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Monday, May 02, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The Seeds
The Seeds, from Los Angeles, only had one top-40 hit in their career, the primitive, fuzzed-up, organ-driven "Pushin' Too Hard", which reached #36 on the pop singles chart in early 1967. They never had an album chart better than #87. None of the members went on to greater success, few paragraphs have been devoted to them in the history books.
Still the Seeds represent a time and a place like almost no other band of their era, and deserve a footnote place in history. Their story is an interesting one; a story of life at the third-tier level for a locally reknowned band that could never quite get it together.
"Moronic" is a word that has been tossed by critics in their direction, unfairly. They never set out to be geniuses. On the surface, the Seeds were a Stonesy garage band with a vaguely cheap organ sound. Daryl Hooper played simplistic organ riffs over and over again, sometimes going up an octave, sometimes going down. They had no bassist; they pioneered the organ-as-bass approach the Doors, also from L.A., would adopt a year later. The guitarwork from Jan Savage was a fuzzfest, and seldom bothered with more than three chords, sometimes making do with two. Lead singer Sky Saxon's vocals had a tight, choked, snotty punk quality to them. They couldn't do anything fancy, they sang repetitive lyrics mostly about sex and drugs, they had long hair and dressed shabbily.
In short; the sonic essence of a true garage band. Except the Seeds didn't record in a garage; for a year or so they were one of the hottest bands on the fertile Sunset Strip scene and had access to some pretty good Hollywood studios. Their label was small enough, hip enough, or fool enough to let the Seeds make their records with little executive interference. The result is a garage band with a substantial body of work; there's that and the singularly strange odyssey of a young man from Utah who became Sky Saxon, leader of the rudest, meanest, most primitive, and openly druggiest band in America. And then went on to be sect devotee and self-made guru Sunlight Saxon. It's a story that could only happen in Hollywood.
Sky Saxon was born Richard Marsh in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1945. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Los Angeles, and hustled around Hollywood, managing to get some studio time and release six soft R&B singles under a variety of names in 1963 and 1964; soon he started experimenting with the name Sky Saxon. Hollywood was bustling in 1964; Capitol records was reaping an enormous windfall from the Beatles, and was spreading the wealth. Studios were everywhere; like many other newcomers to Los Angeles, Marsh had fantasies about scoring big, fast. None of these singles went anywhere, but he left an impression on people. He spent time in a couple of L.A. garage bands, the Soul Rockers and the Electra Fires. They too, were not destined for success.
Undaunted, the young Marsh answered an ad placed by Savage, Hooper and drummer Rick Andridge for a frontman in 1965. The tryout succeeded, and the Seeds were launched. After a number of wild local gigs, they landed a contract with Gene Norman Presents, to be distributed through local label Crescendo. Colorful producer Marcus Tybalt was put in charge. They quickly recorded two albums' worth of material almost back-to-back in 1966; The Seeds and A Web Of Sound.
The Seeds is an album of punky nuggets all in the two-and-a-half minute range. Its single "Pushin' Too Hard" is on many people's short lists of great mid-60's garage band tunes. Fuzzed to the extreme, with Saxon's choking, starling delivery, Savage's dancing lead guitar, Hooper's sped-up Zombies organ providing propulsion, and Andridge crashing in the back, it captures all the qualities a great punk record should. The rest of The Seeds is pretty much the same; raw and abrasive, hazy and druggy, simplistic and unpretentious. At times, the album gets a little too much the same; the band really had one essential approach to everything. In some circles The Seeds is considered the very first punk album ever made; Iggy and the Stooges might have picked up a thing or two from listening to it. "Pushing Too Hard" was a big hit locally, where the Seeds shared venues with other L.A. bands like The Doors, The Byrds, Love, and Buffalo Springfield. Nationally, it broke the top-40, peaking at #36. A second single, "Can't Seem To Make You Mine", a slower number but with the same basic sonic texture as their first single, peaked at #41. The album found fewer takers, peaking at #132.
It was an impressive showing for what had been a minor label issue, and GNP quickly issued A Web Of Sound within months. A Web Of Sound has to be considered the Seeds' magnum opus. On first listen, it doesn't sound very dissimilar to the debut; fuzzed guitars, rudimentary organ melodies, Saxon's growl. However, the band had absorbed some of the flower power sounds blossoming all around them at the time, particularly raga rock and psychedelic guitar. The band was quite drugged at this point; the result is the punk of the debut with a psychedelic hypnotic overlay. Hooper's organ lines get languid and trancey, as on the single "Mr. Farmer", the title character the grower of seeds of another variety. "Up In Her Room" takes us through an 11-minute account of Saxon's lovemaking, with Hooper's organ going round in circles and Savage playing the same riff, over and over. None of it sounds indulgent; it all comes across as sincere. Marcus Tybalt contributed some wacked out liner notes.
"Mr. Farmer" was banned by most radio stations for its drug implications, and stalled at #86, although it was another big local hit. Times were changing fast; as the Summer Of Love arrived in 1967, psychedlia and flower power was where it was at; the Seeds seemed a throwback with their leather, and tough guy image. Saxon sensed opportunity; the band recast themselves as psychedelic troubadors. Given their big local success and their two near top-40 hits, GNP Crescendo left them pretty much to their own devices.
Future, released in the summer of 1967, was Saxon and the Seeds' attempt to tap into the budding progressive rock movement; their Sunset Strip contemporaries the Doors and Love were leaving them behind. The leadoff single, "A Thousand Shadows" is another "Pushin' Too Hard" style fuzzout, but the rest of the album gives way to their very strange quest to sound complex. The complexities begin with the album cover, which spared no expense, with its gatefold, and flower cut-outs, and lushly printed photos, a Saxon-penned essay (wherein one may find the seedlings of Sky Sunshine Saxon), all with a sunny, flowery theme. The music is what it is; the sounds of a three chord band allowed to run amok in a studio with the label footing the cost. Taken as such, there is a bizarre glee that permeates this album, from its whimsical and bewildering array of sound effects and exotic instruments, to the ultimately charming and naive playing and singing. "A Thousand Shadows" peaked at #72, and Future was the Seeds' biggest seller, peaking at #87.
Through this time, the band kept a high profile on the Strip, and even landed a movie cameo in the teen exploitation flick Psych Out, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Roger Corman. GNP Crescendo made another attempt to cash in, this time promoting the band's local fame as a live show. Raw & Alive: The Seeds in Concert at Merlin's Music Box was released in late 1967. While it does capture the live Seeds, it overdubbed audience noise on top; as a result, it's not a very clean listen. However, it is a revelation. "900 Million People Daily All Making Love" is textbook Doors; the bands' mutual influence is made explicit. "Satisfy You" is Saxon's "Satisfaction".
As the Summer Of Love ended in drug burnouts galore, the Seeds seemed to sink into the murk. Their activities during 1968 are cloudy. Drummer Andridge left the group. Guitarist Jan Savage also departed, eventually to join the Los Angeles Police Department. Saxon and Hooper regrouped for another stab at immortality, this time in the unlikely role as bluesmen. A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues was released in 1968, complete with liner notes by Muddy Waters, who must've been needing a royalty check. Blues was going through a major rediscovery at the time, and Saxon, perhaps sensing his chances were running out, plunged headfirst, bringing Hooper along with him. This is the only Seeds album not to sound like "Pushing Too Hard", and it wasn't even credited to The Seeds; Sky Saxon's Blues Band is the credit. What is remarkable is that they pretty much get away with it; they cover Waters' "Plain Spoken" with reverence, and do a couple of Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson songs. Saxon's own originals aren't embarrassments. However, no blues aficianado would take this seriously, and when the album didn't chart, GNP let the Seeds go.
Saxon and Hooper tried to hustle up interest with another label, and MGM gave them a shot. Ironically, MGM was busy dropping artists whom they felt had drug-related images; somehow the seediest seeds slipped through. As the Seeds, they cut a few tracks, and released a pair of singles in 1970, sounding somewhat in the vein of Steppenwolf. Both went virtually unheard, and MGM released them. The faithful Hooper finally called it a day, but Saxon didn't give up. He squeezed out one more single, credited to The New Seeds in 1972 on a homemade label, but it was a futile gesture. He was trying to get things going with ex-Steppenwolf guitarist Mars Bonfire when he underwent a profound change.
Saxon had become involved with a sect called "Ya Ho Wha", formed in 1969 in the Los Angeles area by one of the most eccentric freaks of the time, a middle-aged beatnik called Jim Baker who believed himself a god and went by the nickname of Father Yod.
While under their influence, he recorded with the cult-related band, which went by various names including Source, The Savage Sons of Yahowha, Yodship, Fire Water Air, Spirit of 76. The band's records had an extreme psychedelic sound, employed tribal drums and distorted guitars in a deliberately childish manner, all unrehearsed live and with no overdubs, editing or design. The core musicians were always the same: Djin Aquarian on guitar, Octavious Aquarian on drums, Sunflower Aquarian on bass, and frequently, Sky Sunlight Saxon. After Father Yod died in 1974, Sky Sunlight Saxon retreated from society entirely, moving to Hawaii, where he busied himself as a guru himself.
Saxon returned to making his own music in 1976, with a homemade disc, Sunlight & The New Seeds. A few more hermit-like recordings appeared, which were usually available only by mail order, if at all. He stopped in 1978, and for all intents and purposes seemed gone and forgotten; one of the more famed acid casualties of the 60's. By the 80's however, a whole new generation had discovered the raw punky joys of the Seeds, and the U.K. label Psycho sought him out in 1984. The album Starry Ride, reunited him with Mars Bonfire, and also featured members of Iron Butterfly and Fraternity of Man. Saxon and Bonfire became songwriting partners, and together they formed a group called Firewall in 1986, whose two albums and shows had guests from neo-psychedelic and 60's revival L.A. bands like the Dream Syndicate and The Plimsouls. Saxon's renaissance continued until 1991, when he returned to Hawaii. He made sporadic appearances with various versions of the Seeds in the late 90's, but there had been no further releases from him until Red Planet, credited to Sky Saxon and the Seeds, appeared in 2004.
With the Seeds, the novice needs to know what they're getting into. If you already like 60's garage band music, pick up The Seeds/A Web Of Sound, now sold as a cheap two-fer. Future is worth it for fans of psychedelia, Summer of Love historians, and fans of the first two albums. GNP Crescendo, for whom the Seeds are their only real meal ticket to this day, have stubbornly refused to licence their work for compilation, so it's hard to find a good best-of. Evil Hoodoo, a 1988 compilation on Drop Out records is the best, if you can find it. For Sky Sunlight Saxon's solo stuff, you might as well just visit Sky himself.
Weekly Artist Overview appears every Monday.
Listen to The Seeds: Mr. Farmer (1966)
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Yes, Freeway Jam is now an Amazon affiliate on a see-how-it-goes basis. I promise I won't let the ads get too intrusive.
It just finally dawned on me that if I'm telling the world how great these artists are, it's kind of silly to force them to go elsewhere if I've convinced someone to try an artist.
So yes, if I have inspired anyone to purchase a CD, I hope you'll consider making your purchase through this site.
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