Of all the vinyl reissue labels whose output we habitually keep an open eye out for, Light in the Attic, and its twelve year (and counting) quest to restore wax to its rightful place has long been paramount among them.
To quote from the company’s own website, “its company mission is simple: put out great music, wherever it may be found, however it may sound. It’s this dedication to music – first and foremost – that has already created a diverse and respected catalog of releases. LITA’s commitment to quality, as well as its disdain for convention, has already produced instant classics. Highlights include the critically acclaimed Wheedle’s Groove compilation, an exuberant affirmation of Seattle’s soul heritage; the reintroduction of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit born singer-songwriter who effortlessly blends the sounds of folk, psych, and soul. And who can ignore the recent reissues of Greenwich folk great Karen Dalton, funk goddess Betty Davis, and legendary French troubadour Serge Gainsbourg? The music is timeless, and a must-have for any music fan.”
To that already remarkable roster, we can now add a new project: The Vanguard Vault.
With the possible exception only of Elektra Records, Vanguard was the blazing light of the US folk scene of the 1960s and 1970s, its own far-reaching vision of what “folk” actually entailed ensuring that it constantly plowed a broad swathe through the contemporary music scene.
It is the furthest reaches of this swathe that LITA’s Vanguard Vault intends to mine, with the first two releases, Bob Frank’s 1972 eponymous debut, and Peter Walker’s “Second Poem To Karmela” Or Gypsies Are Important (1968) delving deep into the catalog to extract a pair of albums that likely are complete strangers to most people reading this. Although they shouldn’t be.
Second Poem was, appropriately, Walker’s second album, following on from his eastern tinged Rainy Day Raga by marching even deeper into eastern territory. The opening “Second Song” might begin with a hint of the harp riff that kicks off Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” (!!!!), but it quickly slips into a frenetic Indian blur that sets the stage for the remainder of the record. With tabla, tamboura, violin and flute (by Jim Pepper of the Free Spirits) accompanying Walker’s sitar, the entire set feels like you’ve just walked in on a late 60s film documentary – which means it may sound dated, in as much as it is so much a child of the post-Ravi Hari Georgeson fall-out. But unlike so many of the other albums that lurch into that territory, this one makes you feel good, too.
The Bob Frank album, on the other hand, is very much a Vanguard archetype, a Dylanesque singer songwriter recorded in Nashville, and released to grandiose praise by everyone who heard it. Which, sadly, wasn’t many – a sad fact that the intervening years have done little to alter. Indeed, as recently as the mid-1990s, the entire Vanguard catalog was basically moribund, ignored even by the label’s present-day management.
Then began what label-head Kevin Welk described as a concerted effort to restore the entire label heritage to the racks, both via straightforward CD reissues of key albums, and by a series of very intelligent compilations – the At Newport festival live collections, and the Vanguard Sessions best ofs.
Some remarkable discoveries awaited. An entire subsequent generation of modern electronic musicians could probably tell you about the first time they heard the electronic soundscapes of Perrey Kingsley, the pioneering mid-1960s work of Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perrey and German-born Gershon Kingsley.
This distinctly boffin-like pair came together in 1964, following careers that had already taken them through associations with such giants of the avant-garde as John Cage and Robert Moog (Kingsley), George Jenny and Pierre Schaeffer (Perrey). It was with Jenny’s Ondioline, a primitive synthesizer, that Perrey first came to American attention, after he gained the patronage of Edith Piaf; she, in turn, introduced him to New York entrepreneur Carroll Bratman and, around 1962, Perrey and composer Harry Breur recorded the LP The Happy Moog for the Pickwick label.
Kingsley, meanwhile, was working as an arranger at Vanguard, overseeing some of the more esoteric European folk recordings that the label was then releasing. Intrigued by Perrey’s bizarre electronics, Kingsley arranged a meeting and, in 1966, the pair recorded their first album together, The In Sound From Way Out.
Based around a series of tape loops which Perrey constructed in his own Manhattan studio, The In Sound seems incredibly naive by today’s electronic standards. The genre, at that time, was still more fascinated with unusual (read “novelty”) effects than musical expression and, while The In Sound at least dignifies its primitiveness with the veneer of science fiction weirdness (song titles include “The Little Man From Mars,” “Barnyard In Orbit” and “Computer In Love”), prolonged listening nevertheless reveals the limitations of the instrumentation. Remove the duck call and baby yowl from the soundscapes and one is left with some very thin gruel indeed.
