The United States of America

TrackAlbum
The American Metaphysical CircusThe United States of America
Hard Coming LoveThe United States of America
The Garden Of Earthly DelightsThe United States of America
Coming DownThe United States of America
Love Song For The Dead ChéThe United States of America
The American Way Of LoveThe United States of America

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Contributor: Rob Morgan

I’m not old enough to remember the release of The Rock Machine Turns You On, the first cheaply priced sampler album issued in the UK by CBS in 1968, but at some point around 1982 a copy of the LP somehow ended up in my brother’s record collection. I think my mother found it for him in a charity shop where she worked and thought he might be interested in it. He may not have been that interested at the time, but looking back on the track listing the LP does hold pointers to music that both he and I would end up listening to later on in our lives. It’s a very 1968 album, and a very CBS 1968 album – there’s Dylan in John Wesley Harding mode, Simon and Garfunkel doing Scarborough Fair, Al Kooper gets in there with Blood Sweat and Tears, the Byrds drop by for the oceanic Dolphin’s Smile, and there’s Time Of The Season before it became a hit. There are oddities too and, looking back, suddenly a few songs make sense. As in, so that’s why I recognised Can’t Be So Bad and Sisters Of Mercy and Turn On A Friend when I heard them. I don’t think my brother played the album many times, but even back in the early 80s I remembered that ridiculous song with clanging noises and screeching violin about a wooden wife. That kind of song you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jump to the late 90s and I spot The United States of America on LP and CD in Diverse Records. I examine the sleeve on the LP, it looks a very ’68 CBS LP sleeve – all the lyrics on the back in the same manner as Bookends – but I pick up the CD instead. I suppose my interest had been piqued by Love Song For The Dead Ché, the debut single by Northern Picture Library back in October ’93 which was a cover version of a song from this LP. I didn’t know much more about the band but I was going through a phase of listening to as much odd music issued by CBS in 1968 and this fitted that bill perfectly.

The United States of America were the brainchild of Joseph Byrd, an attempt to bring radical ideas – political satire, electronic instrumentation, avant-garde experimentation – into mainstream music. It all must have sounded very revolutionary when it was released in early 1968, but then revolution was in the air that year – everyone thought it would happen sooner or later. I’m not going into the socio-political side of things here – there’s been enough books about that over the years and I’ve read quite a few of them – but purely in musical terms, this album was its own revolution. There were no electric guitars at all, just bass guitar, drums, electric violin and a range of primitive synthesisers and effects, ring modulators, oscillators and more. And then there was Dorothy Moskowitz as lead singer, her voice alternately soft and harsh, a counterpart to Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane.

The opening of The American Metaphysical Circus wasn’t inspiring: a collage of calliopes and barrel organs and marching bands for almost a minute, then creeping into the sound picture is a strange unearthly noise like a buzzing bee, then the song starts; slow and careful, bass and drums and keyboards and vocals while in the distance peculiar noises echo; and with each verse’s pass, the female vocal – so calm and serene – changes, different effects each time. It’s clearly an homage to Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, yet is far more sinister, and the chorus runs: “And the price is right, the cost of one admission is your mind”. And as the music rises, the words get submerged into the rising clanging of the electronics. Finally the song collapses back into fairground music. Very odd.

Hard Coming Love starts like a typical late 60s US psych raver – blaring keyboards, pulsing rhythm section, a lead guitar seemingly searing through the song – only it’s a distorted keyboard, and after a minute it all drops down to quietitude. Moskowitz is alluring, talking about love but meaning something else, as the song stops and the synths rise to the occasion, so to speak. Dirty and hard.

Cloud Song is a gentle drum-free drift, befitting such a title. It sounds very sixties but decidedly modern too.

The Garden Of Earthly Delights is more hip 60s groove music, the lyrics full of drug references or war references – so many mushrooms! – and the song is smothered in those typical ‘let’s see what a synth can do’ noises, but it’s fabulous psych rock and the lyrics could almost predict the rave generation – “dancing by night dying by day”.

Closing side one is I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar, all clangs, fuzz bass and satire. “You make me feel twenty five again,” sings Byrd, and you really don’t believe him. A glimpse of a typically perfect American family life.

Side two begins with chanting in Latin before Where Is Yesterday kicks off, with queasy sliding strings and gentle descending music and lots of echoing vocals. Unease again: “Shadows on the pavement but no bodies do you find”. It passes the time until Coming Down kicks the door down. This is more prime psych rock; fuzz bass, charging drums, frantic tambourine, odd synth noises and a perfect drug lyric, full of what now come across as clichés but probably sounded really clever at the time. “Reality is only temporary”, “A trip that doesn’t need a ticket or a bed”. As it dies away in an explosion, Love Song For The Dead Ché fades in gently, swooning strings and keyboards and a strange lyric which is heartfelt and gentle.

