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"And the price is right - the cost of one admission is your mind"

Class D

Main Category: Psychedelia
Also applicable: Electronica
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: --------



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Today's equivalent of the United States of America's only album would be importantly called a "Project". It would, with a high percentage of probability, include Robert Fripp or Brian Eno, as well as a bunch of guys nobody but the most devout prog fans has ever heard of. It would feature a lot of complex, or just plain challenging sounds which could, with a high percentage of probability, be even called "music". It would sell about two copies in total upon the first month of release and then become a treasurable collector's item.

All of this, except for Fripp/Eno participation, more or less applies to the United States of America. There is, however, one big difference: the United States of America did this in late nineteen sixty-seven. At that time, the area of conceptual sonic projects was limited to modern classical; the Krautrock scene hadn't even begun taking off in Germany, and the London scene was obsessed with a bit too many hallucinogenics to try and create something, let's say, "technologically challenging". There was a lot of freaking out going on, for sure, but that's a whole different story.

In stepped The United States Of America. Formally, they were a "band" of sorts, with five different members responsible for different parts of the 'project'. One must, however, note that apparently the collaboration of these five was never meant to be permanent, which explains why they only did one record; rather it was just a one-time experiment with unpredictable results. The "leader" of the band, Joseph Byrd, studied contemporary music and art in New York (where else!), after which he moved to UCLA to teach the results of his experience. There he teamed up with four "open-minded" students, and somehow they were able to convince producer David Rubinson to cut their one record for public release.

Honestly, I have not the least idea whether The USA's one and only album - totally groundbreaking at the time of release in early 1968 - ever influenced anybody. It could easily have: its use of electronic instruments was more complex and, well, just plain musical than standard synth use for at least several more years, and the bizarre half-psychedelic, half-carnivalesque atmosphere of the record could easily provoke a reaction in tons and tons of Seventies' artists. The problem is, I'm not sure if any of them ever heard this record: it received about zero promotion from the label, and given that the USA (the country I mean) wasn't that much interested in that kind of goofy experimentation at the time, as well as the band's inability to stay together or even do much touring (although I've been told they actually did tour - the very fact of which is weird, but then again, it's the late Sixties we're speaking of), it predictably sank like a stone on the charts and was totally forgotten.

Fortunately, history has been kind to it, and due to some kind souls' activity, it is currently available on CD (only as an import copy, though, if you're American). And who cares about influence anyway? So The United States Of America aren't going to be recognized as the greatest band on Earth, that's understood. That doesn't mean we can't dig out this album, quite unique in its own way, and just dig the crazy sounds emerging from within. I'm not going to act all snobby and elevated and say that this is the beginning of electronica and that Can and Faust and Brian Eno and Klaus Schulze and all those guys were just talentless hacks compared to the genius of this album. But I'm not going to dismiss it as an insignificant historical curio either - because the best thing about it is, it remains listenable and enjoyable more than thirty years after its release, and if you're talking radical Sixties experimentalism, that's not such a trivial feat as it may seem. Don't believe me? Just remind yourself of the Animals' Winds Of Change, or of George Harrison's Electronic Sound. See now? That's NOT how this album sounds.

Lineup: Joseph Byrd - electronic music, electric harpsichord, organ, calliope, piano; Dorothy Moskowitz - lead singer (Byrd sings lead on a couple tracks as well); Gordon Marron - electric violin, ring modulator; Rand Forbes - electric bass; Craig Woodson - electric drums, percussion. Ed Bogas supplies occasional organ, piano, calliope. Not one guitar anywhere in sight!



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

No guitar!


Track listing: 1) The American Metaphysical Circus; 2) Hard Coming Love; 3) Cloud Song; 4) The Garden Of Earthly Delights; 5) I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar; 6) Where Is Yesterday; 7) Coming Down; 8) Love Song For The Dead Che; 9) Stranded In Time; 10) The American Way Of Love.

So let's see, what would be the most adequate summarization of this album? Let's see: we pick one part American roots-rock, one part Kinksy Brit-pop, two parts San Francisco-style psychedelia, and two parts European avantgarde studies, and there you have it.

The name of the band, and the title of the album, are misguided. You'd think these guys were The Band or something, but they're not. They pick on American influences for sure, but that's only part of the story. I'd say the title has more to do with the general "shock value" of the album - they had to think of a shocking moniker to go along with it. None of the songs are "normal"; very few consist of less than two or three distinct parts; lots of them incorporate sound collages, at times great, at times a bit 'Revolution 9'-like; and, of course, the important thing is that there are no guitars. This is also part of the "shocking" package: very often, Byrd's organ sounds almost exactly like a guitar, so they wouldn't be disrupting their sound too much had they picked up a guitarist. It was just so cool for them not to have a guitar player when every other rock band of the time had. God damn those snotty intellectuals.