Regardless of all that, the album attracted sufficient attention to deserve a follow-up and, in 1967, Perrey-Kingsley reconvened for Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Spotlight On The Moog, a collection of popular hits fed through the Moog synthesizer. A squelchy “Strangers In The Night,” a ricocheting “Spanish Flea” and a “Baroque Hoedown” which absolutely anticipates Keith Emerson’s later variations on a similar theme (and was the musical theme for Disney’s “Main Street Electrical Parade” for much of the next 30 years), are the stand-outs here and, had the duo remained together, they might well have derailed the entire future course of classical rock.
Instead they parted (amicably) to pursue solo careers as writers and performers. Over the next few years, Perrey cut the aforementioned two further albums for Vanguard, while Kingsley scored a massive international hit as composer of Hot Butter’s electronic showcase “Popcorn.”
Their own albums lay forgotten for almost three decades, then re-emerged slowly, sampled by some artists, cited by others. Vanguard pounced and, having commissioned fresh remixes from modern mavens Fat Boy Slim and Eurotrash, the label wound up with a 3CD box set of an act that the vast majority of record buyers have never even heard of – let alone purchased at the time. It’s still a hot seller.
It is (re-)discoveries like that which have established Vanguard among the, indeed, vanguard of collectable American labels, with the company’s 1960s output in particular harboring some extravagantly wonderful gems. Some have been repackaged on CD, others are in the pipeline, others still… well, who knows? Of course, great swathes of the catalog are a part of the American furniture today – Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Buffy St Marie and the Weavers require no introduction whatsoever. Neither does the Newport Folk Festival, with which Vanguard was inextricably linked from its inception in 1959 – and which, said Welk, remains the locked repository of some of the most startling performances in the entire vault.
But Vanguard itself never allowed blatant commercial considerations to shape its destiny. From the outset, the label’s motto insisted, “music for connoisseurs” and so it proved. Vanguard had never even sniffed a gold record until Joan Baez burst onto the scene, and she remains the company’s biggest selling artist. But there are close to 300 other albums released by Vanguard between 1960-69 which repay investigation just as graciously, most of which never came within spitting distance of the chart.
The Vanguard label was launched in June, 1950, by the brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, built upon a $10,000 advance from their father, Benjamin. The brothers’ forte was jazz and classical music and two labels were established to cater for their tastes – Vanguard itself, and The Bach Guild, an ambitious project intended to release recordings of all of its classical composer namesake’s chorale work.
Original Vanguard releases, in keeping with industry standards, were issued on 10-inch LPs. Between 1953-55, Vanguard released some 20 different jazz albums in this format, including well-received and respected titles by Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, Joe Newman, Buck Clayton, Don Elliott and Ruby Braff – many produced by the legendary John Hammond. However, a glimmer of the label’s future came in the form of Brother John Sellers’ Sings Blues & Folk Songs collection in 1954 and, in 1956, Vanguard released its first album by Pete Seeger and the Weavers – a courageous move at a time when the group’s political stance saw them all-but boycotted by the rest of the industry. (Paul Robeson, another blacklisted performer, joined the Weavers at the label.)
Releases by Martha Schlamme and Cisco Houston followed and, by the end of the 1950s, Vanguard was essentially the biggest folk game in town. It became even bigger following the arrival of Baez, with her immediate pre-eminence immediately prompting Columbia (who actually rejected Baez) to sign their own female folk singer, Carolyn Hester.
That Hester’s first husband, Richard Farina, would later marry Baez’s sister, Mimi (while Dylan, who guested on Hester’s first Columbia album, soon became Baez’s consort), is indicative of just how compact the folk scene was at that time; that the Farinas would then join Baez at Vanguard, on the other hand, proves the wisdom of the Solomons. What nobody could have imagined at the time was how time would bear out so many other of their signings.
With their dulcimer driven folk-rock, and proto-psychedelic imagery, the Farinas were undeniably eccentric by contemporary folk standards. By Vanguard’s standards, however, eccentricity was the spice of life. Few of the label’s signings ever opted for convention and normalcy; indeed, to describe Vanguard as a folk-oriented concern is to utterly belittle the sheer adventurousness that was the Solomons’ true nature.
