In the early 1980s, I was a big fan of the Ian Astbury led Southern Death Cult/Death Cult/The Cult trio of post-punk, gothic bands. Astbury was a captivating figure, dressed as he was then, in Native American clothes and daubed with face paint. For a lad from the Midlands in the UK, the only Indians (as Native Americans we more widely called then) I knew about was Tonto from the Lone Ranger and the waiters who served us in the curry houses of Birmingham we frequented.
I recall hearing and taping Astbury on a BBC Radio One program one evening where he was talked about and played some of the music that inspired and influenced him. I can still vividly recall hearing the strange but utterly mesmerizing voice coming through the tiny transistor radio speakers, undulating, vibrating and warbling across the airwaves. It turned out to be Buffy Sainte-Marie singing what I think was “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”. I was transfixed. It sparked a lifelong interest in Native American history and a love of Buffy’s music and heritage.
I mention this because Sainte-Marie’s “Poppies” opens the wonderfully eclectic compilation from Craft Recordings, Poppies: Assorted Finery From the First Psychedelic Age.
Compiled of Vanguard, Stax, and Original Sound catalogs there are some deep cuts on the album that force us to rethink or perhaps reframe, our notion of what constitutes psychedelic music. The album moves away from the pure rock connotations of psychedelia to include folk, world, R&B, soul, jazz and contemporary classical music. Released on CD, there is also a limited edition gatefold red vinyl pressing alongside comprehensive liner notes written by Alac Paloa which help shine some much-needed light on the artists included herein.
Taken from her 1969 album, Illuminations, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Poppies” is an ethereal song comprised of hushed, baroque and operatic vocals, a shimmering instrumental backdrop with hints of minimal electronica coursing through it. It’s majestic and unsettling, something that could easily be at home in the films such as The Wicker Man.
Lighter, brighter is the organ-driven pop-psych “Smell of Incense” (incredibly released on a Stax imprint called Hip) by the Texas group Southwest F.O.B. and the more obvious fuzzy psych sounds of Jefferson Lee’s “Sorcerella”.
With a nod to the medieval sounds of the harpsichord, the Gospel hit us with “Redeemer”, possibly the only psychedelic Christmas song ever released and this is followed by the brilliant extended wig out provided by Detroit’s the Frost and their track Stand in the Shadows. The guitar duel between Dick Wagner and Dan Hartman is worth the price of admission alone.
Closing Side A is an interesting band called the Sot Weed Factor. Contemporaries of Neil Young and Barry McGuire, residents at the Topanga Coral in LA and featuring future Canned Heat drummer Adolfo “Fito” De La Parra, the Sot Weed Factor never quite made it, but they did leave us with the baroque-psych classic in “Say It Isn’t So”.
Opening Side two is another Stax related oddity. The Honey Jug’s “In 1582 We” features an Edison Cylinder player and a slow Brit Beat style delivery. It’s a strange song that seems very of its time but still founds fresh when listening to it some 50 years later.
The Pasternak Progress is arguably the best connected of the acts on the album. Singer Joe was the son of film producer Joe and brother of legendary DJ Emperor Rosko. Represented here with “Flower Eyes”, it’s a flower power type song with bright vocals and great keyboard flourishes. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Doors album.
If Joe Pasternak is the best connected then Circus Maximus is arguably the best known. Featuring, as Alan Palao so memorably says, future cosmic cowboy Jerry Jeff Walker (writer of Mr. Bojangles no less), “Bright Light Lovers” is a rollicking 1960s garage tune, reminding this listener of the Rolling Stones.
The Serpent Power consisted of husband and wife duo David and Tina Meltzer, veterans of the 1950s Beatnik Movement. A lively folk-tinged track “Open House” zips along with bright harmonies and uplifting lyrics. The Human Jungle’s “When Will You Happen to Me” is the closest track on the album to what we would conceive as psychedelic rock with light Brit Beat style vocals and ascending keyboards and stabs of guitar licks. It’s a great track.
Chapter VI and Erik close out the album with “Oracle” and “Why Come Another Day” respectively. Chapter VI have traces of the Doors in the sound of their keyboards (most notably “Light My Fire”) while the enigmatic Erik (Erik Heller) bookends Buffy Saint-Marie’s opener with soft, baroque vocals on another killer track. His debut album Look Where I Am was released in 1967 and disappeared without much fuss. On the strength of this track though it’s should be well worth tracking down.
This album offers a great introduction to some of the more obscure and non-traditional psychedelic music of the late 1960s with some brilliant tracks that could well lead you down new paths of discovery.