Perfect Sound Forever


Red Crayola and Familiar Ugly, photo by Albert Koch

The Story of The Parable of Arable Land
Part 2 by Kelechi Wisdom
(June 2023)

If you came here from elsewhere, see Part 1 of the article


Angry rock songs are considered to be a staple of the genre. However, the style came into fashion during the first garage rock boom of the mid-'60's and then back again when punk exploded in the late '70's. If you want to find one of the earliest examples of this phenomena, look no further, as "War Sucks" could be considered one of the earliest examples of genuine unadulterated rage in rock music. With the off-key shouting of this desperate anti-war chant, it is clearly evident that Thompson is brimming with anger throughout the entirety of the recording.

The Red Crayola beat the Sex Pistols to the game ten years early, and even proto-punk savants like the Stooges and MC5 failed to express themselves with such unrelenting confrontation until a few years later. The sentiments expressed lyrically even influenced later artists such as Houston hardcore punk group Really Red who covered the song in 1985.

"War Sucks," originally written by Thompson and Barthelme in the mid-1960's amidst the then-raging Vietnam War, is arguably one of the greatest songs of the 1960's, and possibly of all time. It's the very moment where the collective idea and experiment of the album effectively reaches its peak, the free form freak-out blends in so naturally that the distinction between song and noise is made practically unnoticeable. Producer Lelan Rogers suggested that they swap out the standard rock beat in favour of tribal drumming that aped the sounds of a goose-stepping army, making Barthelme sound as if Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground was brought in to guest on drums, which speaks a lot on how pivotal Rogers' was to the production of the album. It was a mutual and collective effort given the involvement of the Familiar Ugly, Walt Andrus' stereo mix and Rogers' suggestions and permissions for full creative freedom.

In mono form, the song could probably vouch to be one of the heaviest tracks of 1967, or even the '60's in general. The rhythm section is driven full-force and not completely subdued as it is in the stereo mix. When the industrial noise of the Familiar Ugly kicks-in at the following freak-out, it all becomes a claustrophobic ordeal, with the song trying its best to stay intact amidst the chaos. The rhythm guitar sounds like a constant droning raga, which is very reminiscent of Sandy Bull (who's recognized as one of the first American artists to mix eastern influences with western music all the way back in 1963). One can also hear a lot of the influence stemming from the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" which is most evident in Thompson's sporadic strumming. Some of the noisy elements of the Byrds' John Coltrane influenced guitar passages shine through as well, which were also a massive influence on early Pink Floyd (who Arable was compared to), even though it was released prior to the Floyd's debut LP.

"American no-mother child at your breast / Your apple pie is so obviously best" - a great opening line which seems to be a play on words on the idiom "Motherhood and apple pie" or "As American as mom and apple pie," a statement which addresses the core beliefs and values of the people who live in the United States. By deconstructing that expression with this opening verse, Thompson is also attacking this fundamental idea of core American values and beliefs; like, those rooted in economic systems like capitalism. It could also play as a double entendre that attacks what people in the USA deem important. It could also just be a subtle attack on capitalism as a "no-mother child" feeds at the American government's breast. But things like apple pie are valued more highly, and a battle is now raging out west, from Thompson's geographical location, the arrows point to no other place than Vietnam.

The lyrics are serious, passionate, emotional and sincere but are written in a way that is almost childlike and amateurish, with usage of rhymes and hippie slang that help presage a lot of what would become known as "punk rock." It narrows down many of the era's anti-war sentiments into not a profoundly long literary statement but an over simplistic and straightforward two-word chorus: "war sucks!" which in a way is its own level of profundity. When you say "war sucks" in 1967, you really meant it, and it wasn't a statement to throw lightly. It was controversial and just like the sound of the song itself, feeling all-up-in-your-face as it bursts right through your head with a crack stretching from ear-to-ear. The colloquialism of "sucks" sounds almost rude and prudish, which might be one of the reasons the song was banned from airplay, hindering its chances to become the hippie slogan that it should have been. The ban contributed to the lack of advertising the album received on mainstream radio. Besides, the references to then president Lyndon B. Johnson, the sentiments against the invasion of Vietnam as well as the provocative verse regarding God's inaction to the issues of the world, the album did not lend itself well to be broadcasted, and those who did broadcast it risked losing their jobs, which made it dwell in the underground since its very inception. Allegedly, even the underground radio stations didn't pick the album up. As Rogers noted in a 1978 interview about International Artists when the label started to experience a resurgence:

