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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of...


THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS: THE PSYCHEDELIC SOUNDS OF THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS (1966)

1) You're Gonna Miss Me; 2) Roller Coaster; 3) Splash 1 (Now I'm Home); 4) Reverberation; 5) Don't Fall Down; 6) Fire Engine; 7) Thru The Rhythm; 8) You Don't Know; 9) Kingdom Of Heaven; 10) Monkey Island; 11) Tried To Hide.

Pseudo-cool people like to hunt for insanity on record, as if there weren't already enough insanity in life. So all the pseudo-cool people should be tremendously pseudo-happy at the news that here, certified and approved, is one of the first completely insane records ever made. Obscure, for a long time well-studied only by rock connoisseurs, for a long time only available on CD in a truly horrendous, glutinous mix where you couldn't decide where exactly it was that the electric guitar ended and the electric jug started, today it finally emerges as one of the top revolutionary albums of 1966 — no mean feat for a year like that.

When Roky Erickson and his pals went into the studio, "psychedelia" as an established style or attitude didn't yet exist. Of course, people were already getting influenced by LSD and Indian music and esoteric teachings and nose rubbings, but all of this was rather spontaneous and lacked structure and pretense. The 13th Floor Elevators, despite spending most of their time in mush­room-like state, simply exuded pretense, however. They knew what they were doing, all right. Just listen to this (quoted directly from the original liner notes): "Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view... he can then restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely...". Now think about this. Think hard. You're only sane when you have chemically altered your mental state. Before that — you're insane. God I miss the Sixties.

There is no true way of knowing if the actual songs had been written or recorded while the band members were "chemically altering their mental states". Probably not — it remains to be proven that good music can emerge out of a stoned rather than simply stone-oriented mind. What is undeniable is that this music is... kind of kinky (and not in a Davies brothers way, either). A couple of ringing guitars combine elements of folk, blues, and boogie; a crazyass "electric jug" reserved for a separate band member (Tommy Hall), buzzing around every single melody like an obstinate bumble-bee that just won't go away; and, fresh from the paleolithic caverns, a wild young lead vocalist — Roky Erickson in person — whose style ranges from incomprehensible babbling to wild tribeman screaming, so high-pitched and piercing that the conquistadors wouldn't have stood a chance with it. Nothing grows on bare soil, and you can easily see the Stones' and, especially, the Byrds' influence on these guys, but in no way are they consciously trying to sound like either. They're just the sons of their times, but at the same time they try to be fathers of the times to come.

The big original highlight is the single, 'You're Gonna Miss Me', compatible enough with the band's garage roots to have been included on the Nuggets compilation, but maybe not truly repre­sentative of their quintessential style. It's a little simpler musically than the rest of it, a little faster, a little more accessible, but also proverbially wild, with Roky's buildup towards the "wild cat in heat"-style chorus as the main attraction. It's also a complete fuckin' classic.

But nothing else on the record rocks with the same power, and the overall emphasis is certainly on "mind altering" rather than "head banging". One mysterious, occasionally creepy dirge follows another, as Roky tries to firmly keep one foot within the 'marketable pop rock' department and the other one in the land of spiritual enlightenment — the former meaning you can at least hope for catchy choruses, the latter signifying a happy mariage between propaganda of acid and the wonders of the electric jug. (Speaking of the electric jug, it gets annoying much faster than propaganda of acid, because acid can at least be propagated in a number of curious ways, whereas the only thing the electric jug can do is constantly get on your nerves by producing a silly bubbling noise. Can you even tune an electric jug? Do you have to boil water in it for that purpose?)

Nevertheless, this mixture of crummy novelty with memorable pop choruses works admirably once you get used to it. 'Splash 1 (Now I'm Home)' is a pretty Byrds-like ballad (let's all write letters to Roger McGuinn begging to produce a cover version); its chorus of 'and now I'm ho-o-o-o-o-me to stay' ranks along with the tenderest refrains the Byrds themselves ever created. In sharp contrast, the immediately following 'Reverberation' is sharp, echoey, and mean; its buildup evokes visions of an acid-fuelled apocalypse that sounds as grand and breathtaking on record as it would have been catastrophic had Roky Erickson managed to draw the rest of the world into his own shattered reality. But it's the music that counts — the song's nasty blues riff is far more impressive than its deranged lyrics.

The record does not offer much in the way of stylistic diversity, mainly because all the different influences are synthesized into the same admirable, if monotonous type of sound, and sometimes, once you're almost ready to tell one song from another, the crucial moment is spoiled by the electric jug that, in the end, covers all, just like sodium glutamate. Hence, the heart against brain resolution states that this is a tremendously important (in historical terms) record with some great melodies to boot, yet it would probably help if one sat through it with a good helping of chemical substances. Me being a strict no-sayer, the brain wins with a thumbs up, although the heart does occasionally remind (especially when 'Reverberation' is on) that it is quite possible to dig in to this music with an unaltered mind — even if I'm sure Roky himself would disagree.


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3 comments:

  1. I really enjoy this album, especially the first four tracks. My friends have a hard time believing I don't partake of any controlled substances. But maybe that's just because I like to screech "Old Queen Cole!" at random intervals.

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  2. That infernal "electric jug" gets old real fast. If they'd employed it as an occasional gimmick it might have been bearable. As it is it ruins an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable album.

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  3. The electric jug--though absurd--is THE seminal instrument of the sixties in that it conjures the seldom explored, totally mundane and niggling aspects of the "bad trip." The bad trip is too often rendered musically in grandiose terms, even operatic terms (S.F. Sorrow, Tommy). The truth of the matter is that acid was often more annoying than enlightening, or horrific. The hubble-bubble-bubble of that goddam jug represents millions of wasted hours people spent listening to the nattering chatter of their own irritated neurons. The 13th Floor Elevators captured, albeit unintentionally, the chemically induced autism of the overly glorified/horrified psychedelic sixties.

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