“Brown Acid: The First Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records EZRDR-049)
“Brown Acid: The Second Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records EZRDR-65)
“Brown Acid: The Third Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records EZDR-072)
“Angel Dust Psychedelia” LP (Frisco Speedball IAC 2013)
Hard rock is back. In the past few years, more than fifteen new compilation LPs of obscure and forgotten hard rock/psych/proto-punk/metal/etc have been released. Their monikers include “Bonehead Crunchers,” “Ultimate Bonehead,” “Michigan Meltdown,” and “Brown Acid.” I’m focusing on the three volumes of “Brown Acid,” which are among the best of this crop.
The music I discuss here—“heavy rock from the classic comedown era”—does not belong to a self-defined genre. In contrast to punk, which had a relatively solid and agreed-upon core set of parameters, no such core existed for this stuff. At best, it can be defined relationally and temporally: proto-metal, proto-punk, post-psych. These are retrospective definitions. Punk rockers, even those at punk’s outer edges, made aesthetic decisions (such as they were) in real-time, in relation to the evolving core parameters of generic self-definition, and against a legible mainstream. As a result, when collectors began to compile rarities on series like “Killed by Death,” even the wackiest material had been produced originally with at least a dim awareness that it fell in the penumbra of punk. “Killed by Death” stands as a marker of retrospection, but it was not wholly artificial. Punk was inherently self-referential. Not so with this stuff, which mostly aspired, but failed, to become mainstream (previously covered on Shit-Fi).
Absent an original self-conscious generic core for the music—beyond just loud rocknroll—the compiler’s decision about what gets included is fairly subjective. Mostly, it works. If it sounds like the band was listening to Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad, MC5, and/or Led Zeppelin, and the band released a single without the backing of a big label between approximately 1968 and 1980, it’s ripe for inclusion.
Without the intent to fulfill the requisites of a genre, what compelled these bands to sound like this? Drugs, mostly. But there were other, structural factors: the dashed hopes of the counterculture; the failures of the antiwar movement and the desolation caused by the US war in Vietnam; the coming of the vast shift in political economy away from unionized, manufacturing jobs; the successes of the civil rights movement; second-wave feminism; and the rise of the new Right. On the whole, if I had to slap a label on this music (of course I have to), I’d call it the music of the disorganized white male working class.* If anything organizes it, it must be the loss of the possibilities of the counterculture and short-lived hopes of hippiedom. For their gender-bending appearance, communal living, anti-establishment politics, and interracial and queer social and sexual mingling, hippies faced strong and widespread state repression—as well as retaliation by regular folks who might have just as easily joined their ranks. What followed was either a wish to have been a part of the action by those who missed out or a wish for what might been by those whose routes to new dimensions of libertine ecstasy were thwarted. Hence the comedown. Hard drugs and motorcycles offered recompense. So too did the politics of retaliation that have reached their full efflorescence with Trump.
This music is often melancholic. Even in its exuberance, it is expresses loss, failure, diminished dreams. It is self-indulgent and macho. It is horny, transferring blocked self-realization in other zones to the erogenous.
Although punk, as I have been arguing elsewhere, represented a shift in political horizons attendant to the collapse of Fordism, this independent hard rock was a sort of singing canary in the coalmine. It signaled the incipience of what would become more fully clear with punk but also thoroughly transformed by punk. When I say that this is the music of the disorganized white male working class, one key aspect I am trying to highlight is how punk became self-organizing, creating its own infrastructures with varying levels of persistence. What we see here, in comparison, is music that expresses isolation and embodies it as well. That these bands created no lasting underground networks is the testament to this music’s difference in the final instance from punk. Punk rockers, like these dudes, were mostly excluded from the extant infrastructures of working-class organization, whether union, party, or various types of fraternity; unlike these dudes, they did something lasting about it. That they did something about it only at the end of the 1970s signals that the conditions of possibility for them to do something about it had shifted. I continuously circle around this point analytically, trying to shed light on it and draw out how it happened.