"If you listen to one cut on that album 'War Sucks' this country was in a real mess with the war. We put that song, 'War Sucks', on the album and that was controversial to say the least. Murray the K, the DJ in New York City at WNEW got a copy from my promotion man and he said, 'This is what's happening'. And he got promptly fired. He then started at WNEW FM and they had figured they didn't want that on AM and they were starting that station so they put it on FM."7

"Pink Stainless Tail"

"Pink Stainless Tail" swaps out the distorted tremolo-ridden fender Stratocaster for a jangly 12th string guitar that harks back to the jangle pop sound of the Byrds. It's an apt comparison due to the fact the Red Crayola started out as a garage rock band spending many a day covering "Eight Miles High," "House of the Rising Sun" and a sped-up version of Arthur Lee's "Hey Joe" - even throwing in a cover of "Group Grope" by the Fugs at one of their chaotic rehearsals. The rubber-like overblown bass runs of Steve Cunningham's incessant Eastern scale inspired playing, lodged in with every throbbing, tremolo-picked sunk in thick strap of riveting noise that clashes with the Ugly's otherworldly warble, act as a precursor to the sounds of the post-punk movement, a whole decade prior to it. The intensity and urgency of Rick Barthelme's drumming crowns this track as one of the staple proto-punk numbers of the album, which is pretty impressive for the self-proclaimed "worst drummer in the world." A straightforward, no-nonsense track.

Thompson's lecherous lyrics mixed in with his iconic brand of fantastical imagery make for a true psychedelic adventure. To add on, the constant cymbals recall the seeds of punk rock being sown, the true muscle of the record. Additionally, noise rock band Barkmarket covered the track in 1989 as part of their sophomore LP "Easy Listening." The freak-out that leads into the song seems to make use of reverse tape effects, an indiscernible conversation can be heard in the background, which could insinuate the Ugly having a break as Thompson continues to noodle away on his guitar.

Title Track

A tribute to John Cage and an exploration within the world of musique concrete and early sound collage, mish-and-mashing bits, and pieces together - what sounds like kitchen cutlery, a creaking door, a pack of guitar strings being taken out of the wrapper, finger-snapping mic pops, meticulously layered over each other, crafting loops and dead ends. It must have been difficult to create a track like this back in 1967, during times of reel-to-reel tape. They must have had to record most of these objects separately and then cut and paste the tapes together, so they all played continuously over each other.

Additionally, this might be one of the earliest examples of industrial music, sounding much like an outtake from This Heat's 1979 eponymous debut album as well as being able to pass as a Throbbing Gristle demo circa 1977, and presaging Faust and the Residents. In a way, it's surprising that the record label managed to allow this on the album, but this is a band that merged noise and song, so everything goes.

Furthermore, MGMT's 2013 self-titled album's track "I Love You Too, Death" shares some similarity with "Parable of Arable Land," most notably in the intro fabricated with the use of found sounds and sound collage. Around this time, MGMT's Andrew Van Wyngarden was actually a fan of the Crayola, so it isn't far-fetched to assume that he was influenced by the track. Animal Collective's avant-garde use of unconventional instruments and noises apparent on "Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished" and "Danse Manatee" seem to hark back to the sound of this unlawful experiment as well.

Former Reflections, Enduring Doubt

The album's closer written entirely by Steve Cunningham, is a strange and elusive one, with no concrete meaning, it is one of the most mysterious songs the band ever produced, with lyrics making mention of God, the disappearance of one self and the failing to save someone else. It's a lot to unpack here. Some say the song might be in reference to the album as a whole, where this character cannot remember all the events that have transpired and is now dying to radiation poisoning as drawn out in "Transparent Radiation." However, that point is unlikely given the record is not a concept album. Who knows what Cunningham might have been trying to unravel on this track. All we know is that the subdued guitar, and eerie harmonica (not played by Erickson but possibly Thompson or Danny Schacht) make for an endearing track.

Personally, one of the greatest moments I ever had in my life was watching the sunset trailing down the sky while walking through a wheat field as this song flowed passed my ears, an angelic experience that just cemented the idea of the album so perfectly. Out of the ugly manic noise, beauty arises. Like a caterpillar in metamorphosis, a phoenix rising from the ashes, one can even perceive the beauty in the prior freak-out too as Jelly Roll Morton croons on, bringing idyllic images of futuristic ball dances where the soundtrack is the Familiar Ugly.

