Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Space Race

The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in October of ‘57 was just one of several early culminations in what had already been a long-simmering struggle for space between the Soviets and the United States.  Sputnik was new and absolutely critical, however, in terms of the sheer boldness of its propaganda.

A Russian scientist with the pre-launch Sputnik.

A Russian scientist with Sputnik, pre-launch. Image courtesy of Sputnik Mania, David Hoffman's terrific documentary about the Sputnik phenomenon.

Sputnik was just a shiny radio transmitter.  But the media frenzy that followed its launch galvanized the American imagination, making the Space Race very much a public, ideological concern.  The Sputnik satellite’s mere existence heightened an already paranoid national mood, raising the technological and ideological pitch of the the Cold War in general.  New funding priorities were granted to science, math and technology education and research.  NASA would come into being.

Less gets mentioned of the fresh crop of science-fiction movies, serials, cartoons and books that were inspired by the Space Race, a body of work suffused with a particularly paranoid note.  In retrospect, Sputnik’s victory would be timed perfectly with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, too.  Readers know of my fondness for the way that certain American motifs – pop phenomena and archetypal images alike – get affirmed and refracted in post-War popular music, especially in instrumental form.  (The eternal example here is surf music, that ultimate intersection of rock ‘n’ roll and impressionism.)

Everyone from country singers and R&B vocal groups to smooth balladeers and wild Southern rock ‘n’ rollers sang about space in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  But it took easy-listening maestros and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll combos and a cadre of jazz artists and early electronic music pioneers to truly embrace the concept of space, actually seeking to convey its experience.

Space, the concept, helped to fire musicians’ creativity and channel their energies.  It also afforded a unique amount of room for experimentation, space’s mystery, and its aura of the Unknown much akin to the way that the Other became the artistically liberating force behind so much exotica.

There’s an electronic sheen to these three tracks, yet there’s little academic gravity to them.  Absent are the smoothed-off edges of high-fidelity easy-listening.  They’re not quite surf, or even rock ‘n’ roll, though catchy riffs and AM-radio-friendly sensibilities prevail.  Like Joe Meek’s “Telstar” (and Meek’s many great follow-up records), or the Marketts’ Out of Limits album, or Peter Thomas’s incredible Raumpatrouille soundtrack, these three selections are beguilingly genre-less.

In the end, these three selections are only concerned with – and rightly so – an electronic rush of technology and the multitude of creative opportunities afforded by the mystery and concept of space.

The What Four, Gemini 4 (Reprise 0387)1.  The What Four, Gemini 4 (Reprise 0387)
As with much of the pop and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll that originated in Los Angeles in the early and mid-‘60s, this selection is a bit fuzzy on where the real group leaves off and where the studio engineering begins.

Saxophonist Armon Frank, credited as composer, figures first and foremost here.  A force in early California surf and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, Frank was part of the Surfmen – he played on their “Paradise Cove” – as well as Dick Dale’s Del-Tones.   It was his otherwise-unrecorded combo the Vibrants – Casey Van Beek (bass), Bob Young (drums), Jesse Johnson (guitar), Larry Brittain (guitar) and Frank (sax) – who actually recorded the stripped-down core of this selection.

Jack Nitzsche in the mid-1960s

Jack Nitzsche in the mid-1960s

“Gemini 4” is every bit as much about its grandiose production, though, and almost certainly the production was the uncredited and after-the-fact handiwork of the brilliant arranger, conductor and producer Jack Nitzsche.

Nitzsche enjoyed an illustrious career in the Los Angeles pop music world – he was Phil Spector’s man for arrangements, for one, having scored various recordings for the Crystals and Ronettes.  He’d also pen, with Sonny Bono, “Needles and Pins” and nab his own instrumental hit, 1963’s anthemic “Lonely Surfer.”    It was largely his independent arranging, conducting and production work, though, by which he made his name.  By the late ‘60s, when he’d turned largely to soundtrack composition, Nitzsche had already done work for big names – the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Jackie DeShannon, the Righteous Brothers, Tim Buckley and the Monkees among them – along with credits for innumerable lesser-known acts.

