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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators

Psychedelic Sounds
Psychedelic Sounds

Psychedelic Sounds

Psychedelic Sounds

Psychedelic Sounds

Did the 13th Floor Elevators invent psychedelic rock? Aficionados will be debating that point for decades, but if Roky Erickson and his fellow travelers into inner space weren't there first, they were certainly close to the front of the line, and there are few albums from the early stages of the psych movement that sound as distinctively trippy — and remain as pleasing — as the group's groundbreaking debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

In 1966, psychedelia hadn't been around long enough for its clich├ęs to be set in stone, and Psychedelic Sounds thankfully avoids most of them; while the sensuous twists of the melodies and the charming psychobabble of the lyrics make it sound like these folks were indulging in something stronger than Pearl Beer, at this point the Elevators sounded like a smarter-than-average folk-rock band with a truly uncommon level of intensity. Roky Erickson's vocals are strong and compelling throughout, whether he's wailing like some lysergic James Brown or murmuring quietly, and Stacy Sutherland's guitar leads — long on melodic invention without a lot of pointless heroics — are a real treat to hear. And nobody played electric jug quite like Tommy Hall...actually, nobody played it at all besides him, but his oddball noises gave the band a truly unique sonic texture.

'Frisco was cool and all, but anyone who knows anything knows that the true birthplace of psychedelia was Austin, Texas, home of the fab-tacular 13th Floor Elevators. In its prime, this band of inspired weirdos recorded some of the most superbly deranged rock 'n' roll of all time, cranking out song after song of mutant, LSD-charred garage rock. Released in 1966, the Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators is the group's debut, a collection of heroically whacked-out tunes that are nothing less than the budding seeds of a movement.

What's most surprising about this album (and the band, really) is how they manage to sound truly trippy and wonderfully weird without astronomical production values or even a surplus of technical skill. They really were a garage band, with all of the usual trappings of such a group: Their songs were rooted in basic, grease-coated rock n roll, complete with chunky guitar riffs (courtesy of Stacy Sutherland) and snarled vocals (thanks to wildman lead singer Roky Erickson, one of the great unheralded heroes of 60s rock). They just took things a little further than most bands: Their lyrics were pure gonzo poetry, heavy with mysticism and druggy imagery (and accented, of course, with a healthy dose of good old fashioned teenage bad attitude). The guitar chords are at the mercy of Sutherland's effects pedal, and there are plenty of acid-soaked solos flying around all over the place. Riffs and melodies are perched somewhere between blues-based garage punk and dream-addled death dirge.

The most notable experimental flourish is Tommy Hall's "electric jug," a bizarre rhythmic instrument that garnishes several of these songs. It's hard to describe the sound of the instrumrent, but suffice to say it can be compared to the protestations of a series of uncooperative suction cups. Just listen to some of these songs! "You're Gonna Miss Me" is a deranged slice of teenage snarl with a meaner-than-mean guitar line and a meaner-than-meaner-than-mean vocal, with Hall's jug floating menacingly in the background. "Roller Coaster" is an "epic" (over FOUR MINUTES!) mindbender with an absolutely archetypal guitar drone and a ghostly vocal from Erickson. "Don't Fall Down," with its chugging bass line and woozy backing vocals, is out-and-out hypnotic, and "Fire Engine" moves into full-on rock out territory.

The result is a wigged-out classic that bridges the gap between rock and the world beyond. It's the sound of a bunch of zitfaced teenagers formerly obsessed with cheeseburgers 'n' fast cars stumbling upon the myrsteries of the universe. It's the sound of the 60s lurching into overdrive. It's the psychedelic sound, baby!

It’s a focused trip, at that. Those who criticize the meandering style of the Grateful Dead or Phish will likely find a better fit within the abrasive psychedelia of the Elevators. “Thru the Rhythm” is as unrelenting as it is groovy, sharpened by the pointed darts of Roky Erickson’s vocals and elevated sky-high by, of course, that trusty old electric jug, which sounds a bit like perfectly-tuned and paced water droplets from a leaky faucet that fall onto tiny hand drums. God bless Tommy Hall for having the humble nature to actually play it full time in an otherwise standard rock band setup.

If you're younger than 30 take heart. There's still an underground and they play The Elevators there. Roky's a guest of honor. Ignore those boomers who patronizingly lament "you had to be there" to disguise the fact they can no longer recognize the avant-garde. So, if you want to trip down memory lane while commuting in your Lexus to your 9-5 job in the suburbs, check out the smooth sounds of Quicksilver; then pop in their spiritual heirs, Pablo Cruise. If you're a belligerently drunk frat boy who's just been kicked out of Hooter's, that Grateful Dead CD's just right for you. But if you want to know, even vicariously, what it's like to peer into the abyss, listen to the first two Elevators LPs.

To put things in a nutshell, the music is great. Remove any over-analysis, and it is still fantastic. There are both country and rock and roll bands today that say they were influenced by both Roky and the Elevators. Concerning the jug, some didn’t care for it so much, like the drummer, John Ike Walton. I know the guy. When they left the studio after sharing in the duty of mixing the music, the people at IA turned the jug way up after they (the Elevators) left. It was a gimick that IA wanted to capitalize on. I dig it, don’t get me wrong. Reverberation is a great example of how the jug worked well…..see the movie Dirt Road to Psychedelia (I think that’s the name). The song in the trailer is incredible with the video. Anyway, what I’m saying is just enjoy the music. The arguments over who’s the biggest fan, who has the most obscure stuff, who knows who, who witnessed what, this-that-and-the-other, and so on, just love the music y’all!

The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators:

1. You're Gonna Miss Me

2. Roller Coaster

3. Splash 1

4. Reverberation (Doubt)

5. Don't Fall Down

6. Fire Engine

7. Thru the Rhythm

8. You Don't Know (How Young You Are)

9. Kingdom of Heaven

10. Monkey Island

11. Tried to Hide


Anonymous said...

Good blog, I really enjoyed it. I like the comment about the drunk frat boy getting kicked out of Hooters and how the Grateful Dead cd is just for them! I've encountered many people like that who think they're the all knowing of all things psychedelic, yet their knowledge conists most entirely of the jam band scenes like Phish and all that crap. Ahhh let them have that while we enjoy our third eyes! hahaha

The Kman said...

Oh man, I wan't a copy of that vinyl so bad!

Kyle said...

Ok I ordered a mono reissue off of ebay. I can't wait! Hey, I just got to interview Danny Thomas, the drummer of the 13th Floor Elevators, for my blog, The Kompilation. Check it out: