I would be happy to bet that you won’t hear The United States of America on the radio, through a commercial, or on a public playlist. You probably won’t even hear the band on one of those Starbucks-style compilation records sold at coffee shops; those filled with obscure ’60s ensembles to heighten the indie vibe.
This isn’t surprising. When the album, The United States of America was originally released in 1968, it only reached No. 181 on the Billboard 200. The content itself is, at best, challenging, and at worst a dated cacophony of the worst late-’60s pop pretensions.
However, to dismiss The United States of America out of hand would be to miss their critical part in the development of electronic music. The eponymous band was founded in 1967 by composer Joseph Byrd and singer Dorothy Moskowitz. Byrd was already a respected composer of experimental music, and was a member of the Fluxus Movement alongside, amongst others, John Cage and Yoko Ono.
The pair had moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where Byrd was studying for a doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA. His background in the New York avant-garde immediately caught the eye of various dances, visual artists and musicians, leading him to establish the New Music Workshop with jazz trumpeter Don Ellis. Through the Workshop, Byrd and Moskotwitz would start to blend performance art with his music.
Eventually, a blues band he organised for one of its concert series, fronted by his friend the singer Linda Ronstadt, lead Byrd to realise that rock music would grant him a wider public audience. With this catalyst, he set about establishing a band.
The result was an ensemble of Byrd, Moskowitz, and the musicians Craig Woodson, Gordon Marron and Rand Forbes, with Ed Bogas arriving later. Byrd described the band, in his own words, as “an avant-garde political/musical rock group with the idea of combining electronic sound… musical/political radicalism… performance art.”
It was during this period that Byrd had become a member of the Communist Party, owing to its radical and disciplined agenda. Hence, he saw the band’s name as a deliberately provocative statement against the United States’ political agenda. A demo tape was recorded and caught the ear of Clive Davis at Columbia Records, and the band obtained a recording contract.
What is likely their signature song, “The American Metaphysical Circus”, kicks matters off, with a landscape laden with a giddy and almost childlike glee whilst simultaneously sampling a John Philip Souza march, before collapsing into Moskowitz’s crooning, enunciated as one would a nursery rhyme. Marron’s electric violin and the chorus of modular synthesisers evoke 50s B-Movie sci-fi, in between Forbes’ bass remaining arguably the song’s only sign of normality.
Sophomore track “Hard Coming Love” parallels many of the sounds King Crimson fans would fall in love with just a year later, whilst “Cloud Song” and “Love Song for the Dead Che” are both outfitted with lilting string and piano melodies and provide welcome relief from some of the more dated electronic sounds. Go-go pop number “Garden of Earthly Lights” carries a more mainstream, driving feel. Easily the most accessible and anthemic song, this is largely thanks to Woodson’s percussion, which brings it as close as one can get to a Jefferson Airplane/Pink Floyd crossover.
That vibe immediately dissipates on the next few tracks. “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar” melds the American Songbook with carnival jazz, slide whistles, and a jazz coda, whilst “Where is Yesterday” opens side two with Latin choral. “Stranded in Time” carries a first half that imagines The Beatles as a string quartet, before routinely dissipating into porto-prog jamming.
“The American Way of Love” the six-and-a-half minute, three-part concluding blowout, however, takes the cake for weirdness. Amongst the collage of vocal samples (“how much fun it’s been”), jazz workouts and seaside singalong, it carries with it just about every sound that’s been featured on the album. For better or worse, it sounds unlike anything
Taken together, it’s a disorienting, perverted form of radical brilliance that emerges from the album. Byrd wrote in the liner notes that the band was largely “ignorant” of much of rock music. In some ways, however, the non-conformity and ignorance of the very style of music they composed, whilst adorning it with the regulations and innovations they picked up over the course of their tenure, gives an almost farcical pleasure to the album, whilst making it wholly unique.
But it’s the placement in time that makes this album truly extraordinary. Byrd’s ability to forge musique concrète from the collages and white noise, whilst in turn mastering the tape delays, modulated fade-outs, and instrumental replication on his synthesisers this early on in pop music’s history is quite an achievement. Compared to the budgets available to the Beach Boys and Beatles, Byrd was working on a shoestring, but emerged with equivalent sonic results.
Indeed, The United States of America‘s time of release also marks it as an overlooked catalyst in the pop collective. Between 1968 and 1969, bands such as Silver Apples emerged with their self-titled debut, with Fifty-Foot House’s Cauldron, Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach and White Noise’s An Electric Storm, to name but a handful, following suit. Taken together, these albums mark the birth of the electronic rock genres that would continue to grow into, and eventually dominate, the radio.
Each of these records collaged sound effects, usually Mellotrons and synthesisers, to create distinct, eerie soundscapes, freely adopting the dissonant timbres that would give Kid A so much of its acclaim 30 years later. However, none of them ever quite captured the same adventurous spirit and relentless innovation that arrives here, nor its ironic accessibility. The United States of America is a largely forgotten masterpiece at the epicentre of a forgotten revolution in pop sensibilities. It’s certainly worth a listen half a century later.