Stereo Mix

Walt Andrus' production of the record is incredibly important to the overall sound and aesthetic as it's his artificially engineered stereo mix that he curated with the help of Frank Davis that make this record so important. Rick Barthelme's drumming is overdubbed twice creating a disorienting effect as his drumming knocks in-and-out of time. Rogers, when handing a mono and stereo copy of Parable to Barry Olivier (the director of the annual Berkeley Music Folk Festival) mentioned that the stereo mix was superior to the mono. Similar to Pink Floyd's the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band had no say in the making of the stereo mix. Thompson remembers being called in to listen to it and replying with "sounds okay to me, crazy, but sounds okay."

Mono Mix

Rick Barthelme called the album "a wonder if you are wasted, and a poor example otherwise" arguing that had the Familiar Ugly been recorded in stereo instead of mono, the album's concept would have been executed much more compellingly as a much more effectively immersive experience. The mono mix carries more of a punk edge, with its increasingly noisy nature and avant-garde experimentalism. It's uncut and unfiltered, it's the original mix, it's the full picture.


The Cramps recorded the first cover of "Hurricane Fighter Plane, which might also be the first Red Crayola cover ever in January 1977, almost a whole decade after the release of the Parable of Arable Land. It is a shame no '60s bands took the liberty to cover their material. They seemed to have sold many copies and gotten some bootlegged overseas, who knows if artists like Syd Barrett who would fit perfectly in that crazed ballpark ever heard the album. Only time will tell when his record collection is revealed, or a close colleague recalls it. Madlib sampled "Former Reflections Enduring Doubt" on the track "Centauri" for his 2014 studio album Rock Konducta, Pt. 2 - "Free Form Freak-Out" was also sampled and can be heard throughout the album. The record itself was Madlib's tribute to some of his favourite rock classics ranging from prog to psych to krautrock.


Red Crayola were the definition of making a "virtue of your shortcomings." They became the larger part of their sums, accomplishing so much with so little - the jarring use of effects on this album was completely unheard of in the '60's, the echoing vocals drenched in reverb and delay is a pioneering technique that can still be heard in every single neo-psych band that cranks weekly noise at a KEXP concert today. If you exclude the title track as a song and include it as a freak-out, there's 18 minutes of music and 22 minutes of free improvised noise, which is an insane metric for an album that supposedly sold 50,000 copies when it was first released, there's more noise pieces than songs on this record.

Thompson remarked his reasoning for disbanding the Familiar Ugly and not featuring the whole group in future projects: "There came a moment when that was not the point, to become the Grateful Dead or Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and wander around thundering each other on the back about the same stuff over and over."8 In hindsight the group was similar to Andy Warhol's Factory or the Exploding Plastic Inevitable as well as Frank Zappa's entourage of freaks who were called in to improvise rampantly on "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," the closer to his seminal debut album with the Mothers of Invention Freak Out! The album could have been an inspiration for the Ugly as well as the whole "freak" scene and general concept for Zappa's album, but that has never been officially addressed, albeit the apple does not fall far from the tree. Thompson also recalls: "When I fired Danny Schact, he said to me, 'That's OK, your music is ontologically unsound anyway.'"9

Additionally, in the '90's, Thompson returned to the idea he set out in Parable with the freak-out and the Ugly and decided to re-purpose the structure for Fingerpainting (there's also a version called Fingerpointing that was mixed by Jim O'Rourke). The album features the band's rejected sixties songs and is focused around electronic instrumentation and a less chaotic freak-out. In 2005, as part of Amy Cargill Scott's documentary of the Red Krayola (which was cancelled and only a snippet of it is available online), there was a scene that featured a 21st century recreation of the Familiar Ugly sessions.

"Hurricane Fighter Plane" covers and re-recordings

The Parable of Arable Land wouldn't see a reissue till 1978. The early alternative scene would cover "Hurricane Fighter Plane" extensively. It was an unconscious trend almost, as Steve Albini pointed out in Amy Cargill Scott's unreleased Crayola documentary. Many bands have since then covered the song, most notably: Danish rock group Sort Sol, goth rock band Alien Sex Fiend, as well as Nik Turner's post-Hawkind group Inner City Unit and uncharacteristically, it was also covered by C86 jangle pop trio the Pastels.

