Even by the early ‘70s, when Ace Tone Rhythm Aces and Maestro Rhythm Kings and Seeburg Select-a-Rhythms had achieved the limits of their popular use in rock and R&B music (see Bee Gees, Sly Stone, Lowell George, Timmy Thomas, et al.), the rhythm machine remained almost strictly a curiosity to the mainstream market, a demure electronic anomaly occasionally heard pattering away in the background.
If major-label artists and producers found the idea of their use beyond demo takes or studio rehearsals laughable, perhaps somehow offensive, the attractiveness for me of early rhythm machine records stems not just from their distinct sound (which I find charming), but also from their fundamental modesty. One wasn’t necessarily aiming for the stars when a rhythm machine was used but – whether for their novel sound or out of necessity, or both – the artists behind these selections used them without any equivocation.
There are many other great, obscure examples of the instrument’s use on local and privately-pressed 45s and LPs from the ’60s and ’70s – from gospel and country to lounge-pop and wildly experimental rock. I group these particular 45s together, however, not because they’re the clearest demonstrations of rhythms machines in use, but because there’s something unusual, if not psychedelic, about all of them. Deliberately or not, the programmed rhythms of these machines help to add just another layer of peculiar atmosphere.
This is the second post about the early use of rhythm machines.
1. Jupiters’ Children, This Is All I Ask (Triple O Records 000-228)
There was much psychedelic weirdness in Michigan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There were large cities there and, in the post-War decades at least, burgeoning, still-relatively-affluent suburbs. The concentrations of middle-to-upper-class white kids there were the same type who, in a sort of logical extension of the mid-’60s garage band phenomenon, tended to create a lot of psychedelic weirdness later on.
Jupiters’ Children’s fantastic “This Is All I Ask” is a Detroit-area record from 1970. The noisy production, haunting background vocals and bassline drone make for a strange record for certain, but its deeply melodic sensibilities are somewhat unusual, even by the standards of all that was “strange” about locally-produced psychedelia for the period. Everything is kept restrained in an era of meandering jams and over-the-top vocals.
The Carnes listed in the song’s credits is Preston Carnes, who most likely sings on this. Carnes was a local singer and musician who released a few rock’n’roll-oriented 45s in the early ‘60s. Carnes also operated the Astra Records label, with some fine local R&B and instrumental rock ’n’ roll 45s to its credit in the early ‘60s.
In late ’66 or ‘67, operating under the sobriquet Preston, he released “This World is Closing In On Me” b/w “Waterfalls,” a brilliant and (again) wholly unique record of unique and early Michigan psychedelia, first released on the Sound Patterns label. (“Waterfalls” can be heard on this old Office Naps mix.)
This record is also worth seeking out for the equally brilliant, wigged-out flipside, “Check Yourself (Superman’s Got Blisters).”
2. 6 7/8, Ski-Daddle (Dot 45-16877)
Best known, perhaps unjustly, for top sellers like Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk, the Los Angeles-based Dot Records, in terms of its 45 catalog, proved a fascinating and adventurous label at its peak between the late ‘50s and mid-‘60s. In addition to its own roster of artists under contract, the label would often lease masters from independent producers, artists and studios nationwide for release. And so a lot of wild and excellent instrumental, surf, rock ‘n’ roll, country, R&B and garage band 45 releases subsequently received some national distribution.
1966’s “Ski-Daddle” was the only recording made by 6 7/8. 6 7/8 seems to have served as a vehicle for the New York City-based pop songwriter Tony Romeo, heard here at the outset of his career in the industry. Among other ‘60s and ‘70s pop songs and collaborations, Romeo would pen hits for the Cowsills (“Indian Lake”), Lou Christie (“I’m Gonna Make You Mine”), the Brooklyn Bridge (“Welcome Me Love”) and David Cassidy and the Partridge Family (“I Think I Love You”). Romeo would also sporadically release 45s and LPs under his own name in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, competent, but largely straight-laced, pop.
Romeo’s pop pedigree only makes this unclassifiable gem that much more unusual. The group seems likely to have been comprised of professional studio musicians. Something about this record makes me think it might have started out as a demo recording intended for auditioning the song, too, but that it proved marketable, or at least peculiar, enough for Dot Records to give it a shot at release in 1966.
After 6 7/8, Tony Romeo formed the group Trout with Cassandra Morgan and Tony’s brother Frank Romeo. They released an orchestrated pop album in 1968 that stands out as one of Romeo’s stronger collaborations. “Ski-Daddle,” in fact, is redolent of the sound of Trout’s folk-rock vocal harmonies – enough that it seems reasonable to suppose that 6 7/8 included Cassandra Morgan and Frank Romeo as well.
But “Ski-Daddle” is its own beast, either way. The folk-y harmonies, nearly indecipherable lyrics, shimmering organ line and great masses of echo imbue “Ski-Daddle” with a lost, otherworldly feeling. “Ski-Daddle” must be one of the earliest examples of the rhythm machine’s use on a commercial release. Certainly it’s one of the strangest.
Tony Romeo passed away in 1995.
3. The Common People, Here, There, and Everywhere (United of flbl&g 2318-8)
The Common People were a band formed in 1968 in Grand Rapids, Michigan (another locus of a lot of terrific ’60s rock ‘n’ roll). Best known as a live attraction, the Common People toured the upper Midwest (and greater United States) extensively in the late ’60s and ’70s.
The vocalist here is one Lynn Nowicki, who is also familiar to ’60s rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts and collectors as the singer and leader of Lyn & the Invaders, an early (and comparatively rare) female-led rock ‘n’ roll group who released the brilliant “Boy is Gone” in 1966. (There was also a slightly different recording of “Boy is Gone” released – under the name the Incredible Invaders – a bit later.)
Early versions of the Common People would include some the Invaders’ former members, but this recording is something of an anomaly, sounding little like the Invaders’ oeuvre or the Common People’s club-and-festival-friendly brand of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll.
Released on the band’s own label, likely in the early ’70s, this is one of the more unusual and effective treatments of the Lennon-McCartney staple. Nowicki’s haunting vocals are run through a Leslie amp or tremolo unit, with only an acoustic guitar and the fragile pinging of a rhythm machine for accompaniment. A study in otherworldly sensitivity. (The flipside, incidentally, is a good but less unorthodox late-’60s-sounding folk-rock version of “Love of the Common People.”)
Check out the West Mich Music Hysterical Society and Grand Rapids Rocks for pages (and photos) dedicated to the Common People, Lynn Nowicki and Lyn & the Invaders. I’ve tried contacting some of the original members of the Common People, and with luck hope to provide some more details.
4. [BONUS TRACK] Duke, Runaway Girl (Joy MWX-391)
Each of this week’s selections are from different points, stylistically, but the sensibilities of “Runaway Girl” puts its orbit much further out than the others. Again, like all the selections, there is a curiously psychedelic, lo-fi flavor running through “Runaway Girl” – especially its introduction and ending – but, stylistically, it belongs clearly in the ‘70s.
Certainly the R. Dukett credited was Duke himself, but there’s little else in the way of leads on this 45. Joy Records was likely from the upper Midwest, probably Illinois, with no relation to the Joy Records based in the late ‘60s in Detroit or the Joy Records operated out of New York City in the early ‘60s.
Its flipside is a fun, lounge-y instrumental version of “Malaguena,” but does nothing to dispel the mystery of Duke and this 45.