As with all things in life and on Shit-Fi, I am approaching the music here from the punk-first perspective. What I want is primitive, raw, uncompromising, and ugly. A lot of independently released hard rock from this moment is marred for me by aspirations to be the next Zep or whatever. The closer a band came to the mainstream, the less I’m interested. Instead, I want the weird and oddball. On the “Brown Acid” compilations, in comparison to the “Ultimate Bonehead” series, for example, there is less recondite stuff, not much that would merit the shit-fi label. Mostly the tracks here are just powerful hard rock. The trade-off is more reliably good material and less crap. On the “Ultimate Bonehead” and “Bonehead Crunchers” compilations, there are some incredible stand-out tracks, including some shit-fi eye-poppers, but there are also bucketloads of boring slop to wade through. Not so with “Brown Acid.”
In the end, though, above all, what we have here is rocknroll that is constituted by and for the riff. This music lives or dies by its riffs. The inestimable power of a good riff overcomes all. I can almost overlook the priapic machismo and other forms of white reactionary idiocy (way more prevalent on the “Ultimate Bonehead” compilations than these) when entranced by the riffs. Almost.
Just as some people would say that most of what is on the “Killed by Death” and related compilations is unnecessary if you have the classics by the Sex Pistols, Ramones, and so on, the same could be said here: stick with Blue Cheer, Grand Funk, and Black Sabbath and you’ll survive. But at the same time, you hear Pentagram and your mind is blown. Then you hear Bedemon and your life is never the same again. And so it goes…it’s the addiction. Some people have it. Some don’t. I would guess that most who will buy these compilations probably are not even necessarily the 70s private-press fiends. They’re just plain fiends like I am, always on the search for new obscurities (but too poor to track down originals, like me). Still, I’d say that it’s worthwhile to familiarize yourself with some of the catalog of labels like Rockadelic and Rockadrome, which blazed the trail for the interest in this stuff, before diving in much more deeply into this stuff. Acid Archives remains indispensable for further contextualization.
This recent upsurge of interest in obscure (mostly) 70s hard rock and wasted psych—presaging the Trump election?—is not the first. Earlier intrepid explorers mined this territory. There was a previous generation of compilations that included some of this type of stuff. Two, “A Fistful of Fuzz” and “For a Few Fuzz Guitars More,” have recently been reissued, likely trying to capitalize on the interest here. They’re a bit more on the garage-psych tip, but they’ve got some monsters on them. It’s clear, though, that this recent crop of compilations is geared toward an internet-savvy, raised-on-punk stratum of collectors, younger than the earlier generation who came to this stuff as they pressed on the outer reaches of garage, garage-psych, and early psych. Those dudes are probably laughing aaaaaalllllll the way to the bank (it’s a slow trip for geriatric rockers) as the younger fiends hit them up for overpriced originals.
What I’ve done here is gone methodically through the RidingEasy compilations and given a few quick thoughts and reactions to each track. I chose these three volumes to highlight because of their consistent quality. I’ve pointed out the two best tracks on each LP in my view. The compilers of the Brown Acid series deserve praise for getting permission to reissue these tracks. Overall the track selection is impeccable. Each record works as an album, while also including great individual songs. I think the first volume is the best, with the second second and the third third. They’re all great, though. My one complaint is that these LPs don’t include much info at all about the bands or, more importantly, the records that are included. If they got permission, why not acquire and publish some details?** It feels like a missed opportunity.
“Brown Acid: The First Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records)
The tagline is “Heavy Rock from the American Comedown Era.” Overall, as a whole album and on a song-by-song basis, this LP is probably the best of the recent crop of obscure hard rock compilation LPs. Thankfully, it has been pressed several times, so it should still be relatively easy to find. The RidingEasy LPs all are also available on Bandcamp, which is great. If this LP has one drawback, it is that three of the twelve tracks appear elsewhere on LPs that have recently come out (and one more on an older compilation). Notably, though, the sound on this LP is powerful and clear, with attention clearly paid to transfer of the original vinyl and mastering.
