The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band

TrackAlbum
Shifting SandsPart One
Will You Walk With MePart One
Transparent DayPart One
Here's Where You BelongPart One
If You Want This LovePart One
Smell Of IncenseVol. 2 (Breaking Through)
Eighteen Is Over The HillVolume 3: A Child's Guide To
Good And Evil
As The World Rises And FallsVolume 3: A Child's Guide To
Good And Evil
Until The Poorest People
Have Money To Spend
Volume 3: A Child's Guide To
Good And Evil
As Kind As SummerVolume 3: A Child's Guide To
Good And Evil

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The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band photo 1

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (l to r): Shaun Harris (bass guitar, vocals), Bob Markley (tambourine, vocals), Danny Harris (lead guitar, vocals)

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

With a stupid name like that it was always pretty unlikely that it would work out right for the band.

Couple in the fact that the band’s leader saw himself as the incarnation of hip/alternate, and …

… that the guy who’s reputed to have put the key components of the band together, Kim Fowley, while having a deserved cult following, has never been strongly associated with serious music,

then it might come as a surprise to learn that The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band managed to release six albums, some of which contained some really good music.

There were two parts to the jigsaw. The first part was Bob Markley, adopted son of a wealthy oil magnate. Bob had studied law, which was to come in useful, but he was also an aspiring record star – he’d released a couple of singles on his own label. The other part was an existing band, the Laughing Wind, who’d also cut a few singles. The band comprised brothers Danny and Shaun Harris, on lead and bass guitar respectively, Michael Lloyd also on guitar, plus John Ware, drums. All bar Ware handled vocals. Most of the boys had worked in previous bands in the L.A. area.

At a party held in Markley’s Beverly Hills mansion in August 1965, attended by the Harris Brothers, Michael Lloyd, Kim Fowley and plenty more, with musical entertainment provided by the Yardbirds amongst others, our hero/anti-hero had one of those eureka moments and decided that groups were the in thing, and, armed with the introduction from Fowley, proposed to the Laughing Wind that, if he could join the group as vocalist and songwriter, he would purchase new gear for them plus a light show and would cover the boys’ touring expenses. This was agreed and Markley came up with the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band name. Not only that, he ensured that legally he owned the band’s name and that he handled the music publishing.

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Volume One

The first album from the WCPAEB, released on the tiny indie FiFo Records (see Footnotes) was titled West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Volume One, perhaps rather optimistically, since it implied a future. Without wishing to be unduly cruel, there wasn’t a lot on the album that signified there might have been a future. Much of it was garage in sound – this was 1966 – but slightly more tender in nature than some bands that got classified under that heading. Outside of five originals which I’ll come on to, the content consisted of covers, some predictable like You Really Got Me and yet another Louie Louie, some rather less predictable including Chris Kenner’s New Orleans rolling rocker Something You Got (a not unpleasing workout which did capture some of the Crescent City laid-back feel) and Oscar Brown/Nat Adderley’s Work Song. Unlike the Georgie Fame vocal version of the song which might have been a Brit source, this take was purely instrumental, in line with the Cannonball Adderley record.

There were two Dylan covers, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue and She Belongs To Me. The first was reasonable but paled in comparison to the versions from Them and the 13th Floor Elevators (with the last named taking the biscuit for sheer freakiness). However the WCPAEB’s version of She Belongs To Me definitely warrants a listen. Starting out with heavy fuzz bass, the record eventually disappears in a storm of feedback and distortion. In comparison, the vocal, which lasts for little more than a minute, is precise and controlled, sounding passably like Dylan without falling into the trap of pastiche. The whole thing is over in less than two minutes though one could well imagine them stretching out on stage.

Of the five originals, three were from Bob Markley with two being Kim Fowley co-writes. Two of this trio were unremarkable attempts at psych, while the other was a soft folk rock thing, not unlike the sort of song P.F. Sloan was producing in the time frame. Which leaves two, I Won’t Hurt You (on which Markley gets another co-write along with Shaun Harris and Michael Lloyd), and If You Want This Love. Both were decent folk rock sounding affairs which was probably why they were selected to turn up again on the group’s second album in more fully realised versions.

