1968: The Soft Machine - Self-Titled; Volume 2
Though you never see their name on any “as seen on TV” best of the ‘60s compilations, the legacy of The Soft Machine finds themselves remembered as one of the most talented and influential collectives ever to flourish out of the English countryside. Their story began in Canterbury when drummer Robert Wyatt, bassist Kevin Ayers, guitarist Daevid Allen, and idea man Mike Ratledge on keyboards formed the original line-up in 1966. It was this quartet that recorded the first Soft Machine single, while earning themselves a lot of buzz in the UK underground, coming out of the same scene that produced Gong (of which Allen was also a member) and Caravan, among others. They were frequent guests at the UFO Club and even toured Holland, Germany, and the French Riviera. However, upon returning from France, Australian stowaway Allen ran into a little visa trouble, and the group was forced by default to go on as a trio. Andy Summers, who would later become the guitarist for The Police, joined the band for a brief period, but it was as a trio that Soft Machine toured America opening for Jimi Hendrix, and recorded their debut album in New York in 1968.
Without a lead guitar, their eponymous first outing (fondly remembered as Volume 1) sought to meld psychedelia and jazz-rock through Wyatt’s imaginative, liberally panned drumming, Ayers’ jazz & pop bass grooves, and Ratledge’s horror movie Doors organ. With those pieces in motion, they achieved a wondrous time capsule of experimental pop under the constant surreal lyricism of Wyatt and Ayers. Like Syd Barrett was to Pink Floyd, Ayers brought an infatuation with unhinged, uncouth pop to the group aesthetic, which would make Vol. 1 the most conventional SM album in terms of structure. Ayers wasn’t long for this band, though. He left on good terms after the US tour in order to focus on his solo career, which would find modest success over a few decades and a dozen odd releases, many of which returned to the themes first explored on Vol. 1. There’s no rest for the wicked, as they say and the bass-hole was quickly filled by one Hugh Hopper just in time to record their second album in 1969. Hopper had previously played with Wyatt in the Daevid Allen Trio, so it was an easy fit that reflected in the work they produced together.
Without Ayers in the picture, the properly titled Volume 2 would see Wyatt helm the ship deeper into the jazz-fusion they’d toyed with before but hadn’t fully embraced, as well as Dadaism in general. Lyrics left the rational and became more freeform (often, if not always, refusing to rhyme), absurdist humor (the British alphabet in 12 seconds?), and self-reflexive (which included an ode to Hendrix for introducing them to their audience on that first US tour) while the song structure went all avant-punk. Here, a minute of sunshine pop chords bunts a non sequitur into twenty seconds of an organ being tortured without pause (except to flip sides, natch) as if that was always the thing to do, with the average track length running around an anti-radio two minutes. Hopper’s bass morphs from fuzz bomb to mellow scat at the drop of a hat, while Wyatt’s drumming only improved in intensity. This album would mark a rough thematic template that SM would take to its extremes in the years to come.
Both of these first two albums are equally superb in execution, though their aims differed. There are no bonus tracks on either of these Runt reissues, so my views are untainted by extraneous material, but the packaging, for all intents and purposes, is presented as accurately to the original pressings as possible in a jewel case, so it’s an admirable theme. All you get here are two bottles of fine wine. In later years, Soft Machine would go through many changes and release some nine albums in ten years, while Robert Wyatt is still releasing very well received material under his own name to this day. Daevid Allen has had an amazing, collaborative career that’s survived the test of time (reforming Gong as late as 2003 with members of Acid Mothers Temple), while Hugh Hopper has kept busy with all kinds of solo and group projects. You can’t point to any one person and say “that’s Soft Machine” and have much of a case to back it up. The magnitude of raw talent that blessed this William Burroughs named collaboration is written all over history, the fluid motion that propels the windmills of your mind. Open wide and let the sunshine in.
2007: Michael Yonkers - Grimwood
“Welcome to the everchanging landscape of early 21st century musical excavation,” began Karl Ikola’s liner notes to Michael Yonkers Band’s Microminiature Love. The album cemented the relationship between Sub Pop and psychedelic archivists DeStijl, demonstrating the former’s strength in finding and reissuing little-known gems from the psychedelic explosion. DeStijl’s Clint Simonson searches cut-out bins and Goodwills around the country for private presses, regional eccentricities and ignored basement experimenters. Often times, he finds, and conversely exposes, inventive psychedelic albums, undermining the exorbitant collector prices.
