1977: Rita Pavone - “My Name is Potato”
The novelty song “My Name is Potato” gives no clue that Rita Pavone was really famous – once so famous that she recorded with Barbara Streisand, played Carnegie Hall, and was a guest on the Ed Sullivan show. Rumor even has it that Elvis Presley painted her portrait.
Like many internet finds, the song seems to leap out of nowhere, an unceremonious musical mugging (see the Delorean on Ivor Cutler’s “I’m Happy”), shaking up the orderly playlist like the musical equivalent of the fat kid who empties all the water out of the swimming pool. True to the blitzkrieg tactics of the novelty song, it grabs our attention by cranking up the volume and switching a register for the chorus. The chorus, by the way, consists of the words “my name is potato” yelled repeatedly at increasing levels of volume. The song’s music video has Rita conversing with a cartoon potato, who insists “I’m an American Potato,” as he ricochets around shooting guns – all the while wearing a cowboy hat. Is Rita making a crude point about Americans being uncultured and violent? To the casual listener, with no means of translating this relic of Italian pop, nothing is clear.
Most of Rita’s songs are not like “My Name is Potato.” Some of the most popular ones are torch ballads utilizing her powerful ear-splitting range, her voice capable of leading orchestras. She scored massive hits with songs like “Cuore,” and when you hear her, you’re hearing the soul of teen angst beamed back from the Italy of the 60s. A slideshow of Pavone’s career would flicker with images of an affectingly young Rita in doll-like dresses with short boyish hair; or winning a talent contest which rocketed her to stardom and later landed her up (controversially) marrying her talent scout; or as a teen icon in Spain, making a series of Lindsey Lohan type teen movies.
By the time “My Name is Potato” was released, Rita had already had her shot at pop dominance and was aiming various silly songs at the children’s novelty market while mostly flopping in the charts. What is amazing is how much energy she still put into these insane songs. Behind the snark and fun of some internet blogs that have picked up “My Name is Potato” is a person reacting strongly and even impressed by this Trojan horse of a novelty song, out of which tumbles the conquering Rita. Future students of Pavone studies may be able to read into the deeper significance of this track by, for example, translating the Italian, but for now it’s interesting enough that a career like Rita passed us by in the English speaking world, leaving a hit and run moment like “My Name is Potato.”
1988: They Might Be Giants - Lincoln
They Might Be Giants always seemed to have it backwards. In their late 40s and early 50s the Johns (Flansburgh and Linell) revitalized a career by writing fun yet informative children’s music while apparently missing all of the middle-aged bitterness you got from the music they were making when they were in their 20s. But as silly as some of the songs on an album like Lincoln are, there’s a lot going on under the surface of cheery hooks.
Take “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go,” a song which imagines a scarecrow that mocks every unconscious thought behind your back, and describes the horrible aspects of ourselves that we’ll never understand or even be aware of. “Ana Ng,” the album’s hit song, laments how we will never meet the perfect person for us due to the overwhelming size of the world. The endlessly repeated “Ana Ng and I are getting old…” chorus deserves its broken record treatment at the end. You look past the catchiness and realize how horrible of a thought it presents.
But what makes Lincoln (named, not for the president, but for the small Massachusetts town the duo grew up in) kind of a magical record is how all this unpleasant shit gets presented with witty humor and gentle sadness. “Ana Ng” takes that horrible idea, one that countless people have expressed before, and softens the edges with over the top drama (shooting his hometown on a globe, leaving Ana’s town in the exit wound) and the band’s signature goofiness (after so many mentions of a broken record, the end works like the punch line to a great joke). It’s a balancing act that deserves more credit than the band’s often given, but nowhere can you hear it more than on “They’ll Need a Crane.”