Before leaving this set I would note that, for many years the LP was very difficult to get hold of (which didn’t do any harm to the band in terms of cult status), but in 1997 a CD version was released via Sundazed which doubled the number of tracks to 22. It is believed that most, possibly all, of the extra tracks were from the Laughing Wind prior to morphing into the WCPAEB. Certainly they are generally softer in nature with more of an emphasis on harmonies. Their cover of the Left Banke’s She May Call You Up Tonight would illustrate this superbly if only it was on YouTube!

One gets the impression that Markley, who very much saw himself as leader with the rest almost as paid employees, was keen to expunge any memory of the first album, since the second, which saw release on the far more prestigious Reprise label, was entitled The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Part One. I would assume that it was only ‘Part One’ rather than ‘Volume One’ because the latter had been used. Whatever, Markley, with or without the band, evidently saw this as the start and given his general outlook that would probably have been, in his eyes, “the start of something big”.

It wasn’t – the start of something big that is – but it was a mighty fine album in its own right. From the first few bars of track #1, Shifting Sands, you were aware that this was on a different level to the first outing. There was a balance of eight relatively conventional, often Byrds inspired songs, and three freaky ones. If that balance was slightly more skewed to the more accessible stuff, I’d classify this album as great. As it is it’s merely very very good.

The detail: let’s take those freaky ones first. Help, I’m A Rock is, of course, the number from the first Mothers Of Invention album, and it begs the question, why would you want to hear this from anyone other than Frank and the Mothers? Apart from some slight curiosity which, I found, disappeared rather quickly, my answer would be that you wouldn’t. Even the original wasn’t something you would play very frequently but it was essentially Zappa, no one else. I would call Leiyla, Bo Diddley meets Monster Mash. A perfectly good Diddley based backing track with a simplistic but acceptable vocal is marred by a kitsch horror show on top. It does develop but that doesn’t mean it gets better. The most successful of this bunch is 1906. Over a fast guitar + choral riff a narrator intones nonsense lines interspersed with “I don’t feel well” pleas. Presumably a bad trip but considerably more acceptable than the other ‘advanced’ efforts. Markley himself was so impressed with these tracks that Help, I’m A Rock and 1906 were the A-sides of the two singles issued from the album.

Back to those Shifting Sands

You know the love I gave you
Is slipping from your hands
Cause I was born to wander
Like the shifting of the sands

Minor key, a loping 3/4 time signature and very accomplished guitar work from, I presume, Ron Morgan who worked with the group on this album as a session musician but then stayed until 1970. A slightly discomforting atmosphere.

A couple of reference points occur to me in relation to this track and several on this album: (1) the John Cipollina and Gary Duncan twin guitar approach with Quicksilver Messenger Service, particularly on their first album, and, (2) some of the guitar work from Lee Underwood on the first Tim Buckley album.

Will You Walk With Me was something different again, even if it did share something of a haunting quality with my first selection. Title notwithstanding, this was a version of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew (utilising a variant on the first line as title). The arrangement had the band indulging their Left Banke/Zombies obsession to the utmost, complete with suitably restrained strings. And it came off. Superbly. It does leave this listener wondering, were they prompted into this by the Tim Rose single of the song which was released in February that same year. But the versions are so different it just doesn’t seem likely. I note also that Danny Harris would appear to have grabbed half of the composer credits from Bonnie (see Footnotes).

The two reinvented tracks from album #1 are improved almost beyond recognition. I Won’t Hurt You has unusual heartbeat rhythmic effect befitting the edgy lyrics, and If You Want This Love does a neat major/minor switch and features a couple of short double time sections. I do recall that double time was a feature deployed by the early Yardbirds in stage shows and wonder if the boys picked it up from them. They all seemed to be assiduous listeners and very good learners.

Which brings me to that Byrds reference. Here’s Where You Belong, a P.F. Sloan song, could almost have come from the Byrds first or second album. Apart from the immaculate guitar layering, the vocal was in the cool McGuinn style (from back in the days when he was Jim) and the harmonies had to be heard to be believed. And there was someone (Bob Markley), banging that Gene Clark tambourine. A pastiche? Yes, but put together with love.

