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The Joy of Hindsight, Part Two

These two blogs were occasioned by my recent purchase of the sole album by The United States of America, an eponymous release produced in 1967 by Cage alumnus Joseph Byrd. It’s an interesting period piece, but slipped between too many stylistic stools to really establish itself in most people’s minds and affections, hence rapidly finding its way towards the back of most record piles that it joined. ‘Experimental’ works by rock/pop bands were many and various at the time, and for every Faust or Captain Beefheart classic, there seemed to be a United States of America. Another short-lived, but ultimately historically significant group were The Silver Apples, an oft-cited influence on Suicide and on electronic duos in general,  whose two albums (1968 and 1969) intrigued listeners at the time, but who proved to be a little bit too ‘ahead of their time’ to be kept in print - their spawn is now evident for all to see, and a list of those who could be said to constitute the Apples’s extended family would be both many and varied.

Another’ one-off’ to be found bringing up the rear of our notional adventurous 70s listener’s record collection was An Electric Storm by White Noise (1969). This record would be at the front of many claimant’s queue for the most important early electronic pop/rock progenitor (up there with The Silver Apples?). Whereas the Apples were very much a populist project who encouraged dancing and general ‘grooviness’, White Noise were serious musos and composers - the much-retrospectively-worshipped Delia Derbyshire ( of the BBC Electronic Workshop fame) and free improv giant, percussionist Paul Lytton (his first recording?) were contributors to this hardcore electronic work of 1969, which proved a bit of a curate’s egg for the pre-Kraftwerk generation. It has only been recently that this recording has become recognised as a significant influence on the man/machine narrative in popular music. Perhaps next to An Electric Storm in our Platonic record collection, one might find a copy of another electronic composers’ stab at the rock market - Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air - which unfortunately seemed to exhibit the law of diminishing returns for the average ‘head’ of the time: it sounded like one of the most approachably adventurous composition ever on first hearing, but became rapidly rather less exciting after about the third time, a bit like a more rarified Tubular Bells. It too soon headed to the back of the queue.

By the early/mid-70s, most self-respecting ‘underground music’ fan would have at least one or two albums by Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. Trout Mask Replica and 200 Motels were obvious contenders for thanks-but-no-thanks awards for the would-be radical listener, as their straggling positions in most piles generally indicated, but the future ‘essentail-ness’ of White Light, White Heat would no doubt have come as a surprise to many - few at the time were brave enough to give Side Two more than one of two go’s, before consigning ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and ‘Sister Ray’ to the also-ran section, whatever they might  now say with the benefit of rock hagiographic hindsight. 

This is an endlessly fascinating game for the vinyl obsessive of a certain age, seeing how critical consensus changes - off the top of my head as another example, the way way Neil Young’s On the Beach has found its way into acceptance, despite being somewhat of a pariah at time of original release. Of course, opinions can and are allowed to change in the light of experience, context and exposure, but it is a reminder, for me, of just how influential record reviews and peer group pressure were in those far-off days (less so now?) and how the rock canon has gradually mutated into the seemingly Mount Rushmore-like entity it has become today. Things seem to have become fixed, as they have in the classical and jazz narratives. Forty-odd years ago, things were far less clear-cut, as the music was still in a state of becoming, or at least it seemed to be.

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