With Yonkers’ first effort, Simonson unveiled a hidden classic suppressed by major label follies and Yonkers’ subsequent music industry-spawned disillusionment. The Yonkers Band was like a coat of black paint over paisley rhythms with raw pre-punk psych-blues. By any means, the album would have never climbed American charts in the ‘60s but Yonkers believed in progression and fell for Sire’s promises. The label rejected the masters to Microminiature Love and Yonkers became another major label casualty. Instead of retreating or killing his producer a la Charles Manson, he grew a beard over his John Lennon mug, locked himself in the studio and produced a dark, dreary folk album with mystical overtones. Under the influence of Leonard Cohen, Yonkers lowered his voice, stripped down his sound and constructed Grimwood, a very personal album.
Yonkers risks coming off like a prima-donna as he bears his fears to the listener but his earnestness and stern delivery ensures the message’s integrity reaches the listener uncompromised. His masterful basement production sense assures each word’s perfect instrumental accentuation. He either fingerpicks or strums with due respect to the lyrics, adding echoing flute, droning synth and creeping harmonica to further the dark psych feel. “Lonely Fog” lists off complaints like “I will never shine again/’til I feel the daytime sky” with a chorus of “I am lonely, fog/Very lonely.” Yonkers processes his vocals to sound like a transmission from a lonely pirate radio operator and inserts a buzzing electric sound, further blackening his sparse instrumentation. His homemade guitar effect boxes, such as the wah-wah on the “Tripping through the Rose Garden,” lend his electric guitar an otherworldly voice. Though darkness engulfs the album, it contains a few bright points. Yonkers shares a joke with studio musicians “The Day is Through” and the chuckling begins the dark tale. On “And Give It to You,” he relays what actions he would take for his lover.
“And Give It To You” also reveals Yonkers weakness, as he tosses off the occasional dud of a couplet. The corniness of the tune’s basis lends itself to parody but Yonkers only fans the flames with lines like “I’d ask my guardian angel/If it would be okay/To rent a room in heaven/If only for the day.” However, a loose barroom chorus of “And give it to you” saves the song from mediocrity. On “The Day is Through,” Yonkers rattles off a few weak couplets like “I will stay here for the hour/I will pick the only flower” but most of the time poetry is crisp and concise. Even when presenting weak couplets like “There is an answer/It lies in the dance,” Yonkers’ conviction allows the listener to oversee his lyrical shortcomings much of the time.
Michael Yonkers still creates chunks of primal psychedelica and his vast back catalog still warrants reissuing. He proved ahead of his time, as both reissued albums sold poorly upon initial release. An artist with no outlet, Yonkers is pictured throwing copies of Grimwood in the air on the back of Microminature Love feasibly out of frustration with its sales. With the reissue of Grimwood, Yonkers may just find the audience he panned for almost 40 years ago.
1973: Mustafa Özkent - Gençlick Ile Elele
Mustafa Ozkent is an old, prolific Turkish musician, still making records today, but long forgotten and swept over in the west. In 1973 he released a churning album of funky instrumental pop and jazz numbers called Genclik Ile Elele, that, when unearthed from obscurity, probably made the musical archaeologists over at the Finders Keepers label cream. It's that kind of album, one that endlessly plods along, riding some kind of universal groove that crosses boundaries and borders just to get you moving.
There are a few stand out tracks (check “Emmioglu” and “Zeytinyagli”) but for the most part Genclik Ile Elele plays like one huge mash-up, sliding between minutes with a uniformity you'll either appreciate as tonally consistent, or denounce as a droning bore. Taken individually, Özkents songs crystallize differently. An air of nostalgia sets in as you're listening, and the mind starts making external connections. For most of us who've grown up in an oversaturated popular culture, Genclik Ile Elele will be attached at the hip to what its sound has come to symbolize in a modern context: that is, badasssss movies, exploitation, car chases, dirty cops, shoot outs, bumper stickers, film directors who crave the sound of ‘70s sleaze, lofts filled with weed smoke and so on. After a while Genclik Ile Elele does feel like self parody, even though it was created in a far less self conscious time. Thank you modern baggage. Still, it's quite a slice of that time, regardless of tainted perception, a real artifact. And jesus, look at that album cover. There is, of course, the danger of our musical ancestry becoming oversaturated with best-left-forgotten 'gems', but Genclik Ile Elele isn't there yet. It's a fun enough ride, and honestly, I can't recommend it enough for fans of the genre.
