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Monday, July 11, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The Barbarians
Sometimes the story is better than the music. Rock 'n' roll has always been rich in good stories, and some of the best come from bands whose legacies are slim, or whose talents were ordinary. Collectors of 60's garage bands are well versed in many of the stories of very ordinary musicians whose moment in the spotlight was brief, but whose story contained the nuggets of a mini-heroic epic; bands whose triumphs and failures played out in miniature. One band whose famous story outweighs any real impact they had on the evolution of music is the Barbarians, from Provincetown, MA. Still, they did manage to leave a small musical imprint as well.
In the pantheon, they are a footnote; a garage band that recorded one album and a handful of singles. A handful of misicologists suggest they were the very first punk band ever, pre-dating The Seeds. The high point of their career together was a single appearence on a filmed musical variety program, and a very peculiar single. Less well known is the band's metamorphosis into Black Pearl, an acid-rock band of some renown among collectors, but forgotten by the public at large. Yet their story has become part of rock legend; the footnote will always be there.
The lineup consisted of Jeff Morris, Jerry Causi, Bruce Benson and Victor "Moulty" Molten, who formed The Barbarians in 1963. Their debut single was "Hey Little Bird" recorded for the small local label Joy Records in 1964, the same year Beatlemania was breaking out across America.. Their sound was primitive in the sense that all amateurs are primitive, and it borrowed heavily from the British Invasion groups; it lay somewhere between the Kinks and the Hollies sonically but with a vague menace to it, it featured a heavy-for-1964 fuzz guitar, one of the first ever on record.
The band had something going for it. Image-wise, they were something new. Their name was chosen to reflect their primitive playing and their shaggy looks. Their hair was longer than anyone else's at the time; they wore leather sandals. Most striking of all was drummer Moulty; the victim of a childhood accident, he had a hook for a left hand; he drummed despite his disability. Live, they weren't fancy. They'd play tried and true cover versions of popular favorites of the day. Among their setlist regulars were "Memphis" "House of the Rising Sun", "Susie Q", and "Bo Diddley"; these would be delivered in an r&b style that could get hard when they were cooking.
The band got its huge break in October 1964 when they were invited to appear on the T.A.M.I. (Teenage Music International) show, a musical variety package providing musical scholarships to teens, held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in October 1964. This was a big deal; the show consisted of a lineup of heavy hitters and well-known teen favorites, Chuck Berry, the Supremes, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and others. Why the Barbarians were invited on the strength of their mostly unheard local single remains murky, although Moulty's hook may very well have put them over the line. It no longer matters; what matters is that the show was a resounding success; the Barbarians played "Hey Little Bird", and were suddenly on the map. The show was released as a successful film in 1965.
On the heels of this useful publicity, the Barbarians got to record their one self-titled album for Laurie records in early 1965. The album is a fairly faithful run through of the numbers they played at their shows, with a large dose of covers. It's a classic garage band album; raw, unschooled, primal. The standout cut is the single, "Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?", which some claim is the first punk song; a statement of purpose and rumination on long hair, it had an aggressive jangle to it, and was delivered with a sneer, in an era when bands were still trying to make cheerful. The single reached #55 on the charts; the high-water mark of their career. Elsewhere, the album belies their amateur garage band background, from the echo-laden "Take It Or Leave It", which cops the chords from "Hang On Sloopy", and "What The New Breed Say", released as a second single, which leaned heavy on the percussion, and carried another quasi-punky message. Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" veers towards rockabilly, and "House of the Rising Sun" is treated straight. The album isn't a classic of musicianship, but it does capture a time and era like almost no other record, and has long been a prized trophy for collectors. The producer was Doug Morris, who later went on to become President of A&M Records. Morris got a co-credit on "Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?"
Not on the album (but included on subsequent re-issues in the 80's and 90's) was the most famous recording attributed to The Barbarians; the autobiographical "Moulty". Originally recorded on something of a whim, it is a strange record; Moulty delivers a soliloquy that hovers a fine line between touching and pathos, as he, speaking, tells the story of losing his hand and dreaming of the day he'd meet a girl who loves him for just him. The band breaks in with a classic garage band chorus singing only the line "Don't turn away" four times, and Moulty's monologue continues, accompanied by tearjerking harmonica and slow backing, before the band wraps it up with an even more insistent round of "Don't turn away" at the end. It is an oddly heartwarming tune in a very naked sense; despite its very obvious flaws.
Unknown at the time, but subsequently revealed, the heartfelt accompaniment to Moulty's speech was played by none other than the Hawks (later The Band), not the Barbarians. Recorded in New York with Moulty after the rest of the band had gone home, it was released in 1966 atrributed to Moulty and the Barbarians, apparantly against Moulty's wishes. However, the single, with its don't-give-up message, only reached #96; Laurie dropped them shortly after.
The Barbarians subsequently broke up, but Jerry Causi, Bruce Benson, and Jeff Morris moved to California and went on to form Black Pearl with Bernie "BB" Fieldings and Oak O'Connor of the Tallysmen in 1967. Black Pearl was an acid rock band credited by late critic Lester Bangs as being among the trio of bands that bridged the gap between acid rock and embryonic heavy metal (the others being Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly). Their self-titled debut appeared in 1968 on Atco, led by the single "Mr. Soul Satisfaction", which featured a fluid guitar hook, soulful hard rock vocals, and a gritty biker-oriented sound; more professional and very unlike the Barbarians. The band got some notice on the west coast early on, and Bangs championed them, but were never able to capitalize on it; although they lasted long enough to release Black Pearl Live the following year, they ultimately broke up and have receded into utter obscurity.
The Barbarians, and Black Pearl, weren't great bands. But they were a colorful footnote to the times, and they do deserve credit for bringing some punk aesthetic to rock as well as having a slight hand in the birth of heavy metal. They're remembered today as most garage bands are, for the sounds encapsulated on a few singles. The curious, and those devoted to the neverending pursuit of the collection of garage band albums will find a lot to like on their lone album, now available with "Moulty", "Hey Little Bird" and other tracks added. Black Pearl's work remains out of print and difficult to find. Complete beginners ought to try out a garage band anthology first; Rhino Records' Nuggets series are phenomenal collections.
Weekly Artist Overview normally appears on Monday.
Listen to The Barbarians: Hey Little Bird (1964)