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Monday, June 06, 2005
Playlist Plus: Obscuro
Obscuro isn't really a genre of music so much as it is an absence of genre. It's a catchall for that which is unclassifiable; the weird, the experimental, the bizarre, the resolutely non-commercial, the super-duper rare, the offbeat, the ridiculous. It designates all manner of genres including novelty, electronic, lounge, ambient, avant-jazz, lounge, satire, low-fi, psychedelic, and all manner of other forms and styles. In essence, it's music for collectors and flag waving record geeks.
As such, almost anything might qualify, from the mentally ill Wild Man Fischer, to the home made electronic contraptions of Silver Apples, to the sophisticated avant-space-jazz of Sun Ra. The pantheon of obscuro classics tends to skew towards those who were resolute studio experimenters, reaching distant frontiers of sound, or those featuring strange or unconventional instrumentation.
By definition obscuro music is supposed to be obscure; i.e., rare. However, over the years a canon of obscuro's greatest "hits" has developed; many of these once impossible to find recordings are readily available almost anywhere.
Some interesting obscuro artists/songs include:
1. The Neon Philharmonic: Dear Me
The Neon Philharmonic had a minor hit debut with "Morning Girl" in 1969, a mild piece of sunshine pop. Led by Tupper Saussey, a multi-instrumentalist well versed in middle-of-the-road pop, the band attempted to follow this up with an album on the epic scale of Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper, despite their considerable lack of talent or imagination. The resulting album, The Moth Confesses is considered one of the most ridiculous psychedelic albums ever; "Dear Me" is a good representation of their absolutely disastrous mix of grandiose romanticism, syrupy MOR, and wacked out production. Suassey later became an anti-tax activist in the 80's, went underground, and ultimately was imprisoned.
2. Bruce Haack: Incantation
Bruce Haack specialized in children's music in the 60's and 70's, but particularly strange music it was; relying on often improvised instruments, analog synths, a wide array of genre influences, and more. In 1970, he aimed for the adult market with the album Electric Lucifer, an anti-war concept album recorded as acid rock, but with a host of his bizarre electronic experiments thrown in, including embryonic synthesizer and vocoder, making it even trippier than the acid rock of the day. It's an inventive album that almost nobody has heard.
3. Silver Apples: Oscillations iTunes
Silver Apples specialized in a very strange late 60's electronica that emphasized drone and hypnotics in a manner later explored by Spacemen 3 and Laika. They were a duo, Danny Taylor and lead vocalist Simeon. Simeon played a strange electronic contraption that he wore on his back, also called a 'simeon' which he controlled with levers and foot pedals, and required using his feet, knees, hands, and elbows to play. It produced sounds of complex, controllible oscillations; hence the title of the lead-off cut from their 1968 debut. Although this and the follow-up album didn’t sell, their legend grew over time, and they resumed recording in 1996, releasing three more albums, until Simeon was severely injured in a car crash, leaving him unable to play his simeon. Danny Taylor died in 2005.
4. The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World iTunes
The Shaggs were a trio of sisters who grew up poor in rural New Hampshire. Their father managed them, and got them studio time at a fly by night record label where they recorded their lone album in a single day, writing the songs themselves. The company went under, their album never had more than 100 copies distributed, but somehow legend of it grew, especially after Frank Zappa claimed it was his third favorite album. Philosophy of the World has since been given the re-issue attention reserved for major artists. It is perhaps the most primitive, simplistic garage band music ever.
5. Sun Ra: We Travel The Spaceways iTunes
Sun Ra is one of the most controversial jazz artists in history, surrounding himself with bizarre legend and mythology. Although he had been active since 1948, his really advanced material started appearing after 1961. "We Travel The Spaceways" is transitional; recorded around 1960, featuring his "space chant" and eerie instumentation, heavy on mute trombones, and with a galloping beat. Using primitive electronics in addition to jazz instruments, and adding absurd vocals about traveling space and rocketships to Venus and the like, he produced some of the most challenging and kooky music of the 1960's. By the 80's, he performed with fire eaters and acrobats. He always claimed to be visiting from another planet; although information has surfaces suggesting he was from Alabama, there are those who remain convinced he was telling the truth.
6. The United States Of America: The American Metaphysical Circus
The United States of America were led by UCLA teacher Joseph Byrd who assembled a group of UCLA undergrads for this early watershed electronica album that features no guitars. Fronted by the alluring Dorothy Moskowitz, "The American Metaphysical Circus" is a frightening hallucinogenic slab of avant-rock, with lyrics that grow increasingly brutal and weird, like Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite on brown acid. The entire album is an early avant-electronic masterpiece; the band was never heard from again. Byrd made another album, The American Metaphysical Circus, by Joe Byrd and The Field Hippies in 1969, and did some production work in the 70's, but remained quite obscure.
7. David Axelrod: Song Of Innocence
Best known as the successful producer of Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderly, and The Electric Prunes, and an eclectic variety of others. His first recording as a performer was the 1968 album Song of Innocence. On it, he takes seven poems by William Blake and sets them to music. The album is a mystical blend of jazz, rock, classical, pop, r&b, and theater music; the resulting work is a left-field pop masterpiece, as unlikely as it may seem. Much of this album has been sampled by electronica artists, DJ Shadow and DJ Cam among them. Axelrod's 1969 followup, a continuation of this theme, was called Song of Experience.
8. Hasil Adkins: She Said
Easily one of the weirdest rock figures ever, Adkins spent the first two decades plus of his career in utter obscurity, recording demented rockabilly about decapitation, bizarre sex, chickens, and such into a reel to reel deck in a shack in West Virginia. His weird vision, first set to tape in the 1950's, was never likely to be accepted by the music world even on the fringe, and aside from a couple of singles for tiny labels, he continued making tapes for virtually nobody. In 1981 the Cramps discovered him, and covered this tune; he since recorded several albums and performed a number of crazed, boozy shows before his death in April 2005.
9. Charles Manson: Cease To Exist
In 1968, cult leader Charles Manson made an attempt at becoming a rock star. At the time, it seemed plausible; he was friends with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and an acquaintance of Terry Melcher, the Byrds' producer. He recorded an album's worth of music, recorded by a Melcher assistant, in 1968; it was released while he was on trial for murder as Lie. The music is primitive, stoned hippie music with a hypnotic, mesmerizing quality to Manson's vocals and guitar; it isn't especially good, but it is pretty fascinating. "Cease To Exist" was given to the Beach Boys, who changed the chorus to "cease to resist" and the title to "Never Learn Not To Love"; it appears on their 1968 album, 20/20; Manson sold his songwriting credit to Dennis Wilson for cash. The Tate-LaBianca murders took place in Los Angeles in 1969. Terry Melcher owned the Sharon Tate house.
10. Denny McLain: Watch What Happens iTunes
Denny McLain was a two time Cy Young award winner for the Detroit Tigers in the 1960's. He's best remembered for being the last major league pitcher to win over 30 games in a season, going 31-6 in 1968 and helping the Tigers to the World Series. His second biggest claim to fame is his criminal career, which has seen him in prison for nearly all of the last 25 years for extortion, racketeering, drug possession, and fraud. What almost nobody knows is that he recorded several albums of lounge music in 1969, Denny McLain in Las Vegas being his most well-known. Had the record sold, perhaps his sad life would have turned out differently.
Listen to Charles Manson: Cease To Exist (1968)