Thursday, July 4, 2019

The United States of America - Gifts and Creatures

The United States of America – Gifts and Creatures
(soniclovenoize “Second Album” reimagining)

Side A:
1.  Kalyani
2.   You Can’t Ever Come Down
3.  Tailor Man
4.  Nightmare Train
5.  Osamu’s Birthday
6.  Do You Follow Me

Side B:
7.  No Love
8.  The Sing-Along Song
9.  Perry Pier
10.  Invisible Man
11.  The Sub-Sylvian Litanies
12.  The Elephant At The Door
13.  The Sing-Along Song (Reprise)

Happy Fourth of July!  This is a reimaging of a possible second album from psychedelic-pop visionaries The United States of America.  Using a combination of solo recordings from band-leaders Joseph Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz, as well as a few outtakes from the debut United States of America album, we will attempt to make what a theoretical sophomore 1969 album by the band would have sounded like.   All tracks have been volume adjusted from the best sources and crossfaded into two continuous LP sides of music. 

To put it simply, there was never a band like The United States of America, nor there ever will be again.  Formed by young ethnomusicologist and Fluxus art movement centerpiece Joseph Byrd and his former-partner Dorothy Moskowitz in 1967, the pair were somehow equally influenced by John Cage and The Beatles.  After composing a set of material with Byrd on keyboards and Moskowitz on vocals, the duo recruited the rest of the band from musicians whom they knew and performed with in the Los Angeles art, experimental and scholarly music scene: Gordon Marron was recruited to play an electrified violin through a ring modulator; African-drum student Craig Woodson was recruited to play a drumkit amplified by a number of contact mics; modern classical bassist Rand Forbes played fretless bass, often through a fuzz pedal.  The quintet was also joined by Marron’s friend Ed Bogas, who supplied additional keyboards.  Young art students who essentially wanted to create a rock band—despite being totally unfamiliar with the medium—were also highly tapped into revolutionary 1960s politics and the counter-culture, and sought to subvert the establishment by ironically dubbing the band The United States of America. 

After recording a demo in September 1967, success was found fairly quickly as The United States of America were signed to Columbia before they even performed their first show!  After touring with Richie Havens and The Troggs, the group began recording their self-titled debut that December with Moby Grape producer David Rubinson.  Cracks already began to form in the unit, as Rubinson allegedly attempted to elevate Moskowitz to being the star of the show; likewise, creative differences between Byrd and the union of Bogas, Marron and Rubinson put a strain on the recording sessions.  Regardless, the sextet and it's producer created an album unparalleled in its fusion of rock music, experimental electronics, counter culture social commentary and genre hopping from pop to Dixieland to sound collage.  Released in March 1968, the band followed its release with another tour with The Troggs and The Velvet Underground. 

Despite being on the cusp of fame, the band quickly disintegrated.   Unfortunate circumstances shadowed the tour, including audience hecklers, a random attack on Byrd by unhip locals and a literal backstage fistfight between Marron and Byrd.  Columbia records had a difficulty in marketing the musical (and literal) revolutionaries and the band wondered if they were “selling out to the man”.  Internal band dynamics began to reach a breaking point as each tried to vie power of the band from its originator, Byrd.  After an additional recording session in May 1968 for a follow-up single “You Can Never Come Down”, the band called it quits that summer, with Byrd walking away from the creature he created (or fired from the band, as he claimed!).  Not surprisingly, additional demo sessions with Moskowitz and a backing band of session musicians were recorded in late July still under the name of The United States of America, indicating Columbia’s desire to continue the moniker with Dorothy as the centerpiece.  These recording of two Moskowitz originals “Tailor Man” and “Perry Pier”, as well as a third penned by Kenneth Edwards of Linda Ronstadt’s band Stone Ponies, “Do You Follow Me”, were decidedly more commercial-sounding, featured a standard rock instrumentation rather than the guitar-less and cutting edge sound of The United States of America.  Regardless, nothing came of these recordings, which were shelved after the band’s break-up.

