“We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD,” John Lennon once said, referring to the infamous military mind-control experiments with drugs. On a similar but less sinister note, psychedelic music must remember to thank the “squares”—session musicians and studio engineers—that took rock out of the garages and moved it into the cosmos.
Like psychedelia, exotica, a genre of instrumental mood music, was designed for taking a trip somewhere, and controlled substances provided the passport. The flight path, for much of both, was borne on wings of sitar, strings and cheap effects. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, sometimes considered psychedelia’s highest achievement, may have survived a million encomiums, but it hasn’t survived as many listens. With the rediscovery of lounge, a new cult champion has emerged: Astro Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000 by the 101 Strings.
Not long after the advent of the long-playing 12-inch record came the popularity of mood music. An early practitioner was Annunzio Paulo Mantovani, whose debut hit the UK charts in 1952. Preferring to call his craft “light orchestral,” Mantovani soon became an American institution. His imperturbable arrangements perfectly embodied the degeneration of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway: This was Eisenhower music—decorous, innocuous background sounds for dinner table chat over discreet aperitifs.
Jackie Gleason, whose 1953 debut, Music for Lovers Only, topped the U.S. charts for a spectacular 17 weeks, better understood exactly what “mood” his customers desired, as further evinced by the title of his 1956 effort, Music to Change Her Mind. Gleason brought insouciant imbibing—and a fleck of suave jazz—to easy listening, and lounge was born. Cheesecake album covers proliferated. Living up to the promise of those lascivious images, was Martin Denny, who popularized exotica in 1958 with Brubeckian piano, pseudo-primitive rhythms and jungle sounds which invoke impromptu South Seas rendezvous. Denny borrowed liberally from the considerably more innovative Les Baxter, whose 1950 debut, Music out of the Moon, brought theremin, and the cosmos, to the “mood.” Juan Garcia Esquivel raised the bar with his 1958 Other Worlds, Other Sounds LP. Released on RCA’s Living Stereo line, Esquivel’s subsequent albums exploited stereo separation and jumbled unpredictable instruments, creating a pixilated din of analog hallucinations. Brian Wilson tapped into the intuitive quirks of this particular muse with his landmark Pet Sounds in 1966.
Also on hand for the Pet Sounds sessions was Jerry Cole, an exceptional guitar talent who paid the rent working for Phil Spector and did his own thing as the leader of Jerry Cole and His Spacemen. Between 1963 and 1964, Cole abused his whammy bar throughout several surf albums on Capitol that merged hot-rod abandon with ultrapro chops. One of the best players in this genre, Cole punched in solos for Carl Wilson on early Beach Boys’ records. A quick study, Cole also scored a prominent place in the development of rock, performing on The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” when the band proved too inexperienced to make their own rock and roll history. Shortly after, Cole was playing on Pet Sounds. An ambitious man with a sixth sense for pop music trends, he pulled together some L.A. session colleagues and cut his own album: the result was The Inner Sounds of the Id, by The Id.
The liner notes, written by producer-manager Paul Arnold (who concocted the Id concept), exhibit Andrew Loog Oldham bravado:
Before civilization reared its crew-cut head and the world stifled a yawn that has lasted a thousand years, man danced at frantic festivals until he fell down foaming at the mouth. Not any more. Why? Because the beat became ironed out, flattened, regularized. Now, for the first time in the Western World since pagan gods were worshiped, the primitive rhythms have been brought back to popular music… Freud discovered the Id, on this album it was set to music; and it is the Unshape of Things to Come.
Recorded between 1965 and ‘66 (according to drummer Don Dexter), a massive collection of tracks was paired down to ten cuts and released by RCA in January 1967, the same month as that other Oedipal manifesto, The Doors. The album is a cornucopia of posthypnotic poetry, sitar obliggatos and, best of all, Yardbirds guitar flash blasting across a Booker T and the MGs groove with a dash of the visionary in its unexpected, deftly executed key and time changes. Cole sings in a murmuring drawl, and his riffs and solos are ear candy a go-go. Unlike much psychedelia, The Inner Sounds of the Id features fret board excursions that are too sweaty for sit-ins or be-ins. Freaky as Cole’s runs are, the album never strays far from the spirit of tube amps and last calls from which it was spawned. From Syd Barrett’s “Bike” to Grace Slick’s “Lather,” psychedelic is pampered and inorganic; to Cole’s credit, the Id trips in real time.
Unfortunately, its career bummed out big time. Inexplicably debuting in Chicago, at Paul Arnold’s insistence, the band squandered a Billboard push for their 45 “Short Circuit.” Album sales were flat and the individual band members soon returned to lucrative, albeit terrestrial, studio work. The protean Cole continued to pursue his solo aspirations while simultaneously becoming the most prolific session guitarist in history. Arnold, for his part, disappeared with a stack of the Id’s unpublished outtake masters.
