Saturday, September 22, 2007

Excerpts from a Teenage Opera

One of the great "what ifs" of the psychedelic era is the ever-unfinished psychedelic magnum opus, The Teenage Opera. Its potential was embodied on a hit single released in the U.K., "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera" by Keith West and Mark Wirtz. Wirtz was a record producer; West, the leader of Tomorrow, one of the great psych bands to emerge from London at the height of the movement. The "Teenage Opera" was the brainchild of Wirtz, who was given carte blanche at EMI to create a concept album that would be sort of a rock opera storybook, with the various inhabitants of a fictional village having their stories recounted through lushly-orchestrated songs. Imagine if the Beatles had made a proper Yellow Submarine soundtrack (in fact, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick contributed to the project). Wirtz enlisted West, who sang vocals on "Grocer Jack," aka "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera." The expensive single featured soaring orchestration in the style of George Martin and a children's choir singing the chorus. There was even a promotional film. The B-side was a Mark Wirtz instrumental, "Theme from a Teenage Opera."

I imagine the idea was to continue the project as a series of singles until the full-blown album essentially paid for itself, but the follow-up single, "Sam," underperformed, and EMI decided the project was not worth the investment. (Or perhaps they saw that the psychedelic fad was coming to an end.) The Teenage Opera was cancelled. Tomorrow split apart, partly out of resentment: the "Grocer Jack" single was more popular than Tomorrow's LP, and the crowds who caught them on tour wanted them to play West's solo hit, which the band refused to do (and couldn't, logistically, anyway). West briefly pursued a solo career until public interest waned.

The Tomorrow album is excellent, and holds up well today (it was reissued on CD in 1999 with many bonus tracks, but, glaringly, not the "Teenage Opera" singles). Their frenetic, LSD-tinged single "White Bicycle" has become a standard on 60's psych-rock compilations. But "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera" and "Sam," though dated, are fun to revisit. The children's chorus is schmaltzy as hell, but the vivid production--particularly the wintry, Christmasy feel of "Sam"--effectively conjurs the feeling of listening to a strange, sad radio play once heard in your childhood. "Sam" might be the better track, for its sonic ambition, though at the same time it strictly follows the formula of "Teenage Opera," which is why it's easy to understand why the public might have grown tired of the concept. The entire album, which Wirtz now describes as an epic science fiction story, remains unfinished, although a compilation of Wirtz recordings was released as A Teenage Opera a few years ago. Wirtz has claimed it does not match his vision of what the project was supposed to have been. That will have to remain a pipe dream.

Keith West - Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (Grocer Jack)
Keith West - Sam

Here's Tomorrow's second--and mind-blowing--single, if you need a chaser.

Tomorrow - Revolution

Friday, September 14, 2007

Piper at the Gates of Dawn 40th Anniversary Edition

Just a few quick words about the new Pink Floyd/Piper at the Gates of Dawn re-release, in time for the anniversary of '67.

Personally, I consider this to be one of the most treasured albums in my collection, alongside the best of the Beatles, the Zombies, etc. Those who dismiss Pink Floyd after having heard some of their prog-rock era material--or even just a fleeting listen to the earlier material--need to pay more attention to Syd Barrett and what he was doing: not just with his scorching guitar, but in terms of songwriting, which was completely original. Whether or not it was mental imbalance behind it, the creativity in the earliest Pink Floyd material is astonishing, as well as inspiring. Listen to "Bike" and you have the best example. Barrett died last year, and left us with very few recordings to appreciate his genius, but Piper has always been the treasure chest.

The band has always been reluctant to release special editions of their albums, although it's become standard for any other 60's band. (Even the Beatles eventually came through.) An anniversary edition of this album at first seemed like an answer to my long-held prayers. The result is a little disappointing, but with enough pluses to recommend it. There are two anniversary editions: first up, and released a week earlier, is a 2-disc version in a jewel case, which features the much-sought-after mono version of the album on the 2nd disc. No bonus tracks, although the mono is a revelation, as new details are revealed in the remixing. Some of the songs merely sound flatter, but others have a distinctly different texture from the originals, with plenty of little sonic surprises for long-time fans of the album. You'll have to discover them on your own. It's the same album, but viewed through a different shade of cellophane.

A third, bonus disc is available if you spring for the more expensive edition, which packages everything in a cloth-cover book, with glossy, full-color pages featuring lyrics, photos, and even a removable reproduction of a notebook of Syd Barrett's from 1965, replete with poetry, prose, drawings and collage. (One page is left out, due to rights issues.) All of this is nice, but a most valuable feature would be liner notes detailing the production of the album--again, standard for most 60's album reissues. The third CD features the early singles: cross-dressing "Arnold Layne," "Candy and a Currant Bun," "See Emily Play" (one of my big favorites, although I doubt the band feels the same), "Apples and Oranges," "Paint Box," plus alternate versions of "Interstellar Overdrive" (two) and "Matilda Mother." That last track has almost completely different lyrics.

