The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment
A Vintage LP as Fringe Time Capsule
by Kurt Wildermuth
For a record collector with a working turntable, there can be joy in finding an analog recording-an LP or a single-that doesn't exist in an official digital form. One vintage LP that never made it onto CD, and that probably tops no one's wish list for digital files, is The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment, released by Performance Records in 1986. As of this writing, fewer than 100 contributors to the website Discogs own the album, and fewer than 10 want to.
Most aspects of this compilation are obscure. For example, the title appears to be a play on the name The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. This Los Angeles group released six albums of psychedelic rock in 1966-70, but they were never a household name unless you lived in a very hip, music-oriented household. By 1986, you had to be a serious collector of past music or trivia to understand a reference to them. What's more, The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment's reference to that long-lost band really amounts to an in-joke, because the music on this compilation has nothing to do with The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band! What is going on here?
The compilation's back-cover notes explain its reason for being: "THE EAST COAST salutes the studios of L.A. and the cellars and garages of SAGINAW, CLEVELAND, CHICAGO, and DALLAS. This LP was compiled by people whose lives and tastes were profoundly affected by the music and politics of the MID TO LATE SIXTIES. As a labor of love, we've tried our best to create a caring tribute to the artists and pop records from the last days of non-conglomerate radio. THIS IS OUR EXPERIMENT." It was a nonscientific experiment, run by obsessives who had the best intentions but were not always so good with the details of getting their message across.
Like the album's title, the front cover bears an uncomfortable relation to the music. Yes, the quasi-psychedelic typeface, distorted checkerboard, and photos of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Brian Jones, Edie Sedgwick, and Davey Jones connect this record with the pop/rock and counterculture of the 1960s. However, the individuals depicted have no connection to the songs on this album. Instead, the good people of Performance Records have collected cover versions, from the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, of songs by '60s artists other than the ones shown on the cover. As a famous '60s band once put it: Very strange.
Equally strange was the decision to start side one with the compilation's weakest track. Scott Lea's version of Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now" might be spirited beneath its ultra-lo-fi and hugely echo-laden surface, and its guitar solo and keyboard work are impressive, but what the album's liner notes call "expanded and contemporized" aspects of this version come across as the kind of 1980s production touches--gated drums, reverberating vocals--that now make listeners cringe. Maybe at the time they sounded fresh and made Performance think "alternative" DJ's would be enticed.
The '80s touches are applied sparingly, but still, upon hearing this opener you don't find what the notes call "a record that rivals the original for instant likability." Instead, especially if you find the original infinitely likable, your heart will sink, and your inner Peggy Lee (everybody's got one) will ask if that's all there is to this album.
Luckily, there's more and better. No track on the album beats the original version--with chestnuts this well roasted, that'd be hard to accomplish--but the complete sequence adds up to a pleasurable listen, which actually grows more pleasurable with repeated spins. At their best, the new versions make you examine aspects of the originals. So if you look at the song titles and think it might be interesting to hear what a cast of mostly total unknowns with meager budgets and little commercial potential would do with that music two decades later, give this platter a chance. Go in with low expectations. Expect to experience at least the love and care that went into it.
That's my opinion, and the web isn't brimming with others. Of the two reviewers at the website Rate Your Music, one likes the album, and the other thinks it has too much dead wood. The alternative music compendium Trouser Press casts a positive tie-breaker: "The power pop and garage pop performances are all delightful, and there are friendly liner notes for those who can't place a naggingly familiar tune. A winner!"
Trouser Press's capsule review suffices if you're figuring out how much to spend on a copy of this winner. But for fun (its own kind of profit), let's dig deeper into the time capsule. Performance Records might have been challenged when it came to titling and design, but its heads were, for the most part, screwed on when it came to music. This album's executive producers, Stephen Kaplan and Arthur Marko, seem to have been the label honchos. I draw this conclusion based on Kaplan's and Marko's readily available music-business credits, all of which are related to Performance. Starting in 1984, then off and on for about a decade, this independent label operated out of New Brunswick, NJ, issuing or reissuing collections of actual '60s pop/rock (The Music Explosion, The Music Machine, Count Five), live recordings by artists from the '60s and '70s (Nico, The Shadows of Knight, Johnny Thunders and Wayne Kramer), and newish recordings by purveyors of rock and roll mayhem (Material, Blotto, Slaves of New Brunswick). The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment was the fourth of the 44 releases associated with the label.
The album's associate producer, Matt Pinfield, seems to have been a popular DJ at New Brunswick's Melody Bar and on the radio. In the years after Performance stopped releasing albums, he hosted MTV's alternative-rock program "120 Minutes," then became an A&R and artist development executive at Columbia Records. On The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment, Pinfield's band, Opium Vala, covers Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" in the same uptempo style as the Bangles applied to their version (which was released the next year), but with a loose-limbed abandon that the pop/rocker Alex Chilton (of The Box Tops, Big Star, and a supremely checkered solo career) might have appreciated. The combination of sounds and approaches I've just described could be called power pop, but it also verges on garage rock, so maybe Trouser Press was right in labeling the results "garage pop."
