One of the most pleasant surprises of music collecting in the MP3 era is witnessing the enduring interest in rock 'n' roll from the 1960s, especially the psychedelic and folk rock sub-genres. When I first got into this kind of stuff during the late 1980s, it was a pretty solitary obsession. Sure, there was the advent of "classic rock" radio and - thanks to the "Touch of Grey" video that was being played ad nauseum on MTV - newfound popularity for the Grateful Dead, but even then I was more interested in the groups that had fallen through the cracks, ones that had never had any hits back in the day and/or had not appeared at Woodstock. As a teenager, I found it difficult to find any kindred spirits who shared my enthusiasm for musicians of this variety. At the time, Goldmine magazine was one of the few sources of information about 1960s groups from off the beaten path. Seems quaint, doesn't it? During the golden age of compact discs in the 1990s, there was a flood of reissues (and in some cases, first-time releases) of this type of music, mostly by independent British and European labels. I shudder to think how much money I spent on such imports back when I was eking out a bare-bone student existence, but at least I had an interesting soundtrack for my life. By the beginning of the current millennium, it seemed as though almost everything that was on my wish list (and too cost-prohibitive to acquire on original vinyl) had become available on CD in one form or another, and it's good to see these items being reviewed on music blogs by the next generation of 1960s rock enthusiasts. One item that hasn't made the rounds too frequently, however, is this particular title that came out eight years ago and toward the tail end of the aforementioned first-wave campaign of digital reissues. To my reckoning, it remains one the last artifacts of 1960s rock that has lived up to the hype.
The item in question is this mostly fantastic collection of nearly every recording by psychedelic folk rock group the Spike-Drivers. You can have the MC5 and the Stooges; this the best white band that came out of Detroit during the 1960s, at least if you're partial to the kind of music that I like. If it seems like a recurring theme on this blog, the Spike-Drivers were yet another aggregation from that decade that should have been huge, but whose stab at success was thwarted by bad management and internal feuds. Lead guitarist Sid Brown's booklet notes provide an interesting albeit subjective history of the band in which he details their trials and tribulations. Like their contemporaries the Lovin' Spoonful, the members of the group got their start in the folk music scene in the early 1960s and were inspired to name their outfit in honor of rediscovered bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, whose "Spike Driver Blues" was an interpretation of the "John Henry" ballad. However, as the notes point out, the musicians were not just influenced by American roots music, but by ethnic, R&B, gospel, and jazz sounds as well. (I'm constantly reminded by my friends from Michigan about the amazing cultural diversity that Detroit once boasted before its tragic decline.) The band's first incarnation included Brown, lead singer-guitarist-bassist Richard Keelan, guitarist-vocalist Ted Lucas, vocalist Marycarol Brown (Sid's wife, ex-wife, or sister?), and drummer Steve Booker. After recording a two-song demo in 1965, Larry Cruse took over as percussionist. The Spike-Drivers' fortunes seemingly improved after getting noticed by people in the music industry and inking a management contract not long thereafter. However, Sid Brown cites the controlling nature and prejudices of Lucas, who had connived his way into becoming the band's decision-maker, as the primary factors in blowing what would have been an ideal recording contract with Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, watering down the integrity of their music, and focusing too much on success in New York City during a time when San Francisco (the lead guitarist's preference) would have offered a far more nurturing environment. Although the group did have its only two singles released during this period, things ended in acrimony when Lucas, Keelan, and manager Leonard Stogel attempted a coup. Luckily for Sid, Marycarol, and Larry, the Spike-Drivers were one of the few bands who had signed a management contract that was favorable to the musicians. As a result, these three were able to dissolve the group and retain ownership of the name, while Ted and Richard rechristened themselves as the Misty Wizards and released one notable single, "It's Love" b/w "Blue Law Sunday." A new version of the Spike-Drivers was formed and included singer-lyricist-rhythm guitarist Marshall Rubinoff and bassist Ron Cobb. Despite the improvement in quality of the music as well as a lack of drama and back-stabbing, Mark III failed to find commercial success, which contributed to its eventual demise and the musicians going their separate ways.