Zekes “Box”: All I can say is: so sick. It’s a killer opening to the album, just a pinnacle of high-intensity, chest-out, twin-guitar riff rock. Continuously stuck in my head. Also on “Bonehead Crunchers 2”
Snow “Sunflower”: Snow is actually the band Negative Space, whose posthumous LP on Rockadelic is a sought-after artifact (ie, I need one). From Camden, NJ, the track starts off pretty wasted, but then it emerges into a powerful riff complemented by dry, unadorned drumming. Something tells me both snow and sunflower refer to drugs. Just a hunch.
Tour “One of the Bad Guys”: From 1979, this track was a little late for the trend but has a pretty solid interplay between urgent vocals and heavy rhythms laid down by some of those bad guys. A grower for sure. Does it seem like the band gets tired and slows down toward the last third of the song, or is it just me?
Zebra “Wasted”: Well, that is the topic at hand, is it not? Unfortunately, the music is not as wasted as it could be, but still this track, which is a bit more soulful, earthy, and mellow than the others breaks up the side well. On repeated listens it’s becoming one of my favorites of the compilation. Just enough snarl in the guy’s voice that you start to think he’d get real nasty if his high wore off completely.
Bob Goodsite “Faze 1”: Now we’re talkin’ wasted. No vocals to get in the way of the really hot, in-the-red mix of guitar exploration. I love when what seems to be a totally improvised trip ends up on vinyl. To add to the accidental feel of it all, the track ends abruptly, like the tape ran out. Or one of the people in room fell over onto the machine.
Raw Meat “Stand-By Girl”: Heavy fuzz played by cavemen, complete with a weird chanting interlude. Excellent if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics. RidingEasy also reissued this on a 7″.
Punch “Deathhead”: Jesus Horatio Christ. This is one of the absolutely most blistering, thudding, pained exercises to be found on any of these compilations. From New York City, it’s a stripped-down Blue Cheer meets Sir Lord Baltimore endless guitar workout of nihilistic desperation. The track also appears on “Angel Dust Psychedelia.”
Bacchus “Carry My Load”: Throbbing rock for hairy libertines.
Lenny Drake “Love Eyes”: A thumping rhythm meets a guitar sound to make grown record collectors weep. Aside from the crooning, it’s almost like something from the Lowlands circa 1981, though the song is not about drunks falling into mounds of manure. I’m not sure which is the misfire, but I should note that this track also appears on “Ultimate Bonehead 1,” and the sound is more trebly on it, accentuating the brilliant, cranking guitar.
Todd “Mystifying Me”: It’s mystifying me how this song is not played on the radio daily. A 60s garage singer, surely a good-looking chap, got together with a bunch of Neanderthals, including a guitarist who is not too concerned with explorations outside of the chords he clearly has been repeating since the last ice age, and a drummer who’s never heard the word subtle in his life. “Total eclipse of the sun and the moon,” indeed.
Josefus “Hard Luck”: Yes, that Josefus. Almost a decade later, on Hookah Records, these Texas reprobates return, back from what sounds like some time in the clink, now reflective and introspective. I love it. Infectious: both joyous and melancholic. Still, I can’t help but look at the release date of 1979. Talk about too late for the trend for these Texas longhairs. Compare it to Lone Star State contemporaries like the Dicks, Stains, AK-47, or Vomit Pigs for that matter. It’s no wonder that this style of music died a million deaths at the hands of the underground musical revolution that was punk.
“Brown Acid: The Second Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records)
Now with the USA removed from the subtitle: “Heavy Rock from the Classic Comedown Era”—due to the inclusion of one track from Australia. It’s a killer, though. The whole A side hits hard. The B side is less impressive, save for the track by Iron Knowledge, one of the few tracks among all these compilations by a Black band.
Ash “Midnight Witch”: This brutal slice of Sabbathology hailed from Australia. The record was pressed in New Zealand, because blokes reckoned the quality of the vinyl was better there. Although Australia’s most prominent Sabbath worshippers were certainly the consistently over-the-top Buffalo, this lone track is worth the price of entry.
Sweet Crystal “Warlords”: Leaning more toward prog, with wild keyboards and intricate melodies, this still packs a serious punch, with heaviness on the downbeat. Strictly for adult Satanists. One of the more obtainable 45s on this comp.
