SUMMER OF A THOUSAND YEARS - The Grip Weeds (Laughing Outlaw/Rainbow Quartz)
On the face of it, someone has made a concerted attempt to achieve the correct "period look" for this album. Starting with a front cover that I could almost swear I saw in the "new releases" bins of several local record bars around mid-1967, the CD insert unfolds, then unfolds further and continues to unfold... to reveal a succession of pictures of this fresh faced, long haired young four piece band lounging, lazing and lurking in green and leafy surroundings, while wearing a variety of authentic looking early hippie clobber - lots of bold striped bell bottoms and paisley waistcoats over loose shirts (but absolutely no flowers or beads yet). Only the rather too modern looking sunnies give the game away.
The band is apparently something of a mini commune itself, with brothers Rick (guitar) and Kurt Reil (drums) sharing a house cum studio (they've named it the House of Vibes) in not exactly romantic New Jersey, together with Kurt's guitarist wife Kristin Pinell. Bassist Mike Nattboy hooked up with the brothers through going to school with their sister. The band name could be a sly drug reference (remember when all the hip places would advertise their admission charges as "$5.00 a head, others $7.00", leaving those not in tune with times slightly perplexed and completely uncomprehending?), an attempt to come up with an authentic sounding period name with a bit of counter-culture attitude (a la the Grass Roots) or even a tip of the hat to John Lennon's character in "How I Won the War".
However, it's the songs that really promote the proto-psychedelic posture. This entire album sounds like it was recorded around the same time as the first Moby Grape and Buffalo Springfield albums. You can hear echoes of both bands so clearly throughout that it's easy to imagine Jerry Miller or Steven Stills popping in from the studio next door to scrounge a replacement for a broken guitar string.
At this stage the whole hippie thing has not yet quite coalesced, but in a nearby rehearsal room John Phillips is handing his old former Journeymen bandmate Scott McKenzie a copy of a song called "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)" that his new band the Mommas And The Pappas has not gotten around to recording. Sometimes erroneously referred to as "Are You Going to San Francisco?" by lazy journos who only know the song from the radio, but have never actually held a copy of the single in their hands or let a little bit of research get in the way of a long lunch, the subsequent recording soon will be radiating out of radios everywhere, attracting the first widespread media attention to hippies outside the music press.
Then the "summer of love" will spark a media feeding frenzy of gargantuan proportions, at the same time helping to crystallize in the public mind the perception of all such "psychedelic" music as the "San Francisco sound", a new style based on a combination of radical protest and extended, improvised instrumentals, often with the aid of exotic instruments, both newly electronic and arcanely acoustic. Plus plenty of those tantalizing drugs everybody is talking about and gimme some of that free love too while you're at it! Oh, and let's not forget the flowers and beads which are suddenly such a prominent feature of every magazine article and newspaper weekend supplement. Even the staid accountancy students that you occasionally bump into at the bus stop on weekday mornings are burning a bit of incense when they get home and stepping out on weekends in paisley, beads and headbands. Peace and love man!
In the meantime, less ambitious (and less sophisticated) garage rockers from the east and the mid west are rubbing shoulders with local blues and jug band refugees, star struck singers and would be entertainers working their passage to the west coast and folkies drifting around all over. Grouping and rearranging themselves in endless temporary permutations, many of them are creating concise pop songs that mix raw three-chord rock with fuzzed guitar, straightforward lyrics and harmonies that owe more to the polished popular folk of the Kingston Trio than the increasingly complex multi-part vocals of commercial pop (remembering that everything on the radio was "pop" in those days - the emergence of "progressive heavy blues" hadn't yet turned "pop" into a pejorative on FM, nor had AM begun its laborious retreat into "easy listening").
During this period, while everybody was waiting for Sgt Pepper to march "the band" into public view, the Beatles' "Revolver" was a major signpost and perceived roadmap to the future, but so were the Yardbirds' singles with Jeff Beck, the pre-prog orchestral excess Moody Blues, the Pretty Things and the Zombies (who remained popular in the US, long after the glow of their one British hit had faded to grey in England). So too were the forerunners of power pop like the Kinks and the Who (whose "Sell Out" album would reveal before the end of the year Mr Townshend's strong interest in going well beyond three minute songs for the radio). The recordings they inspired by local bands around the globe were kept simple through a combination of limited studio budget (and technical facilities), lack of musical proficiency and the desire/aim of the bands to record what they were actually playing on stage. Shortly they would all fall by the psychedelic wayside, squeezed out of that category by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe & The Fish (and to a lesser extent, Eric Burdon and the first of his many reconstituted Animals).
