Classic Music Review: Part One by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band

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My Psychedelia Series is off to a bumpy start.

Okay, try to follow this plot: a rich young dilettante meets three young guys at a posh L. A. party where The Yardbirds provide the entertainment. They get to chatting and the dilettante finds out the three young men are musically inclined. He offers to bankroll the band and buy them shiny new equipment under one condition: that they let him shake the tambourine on stage so he could fill his bed with suntanned L. A. chicks. “What the hell,” say the young men, still in their teens and no doubt imbued with devil-may-care attitudes.

Things move fast. The dilettante uses his bucks to buy them equipment and that essential component of a psychedelic band, a light show. He books them into the L. A. hot spots and finances their first recordings. Of course, they should have figured it out when he forced them to accept one of the most ridiculous band names ever invented, but when you’re young, what the fuck do you know? The dilettante then begins to demand more creative input. “The part that was frustrating,” said member Shaun Harris, “Was that he had no musical aptitude of any kind and so what he was trying to do to be different and innovative ended up sounding contrived. It was an embarrassment.”

The result of such an arrangement is a breathtakingly uneven album with a few lovely splashes of post-Rubber Soul melodic pop unable to cover the smell of some of the stinkiest crap you’ll ever smell on record. The author of the 2001 liner notes for Part One makes the absurd defense that “it is precisely the unexpected juxtapositions within the album which make it so powerful.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. That’s such a stupid comment that it doesn’t even reach the mediocre level of “spin.” Anyone trying to spin Part One into a psychedelic masterpiece is either stoned or stone deaf.

The dilettante mentioned above went by the name of Bob Markley, and his control and cacophonous contributions pretty much cancel out the virtues displayed by brothers Shaun and Danny Harris and guitarist Michael Lloyd, the unfortunate trio at the heart of the story. Those three were responsible for the more coherent, pretty songs on the record, but their credible contributions are few and far between. And while they wrote some pleasant little numbers, those songs are a long way from “Penny Lane” or “Care of Cell 44.” They’re all tunes with simple chords and simple melodies presented within a fairly limited vocal range; two in particular rise to the level of “pretty damned good.” There are strong hints of The Beatles, The Left Banke, The Byrds and The Cyrkle in their offerings, so we’re not talking breathtaking originality here. In summary, despite the “experimental” moniker, this is an album that sticks to what was in vogue at the time with several departures into the truly weird-just-to-be-weird.

The album opens limply with “Shifting Sands,” written by a third-rate songwriter named Baker Knight who had written some minor songs for Elvis and Ricky Nelson, which gave him serious cred in Bob Markley’s eyes. It’s a three-chord minor key song spiced by a game attempt at a trippy lead guitar part that shows only that the lead guitarist needed more practice. It also doesn’t help that the song is sung slightly off-key and that sometimes the rhythms don’t sync very well to the music. My dad came up with a good description of the sound: “On this one, they sound like the teenage garage bands who used to play at the high school mixers. Four or five guys who learned a few chords, sang through their noses to try to sound British and waited for the chicks to come their way.”

Generally speaking, the originals conceived by the trio (though Markley horned in on the songwriting credits) are the better songs, and I found “I Won’t Hurt You” particularly beautiful and moving. Sometimes we hear a song that triggers unexpected emotions due to a connection to a deeply personal experience, and that’s what happened to me with “I Won’t Hurt You.” Shaun Harris and Michael Lloyd had no idea that a woman who was not even born yet would hear this song forty-eight years after its conception and relate it to her experience volunteering in a domestic violence center in Abidjan. I’ve been trying to put that experience behind me, but the gentle repetition of the lines, “I won’t hurt you, I won’t hurt you” brought it all back in waves of tears. While listening, I thought that hearing those words would have meant much more to the women I saw than “I love you,” or “I’m sorry” (not that they would have ever heard either from their vicious husbands).

