It’s not an immediately enticing prospect. Rufus Harley: jazz-funk bagpiper. Yes, really.
Harley originally studied saxophone and flute, but his musical career was changed by the death of JFK, as he was fascinated by the ominous potency of the Black Watch, the Scottish infantry bagpiper corps accompanying Kennedy’s funeral procession. He acquired his own set of pipes and began to record as a bandleader, releasing albums which gradually steered from improvisational jazz through covers of pop hits by The Byrds and The Association to a form of spiritual jazz-psychedelia. By 1972’s Re-Creation Of The Gods, Harley had turned to heavy jazz-funk, with devastating results.
This is a raw, hard-hitting record, reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery and Blacknuss, in which soul and pop melodies were given a post-bop overhaul. By 1972, Harley was modulating his playing so the pipes sounded less like the threatening howl of a Scottish army and more like the Middle Eastern dynamics employed by Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, but that doesn’t take away from the elemental force of his instrument. Anchored by solid drumming and electric bass, Harley trades solos with organist Bill Mason and occasionally provides wails of electric soprano sax, and the result is refreshingly eccentric and unexpectedly uproarious. Despite being a loose concept album about freedom, church and community, in its own curious way Re-Creation Of The Gods is an out-and-out party record.
The reissue by Transparency weaves four complementary bonus tracks into the original release, and replaces the original psychedelic sleeve with a portrait of Harley draped in the stars and stripes, and wearing his favoured Viking-style horned helmet. Until his death in 2006, Harley’s answerphone apparently featured a blast on the bagpipes and the note: “You have reached Rufus Harley, the international ambassador and messenger of freedom.” On Re-Creation Of The Gods, the message comes through loud and clear.
We all know about so-called ‘outsider music’: music made, for one reason or another, outside the normal boundaries. Some disagree with the boundaries: Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch. Others have their musical expression coloured by their mental illness: Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis. Some were powered purely by ambition and self-confidence: Florence Foster Jenkins. And others – supposedly – had simply never heard music before: The Shaggs.
What Les Blousons Noirs lack is context. We believe these two four-track EPs (reissued in 2007 by Born Bad) were released in 1961 and 1962. We think the EPs were recorded in Bordeaux. We can have a guess at the band members’ names, deduced from a sleeve autographed for a fan: Sammy on vocals, Jo on guitar, Claude on bass and Did on drums. That really is just about it. All we have is 16 bracing minutes of rock’n’roll covers played by a band named after the teen gangs that gathered in the French suburbs in the late 1950s: ‘The Black Jackets’.
Let’s not pretend otherwise: this is astonishingly incompetent stuff. But who else was playing proto-punk in 1961? The Sonics’ debut was still four years away; for the time, this is brutally raw. The band genuinely sound like they’re encountering their instruments for the first time, but things like rhythm, tuning and general coherence are mere details – what these guys have is passion and a primitive power. Madcap versions of Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and Don Covay’s ‘Pony Time’ are hacked out with a crudeness that could be childlike, or could be pure punk-rock, a decade and a half too early.
The questions are endless. What drove these four men to make music unlike anything they could ever have heard? And why did they do so with such little regard for rhythm or tuning? These EPs were released a year apart – why was there no musical progression across that time? Did they perform live, or make any other recordings? Who were they? And where did they go?
Born Bad’s J.B. Guillot has spent several years searching unsuccessfully for clues. The best guess of a source who worked with bands in Bordeaux is that Les Blousons Noirs were pieds-noirs: Frenchmen who lived in Algeria during the colonisation. Forced back to France in the early 1960s when Algeria became independent, many pied-noirs felt ostracised from French society and moved around the country taking on low-paid work wherever they could. The suggestion is that the mystery quartet may have worked at a clothing manufacturers in the same street as the studio where the EPs were recorded, then moved on soon afterwards. But this is just a theory. We simply don’t know.
As such, this charming racket is difficult to evaluate. It could be the very first tentative blast of garage rock. It could be the rantings of madmen. It could all be a cruel hoax. Make of it what you will.
