock tunes that sound like nothing before or since. They included special new effects in the recording studio, experimented with sounds, styles, and structures.
The Harris brothers teamed up with a wacky, opportunist ego maniac in LA named Bob Markley, who was either a nut-case or a genius. Either way, Markley wrote some lyrics, sang, banged a tambourine, and helped to shape the albums and careers of the Harris brothers.
This album, like the others listed here, is almost indescribable. Lyrical, beautiful, strange, varied, and revolutionary — this album can almost fit into a psychedelic folk-rock genre, but barely.
Cut to later in 1968: my friends and I are going to see a guy named Jimi Hendrix play in a small auditorium here in Cowtown. We’re excited to see our new psychedelic guitar hero, but early in the evening, something happens that CHANGES OUR LIVES FOREVER.
The lights go down in the auditorium. A pulsating light show covers the walls of the auditorium, 360 degrees of liquid, swirling colors. The music starts; it’s like nothing we’ve ever heard. Through the colorful haze, we can see three guys onstage; a bass guitarist, an organ player, and a drummer. For the next hour and a half, the music DOESN’T STOP. One continuous song, unfolding as a series of aural doors that unfold inside each other — heading toward infinity. Or is that the end? We don’t know. Wait. The lights come up. The band starts to exit. Was that drummer really naked? No, he wore a g-string and had a shirt painted on his bare upper torso.
Who the hell was that? WHAT the hell was that?
Cool concert! Cool music! An even cooler name!
THE SOFT MACHINE
After that performance, Jimi Hendrix was more like a sorta interesting afterthought. About six months later, when Soft Machine Volume I came out on vinyl, we learned that we’d heard the entire album that night of the Hendrix concert. Wow. These guys combine jazz, rock, psychedilia, and a bit of dada. Jeesus, their titles sound like something by Breton, Satie, or Tzara! They even have a song referring to the great Alfred Jarry, dadaist weirdo! What’s not to love!? Music BY AND FOR intellectual dadaists!
Volume II came out a few months later, and is probably the single greatest, most revolutionary album in ‘art-rock’ history. It inspired generations of musicians, many of whom became known as the “Canterbury scene” — based on their geographic location in England. Caravan, Egg, Gong, Matching Mole, King Crimson, Hatfield and the North — all of these bands shared a common cultural lineage with Soft Machine.
Micheal Ratledge (keyboards) and Robert Wyatt (vocals/drums) were the heart of the original Soft Machine, but they broke up the band shortly after touring America with Hendrix. They continued to record a few more studio albums, (Volume III is an abstract, jazzy masterpiece), but gave up on the band and let the name Soft Machine continue under other musicians. (The great Allan Holdsworth played guitar for one later incarnation of SM.)
Lucky for you, Volume I and II have been repackaged as a pair on a single CD. For Vol. II, it might take a few listens before you ‘get it’, but once you do, this album will seep into your DNA and give you many hours of listening pleasure.
By the way: Robert Wyatt is known by MANY in the music cult/underground as the Greatest Drummer in rock history. No one played like Wyatt, especially that infamous high-hat, but tragically, in the early 70s — Wyatt fell out a window, broke his spine, and was paralyzed from the waist down. He still makes great records, plays many instruments — all from his wheelchair. His most recent work provided beautiful vocals on the soundtrack to the film “Winged Migration”
Cut to 1968.
The Beatles Sargeant Pepper just blew everybody away. They left pop music and rock music in the dust. They took a gigantic, musical leap — and no one was even on the same planet, let alone on the same page.
So an American rock verteran went into the studio with the goal of topping the Beatles; he wanted to push the boundaries beyond Sgt. Pepper, to go farther and faster into the future of music. He wanted, and he explicitly stated this at the time, “to make music that is transcendental, that changes the mind”.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys?
You must be joking. The guy’s name was Don Gallucci, and his band/album “TOUCH” makes Pet Sounds sound like a series of nursery rhymes.
Don Gallucci was the original keyboardist for the Kingsmen. His three-chord paw thumping on Louie Louie became the most recognized chords in the history of rock. But Don Gallucci was a highly trained classical musician, and after his days with the Kingsmen and a transitional group called, “Don and the Goodtimes”, he decided to blow the minds of the music world with the most artistic, beautiful, jazzy, classically-based album in American history.
And he did.
It’s spacey, jazzy, it’s loud, it rocks, it’s quiet, it sounds like Eric Satie, Stravinsky, the Beatles. It’s indescribable. And it’s one of the great American masterpieces to emerge from the psychedelic era.
I might add that many later bands — including Kansas and Yes — pointed to the Touch album as a life-changing experience.
* Hendrix heard a studio rehearsal and was so blown away that he decided to give Gallucci enough money to continue his recordings.
* Songs 1-7 are from the original album. Stop there. The last note was meant to liquify your acid-addled brain and suck it out through your ears. Many a stoned listener ended up in the emergency room after cut #7.
* Cut #7, titled “Seventy-Five” is an 11 minute masterpiece that contains one of the most beautiful guitar solos in musical history.
Have fun, and don’t forget: they don’t make ‘em like they used to!