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Meanwhile, back in swinging suburbia, the easy-listening market grew saturated with orchestral records designed to tranquilize the neurotic tensions of the silent majority.
The quintessential commodity, provided by Alshire Records, was the 101 Strings, a franchise of underemployed European orchestras grinding out movie soundtracks, show-tunes and pop fodder, all arranged with unrelenting indifference. Distribution and low overhead was paramount to the Burbank, California operation’s success: The 101 Strings made their pitch in grocery stores, right next to red wines and cheese fondue, appealing to the casual listener who couldn’t (or didn’t care to) discriminate between sub-par and premium schlock. Resounding sales ensued.
By 1965, Alshire president Al Sherman informed Billboard of his goal to release 150 albums per annum. His subsidiary concern, Budget Sound Inc., devoted itself to cost-cutting schemes such as recycling plastic ashtrays into LP vinyl. Sherman’s producer and partner D.L. Miller once quipped, “We are not in the recording business, we are in the plastics business.” No musical genre escaped the amoebic appetite of the 101 Strings—church hymns, Beatles “tributes,” patriotic anthems and porno scores went wholesale into the daiquiri blender. As the 101 Strings’ catalog approached 101 albums in 1967, Alshire’s primary arranger Monty Kelly, whose career started with Paul Whiteman in the 1940s got hip. 101 Strings’ Sounds of Today (released with a trippier track list on the European version, Love Is Blue) features implausibly high-energy combinations of sitar, strings and rock drums on several Kelly originals.
As the shockwaves of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band proliferated through the music industry in 1967, Sherman and Miller decided to cash in on acid rock. One of the first Alshire releases by an act other than the ubiquitous 101 Strings was a self-titled album by The Animated Egg. Although the assembly-line psychedelic cover art and way out track titles like “I Said, She Said, Ah Cid” were beneath even the Lemon Pipers, the music is electrifying and delicious. Drawing from the protozoic fluid of rock and roll, The Animated Egg is an I.V. tube of adolescent euphoria. A mad pastiche of bump-and-grind, transcendental arpeggios, proto-metal swagger and laser-beam leads reaching a crescendo of post-punk deconstruction (on “Sock It My Way”), the uncredited instrumentals suggest slapdash genius. That’s exactly what it is. These tracks are the missing masters from The Inner Sounds of the Id sessions.
Withholding the sitar ruminations and Freudian intrigues, The Animated Egg (nine Cole originals, plus a stompin’ version of the Spencer Davis hit “Gimmie Some Lovin’ “) is even better than Inner Sounds, perhaps because Alshire EQed the Cole masters with more zip than RCA. Cole’s outtakes are Humbucker transmissions of boogying endorphins recorded live on an enchanted TEAC console wired directly to abysses of déjà vu. Cole confirms The Animated Egg tracks are his work: “Paul Arnold absconded with the RCA royalties from The Id and then proceeded to sell that other material to a lot of people at various labels. It really got out of hand; I could’ve killed him, except I never could locate his whereabouts.”
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In the 1960s, studio legerdemain operated on both sides of the generation gap. For every instance in which a Beatles slid a “tit, tit, tit” past unsuspecting censors, a Katz and Kasenetz resold a backing track adorned only with new vocals to gullible bubblegummers. Regarding the latter practice, Al Sherman and D.L. Miller reenter the narrative.
Between Nixon and the Chicago Seven, Vietnam and the Apollo missions, John Wayne and Jane Fonda, America in 1968 entered an astounding dialectical crossroads. Like metal shavings flung into an electro-magnetic vortex, Sherman and Miller found themselves inexorably drawn towards the hurricane’s eye of the generation gap. Small-time scammers to the core, there wasn’t a less likely pair to engineer a pop culture revolution.
Although The Animated Egg didn’t outsell prime 101 Strings, Sherman and Miller, claiming its authorship and assuming all publishing rights, enjoyed a better return on its investment. Since unpublished acid rock masterpieces performed by crack L.A. session men didn’t fall from the heavens everyday, they decided to give their cash cow another good squeeze.
Inspired by Bob Crewe and Charles Fox’s gimmicky, space-poppin’ score for Barbarella the Jane Fonda softcore screen sensation of October 1968, Sherman and Miller contracted Monty Kelly, then at the top of his game, to orchestrate The Animated Egg. Additionally, and significantly, they hired some nameless, non-union engineer and told him to set phasers to kill.
