Underrated 60s albums
The decade when music came alive, according to many. The 1950s may have started things off, with those early rock 'n' rollers preparing the ground for the sort of music that parents would soon learn to hate. But things moved forward at electric speed throughout the 1960s, and what started off as simple beat pop at the beginning of the decade led very quickly to the wild experimentation at its end.
Countless words, of course, have already been written about the usual artists - The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, etc. So, instead, we're going to attempt to do two things. First, take another look at some of the records that, to varying degrees, have flown under the radar but are now seen as being hugely influential. Second, bring to your attention some forgotten gems that we think should be in everyone’s record collection, and that deserve much more recognition than they ever received.
The United States of America - The United States of America
The United States of America were, amongst other things, pretty much the band who invented Broadcast. ‘The American Metaphysical Circus’ - the opening track on their one and only album - is a blueprint for everything Trish Keenan and co. went on to do. They were a unique proposition. Led by experimental composer Donald Byrd alongside singer and lyricist Dorothy Moskowitz, they aimed to marry electronic music with a form of left wing political radicalism. Tensions within the band led to a split just after the album was released, but its influence has grown substantially over the years. Its blend of modern electronics and psychedelic rock is at times jarring and unpredictable, but the various musical movements and styles within the record have found their way into much modern music.
The 13th Floor Elevators - Easter Everywhere
The unique, erm, selling point of The 13th Floor Elevators' debut The Psychedelic Sounds of… was the electric jug playing of founder Tommy Hall. But follow up Easter Everywhere showed that the band weren’t just a psychedelic novelty act. The album is a superb ride through an intense and melodic form of psychedelic rock, and listening through its ten tracks you hear blueprints for the music of such bands as Hawkwind, Can, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spacemen 3. Theirs is a wild and trippy sound, but one that is matched by the superb songwriting of Roky Erikson - especially on startling ballad ‘Dust’ which sounds like an early folky Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices song.
They didn’t last long, and had basically imploded by the time of 1969s Bull of the Woods. Maverick lead singer Roky Eriksen suffered years of mental health and legal problems, but the band staged a quite improbable live reunion in 2015 in their home state of Texas at the Austin Pysch Fest - subsequently renamed as Levitation in their honour.
Silver Apples - Silver Apples
What on earth must Silver Apples have sounded like to listeners in 1968? To 2019 ears they still sound unique and astonishingly ahead of their time. The band was based around the 1940s-built oscillator of leader Simeon Coxe, and the squeaks, bleeps and belches he managed to wrestle out of this lumbering piece of kit made for a quite alarming ‘electronic rock’ sound - especially when added to the brilliant polyrhythmic drumming of Danny Taylor. They pretty much invented the repetitive ‘kraut’ music later made by the likes of Can, Neu and also foregrounded the minimal electronic music that the likes of Suicide would make later in the 1970s.
They made just two albums in their lifetime, both of which are stunning examples of futurist pop - a template for much that came after. Modern day bands such as BEAK>, Stereolab, The Horrors and Wooden Shjips are still finding new ways to present this sound, but nothing can top the sheer invention and pulsating excitement of the original innovators. Simeon still performs as Silver Apples to this day and is now deservedly seen as an electronic music legend.
The Shaggs - Philosophy of The World
The Shaggs consisted of sisters Dorothy Wiggin, Betty Wiggin, Helen Wiggin and Rachel Wiggin and are best known as an early example of what became known as ‘outsider music’.
The band formed at the insistence of their disciplinarian father Austin Wiggin who, attempting to make a clairvoyant prediction of his own mother come true, directed and haphazardly promoted their music. Their debut (and only) album - Philosophy of The World - is truly alarming. Both charming and disturbing, the girls' inept playing battles with off-kilter melodies to produce a ramshackle mess that was, rather generously, compared to the free jazz compositions of Ornette Coleman by NRBQ's Terry Adams.
Mother Wiggin's prophecy of superstardom appeared doomed, but one way or another The Shaggs had found fans in the avant-garde. NRBQ weren't the only ones to warm to their obscure charms, and the championing of Frank Zappa - who memorably heralded them as "better than The Beatles" - helped to promote a rediscovery and reassessment.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Philosophy of The World was named as one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums. "Contenders for the best-worst rock band of all time," as The Irish Times put it, they pre-dated by years the sort ot outsider/anti-music later made by the likes of Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson.
Mingus - The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
Charles Mingus is one of the most radical figures in American music who transcended jazz by creating thought-provoking works that defied traditional structure and convention. The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady was released in 1965 on legendary imprint Impulse! and is considered by many to be his most important and groundbreaking work. It comprises of a continuous six part suite played by a three way dialogue of trumpets, trombone and tuba alongside a crack rhythm section.
