Showing posts with label Psychedelic Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psychedelic Music. Show all posts

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thoughts On Pinkoyd Nicelp

There’s no question that the introduction of the 12-inch LP (“long-playing” record) by Columbia in 1948 profoundly transformed music consumption and reception. Without the LP, would jazz musicians such as John Coltrane have been compelled to improvise at such lengths? Without the LP, would the Beatles have ceased to perform live—or perhaps more importantly, would they have made SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND? Released in the United States on 2 June 1967, SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND not only altered the way rock bands approached recording, but also altered what they wanted to record: Nick Mason, in Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (2004) confirms this claim.

As is well known, Pink Floyd was recording THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released two months after Sgt. Peppers) at Abbey Road’s Studio Three at the same time as the Beatles’ were recording the Sgt. Pepper’s album in Studio Two. The link between the two bands is Norman Smith, the EMI staff member who was the engineer on the all the Beatles albums up through RUBBER SOUL (1965), and was the producer of Pink Floyd’s first album. Nick Mason writes:

On the other, more structured songs, Norman was able to bring his production skills to bear, adding arrangements and harmonies and making use of the effects that could be engineered through the mixing desk and outboard equipment. He also helped to reveal all the possibilities contained in Abbey Road’s collection of instruments and sound effects. Once we realised their potential we quickly started introducing all kinds of extraneous elements, from the radio voice cutting into ‘Astronomy Domine’ to the clocks on the outro of ‘Bike’. This flirtation with ‘musique concrète’ was by no means unique—George ‘Shadow’ Morton had already used a motorbike on the Shangri-Las’ ‘The Lead Of The Pack’—but it was a relative novelty at the time, and from then on became a regular element in our creative process.

Since Norman had worked with the Beatles it was predictable that at some stage of the recording we would get an audience with their eminences…. We were ushered into Studio 2, where the Fab Four were busy recording ‘Lovely Rita’. The music sounded wonderful, and incredibly professional, but, in the same way we survived the worst of our gigs, we were enthused rather than completely broken by the experience. (2005 paperback edition, 83)

As an instance of so-called psychedelic rock—a term describing both a manner of recording as well as a particular use of non-linear amplification techniques such as distortion and reverb—THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN represents one reaction to changed recording practices exemplified by SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. But another reaction, or another direction, can be seen in a band that also represents the altered way bands were putting their ideas on record, as well as the very ideas themselves—The Nice, from which emerged Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP).

The link between The Nice and Pink Floyd is guitarist David O’List, who stood in for Syd Barrett one time in 1967. Andrew Loog Oldham assembled the Nice in May 1967 to support the soul singer P. P. Arnold. The band performed with Arnold for the next few months, but by August the band’s first drummer, Ian Hague, was replaced by the jazz-influenced Brian Davison, and soon after The Nice split from Arnold, choosing to pursue a musical direction consisting of longer, extended arrangements such as “Rondo” (a version of Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” probably encouraged by Davison) and Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (probably encouraged by Keith Emerson; see the video here).

The Nice’s first album, THE THOUGHTS OF EMERLIST DAVJACK, was recorded the autumn of 1967 and released in the UK late that same year. David O’List bailed out during the recording of The Nice’s second album in 1968, and the band continued on as a trio. Keith Emerson, subsequently, redefined the role of keyboard instruments in rock music. He soon embraced the Moog synthesizer, helping popularize that particular technology to the audiences of the time.

What I’ve outlined are two divergent paths, two responses in the form of two contemporaneous albums, to the altered approach to recording initiated by the Beatles landmark album (I’m fully aware that the rock critical establishment is divided in its evaluation of the Beatles’ album—that’s not my point). The sound of neither album could be replicated for live audiences, a point that Mason acknowledges in his discussion of THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN that I cited above (see his discussion prior to the portion I quoted above, pp. 82-83). One album is an example of psychedelic rock, while the other is an example of so-called progressive rock.