For what is effectively a major-label release, information on this little beauty is remarkably difficult to find. The only way to get your hands on the nine-track album these days is via the 2008 CD reissue by controversial semi-bootleg Radioactive offshoot Fallout. It’s up to you.
Suffice to say, it’s worth hunting down. Biographical details about its creator are starting to seep through thanks to the efforts of his niece, Ali Boyd, who is putting together a documentary about the man she met only once. In the mid-1960s, Kelley was wanted by the FBI for selling acid on the University of Rhode Island campus, so he abandoned his family and fled to New York. He began to write and perform his songs, and was considered a contender in the music scene by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer, who signed him to the fledgling Sire Records. Some claim Kelley’s debut album, 1969’s Path Of The Wave, is notable as the first release on the now-global record empire – it was certainly amongst the first, and features contributions from Rare Earth’s Eddie Guzman and the E Street Band’s Danny Federici. Problem was, Kelley had simultaneously established himself as the head of a huge hash-smuggling empire, selling to some of the most influential music acts of the time. His only other release, in 1971, was ominously titled Dealin’ Blues – over the years, he became haunted by guilt about abandoning his daughter in Rhode Island. He developed crippling stage fright and anxiety, became an addict and lost everything, including his career in music. He returned to Rhode Island, and began work as a fish cutter. He apparently died in a car crash in 1983.
Path Of The Wave is stark, eerie, intense, and utterly compelling. Broadly speaking, it’s typical of the late-60s downer-folk sound – blues-based, with psych flourishes – but the songs are beautifully and unusually constructed, while Kelley’s extraordinary vocals demand attention. Paranoid, haunted lyrics are mainly delivered in a forceful whisper – somehow what you might expect from a man fighting his demons while on the run from the law. Occasionally songs are coloured with touches of haunting violin or flute, but otherwise the backing is sparse and mainly acoustic; only ‘All I Needed Was Time’ and ‘The Man Is Dead’ feature muffled drums and fuzz guitar. The latter is the album’s atypical centrepiece, a seven-minute jam built around a rollicking garage beat, psyche organ and Kelley’s most overtly circumstance-led words: “Look out the window, there’s cops in the trees / Nobody knows but my business and me / Don’t give a damn if it’s the narcos or feds / Listen to me brother, the man is dead”.
Elsewhere, the mood is one of quiet confession, a gentle yet disturbed glimpse into the shadows of a troubled mind. ‘In My Own Secret Way’ could (potentially) be interpreted as an address to his lost daughter: “In my own secret way / In lonely nights and empty days / I often dream of you and then of all the many people I’ve been”; while the sing-song melody of ‘Christine I’ sweetens a fragmented, poetic narrative: “Time was always paint to me / The canvas was my life”. The title track is a rolling folk shanty that closes the album on a musically upbeat note, but which hides another painfully personal tale: “I will never delight / In your being uptight / Or that the best I can tell you is ‘So long’”.
There’s little doubt that fans of Pearls Before Swine will find plenty to love here, as will anyone who appreciates the idiosyncratic outsider charms of Jandek. Here’s hoping the upcoming documentary prompts a proper reissue, and a reappraisal of Peter Kelley’s rare talent.
A real oddity this one. The title track was actually a huge hit in 1972, but the album quickly disappeared. So why is a million-seller on a silly blog focusing on underappreciated records? Because it’s so damn WEIRD. I’ve never heard an album that sounds quite like it: a primitive drum machine, seemingly random stabs of Hammond organ, and a gorgeous soulful voice. That’s it.
And that’s it for the whole album: ten tracks of plodding, brittle beats and haphazard improvised organ. There’s no variation whatsoever, bar some excruciating thunder sound effects on ‘In The Beginning’. The lyrics are stuffed with people-power platitudes, typified by the title track: “No matter what colour / You’re still my brother / Everybody wants to live together / Why can’t we live together?”. The production is rudimentary: I swear at one point the beat actually slows down, then speeds up again. But Thomas is an impassioned performer, and Why Can’t We Live Together is an endearingly eccentric package. And the more you think about it, the more revelatory it seems: every aesthetic decision taken by Thomas (who self-produced) was brave and innovative. This is one man’s peculiar vision, and it clearly wasn’t intended to spawn a hit single. It may not be an album you fall in love with immediately, but you may well learn to love its alien soundscapes.