1995: Archers of Loaf - Vee Vee
Has everyone had personal soundtracks for their life and times? Was there, for instance, a record that tracked through your mind the first time you’d been dumped (Disentegration), resolved to hunt down her new boyfriend (The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste) and confront him looking like a mutant reincarnation of Ponyboy (Legacy of Brutality)? Did songs accompany your thoughts when you were cut from the basketball team (“Out of Step”)? For you parents, what did you hum to your new-born child (“To Here Knows When”)? Does Thanksgiving evoke Arlo Guthrie for any other Americans out there?
In 1995, if you were between the ages of 18 and 28, Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee may have worked its way into your cognitive rotation in the same manner. The band's sound, tighter than Pavement's and more angular than Superchunk's, was ideal for building anthems on loyalty and subversion. In “Harnessed in Slums,” Eric Bachman barks, “Snuff the leader with the leader with the bad-assed plan/ Take what you want from the palm of his hand,” and it’s hard not to conjure that stout manager at BurgerFreak who fired you for stealing french fries. And that’s not to trivialize the record’s impact. Instead, it may be lauded for its ability to remove intellectualization from concepts like revolution and leave us with the sentiments of daily human reality.
The music of Vee Vee, jittery yet powerful, shoves any message that manages to surface over the edge. The musical devices employed range from choruses accompanied by sweeping and insistent power chords to the Archers’ signature eighth-note guitar duels. Like their fellow Tar heel colleagues Superchunk, Archers of Loaf have a heritage that resides somewhere between hardcore and pop. Songs like “Harnessed in Slums,” “The Worst Has Yet to Come,” and “Nostalgia” possess hardcore’s sheer energetic roots while sprinkling in enough melody to make it accessible to a range of audiences. Other songs -- “Nevermind the Enemy,” “Greatest of All Time,” “Underdogs of Nipomo,” “Fabricoh” -- tip the balance in slight favor of pop with glorious results. Other tunes, like “Step Into the Light” and “Underachievers March and Fight Song,” don’t commit themselves enough either way and therefore falter. These moments, however, are far between enough that they don’t detract from the record’s overall stoicism.
All of this brings me to the most magical day of my life: I’d been short-changed at a pizzeria (“Nevermind the Enemy”), but I was hesitant to contest it because I didn’t want to deter the girl seated two tables over, who, amid my friends, my cherry coke, and my greased-out napkins, had been staring at me (“Step Into the Light”). I summoned my swagger and walked to her, when the cashier called to me, “Count your change, pretty-boy?” I swiveled to him. He had paws for arms, a neck as thick as my torso, and the ink was barely dry on his prison release (“Underdogs of Nipomo”). To retaliate, I couldn’t muster anything intelligent or even absurd to say to expose his empty bravado (“Let the Loser Melt”). I looked back to the table where my friends sat, to find that they’d vanished from the establishment, in search of safer company (“Floating Friends”). The girl, with eyes like Siouxsie Sioux and a pout like the Little Mermaid, could have been inside my soul, testing my courage at this pivotal moment (“Death in the Park”). But there was nothing I could do or say to retain my dignity or my 43 cents. I turned away from the cashier’s smirk and the girl was gone.
This was life for a sensitive, skinny boy, living in an industrial plot of anywhere (“Harnessed in Slums”). I’d had the misfortune of leaving the pizzeria just as first shift ended at the steel plant, “Edith,” “Cassandra,” “Meredith Lovefingers,” “cherry-boy,” they’d yell to me from the entrance gate (“The Worst Has Yet to Come”). Life was a silent tremor of what it used to be, when I’d ride my bike everywhere and boys and girls had interchangeable paths to innocent happiness (“Nostalgia”). It would be simple to slip into worthlessness with this life. I had to get out (“Underachievers March and Fight Song”). There was no other way, I’d die a victim of my surroundings if I didn’t. That’s when I heard the motorcycle race up behind me. I turned. It wasn’t a mugger or a taunter or a beggar. The rider lifted her helmet and shook her matted locks of black hair. It was the girl from the pizzeria. “You comin’ to New York with me?” she asked. (“Greatest of All Time”).
2007: Disciple - Come & See Us As We Are!