Georgia-born singer-songwriter Patrick Sky, for example, was a dynamically contrary performer; indeed, if there is such a thing as the archetypal Vanguard artist, Sky might well be it. Even his peers were confounded by him; his gentle, reflective songs were, singer Dave Van Ronk memorably mused, “peopled by bits of verse, horrible puns, unprintable lyrics, japes, jibes and a beer river flowing gently over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.” But while today, such a description conjures up visions of a Marilyn Manson-esque monster filling our childrens’ ears with oaths and obscenities, Patrick Sky, this earlier fiend’s 1965 Vanguard LP, turns out to be nothing like that. Or maybe it is. You never heard “damn” on the radio back then, but Sky lets one slip (during the otherwise plaintive “Many A Mile”) without even a guilty pause.
The proving ground for many of Vanguard’s most adventurous (and far-sighted) signings was the New Folks series of various artists collections. Phil Ochs, Lisa Kindred, Bob Jones and Eric Andersen all made their debut via these albums, with the latter rapidly emerging among the label’s most reliable performers as the early folk boom settled into its mid-late 1960s reflective rock mode.
His influence was profound. According to legend, it was Andersen’s “Come To My Bedside,” a cut from 1965′s Today is The Highway, which persuaded Kris Kristofferson to start writing sultry love songs; and “Violets Of Dawn” (from 1966′s ‘Bout Changes And Things), which prompted Leonard Cohen to begin writing songs in the first place.
In fact, ‘Bout Changes… was a significant album all around, as Andersen escaped the Dylan-shaped shadows which haunted his debut, and carved himself – and his entire genre – a new niche altogether. Five years on, Andersen’s thoughtful lyricism, stylistic versatility and gifted story-telling would effortlessly explode into the sensitive singer-songwriter boom of the early 1970s – the earnest young men (and women… they tended to be the ones without beards) whom history now politely recalls as “modern troubadours.”
Whether he was aware or not of what he had created, Andersen himself refused to sit still on his blueprint. ‘Bout Changes… was still weaving its spell when its maker restlessly turned his back on all it portended, and rerecorded the entire album with a rock band! The liner notes to ‘Bout Changes And Things Take Two complete the tale, and offer another vivid illustration of Vanguard’s modus operandi of the time. “We asked Maynard Solomon… and he saw no reason why we couldn’t make a new album with the songs from the last one. It hadn’t been done before, but what did that matter?”
It didn’t matter at all. It’s impossible to play favorites between the two albums (although many people try); impossible to say which direction Andersen should have pursued next. Not that it would have mattered, as he promptly swung off on yet another different course. Andersen’s next album, 1968′s frustratingly lightweight More Hits From Tin Can Alley, was his last in either a folk or rock mode; the following year, he relocated to Nashville, seeing out his Vanguard contract with the aptly titled A Country Dream.
Which just goes to reinforce one fact. Vanguard was never simply a folk label.
The two albums which Richard and Mini would record before Richard’s death in a motorcycle accident on April 30, 1966, Celebrations For A Grey Rainy Day and Reflections In A Crystal Wind, rank among the most audacious, and certainly the most fascinatingly progressive, records of the entire folk boom, and NPR’s Ed Ward, in the liner notes to the Farinas’ 1999 collection Pack Up Your Sorrows, is convinced that had Richard lived, “these two would certainly… have given Bob Dylan a ride for his money.”
Further evidence of this lofty prophecy would be served up by the third and final Farinas album, 1968′s Memories. Compiled by Mimi Farina from a wealth of out-takes and other stray recordings, it’s a piecemeal selection but an essential one, its dozen tracks spanning every dimension of her late husband’s restless and, sometimes, ruthless ambition. We wait for a Farinas box set to truly place its contents in their historical context (and we regret the non-availability of the album Richard cut in London with Eric Von Schmidt and a pseudonymous Bob Dylan in January, 1963). Until such a time as either is forthcoming, however, Memories is more then enough.
The majority of the songs are studio off-cuts – including the semi-legendary “Morgan The Pirate,” a six minute epic which not only presages everything Fairport Convention would achieve on their early albums (another Farina song, “Reno, Nevada,” was a regular in the English band’s live set at this time), but was also intended as a farewell to Bob Dylan, after his unceremonious break-up with Farina’s sister-in-law, Joan Baez.
Baez makes her own appearance on the album, with two of just three available tracks from the rock album she and Farina were recording at the time of his death. At the time of its abandonment, Baez described the project as an indefensible lapse in judgment, and an abrogation of her principles, and she was not alone. Dylan (of course) was extremely caustic when he first heard of the recordings, while Baez’s fan mail bristled with horror. As she said, “‘don’t go rock’n'roll,’ they tell me. It’s dirty and sinful.”