It will always be Nitzsche’s mid-‘60s achievements that resonate most personally.  Tracks like the Paris Sisters’ “See That Boy,” Judy Henske’s “Dolphins in the Sea” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly” are gorgeous and extraordinarily cavernous, taking the Spectorian aesthetic to some sort of cinematic extreme.

Gemini IV

Gemini IV's flight took place in June of 1965. It was the first American space walk, with astronaut Edward White (shown here) tethered outside the spacecraft. This spectacular image is courtesy of Great Images in Nasa, a site every Office Naps reader needs to spend a couple of hours with.

Released in the summer of 1965, “Gemini 4” is one of Nitzsche’s most obscure productions.  And certainly it is among his most grandiose achievements, even by his standards, building layer upon layer of orchestration and reverberating drama atop the Vibrants’ original recording.

Confusingly, Los Angeles pop duo Dick and Dee Dee are given the production credit here but they seem to have been involved only to the extent that they were acquaintances of Armon Frank, and may have passed along the source recording, in turn, to Jack Nitzsche.  Furthermore, the What Four credited here are wholly unrelated to another Nitzsche-produced group called the What Four.

The Astros, Space Walk (Golden State GSR-653-A)2.  The Astros, Space Walk (Golden State GSR-653-A)
The most instantly and visually identifiable feature of this record is its release on San Francisco’s Golden State Records.

Leo de gar Kulka’s Golden State Records was, along with sister label Golden Soul, responsible for a fascinating course of Bay Area rock ‘n’ roll, soul, psychedelia, gospel and instrumental music in the mid- and late ‘60s.

The labels themselves formed just part of Kulka’s commercial operations, though.  In addition to various music publishing companies, the Czech-born Kulka was a technophile engineer known above all as founder and operator of Golden State Recorders.  These studios – among the area’s most cutting-edge when they opened in San Francisco in 1965 – were not only where the Astros and all Golden State artists recorded, but were also where ‘60s San Francisco-area hitmakers the Beau Brummels and Syndicate of Sound were captured along with nascent psychedelic acts like the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead.

Leo de gar Kulka at Golden State Recorders

A mid-'60s trade advert for Golden State Recorders, featuring Leo de gar Kulka at the helm

That said, little can be concluded about the Astros themselves, or this particular recording.   Recorded and released in 1965, it seems highly plausible that, given the 45′s space-themed name and titles (the flipside is “Earth Hop”), its anonymity (Kulka gets the composition credit on “Earth Hop”) and its overall emphasis on studio wizardry – “Space Walk” may have been merely a sort of lark for Kulka.   No matter.  “Space Walk” is all swirling organ, vibraphones and whooshing, pre-psychedelic studio echo, an inadvertently appropriate prelude to the Haight Ashbury’s impending cosmic convergence.

The Houstons, Solar Light (World Pacific 77926)3.  The Houstons, Solar Light (World Pacific 77926)
This selection was a very early studio project for Japanese composer Nozomi Aoki, who would go on to score music for movies and television in his native land.

Recorded in Japan, “Solar Light” was released in 1969, with Aoki’s most famous work as a composer – his credits include music for the 1970s and ‘80s Japanese movies Little Adventurer, Harmagedon: Genma Taisen, Future War 1986 and television series Ginga Tetsudô Three-Nine, Josephina the Whale, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Fist of the North Star and Hokuto No Ken – still a few years off.