Stranded In Time always annoyed me; the staccato strings are very Eleanor Rigby but are out-of-phase so sound horrible (this is producer David Rubinson’s fault, it’s an effect he used all over Moby Grape’s debut LP for those unearthly harmonies) and the song veers from the string quartet to waltz time rock band back and forth while being another critique of straight society.

The American Way Of Love starts as another conventional song (unless you listen to the sordid lyrics) before rocketing into some strange areas; electric violins through fuzzboxes, space noises, discordant strings then a second section titled California Good Time Music, sunshine pop with a pervy twist, and finally into a grinding section where all manner of craziness comes in – sections from the previous nine songs are spun in as found sounds and collaged into a daydream nightmare as the whole album replays before your ears before a loop of “How much fun it’s been” repeats endlessly. It’s a bit Revolution 9 and a bit like Track For Speedy Freaks (which closes We Are Ever So Clean, the debut LP from Blossom Toes) that crams their entire LP into one minute of confusion.

And that’s the end of The United States of America and effectively the end of the band. Byrd made a second album under the name Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, confusingly titled The American Metaphysical Circus before heading back to academia. Moskowitz moved over to join Country Joe McDonald’s All Star Band and, well, the revolution never happened and the revolutionaries certainly weren’t on Columbia/CBS.

But … this LP turned out to be more influential than a lot of other albums of the era. The mix of rock instrumentation with electronics was highly innovative and set the groundwork for any number of bands who integrated the two together. It was odd hearing the LP in the 90s because it sounded quite up to date, and the influence upon Stereolab and Broadcast was obvious, Portishead too. It’s now regarded as a forward looking classic and that’s the way it should be. Get past the dated lyrics and it’s a total blast.

The United States of America biography (iTunes)

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Rob’s website, A Goldfish Called Regret, in the 40 Great Debut Albums series.

TopperPost #349

5 Comments

  1. Kasper Nijsen
    Sep 11, 2014

    Thanks for this. I don’t know them too well but will explore further. It’s also worth mentioning that Joseph Byrd was responsible for the controversial arrangement of the album version of Phil Ochs’ song (his best according to many) “The Crucifixing”.

  2. Peter Viney
    Sep 11, 2014

    Thanks for this, Rob. The Rock Machine Turns You On and Rock Machine I Love You were important albums at the time of release, and I Wouldn’t Leave My Wooden Wife … stood out as the weirdest track, and the band tied for wooden spoon with Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera as the only unsuccessful artists on there. Everyone else did so well. By Christmas 1968 the United States of America LP was heavily remaindered by CBS: yours for 6/- everywhere and they still couldn’t shift it. They must have over-pressed wildly in the UK. Imagine my surprise in late 1969 when our new housemate unpacked his LPs (every Moody Blues release) to reveal a copy, and not only that, he’d bought it full price right after the Rock Machine. It greatly raised his cred, and we played it a lot. It remained extremely weird, and I’ve been fascinated to see its eventual recognition, some forty five years later.

    • Rob Morgan
      Sep 12, 2014

      Thanks for the reply Peter. I’m fascinated by the late 60s/early 70s sampler albums – obviously I was too young for them being born in ’69 but I’m amazed at how labels chose songs and packaged them and sold them so cheaply, and how important they were in broadening the appeal of underground/progressive music of the era. All those Island and Harvest and Warners loss leaders (in America anyway) – a wonderful and cheap introduction to something new and exciting. You just don’t see that anymore. Even in the late 70s Virgin were doing cheap samplers, and I remember Sounds having sampler LPs too – or at least I remember seeing them in second hand shops! I always believe that CBS did the USoA a disservice by putting “Wooden Wife” on The Rock Machine Turns You on. By being wilfully odd it certainly made a statement and everyone noticed the song, but it gave no indication of what the rest of the LP sounded like. Had CBS chosen “Coming Down” or “Garden of Earthly Delights” for the sampler, they may not have had to remainder the LP so much – thanks for your remembrance on that, it’s amazing what people can recall about those times! Again, thanks for the kind words.

  3. Peter Viney
    Sep 15, 2014

    The recent re-issue is a de-luxe edition with bonus tracks, but they appear to be mainly Alt. takes, I had it in my hand on Saturday and was tempted … but resisted. Maybe next week.

  4. David Tanner
    Jan 19, 2015

    I also first came upon them via the Rock Machine compilation, but I also picked up the single with Garden of Earthly Delights and Love Song for the Dead Che. Pete Drummond played the single a lot on his Saturday show on R1.

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