It would be several years more before Baez returned to even the same notions as she and Farina had hatched, by which time a mere taste of the earlier dirt and sin had crept out from under its stained coverlet. 1966 brought a single of “A Swallow Song” and “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (written by Farina and the third Baez sister, Pauline Marden); 1968 saw the first-named reappear on Memories, alongside “All The World Has Gone By.” And, aside from the fact that all three performances are excellent (Baez’s 1971 masterpiece *Blessed Are…* captures much the same feel), it’s very hard to see what all the hand wringing was about.
The other highlight of Memories was two cuts drawn from the Farinas’ 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance. The pair had worked up an extravagant act for the occasion, scheduled to open with the two of them alone on stage, then slowly adding further musicians – bassist Fritz Richmond, guitarist Al Kooper and so on – as the set progressed. By the time they hit the final song, the rocking “Hard Loving Loser,” there would be a full electric band rocking out behind them, several hours before Bob Dylan took the stage with a similar hydra behind him.
Vanguard, of course, was the official chronicler of the Newport Folk Festival, maintaining a stream of albums that served up highlights not only of the headline acts, but also the myriad unknowns who also took the stage.
The Folk Festival itself developed out of jazz impresario George Wein’s Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival, inaugurated in 1954. With tobacconist Louis Lorillard and entrepreneur Albert Grossman also on the team, Wein launched the new event in 1959, with a weekend (July 11/12) long succession of performances and workshops at Freebody Park. It was a successful event, conjuring some smart performances from the likes of Pete Seeger, Pat Clancy, Odetta, Earl Scruggs and Martha Schlamme, as proven by the three volumes of live recordings released later in the year by Vanguard.
History, however, insists that the highlight of the weekend was the unscheduled arrival on the stage – and, from there, the folk scene itself – of the young Joan Baez, a denizen of the Boston coffee house circuit, but a complete unknown in the wider world. A special guest of singer Bob Gibson, Baez’s performance comprised just two duets, “Virgin Mary Had One Son” and “Jordan River.” But she stole the show… and the festival itself… and returned the following year as a headliner in her own right. Even her entrance to the festival grounds was an event; she was chauffeured in a Cadillac hearse, with her name emblazoned on the sides in silver tape.
Despite the success of the 1960 event (and two accompanying LPs), it would be 1963 before the Folk Festival returned to the calendar, spread now over three days, July 26-28, and overseen by a non-profit group of folkies – Pete Seeger, Pete Yarrow, Theodore Bikel, Jean Ritchie and Vanguard’s own Erik Darling among them. 47,000 tickets were sold for a weekend stuffed with 70 different performers, and the six live albums drawn from the event highlight the massive versatility of the “folk” genre.
Individual discs highlighted blues, country and bluegrass and Old Time Music ; a fourth, Newport Broadside was dedicated to so-called topical songs; two more, two volumes of Evening Concerts wrapped up the event’s main attractions – Baez, of course, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Jack Elliott, Dave van Ronk, Judy Collins… and a new Canadian talent, discovered by television’s Bell Telephone Hour, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker.
It was Albert Grossman who recommended the duo to Vanguard. “He thought they were right for [the label]; I agreed,” Maynard Solomon recalled and, in 1962, their *Ian & Sylvia* debut album was released to warm applause. It was Newport that made them stars, however. No less than Baez in 1959, the duo (accompanied by guitarist Eric Hord) were the incontestable highlight of the 1963 festival and, over the next three years, the pair recorded six further albums for Vanguard, all now available within a 4CD box set, before departing for MGM in 1967. (The couple divorced in 1975; Tyson alone returned to Vanguard in 1993.)
Little of what they recorded in the studio, however, matched the magic intensity of their live performances, and it is, indeed, a blessing that the three tracks recorded and released on the original 1963 and 1965 Newport Festival albums have since been augmented by a dozen more, available on 1996′s most sensibly titled Ian & Sylvia Live At Newport CD.
The 1964 Newport Folk Festival spun off seven LPs, two apiece devoted to blues and traditional music, and three from the evening concerts. It was staged at a time, as Stacey Williams’ liner notes remarked, when sundry “self-appointed Cassandras [were] predicting the demise of the folk music movement, lamenting the plethora of indiscriminate ‘hootenannies’ and the British-made rock’n'roll invasion.”