The 45 would be timed to coincide with the America’s July 1969 moon landing.  The fabulously ambient flipside is “Sea of Tranquility,” so titled for the crater where Armstrong and Aldrin landed.  The moon landing would prove not only the symbolic beginning-of-the-end for the Space Race, but would serve as a sort of end-note for space-themed instrumental rock.  (Space would largely be the territory of electronic artists henceforth.)  A fitting coda then, “Solar Light”’s aesthetic is actually more in line with the slightly earlier zenith of crazily-engineered, electronics-tinged instrumental productions like “Telstar” and “Out of Limits.”

Nozomi Aoki remains active as a composer in Japan, with recent orchestrations for, among others, the 2008 series The Galaxy Railways.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, Psychedelic/Pop | 7 Comments

The teen art of lonesome

Heartbreak and loneliness, as topics, had already been beaten to death in teenage popular music on the eve of the British Invasion. But that wasn’t necessarily the problem.  Rather, it was that heartbreak and loneliness were always so poorly and superficially conveyed.  At least on the national pop charts, these were big years for throwaway commercial pop arrangements and teenage sentimentality of the most maudlin variety.  Where was all the existential despair, bleakness and bad decisions?

The fine art of teenage lonesome this week on Office Naps. Feel the sun going down. Image courtesy of Amarillo-based Charles Henry, who has many marvelous, evocative images of Texas spaces at his flickr page.

It took a special treatment to conjure melancholy and youthful despondency effectively and attractively – to make it, in effect, cinematic again.  The archetypes will always be timeless tracks like Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” Eddie Cochran’s “Dark Lonely Street” and Elvis Presley’s reading of “Blue Moon.”  Good lyrics were important, of course, though not absolutely crucial.  It was interpretation and, above all, the production that were paramount.  “A Cheat” by Sanford Clark or “Lonely Saturday Night” by Don French are spare to the point of nothingness, slowed down to a dream-like beat, and otherworldly, almost exotic at points.   This week’s selections, though performed by singers of wildly different pedigrees, all subscribe to the same basic vision in the end.  Crackling with shadows and atmosphere, there is some special, serious art to their loneliness.

Joe Gaston and the Crew, Without You (Brass 162 B)1.  Joe Gaston and the Crew, Without You (Brass 162 B)
Likely recorded in the early ‘60s – I’d guess 1961 – in Kansas City, there’s little information to be dredged up about singer Joe Gaston, alas, or the magnificent “Without You.”

All the components are there, though.  The aesthetic is redolent of some pure, lost surf instrumental ballad, the beautifully modulated echo chamber guitar and whistling conjuring solitude to great effect.  Again, it’s all very cinematic – an edge-of-town-at-sundown mood.  It would have sounded good coming through an AM radio.

“Without You” (and its flipside, the goofy rockin’ pop number “How Do You Know?”) seems to have been among the earliest releases for Kansas City businessman George Hodes’s Brass Records, a label that would go on to release a clutch of other country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll and instrumental releases into the ‘60s, including, most notably, an LP by folk group the Surf Riders (where future Byrd Gene Clark got his start), some cool ’64 country sides by Larry Good and Gene McKown and, a year or two later, three 45s by the Fab Four, a popular local garage band.

Incidentally, the Crew, Gaston’s backing band here, released a wild jungle exotica-type instrumental 45 (“Jaguar Hunt”) of their own around the same time on Brass Records that, speculatively, was recorded during the same session as “Without You.”   Decades later, the Norton Records team also turned up an excellent acetate by the Crew for the label’s Kicksville, Vol. 2 compilation, a track that features Gaston, I believe, again on vocals.

Johnny Williams, Another Love (Cinema 1001)2.  Johnny Williams, Another Love (Cinema 1001)
A Texas singer and entertainer in the Gulf Coast blue-eyed soul tradition, Johnny Williams will probably always be best known for his 1965 hit version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”

Born in the early ‘40s in Baytown, Texas, Williams’s “Long Black Veil” followed a haphazard, if felicitous, route into music.   He grew up on R&B, country, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll.  Williams himself was a late-blooming musician, though, picking up guitar in college but quickly insinuating himself, with enviable pluck, into Austin’s early ‘60s east side R&B scene and the bands of the young Joe Tex and local favorite Blues Boy Hubbard.