Nor would they manage to infiltrate their way into the other musical categories which subsequently proliferated among the "underground" cognoscenti, like folk rock, country rock, art rock, prog rock, acid rock and heavy metal, instead finding themselves cast adrift in a "pop" category increasingly seen as something totally manufactured and artificial, before ultimately being dismissed as merely the less sugary forerunner of bubblegum, that ultimate commercial insult to modern music. Ironically these other new cool categories so popular with the counter-culture eventually were turned into handy marketing tools themselves, while it took the formulation of a new category to reintegrate the resulting sixties proto-psychedelic pop diaspora back together into "garage punk".
Opening with the heavily Byrds-ish "Save My Life", the Grip Weeds appear to whisk us back to those last short lived halcyon days when "pop" still meant simply "neither jazz nor classical", enthusiasm was every bit as important as ability and album packaging had not yet reached the point where the increasingly elaborate fold out covers were so extensive that it took longer to read the cover notes and absorb the visual imagery than it did to play the records they contained; when it was still permissible to write bright and bouncy songs that could be catchy "pop" without having to fit readily into whatever particular sub-category was finding favour with the critics that week.
However the Grip Weeds' intention is not mere artistic appropriation/retro-revivalism, nor is "Save My Life" just a Byrds pastiche. For a start, it sounds like Keith Moon is playing the drums and most of the very early Jefferson Airplane are crammed into the studio helping out on the harmonies, which also serve to emphasise how psychedelia's "folk" roots relate more to the Kingston Trio than the likes of Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger.
Amongst these thirteen originals, rounded out by a cover of Pete Townshend's relatively obscure "Melancholia" (apparently done originally for a Who tribute album), the legacy of the sixties is held up to the light, finely sifted, sorted, selected and used as the basis for synthesizing a musical continuation - as if most of the period from 1968 to 2000 never happened and 1967 was followed directly by 2001. Make no mistake though; the Grip Weeds are looking forwards from 1967, not backwards from 2001.
The Byrds do recur from time to time, with a touch of "Eight Miles High" guitar work on "Don't Look Over Your Shoulder" (which otherwise sounds like Moby Grape jamming with Led Zeppelin on a lost demo for "Physical Graffiti"), while "Love That Never Ends" is positively drenched in the Byrds' signature Richenbacker jingle jangle. Meanwhile "Is It Showing?" sounds like it could be a cover of a previously unknown outtake from "Who Sell Out" and "Changed" is quite a comprehensive compendium of Jefferson Airplane from "Surrealistic Pillow" through "After Bathing At Baxter's" to "Volunteers", but listen closely and it sounds like a whole host of other sixties greats are jostling for attention from the back of the studio as well.
Not surprisingly traces of the Beatles turn up continually. For example the harmonica on "Rainy Day #3" is more Beatles' "Love Me Do" than anything ever attempted by Bob Dylan, while "Window" has a strong under taste of "All Things Must Pass" beneath a soundscape that seems to be an assortment of middle-to-late period Beatles influences as interpreted by Jan Akkerman and Focus, circa "Hamburger Concerto", and "Moving Circle" sounds like a reworking of something originally intended for "Rubber Soul". On the other hand "She Surrounds Me" sounds more like classic Buffalo Springfield, only with John Entwistle on bass, "Love's Lost On You" sounds like an escapee from sessions for the Litter's breakthrough "Emerge" album, "Life And Love, Times To Come" sounds like one of Jimmy Page's early tabla and sitar experiments and the title track sounds a lot like early King Crimson - and not just in its similar use of mellotron.
In the last few years, Sweden's Soundtrack of Our Lives have made considerable progress toward expanding the legacy of the sixties by creating an extensive range of new "sixties classics" of their own. Their approach has been far more broad brush, while the Grip Weeds keep their focus far narrower, at least on this album (which is apparently their third). However the point is not what specific influences you can pick (and I continually find myself scratching my head over snippets which, if they aren't direct musical quotations from obscure sixties classics, certainly sound like they should be), but the fresh musical ideas with which the Grip Weeds elaborate on those sixties sounds, managing to combine an historian's detailed scholarly interest with an apparent naive innocence, as if all this was only discovered in the studio during the recording process.
Did I say earlier that enthusiasm was every bit as important as ability? Well, while that is true, having buckets of both isn't necessarily any drawback either. Of course having their own studio does give them the luxury of redoing things until they get them right, unlike the "nuggets generation" for whom it was usually: take one, maybe take two, then take it or leave it... Mercifully the Grip Weeds manage to avoid the excesses of many of the later psychedelic bands, for whom an indulgent six months spent ensconced in a studio "getting their heads together" sometimes left them out of touch with reality (though the coda on "Window" does go on a little longer than seems truly necessary).
So ultimately is there any point to this album when the sixties decade produced
so much great, authentic "'60s music" of its own - aside from giving
younger generations the chance to discover for themselves an early psychedelic
classic that they haven't already heard their aging parents playing to death
for most of their formative years? Well there were plenty of great songs back
then, but in truth not nearly as many albums as consistent all the way through
as this one. Anyway, when world doesn't have enough room for a few extra '60s
classics, then the place won't be worth living in any more. - John
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