Asked to nominate his favourite Bob Dylan song, Frank Black discussed how the drum fills in ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’ could move him to tears. F.J. McMahon’s Spirit Of The Golden Juice has the same effect on me, for what I suspect are very different reasons. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Blonde On Blonde is clipped, fluid, flawless. On Spirit Of The Golden Juice, Junior Nickles is rigid, lumbering, workmanlike, unchanging. Ninety seconds into opener ‘Sister Brother’ is a fill so rickety the song almost grinds to a halt. I smile every time I hear it. It’s part of what makes this extraordinary album so very human.
Fred McMahon was a Santa Barbara surf guitarist who joined the US Air Force in 1965, and two years later received orders for a tour of duty as a military police officer in Vietnam. “It was obviously such a total and complete waste of people and money and material, but there were people getting wealthy off of it! And I was so depressed, disgusted. I mean, it just shattered me”. Relief came in the form of I.W. Harper bourbon, the titular golden juice.
A year after returning, he began to write the songs that would form his only album, which was recorded at a local studio in a day and a half, with two takes per song. A couple of years of low-key bar shows followed, before he turned his back on music: following time as a security officer and Navy avionics technician, he has spent the past 25 years as a computer repair and operations specialist. He assumed his album had been forgotten until hearing a decade ago that original copies were trading hands for $1500, and that bootleg copies had been pressed to satisfy demand.
Mojo magazine noted how Spirit Of The Golden Juice “neither pounces nor creeps but is just there, like you’ve walked in on the middle of it and it’s always been playing.” The production is desperately sparse: that relentless lurching beat, warm flurries of guitar, and a voice: weary, lonely, tense. Delivered in a rich baritone, like a downtrodden Fred Neil or a slightly less doleful Val Stöecklein, McMahon’s words are poetic, contemplative, affecting. Sometimes it seems the pressures of post-war life are almost too much for him: “I wanna close my eyes and pretend it’s night and quiet, so peaceful / But the rising sun starts the day to run wherever it may go” (‘Early Blue’).
But this is not hopeless stuff: there’s warmth here, and plenty of it. Our narrator is a civilised man trying to make sense of a brutal reality. In ‘Five Year Kansas Blues’, he considers the implications of avoiding the draft: five years in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas. “I don’t see no reason for killing some family man / I never knew what they meant by duty / I don’t understand / Guess I’ll go to Kansas and stay for a while / I don’t know about my wife and kids / I’ll be working on a hard rock pile, criminal style”. It’s difficult to think of a stronger or more authentic anti-war statement in any of the protest folk that emerged from 60s America.
Though the shadow of Vietnam hangs over the album, this isn’t purely a protest album – personal issues are brutally documented too. ‘One Alone Together’ deals with McMahon’s struggles in the dating scene on his return, while ‘Black Night Woman’ tells of a associate’s girlfriend who killed herself after finding out her suitor was already married, an event which McMahon says affected him as badly as his buddy.
The album ambles by in less than half an hour, and while some might bemoan the lack of variety, McMahon’s unremitting search for peace is charming, compelling, utterly absorbing. And let’s not forget the tunes: the brittle backing never overshadows the graceful melodies within. The title track ends the album on a mixed note: McMahon judges that “There ain’t hardly been a time when life’s been too good to lose”, but concludes that “It was worth everything we went through”. Creating these songs was clearly a brave step for McMahon, and richly rewarding for the rest of us.
The album was re-released in a lovely package by Rev-Ola a couple of years ago with excellent sleevenotes, but the original back cover tell you all you need to know:
“F.J. McMahon is a quiet individual in an exciting way.”