Although few people consider Alshire Records an avatar of artistic expression, Sherman and Miller lavished care upon the project, initially code-named “Eggs and Strings.” An October 31, 1968 memo from Miller to Sherman states:
I finally listened back to the stereo on the eight sides of Eggs and Strings. I think the effects are really wild. I would suggest as the opener on the A-side that you use one of the first two we overdubbed—to establish the strings…. The space pop flavor is all through these. Some of them really flipped me…. I really feel some of these cuts should be distributed to Top 40 stations, as the chance for an accident could be very good.
What ensued was an Aladdin’s lamp of inscrutable grooviness: Astro Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000. Sherman and Miller didn’t release any supporting 45s for Astro Sounds but they did land a promo edition LP, Out of This World, on the BBC’s Radioplay line. For the high-toned British listener, the Barbarella angle was dropped in favor of the other sci-fi smash hit of the season: Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now the 101 Strings take us on yet another mind-blowing excursion into uncharted stellar realms with these pleasant fast-beat vibes that lightly brush the stars.
The opening cut on Astro Sounds, “Flameout,” is the most future shocking. If the original track, “Sock It My Way,” invokes the psychotic disorientation of PiL’s Metal Box, the upgrade cross-pollinates that with the postmodern test-patterns of New Order’s Power, Lies and Corruption. “Trippin’ on Lunar 07” boasts Vanilla Fudge muscle with Enoesque dissonance, as the 101 Strings interpret guitar feedback. Although the rest of the album is brighter and melodic, the strings, whooshing on phase shifter overdrive, easily presage the lustrous indifference of New Wave synthesizers. With its unremitting dance beats, methane violins and Cole’s deft alternation between surfy riffing and doomsday distortion, Astro Sounds is pretty damn Devo.
Back in 1968, when burnouts were staring at their crash-pad walls to the sounds of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the infinitely superior Astro Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000 went neglected. An obvious reason owes to the inexplicable decision to credit the material to the 101 Strings. Sherman later said, “We had many weird albums like Astro Sounds, but got so many letters from the Midwest objecting to the zany formats that we stopped.”
Alshire nevertheless recycled some Animated Egg tracks a few more times, padding a Jimi Hendrix “tribute” album (credited alternately to the Black Diamonds and the Purple Fox) with the funkadelic “A Love Built on Sand,” retitled “Acid Test.” Luckily for Alshire, Cole was a perfectionist and recorded several versions of his best songs. A different take of “Inside Looking Out” (one of the greatest riffs of the ‘60s) received a heavy new Kelly string arrangement for “Instant Nirvana,” released on the 101 Strings’ soundtrack to an imaginary skinflick, The “Exotic” Sounds of Love.
Various other Inner Sounds of the Id outtakes and alternative versions also surfaced. The flash-in-the-pan Custom Records released these tracks as Give Me Some Lovin’ by the Projection Company in 1967, then repackaged the same as Are You Experienced by T.J. Swift & the Electric Bag in 1968. Even more excruciating titles on even more slipshod labels followed throughout Europe. No doubt, Paul Arnold knew how to close the deal.
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True to its claim, Astro Sounds rocketed beyond the year 2000. Scamp Records, specializing in lounge reissues, released Astro Sounds on CD in April 1996 to widespread acclaim. Licorice Soul Records followed with an LP reissue in 2004. The Animated Egg also saw a CD reissue on Walhalla and Two-Beat Beatniks Records. In 2005, World In Sound Records reissued The Inner Sounds of the Id; the bonus tracks prove the Id originated the Animated Egg / Astro Sounds albums. Incredibly, none of the reissues’ liner notes mention the lineage.
Hendrix famously said, “You’ll never hear surf music again,” but he was wrong. Through the volcanic core of Astro Sounds, which is Jerry Cole, we hear Hendrix playing surf music—that is, the timeless sound of electric guitar before it hit the wall. In addition, the infinite possibilities of pop music abound, like hieroglyphic clues, throughout Astro Sounds’ inadvertent recombination. A shotgun wedding of The Id and Monty Kelly, ordained by a pothead engineer who probably never met either artist, Astro Sounds is the original mashup - and one the greatest rock albums ever recorded.
As it turns out, Jerry Cole never knew Astro Sounds even existed until this article was being written. He told me, “No doubt, that album is entirely me—iron clad—every tune.” The string arrangements failed to wow him. “All they really did was add phase shifting through a Leslie speaker throughout the album. You know, I’m really gonna have to have my lawyer look into this Alshire business.”
Cool. Now is the time to assemble all of this stuff, remaster it lovingly and put out the dignified box set it deserves!
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Jerry Cole is preparing for imminent release a new CD of surf rock, Back to the Boards.
Barry Stoller is the author of I (Who Have Nothing): The Terry Knight Story.