Raving Maniac “Rock N Roll Man”: This is perhaps the most straight-forward and boneheaded piece here. Not queer enough to be glam but not straight enough to hold much interest to any rocknroll women, I’m sure.
Crossfield “Take It!”: Yeah, you might want to pop a pill or two before listening to this one. Definitely the most psychedelic track here. The riff is pretty wasted and the singer sounds like a fiend. The bridge is pretty sick. Also on “Ultimate Bonehead 3.”
Spiny Norman “Bell Park Loon”: Holy shit. Major flute solo to start the track. I’m hooked. Apparently unreleased, which is pretty rad. On a side with three killer tracks, this rates highly. Also, bonus points for a name referencing Monty Python. I bet these guys were serious weirdos.
Glass Sun “Silence of the Morning”: Classic and fairly well-known 1970 Michigan psych. Probably heavier than they actually intended. In any case, once the trip gets going toward the end it’s pretty wild. Is the phrase “silence of the morning” inherently a little rapey?
Volt Rush Band “Love to You”: Prized by collectors, this one is not as great as its rep (and price) tend to indicate. The fuzz is off the charts—level 13 at least—but the songwriting and the dorky singing are really pedestrian. I doubt the members of this band liked each other. One more year or so and they might have heard punk rock and stopped trying to write stupid love songs and instead put that guitar to good use.
Buck “Long Hot Highway”: Roadmaster Buck hitchhiked his way into a studio and laid down an ode to the highway. But don’t sell the Buick to track down an original, IYKWIS.
Iron Knowledge “Show Stopper”: First introduced to collectors and assorted weirdos on the “Chains and Black Exhaust” bootleg CD almost 15 years ago, this 1972 funky psych track is a true show stopper. These brothers had it going on. Ineffably cool tight-pants music about getting high—sample lyrics: “we’re down with cocaine”—and fucking. Proof not only that white people steal everything but that they still fuck it up anyway.
Sonny Hugg “Daybreak”: I’m feelin’ this track. It’s got a Grand Funk Railroad vibe and accurately runs you through the emotions of waking up after a long and sordid night. Sonny Hugg: the side-eye emoji was invented for that pair of words. Also on “Michigan Meltdown 2.”
“Brown Acid: The Third Trip” LP (RidingEasy Records)
The third installment includes one Australian and one British track. There are some serious obscurities here, and only one of the tracks included has appeared on other compilations.
Grand Theft “Scream (It’s Eating Me Alive)”: Grand Theft is in the grand tradition of gonzo parody acts that end up surpassing the original through sheer exuberance (Andrea Mingardi Supercircus, anyone?). Apparently composed of members of a rural rock band called Bluebird, whose music, according to Acid Archives, “reeks of class and talent,” Grand Theft pegs the idiot-o-meter. Not much class to be found, though talent does lurk. Clearly meant to mock bands like Grand Funk, this track is completely over the top, with shrieks galore atop a caveman’s idea of a bad-ass riff. It’s exquisite. This track came out on a 45, but the band recorded more than two full LPs’ worth of this junk. I admire the dedication to the craft. Surprisingly, this bonzer has not yet appeared on another compilation even though collectors have known about it for a long time.
Chook “Cold Feet”: Another Australian band whose 45 was pressed in New Zealand (like Ash on the prior volume and also on the [other] killer label Havoc), this is a pretty good piece of totally under-the-radar grillfat. No one would call it original, but that’s not what we’re here for. Fire may not keep the cold out, but it keeps the fat dripping. Also on “Bonehead Crunchers 5.”
Lindholm Brothers “No Time For Last Goodbyes”: This is the punkiest track on this compilation, from Illinois in 1976. It’s upbeat and a bit snotty, but a bit too introspective and talented to make the cut in the new class of ’76 that was then emerging. The 45 was released on Basement Records. Excellent.
Diehard “Heartbreak”: The name is promising, but I think there was just a hint too much paisley and velvet involved. Pretty good riff. If the song were about getting fucked up instead of about picking up the pieces after a break-up, it’d be way better. The spacey keyboard(?) solo is definitely the best part.
