BAGHDAD ON THE BAYOUS?- Mayo ThompsonBAGHDAD ON THE BAYOUS?- Mayo Thompson
Founded on the banks of Buffalo Bayou by the Allen Brothers, Houston was ideally situated to ...
Unpacking gross and inordinately misty notions of mid-nineteen-sixties music-production in Houston may seem an unsightly task. The place, time and people are usually spoken of, if at all, in terms so vague that mystery is promoted. That mystery, with incubi attached, appears, from time to time, as Houston-Texas-Rock-N-Roll-History. No one in particular is to blame though many have conspired?. No good is served by the mystery.
One upshot of the myth-like aura draped around the matter has been that the task of unpacking is more like cleaning a real stable than one calling for the diversion of a river. Also, most of the horses are gone.
The unpacking is probably only useful as a ground against which to cast figures and the products of individual methodologies. That is so because there is a lack of total congruence between self-understanding in terms of institutional ideology and the intensions of individual motivations. Things were and were not what they seemed to have seemed to be. What is wanted is the temporary landscape of social and power relations in which people acted.
The popular music "community" - or, "communities" during that period starting in
1965-6 was probably just a bad sociologicalistic dream from which it has been
difficult to awaken for complex reasons. To be sure, the general atmosphere was
thick with half-baked ideas and half-digested bits of hearsay particularly when it
came to social action and its attendant cultural manifestations. This is not to say,
however, that nothing substantive was felt, tried, thought, etc. There is something
in there, but what is it?
Houston was no cultural oasis. As elsewhere, mindful of the conditional limits
operating in what one is forced to call the cultural climate, people worked as other
people do. And, as other people did in other places around that time, some
developed would-be world - explaining formulae. And some, by contrast, developed necessarily, semi-formally and informally ordered ways of going on. Some survived and some didn?t. Some broke out and some vanished amidst the complications.
At that time there were two main radio stations, both AM, playing pop-music -
K-NUZ and K-ILT?. There was one local television show devoted? to it -
Larry Kane?s show on K-TRK. There was one pop-music column in a local
newspaper -- Scott Holtzman?s. Crawdaddy notwithstanding, there was no national music paper of general interest until Rolling Stone appeared in Houston for the first time in 1967. Along with FM radio, it was development of the emerging market. Studio waiting-rooms were littered with back-issues of Billboard, Cashbox and Record World and it was they, more than anything else, which stood for ?the
grand scale?. Larry Sepulvado?s Mother Magazine was the first local music
journal and it, along with Houston?s newly-born ?underground press?, covered
music-production that seemed relevant. As for production, the ?traditional? avenues of access sorted out by independent ?fifties pop-producers dominated as both method and style -- people made lease deals.
Nature and that which is taken as ?nature? abhors a vacuum (and fools rush in).
Into the glaring holes in that simplex-complex rushed the ?underground? and with it, among other things, International Artist(s) Producing Corporation. They signed and released The 13th Floor Elevators in 1966 and after signing The Red Crayola in early 1967 went on to take on most of that neighbourhood of production complete with its Austin and West Coast ?connections?. Thereafter, the first real dents were made in the facade of Houston?s pop-music industry. The neighbourhood began to compete.
Its competition was with bands and producers who had been setting the pace locally for several years. There were B.J. Thomas, Roy Head & The Traits, Neal Ford & The Fanatics, Mickey Gilley, The Moving Sidewalk and later, The Sixpence and The Clique among others. Some of those were traditional broad-appeal bands. The distinction is a function of their methods and not necessarily a reflection upon their aims or an indication of their "popularity".
For, there were desires for more than local success at work. These bands, in
general, featured something learned from and for everyone?s taste from The Beatles to Bobby Bland in straight covers or veiled in originals. The emphasis in the "underground" was on originals. This is not to imply, however, that the "underground" was "pure". It is rather an effort to come to grip with the base of the distinction.
One word about homogeneity and heterogeneity
It would be an improbable exercise to set out the exact membership limits in
operation in either the broad-appeal set or the ?underground? set. Both (loose)
sets were working in an economic framework dominated by the established forces
in the industry. In general, however, the former set tacitly accepted old limits
while the latter, effectively, pushed those limits and reshaped them to accommodate themselves. The pressure spread unevenly and to further complicate the picture there were some bands that operated in both sets as the ?scene? developed and as hard and fast distinctions became impossible to make. There were resonances between the set, sub-sets and isolated figures.
