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Monday, July 04, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The United States of America
One of the great virtually unheard bands of the sixties, a prized trophy for obscuro collectors, a groundbreaking electronic album, hardcore psychedelia that makes Jefferson Airplane sound like teetotalers, a snapshot of student radicalism, an album with one of the most alluring unknown female singers in rock history, a source of samples for trip-hop bands, a band about 30 years ahead of its time, take your pick; The United States of America were a lot of things to a very small number of people. They vanished without a trace, and their album with them; it wasn't until The United States of America was reissued in the 90's that they even have begun to to get their due; they remain a band known only to the rarified fringe where geek meets hipster.
While their recording sounds dated now, in its primitive electronics and its radical, revolutionary, and psychedelic lyrics, it holds up as a sonic tour de force; it's one of those albums that any fan of late 60's music ought to hear, as well as fans of the avant-garde, electronica, ambient, and trip hop. It's so trippy, it's recommended that novices don't trip to it; "Hard Coming Love" is going to do frightening things to your mind. For a long time, information on the band was hard to find, but since their rediscovery, the story has finally come together.
Joseph Byrd was the guiding force behind The United States of America. An ethnomusicologist and experimental musician from the UCLA New Music Workshop, he approached rock from a quasi-academic direction; his concept was cerebral, but the sounds he wanted extended beyond the brain and reached the central nervous system. Byrd was born in Kentucky, but moved to Tuscon, AZ as a child. In his late teens, he developed an interest in rock 'n' roll and country music, and played in a series of small, informal combos. His tastes grew more sophisticated when he attended classes at the University of Arizona. He took up vibraphone, and played in a jazz band with other students in the late 1950's.
Byrd won a fellowship to Stanford, but instead moved to New York City in 1960 to explore the downtown music scene, which at the time was thriving with experimental and avant garde music. In New York, he first began composing his own experimental music, which gained him some recognition in high places; he met up with classical composer Virgil Thomson, then in his late sixties, an acknowledged influence on Aaron Copeland. Thompson hired him as part-time conductor and arranger, as well as assistant and gofer. Another early acquaintance was Terry Riley, whose minimalist electronic epic, A Rainbow In Curved Air in 1967 remains a milestone, and a big influence on Philip Glass, and who would also work with John Cale in the 70's. La Monte Young was another big avant-garde name in their circle. Byrd himself was involved to a degree with the radical folk and free jazz scene, as well, although not as a major player.
This experience left an impression on Byrd, who ultimately relocated to Los Angeles after being offered a teaching position at UCLA in 1963.
UCLA in the mid-60's was an increasingly divided campus; it attracted bright humanities students and bright engineering students. There was a proto-hippie element and a solidly short-haired population. Byrd ultimately cast his lot in with the hippies, and moved into a beachfront commune with a group of grad students. At the commune, he was exposed to Indian music, modal playing, and most likely, mind-altering drugs (LSD was legal until October 1966). He developed interests in the use and effects of acoustics in music, as well as psychology. With the New Music Workshop, he worked with Don Ellis and explored the ideas of Charles Ives. He began his first electronic experimentations on a Moog synthesizer, an instrument then scoffed at by musicians for being a machine, and also for its $20,000 price tag.
As hippie teacher, he actively participated in the student movement at UCLA, joining protests for civil rights and against the war; he then left the school in 1967 to pursue music full time. He also became active in the organization of Summer of Love "happenings".
This required him to have a band, and he assembled one piece by piece. His first partner was fellow radical Michael Agnello; they were joined by Byrd's ex-girlfriend from New York, Dorothy Moskowitz, who had spent time writing and performing in musical theater. Stu Brotman, who had played bass in the seminal L.A. psychedelic band Kaleidoscope was also enlisted.
They cut some demos in 1967 that landed in the hands of young Clive Davis of Columbia Records, who was looking actively for what might be the "next big thing", and he was taken with their electronic experiments. He signed the band, which led to Agnello's departure; he accused Byrd of working with the system, rather than subverting it. Brotman split as well; he'd later turn up in Canned Heat.
Undeterred, Byrd put together a new band, consisting of himself on all manner of electronic devices, primarily a Durrett synthesizer, Moskowitz on vocals, and a group of UCLA grad students; Gordon Marron on electric violin, Rand Forbes on bass, and Craig Woodson on drums. Ed Bogas, while not credited as a member on the album jacket, contributed piano, calliope, and organ and played on the band's lone tour. The band, and their recordings, featured no guitarist at all.
The musicians tinkered a lot to come up with their sound; Forbes played an unfretted bass, one of the first to use that instrument; often the bass would be fuzzed up and used as a lead instrument. Marron's violin had a built-in divider that could raise and lower it an octave. One trick among many that Woodson applied was hanging slinkies from his cymbals. Tape echo and vocal distortion was liberally applied as was the band's most noticable sonic piece of equipment, a ring modulator, which provided their space-bending musical warps and rushes. Moskowitz's voice has often been compared to Grace Slick's, and the comparison holds, although Moskowitz had a chillier, more detached and remote style. Byrd and Marron also contributed vocals.
