Collage by K. Wisdom
Mayo Thompson: The Godfather of Post-Punk?
The story of God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It
by Kelechi Wisdom
In late 1967, the Red Crayola had returned from their performance at the Berkeley Folk Festival, a gig that had freaked-out hundreds of hippies with the band's half-hour long noise sets and confrontational approach, causing audience and critics alike to have mixed receptions towards the RC's music, to the point that some attendees even threw cabbages at the band. On returning, drummer Frederick Barthelme departed from the band and moved to New York in order to pursue conceptual art and literature, inadvertently becoming a writer like his brother. On the other hand, bassist Steve Cunningham stuck around while Mayo Thompson took a hiatus from the Crayola and instead began collaborating with Joseph Byrd of the United States of America in L.A. He helped them out as a sound man, and enjoyed his time with him. A couple months later, International Artists informed Thompson that their debut album Parable of Arable Land had sold 50,000 copies, and began to beg him to return for another LP. Thompson after a recollection of how the label had already asked the RC for a follow-up yet it was rejected and shelved indefinitely (Coconut Hotel), due to it more so resembling Harry Partch's "U.S Highball" rather than the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. Furthermore, the executives demanded the John Fahey-Crayola tapes be kept in their custody, and so Thompson quickly became hesitant of the whole ordeal of recording a new album, but in the end he finally agreed to return, but only just this once. At this point, Red Crayola's first album had begun to make its mark as bands like the the Godz assembled the "multitude" ensemble of animal whisperers who would try to match the ferocity and numerosity of the 50 membered cacophonous "Free Form Freak-Out." But to no avail? One has to hear for themselves.
Once Thompson returned to Houston, he had to begin setting up the band. There was no general idea for the album, Thompson had a backlog of songs that were not used up on Parable, and so this was an opportunity to finally realise them on record. IA was looking for an album that had a slight tinge of commercial potential, and what resulted was not Thompson's backstab to the label à la Metal Machine Music (although that album itself being a stab at the label might be a myth as Reed reported he had been working on it for years) but a genuine work of art that he had no intentions of being a commercial success. IA granted the band full artistic freedom, as they knew it was their weirdness and eccentricities that made their first album so successful and so the Red Crayola could lean into the oddness but not to the point that they produced another Coconut Hotel. Additionally, earlier in the year the band had received a cease and desist notice from the Crayola company (Binney & Smith) and so had to alter their name from Red Crayola with a "C" to Red Krayola with a "K." Spelling band names wrong was in fashion in the 1960's so nothing was really lost in terms of psychedelic credibility. Since Barthelme was out, the new band now consisted of Mayo Thompson, Steve Cunningham and brand-new drummer Tommy Smith (not to be confused with the singer in Tommy Smith and the Laughing Kind, another Houston band), who had previously played with Bubble Puppy. This was intended to be a set lineup that would tour the album in effort to promote it.
Their next endeavour was to be completely different to everything they had done before, but not too so detached from the musical landscape that they risked not getting their message out to the public. In a way, their next would act as the middle ground between Parable and Coconut Hotel, taking the strange futuristic song form aspect from Parable and mixing it with the minimalist, sparse and short avant-excursions of Coconut. The album was to be titled after a British idiom, following Mayo's musings with English dialect: God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It became the title of the band's sophomore LP. Parable united the noise lovers, avant-garde enthusiasts and psychedelic acid-dropouts to come together to enjoy a single incestuous cacophony, but God Bless gladly alienated their whole and only audience, in favour of a completely new sound. It is not uncommon for artists now to completely deviate from what they were previously praised for in their sound, image and aesthetic in efforts of pushing forward a completely different outlook, while in the same process completely alienating their audience with Bob Dylan perhaps being the most (in)famous to do so by choosing to go electric. The only band to somehow crack this formula were the Beatles who by experimenting just enough that their audience could catch up to them, they never managed to release a record that completely stumped critics and fans alike. However, Red Krayola took that idea many steps further, choosing to skip the realm of "art rock" and dipping head first into wild experimental forays that only the band members themselves could make sense of.