By way of illustration ... The Moving Sidewalks and fever tree (sic), with their
manager-co-writer Scott Holtzman, borrowed from the proclaimed concerns of the
"underground" - its language, credibility and ?radicality?. They polished those
features into style and traded on them. That possibility was a partial function of
the vagueness of real limits in the ?underground? and its inability to implement any of its aspirations forcefully enough to prevent idle, free association.
On the other hand, Johnny Winter and The American Blues, led by Rocky Hill, readily indexed to the "underground" even though they were professional musicians obliged to play covers by the venues available to them. The "underground" provided a basis for them to expand their work realistically.
Now, none of this argument is about sorting a hierarchy of bands or an index of
authenticity. Certainly the ?tenets? of the "underground" offer no such possibility.
The distinctions here rely on hindsight. The conflicts of the day did not entail
earnest discussions of membership requirements. These were day-to-day projects trying to make their way in a tight little game.
That tightness led to the foundation of several new venues, some of which were
devoted to supporting emergent music. La Maison was the first club to serve as
a rallying point for the new "scene" and English music provided inspiration. A pair
of Ringo?s drumsticks were enshrined in front of the stage. The Elevators played a successful stand there before making their equally successful stand in California. When La Maison closed in late 1965 or early 1966 two other clubs took up where it had left off: Mark Froman's Love and The Living Eye. The Cellar, although it was more a traditional 'nite-spot', featured Tho American Blues as house band and other bands played there.
The main club, in terms of importance, was The Catacombs. Entrance was restricted to under-21's and it was the sole venue at which local bands could appear with national bands. An appearance there depended on pull, demand or local-chart
The Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hail were two venues which featured
international and national recording artists, apart from an occasional locally
sponsored concert such as the one that featured The Lovin Spoonful, Neal Ford
and The Fanatics and The Sixpence, they were generally inaccessible to local bands.
The remaining venues, until the opening of Love Street Light Circus and Feelgood
Machine on the banks of Buffalo Bayou - the very site which the Allen Brothers
had their famous Landing, were the various institutional functions and
battles-of-the-bands organised by one or the other radio station.
With the growth of Youth Culture the local "scene" began to grow end even though Life Magazine and Eye Magazine tended to concentrate on San Francisco, local "underground" bands still saw themselves as "part" of that whole movement. Links with the West Coast were particularly Strong as they had been forged and, as was generally held, started oy The Elevators. Links with the West Coast were also strengthened by the friendship and association of The Misfits (later Lost and Found) and Euphoria. The latter were from Los Angeles and had clayed a legendary stand in Houston that was firmly lodged in the collected memory, and thereby consciousness of the "underground". That Euphoria were friends with The Byrds added to the power of the connection. Rolling Stone provided another focal point for the local scene and it was generally accepted it would embrace its Texas relatives when the complex linked up to shake the country to its roots - or something like that. That it came increasingly to function as a kind of counter tradepaper that had more in common with the trade it intended to supercede was commonplace upshot. Nonetheless, the
"underground" continued to see its relatives as the San Francisco bands, The Byrds, Love, The Velvet Underground (to some extent), The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Butterfield Blues Band of ?East-West?, the Donovan of Season of the Witch and some others.
The strength of that self-image was such that it effected some ?members? of the
broad-appeal set of bands to the extent that some were transformed in later years
and some were brought to see the value of the new production. At Walt Andrus?
Studio the two sets existed side by side. His studio was the best in Houston and it
was there that most production went on. Fred Carroll, Gordon Bynum, Ray Rush and Lelan Rogers, all of whom were associated with International Artist(s) at one time or another but not usually at the same time, all worked at Andrus? Studio on either individual projects or IA projects. This resulted in a kind of double-existence that is well illustrated in nothing that while The Clique was there recording an "easier" version of The Elevators' Splash 1, Frank Davis, who may have engineered both, was working in his spare time on his own music which was unlike anything being made in the mainstream. One further interesting, and to some, annoying feature of working there was the ghostly presence of Euphoria through the medium of sessions they had done with Andrus. These haunted the set-up of nearly every session involving emergent bands.