“They’ll Need a Crane” offers a glimpse into a painfully universal relationship between the cartoonishly named Gal and Lad (har har see what they did there). One of them can’t be happy without the others love, but still says and does things that cause their partner pain. Each contradictory, yet understandable, verse slides effortlessly into the chorus’ conclusion: that it’ll take a crane to break up their relationship, and another one to put it back together. It’s all sung to the best melody on the album. Every piece fits together perfectly to create one of the sweetest and saddest songs the band ever wrote. Above all, it’s representative of a beautifully melancholy whole. Mel Brooks has a quote I’ve always liked, “tragedy is when you cut your finger, comedy is when you fall through an open sewer and die.” Lincoln is a great album that takes a bit from both.
2008: LoDeck & Omega One - Postcards From The Third Rock
Hip-hop bloggers tend to throw around the term “psych rap” a lot these days, and rightfully so, because it definitely applies to many of the more popular independent records coming out right now. However, I’m starting to get the impression that when the average listener hears the term he immediately thinks “songs about popping molly,” which is a shame because, to my ears at least, psych rap and psychedelic music in general are about much more than simply getting high and touching people. Psychedelia is about the expansion of consciousness via the alteration of perception, a change that can occur in a myriad of ways, and while drugs can play a big part in the experience, they are supposed to be more of a means than an end.
Along with a few other monumental releases like Edan’s Beauty and the Beat and Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, LoDeck and Omega One’s Postcards from the Third Rock stands as one of psych rap’s landmark releases. An aptly titled concept album, it takes listeners on a vacation of the mind while exploring in great depth all the themes we tend to associate with psychedelics, asking us what is real, how do we perceive time and space, where is the line between genius and insanity, and how does the ego inform our senses of identity, individuality, and community.
The wigged man sitting before you listens intently, his jaw gradually dropping to his lace jabot as you explain: “The rapper recites rhythmic poetry over musical pieces often comprised of looped samples and drum breaks.”
“But samples of vhat and vhat is a drum break?” he demands.
“Of records,” you say, forgetting that for all his musical talents, the man in the frocked coat has never heard an audio recording in his entire life, nor will he. For him, the concept does not exist.
“And you call this music?! Absurd!”
That’s what I imagine when I hear “This is as good as back in the day is/ Absurd like a rap song described to Amadeus.” This couplet from “A Day in the Triangle,” perhaps more than any other rhyme on the whole album, forever remains fresh in my mind. From a technical perspective it’s very basic — a two-syllable rhyme with a couple similes, a set-up, and a punch line. But once we really process what LoDeck is saying, a whole world of interpretations begins to emerge. On the surface, he’s literally saying this day in the Bermuda triangle is ridiculous. Yet on a deeper level, by alluding to a breakdown in the fabric of time, he prompts the listener to question the very notion of time itself, more specifically how our perception of it affects our judgment. If we connect the two lines, what’s absurd could be the very premise of the set-up. “As good as back in the day is absurd.” Calling into question the positive connotation normally associated with the phrase “back in the day” raises a valid point and one that is especially relevant to hip-hop fans. Isn’t it somewhat absurd to romanticize a bygone era in its entirety? It’s not like every rap single from 1979 is amazing.
There is an irony here though, in that the couplet itself, were it not for LoDeck’s Russian accent and gravelly delivery, might not sound so out of place in an early ’80s rap tune. As a matter of fact, there are at least one or two records from that era that juxtapose hip-hop and classical music. Perhaps one of them inspired this line… or maybe it was just the sherm and shrooms. Either way, this type of imaginative thinking is exactly what listening attentively to Postcards from the Third Rock encourages. From the metaphysical meanderings of “On a Path” and “Wipe Out Zone” to the lyrically evolved posse cuts “Nice Kids” and “Titanium,” there is not one track on here that fails to get heads nodding and minds working.
The challenge of simultaneously preserving rap music’s traditions and advancing the art form is an idea that comes up continually throughout the album. LoDeck kicks off his second verse of the title track with a dedication, “I’ma send this one out to pioneers who shaped up my ideas/ writers, MCs, engineers, the placeholders,” while the next song, “No Rims,” bluntly conveys the Bensonhurst-based MC’s rejection of tired clichés, with lines like “Bunch of suckers thought they could bluff they way/ to a castle full of gold relaxing with a centerfold/ kicking that embarrassingly old one-two” and “Who the hell could stand that braggadocios/ stomach that stank flow for the length of a show?” The quest to find one’s own place, both in a given subculture and in the world at large, is further explored in the tragic yet triumphant, stranger-than-fiction parable that is “Understand U.”