Even without my distorted lens, this is a very pretty song with surprisingly vivid lyrics. The arrangement is stark and simple: an imitation of a rapid heartbeat on the drums and quiet lo-fi guitar on the opposite channel. The vocal is also quiet, shy and tentative, as if the singer is probing for an opening in a relationship. The narrator chooses to build trust through self-disclosure, and it is this sharing of vulnerability makes the repetition of “I won’t hurt you” even more moving:

I’ve lost all my pride
I’ve been to paradise
And out the other side
With no one to guide me
Torn apart by a fiery wheel (or will) inside

I won’t hurt you
I won’t hurt you
I won’t hurt you
I won’t hurt you

I’m an untouched diamond
That’s golden and brilliant without illumination
Your mouth’s a constellation
The stars are in your eyes
I’ll take a spaceship
And try and go and find you

Even the rudimentary instrumental passage—a call-and-response of three strummed guitar chords piped through opposite channels—works astonishingly well. I am now starting to feel that these guys may have something here.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Inexplicably released as a single, “1906” is a mind-dump written by Bob Markley who convincingly verifies the lack of musical talent spotted by the other band members and piles it on with an embarrassing display of moronic poetry in a pathetic attempt to position himself as a Frank Zappa-like genius. The “poem” allegedly has something to do with a dog sensing an imminent earthquake, but the only thing I sense here is what comes out of a dog’s ass. This one gets a triple oh-for-fuck’s sake for the go-go house band backing track and for insane blather like this:

A circus light keeps flashing
A stone crumbled and fell
Steel beams snapped like toothpicks
I don’t feel well

Many strangers have arrived
Wearing immense black boots
Selling buttons at my door
I don’t feel well

See the frightened foxes
See the hunchback in the park
He’s blind and can’t run for cover
I don’t feel well

Hear my master’s ugly voice
See the teeth marks on my leash
Only freaks know all the answers
I don’t feel well

I am so excited to have finally discovered the Ed Wood of Poetry.

They follow this stinker with the equally ear-splitting cover of Zappa’s “Help, I’m a Rock.” My dad and I have argued for years about Frank Zappa, both staunchly defending our positions. To my once-a-hippie-always-a-hippie father, Frank Zappa is a genius. To me, he’s a period piece whose “humor” and “insight” is forever suspended in the amber of the 1960’s, and his “genius” more the work of self-promotion than inspiration. No, I wasn’t there, and you can decide for yourself if that’s an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to objectivity. My verdict is this “song” flat-out sucks.

Isn’t “turkey” is a term applied to three consecutive strikes in bowling? I think we can safely apply that concept here. “Will You Walk With Me” completes the turkey—a more melodic disaster, but a disaster nonetheless. It begins with some very sweet guitar picking, soon to be followed by gentle strings. The listeners have now been conditioned for the sonic equivalent of the scent of flowers and gentle breezes. It’s a trick! The lyrics are fucking creepy!

Will you walk with me in the morning? Do, my love.
Will you walk with me in the morning? Do, my love.
Don’t worry about the people any more.
You’ll never see the people any more.

Tell me where have all the people gone?
Will you tell me where have all the people gone?
Don’t worry about the people any more.
You’ll never see the people any more.

Arrgh! What happened to the people? Is the narrator a super-being who wished all the people into the twilight zone because they made his love unhappy? Or did he do the typically American thing and mow them all down with a machine gun? Or is this guy a sex-crazed killer with a helpless wench chained to the water pipes in his basement? Is he now walking her to her demise? Is that why she’ll never see the people any more? The combination of disappearing humanity and the softness of the background creates a chilling irony that I seriously doubt was intended. The string-laden arrangement makes you think of “Pretty Ballerina,” but this is something out of a really, really bad horror movie—a movie directed by . . . Ed Wood.