God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It was released in May 1968 and was recorded at Houston, Texas' Gold Star recording studios. Mayo Thompson said of the album: "And that record gets to be called a "minimal" record. It was not like a punk record, like "we're gonna get back to basics, good clean rock n' roll... It was not driven by an impulse to basicness. It was just schematic because we were used to working with the stuff we had in our hands, instrument-wise." From a 1968 Mother magazine interview, it is said that the album was intended to be a joint-double LP with Coconut Hotel, but that never came to pass. Thompson also talks about having "good tapes" that were available and considered to be distributed if one would like. This could be referring to the full 3-hour freak-out session from Parable of Arable Land or random experimental outtakes that didn't make the cut on God Bless (à la "F.R.E.D." and "Water Vessel" as lost recordings for Parable). Due to the success of Parable of Arable Land, International Artists ran a small promotional campaign for God Bless, buying out a few radio spots and putting out posters in efforts of better promoting the record, and like a failed relationship, the album they had put less work into in the end became more successful than the one they had tried to better the chances with. Spontaneity is key.
In February 1967, prior to God Bless and the Red Krayola's signing to International Artists, they were actually picked up by Bob Steffek, who worked for Shazam Records, where they recorded "Dairymaid's Lament" backed with "Free Piece." However, this single never came to pass, and both songs were then re-recorded and included on God Bless. How did the Red Krayola manage to get signed by IA when they had already been working with a different label? Well, Thompson details that Bob Steffek didn't really seem to care about their departure and when the band told him they were leaving, he just kindly let them go. The studio that the Steffek single was recorded at was allegedly the same Walt Andrus studio in Houston, as it was one of or the only recording studio in Houston at the time. The decision to move to IA was probably for the best, as recording with Steffek would have probably caused the crazy effect-laden Parable of Arable Land to be vastly different and flat. Although, it all makes one wonder, where is this single? Do the acetates exist? And will we ever get to hear it?
In the book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, this single quote stands out to me: "In history it is always imprecise to attribute fundamental shifts to one moment. But 1968 was the epicentre of a shift, of a fundamental change, the birth of our postmodern media-driven world..." When author Mark Kulansky wrote this sentence, he was not referring to the massive strides being made in music and art in the late '60's, but the social revolution taking place in France that reached its apex in May 1968. But if you are to interpret this quote in a broader sense, it can demonstrate how everything from art, music, politics, journalism, photography, war, etc had changed by the late '60's. The Vietnam War was the first war to ever be televised, the way journalists approached reporting during this period had also seen a massive change, it was all the start of a new era. The Red Krayola's next album was to be released amidst the death throes of psychedelia and hippie culture. Different from their first album with "War Sucks," God Bless strays away from any political message, but still manages to offer a more subtle philosophical one. As Thompson said in an interview with Ritchie Unterberger in 1996: "We set out from the beginning to mark our difference from everybody. We wanted to eliminate everybody... Our aim was to shut everybody else up. 'Cause we hated everything everybody did, just about, with the exception of a few things."
1968 was a revolutionary year in many ways, from politics to art and music and in some ways more so than 1967. But in a way 1968 began the end of the '60's- the student protests in France had completely destroyed the hippie dream, while continual fighting in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. further aided this decline in flower-power ideals. A defining point that would foreshadow the end of the '60's prophesied utopia. The Altamont concert disaster would quickly follow suit the following year, and just a few months after that, the Manson murders would occur. The 1960's were over. Acid casualties, burnouts and freak-outs would become frequent sights. It was now apparent that the hedonistic values of the hippie revolution were to be its downfall, as some bad actors were using this countercultural space for their own gain.
So, where does the Red Krayola sit in all this? By making an album that exists completely out-of-step with its time period, successfully appearing as an anomaly amongst the zeitgeist, it can seem like the record was foreshadowing the end of the psychedelic era, as well as the inevitable start of punk rock and beyond. Although, a tad bit too early... If Thompson really wanted to double-down he could have christened the album: The Shape of Rock to Come because for the next 50 years, there would be nothing new to be said. Rock music had been completely figured out, and everyone could now pack their bags and go home! But as we all know, that's not how the story goes.