The difference between them can be understood, I think, in how the different bands approached sonic space: psychedelia is an attempt to reproduce interior (“psychic”) space, while progressive rock attempts to expand exterior (concert hall) space—that is, the imaginary spaces where music takes place. The paradox, of course, is that both forms of music derive from medieval cathedrals, the sonic properties of which the members of both bands, The Nice and Pink Floyd, were fully aware. Psychedelic rock is a simulacrum, an attempt to recreate the echoes and reverberations of medieval cathedrals that encourage transcendent experience (which is why a certain subgenre of psychedelic rock is referred to as “space rock”). In contrast, progressive rock requires the arena or coliseum, an immense sonic space (also allowed by the medieval cathedral) that demands a band to play loud and hence discourages introspection and reflection, but rather encourages solidarity with the mass, in which one’s individuality is effaced. Perhaps this is why some rock critics associate certain forms of progressive rock with Fascism.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Psychedelic Psounds

Yesterday's blog entry on late guitarist Jerry Cole prompted me to revisit the issue of the popularization of psychedelic music. I say psychedelic music because to be perfectly accurate I think the word "psychedelia" names a larger movement than simply a musical one, that is, "psychedelia" would refer to trends not only in music but in the popular arts (such as poster-making), live concert performance (synaethesia), and so on. Since posting yesterday's blog, my thoughts have been preoccupied not only with how we have gone about defining psychedelic music but with how and in what way it came to be recognized as a distinctive kind of (serious) music in the first place. I've come to the conclusion that our own desires have much to do in forming the musical form we have come to call "psychedelic."

I raise these questions because in yesterday's blog I mentioned that Jerry Cole's MySpace page indicates that the musician was "an architect of psychedelia," citing his "proto-psych albums" The Inner Sounds of the Id and The Animated Egg as indications of his contributions to the popularization of this form of music. But the more I have thought about it, the less satisfied I am with this claim, not because I wish to diminish his contributions to popular music, but because to my knowledge these albums were not recognized as seminal contributions at the time of their release. The problem is that we tend to piece together a history comprised of figures and works which largely reflect our own desires--and little else. Numerous websites exist extolling the virtues of rock albums--perhaps unfairly--that have been neglected in popular musical history, but we should remind ourselves that when we write our own history as a "corrective," we do not resurrect a "pure" past, but a past composed of imperfect memories, both on an individual level and on a collective level. Rewriting history to fit our own desires does not, alas, correct what is already an imperfectly written history.

Surely there must be something more distinctive and more singular about what we call "psychedelic music" than the kinds of sounds resulting from "non-linear amplification," meaning that the sounds that come out of the speaker are not the sounds that go in. I'd suggested that Jerry Cole represented an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar characteristic of early psychedelic music, but surely, I thought, there must be more to it than the role of the guitar. Obviously, developments in non-linear amplification contributed to the development of psychedelic music--the Leslie speaker and the ring modulator being examples of such technology--but there has to be more to its invention in the 1960s than the role of technology. Personally, I often find it hard to distinguish between what some enthusiasts name "garage band" music and what some name "psychedelic"; if "garage" and "psychedelic" both refer to a sort of recording engineered in a particular fashion, containing lots of guitar feedback, fuzz tones, and reverb, then we're inexorably entangled in a daunting language game in which our words are, literally, meaningless.

It also occurred to me that psychedelic music itself was not immediately accepted (as in, "became popular overnight"); the audience for it had to be developed. Despite the great reverence we have for the music now--and the high prices some of these "historic" albums now fetch on eBay and elsewhere--early instances of so-called psychedelic music failed, largely explaining why so much early psychedelic music can only be found on obscure 45s, issued by independent labels, and budget LPs issued by Crown, Custom, and Alshire, to name a few such labels. In the 1960s, just as now, the major labels were only interested in the sort of product that adhered to the wall--the economics driving this procedure being to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, then package and sell the kind that sticks--and, frankly, very few early albums putatively containing psychedelic music sold very well at all. Why else are they now so hard to find and why else were they issued on minor or budget labels?