At a slightly greater remove from the Byrds but still not a million miles away, there was Transparent Day, another folk rock styled goodie with a prominent (and original) guitar riff which just grabbed your attention. And if there was any danger of interest lapsing there was a stunning instrumental section about a minute in which only lasted for seconds but left you thinking, what was that? I’m ever so slightly reminded of the La’s There She Goes. See what you think:

By the time the band got into the studio again (later in ’67), Michael Lloyd had left after continuing disagreement with Markley. The album was given the title Vol. 2 (Breaking Through), continuing the inconsistencies of numbering. Content wise it upped the portion of 1906 style rants and dropped some of those numbers that most of us would call songs. There were compensations though, the band was certainly extending its range into hitherto unexplored areas, from the derivative – the Doors-ish but well executed Unfree Child – to the anything but derivative (for the time), jazz folky Tracy Had A Hard Day Sunday complete with a superb choral middle eight. I’d single out the jugband styled Delicate Fawn as the biggest surprise – listen out for the guy with bagpipes who wanders in somewhere near the end:

If it weren’t for the problems Bob Markley had later with underage girls – those problems extending to arrests – I might have selected Queen Nymphet, the only track that harks back to the melodic stuff on Part One. In 1967, though, this sort of thing wasn’t unusual, and I felt that at least I should offer the reader the clip:

My single selection from the album is the evocative (to the extent that it trembles on the brink of being labelled dated), Smell Of Incense. Limited vocal melodic development based on a two chord riff but with plenty of atmosphere and loads of laid-back jamming. In terms of comparisons, it’s Crosby, Stills and Nash (in the pre-Young days) who come to mind, or in Brit terms, perhaps Mighty Baby. But hang on, both of those groups were still a year or two into the future. Maybe the WCPAEB really were being innovative here. But, again, this wasn’t like anything we’d heard on the previous album.

She stood as still as the shadows of stones
She stood on the edge of my mind
I tried to push her away
I shut and locked the door
Her eyes grew large and asking
And the smell of incense filled the room

For album #4, actually Volume 3: A Child’s Guide To Good And Evil, the group shrunk again in terms of members. The ones that dropped out this time were drummer John Ware (for whom the experienced Hal Blaine stood in) and guitarist Danny Harris who was suffering mentally. Contrarily, the sound was actually fuller this time, in part due to the versatility of Ron Morgan, but also due to the greater but more integrated usage of electronic and other effects. For some, the album is viewed as the boys most creative effort and it has been called the great lost psych album or words to that effect. However, Richie Unterberger in AllMusic, who had been sympathetic to earlier releases, gave it one and a half stars only and panned it in his review. One of the rare tracks he showed enthusiasm for was the opener, Eighteen Is Over The Hill. And so he should have. This one was the furthest out the group would ever go in terms of choral extravaganzas. You could say that the boys left banked the Left Banke here, quite apart from soaking up ideas from Brian Wilson. Actually if I was to make a comparison to anyone on this, and it’s really about time I stopped doing so since on this album (and this one only) the WCPAEB demonstrated that they were masters of their own universe, it would be to the noughties era band, Midlake.

Each track on this album was different. In The Country showed, yes, country touches for the first time albeit with fuzz guitar; Watch Yourself was a big production with crowd noises and jazz flavoured guitar set to a conga beat; the unusually titled A Child Of A Few Hours Is Burning To Death was an effective anti-war polemic which took place over a blues jam; and there was another, not unattractive jugband thing, Our Drummer Always Played In The Nude. They did have a way with titles! The most unusual effort was the one minutes and thirty seven seconds of silence which constituted Anniversary Of World War III. I wouldn’t demur if you called this wasted vinyl since the exercise had been done before.

My second selection from this set is As The World Rises And Falls, a slowish and largely two chord affair which is something of a return to (and an amping up of) the haunting sounds from some of the tracks on Part One, like Shifting Sands.

The track that followed it on the album, Until The Poorest People Have Money To Spend, was yet another contrast; this album was full of them. Loud, in your face, but with a melody line that just went places you didn’t expect, all on top of multiple, overdubbed guitars. I do wonder if they cribbed the opening from Jimbo and Moonlight Drive, but who cares. Both records are great.