In and around 1986, New Jersey and New York were prominent among the states where young musicians were reviving 1960s garage rock. The style had never completely vanished. In 1972 the music writer Lenny Kaye had compiled the original, massively influential two-record set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, which included pop but definitely celebrated garage rock. By the mid-to-late '70s, as a guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, Kaye was among the musicians keeping the garage-rock spirit alive in the mainstream. (He was also a member of Slaves of New Brunswick, so he has a Performance Records connection.)
Mainstream and underground rock bands had been covering garage-band songs--prominently ones from Nuggets--since the '60s, but by the mid-'80s the style had become a scene, or really a collection of scenes, primarily in the U.S. and Europe. The garage-rock revival isn't strictly on display on The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment, but this album's target audience would have seen that scene as part of the musical backdrop. Another part, a ghost presence here not mentioned by Trouser Press, is punk rock.
Consider that a band called Junk covers "The Shape of Things to Come." Written by the pop songsmiths Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, this song was originally recorded by a fictional garage band for the movie Wild in the Streets (1968), turned into an actual garage-rock classic through various versions over the years, and ultimately included on Rhino Records' four-CD expansion of Nuggets (1998). Meanwhile, if you didn't know better, you might think Junk's spirited take was an original, not a cover.
On the punkier side, Aerrage rips through its version of Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man" with a tautness that might remind you of the Buzzcocks. Hollow Bodies tear through "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as though the Beatles were the Sex Pistols (which in Hamburg, Germany, in the very early '60s, they sort of were). Jigs & The Pigs replace the rhythmically challenged cheesiness of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" with a psychotic edge and instrumental attack. Bringing to mind The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (best-known for their hit single, "Fire"), they unexpectedly bring something worth hearing to this Lee Hazlewood song that Nancy Sinatra got quite right the first time and that so few other versions do anything with.
Pure pop comes from Null Set, covering Cat Stevens's "Here Comes My Baby" (four years before New Jersey's indie royalty Yo La Tengo) with verve and with swell keyboard-and-guitar interplay. The Punsters do The Five Americans' "Western Union" as New Jersey's crazy rhythmists the Feelies might have done, complete with a quick, buzzing guitar solo. Pete Tomlinson delivers The Box Tops' "Soul Deep," conjuring Stiff Records' late-'70s prime and making you wonder why Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, or Wreckless Eric never covered this song. Joe Hosey dips further back into the '70s on his cover of Keith's (no last name; just Keith's) sunshine-pop "98.6," suggesting the Bay City Rollers gone glam--or new wavers Adam and the Ants?
The pop and punk content of this collection are enhanced by two late-'70s tracks that Performance rescued from oblivion. Fitting the album's musical concept but extending its chronology, Fireballet's cover of The Left Banke's "Desiree" was released as a single in 1976. Like the original, this version is intricately constructed, with layers of harmonies and strings; the updating consists mainly of a more muscular rhythm section and a slight derangement to the falsetto vocal. Steel Tips' cover of Question Mark and the Mysterians' evergreen "96 Tears" was released a single in 1978. Fans of the art and punk scenes of New Jersey and New York may want to check out this track, not just because it's a raw, grinding rendition that would fit comfortably on a late-'70s punk album, but also because of the group's underground-historical interest. "New Jersey's sleaziest pseudo-punks," the liners notes call Steel Tips, who reportedly made a name for themselves by violently confronting audiences. The visual and performance artist Joe Coleman was a member--according to Trouser Press, this song presents his only recorded vocal with the group--and there's at least one video of Coleman appearing as provocateur with them at CBGB's.
Finally, fans of East Coast '80s pop/rock will be intrigued by the appearance on this compilation of The Smithereens, whose debut album came out the same year and yielded the hit "Blood and Roses." They scored a few more hits over the next decade. Here, on loan from their label, Enigma Records, the pride of New Brunswick cover Dominic Frontière's "Hang 'Em High." This tune was the title song for the 1968 spaghetti western; Booker T. & the M.G.'s released their hit version in September '68; and in 1982 The Smithereens, coproducing with the Dictators' Andy Shernoff, turned the tune into this furious surf instrumental, giving it the subtitle "(Hang Ten High)." It bears that title unparenthetically on the band's 1995 rarities collection, Attack of the Smithereens. Thus at least this one totally rockin' track from The East Coast 60's Rock & Roll Experiment can be yours digitally. All 2 minutes and 14 seconds of it.
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
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