Blown Free “The Wizard”: This twelve-sided turd is from 1982. What dungeon were these losers rolling dice in? To release something a decade late for the trend is truly impressive. Pretty cool fuzz guitar and the chorus is pretty great, with a strong Texas vibe. I think the singer actually is convinced that he is a wizard. Magic tricks were clearly the only way he was going to get laid, as the song reveals. The lyrics will have you laughing out loud. Apparently Blown Free put out a CD called “Maximum Rock & Roll.” LOL again.
Factory “Time Machine”: This 1971 track proves the argument I’d make about why the subgenre represented on these LPs is a unique product of the USA. This band hailed from East Sussex, England, and although there were many quite good proto-metal, heavy, downer, and even gonzo 70s UK bands that might otherwise fit on this compilation, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that characterizes bands from my side of the pond that is absent in most UK bands of the era. That je ne sais quoi is the lack of a welfare state. The mythology of rugged individualism against the backdrop of communal breakdown sets the terms of the hard rock you encounter on these compilations, whereas English bands operated within the horizons of a social safety net and more robust and organized working-class politics. Factory is essentially proto-punk in my view, largely because, like many other contemporary English and Scottish acts, the band edges toward socialist realism in form and content. The name alone is enough of an indicator, but the future orientation embedded in the lyrics of this track give a sense of hope, even if misbegotten, that is absent on much of the comparable US tracks. (Without that future orientation and its blocked realization, the birth of punk in England a few years hence wouldn’t have occurred.) Even the sound is echoey enough to evoke a cavernous, brick-walled factory. This one would probably fit in better on either of the incredible Electric Pentacle compilations of obscure UK proto-metal and hard rock, “Casting the Runes” and “Do What Thou Wilt.”
Cold Sweat “Quit Your Feelin’”: From 1979, from Denver, here is another late-for-the-trend entry. This track has an open feel, with the drummer providing most of the excitement. I can dig it, but it is relatively generic and doesn’t stick in my head.
Elliott Black “Highway Song”: A mover. Good guitar stuff throughout, but the highlight is the flute solo buried toward the end of the song. On Mighty Midget Records. This is probably the sleeper hit of the record. It’s one of the least macho songs too. It definitely isn’t punky, but it has something of a feel of the new, coming from Kalamazoo in 1978. Compared to the Cold Sweat track from a year later, it’s far more advanced, whereas Cold Sweat was moving backward.
First State Bank “Before You Leave”: Before we leave these compilations, here’s another throbbin’ Texas tune. Good stuff here with a riff and a bridge that’ll get stuck in your head. No surprises, but this Texas hard rock formula doesn’t need ‘em.
Flash Beverage “The Train”: The vocals are meant to sound tough, but they crack me up. Like many of the tunes on this record, this one adheres to the novice writer’s convention: start a story by having somebody leave or arrive. The riff is pretty cool, and the song has a subtly wasted vibe, especially in the rhythm section.
“Angel Dust Psychedelia” LP (Frisco Speedball)
I’m including a review of this one bootleg compilation alongside the legit “Brown Acid” volumes simply because I think it’s the best unofficial compilation of 70s obscure hard rock to have been released recently. From a shit-fi perspective, it has more to recommend it than the “Brown Acid” volumes. Somehow it seems appropriate that the art on this LP is the same as on a release by northern England 90s crust act Extinction of Mankind. It signals how little I’ve progressed in adulthood two decades later.
Best track: Obo Reed
Second best: Zoo
Masalla “Burning Feeling”: Like San Francisco’s Shiver, this has a slightly muffled, live-in-the-outhouse sound. The singer really belts it out. It sounds like the burning feeling is what happens when a macho dude (Masalla himself?) makes a move on the American woman depicted in the Guess Who’s famous ode and realizes she’s a lesbian.
Matchbox “Metaphysical Composition”: Take a hit and revel in it. What else is there out there in the cosmos besides your mind, man?