My last track, As Kind As Summer, is little more than a fragment but oh, what a fascinating fragment. A fabulous rhythm is laid down by two guitars and bass before the vocalist, who can hardly be made out, drops some sub-Syd Barrett whimsy on us. This lasts for no more than thirty seconds when it stops and we’re treated to some heavily distorted and slowing down vocal effects for little more than another ten or fifteen seconds before those guitars return to play us out. Sounds like nonsense but I keep going back to it.

We are right one at the right time
And a dwarf with a pointed hat
Will lead you to a magic place
And a woman with a crystal ball
will tell you many things about yourself
And about good
And about evil

I should add a comment regarding the brevity of the WCPAEB songs in general. Unlike many of their peers in the late sixties, particularly those on the west coast, WCPAEB songs rarely exceeded five minutes in duration; most were considerably shorter. One suspects that this might not have been the case in the band’s live show which was reportedly very good.

After Volume 3, Reprise let the band go due to disappointing sales. However, the man who’d produced Volume 3, Jimmy Bowen, had set up his own independent label, Amos Records, and he signed the WCPAEB to it. This resulted in Where’s My Daddy in 1969. The group’s sixth and final album Markley, A Group (1970) was then released on Forward Records which was owned by Mike Curb.

I could never get to grips with either of the last two albums. The psych edge had gone, being replaced on the first by, largely, acoustic noodling (though not unattractive, it has to be said), and on the second by more of a seventies sound with keyboards to the fore. The group was almost fully back together for these albums, contributing the bulk of the melodic stuff but little of the lyrics. It didn’t always get recognition though. Markley airbrushed out Lloyd’s credits on Where’s My Daddy on the first pressing after yet another row. That Markley was totally in charge was in little doubt. He even dropped the band name on Markley, A Group though they were definitely there in the studio, and had again come up with sufficient tunes to put Markley’s lyrics to. But it was the lyrics that were the problem on this pair. Without the distractions of strong and often unusual arrangements, Markley’s continuing obsessions with class struggle, redistribution of wealth, and an increasing element of paranoia were unattractive to say the least, particularly when coming from someone who was more than tidily off. Add in the increasingly explicit evidence of his interest in young girls, then this unattractiveness turns into outright repugnance. I should add that Where’s My Daddy was an attempt at a rock opera cum concept album, which entities were coming into vogue at the tail end of the sixties. It featured a young homeless girl and her journey through L.A. after the Summer Of Love. By the end she has been left beaten and raped, and has failed to plead her case to a judge.

For an alternative view of Markley, A Group see W.S. McCallum’s website, and here is a taster from that final album. Sarah The Sad Spirit:

The band broke up in 1970.

Michael Lloyd went into record production for MGM.

Shaun Harris went into film after a brief solo career.

Danny Harris also took up acting but in addition went back, if that’s the right way to put it, to folk music.

Ron Morgan went on to play with Three Dog Night.

Bob Markley continued to work as a record producer but suffered from declining mental stability. He had a number of tangles with the law due to his interest in underage girls. He died in September 2003.

 

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band photo 2

Any attempts to position the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band or even just to assess the quality of the music the band produced will almost inevitably run up against a couple of questions:

1) Did the band “manufacture” (for commercial reasons) their experimental music, to use their own wording, or was this something that just came naturally?

I don’t have a clear answer and am tempted to turn the question round and ask, does it matter so long as the resulting creations register in some way with the listener? Did the Beatles have their proverbial tongues in their cheeks when they recorded Tomorrow Never Knows? What we do know is that the band did have something of a gift for mimicry, though very little of their music could be termed outright copying. In Bob Markley, they had a lyricist and chief ranter who utilised much of the same subject matter and language as other artists who were deemed to be advanced. Did it make the band less legitimate than, say, the Fugs, if they weren’t strictly the first to utter certain sentiments? In terms of purely melodies, arrangements and performance of such, by the time the group had reached Volume 3, they were displaying the ability to produce a quite remarkable range of music that would have been the envy of many big name bands, psych or otherwise.

Jump to the Footnotes and the comment from Frank Zappa. Don’t tell me that the highly intelligent Zappa was unaware of the commercial nature (or otherwise) of music he produced.

2) Is it possible to divorce the subject of Bob Markley and his sexual proclivities from the music of the WCPAEB?