To promote Radar Records' reissue of The Parable of Arable Land a re-recording of "Hurricane Fighter Plane" was done in July 1978 by Mayo Thompson on guitar, bass and vocals accompanied by drummer Jesse Chamberlain who would go on to join the Necessaries a band with a lineup consisting of cult art pop cellist Arthur Russell and ex-Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks. The rendition would be featured in a flexi-disc that could be found in the October 1978 issue of ZigZag magazine (#88). Furthermore, Thompson would re-record the song again in 1996 for the Red Krayola album Deliverance this time with a riff borrowed from Herbie Hancock's 1973 jazz-funk number "Chameleon." Since its inception in the 1960s, the song has never left the RC's setlist.

Randomly, I've always felt that in my opinion, the Fall could have made the greatest cover of the song. It felt like a track that would suit Mark E. Smith's snarl perfectly, knowing he was an avid lover of '60s garage rock along the lines of the Monks and Nuggets compilation, I'm absolutely dumbfounded why the iconic psych rock song was never brought up. John Dwyer of Osees remarked about playing a show with the Crayola in the mid-2000's and how one of their songs, "Block of Ice," was obviously inspired by Red Krayola. "We were doing a show with them and have always loved them. Also, Malcolm Mooney from Can. Really a blatant rip off, but bent towards what we are capable of. When we opened with it at the show, they ended up doing 'Hurricane Fighter Plane' for like 15 minutes. Pretty rad."10


In the modern era, the Red Crayola are still an underground and relatively unknown band, maybe somewhat familiar to those who delve into psychedelic music of the 1960's, but for those who do not, they might as well not even exist, and why is that? There have been no tribute releases for the band. There's apparently an official documentary in the works as announced by David Grubbs in 2022 but that has yet to seen any concrete announcement, Mayo Thompson is releasing a new book in September of 2023. While the band are revered by many acclaimed musicians and possibly even more than are out there as some have probably not really gotten the opportunity to express gratitude to the band, it can become debatable how influential they really were. Would music have even changed if they never existed? The Parable of Arable Land highlighted how song and noise could be the same and equally interchangeable, trying to blur the lines between them and normalise the presence of the latter as being as equally important to the former. The band managed to sell 50k copies with an album that barely had any songs. It was a miracle. Some pay debt to the aesthetic of the album cover, with its psychedelic sleeve and enticing liner notes, in a way the songs themselves were just an extra accessory to the hippies, an album serving as background music to their lysergic drug trips. Thompson believes as of 2016 that the album has hit silver or platinum. However, he says he's only guessing as Charly records, who now own the rights to the original album don't really tell him anything about sales. Their debut probably remains as their most successful, influential and important album, but not necessarily the peak of their career. Thompson and co. went on to pen many great releases, but the world is only slowly catching up to them. For now, this will be their epitaph.

Red Crayola never pressed a full-length LP with just Mayo, Steve and Rick (without the Familiar Ugly) and that idea alone is the essence of the band. It's always a group effort - a symbiotic bond between audience and artist (the fluxus mantra). Anything goes with them. Anyone can join in, young and old. It was how they were discovered; it was their mission statement. From the punk rock tribal chant of "War Sucks" to the sights of child-eating cannibals in "Transparent Radiation." The Parable of Arable Land stands out as an avant-garde relic that showcases the group presaging the sounds of multiple alternative rock genres: post-punk, noise rock and industrial to name a few. No other band had it so clear and so close, and with that notion I believe that when the dust settles, when people look back in a couple years' time to the landmarks of alternative music, and everyone who lived through it is long gone, The Red Crayola will be recognized as one of the greatest bands that ever lived.


1. Thompson interview with Ritchie Unterberger 1996

2. Red Krayola interview with Mother Magazine 1968

3. Ibid Unterberger

4. Mayo Thompson: Red Krayola recording history (Tape Op)

5. Lelan Rogers Interview from 1978,

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. "Fortunes, Fates and Random Chances: The Story of Corky's Debt to His Father"

9. Ibid. Schact remarked that he did not care about being fired, adding: "your music is ontologically unsound anyway".

10. Osees interview, Terminal Boredom*/

Also see our 2023 interview with Mayo Thompson

And see our 2007 article on and interview with Mayo Thompson

And our other article on Red Crayola's debut

And our article on God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It

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