According to (by no means definitive), the first use of the word "psychedelic" in popular music was on the Holy Modal Rounders' single "Hesitation Blues" (1964), hardly a best seller. The harsh fact is, if it weren't for the soundtrack to Easy Rider (1969), the music of the Holy Modal Rounders would never have been known beyond a small coterie of enthusiasts and musicologists and students of the arcane. Of course, simply because the word "psychedelic" is used in a piece of music doesn't make the music itself "psychedelic," which is certainly the case with this song. I strongly suspect that Stampfel and Weber encountered the word as a result of the publication, earlier that year, of Timothy Leary's, Ralph Metzner's, and Richard Alpert's book, The Psychedelic Experience (New Hyde Park: University Press, 1964); whether they took its insights seriously is beside the point. A couple of years later, in 1966, excerpts from Leary et al.'s The Psychedelic Experience were issued on LP as a spoken word album by Folkways/Broadside Records (album cover pictured), which I suspect was the first use of the word "psychedelic" on an LP record. Although it is of trivial significance, the first use of the word "psychedelic" on a rock/pop record was probably on the Deep's Psychedelic Moods, apparently issued in October 1966 (according the CD re-issue's liner notes) on Cameo-Parkway, just a week or two before the Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop (Mercury), and about a month before the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists). Mercury is perhaps the only "major" label represented here.

Gregory L. Ulmer has observed that any form of unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. It is clear that popular music's initial appropriation of Leary et al.'s drug-enabled psychedelic experience--somewhat derisively referred to as "mind-expanding"--took the idea of a "psychedelic experience" as a joke: the deliberate mis-pronunciation of the word psychedelic as "psycho-delic" in "Hesitation Blues," for instance, or as evidenced by the titling of the Blues Magoos album as "Psychedelic Lollipop." Even referring to music as psychedelic (as in "psychedelic sounds") is a joke. Likewise, the records didn't sell well because they, too, were perceived as jokes. Indeed, the idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on.

It is clear that there are widespread misperceptions about what is often called "psychedelic music": how it was initially perceived, both by its audience and its practitioners, and about its subsequent influence. I find it strange that the psychedelic era is now popularly associated with San Francisco, even though the Deep's Psychedelic Moods was recorded in Philadelphia (and its brainchild, Rusty Evans--a pseudonym for artist Marcus Uzilevsky--was from New York), the Blues Magoos were from the Bronx, and the 13th Floor Elevators were from Texas. Moreover, I wonder if a majority of the members of the so-called "counterculture" ever perceived Timothy Leary as anything but a joke. I'm reasonably certain that "psychedelic," as a term used to described a certain type of rock music, had no credibility in 1967; in fact, at the time it was probably only used pejoratively. The word probably did not have any positive connotations in 1968 or 1969, either. Was it ever used positively at the time? Certainly not until it began to be used as a term through which individuals expressed their own desires, and began to identify themselves with the music and the culture surrounding it. In previous entries I've argued that what is called "Bubblegum" music emerged out of psychedelic music, and I think this is correct, but one has to remember that "Bubblegum" was not a term invented by those who liked and listened to the music, but those who disliked, and perhaps even despised it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Space-Age Surf Guitar And Hot Rod Inner Id Music

Jerry Cole (born Jerry Coletta in 1939), the so-called “King of the Hot Rod Guitar” and allegedly one of most frequently recorded session guitarists in American popular music, died on Wednesday, June 4 at his home in Corona, California, at age 68. In the Sixties Cole was a highly sought-after session player, lending his talents to records by the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Nancy Sinatra (“Boots”), the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds; one of the Leslie'd guitars on the instrumental "Pet Sounds" track was Cole's) and Paul Revere & the Raiders (“Kicks”) among others. With his own group, the Spacemen, Cole released four albums of “space-age surf music” beginning with Outer Limits (1963). More often, though, Jerry Cole was an anonymous member of a faux band, playing on numerous hot rod, drag strip, surf, go-go, rockabilly, and psychedelic albums for Capitol and Liberty but more often for budget labels such as Crown, Cornet, Custom, and Alshire. I did a rather quick web search and apparently all of the following one-offs were either Jerry Cole using a pseudonym or Jerry Cole as a member of the band. Many of these records are instrumental albums, dating 1960-67.

The Scramblers, Cycle Psychos
Billy Boyd, Twangy Guitars
The Blasters, Sounds of the Drag
Eddy Wayne, The Ping Pong Sound of Guitars in Percussion
The Winners, Checkered Flag
The Hot Rodders, Big Hot Rod
The Deuce Coupes, The Shutdowns
Mike Adams and the Red Jackets, Surfers Beat
The Id, The Inner Sounds of the Id (RCA)
The Animated Egg
The Mustang, Organ Freakout! (apparently Jerry Cole and the Id backing keyboardist Paul Griffin aka “The Mustang”)

Cole’s Myspace page avers that he “was an architect of psychedelia with his proto-psych albums The Id and The Animated Egg." If so, he represents an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar so characteristic of early psychedelia. According to the Acid Archives at, Jerry Cole indicated that "the original tracks [used on The Animated Egg] were laid down during sessions for the Id Inner Sounds LP on RCA in 1966, then later sold to Alshire." Collectors and musicologists have identified these tracks, and others from the same sessions, as appearing on several LPs credited to different artists: Young Sound '68; 101 Strings, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000; Bebe Bardon & 101 Strings, The Sounds of Love; The Haircuts and The Impossibles, Call it Soul; Black Diamonds, A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix [re-titled Animated Egg album with songs re-titled in order to invoke Hendrix song titles]; The Generation Gap, Up Up and Away; The Projection Company, Give Me Some Loving; and other budget label LPs. One critic referred to these tracks as "B movie trash psych with fuzz, reverb, and cheesy go-go organ." If you're interested, “Ah Cid" (get it?) from The Animated Egg can be found here.

Sundazed has re-issued on CD the albums by Jerry Cole and the Spacemen, but according to Cole's Myspace page, Sundazed also plans to re-issue The Animated Egg, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000, The Inner Sounds of the Id, and other recordings.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hofmann, 1906-2008

Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who devised the technique to make derivatives of lysergic acid and who eventually synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), has died of heart failure at the ripe old age of 102.

Hofmann was a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, when in the late 1930s he turned to the study of ergot, the name for a fungus that grows on rye, barley and certain other plants. Studying the active ingredient of ergot, a chemical identified by American researchers in the 1930s as lysergic acid, Hofmann invented a method to synthesize a series of compounds of that substance. The 25th one he synthesized was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. As is well known, he subsequently, in 1943, became the first person to take an acid trip. LSD-25, Hofmann’s so-called “problem child” as he referred to his creation in his autobiography, subsequently influenced an entire generation, and had a profound influence on the lives of individuals such as Timothy Leary.

Thus Albert Hofmann can be understood as an author, although not necessarily an author of the novelistic sort (he did, though, author numerous scientific articles). In calling Albert Hofmann an author, I have in mind Michel Foucault’s essay, “What Is an Author?,” and his discussion of an uncommon but profound kind of author that Foucault named a “founder of discursivity.” About such authors, Foucault wrote:

They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts. In this sense, they are very different, for example, from a novelist.... Freud is not just the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both have established an endless possibility of discourse.... the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations. To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it up to a certain number of possible applications. (See Josue V. Harari, Textual Strategies, Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 154-56.)

Albert Hofmann was an author of the sort Foucault outlines here: he enabled and initiated the creation of many other texts, in film, literature, art, and perhaps most especially, in music--particularly the form of music that developed in the 1960s, psychedelia. Hence Albert Hofmann can be understood as one of the more significant and influential authors of the twentieth century, and perhaps should be remembered as such.

A compelling obituary can be found here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

University of Nebraska at Kearney student Grant Campbell responded to an observation I made in my previous (April 9) blog entry, “Rock History and How It’s Made,” prompting me to expand on some comments I made in that post. In response to my previous entry, he made the following comment:

The technology aspect is most certainly a driving force behind the change in “style” of the era’s [the 1960s] music. However, wouldn't it be genealogical for a certain era’s musicians to find their own way of utilizing that technology? I know you aren't taking ALL the credit away from musicians and giving it to technology. But if technology is going to advance anyway, I still think that it is the artists who need to be primarily recognized for their creative genius.

I should add that he’s responding to an observation I made at the end of my post, that most histories of rock ‘n’ roll focus on influence understood rather narrowly as artistic influence, rather than on the influential role of technological innovation, an “invisible” factor driving popular musical change. While I was by no means trying to diminish the role of the musician, I should say that what is meant by “artistry” might well in fact mean, in part, how the musician exploits the potential of a new technology, meaning on that point I'm in agreement with Grant when he talks about a musician’s finding his “own way of utilizing” a specific technology. But I would add that technological changes continue to challenge and modify what we mean by "artist" in the first place.