But the album was released in the midst of the Flower Power era, so you can't help but have all the hippie influences. 'The American Metaphysical Circus' opens the record in a way no hippie band would - with actual circus music, several circus march themes overlapping with each other; but as the actual tune begins, Dorothy Moskowitz enters with lyrics that owe a lot to 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite' and culminate in the 'the price is right, the cost of one admission is your mind' chorus, an obvious psychedelic reference. Special note of attention for Ms Moskowitz's voice - first time I heard it, I thought it was a male singing in a high-pitched voice. I don't know why. Maybe you'll understand when you hear it.

And, of course, all around you'll be experiencing a nightmarish/carnivalesque whirlwind of the band's array of electronic sounds, especially the "ring modulator" thing which makes everything reverberate and echo around as if everything was let through a big wobbly machine. The bad news - at times, there's simply too much of this modulation, so that it becomes annoying a la "electric jug" of the 13th Floor Elevators. The good news - most of the time, they're trying to create just the right atmosphere for the proceedings, and there's great variety in the use of these electronic gadgets.

The best thing of all, though, is that the songs are goddamn good, which justifies the high rating. After the schizophrenic majesty of 'Metaphysical Circus', we get the edgy pop-rocker 'Hard Coming Love', which immediately kicks in at full force and demonstrates that The United States of America aren't just a bunch of goofs: when they want, they can rock your pants down, and that organ or whatever it is can give out a jarring, ass-kicking psychedelic solo better than any electric guitar. (Funny, that frantic jump-start to the song reminds me a lot of the way Can jump-start 'Mother Sky' on Soundtracks - pure coincidence, I guess). And then you find out that they're suckers for a catchy vocal melody too - the song is a great pop ditty, with Dorothy crooning out 'ah it's hard coming love, hard coming love' as if she were a freakin' soul singer or something.

'Cloud Song', on the other hand, shows that they can neglect catchy melodies in favour of proto-ambient atmosphere; you won't remember the song when it's over, but while it's on, it seems to me to be picking up right from the place where the Beatles' 'Flying' ended - and besides, the lyrics to the song are taken directly from Winnie-the-Pooh ('how sweet to be a cloud, floating in the blue'), which marks the second time a famous children's book has been exploited to serve psychedelic needs of the epoch (the first, and much more notorious, case is, of course, the Airplane's 'White Rabbit').

'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' bombards the listener with its "phaser attack" from the ring modulator, then becomes another gritty pop-rocker which should be listened to in earphones at full volume blast - otherwise, the magic of Dorothy chanting 'you will find them in her eyes, IN HER EYES!' swiftly transmutating into the laser beam pulsating of the modulator will escape you. And then the album suddenly changes course and goes from psychedelia straight into a goofy hybrid between a countryesque melody and a Kinks-style lyrical subject called 'I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar'. Imagine that - a country rocker, violin and all, with a proto-Moog or whatever "astral" solo, stupid brass riffs popping out here and there, and a corny vocal duet between Joseph and Dorothy in which the, uhm, protagonist explains to his BS&M partner that he can't leave his "wooden wife" and his "split level house with a wonderful view" for her. Hey, no wonder the album never took off commercially - stuff like that never takes off commercially. It's like, gimme the astral solo OR gimme the "wooden wife" stuff! Not both!

'Where Is Yesterday' incorporates a bit of Gregorian chant and a beautiful expression of "longing" when the band chants the title. It is perhaps the most "sincere" sounding song on the album, if you could call anything on here "sincere": there's way too much emphasis on weirdness in order to place an equal emphasis on "emotional resonance". Not that there's anything wrong with that if the music is so dang involving. Hey, 'Coming Down' begins as a jig and then becomes another psychedelic rocker! The boring pseudo-beautiful ballad on Side 2 is called 'Love Song For The Dead Che'! (And it's really boring - as if they wanted to do a Pet Sounds kind of gorgeousness but failed to find a real melody to back it up. But the title rules!). The other Kinks-style lyrical sendup, 'Stranded In Time', features 'Eleanor Rigby'-like string quartet arrangements!

Truly, though, the band only loses it a bit with the multi-part 'American Way Of Love' suite that closes the album. I don't care much for random sonic collages, and while the final part of the track is definitely a better sonic collage than quite a few I could name, it's still a pretty shallow way to cap it off (and bringing up bits and pieces of previous tracks doesn't help much, and neither does the sampling of the phrase "how much fun it's been" - it's been a lot of fun, but do we really need to have that beaten into the ground?). I realize that these sampling bits and all were absolutely unheard of at the time, more so than anything else, but ironically, they seem to have dated more than anything else on here.

Even so, after discarding the tuneless boredom of 'Love Song For The Dead Che' and that second part of the closing suite, I am left astonished by how much good music there is on the album. Not just reckless experimentation - good music, with hooks and melodies and tasteful innovative arrangements. I guess some of the more radical listeners will find it a bad thing, preferring their experimentation with an uncompromising edge, such as the jamming of Can or the industrial collages of Faust. Well - I've said it over and over again, I think that finding a good balance between the experimental and the "traditional" is a much harder job to do than to limit oneself with just one side of the business. And this album, with a few exceptions, succeeds in finding this balance. So go for it, I say! Oh and - it really sounds like nothing else ever done. In fact, consider this a weak 13 (and the band an overall weak 3) on a particularly fine day.


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