Tellingly, the artists’ refusal to conform to prevalent industry standards was likely one of the major factors that prevented this album from reaching a larger audience. 2008 came toward the end of a period during which very few progressive hip-hop records were able to make waves in America, so even though the album was critically praised for its cohesiveness by Cool’eh Magazine and given a phenomenal 9.8 rating by IGN, other review sites were less than enthused. HIPHOP DX, for example, dismissed it as “an acquired taste that some may never acquire.” In the end, Postcards from the Third Rock probably did more to advance the genre than it did the careers of LoDeck and Omega One — possibly their intention from the start. One is forced to wonder if the album would’ve been as widely ignored had it dropped in 2012, now that “psych rap” is all the rage. I sincerely doubt it.
2002: Kevin Drumm - Sheer Hellish Miasma
For most noise musicians, there’s an enemy always lurking in the shadows, a real and present threat. Not that there aren’t recordings of people making a godawfully good racket with digital processes, it’s just that, for the vast majority, you’re cheating when you pull out a computer.
Most people within the finer limits of noise prefer to build their own contact mics, circuit bend their garage bought toys, and construct their own synths with their own hands. It’s almost like a badge of honor within the scene. Yet, I can’t help to think it’s somehow odd that one of the biggest and brashest statements to come out of the harsh scene was made by punching 0s and 1s.
A typhoonic nightmare of granulated sine waves that seem to last for days, Sheer Hellish Miasma (#35 on our Favorite 100 Albums of 2000-2009 list) is one of Kevin Drumm’s finer moments – even though most of his output is either “great” or “brilliant.” The record displays a kind of maximal minimalism that isn’t far from the work of Glenn Branca or Sunn O))) in terms of impact, yet it’s a sound all it’s own, something that can’t be said about your average noise record. There are moments of sample degradation that collide with microphone feedback where you’re not really sure if he’s making it all with a module or a guitar (although it seems he employed the latter for SHM) yet most of the time, Drumm doesn’t bring out harsh frequencies to submit your auditory sense. In fact, most of the album feels like very very heavy drone, a gigantic mass that encloses you instead of an attack of killer bees.
While the sounds are quite impressive and a huge draw for the curious listener looking for a harsh ol’ time, Kevin Drumm’s real talent comes from other, far more elemental places. “The Inferno” – the album’s unquestionable centerpiece – has its elements and repetitions placed in such a way that every second counts, and when the sound changes dramatically to reveal a brighter, midrange mass, its monstrous in its impact.
Arrangement-wise, Sheer Hellish Miasma sounds like The Rite of Spring – all insistence, force and beauty – made with traditional instruments or notes. And, like Stravinsky’s grand opus, what carries this amazing composition is the emotion projected by it which also propels its pace. Such a display of emotion has been, historically, hard to achieve with electronic music – let alone noise – but Drumm made an album that sounds like cyborgs having angry tantric sex, enclosing feelings of ecstasy like little else out there.
1979: Elton Dean’s Ninesense - The 100 Club Concert
The 1970s are often referred to as the heyday of avant-garde jazz and improvised music in Europe, especially in England. Festival and concert performances were frequent and, in the early years, even major labels got in on the action. Part of that had to do with the potential appeal of this music to audiences seeking psychedelic and progressive sounds. For example, there was no obvious indication that the People Band LP on Transatlantic (1968) was a balls-to-the-wall free jazz album, produced as it was by none other than Charlie Watts. Cross-pollination between the worlds of art rock and improvised music wasn’t that uncommon, either – saxophonist and composer Elton Dean (1945-2006) worked with the Soft Machine from late 1969 into 1972, appearing on their albums Third, Fourth, and Five (all released on CBS) as well as countless live recordings that have surfaced over the years. He lent an acrid tone and loquacious approach to a band that, as they evolved, narrowly walked the line between clinical reserve and rugged expressiveness, and his presence certainly pushed the band to extraordinary heights. Dean was recruited, alongside trumpeter Marc Charig and saxophonist Lyn Dobson (who only lasted a short time), from the sextet of pianist-composer Keith Tippett (who would briefly join King Crimson). A look at Tippett’s first LP You are Here, I am There (Polydor, 1970) shows the ensemble as young, hip and Beatle-coiffed – an image concomitant with Modish UK counterculture.