Since I suspect there are many who share his thoughts (or rather, hesitations), perhaps I ought to provide some examples of what I meant by my earlier assertion about the role of technology in popular music in order to illustrate my general point (not an entirely original one, I might add):

--Frank Sinatra responded to the development of the LP (long-play) record by creating albums unified by a sense of mood or tone, e.g., In the Wee Small Hours (1955). With an entire side available consisting of roughly twenty minutes, he was no longer restricted by the limitations of one side of a 78, or roughly five minutes. The second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) exploits the length of a side of the LP in a similar way. Remember that the word “album” used to refer to a heavy cardboard portfolio that consisted of several 78s tucked inside separate sleeves, not a single 12" LP record.

--In the 1960s, rock musicians responded to the potential of the LP by “stretching out” or “jamming”—the “jam session,” which sometimes took up the entire side of an LP. While I certainly don’t wish to get into a simple “chicken-or-egg” dialectical argument, one wonders whether the storage capacity of one side of an LP didn’t in fact prompt musicians to stretch out or jam in the first place. A case in point is a band such as the Grateful Dead, a band that made records attempting to duplicate the ambiance of their live concerts, a practice in flat contradiction to that of most bands at the time, which tried to make their concerts sound like their records.

--The development of multitrack recording, among other engineering innovations, enabled the development of psychedelic music, the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic trip. As Jim DeRogatis observes:

Musicians couldn’t specifically reproduce any of these [hallucinogenic] sensations, but drug users also talked about a transfigured view of the everyday world and a sense that time was elastic. These feelings could be invoked—onstage [synaesthesia, the “psychedelic light show”] but even more effectively in the recording studio—with circular, mandala-like song structures; sustained or droning melodies; altered and effected instrumental sounds; reverb, echoes, and tape delays that created a sense of space, and layered mixes that rewarded repeated listening by revealing new and mysterious elements. (Turn On Your Mind, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003, p. 12)

The “altered and effected” instrumental sounds to which DeRogatis refers are technically known as “non-linear synthesis,” meaning that the sound that goes in to a particular electronic device is not the sound that comes out—think, for example, of the use of the Leslie (see my earlier entry) or the ring modulator. In this sense, I suppose, the use of technology to approximate a drug trip is an example of the banal insight that technology follows the path of ideology.

--After a live concert, the Velvet Underground--the band which I specifically mentioned in my last post--frequently left the stage leaving their plugged-in guitars behind, thus enabling a self-sustaining feedback effect (the amplifiers would generate sound waves that in turn would vibrate the guitars' strings, thus creating a loopiness, or self-sustaining feedback). Jimi Hendrix often did the same thing, exploiting electronic technology’s potential to operate independent of any conscious (human) control. Lou Reed's later Metal Machine Music (1975) is an entire album consisting of self-sustained feedback, pushing the point of technology's ability to operate autonomously of human control to the extreme--see below.

--In a further development since the 1960s, digital sampling enables one to make a record by combining fragments of songs compiled entirely from previous recordings—yet another challenge to what is traditionally meant by the word artist. Certainly the Velvet Underground was—in the traditional sense of the word—influenced by Andy Warhol’s notion of the pop artist, since he was at the time the VU formed using found photographs for the making of prints. Remember that Warhol referred to his studio as the Factory, suggesting the potential for “art” to be a mass-produced item just like any other, or perhaps, no different than any other. Think of Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal to which he applied the signature "R. Mutt" and placed in an art gallery.

The larger point, I think, is that the language we use to talk about popular music is itself problematic, for as the practice of digital sampling reveals, terms such as "artist" and "musician" no longer really function. The question we need to consider seriously is whether they were terms antiquated decades ago, when rapid changing technologies began to profoundly change popular music.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bubblegum Breakthrough (Slight Return)

Last night my friend Tim Lucas took the time to post comments to my recent entries, “Bubblegum Breakthrough” and “DIDs,” a gesture that I very much appreciate--one hopes that one’s blog entries are taken seriously by somebody. While I’d like to respond at length to the many ideas in both of his posts, for the moment I’ll confine my remarks to Tim’s remarks on my most recent entry, “Bubblegum Breakthrough,” simply because it’s the most recent.