This lineup recorded their lone album, The United States of America in 1968. It stands as one of the only vintage psychedelic albums that attempts to take psychedelia in an electronic direction; Fifty Foot Hose, a long-forgotten San Francisco band, and the duo Silver Apples, may well have made the only others. The album begins with the tense, frightening, atmospheric, "The American Metaphysical Circus". Its circus theme and calliope recall the Beatles' "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" on belladonna, but musically, it's a whole different trip. Moskowitz sings alluringly of torture and sadism while the ring modulater sounds like a theremin in the background, and the band paces itself with a bass-heavy slow groove; as the song progresses, the stereo separation becomes disorienting, and her voice becomes filtered and distorted into a hallucinatory leer. It's followed up by "Hard Coming Love" where the electronics take center stage, while Moskowitz' lyrics are strongly suggestive of the beginning of a heavy trip, made explicit by the ring modulating that runs amok in its mimicry of a drug rush. A gentle lull follows in the shape of "The Cloud Song" a gentle fable adopted from Winnie The Pooh that floats on swirling electronic modalities, and then the drugs kick in again, for the scary "Garden of Earthly Delights" which is an uptempo endorsement of deadly nightshade and all other potent psychedelics; it can also be read as a love song. Also of note are the fuzz-bass driven "I Wouldn't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar", a Byrd skewering of middle class America, the dreamy psychedelia and au currant politics of "Love Song For The Dead Che", "Coming Down", an update of sorts from "Hard Coming Love" in which Moskowitz speculates "there is sometimes a secondary phase" before the song worms into another psychedlic cacophany of electronic swirlies and rushes. The album closer, "The American Way Of Love" is musique concrete, a sound collage of flashbacks from earlier in the album, with some Charles Ives marching bands thrown in. The album isn't flawless; Marron's vocal on "Where Is Yesterday" is a little shaky, some of Byrd's politics get a little smug in places. But those are nitpicks; the overall album is unlike any other. In spirit, it could be compared to Frank Zappa or Velvet Underground, but not in sound. David Rubinson produced, and by all accounts it was a painstaking job wiring things together for an 8-track recording.
Columbia apparantly nixed a proposal to release the album with an American flag dripping blood on the cover; bandmember photos were used, and the album was wrapped in a plain manila envelope that read "The United States of America" and left it at that.
Commercially, the album proved too freaky for most people; it peaked at #181 and was off the charts in weeks. Still, it was an excellent showing for an avant garde album, and the album, while controversial, generally received raves from the hippest corners of the rock press.
The band's tour was launched to coincide with the album, and the reproduced the exact sound of the album onstage; according to those who were there, it suffered from the electronic equipment failing at inopportune moments, another problem was in finding the right venues for the avant-garde/revolutionary act. At one gig, they shared the bill with the Velvet Underground. Unfortunately, the band started falling apart fast during the tour. At a key gig at the Fillmore East, Byrd and Marron came to fisticuffs backstage. At a later gig in Orange County, three members were busted for marijuana; Byrd and Moskowitz had to perform augmented by the opening act. Producer Rubinson, who was integral to the band's sound, and Byrd also came to disagreement over the band's sound and direction. Byrd was gaining a reputation as being a hard taskmaster; he sacked Rubinson, which apparently led to Moskowitz' subsequent departure, followed by the others.
And that was that. Byrd attempted a follow-up, credited to "Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies" titled The American Metaphysical Circus, also for Columbia, but the album tanked; the critics didn't like it either. In reality, it's an interesting experiment; nowhere near the quality and adventurousness of the United States of America album, but still fairly challenging and interesting. Moskowitz was invited to apply vocals, but turned down the offer. Instead a series of vocalists, including Susan de Lange, Victoria Bond and Christie Thompson, supplied vocals. Moskowitz joined another group, a conventional hippie/folkie band, but it never recorded or released any recordings.
Subsequent years have produced little else. Byrd's next effort wasn't until 1975, Yankee Transcendoodle, an album of moderately interesting synthesizer noodling. He served as producer on Ry Cooder's 1978 album, Jazz. His next effort was A Christmas Yet To Come, from 1980, another album of synthesizer transcendoodles. Since then, he has contributed the occasional advertising jingle and film score. He did write a fascinating essay for Sundazed records' reissue of The United States of America, which features 10 interesting bonus cuts, mainly demos. As of 2004, he owned and operated a bed and breakfast in northern California and also worked as a teacher. Moskowitz' bewitching voice has only turned up on one other album, briefly, as part of Country Joe McDonald's All Stars, who released Paris Sessions in 1973. She retired from music to raise a family, and currently works as a teacher in Oakland, CA. Marron gets the occasional gig as a session musician; he's currently based in Hawaii. Woodson has appeared with Kronos Quartet and also teaches. Ed Bogas composed music for Ralph Bakshi's Fritz The Cat, and also for children's animation. Forbes has left the music business altogehter.
The United States of America's legacy remains their one magnificent album. Traces of their music may be heard in the early 70's English progressive rock outfit, Curved Air. U.K. avant garde band Broadcast has cited them as an influence, and trip-hop pioneers Portishead thanked them on an album cover; their "Half Day Closing" borrows more than just a little from "The American Metaphysical Circus".
Weekly Artist Overview usually appears on Mondays.
Listen to The United States of America: The American Metaphysical Circus (1968)