So, what happened? To get at what happened we must turn back to the related questions of homogeneity-heterogeneity and well-formedness and semi-formal/informal orderings in practice. We are trying to pick our way through a world full of phantoms that appear in the form of hazy notions of superceding the established industry, supervening Aristotlean philosophy with psychedelia, having a good time, trying to re-establish the limits of production realistically but stretching them to the extents of human possibility, trying to make a living, trying to write a good song, trying. As, and insofar as, the "underground" became a real factor in Houston's music industry its internal contradictions, those of the fabulous Youth Movement and the spasmodic arid calculated responses to the "underground" all crashed headlong into one another. There was no notion of solidarity amongst "underground" bands because the questions of production were seen as musical and therefore metaphysical questions. Psychedelic philosophy was not the radical departure from Aristotle is thought itself. The industry remained and began to gamer its forces to either assimilate once and for all or destroy once and for all. As dysfunctions became apparent, conditions began to tighten up along the fault lines.
The tendency of the "counter culture" was to appear well formed even when it was dangerously fragmented which is perhaps why the era is remembered as a dreamy one when in fact it was a bit of a nightmare. This fact certainly came home with avengance in music production. The growth of FM provides a convenient reference point upon which to pin the tale.
FM necessarily paid attention to local experiments in production. However, its
attention was confined to that upon which it could get a real grip. It featured
popularized forms while ostensibly supporting a notion of experimentation. FM
was above all a recognition of the new ?alternative? market and it never truly
settled until it had sorted out what was marketable and what wasn't. In Houston,
the proportion of local work that was played was inordinately low in comparison
to the output. The point is that the limits in terms of what would be supported
became increasingly clear and those limits began to tell in terms of how and what was produced. By the time the movement was reaching the stage of maturity at which it should have been able to deal with new organisational imperatives, it was also coming apart. Real sources of fragmentation began to eat away at the "spiritual" theory.
It couldn't take FM, or anything else, to task.
Added to its internal difficulties arising from organisational and methodological
conflicts were pressures from such institutions as the police. It was more than
the police could bear to sit on their hands while various forms of social protest
went on under their noses. Initially they turned on the music. It provided an
obvious and exemplary target - it was a focal point and meeting, socialising,
circumstances for "kids".
The Elevators and Lost & Found were busted and The Elevators were made an example.
Other contributing factors to the coming apart were the disproportionately
overemphasized ?successes of such bands as fever tree and The Clique. Their
cover version of The Elevators' Splash 1 did better business than the original
through the ideological intervention of Larry Kane and the radio stations.
As opportunities dried up both The Elevators and The Red Crayola, for example,
became more militantly dedicated to their respective productions with differing
results. The police pressure on The Elevators worsened relations between the
band and IA at just the time when they should have been strengthened. The
Red Crayola, pushing toward new limits, began to play noise instead of "music".
When Love Street opened Its doors for the first time, they played "deafening"
noise and cleared the club of well-wishers. The Elevators were not permitted
to travel to meet commitments and when The Crayola played the Berkeley Folk
Music Festival in 1967 they played noise and were badly reviewed. They withdrew from their contract on returning to Houston and although IA was busily working on putting out new records they were getting over-extended on paper. Although The Crayola rejoined IA In 1968 and made an album. The Elevators were themselves coming to bits in the intense pursuit of their vision. Lelan Rogers left the company. It seemed to be merely a matter of time.
The war in Viet-Nam was dragging on, violent social protest was escalating and
being met with even greater violence. The decade ended with Nixon dug in in the
White House and the whole music-industry withdrawn from the uncertainties of
In its brief history, International Artist(s) had managed to help Houston?s emergent musical end social forces to consolidate. They had recorded The 13th Floor Elevators, The Red Crayola, Lost and Found, Golden Dawn, Endel St. Cloud, Bubble Puppy, Dave Allen and tapped Houston's blues roots by recording an album with Lightnin' Hopkins. They provided real production access for musical expression in Houston. And, for a time, they promoted a semi-coherent set of formal and informal attitudes in a sphere of international production. More than one might imagine or credit, they subscibed to and came to believe in the transcendental, projective principles of that ill-begotten, ill-fated time and place.
With the solidity provided by International Artist(s), Houston's "underground" had
begun with some cohesion. Though it didn't sweep all before it, it did manage to
earn a place in the history of that period. Although its influence, as an aspect of
fabulous Youth Culture, must largely be consigned to the heaps of idealism,
there is still something in it. The objectivations of human behaviour served to
further self-understanding even though those objectivations were not - could not
be - articulated in the well-formed modes to which they aspired. The dialogue
was, however, widened and deepened. But the void is back.