Having mentioned the co-songwriters of “The Rain, the Park & Other Things”--Artie Kornfeld (pictured, at the Woodstock festival) and Steve Duboff--he was right to remind readers that I’d overlooked the fact that Artie Kornfeld was one of the co-producers of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Those interested might want to visit his webpage, where one can find biographical information as well as behind-the-scenes information on the complexities of staging the famous music and arts festival. (Alternatively, a brief bio of Kornfeld is available here.)

Tim makes an intriguing link between “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” and the heavy rains that festival-goers had to endure while at Woodstock:

No wonder he [Kornfeld] . . . looks so blissed out while standing onstage and rapping to the ABC newsman about all the people sitting in the rain in the Woodstock movie. His rap is the one Charlton Heston has memorized in The Omega Man.

Having read Tim’s comment, it occurred to me that one could think of “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” as a sort of virtual rehearsal for the Woodstock festival itself, as if Kornfeld had, in some half-formed or perhaps unconscious way, the idea for the Woodstock festival in his head when he wrote the song years before, thus making the lyrical content an example of what rhetoricians call prolepsis—speaking of something that has not yet happened as if it already has happened. One wonders if Kornfeld being “blissed out” during the interview isn’t, in part, his own bewildered reaction to the literal realization that “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” was, remarkably, unfolding before him.

In response to my assertion that "The Rain, the Park, & Other Things" was bubblegum music, Tim responded:

The Cowsills may have been a bubblegum act by definition, but I would personally categorize their performance of this song as psychedelia. There is no insincerity or irony in the vocals, for one thing, and the instrumentation has a wonderfully iridescent quality. Wholesome yes, but psychedelic nonetheless--like a black light poster or a strawberry scented candle.

In response, I would say that a fundamental problem--and what makes writing about this sort of music difficult--is that the categories of “bubblegum” and “psychedelia” are ill-defined concepts: they have “fuzzy boundaries” (no pun intended). As an old philosophy professor of mine once warned me: avoid creating false dichotomies between ill-defined concepts. The problem is this: is psychedelia defined by instrumentation, that is, by sound, or by lyrical content, or, as Tim suggests, by a certain rhetorical posture toward the subject matter? (Irony being a defining feature of bubblegum as I understand his argument.)

I agree with him in his characterization of the song’s instrumentation (sound being essential to psychedelic music), and I also think he’s correct in his observation that there’s no “insincerity or irony in the vocals.” But we disagree over the issue of irony: actually, I would take the opposite position, and say that it is psychedelia that is defined by irony, not bubblegum, the latter music being the one characterized by a certain naïvete and lack of irony--an absence of self-consciousness. In order to illustrate my point, juxtapose “The Rain, the Park, & Other Things” with, say, the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home”--a song which, historically speaking, has the virtue of being released almost exactly at the same time as “The Rain, the Park, & Other Things.” Which song seems more obviously psychedelic? To me, it is “2000 Light Years From Home,” certainly the more irony-laden and self-conscious of the two. What’s more, the lyrics are more “surreal” as opposed to those of “The Rain, the Park…,” which form a more coherent narrative, even if the narrator can’t decide if the event really happened or was a dream. In contrast, psychedelic lyrics are often highly fragmented, repetitive, and, as I mentioned earlier, surrealistic. As an example, think of the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”:

Have you seen her all in gold?
Like a queen in days of old
She shoots colors all around
Like a sunset going down
Have you seen a lady fairer?

She comes in colors everywhere;
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow
Coming, colors in the air
Oh, everywhere
She comes in colors

She’s like a rainbow
Coming, colors in the air
Oh, everywhere
She comes in colors

I see psychedelic music as the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic drug trip--“She’s a Rainbow” being the Stones’ answer to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”--while bubblegum is the aural equivalent of non-alcoholic beer (or, alternatively, psychedelic music played by a band that doesn't inhale).

I think the Cowsills’ (cleaned-up) cover of “Hair” also works as wholesome psychedelia--listen to the sound effects during the “It can get caught in the trees” stanza--but “Indian Lake” is unabashed bubblegum.

Yes, and yes--although I was never a fan of the musical Hair nor the Cowsills (which doesn’t mean, incidentally, that just because I wasn’t “for” them meant I was “against” them). “Indian Lake” is on The Best of the Cowsills, but when I play that CD I usually press the “skip” button when “Indian Lake” cues up. To be honest, the only Cowsills record to which I really ever gave a listen was The Cowsills In Concert (which included “Hair” live), an album that a friend insisted I borrow, along with the first Vanilla Fudge album. I have to say that at the time, for some now long-forgotten reason, my tastes gravitated toward Vanilla Fudge, although the last time I listened to their first album (on CD), probably a year or so ago, I found it extraordinarily dull and turgid. Some critic once remarked about the work of the novelist Henry James, “He chewed rather more than he bit off,” a remark that is an apt description of the first Vanilla Fudge album. I probably thought at the time that it was “psychedelic,” but now I think it is just “pulverizedelic,” a plodding, Hammond organ-heavy album that is utterly devoid of any humor or imagination. You can’t imagine how many local bands at the time tried to copy its sound, bands that played so many high school proms I don’t even wish to think about it. In contrast, and to its credit, The Cowsills in Concert is, now, what it was, then--completely innocuous and benign.

Looking back at my previous post, I see that the fundamental issues became even more complicated when I suggested that "Power Pop" developed out of "bubblegum." Anyone wish to chime in on (for example), the relation between . . . the Cowsills and . . . Big Star?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

1967: Bubblegum Breakthrough

It is no accident that virtually every album considered among the greatest in rock history is not a live album but made in the studio. To name some obvious examples, think of Elvis Presley's first LP for RCA (1956), The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973)--all products of improvements in studio recording and engineering technology. Moreover, in the case of Dark Side of the Moon, developments in electronic music and the invention of the Moog synthesizer both contributed to its success and its achievement. Because of developments in electronic music and recording methods, by 1967 popular music had begun to provide an aural, electronic equivalent to the hallucinogenic drug experience, known as “psychedelic rock” or simply “psychedelia.”

What came to be referred to, pejoratively, as Bubblegum Music emerged from, and was a response to, psychedelia. The acknowledged masters of this form of pop music were Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz (known as Super K Productions), who were to Bubblegum music what Alan Parsons was to psychedelic rock. Under the banner of Super K Productions, Kasenetz-Katz were responsible for hits such as “Simon Says” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” by the Ohio Express, both released in 1968.

In my mind, though, Bubblegum’s first big hit was recorded by The Cowsills, who, as everyone knows, became the model for the musical family depicted in the TV show The Partridge Family (1970-74). The hit, released late in 1967, was titled “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” It was written by Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff, who’d also written the hit “The Pied Piper” for Crispian St. Peters.

I saw her sitting in the rain, raindrops falling on her
She didn't seem to care, she sat there and smiled at me
Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she could make me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Oh, I don't know just why, she simply caught my eye
I love the flower girl! She seemed so sweet and kind, she crept into my mind
I knew I had to say hello
She smiled up at me, and she took my hand and we walked through the park alone
And I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she had made me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Oh, I don't know just why, she simply caught my eye
I love the flower girl! She seemed so sweet and kind, she crept into my mind
Suddenly the sun broke through (see the sun)
I turned around she was gone (where did she go?)
And all I had left was one little flower in my hand
But I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she had made me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Was she reality or just a dream to me?
I love the flower girl! Her love showed me the way to find a sunny day

Betraying Bubblegum’s psychedelic origins, the singer is unsure whether he’s just experienced something real or an hallucination. “The Rain, The Park & Other Things” can also be understood as a benign version of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary” with its supposedly cloaked drug reference (“Mary,” so the story goes, is short for “Mary Jane,” one of the many coded names for marijuana).

Although providing similar titillations as rock but for a younger, teenage set, Bubblegum was psychedelic music deprived of its substance. It was psychedelia with the malignant property removed, the 1960s equivalent of today’s decaffeinated coffee, fat free cream, beer without alcohol, sugarless soda pop. It was The Monkees rather than The Beatles, “I Think We’re Alone Now” rather than “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Crimson and Clover” as the good (drug) trip rather than the bad one of “2000 Light Years From Home.”

Bubblegum’s novel flavor dissipated fast, and by the early 1970s it was gone, supplanted by what’s since become known as “Power Pop”—think of The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” instead of Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky.”