Heavy Meddling | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Heavy Meddling 

West Coast Pop Art
Experimental Band
Part One

West Coast Pop Art
Experimental Band
Vol. 2

West Coast Pop Art
Experimental Band
A Child's Guide to Good and Evil

In the late 19th century, composers wrote highly detailed scores to preserve their particular vision of a piece of music. For them the advent of recording must have seemed a godsend--no longer could meddlesome players erase the creator's intent. But by the end of the 20th century, modernist thought and recording technology had begun to call into question the very nature of musical authorship, with old recordings being routinely sampled, remixed, and otherwise reinterpreted.

John Cage may have done more than anyone else to sever the sacred bond between the composer and the finished work when he formally introduced the element of chance into Western art music. Weary of the smothering determinism that governed classical music, eager to erase the arbitrary distinction between music and noise, he composed a famous series of pieces in the 1950s that incorporated random, ambient sounds and required spontaneous musical decisions. To varying degrees, he relinquished authorial control over pitch selection, pitch duration, and the overall form of his works, allowing the performers and audience members to participate in their creation. In this environment, music--like nature itself--could simply happen.

Cage's ideas had a profound influence on avant-garde music: by the 1960s a number of American and European composers were embracing the idea of unforeseen consequences in pieces that ranged from the quasi-conventional to the utterly free-form. And in the late 60s a bizarre variation on Cage's theories began to infiltrate the world of pop records, the by-product of a seismic shift in creative control. In the mid-60s artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles invited themselves into the control booth, and less powerful artists began to follow their lead, wresting creative control from their label management. In what could only be called a counteroffensive, producers would sometimes hijack music that artists had recorded, adding new overdubs, drastically remixing songs, and in some cases actually putting their own compositions on completed albums. This sort of skulduggery often produced weird, incongruous sounds of dubious merit: for instance, the Pretty Things' Emotions (1967), an LP of rough folk-pop that the record label surreptitiously overdubbed with glitzy Bacharach-like orchestrations.

But in a delightfully Cagean paradox, some of these cosmetic surgeries backfired, producing results that neither the artists nor the producers had intended. While the labels usually wanted to enhance sales by making the music more trendy, some discs stiffed commercially but became cult records, highly regarded for their artistry. For years acid-rock aficionados have sung the praises of the obscure west-coast outfit the Chocolate Watchband, whose first two albums, No Way Out (1967) and The Inner Mystique (1968), encompassed raw garage rock, quasi-orchestral instrumentals, and otherworldly psychedelia. As it turns out, the band was responsible for the snarling, three-chord rockers, but many of the other tracks were composed by the producers, performed by studio hacks, and tacked onto the finished LPs without the band's knowledge.

Few of these late-60s pastiches are more fascinating than those of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, whose first three albums have just been reissued on the 60s label Sundazed. Long considered one of psychedelia's most original and mysterious bands, it united an unlikely and contentious group of players with wildly differing agendas, and most of its recordings were made without the participation or cooperation of one or more members. The band's name may have been a self-conscious attempt to mine the hipster chic of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, but in the end the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band proved John Cage's statement that experimentation is "simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order."

The nucleus of the band was three affluent kids from southern California: Shaun and Dan Harris (the sons of well-known symphonic composer Roy Harris) and their friend Michael Lloyd. Fascinated by the Yardbirds, particularly Jeff Beck's forays into feedback and atonal fret mangling, the trio set up a makeshift garage studio and began recording songs that mingled folk rock with feedback and distortion.

Eventually they saw the Yardbirds perform at a private concert held in a Beverly Hills mansion. The concert had been arranged by Bob Markley, the son of an oil tycoon, whose general lack of creative talent had already contributed to failed careers as an actor and a pop singer. After meeting Lloyd and the Harris brothers, Markley made them a Faustian offer: he would use his money and music industry connections to get the band professional equipment, the best light show in town, and a record deal. All they had to do was let him be in the band (i.e., stand onstage and bang a tambourine) so he could screw groupies.

At first the deal with Markley seemed like a blessing. He came through with money for instruments and a world-class lighting system, and before long he had landed a contract with Reprise Records, the label launched by Frank Sinatra. But Markley insisted that the group be named the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band; a nonpracticing attorney, he secretly secured the rights to the name as well as the band's publishing. When the band's first LP, Part One, appeared in 1967, the record jacket and sleeve were conspicuously devoid of any musician credits--not even the band members were listed, which should have tipped Lloyd and the Harris brothers off.

