I recently picked up a copy of the curious self-titled 1968 release from the United States of America. As founder Joseph Byrd’s informative notes point out, no one in the band came from a rock background; most were avant-garde classical musicians, entranced with John Cage, Fluxus, and the like. The band’s instrumental lineup was unusual: no guitar, but harpsichord and organ, violin, bass, and drums – all of which were frequently treated electronically, as were the vocals. The band is best-known for the song “Garden of Earthly Delights” – but what struck me on listening to the CD was the band’s clear influence on one of my favorite contemporary groups, Broadcast. Not only do both bands’ female vocalists have somewhat similar approaches, the electronics are (or are made to sound) homemade, raw, a bit less domesticated than synthesizers have become: less musical instruments than sound sources. The United States of America’s “Cloud Song” in particular reminded me of Broadcast in that band’s quieter moments, such as “You Can Fall” (from 2000’s The Noise Made by People). Broadcast’s more poppy moments are rather different stylistically (drawing from a well of influences rather near the one Stereolab’s staked out), but the sonic textures bear comparison, as in the evanescent “Lunch Hour Pops.”
Despite not having experience in rock bands (a factor probably a lot more important in 1967 when the album was recorded than it would be now, in that I think more people are willing just to listen to music without regard to genre), the United States of America clearly picked up a few things from its 1967 cohort – such as the fuzz bass that drives “Coming Down.” I think the repetitive electric violin figure in the background is an indication of the contemporary proto-minimalist musics the band members were listening to.
Almost exactly contemporary with the United States of America, San Francisco’s Fifty Foot Hose was experimenting with a similar mix of patchbay electronics and altered rock instrumentation. Its sole album Cauldron consisted of more or less conventional songs dressed in electronic gear interspersed with short, completely electronic instrumental pieces (the opening track “And After” rises from a low, murmuring series of blurps into a wildly howling, oscillating set of screams: simple but effective). Some of the tracks weren’t all that great compositionally, but “If Not This Time” (with its longish delay on the vocal echoed in stereo channels) is one of the best: the main riff is played, if my ears aren’t completely out to lunch, in stacked parallel fifths which, along with its chromaticism, pretty well unsettles one’s harmonic sense until the verse itself comes in. Speaking of unsettling, the title track is a collage of electronics, treated spoken voice, and creepy low-level screams and cries. Great Halloween music, if nothing else.