THE SPIKE-DRIVERS MARK II (L TO R): TED LUCAS, SID BROWN,
MARYCAROL BROWN, LARRY CRUSE, & RICHARD KEELAN
MARYCAROL BROWN, LARRY CRUSE, & RICHARD KEELAN
One of the things that I find most appealing about the Spike-Drivers is the fact that they existed during a very transitional time during the 1960s when the youth culture still had one foot in the old "black-and-white" America (as exemplified by the folk revival) and the other in the "Technicolor" USA of mass production and multi-media with which most of us are more familiar. As I age, I'm finding that the music I like most from this pivotal decade tends to be from the middle to late-middle years. As Peter Fonda's character (Terry Valentine) said in the movie The Limey,
"Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language, you knew your way around. THAT was the Sixties. (Pause) No, it wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all it was."Although the Spike-Drivers soldiered on into 1968, to me they represent the real Sixties better than most other bands from that decade, not only in sound, but in image as well, especially Mark II. I mean, look at the publicity photos from that point in the group's history. The guys are wearing matching uniforms, as was the custom for many rock 'n' rollers from the late 1950s and early 1960s. True, they're all sporting waistcoats and ties, but take note of the paisley patterns, boots, and Beatles Rubber Soul-era haircuts - all nods to the emerging new fashion sense. Marycarol Brown models a similarly colorful sundress, and yet her tan nylons and flats prevent her from being a full-fledged hippie chick, at least in terms of clothing style. For a brief moment, old and new America - both musically and appearance-wise - existed side-by-side.
The performances on this CD are sequenced in not-quite chronological order, with the band's demo recordings from 1965, "Can't Stand the Pain" and "I'm So Glad," appearing as the last two tracks. They're very much in the straight-ahead folk rock bag and display none of the progressive influences that would appear on later material. That's not to suggest that anything is wrong with these songs; they sound like something the Bluethings might have done if there had been a female vocalist in the band. Tracks 1 through 7 represent the group's second lineup and were all presumably recorded in 1966 and possibly 1967. Sid Brown is a little too harsh in his assessment of these tunes, even if they do date from the time during which Ted Lucas attempted to hijack control of the group. The mind-blowing raga-folk rock of "Often I Wonder" and the suggestive and catchy "High Time" were recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, with a truncated rerecording of the latter (not featured here) appearing as the B-side of the Spike-Drivers' first 45 for Reprise Records. The superb "Strange, Mysterious Sounds" continues the psychedelic explorations and features what sounds like a bouzouki or other similar Greek or Middle Eastern instrument in addition to Marycarol's otherworldly backing vocals. A more concise rendition (again, not included on this CD) was the plug-side of their second Reprise single, which also included the uncompiled (and deservedly so, according to Sid Brown) "Break Out the Wine." "Baby, Let Me Tell You" (aka "Baby Won't You Let Me Tell You How I Lost My Mind"), a bad trip parable, tries just a little too hard to be consciousness-expanding, although it does contain some nice fretwork from Sid. (In similar fashion to "High Time" and "Strange, Mysterious Sounds," the A-side to their initial single for Reprise was a different, shorter take on this song and not among the tracks comprising this release.) "Blue Law Sunday" never really gets off the ground, even if does have some fairly impressive guitar noodling during the instrumental break. Lucas and Keelan later revived this song as the B-side to their lone single as the Misty Wizards. "Baby, Can I Wear Your Clothes" starts off as a slightly out-of-tune-sounding good-timey number that is redeemed by more imaginative soloing by lead guitarist Brown. "Got the Goods On You" is more of the same, minus the guitar licks. The remaining songs were recorded by the final version of the Spike-Drivers in 1968 (possibly 1967 as well) and display the greatest amount of consistency in their oeuvre. On the interpretation of Derroll Adams' stirring anti-war piece "Portland Town," Marycarol's lovely singing compares favorably with contemporary British folk and folk rock counterparts such as Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee. The haunting strings and Sid's snarling guitar during the instrumental break are the icing on the cake. The schizophrenic "Grocery Store" provides social commentary while veering wildly back and forth between somewhat goofy male-female vocal harmonies and tough almost-garage-band sounds. The song then segues into "Everybody's Got That Feeling," which begins on a dreamy note before the instrumentalist go off on some wild tangents. "I Know" also possesses a strange ethereal quality and reminds me of some of the mellower material by Boston psychedelic folk rockers the Ill Wind. "Time Will Never Die" is the Spike-Drivers at their most "Haight-Ashbury," and the song covers an incredible amount of musical territory in little more than three minutes. If I had to choose only one song to represent this group, it would probably be the appealingly off-kilter "Sometimes," which is just long enough to showcase all of their diverse talents. Mind-expanding? To say the least. Finally, I should add that if these three particular tracks don't convince you that Sid Brown rightfully deserves a place in the pantheon of 1960s guitar gods, I don't know what will.
THE SPIKE-DRIVERS MARK III (L TO R): LARRY CRUSE, RON COBB,
MARSHALL RUBINOFF, SID BROWN, & MARYCAROL BROWN
MARSHALL RUBINOFF, SID BROWN, & MARYCAROL BROWN
1. Often I Wonder
2. Strange, Mysterious Sounds
3. Baby, Let Me Tell You
4. Blue Law Sunday
5. Baby, Can I Wear Your Clothes?
6. Got the Goods on You
7. High Time
8. Portland Town
9. Grocery Store
10. Everybody's Got That Feeling
11. I Know
12. Time Will Never Die
14. Can't Stand the Pain
15. I'm So Glad