By the early-to-mid 70s, creative music was once again an underground phenomenon in Europe, with most major labels pulling out and musicians self-financing their work (though festivals and the media were still quite forward-leaning). Much as in the US, artist-run labels sprouted up to offer musicians a chance to document their processes on wax. Expatriate South African bassist Harry Miller (1941-1983) and his wife Hazel started Ogun Records to document the British modern jazz scene during the decade, drawing significantly from the exiled South African community surrounding pianist Chris McGregor. Recalling the lush landscapes of Tippett’s work as well as the exuberant and freewheeling suites of McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (two of the saxophonist’s employers), Dean formed Ninesense in 1975. The personnel included Miller, Tippett, Charig, drummer Louis Moholo, trombonists Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti (Switzerland), tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore, and flugelhornist Harry Beckett. Ninesense released two LPs on Ogun, Oh! For the Edge and Happy Daze, and toured extensively through the latter half of the 70s. This fertile period has given us the recently unearthed The 100 Club Concert 1979 (Reel Recordings).
Unlike the many bootleg labels that present this music in less-than-quality format, Reel Recordings has sought to bring rare performances to light both legally and in good to excellent sound. This particular Ninesense set (two discs worth) is culled from two cassettes made by Italian superfan Riccardo Bergerone with the musicians’ approval. And while the sound is a bit raw (the piano is a bit distant), the vast emotional and conceptual canvas of Dean and Ninesense are clearly on display. Miller and Moholo are an incredibly well-synced team, swirling and ebbing in a rhythmic flow that, while forceful, carries this challenging music with the majesty it needs. Indeed, there’s something quite stately about the arrangements, due in part to the instrumental breadth and how Dean has paced the voicing (wide intervals and overlapping sections). With a combination of nine very individual personalities (or ten if you count the appearance of trumpeter Jim Dvorak on disc two), it would be easy to imagine Ninesense being blowout-prone. However, contra the Brotherhood’s music (which was often quite ragtag in its sonic appearance), Ninesense isn’t so rough around the edges. The palette and approach, as open as it might seem, are realized with captivating deliberateness – one can imagine a subtle and linear herding of Evans and Malfatti’s garrulous trombones as they duet in “Nicrotto,” joined by swooping brass, arco bass, and reeds. This music revels in elegantly threading an area between control and freedom, and it’s a really fascinating listen.
Following the dissolution of Ninesense later that year, Dean continued to work in small groups, including with fellow ex-Softs bassist Hugh Hopper and in Canterbrury offshoot bands like drummer Pip Pyle’s (Gong, Soft Heap, National Health) l’Equipe Out and guitarist Phil Miller’s (Caravan, Hatfield and the North, National Health) In Cahoots. However, much of Dean’s subsequent work hewed closer to free improvisation, such as recordings with American trombonist Roswell Rudd, pianist Howard Riley, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, and others. The 100 Club Concert 1979 is a fitting and intense tribute to his admittedly somewhat underground legacy.
1973: Damin Eih, A.L.K. and Brother Clark - “Take Off Your Eyes”
Psychedelia was a fortuitous intervention in the development of music technology. At the same moment as recording and amplification technologies were exponentially improving fidelity and reducing signal distortion, psychedelic rock was in the process of formalizing distortion as a method of reflecting altered states of consciousness. Guitar distortion had already been a fascination for 1950s R&B artists; think of Chuck Berry’s overdriven valve amp on “Maybelline” or Link Wray’s habit of poking holes in his speaker cones to create his signature tone. This fashion for distortion led to the development of technologies such as the Fuzztone, which paradoxically lend a measure of control to distortion, focusing and directing the stochasticity of dissonance and clipping toward musical ends. This tension between the proliferation of signal distortion and the technological means to control flows of noise is one of the many alternative historical narratives of pop music.