Meanwhile, the outcast Byrd struggled to find direction.  Salvation came when Columbia Records, recognizing him as a genius despite the failure to market and keep his band alive, offered him the chance to make a second album, this time a solo effort in which he (allegedly) had total creative control.  Like Moskowitz just recently prior, Byrd gathered several session musicians—dubbed The Field Hippies—and recorded a song cycle of hastily-written material under the working title Gifts and Creatures, using a new version of the unused United States of America single “You Can Never Come Down” as a centerpiece.  Although the sessions were difficult and Byrd had to utilize a series of female vocalists in obvious mimicry of his departed muse Moskowitz, the resulting album The American Metaphysical Circus was somewhat of a sequel to the sole Unites States of America album.  Again mixing experimental rock and pop with Dixieland and gospel, the album began with a suite of songs designed to replicate an LSD trip, followed by a suite of sharp-tonged songs dedicated to President Lyndon B Johnson and concluding with another suite parodying the decaying older generation and their early retirement farms.  Released in 1969, the album miraculously became a cult hit and remained in the Columbia Masterworks catalog for over 20 years, despite being too rock for the classical crowd and too arty for the pop crowd.  Both The United States of America and The American Metaphysical Circus became cult classics of the psychedelic 60s, remaining hidden gems of the era, waiting patiently to be discovered by music aficionados over the next 50 years. 

Even through the album title’s implication and the obvious continuity of band-leader Byrd, The American Metaphysical Circus wasn’t quite the sequel that these second-generation United States of America fans hoped for.  While having some musical similarities, The Field Hippies seemed to go on tangents that circled Byrd’s own fascination with traditional American music and his study in ethnomusicology.  And of course, the obvious lack of Dorothy Moskowitz strong yet cool voice, replaced by ragtag facsimiles Christie Thompson, Susan de Lange and Victoria Bond who simply could not hit the mark.  Is there somehow a way to reconstruct the album to make it more a proper encore to The United States of America?  

For my reimagining, we will use the core of The American Metaphysical Circus, but patch in the original United States of America recording of “You Can Never Come Down”, the three Moskowitz-lead United States of America recordings from 1968 and two outtakes from the self-titled 1967 sessions in order to make it a more appropriate follow-up that will almost solely feature lead vocals by either Dorothy or Joseph.  Sources are simply the 1996 One Way Records remaster of The American Metaphysical Circus and the 2004 Sundazed remaster of The United States of America, the later featuring a number of the required bonus tracks for this reimagining.  We will call the album Gifts and Creatures, the original, intended title of The American Metaphysical Circus, with cover art featuring imagery from The United States of America’s live shows in 1968. 

Side A begins with The Field Hippy’s “Kalyani”, but is hard edited into the USofA’s “You Can Never Come Down”, ideally establishing the intent of this reimagining.  Crossfading back into the outro of The Field Hippy’s version of the same song, we go directly into Moskowitz’s “Tailor Man”, followed by The Field Hippy’s “Nightmare Train”.  Next is The United States of America “Osamu’s Birthday”, an outtake from their debut album, with Moskowitz’s “Do You Follow Me” closing the side.

Side B begins with another outtake from the first USofA debut, “No Love”, going directly into The Field Hippie’s “The Sing-Along Song”.  Moskowitz’s “Perry Pier” follows and then edited into The Field Hippy’s “Invisible Man”.  Now, we could not have a United State of America album without a sound collage, right? If I may be so bold, what follows is my own creation from previously heard sound elements, ideally creating a reappropriation of several themes on the album into a new context, in which we will call “The Sub-Sylvian Litanies”.  We will use the most USofA-sounding selection from The Field Hippies as the epic track to conclude the album; hopefully there is a suspension of disbelief as we feature a lead vocal by Susan de Lange instead of our beloved Dorothy. 

What is the result of Gifts and Creatures?  While defiantly an interesting experiment of what could have been, two things become quite obvious.  Firstly, both Dorothy and Joseph seemed to depart from the experimental rock of their debut album, with Moskowitz leaning towards the female soft-rock singer-songwriter territory and Byrd towards ethnomusicological pursuits.   Strangely enough, those two sounds seems to match fairly well and make a cohesive album, despite it not really sounding like a true USofA album.  Which leads us to the second point: the truth is, the trinity of Marron’s modulated violin, Forbes’ fuzzy bass and Woodson’s electrified drums seemed to be the USofA’s secret weapon, and what stylistically set the band apart from their contemporaries.  Aside from the two songs that feature them, they are sorely missed from this reimagining of a sophomore album. 

Regardless, I hope you enjoy the album (that admittedly simply originated as a little experiment of my own), and make your Fourth of July an American metaphysical circus!

Sources used:
Joe Byrd & The Field Hippies - The American Metaphysical Circus (1996 One Way Records CD Remaster)
The Unites States of America - The United States of America (2004 Sundazed CD Remaster)
flac --> wav --> editing in SONAR, Audacity & Goldwave --> flac encoding via TLH lv8
*md5, artwork and tracknotes included