Monday, November 9, 2015

Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies - 1968 [2004] "The United States Of America"

The United States of America was an American experimental and psychedelic band whose works, recorded in late 1967, are an early example of the use of electronic devices in rock music. The short-lived band was founded in Los Angeles by experimental composer Joseph Byrd and singer and lyricist Dorothy Moskowitz, with musicians Gordon Marron, Rand Forbes and Craig Woodson, but split up shortly after the release of their only album in 1968. Their sound blended a range of musical genres, including avant-garde, psychedelic, and art rock, with many of the songs' lyrics reflecting Byrd's leftist political views. Unusually, the band had no guitar player; instead, they used strings, keyboards and electronics, including primitive synthesizers, and various audio processors, including the ring modulator. According to critic Kevin Holm-Hudson, "what distinguishes the United States of America from some of its contemporaries... is the seriousness and skill with which they incorporated avant-garde and other influences into their music.

Joseph Hunter Byrd (born December 19, 1937) is an American composer, musician and academic. After first becoming known as an experimental composer in New York and Los Angeles in the early and mid-1960s, he became the leader of The United States of America, an innovative but short-lived band that integrated electronic sound and radical political ideas into rock music. In 1968 he recorded the album The American Metaphysical Circus, credited to Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. After working as a record producer, arranger, and soundtrack composer, he became a university teacher in music history and theory.

Originally released on Columbia in 1968, The United States of America is one of the legendary pure psychedelic space records. Some of the harder-rocking tunes have a fun house recklessness that recalls aspects of early Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground at their freakiest; the sedate, exquisitely orchestrated ballads, especially "Cloud Song" and the wonderfully titled "Love Song for the Dead Che," are among the best relics of dreamy psychedelia. Occasionally things get too excessive and self-conscious, and the attempts at comedy are a bit flat, but otherwise this is a near classic. 


Rock groups are supposed to be hatched in garages and inner-city lofts, not the upper reaches of academia.  That wasn't going to stop Joseph Byrd, experimental composer and ethnomusicologist from the UCLA New Music Workshop, from devising a plan in 1967 to approach rock'n'roll from the opposite direction.

    Byrd, who had frequented avant-garde circles since hanging around with Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, and Virgil Thomson in the early '60s, used the United States of America to bring cutting-edge electronics, Indian music, and "serious" composition into psychedelic rock and roll.  The group's sole, self-titled album in 1968 was a tour de force (though not without its flaws) of experimental rock that blended surprisingly melodic sensibilities with unnerving blasts of primitive synthesizers and lyrics that could range from misty romanticism to hard-edged irony.  For the relatively few who heard it, the record was a signpost to the future with its collision of rock and classical elements, although the material crackled with a tension that reflected the United States of America itself in the late '60s.

    By mid-1968, the grand experiment was over.  Conflicting egos, a drug bust, and commercial pressures all contributed to a rapid split.  The United States of America may have had their roots in the halls of higher learning, but ultimately they were prey to the same kind of mundane tensions that broke the spirit of many a band that lived and died on the streets.

    From the time Byrd founded the band in Los Angeles with colleague Michael Agnello, says singer Dorothy Moskowitz, "group dynamics were never a strong point in the USA."  Moskowitz, Byrd's ex-girlfriend, had a background in writing and performing for musical theater.  She moved from New York to California to join the group and, as she puts it, provide "the requisite schmaltz."  Bassist Stu Brotman, once of the stunningly eclectic L.A. psychedelic group Kaleidoscope, was also an early member.

    But he and Agnello were gone by the time the group began recording for Columbia.  Agnello, a radical sort, was arguing with Byrd over leadership of the band, and not sure the act should even be signing to a record label in the first place.  "When you ask why the group broke up, well, why did the group even record after it broke it up?" points out Moskowitz.

    Yet the lineup that cohered for the album brought impressive credentials to the table.  Electric violinist Gordon Marron expanded the instrument's parameters with a divider that could raiser or lower it an octave, as well as tape echo units and ring modulators.  Rand Forbes played an unfretted electric bass, and drummer Craig Woodson would tinker with his sound in unusual ways, attaching contact microphones to his set and suspending slinkies from cymbals to get a musique-concrete effect.  Ed Bogas added organ, piano, and calliope.

    Most of the material was penned by Byrd and Moskowitz, the latter of whose alto delivered the lyrics -- which are alternately evocative and foreboding -- with a cool precision reminiscent of an icier Grace Slick.  Byrd was chiefly responsible for the electronic textures that would provide the album with its most distinguishing characteristics.  This was 1968, remember, when synthesizers had rarely been employed on rock records.  What Byrd crafted were not simulations of strings and horns, but exhilarating, frightening swoops and bleeps that lent a fierce crunch to the faster numbers, and a beguiling serenity to the ballads.  Byrd had crucial help in his endeavors from Richard Durrett, who designed the Durrett electronic music synthesizer used by the band, and from Tom Oberheim, who pioneered the use of the ring modulator employed by the USA.  Nico, Moskowitz has recalled, tried unsuccessfully to join the band, after leaving the Velvet Underground.

    Add to this mix a fascination with modal playing and Indian music.  Byrd and Moskowitz were serious students of North and South Indian music, and had already made little-known contributions to a Folkways LP of Indian music by Gayathri Rajapur and Harihar Rao, recorded in 1965.  Country Joe & the Fish, the Doors, and others were opening the gates for modal playing in rock and roll, and the USA were one of the first ones through; Frank Zappa had also opened the possibilities for incorporating ideas from contemporary composition into a rock format.  And then there was Byrd's application of concepts from Charles Ives, which simulated marching bands moving from opposite sides of the stereo spectrum...

While most obviously an antecedent of Broadcast's icy, out-rocked torch songs (indeed, "The American Metaphysical Circus" out-Broadcasts Broadcast), you can hear the United States of America's nervous, modulated psychedelia in acts as diverse as Current 93 and Pram. This was daring stuff, even in 1968, when seemingly every band was splicing tape, echoplexing the hell out of everything and generally being far-out. USA have long been relegated to the specialist and trainspotter bins, but their debut is as worthy of discovery and critical re-evaluation as Can and Neu! were a few years ago. Necessary history lessons, here.

Track listing

01.     "The American Metaphysical Circus" (Joseph Byrd)     4:56
02.     "Hard Coming Love" (Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz)     4:41
03.     "Cloud Song" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     3:18
04.     "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     2:39
05.     "I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     3:51
06.     "Where Is Yesterday" (Gordon Marron, Ed Bogas, Moskowitz)     3:08
07.     "Coming Down" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     2:37
08.     "Love Song for the Dead Ché" (Byrd)     3:25
09.     "Stranded in Time" (Marron, Bogas)     1:49
10.     "The American Way of Love"

    "Metaphor for an Older Man" (Byrd)
    "California Good time Music" (Byrd)
    "Love Is All" (Byrd, Moskowitz, Rand Forbes, Craig Woodson, Marron)"  6:38

Bonus tracks:

11.     "Osamu's Birthday" (Byrd)     2:59
12.     "No Love to Give" (Moskowitz)     2:36
13.     "I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     3:45
14.     "You Can Never Come Down" (Byrd)     2:32
15.     "Perry Pier" (Moskowitz)     2:37
16.     "Tailor Man" (Moskowitz)     3:06
17.     "Do You Follow Me" (Kenneth Edwards)     2:34
18.     "The American Metaphysical Circus" (Byrd)     4:01
19.     "Mouse (The Garden of Earthly Delights)" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     2:39
20.     "Heresy (Coming Down)" (Byrd, Moskowitz)     2:32

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