The simple answer is no, but it gets more difficult as one tries to add more clauses. If, say, after the recording of Volume 3 Bob had fallen under a bus, then the group’s reputation would not have suffered at all. I deliberately played Queen Nymphet (from Vol. 2) to show that such tendencies were on display before the late albums. However, they weren’t seen as that unusual in the hippie heyday so one suspects would not have impacted the band’s reputation in the hypothetical event of an early Markley death.

But I’ve no intention to brush such things under the carpet. Similar questions arise with artists like Ike Turner and Phil Spector, and the way people handle them varies considerably. Much the same will happen here. Personally, I would say that I wouldn’t like to stop listening to the band because of Markley, though I’m aware that some will not take this view.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Prior to the creation of the Laughing Wind, the Harris Brothers were in a band called the Snow Men and they appeared on an instrumental surf record produced by Kim Fowley, called Ski Storm:

In ’65, Shaun Harris worked with Michael Lloyd in the Rogues on the single, Wanted: Dead Or Alive, which was no more than Hey Joe under another name. (And I note the names Harris, Lloyd listed as composers – naughty!)

The flipside, One Day, would go on to appear as one of the bonus tracks on Volume One CD.

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Companion

2. In 2011 an album was released entitled The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Companion. Rather than being a best-of or an alternate tracks set, it brought together earlier records from band members plus records with which they had been associated. These included both sides of the two Bob Markley singles plus the Laughing Wind tracks.

3. The FiFo label was owned by Bob Markley and it issued a handful of singles between 1960 and 1966. Markley himself produced all the sessions. The only LP produced was the WCPAEB one. Several of the FiFo singles appear on the Companion referred to above.

4. Freak Out was the 1966 debut album from Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, but I imagine most people know that. It was released as a double LP in the US but we only got a single release over here. We did get Help I’m A Rock though. These were Zappa’s comments about it from the sleeve: “… is dedicated to Elvis Presley. Note the interesting formal structure and the stunning four part barber shop harmony toward the end. Note the obvious lack of commercial potential. Ho hum.”

5. Monster Mash, a 1962 hit for Bobby “Boris” Pickett, was a cod horror single.

6. In my Tim Rose Toppermost I tell the story of how writer Bonnie Dobson’s credits for Morning Dew got diluted by Rose.

7. Prior to becoming producer and record label owner for the WCPAEB, Jimmy Bowen had a moderate size hit – #14 in the Billboard Hot 100 – with a rockabilly recording, I’m Stickin’ With You in 1957. It was the flip side to the better known Party Doll from Buddy Knox – the two gents were members of the same band. His other claim to fame was bringing together Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood when he was a staff producer for Reprise Records.

8. I have to thank Our Esteemed Editor for making a significant discovery after I’d submitted this feature for publication. He managed to unearth an hour long interview (see link below) with Tim Forster who is possibly the world’s biggest WCPAEB fan. The occasion of the interview was the publication in Shindig magazine of the band’s story authored by Tim, and it was conducted by Jon ‘Mojo’ Mills. I would reiterate that I only came across this fascinating treasure trove of relevant material after putting the document together and haven’t been back and changed anything. Tim and I differ in terms of opinions at times but I don’t think we’re seriously at loggerheads on what happened when. If we are, then I bow to Tim’s greater knowledge. Anyone who’s at all interested in the music in this document will find something to enjoy in the interview.

 

Bob Markley (1935–2003)

Danny Harris (1947–2012)

Ron Morgan (1945-1989)

 

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band on Discogs

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band Family Tree

Tim Forster, authority on the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, interviewed by Jon ‘Mojo’ Mills, editor of Shindig magazine (YouTube 2009)

Shaun Harris (Wikipedia)

Michael Lloyd (Wikipedia)

John Ware (drums)

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
The Byrds; Gene Clark; The Left Banke; Quicksilver Messenger Service; Tim Rose; The Yardbirds; Frank Zappa

TopperPost #628

1 Comment

  1. Tim Forster
    May 18, 2017

    Hi Dave, great to see someone else trumpeting the WCPAEB. I may not be the ‘authority’ on the group, but I’m certainly a huge fan. If you would like I can send you the Shindig three-parter I wrote. let me know… Tim Forster

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