The album shifts dramatically in mood and tempo throughout, lurching from gentle Spanish influenced modular pieces to a bluesy shuffles to full on cacophony that brings to mind Ornette Coleman. As legendary journalist Lester Bangs puts it, "the experience of the first few listenings to a record so total, so mind-twisting...you'll never be quite the same again”. Like Miles Davis’ ‘On The Corner’, this is an evergreen album that feels endlessly vibrant and alive, bristling with life and energy - it sounds like the very sonification of “cool” and indeed is as cool as the image of the man himself stoking his pipe on the front of the sleeve.
Mingus composed the pieces in 1963 for an eleven-piece band - hearing them play his compositions, traversing light and dark, smooth to frenetic, it's clear why he once referred to them as ""ethnic folk-dance music". No vinyl collection should be without a copy, even if you are not a jazz head.
Townes Van Zandt - Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt’s third studio album was the first in which the talented songwriter took control of his career, following earlier albums which he thought were too lushly produced to best showcase his talents.
The fact that this album contains four songs originally on his debut LP (the excellent For The Sake Of The Song) shows Van Zandt’s frustration at how earlier material was treated, but here - free of clutter - both his guitar work and his words shine through. Songs such as 'Waiting 'Round To Die' (which Van Zandt claimed was the first song he ever wrote) become even more raw and affecting, whilst the Dylanesque wordplay of 'Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel' showcases the sense of brittle, poignant disappointment that was his hallmark. This record is half a century old and has lost not of its potency. If anything it seems to become increasingly poignant with age. The ten tracks are profoundly affecting - each a mini masterpiece in its own right. These are tales of love, loss, pain, loneliness and addiction - a remarkable window into the soul of a candid and gifted songwriter. A whiskey drinkin’ tear jerker classic, and a remarkable document of the human condition.
Ruth White - Flowers of Evil
Her 1969 masterpiece Flowers of Evil was originally published on the Limelight label and was long out of print until a series of vinyl re-issues from 2013 onwards when it was put back out by French label Black Mass Rising. Otherworldly synths, strange electronic backdrops, drones and tape collage combine to create an eternal classic, and something of an occult masterpiece. Truly groundbreaking and innovative, and a vital listen for anyone interested in the early development of electronic music. White’s chilling soundscapes remain haunting to this day and are perfect backdrops for the spoken word - her reading of Charles Baudelaire's timeless ‘Fleurs du mal’ (Flowers of Evil). Her spectral voice sounds like a transmission from another dimension - authentic contact from beyond the veil as though the listener were present at a seance. Dark music to play in the dark.
Morton Subotnik - Silver Apples of the Moon
American electronic music composer Morton Subotnick unleashed his pioneering masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon in 1967. It was so radical at the time that many people dismissed it as just noise. But, like so many pioneering records, it gained a small but significant audience at the time and has grown in stature in the years since.
It introduced the sort of sounds that had never been heard in music previously and proved that music didn’t have to adhere to traditional scales and notes. The titular composition is split into two side-long pieces which showcased early synth models that Subotnik helped to invent but crucially broke with the earlier directions of electronic music by including sections with rhythms based on pulses and beats. This has earned the record the title of first electronic dance music album as well as being the first electronic music album to be released on vinyl.
Terry Riley - In C
Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. Terry Riley knew the art of doing slightly different things over and over again and with In C is the American composer made his masterwork and an album which is often cited as the first minimalist composition to reach public consciousness.
As the title implies it is played in the key of C, and it comprises 53 separate musical pieces of no duration which are played by musicians on any instrument whatsoever. The result is a hypnotic and deeply rewarding work that even after a few minutes in your ears seems to envelop the listener with its interlocking melodies. Riley’s original work utilises a wide range of instruments (piano, vibes, glockenspiel, cello, clarinet, mandolin, soprano saxophone, electric guitar, marimba, chimes, and bass) and lasts 45 minutes, though Riley has stated that the composition is of no discernable length. Various musicians have interpreted the work over the years including Steve Reich, Pauline OIiveros, Acid Mothers Temple and Adrian Utley and it went on to influence numerous composers most notably Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Syd Barrett - The Madcap Laughs
Syd Barrett’s early work as part of Pink Floyd is deservedly heralded but it’s incredible how few people are aware of his two solo albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. The former is the key release, containing the remainder of Barrett’s particular genius before his brain went to mush. Its inception was difficult, as producer and former Pink Floyd bandmate Dave Gilmour attempted to find musicians capable of playing along with Barrett’s wavering time signatures. Robert Wyatt does his best on drums, and the more realised tracks like ‘Octopus’ and ‘Late Night’ are magical slices of pop brilliance.