Just when I was ready to fling the disk into the Seine, they restrain my impulse with “Transparent Day,” a melodic and catchy number that has 1966 written all over it: the Rickenbacker-like jangle, the breezy, skipping-down-the-street beat and the soft and breathy vocals sweetened by a touch of harmony. The vocal arrangement is very effective: call-and-response from both sides of the stereo on the lines of the verses that come together in the middle for the closing line. The instrumental passage features one of the better uses of the harpsichord in the pop songs of the era, and also features the most imaginative chord and rhythmic shifts on the entire album. If they had filled the album with songs of the quality of “Transparent Day” and “I Won’t Hurt You,” they might have had a masterpiece instead of a mid-60’s relic.

But on this album one good song invites disaster, and it arrives in the form of “Leilya,” where they cop a Bo Diddley-type riff and sound pretty much like amateurs before they decide to make it worse—much worse—with the introduction of a B-movie ghoul (I’m not kidding) who growls out the name “Leilya” with a mwa-ha-ha undertone. A long instrumental section devolves into crashing waves of noise, then inexplicably shifts to a Bach-tinged acoustic guitar for a few seconds before the awful noise returns. This is no doubt one of the “unexpected juxtapositions” that make this album a classic, and you know what? I’m going to change my mind and agree with that assessment. Part One is a classic . . . along the lines of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster.

Are we sure that Ed Wood didn’t produce this record? He was still alive in 1966, living in L A., and whoa! I just checked his filmography and Ed Wood made no films in 1966! I think I’m onto something here!

Next comes a song written by (according to the liner notes) “the immortal P. F. Sloan.” I had no idea that P. F. Sloan had attained such a lofty status; personally, I always get him confused with P. J. Proby. If you don’t know who P. F. Sloan is, he’s the guy who wrote “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man” and Herman’s Hermits “A Must to Avoid.” I look at that list and think if P. F. Sloan is immortal, what does that make Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies? Mega-gods? By the way, P. F. Sloan is still alive, and I’m going to start tracking the obituaries to see if he really is immortal once I’m done with my Ed Wood investigation. As for the band’s rendition of this immortally-influenced contribution, they sound very, very much like their L. A. neighbors, The Byrds. There’s a jangly Ric, strategically positioned harmonies and the proper folk-rock feel. The melody is somewhat pleasant but the lyrics are quite sexist: the narrator is trying to convince a woman with obvious intelligence and dreams beyond her station in life that where she really belongs is with him, no doubt scrubbing the sinks and fixing the meat loaf. Funny, I always assumed immortals would be imbued with superior wisdom.

Adding insult to injury and once again proving that connections always trump talent, Baker Knight returns with his second composition on the album, another minor key period piece doubtless influenced by the success of The Beau Brummels’ “Laugh, Laugh.” The band tries to spice things up (twice) with a double-time instrumental passage that at least manages to assuage our pain with some comic relief. It’s followed by Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde producer Bob Johnston’s meager contribution, “S’cuse Me, Miss Rose,” a poorly-arranged upbeat rocker where no one in the band seems to agree on the tempo. The album ends with a Van Dyke Parks throwaway number, “High Coin,” a country-tinged instrumental that opens (for no ostensible purpose) with a very long and badly recorded drum roll that segues into a spoken announcement of the album’s title. By this time I would have thought they would have tried to deny all knowledge of this album and come up with alibis in case anyone had bothered to investigate this atrocity.

After Part One, the WCPAEB (whew!) released three more albums that I do not want to hear. Back in the day, my father bought all of their records (fucking music junkies—they’re hopeless!), but admitted that he traded in the last three after a single spin. He kept this one, a decision driven more by collector syndrome than validation of musical excellence. What I hear are two pretty good songs and a whole lot of trash from a band that got into the studio because some loser’s daddy made a lot of money from oil wells.

I’ll get back to you on the Ed Wood angle ASAP.

GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: ELECTRIC MUSIC FOR THE MIND AND BODY BY COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH

6 responses

  1. For once (given I’m commenting on this album) I haven’t heard this album. I have however heard their second or third album… it’s the one with “The Smell Of Incense” on it. What you wrote though could easily apply to the album I have heard since… well… it would be tolerable if it didn’t have Bob Markley’s impositions. He does a recital at the start of one track “Suppose They Gave A War, And Nobody Comes” which was of some ex President’s speech declaiming “I hate war!” Unfortunately, Markley is so hammy it ends up being rather creepy for all the wrong reasons and what should had been a intriguing moody anti-Vietnam protest ends up coming across like bad comedy. A couple of other tracks were passable psychpop but I’ve forgotten the rest probably because it was a load of crap.

    At least I know now not to bother checking anything else by this lot out.

    Looking forward to the rest of your psych-fest… you’re gonna be reviewing 2 of my all time fave albums (in fact, one of them is my number one album, the desert island one!) so I’m quite curious to see whether they’re ones you liked or thought were crap. You can be certain I’ll be offering some comments and insights on them!

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    1. Oh, good—I could use the help! Based on the statistics so far, you have a 50% chance that I will like your albums: I’ve written 6 reviews, liked 3, disliked 3. Of the remaining eight, two probably won’t make it into the “like” column, two probably will and the other four are a toss-up. In general, though, your odds are slightly better if they’re British albums.

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  2. My goodness… Now that’s the definition of pretentiousness or deceit… A band that makes the Troggs (a group I like very much) sound like Genesis (ditto) trying to be (or pass for) the ultimate in music… By “experimental” they must have meant having to decide between the chords of E and Em…

    And many people thinh that being a music researcher is a bed of roses. Maybe, but roses have thorns… Of course, the WCEPAB are the kind of artist one listens to by chance or ex-officio… I have listened to two of their albums, this first one and the one that has a song with the message “suppose they give a war and no one comes”… OK, this phrase has become a cliché (maybe it already had become one by then), but anything, cliché or not, well or badly set to music, that’s against war is fine by me. But The Monkees (yes, this is part of my defence) did a much better song (written by Bill & John Chadwick) on the same theme:

    (OK, being much better than the WCEPAB is not the hardest of tasks, but you get my drift.)

    As for the aforementioned songwriter Baker Knight, he has some good songs, perhaps the best known one being this, in the “Heartbreak Hotel” formula (but what is pop music, rock or not, without formulae anyway?) – a good rock ballad, but does it qualify as stuff for an “experimental pop art band”?

    Just in case you’re wondering, there’s a cover version by our (mine anyway) favourite chanteuse:

    Speaking of formulae, have you noticed that most every album by a USA artist released by Warner/Reprise from roughly 1966 to 1970 includes at least one song by Van Dyke Parks and/or Randy Newman? Well, being a songwriter myself, I know that songwriters and publishers have to work hard for money and recognition, and songs by these two – notably Newman – are usually welcome.

    Well, listening to the WCEPAB is not that painful – as you well observed, there is even the odd good song – , but I ended up think I could have spent time listening to something better. Oh well, there’s another true cliché: without the breaking of eggs there’s no omelette…

    Ah, I loved your comparisions to Ed Wood. I don’t feel well, I don’t feel well, I don’t feel well…

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    1. I remember “Smell Of Incense”, not a bad song, but very dated and uncreatively arranged. (That’s what I remember from listening back in 1981-2, and maybe staying with that somewhat pleasant memory is enough, heh heh.)

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    2. I’ve been thinking about a songwriter series including those two gentlemen and Nilsson, but it will require double the usual research and I simply don’t have the time right now.

      The Hardy video reminds me that the two singers who could best overcome sappy arrangements were Françoise Hardy and Ray Charles. I’ve been playing Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music lately as a counter to all this psychedelic noise.

      I do like The Troggs and Genesis . . . when they’re on. What I’d really like to see is a collection of the great proto-punk hits of the 60’s with “Wild Thing,” “Hey Joe” (The Leaves), “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “96 Tears,” etc. but I haven’t found one.

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  3. […] Part One by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, 1966 […]

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