The festival line-up, however, showed no signs of collapse, thrusting its customary plethora of new talent to the fore – Buffy Sainte Marie, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs all took their first steps towards household-name-dom at the 1964 show, while Judy Roderick emerged not only with a breathtaking performance, but with a broad enough repertoire to follow through with one of the finest albums of the age, 1965′s *Woman Blue*.
Reissued on CD (with four bonus tracks) in 1993, a year after Roderick’s tragically early death, Woman Blue was actually her second album – her debut was recorded in 1963, following an appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival; it was, guitarist Dick Weissman shrugged, “adequate, [but] did not successfully present her abilities.” *Woman Blue*, on the other hand, is one of those lovely, sparse folk albums which doesn’t quite stay within folk’s own parameters – Roderick grew up listening to blues and country, while a stint in San Francisco in the early 1960s saw her working the same blues-loving coffee house as the then unknown Janis Joplin. A luxuriously sensual version of “Rock Me Baby” is one early highlight of the album; an extraordinary revision of Sylvia Fricker’s “You Were On My Mind” is another.
So much, then, for the death of folk. Or not. In fact, it would be the following year’s event that sounded the death knell on the Newport Folk Festival as a living, breathing, and above all influential beast. Regardless of the true audience response to Dylan’s electric, eclectic set (tapes of the event really don’t back up history’s insistence that the entire crowd was up in arms), still that evening posited musical futures which had no time for linking arms and waving placards, and no further need for endless choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Rock’n'roll had indeed invaded and both folk music in general, and the Vanguard label in particular, would soon be feeling the changes.
Remarkable new talents continued to flow from the old wellspring, however. Jonathan and Leigh were a somewhat consumptive looking duo who hid in big black overcoats, but cut one lovely album of acoustic musings, Third And Main, for the label in 1967. In a similar vein, Steve Gillette’s eponymous album that same year has a bold other-worldliness that defies simple categorization – and is, in any case, the only LP ever to feature Buffy Sainte-Marie playing coat-hangers.
But the arrival of Country Joe & The Fish, political arch-provocateurs from San Francisco, opened the door to quite different moods and complexions. Throughout the summer of love, that group’s first two Vanguard albums, Electric Music For The Mind And Body and Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die, were as integral a part of the psychedelic soundtrack as any other albums of the age. And piling up behind them, there awaited a host of freakish beat monsters that make the Fish look positively abstinent.
The story that best sums up Circus Maximus is, nobody yet seems to have told their story. Even Jerry Jeff Walker, rhythm guitarist and vocalist across the Texan band’s two albums, devotes just a dozen pages of his autobiography to them, with much of that spent discussing the Carnegie Hall Electric Christmas concert which the band co-headlined in December, 1967, on the whim of an organizer who saw modern psychedelia as the logical sonic successor to certain medieval forms. Which, of course, it was.
Walker does, however, spare one thought for posterity, when he contemplates the irony of his situation. Growing up, he had devoted great swathes of his listening time to the Vanguard label, repository of some of the greatest folk music of the age. Now he was signed to that very label – and was playing psychedelic rock.
Circus Maximus formed as the Lost Sea Dreamers, in which form they were discovered by independent producer Dan Elliot. He introduced the group to Vanguard in mid-1967 and, with staff producer Sam Charters helping oversee the sessions, the Lost Sea Dreamers (LSD – geddit?) began work on their debut album.
The sessions were still underway when the group was offered a residency at a new club opening in St Mark’s Place, in New York, the only condition being that the band change its name to match the venue. Circus Maximus was born. It wasn’t a bad move, either – certainly the new name gave Vanguard’s copy-writers plenty to work with as they prepared for the band’s launch. “Under a visual big top of flowing, multi-colored light,” promises the sleeve to Circus Maximus’ eponymous debut album, “Circus Maximus is the biggest circus, the circus of the mind, theatered in a tent on imagination.”
The music was pretty far out as well, scratchy guitars and abrasive rhythms, a post-garage freak out which built around both Walker and lead guitarist Bob Bruno’s songwriting and vocals, with Bruno’s scintillating hard psych guitar work savage enough to merit its own channel on the headphones.
