This week, both a Halloween-themed post and an iteration of a familiar Office Naps theme: Namely, the ways in which certain phenomena – natural, geographical, supernatural, technological, etc. – get played out in entertaining, cinematic ways in pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and pop. (See also: The Desert, The Sea, The Desert Island, Space, etc.)
So The Cave, then. Not only is there something very evocative about this week’s selections, but they intersect gracefully with what was then going on in ’50s Hollywood B-movies. Everything from Eegah (1962) and Night of the Blood Beast (1958) to Beast of Haunted Cave (1959) and Invisible Invaders (1959) – naming just a few – situated the cave as some locus of action. The cave was the lair, the labyrinth, opaque darkness, the den of horrors.
A discussion of the psychological symbolism of the cave I leave to others. If it made for a good filming location or dramatic cinematic motif then, somewhere, somehow, there was a 45 that appropriated it, and, suffice it to say, the cave was no different. The concept of the haunted cave or underground alien hideout was, in fact, not only peculiarly well-suited to post-War paranoia but also to rock ‘n’ roll in general, the instrumental form then a proven chart commodity, the crucial, heavy use of echo redolent of subterranean acoustics.
As the teenaged market for rock ‘n’ roll novelties expanded to include various odd – and, in the case of these selections, spooky – themes and concepts, the cave would receive some fascinating, strangely effective treatments in turn.
1. Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part I) (Bamboo 504)
Drummer Gary Webb is perhaps best known to rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts for his participation in the Hollywood Argyles; Webb was part of the hastily assembled crew of musicians that toured on the chart strength of the 1960 R&B-ish novelty hit “Alley-Oop.” (The “real” Hollywood Argyles were a handful Los Angeles R&B and pop session musicians studio put together by Hollywood producer and character Gary Paxton for what was an informal studio lark.)
Prior to his involvement with the Argyles, Webb was enlisted overseas in the Navy for several years, where he’d played drums in the Jumpin’ Jacks, a service group. After his return to the states, and just prior to his involvement with Hollywood Argyles, Webb was signed to the Los Angeles-based independent Donna Records in early 1960, cutting “Drum City” (a swinging instrumental somewhat in the style of Sandy Nelson) for the label a few months later.
2. Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part II) (Bamboo 504)
“The Cave,” released in April of 1961, was the second, and last, of Gary Webb’s releases as a group leader. Certainly “The Cave” is much headier, atmospheric stuff than the average novelty churned by the Los Angeles independent labels of the era. “The Cave” also borrows much from the murky, menacing production and strange character voices of Bobby Christian and the Allen Sisters’ 1958 horror opus “The Spider & the Fly,” adding tremolo guitar, lunatic jungle drums and heaps of teen psychosexual drama in the process.
During much of the ‘60s, Gary Webb played in the supporting band for flamboyant Los Angeles club fixture, singer Troy Walker, but, after that, there’s unfortunately little else to be found about him.
3. Chuck Holden, The Cave (Unique 358)
The Charles Holden Orchestra was a supper-club affair with a long residency as the house orchestra at Manhattan’s chic El Morocco nightclub in the 1950s and ‘60s. Holden’s sole album, 1957’s Dancing at the El Morocco, consisted of stolid arrangements of numbers like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “Putting on the Ritz,” and “That Old Black Magic” – about as polite as it got.
Likewise, Unique Records, a New York City-based record label that operated in the ‘50s, had a discography essentially dedicated to releases by hotel orchestras, cabaret singers and aging entertainers. Few concessions were made at Unique Records to rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz or contemporary music of any kind; it was a strange, staid relic of a bygone era.
I belabor this not because “The Cave” is just an extraordinary record, but because the psychic distance between everything about its conservative pedigree on one hand and its effect in reality on the other is quite jarring.
Released in 1956, there is, even today, nothing conservative about “The Cave.” Its indecipherable moans, its unearthly piano string runs, its peculiar zither chords: the effect is somewhere between haunted house and Avant-Garde theater piece. Nothing, really, could prepare one for this record. It might have been marketed as a sort of novelty, I suppose, but no trace of humor or fun lightens “The Cave”’s dreary atmosphere. Not a particularly easy record to listen to, but certainly effective.
4. Richie Allen, Cave Man (Imperial 5872)
A solo-and-session-guitarist-turned-producer with a strong trademark sound, Richie Allen’s is a somewhat old-school profile, and a very Southern Californian one at that, especially in the context of the post-War pop music business. A future Office Naps post will be dedicated entirely to some of his early recordings but, in the meantime, here’s “Cave Man,” an instrumental he released in 1962.
Born Richard Allen Podolor (and best known as Richie Podolor) in 1940 in California, Allen showed prodigious musical talents as well as a knack – starting with his instrumental support for singer Bonnie Guitar on her haunting “Dark Moon,” a 1957 hit – for negotiating the music industry.
Allen also recorded early on as a leader, including 1958’s “I Love You Girl (And I Need You So),” a good Buddy Holly-influenced rocker. But it’s Allen’s very first 45 as a solo artist, 1958’s “Samoa,” that’s particularly significant. An atmospheric instrumental with elegant, minor-key riffs, “Samoa” would, in a moment, not only anticipate the moodier instrumental surf music spectrum, but would also anticipate the aesthetic of Allen’s ‘60s oeuvre as both a solo guitarist and producer. (Allen would also re-record “Samoa” several times in these early years.)
Allen stayed busy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, composing songs, playing live (as part of the Pets), forging further connections with Los Angeles studios and cutting many sessions, including, mostly famously, a series of Sandy Nelson’s hit rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals like “Teen Beat” and “Let There Be Drums.” With demand for his talents as a session guitarist, solo recording opportunities arose, culminating in three instrumental guitar LPs – Stranger from Durango, The Rising Surf and the early compilation Surfer’s Slide – all released by Imperial Records between 1961 and 1963.
Like many of the era’s studio-created guitar instrumental albums, these tended to be a bit generic – the surf-themed LPs only nominally sounded like surf music – but the best moments – like “The Rising Surf,” “Haunted Guitar” and “Stranger from Durango” – nonetheless demonstrated Allen’s stately, booming guitar riffs to great effect. Among these moments is also “Cave Man,” released in September of 1962. Moody, if not spooky, and with a great Spagetti Western flavor, it is the logical extension of Allen’s “Samoa” sound.
Allen continued to avail himself of studio opportunities, forming a fruitful relationship with producer Gary Usher, then doing much to capitalize on the surf craze, with notable session contributions for various Usher vehicles like the Devons, the Hondells and the Super Stocks in 1963 and 1964.
There were other exciting recordings made as a guitarist, among them the Ghoul’s surf-monster exploitation LP Dracula’s Deuce and 1966’s epic 45 version of “Stranger from Durango.” But Allen’s engineering handiwork for groups like the Monkees and Electric Prunes began to supersede his role as an instrumentalist as the ‘60s wore on. Even so, Allen’s tastes occasionally surfaced in fascinating ways – a clear line can be drawn, for instance, between Allen’s majestic psychedelic instrumentals for the Chocolate Watchband (“Expo 2000″ and “Dark Side of the Mushroom”) and his “Samoa.”
In the late ‘60s, Allen found still greater success working as a producer, most famously for Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf, with big hits (including “Joy to the World” and “Born to be Wild”) for both. Work with other heavyweights – including Iron Butterfuly, Black Oak Arkansas, Phil Seymour and Dillards – would follow in the coming decades, an entirely different chapter better documented elsewhere.
Thanks to Black Cat Rockabilly for some of the Richie Allen/Podolor information.