Missing are "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream," which is a little strange, as they're among the most important unreleased tracks in the band's history from a music archivist's point of view. We can hold out (dim) hope that they'll be released on a reissue of Saucerful of Secrets. But the bonus CD is barely over half an hour, leaving plenty of room. In the meantime, what the box set does offer is a closer look at one of the most important albums of 1967, allowing you to unfold its layers panel by panel, scrutinizing the ornate details. If you're a fan, take the plunge and buy it--it sounds spectacular on uncompressed CD.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Winks

Up in Canada there's been something of a musical renaissance afoot, and one of my favorites of this movement is a band that considers the mandolin and the cello to be its primary weapons of war. They're the Winks, led by Tyr Jami and Todd Macdonald, and their record Birthday Party would easily qualify as one of my favorites of the year. The trick, you see, is that even though they might remind you of Arcade Fire by listening to their standout track "Guitar Swing," what this record's really about is gently pulsating landscapes, surrealist lyrics, and left-field arrangements. They're unpredictable, restlessly creative, and swarming in every direction like the bizarre dream parades depicted in a Studio Ghibli film. And they're on tour! I think I might be heading down to a certain little art gallery in Chicago to see them perform, if they don't add a Madison date soon.

The Winks - Guitar Swing
The Winks - Snakes (Revisited)

Check out their tour dates, and a cool live video, at their MySpace page.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Real Electric Sailor Speaks Out

It's kind of funny, sometimes you write a blog and you forget that your post goes out to the whole world. I've already made clear my love for the extremely short-lived band KAK (1967-1968), who released only one album, and wrote the song "Electric Sailor." One of my first posts on this music blog was dedicated to the band. Well, just a little while ago one of the members of KAK responded to that post to clarify my sketchy and partially inaccurate summary of the band's history, as well as to offer his own reflections on the group. It's a history worth reading. I give you KAK bassist Joseph D. Damrell:

* * *

Well, somehow I found myself reading this site, the title Electric Sailor having got my attention. See, I am the Joseph Damrell mentioned on this site. Kindly permit me to say that I never played with the Majestics. I was with Group B. (we released singles under the name the Spokes and Group B. on Scorpio, a Fantasy project) and before we formed Group B. I was also bassist in a 7-8 piece R&B / surf /jazz band called, originally enough, The Nomads. Preceding this and to some extent overlapping with it, I also played some piano bars in Sacramento as a pickup bassist with jazz trios, played country club etc. dance gigs with a group of professionals (MD, DDS, Psycho Prof., Esq, etc.) and while a student played with the Sac State Marching/Squatting Band (as we called it) under Norman Hunt. Group B opened for the Beach Boys and other groups at the Sac'to Memorial Auditorium. We met and schmoozed with the Kinks, Stones, Sonny and Cher, Dobie Gray, Bola Sete, Lenny Bruce.... As a Fantasy group, we were exposed to all sorts of characters, including whole blues, jazz, rock, and schmaltz roster on the label.

When it came to the minute that was KAK, our ineptitude as well as our ability to nail certain tunes on the KAK album in the time alloted by the all-wise, all-powerful, all-seeing forces (of squaredom, idiocy, and bureaucracy) behind Epic/Columbia were always enigmatic to a degree. The energy and enthusiasm are unmistakable, and if you labor under certain delusions about the era, this can be a real trip to listen to. However, the real deal about KAK was that we had and, semi-directionless, squandered an opportunity, while the "company" (in the persona of certain actors from New York and Hollywood) was always just interested in making money. This is not such a mystery, but this was '68. We had a hard time getting along because we were all dealing with what was coming down in '68. The day we finished the album Robert Kennedy was assassinated, which followed King, which followed...and the war raged on. We had no musical "scene" from which to reallly draw any strength, no community. The "movement" had already come under frontal assault. I was privileged to be in the company of these great musicians who played on KAK. They were heavy people, very cool, very committed, nothing bullshit about them. Some people just love bad music is all, like I told Alec Palao [music archivist]. "No, Joseph, it's good music. It's great music, man." To each his or her own, my brother. I like the last cut, "Lemonaide Kid." This should have led off the album. I would have ditched the country and western tune, but then that was Yoder's karma. Gary is still doing his verifiably unique thing. Dehner had the blues then, still does. Incredible. I hear Chris is way into music, always has been. No question, I would have guessed this not having seen him in ages. (But--another correction--I was in grad school at UCD at the time, not him; he was just out of high school, maybe going to City College or Delta). Gary G.? College boy. He was a writer. "HCO" etc., etc. What can I say? You got this right, I have to admit. Anyway, I hope my comment won't increase the fog on your blog, or whatever.

But while I'm at it:

"Kak-ola" was what I called the whole KAK phenomenon when Alec Palao was interviewing me for his Ace/BigBeat re-release of the album, and he decided that this would be the name of the CD compilation of KAK and Gary Yoder, whose solo work had prior limited release for some unknown (to me) reason.

Since you are using the title, Linda Damrell wrote most of the lyrics with Dehnor's help for Electric Sailor but never got credit. Didn't go over big with her, needless to say. Dehner sung on this through some kind of wacky filter. "Who is this guy...ahhh..."

In sum, I wish I knew then what I know now, but I also wish I knew now what I knew then. It was a moment, albeit without the accompanying infamy and attention that, which, come to think of it, might have ruined it. There were groups around us that were not just "breaking up" they were crashing big time. It would be nice to be rich, of course, but since we never "made it", minus the fame and fortune, KAK gets to hang out in the rarified atmosphere of the elite hip who kind of know rock and roll when they hear it and are willing to form an independent judgment. We were indies and didn't know it. Or, again, we knew it; nobody else did.