It was during the sessions for Circus Maximus that Walker composed the song for which he is today best remembered, “Mr Bojangles.” Of course it found no place on the group’s debut, nor on their second album the following year – rather, Neverland Revisited emerged a rather disappointing effort, slower and calmer than its predecessor, more prone to reflection and all but devoid of the manic guitars which scythed through the best of Circus Maximus.
The heavily harmonic “Negative Dreamer Girl” was a neat choice for a single, though, and the backward-tape freak-out-led “Neverland” suggested that the band hadn’t quite run out of ideas yet. They had, however, run out of steam. *Neverland Revisited* was barely issued when the band broke up, with Walker alone remaining at Vanguard for an acoustic solo album the following year (*Driftin’ Way Of Life*).
Undeterred by the desultory saga of Circus Maximus, Vanguard was gripped by psychedelic rock – and the more skewed and shaded the better. 1967 saw the arrival of David Meltzer, a San Francisco poet who formed the Serpent Power with his wife, Tina, in 1966. With the line-up also featuring former Grass Roots guitarist Denny Ellis and bassist David Stenson, the Serpent Power made their live debut on November 27, 1966, at a benefit concert for the Telegraph Group Neighborhood Center.
It was, from all accounts, a spectacular performance, with Ed Denton, manager of Country Joe & The Fish, sufficiently enthused to immediately contact Vanguard, suggesting they sign the band. The following year saw the release of The Serpent Power, and it is still apparent that Denton’s enthusiasm was not misplaced. Mature pop rides some delicious harmonies in a manner not altogether removed from a vision of the early Jefferson Airplane, if they’d continued down the route opened up by their own debut – they didn’t, so the Serpent Power made the journey for them.
The closing “Endless Tunnel,” in particular, is a revelation; Meltzer’s lyrics are, perhaps, a little overwrought, and 13 minutes of slowly building, darkly undulating, organ-led percussion can seem somewhat indebted to the Doors. But then JP Pickens’ electrified 5 string banjo takes over, and the performance goes somewhere else entirely. Unfortunately, the band broke up once they got there. The Serpent Power disbanded following the album’s release, leaving the Meltzers alone to cut a second Vanguard album in 1969, Poet Song.
1968 was a year of musical extremes. It brought Peter Walker’s aforementioned second album, which we repeat remains one of the finest American excursions into Indian territory you’re going to find; and it also delivered the one and only LP by Elizabeth, a Philadelphia band whose line-up once included future Nazz drummer Stewkie Antoni, and whose guitarist, Steve Weingart, is responsible for some of the most concisely uncontrolled guitar playing in the entire label catalog, a little under two minutes into “You Should Be More Careful.”
Received wisdom insists Elizabeth is a fairly average rock album and, once past one of the most eye-catching covers in the history of the Vanguard art department, that might be true. The problem is not, however, the music itself, but rather the band’s reliance on two songwriting guitarists, who might have meshed on an instrumental level, but had little in common in the compositional stakes. Thus, while Bob Patterson unleashes the multi-textured rockers, Steve Weingart draws upon more placid folk rockers and never the twain shall meet.
But 1968 also saw Vanguard turn its attentions north of its New York City base, to Boston, to pick up the perpetrators of two of the most disconcerting (but extraordinarily effective) Vanguard releases of them all.
An eponymous set by The Far Cry was essentially the blistered ruminations of a heavy psychedelic blues band, rising into a class of its own first via Jere Whiting’s vocals – a standard blues bellow with delusions of Arthur Brown operatic grandeur; then though the insertion of a free form tenor sax into even the raunchiest rocker. Five years later, The Far Cry could have given King Crimson a run for their money. Sadly, they’d long since disbanded by then.
Listening (pointedly christened without a definitive article), on the other hand, were a superbly melodic, but deceptively madcap outfit whose psych-pop masterpieces in no way disguised the band members’ past affection for the Beach Boys and the British Invasion. Indeed, Walter Powers, (credited on Listening with “bass and feelthy literature”) was a former member of just such a band, the Lost, who cut three singles for Capitol during 1966/67. As an aside, it was there that first Powers ignited his friendship with another Beantown superstar, Willie “Loco” Alexander – who guests on Listening’s mock-Latin freak out “Cuando,” and would later reunite with Powers in the early 80s band, the Confessions.
Maintaining its reputation as a traveling A&R department, the Country Joe MacDonald camp was also responsible for a couple of bands who appeared on Vanguard at the end of the 1960s, and proceeded to blow away all the label’s associations with gentle folk, wacked psychedelia, even King Crimson. Both the Frost and the Third Power hailed from Detroit, as all the era’s loudest bands seemed to; Country Joe encountered them on his latest tour, and realized instinctively that there was a sound bleeding out of Motor City that made San Francisco and London sound positively old-fashioned.
Over at Elektra, Jac Holzman had already drawn from this rich new vein (and done immeasurable harm to his own folky tag) by picking up the Stooges and the MC5; Maynard Solomon, chasing the same critically acclaimed golden ring, promptly booked himself and producer Sam Charters on a flight to Detroit, and began scouring the clubs.
The two groups they emerged with have not, by any means, attracted the same attention as Elektra’s dynamic duo, although both are responsible for alluring early 45s on local labels – the Frost’s “Bad Girl” appeared on Date, Third Power’s “Snow” on Baron. They also feed into other sainted corners of the hard rock lexicon – Third Power’s guitarist, Drew Abbott, went on to Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band; the Frost’s Dick Wagner became part of a studio team, alongside producer Bob Ezrin and fellow axeman Steve Hunter, whose achievements range from Lou Reed’s Rock’n'Roll Animal tour, to Peter Gabriel’s debut album, and a string of Alice Cooper albums as well.
Their own records, meanwhile, are in a class of their own. A thunderous, but otherwise unadventurous debut album, Believe, brought Third Power a modicum of attention (think Blue Cheer without the melodies), but little else, and they drifted away soon after. The Frost, however, were made of sterner stuff.
Having kicked off their Vanguard career with a second 45, “Mystery Man,” the band then uncaged Frost Music, a Panzer division of sound and energy which steamrollered to #168 on *Billboard*, virtually on the strength of local sales alone. Suitably emboldened, the band tapped further into their hometown strengths by recording side two of their Rock And Roll Music sophomore set live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Sales boomed – according to Sam Charters, “the Frost sold over 100,000 albums.” And while their chart profile barely flickered (the album peaked at #148), they did land a prestigious gig at the Fillmore West. Unfortunately, they were opening for BB King, whose audience of devout blues aficionados was less than impressed with the Frost’s barrage of mid-western mayhem. “It was,” Charters continued, “a long, discouraging weekend for everyone.” The band broke up soon after.
Equally spellbinding, but located on quite the opposite side of the sonic spectrum was the duo of Baldwin & Leps. A guitar and fiddle-fired unit, they appear to have spent much of their time busking on the streets, performing a Michael Baldwin composed repertoire of gritty ballads that escaped accusations of mundanity by virtue of Leps’ maniacal violin. It cuts through the vinyl (and, latterly, Comet’s CD reissue) like a knife through all the clutter of a well-behaved, and tastefully orchestrated folk rock band – four years later, Dylan would borrow the same fiddle-in-yer-face approach for elements of his Desire album (and accompanying tour); in 1971, however, Baldwin & Leps’ approach was, perhaps, just a little *too* unique for mainstream listening tastes.
A similar fate befell the Wildweeds. Best remembered today for supplying NRBQ with guitarist Al Anderson, and for 1967′s massively minor (#88) hit “No Good To Cry” (on the Cadet label), the Wildweeds were also one of the most inventive bands trawling the clubs of the north-east, with a well-adjusted ear for the sounds of the south-west. Had they hailed from California; had their cheeky absorption of Beethoven into beat (Someday Morning”) received any kind of airplay at all; and had pigs grown wings and flapped them vehemently, the Wildweeds might easily have attained at least the same heights as the Charlatans, or the early Steve Miller Band. Instead, they’re an obscure little footnote in the NRBQ story (Anderson didn’t join until the Wildweeds split, in 1971), and a one hit wonder of the most minute caliber, cult heroes in every sense of the phrase.
Ah, but it’s a hearty, healthy cult, all the more so since the Wildweeds’ demise did not end the members’ associations. The rhythm section of Bob Dudek and Al Lepak remained alongside Anderson for several further recordings, including “Come On If You’re Coming,” a great little number now available as a bonus track on Anderson’s self-titled 1972 solo album, itself recorded with Lepak still in attendance.
And with Al Anderson holding open the door to all the bright new tomorrows of the 1970s, and the Bob Frank album offering us an immediately-available entry into the attendant pleasures, we take our leave (for now) of the Vanguard vault. But before we go, let’s take down the sign that says “America’s greatest folk label.” Because it really is so much more than that.