Rare Underground Tracks, 1967-72, Part I | 10 Selections from Virtually Unknown Groups

Miller Anderson of Keef Hartley Band: check out the soulful track "Born to Die."

Music historians point to The Beatles’  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) as a significant catalyst for the creative musical explosion that took place from 1967 to 1972, a time that I call the Golden Era. During this period, many well-known bands released LPs that explored new improvisational and psychedelic territories. Although some of this music gradually moved into the mainstream, there were many polished and innovative tracks that slipped into obscurity.   

I’d like to share with you ten outstanding tracks of underground music from virtually unknown groups. Next month, I’ll present my ten favorite little-known underground tracks from well-known groups. Then, on Wednesday, November 10, at 8 p.m., I will play all 20 tracks on my Fringe Toast radio show on KRUU-FM (http://kruufm.com/).

In no particular order, here are ten spectacular underground classics from little-known artists. Some may be difficult to find, but I encourage you to try to locate these exotic treasures.

1. “One Way Street,” by Harvey Mandell (1971), continues to be one of my favorite all-time tracks, even after 40 years. In the early days, he played with Canned Heat, John Mayall, and the Rolling Stones. Harvey is an exceptionally gifted Chicago-based guitarist with brilliant, fiery fretwork. On this magical track of instrumental jazz-rock fusion, you’ll hear a swirl of blues-laden acoustic and electric lead guitars, driving organ by Howard Wales, and complementary percussion by Earl Palmer. The pace is upbeat, the delivery is exquisite. The sophisticated presentation of this music will hook you deeply.

2. “Born to Die,” by Keef Hartley Band (1969), is my favorite electric blues guitar piece.  On this haunting 10-minute song, Miller Anderson plays lead guitar and sings convincingly about the disappointments of life.

3. “Electrallentando,” by Chicago-based band H.P. Lovecraft (1968), features the four-octave range of classically trained Dave Michaels. In 1971, I acquired a recording of this very unusual experimental piece without knowing who did it.  It took me 35 years to discover H.P. Lovecraft! With its echoing wind chimes, surreal organ, acoustic guitar, and distant vocals, you’ll find yourself “drifting through the room, dreaming in the afternoon.”

4. “Riversong,” by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (1970), features the electronic music wizardry of UK duo Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Their Zero Time LP didn’t sell well but many contemporary musicians cite it as the turning point for electronic music’s place in rock music. They were the first to create deep bass tones in synthesized music and electronically altered vocals. On this track you’ll hear East Indian influences and Tama Starr’s synthesizer-modified voice singing cosmically, “I carry life with me wherever I go, and there’s no end or beginning, though I am not a circle.”

5. “Jack-Knife Gypsy,” by Paul Seibel (1971), tells the story of a millworker trying to avoid the charms of a woman who carries a knife. This blue-collar ballad cuts to the soul like something John Mellencamp might have written. 

6. “Flying Dutchman,” by folk-rock band McKendree Spring (1972), tells the story of the fabled ghost ship. With electric violin and rich bass guitar, you eagerly anticipate each verse, which concludes with a marvelous chorus.

7. “Stay While the Night is Young,” by British blues band Savoy Brown (1969), gently urges a young lady to “just experience the moment, instead of thinking what’s to come.” The smoky blues songs on this Raw Sienna LP represent some of the best of Savoy Brown.

8. “Hole in the Coal,” by UK folk-jazz-rock fusion group Pentangle (1968), features the guitar and songwriting talents of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in an enjoyable five-minute acoustic journey couched by capable bass and tasteful percussion. You’ll hear flavors of old English ballads, ’60s folk stylizing, and modest jazz improvisations.

9. “Smell of Incense,” by West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (1968), sounds remarkably contemporary and recalls the attractively seductive aromas of the era. The middle section instrumental sends you into a psychedelic dream world.

10. “Feelin’ Bad,” by English progressive rock band Spooky Tooth (1969), leaves you feeling good, with distinctive twin keyboards (organ and piano) and Mike Harrison’s confident vocals. Notice how Harrison’s voice emerges from the pleasant chorus wall to begin each new verse. At the end you’ll wish for more verses from this three-minute song. 

Play these tracks for your friends and no doubt someone will ask, “Where do you get this stuff?” Invite them to listen to Fringe Toast on November 10, 2010, 8 p.m.

Read Part II of Rare Underground Tracks by well known artists of the same period.

Hear Fringe Toast every Wednesday, 8-10 p.m., CST on KRUU FM 100.1 in Fairfield, Iowa.

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