Obo Reed “Here By Me”: Fuck! This West Coast–tinged Texas downer psych is incredible. Love the guitar moves. Easily the best track on the side and one of the best across all the compilations. Lo-fi emotive psychedelic hard rock: it may be a microgenre, but Obo Reed is its megalith.
Dick St. John “Lady of the Burning Green Jade”: Say what, Dickie? Wasted, with weird noises—perhaps the most fucked-up flute I’ve ever heard (and believe me, I’ve heard a fuck ton of flute). Ifthe stories are to be believed, St. John was a mainstream Hollywood crooner. Seems like he took one or one thousand too many little blue pills.
Local Traffic “Time Gone to Waste”: Also on the lo-fi end of things, with a great chord progression that really captures the wasted-time feeling of impatience of staring into the abyss. Honestly, this thing is proto-punk. It’s got snot and verve galore. It’s from 1968 (and from Louisiana!) but it’s of the 70s for sure.
Red House “Mary Anne”: This is garage psych and pretty good but probably the weakest track on the side.
Masque “Wake Up in the Morning”: Proper fuzz wakes you up from the dream sequence portion of the track. Masque were definitely believers in the promise of lysergic exploration. Also they were probably creeps, judging by the lyrics.
Zoo “444”: This track is a lo-fi amped-up ripper, supposedly live. Definitely one of the best songs to be found, with MC5 moves and spunk in spades. I don’t know what it’s about, but considering that 222s, as Toronto punks have informed us in God’s Country, are drugs, we can only assume that 444 is kin. Also, love the false ending. It also appears on “Ultimate Bonehead 1”.
Ragweed Patch “Burn the Midnight Oil”: Pretty good but maybe a bit too earnest. Sure, you were burning the midnight oil, guys, because you were studying for finals.
Life “This Time”: From Tennessee. Once the guitar solo gets going, it’s pretty awesome but the verses kinda suck. Like life itself.
First State Bank “Mr. Sun”: I hope these idiots were high as shit when they named their band and the song. “Hey, Mortimer, what should we name our band?” <Looks out window.> It moves along pretty well, with some good guitar work. One the sleeper hits of this compilation for sure. The other side of this 45 appears on the third “Brown Acid.”
Masque “Lady of the Land”: A second track from Masque. Loping organ-laced garage psych that veers a bit too close to the Doors for my taste at times.
Punch “Deathhead”: See the first “Brown Acid,” where this track is that album’s best. Better sound fidelity there. Either Punch or Zoo contributes the best track to this side, but they’re very different beasts.
Flintlock “Hope You’re Feeling Better”: I was feeling better, until I added all these records to my discogs wantlist. Anyway, this long riff-o-rama is pretty awesome.
Update June 2017: A fourth volume of “Brown Acid” has been released. It’s much better than the third and possibly better than the second. I highly recommend it. Check it out here, especially the monstrous unreleased track by Zekes.
Thanks to Luke Marinovich for some info on the Australian bands.
* With Trump’s electoral college success, many commentators have deployed or resuscitated the term “white working class” to explain what happened. This term is misleading. Here is a brilliant explanation of why. To explain music created by a relatively small slice of the population, rather than national-level politics, however, I think it is important to use a variant on the term. Crucial for my purposes is the disorganized part, along with the male part, as the gender politics of this music are central.
** On the other hand, some of the liner notes on the “Ultimate Bonehead” compilation series are particularly suspect in terms of accuracy and politics, so it’s good to avoid that. On those LPs, the compiler, who is clearly so far removed from the setting of these records’ origins, has started to believe that the fantasy landscape the records conjure is actually real life. If anything, these records do not on the whole address and narrate reality but rather express the desire to escape from it. It should not be that hard to understand. Yes, these records evoke an incipiently broken world of white Rust Belt 1970s maleness—though it was never quite as white, as lower-class, as male, as straight, or as dunderheaded as a limited retrospective gaze makes it seem. And to fetishize it just because it seems so alien to present-day West European record nerds, well that’s kinda gross. When the compiler starts talking about the “African Black Magic bit” found in one song, I’m like, “Wait, what?”