At other times, though, it is harrowing (‘Dark Globe’) whimsical (‘Love You’) or sounds like a man literally on the brink of falling apart (‘Feel’). A quite unique recording, and even though follow up Barrett had its moments this was the real last flowering of Barrett’s muse.
The Zombies - Odyssey & Oracle
It’s a gorgeous, flowering beauty from beginning to end. From the supremely melodic opener ‘Care of Cell 44’ (a love song to a prisoner) to the closing ‘Time of the Season’ (which became the band’s biggest hit) you get beautifully harmonic English psychedelia, Colin Blunstone’s haunting and breathy voice gliding on top of carefully constructed, folk-influenced orchestral pop.
Yet the band had split before its release, and so the album fell into semi-obscurity. The undeniable quality of the music was such, however, that word of mouth interest built over the years as younger listeners discovered an album that could be compared favorably with the best of its era. It's now rightly regarded as a stone-cold classic, and whilst The Zombies reformed several times over the years their later efforts all pale in comparison to this stunning achievement.
Captain Beefheart - Lick My Decals Off Baby
The follow-up to the groundbreaking, notorious ‘Trout Mask…’ was a similarly experimental work and it was launched with a bizarre television commercial featuring the good Captain kicking over a bowl of porridge. Pretty standard behaviour for Beefheart, of course, and the music within is just as complex and sea-sick as Trout Mask Replica, albeit with darker lyrical themes at play as environmental concerns replacing the previous surreal wordplay.
The structures are as out-there as ever too. Maybe not quite as lop-sided as Trout Mask Replica, but the percussion here is stunning as Art Tripp (known here as Ed Marimba) joins Drumbo (John French) in creating a cacophony of rhythms that underpins the topsy-turvy sound and barked-out, blues-derived narratives.
Skip Spence - Oar
The former Moby Grape frontman is, I suppose, the American equivalent of Syd Barrett. Once a shining star in a successful band, he slowly withdrew from public life due to drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness - but not before leaving behind one solo LP noted as "one of the most harrowing documents of pain and confusion ever made".
Spence allegedly travelled to the studio on a motorbike dressed only in his pyjamas. He emerged with an album that at one stage was the worst selling album Columbia had ever released. It’s a strange and hypnotic cross between Barrett’s fractured brilliance, the crumbling splendour of Big Star’s Sister Lovers and a kind of stoned Johnny Cash. Tracks like ‘Diana’ are bleakly harrowing with barely discernible lyrics (“Diana I am in pain” is one of the few phrases to jump out of the murk). This is music always at the brink of mental collapse, but beautiful. Health problems prevented Spence from making any more music in his lifetime but Oar is quite the legacy to leave behind.
Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle
Van Dyke Parks first came to prominence as lyricist/collaborator on The Beach Boys' legendary Smile album. Though his lyrics got him kicked off the project by the band’s more conservative elements, Parks bounced back quickly with the stunning Song Cycle.
Taking some of Smile’s eclectic moods to their ultimate extreme, Parks married ragtime, classical showtunes and psychedelia to extraordinary effect. The album is a kaleidoscopic, dream-like sequence which seems to put the entire history of American music through an LSD filter.
It didn’t go down well though. “When I played the album for Joe Smith, the president of Warner Brothers, there was a stunned silence” said Parks. The album’s impenetrable moods and all out goofiness failed to endear it to serious 1960s listeners but it later found its audience with like-minded musicians such as Grizzly Bear, Jim O’Rourke and Joanna Newsom. The latter employed Parks as her arranger on her highly rated ‘Y’s’ album, and he went on to make further albums with his unique worldview concentrated into each. But Song Cycle is his masterclass.
Gene Clark - With the Gosdin Brothers
Was Gene Clark the best Byrd? He’s certainly the most underrated. The writer of hits such as ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’ quit the band when his (rather ironic) fear of flying put paid to him being a bona fide pop star.
Instead, he went back into the studio and crafted a slew of stunning albums which never got him the acclaim nor the success he deserved. With The Godsin Brothers was his debut solo album. The bizarre co-billing was due to the appearance of the country duo on backing vocals, but this was Clark’s baby. The album is a prototype of Clark’s emotional acoustic songwriting and contains a clutch of lovely songs. However, and utterly true to form, the album was released close to The Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday and therefore sank with barely a trace.
