It’s an archetypal rock story: a band of miscreant hippies known as Red Mountain migrate down from Marin County to the big city of Los Angeles in the late 1960s, after their guitar player meets an agent who promises stardom and a place to live. They’re thinking mansions in the Hollywood hills, but they end up with 10 people in the agent’s one-bedroom duplex, a scenario so crowded the guitar player and his “old lady” move in with his local grandmother, even though she forces them to get married first. The agent gets them a contract with Christian crooner Pat Boone’s production company, where they get to record over the graveyard shift. Surprise, surprise: instead of recording, they spend their nights ingesting copious amounts of controlled substances! Eventually they come up with a demo, their manager—much to their chagrin, and presumably to his own amusement—all too literally rechristens their band Born Again, and he puts some lackadaisical effort into drumming up major-label interest. Another surprise: none appears. The band manages to score the theme music to the fourth-best lesbian vampire movie of all time, then calls it a day. End of story.
Until now. Shadoks, the label that dukes it out with Sundazed for the king of the retro-reissue hill, has recovered the Born Again saga and decked it out with the usual liner notes and extras. As is often the case with these things, the music can’t compete with the story, but the fact is, Born Again played pretty solid rock; it’s easy to see why time forgot them, but only bad luck prevented them from reaching the heights of, say, Quicksilver Messenger Service. The first eight tracks, recorded between 1969 and 1971, show Born Again participating in the birth of the genre later known as “hard rock”: blues riffs blasted through amps loudly enough to push VU meters into the red and create distortion without pedals, with rebel-yell lyrics full of braggadocio (“You knew I was no saint… Honey, my virtues are few and far between,” shouts singer Brice Sullivan on opener “Barnyard Blues”). At its best on these tracks, Born Again comes off as a sort of low-rent Bachman-Turner Overdrive; at its worst, a slightly more boneheaded version of Mountain or Blue Cheer (“We’re the renegade niggers and white trash,” declares the all-Caucasian group on “Radio X,” providing fertile ground for scholars of the historical construction of whiteness but only awkward double takes for casual listeners).
A few tracks reveal pop smarts. Sullivan oversells the vocals on “Sand Castles”, but it still achieves a ratty catchiness, and the singer reins in the excess on the superior “Good Blues”. The later track “She’s Gone”, recorded in 1972, taps into the then-prevalent neo-country trappings of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles to deliver a commendable burst of barroom bliss. The band even breaks out a nifty harmonica solo on “Comin’ Back Strong”. For variety’s sake, there’s a tape-effects collage (appended to the demo tape by the band’s manager against their will, according to guitar player Larry Otis’ notes; even three and a half decades later, he’s irked enough to chop it down from six minutes to two). And, of course, “Laurie Waltzing”, the aforementioned theme music for the main character of Roger Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (a fine piece of exploitation cinema, but coming in after Daughters of Darkness, Vampyres, and the more subtle Dracula’s Daughter in my lesbian-vampire canon), with effectively creepy studio-manipulated acoustic guitar and harpsichord.
For bonus material, we get a studio outtake, a hilariously breathy radio spot for The Velvet Vampire, and some modest acoustic blues songs recorded by a reunited Sullivan and Otis between 1999 and 2004. Otis’ liner notes are amusing (Pat Boone, he notes, had no idea what kinds of debauchery graced his studio by night), and they gracefully take pride in Born Again’s music (though not the band’s name) without any bitter bemoaning of their consignment to the footnotes of rock history. Sometimes mediocrity plus time equals, well, interesting mediocrity. Because of Shadoks’ evident effort, Pagan deserves at least a glance, as a timepiece if not as a particularly distinguished album.