Seen in this way, the history of psychedelic music is no longer a narrative of human genius, the expansion of the mind resulting in the expansion of pop music’s vocabulary, but rather a highly contingent meeting of technologies: psychoactive drug states reorienting attention to the excess of recorded music (i.e. noise, inharmonics, decay, etc.), and technology responding by developing ways to produce signal distortion that can be artfully controlled. Lest we forget: LSD was the accidental invention of a Swiss chemist, and the history of guitar distortion is all about the creative misuse of gear and the use of malfunctioning or modified equipment. In other words, psychedelic music became the accidental laboratory for excess, for pushing music technology beyond its limitations in order to signify the chemically-altered consciousness in which noise, transience, and decay signify as much or more than melodies and lyrics. Someone had to be the first to turn the dial on the reverb unit all the way to “wet,” completely silencing the original signal, leaving only the feedbacked echoes.
In the realm of underground psych, this logic is intensified. Unsigned psych musicians of the first era had no choice but to turn their technological limitations into an alternate set of aesthetic values. The world of vanity-press psych is filled with home producers who pushed consumer-level technologies well beyond their breaking point, not just to evoke hallucinatory perceptual states, but also to cover over weaknesses due to substandard recording and mixing equipment. The rise of “lo-fi” as a pop aesthetic in the mid-1980s (Beat Happening, Tall Dwarfs, etc.) was already old news for rare psych enthusiasts, who had long ago embraced the shortcomings of home recording as a desirable alternative to the slick, soulless commercialism of art rock and new wave. The song “Take Off Your Eyes,” by a trio with the unwieldy name Damin Eih, A.L.K. and Brother Clark, is an excellent example of these strategies at work. The song was included on Never Mind, the first and only album by the Minneapolis group, recorded and released in a tiny private press edition in 1973.
Like the rest of the album, “Take Off Your Eyes” is marked by strange mixing, guitar and bass often cancelling each other out, and the nearly incessant cymbals far too prominent in the mix. The heavy delay on the main guitar part often results in the song seeming strangely out of sync rhythmically. At times, the drums appear to be rushing forward while other elements of the composition fall behind. Though it threatens to become annoying, the persistent ping-pong doubling effect on the vocals is an unorthodox gamble that pays off, evoking the mirroring effects of psychedelics and making other syncing problems seem intentional in context. It helps that the main vocal refrain is a bit of an earworm, and the melody is more than functional, but the appeal of “Take Off Your Eyes” is ultimately its own excess. It signifies too much. It insists on its own absurd lysergic imperative too emphatically, and yet paradoxically, it is this wide-eyed (or dilated-pupil) conviction that sells the lyric’s central conceit: “Take off your eyes/ And heading toward emptiness/ You can see everything suddenly new.”
We live in a brave new world in which the evolution of psychedelic compounds and the development of new audio technologies have become articulated together in ways that are not always apparent, such that it is hard to remember it wasn’t always the case. Terence McKenna claimed that the evolutionary leap from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens was due to the monolith-like influence of psychedelic mushrooms. The specifics of his argument don’t matter as much as his basic conjecture; that the advances of humankind are incomprehensible without a consideration of what was in the water. In this same spirit, we should be willing to consider the history of pop music in terms of a machinic evolution; the ways in which technology, with its own contingencies and trajectories, may often be a decisive factor in the (r)evolution of musical forms. Would techno be what it is today without the commercial failure of the TR-606 and TB-303, two bargain basement synth modules created as electronic accompaniments for jazz musicians? Similarly, the story of psych rock is one shaped by a series of stochastic collisions between emerging technology, psychopharmacology, culture, and the human psyche.