The disc opens with "Shifting Sands," an ominous waltz colored by Shaun Harris's mournful vocal and Michael Lloyd's searing, nightmarish lead guitar. The original trio's vision is evident in the record's chiming pop ("Transparent Day") and instrumental acoustic folk ("High Coin"). But a number of songs feature vocals by Markley, whose lyrics are a corny and confused mix of flower-power whimsy and antiestablishment vitriol. Markley quickly decided that he wanted more of a role than waving a tambourine in front of a dead microphone. As Michael Lloyd recalls in the liner notes to the Sundazed reissue, Markley "wasn't content anymore just being the guy who ended up with the girls that he could get from [being in the band]. Now he wanted to be respected or something. Well, we had a lot of problems with that, because that wasn't the deal."

Despite those understandable objections, Markley's lyrics occasionally fused with the band's more outre efforts to produce some wonderfully surreal music. On "1906" a queasy guitar riff repeats endlessly as Markley, in a distorted nasal whine, describes the onset of the great San Francisco earthquake from the perspective of a dog: "See the hunchback in the park / He's blind and can't run for cover / I don't feel well / Hear my master's ugly voice / See the teeth marks on my leash / Only freaks know all the answers / I don't feel well." The track is a surprisingly effective vision of a city being shaken to pieces.

Frustrated by Markley's attempts to commandeer the songs, Michael Lloyd soon quit the band (to surface later as Donny Osmond's producer) and was replaced by the superlative guitarist Ron Morgan, a founding member of Three Dog Night, for the band's second LP, Vol. 2 (1967). From the Wes Montgomery-influenced pop of "Tracy Had a Hard Day Sunday" to the monumental feedback drone of "Suppose They Give a War and No One Comes" to the raga-influenced "Buddha," the songs on Vol. 2 cover a daunting range of styles with considerable artistry and imagination. Markley's lyrical and conceptual input is even more pronounced, and his blend of blunt, Zappa-esque social satire and hippie doggerel often approaches utter inanity. But paired with the consistently inventive, unconventionally alluring music of Morgan and the Harris brothers, it actually contributes to the record's trippy atmosphere. "Smell of Incense," the record's eerie, ethereal centerpiece, still emits a potent, narcotic attraction thanks to Markley's unusually elliptical lyrics and the band's delicate, understated, almost free-jazz improvisation.

The band's third and final Reprise LP, A Child's Guide to Good and Evil (1968), is often cited as its masterpiece, but by this time Morgan and the Harris brothers were completely exasperated by Markley's interference. Dan Harris actually left the band, and as Shaun Harris recalls in the reissue's liner notes, "There would be times when you would have a good melody and you would think: 'I don't want to waste it on this....'" Talking to the psychedelic magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope in 1999, Ron Morgan's brother Bob recalled Ron telling him that "the whole thing was just a total embarrassment--it was pieced together so haphazardly."

Yet through some strange alchemy, A Child's Guide to Good and Evil transcends these conflicted origins, the band's wistful melodies combining with Markley's increasingly unhinged verbiage to create a resigned, washed-out paranoia. The title cut opens with a series of light, Eastern-sounding guitar chords, then erupts into a loping, repeated sitar figure, which Markley punctuates with monotone spoken-word narratives ("Take my hand and run away with me / Through the forest until the leaves and trees slow us down / A vampire bat will suck blood from our hands / A dog with rabies will bite us / Rats will run up your legs / But nothing will matter"). While more focused than the band's previous efforts, the record is also singularly diverse, ranging from tough blues-rock ("Watch Yourself") to lovely balladry ("As the World Rises and Falls") to weird, sitar-laced mantras ("Ritual #1").

All three LPs were commercial busts, Reprise dropped the band, and after a desultory country-pop outing on the tiny Amos label its enigmatic career drew to a close. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band might have been the product of dubious motives, bad decisions, and artistic prostitution the like of which would have made John Cage shudder. But true to his ideas, no one could have predicted that music of such lasting appeal could result from a collision between earnest idealism and crass commercialism. Sometimes art just happens.

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