There was plenty more to come from Clark, including his 1970s acid rock opus No Other. But he still doesn’t seem to have been properly discovered and it’s hard to fathom why.
Jake Thackray - Jake’s Progress
You might think Jake Thackray an unusual character to have in a piece like this, if you've even heard of him at all. He appealed to parents and grandparents more than he did to the cool flower power youth of the 1960s, appearing on English TV staples of the time like That’s Life to sing witty songs about the affairs of the day. He was, I suppose, kind of like an English George Brassens, or a less political Phil Ochs.
But his fingerpicked guitar playing is as beautiful as anything Nick Drake could muster and, particularly on Jake’s Progress, his songwriting is absolutely exquisite. ‘Country Girl’, ‘Sophie’ and ‘Salvation Army Girl’ are all artfully constructed slices of English country melancholy. His baritone voice is a treat too, and his lyrics are full of beautiful vignettes that would go on to influence the likes of Morrissey and Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner.
Del Shannon - Home and Away
In the early 60s, Del Shannon was on the verge of becoming one of the commercial giants of American music, with a string of hits including the huge 'Runaway' which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
It wasn't quite to be, however, and by 1967 he decided to record something a little more baroque with Home and Away. The result was shelved halfway through by a panicked record company, and only saw a complete release in 2006. But the lack of enthusiasm for the project is baffling, as Home and Away is truly one of pop's lost classics. Produced by Andrew Loog Oldham (who saw it as an answer to Pet Sounds) tracks like ‘Cut and Come Again’ and 'It's My Feeling' are beautifully orchestrated, yearning things with the same kind of inner sadness as Brian Wilson’s legendary opus.
Tim Hardin - Tim Hardin 1
You may not know of Tim Hardin but you will know his songs. His debut album alone contains three of his most famous: 'Reason to Believe' became a hit for Rod Stewart, 'Misty Roses' has been covered by everyone from Cilla Black to The Zombies and 'Hang on to a Dream' was treated by both Fleetwood Mac and The Lemonheads. 1960s legend Bobby Darin, meanwhile, covered no less than six Tim Hardin songs on his 1966 album If I Were A Carpenter a bold decision for a mainstream artist and one which took Hardin to a new and mainstream audience.
Though great songs were scattered across his subsequent albums, Tim Hardin 1 contains the truest essence of his abilities to construct heartfelt and melancholic songs that had a gorgeous hazy quality to them. A troubled individual, the quality of Hardin's work slumped dramatically until his eventual death in 1980. But he was one of America’s finest songwriters of the 1960s and Hardin 1 finds him at his melancholy best.
Moondog - Moondog
Moondog (real name Louis Hardin) was a blind street musician who haunted the avenues of New York from 1940 to the early 1970s. He wore a cloak and a helmet and settled in a position on 6th Avenue reading poetry and playing music.
His recording career was a total separate entity to his street performances and he had already made four albums before what arguably became known as his most important album Moondog (1969). The album came about when producer James Guercio (The Beach Boys, Chicago) invited Moondog to submit an album for Columbia. The resulting work contained a series of musical pieces he had been working on since the 1950s, and employed a range of musicians in order to realize his symphonic vision. His compositions here are both richly complex and melodic, putting paid to any idea the musician as just an eccentric novelty.
Ed Askew - Ask The Unicorn
Ask The Unicorn is the debut album from American musician and artist Ed Askew and remains one of the most gripping records of the 1960s. Originally it was issues as a self-titled LP and later reissued in the ‘90s with its new and enduring title.
It has been described as an ‘acid folk masterpiece’, and is certainly one of the most essential releases on the ESP Disk label. A wild ride of acoustic avant folk, it was recorded live to tape using only a Matin tiple - a 10-string, ultra-resonant acoustic instrument that provided a shimmering and melodic backdrop to Askew’s keening and rough-hewn voice.
It’s a stark and challenging difference from most of the folk albums of the era. Simplicity itself, the two track production (tiple in one ear, Askew’s voice in the other) would be wearing if it were not for the innovative chord structures and Askew’s poetic delivery. His words are incredibly evocative throughout the record's ten tracks. His lyrics, bordering on genius at times, come alive inside the mind - traversing themes of death, transcendence and the afterlife. While many of his contemporaries built psychedelic dream worlds with denser forms of electrified music, Askew was able to conjure his vision with minimal tools, an endlessly inspiring imagination and probably some LSD. It’s clear to hear why ESP Disk boss Bernard Stollman chose to release his music on his label alongside other visionary artists like Robbie Basho, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman.
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