Back during the acid wave and its musical fallout, it was practically a rite of passage for college kids to put a band together, practice for a few years, release an album of mildly familiar songs after graduation, and basically fade into normalcy. Though this New York quintet maintained a much more active touring schedule than the typical Mom’s-car-driving garage band of the day, their 1970 debut reeks of this well-established phenomenon. The powerful voice of lead singer Sandy Crespo is the one thing that sets their sound apart from the average TV show score of the day (which was a hell of a lot funkier than today’s Payola OC shit, so that’s not really a diss). Whatever chemistry they had developed into some decent ideas, as heavily influenced as they may have been.
The opening title track draws easy comparisons to the motif of Nirvana’s 1968 opus All Of Us, and basically acts as the album’s theme, while its follow-up, “Come Along,” evokes a more clearheaded, laid-back Jefferson Airplane. The rolling bassline and structure from album highlight “Better Than You (Mental Song)” comes across like Love with Big Brother & The Holding Company-style psych-pop changes. And you’ve gotta hand it to their cover of Fontella Bass’ immortal “Rescue Me,” which does everything a good cross-genre homage should, giving the source material a new context without forsaking the spirit of the original. Though it ain’t exactly Cream, Disciple’s lone contribution to the West Coast psychedelic canon is a fairly well-executed exposition of all the many blessings they had going for them, but I think some of their grounding ideas were lost behind inadequate recording and production. One can only imagine how vivid, dynamic, and surreal this album could have been with someone like George Martin or Paul Rothchild piecing their sound together. As is, Come & See Us As We Are exists as a footnote of interest on the continually expanding musical timeline.
1982: Laurie Anderson - Big Science
From perhaps 1977-1984, music had a preoccupation with the progress of society and technology and George Orwell was to blame. 1984 created an unconscious cultural deadline for the self-examination of Western society. Rock music sang about the spawning of mega-governments, punks assaulted fascism, pop stars noted a scaled cooling of compassion, jazz captured the spirit of robots. Suddenly, the word “modern” became an esteemed concept. It instructed us to accept the reality of imminent nuclear war, to be gaudy, to indulge, to ditch your 8-track player and buy a Betamax, to compete for every decibel of laughter, scrap of land, and shade of color.
On Big Science instead of fostering these notions, Laurie Anderson observes them. Culled from fragments of her performance art opus, United States, Live, the songs from Big Science are compassionate and alarming. They describe the death musings of a commercial airline pilot over an intercom (“From the Sky”), the hubris of urban expansion (“Big Science”), the ignorance of the free-born (“Born, Never Asked”). The minimal music is loyal to her themes, melding organic brass and woodwinds with electronic beats, vibes, and melodic interludes. Most of the songs find Anderson, speaking over the music with her compelling pace and diction. “Cause I can see the future and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here,” she utters in the simple, Cartesian, “Let X=X.” In this essence lies the source of Big Science’s magnificence. Here silence is used as artfully as words. There are empty slabs of pause, appealing to mechanistic processing and as well as warm-hearted salutations. The renowned “Oh Superman”, the album’s centerpiece, is complete immersion in this notion. Anderson reads her apocalyptic verse while a robot voice echoes. This interplay is chilling: like a mental duel between compassion and complete detachment. The “song” finds Anderson talking on the phone to what seems at first to be her mother then she gives pause, “OK who is this really?” And the haunting reply comes, slow over a subtle, sweet keyboard dirge, “I am the hand, the hand that takes.”
The world Anderson describes, however, is far from minimal or bleak, for she also gives us texture. “Example #22” erupts with rhythm and jovial horns. German samples abound with Anderson bleating,“Honey you’re my one and only, So pay me what you owe me.” A bass and kick drum join the fray and suddenly the modern world is dancing. “It Tanga” jests at the connection gaps between men and women, women speaking open-ended and men repeating ageless Dylan, “Isn’t it just like a woman.” And that’s how the sparse chaos that’s presented by Big Science ends. You’ve been lured into a dream without realizing. Anderson has assaulted you with enough thought and silence and sound that you return society more enlightened but less certain of anything than when you left.
As “O Superman” climaxes, Anderson reaches a resolution to this societal fray and I can’t help but think that Orwell would approve. It unfolds gradually in the telling, “Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom” It’s a poignant conclusion for certain, but when living in a world of compromise and miscommunication, it may be the best of all things.