Johnny Williams in his "Long Black Veil" days

Johnny Williams in his "Long Black Veil" days. Image courtesy of the the Johnny Williams website.

Upon returning from a stint in the Air Force in 1964, Williams fell in as vocalist with the Houston-area band the Jokers, who, as serendipity would have it, found themselves recording for the infamous Huey Meaux and, even more serendipitously, soon had a hit on their hands with a swampy, R&B-laced version of the great Lefty Frizzell ballad “Long Black Veil.”  A follow-up 45 and an album (with Williams and company covering of hits like “Miller’s Cave” and “The Last Letter”) was rushed out to capitalize on the single’s success.

It is Williams’s 1966 side “Another Love,” though, that stands apart as his finest effort.  Penned by the Houston-based songwriting team of Jerry Wright and Larry O’Keefe, “Another Love” borrows a bit of “Long Black Veil,” taking it to some sort of hypnotic extreme in the process.  The arrangement here is beautifully realized, its ghostly chorus, muffled floor toms, spare guitar work and mounds of echo a triumph of mood.

“Another Love” would also be an early, in not the earliest, release for Houston’s Cinema Records, a label behind some good psychedelic and garage band sides in the latter half of the ‘60s.  Oddly enough, both sides of this 45 were re-released the same year by legendary Houston-based psychedelic label International Artists.

Johnny Williams stayed around Houston, recording sporadically – and these mostly as a country singer – with his own groups in the ‘70s.  His energies would generally be directed to his role as a live performer, his ongoing association with musician-turned-club-owner Mickey Gilley making Williams a fixture in Houston-area clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Williams returned to recording music in 2005 with Johnny Williams Volume 1, an album of blues vocals.

You can read more about Johnny Williams at his website.

Bill Osborn, Bamboo and Rice (Camelot CS-129-A)3.  Bill Osborn, Bamboo and Rice (Camelot CS-129-A)
Bill Osborn, born William Robert Osborne in 1940, was a pop singer and songwriter, fairly well-known in the Seattle area in his time.

His handful of 45s (including this) recorded for the great local labels Seafair and Jerden were largely released under the pseudonym Billy Saint, though he’d also record as Johnny London (for the soul-inspired “Watching Over You” 45).  And, of course, he’d record as Bill Osborn.

The pop sensibilities of the various Osborn sides that I’ve heard put him somewhat at odds with the Pacific Northwest’s raucous rock ‘n’ roll scene.  But his penchant for penning unusual songs is also rather striking.  His “Tanganyika,” for example, is pure exotica; the quasi-mystical “Who Walks in the Garden” could have been an Eden Ahbez composition; “Tear Down the Wall” features cryptic lyrics about “the other side.”

“Bamboo and Rice” is perhaps the most remarkable.  A strange love song about the American war in Vietnam (or Korea or Japan, just as easily), the glacial, pseudo-martial tempo and exotic touches are nothing if not atmospheric, adding to some sense of haunted drama.  The 45’s flipside – an instrumental version with local musician Doug Allen’s deep, booming guitar lines supplanting the vocals – is also highly worthwhile.

Arranged, produced and impeccably recorded by indefatigable drummer-turned-engineer Jan Kurtis for his Camelot label, “Bamboo and Rice” was released in 1966, near the tail end of Camelot’s brief-but-prolific existence.

By the ‘80s, Bill Osborn seems to have largely foregone recording for business.  He passed away in 2009.

Posted in Country, Psychedelic/Pop | 5 Comments

The Exotica Project on Boing Boing

The Exotica Project got a nice write-up on Boing Boing today.  Gratifying to see the site finding some traction amongst non-record-people.  Thanks Bill Barol!

Boing Boing

Posted in The Exotica Project | 6 Comments