To call God Bless ahead of its time, would be an understatement. Cubism transmuted to sound, an anachronistic 20th century anomaly in the pantheon of 1960's rock music. There hangs not a single dated-diversion here, it all feels like an up-and-coming R'n'R dream; working as a sacred text towards ideas that haven't yet been realised. The original art-punk weirdos. God Bless is lo-fi, raw, industrial and even daunting for some. Late punk assessments all ring true here: angular guitars and plink-plonk style prowl and pounce at you amidst crippling precision. Mayo Thompson's distinct voice remains timeless and succeeds posterity. His voice is like that of Roald Dahl's sketches or Jackson Pollock's paintings, it appears deceivingly simple; but when attempted, everyone falls flat. Additionally, when excluding the penultimate track - almost every skeletal song here exists solely for 2 consecutive minutes, with their sparse-sound, cold aesthetic and Burroughs-ian lyrics, they aide the track list which seems to bare a heavy resemblance to UK's art-punk trio Wire's seminal 1977 debut album Pink Flag although ten years beforehand. In comparison, both albums sport a distinct pocket punk style, with the twenty-song structure of the track list becoming a popular approach with indie acts for years to come (Guided by Voices, Minutemen, Swell Maps, etc.). No song sounds like the other. When listening to the album you could possibly name an anachronistic genre for almost every single song on the track list, assigning future labels on an album from before those labels existed might seem pedantic and pretentious to some, but if there ever was an album to do that with, that would be this album. it's absolutely unfathomable how such a record could exist, Thompson himself even made mention of it in an interview: "We did not think of ourselves as playing this and that genre, but we made some genres there. That's the way I hear it." But when asked if he believed God Bless to be predicting future bands like the econo Minutemen and post-rockin' Gastr Del Sol he responded: "Predicting? I don't hear it like that... It represents the end of the game as it stood." Just like on Coconut Hotel, the Red Krayola were trying to put an end to rock music, they wanted to do everything that could possibly be done before anyone else in the present or future could, experiment, try out and exhaust every possible avenue, in a way this became the handbook for alternative music, but in Thompson's eyes, him mapping out said handbook inadvertently killed rock & roll itself, because anyone who knew of this record would scoff and yawn at every supposed "new" development in rock music for the next decades to come. When new wave, indie and post-punk came along in the following decades, fans of God Bless turned around, scratched their heads and quickly asked themselves: "Where have I heard this one before?"
Red Krayola were rejecting their era's counterculture, rock & roll conventions, ideology and aesthetic. Much like the first wave of post-punk artists in the late '70's, they were outcasts among outcasts. How counterculture is it to reject the counterculture? A counter-counterculture. In, God Bless, there's moments that speak of the '80's indie scene, as well as '90's lo-fi slacker rock. Some tracks could even be considered art-punk songs à la Pere Ubu, years before they had even considered miming Johnny Thunders moves in their bedroom. Additionally, Ubu would even for a short time invite frontman Mayo Thompson to join the group, where he decided to spend lengthy tours turning his back to the audience while making minimal movements.
Rather than dancing at free festivals, Red Krayola focused more on studying ideas from philosophers and intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Immanuel Kant. They sought to consume any piece of media that seemed to be paving a way forward, so they could excel past it. They were seen as the ultimate drug band, but were actually far from it resembling more art students in hippie clothing, encapsulating "deconstruction" in pop music to the highest order.
Once Red Krayola managed to somewhat crack the formula in February '68, Thompson had already unknowingly completed almost a quarter of the alternative rock puzzle. When it comes to those "ahead of their time" in contemporary popular culture, Mayo Thompson could very well qualify to be featured on the same extended Mount Rushmore that holds Beefheart, Lou Reed and Syd Barrett. But it was Red Krayola's incessant deleuzian (Gilles Deleuze) deconstruction of rock music which partially led to the invention of post-punk ten years early, it is no different to artsy bands like Wire in the late '70's deconstructing punk rock in an effort to make something new. The elements and features of punk rock were around in the '60's but were just not labelled that, so Red Krayola by deconstructing the garage rock they originally sought after they managed to pave the way for the future of rock music.
The RK's sophomore LP subverted the trends of the time to such an extent that it became completely unrecognisable to whatever was in the air at the time, cliches such as the power trio exemplified by Jimi Hendrix and Cream were flipped on its head- now that everyone was trying to get louder and louder, the RK were figuring out how to get quieter. They rejected the emergence of hard rock and heavy psych, no distorted overdriven guitars or 100 watt marshall stacks here. The Who's performance at the Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus epitomises this almost proto-arena rock style that became so prominent in the late '60's. Jimi Hendrix's performance at Monterey Pop, also contributed to it. Many bands came up trying to replicate this aesthetic such as Blue Cheer, Edgar Broguthon, Vanilla Fudge and the Deviants and in a way began paving the way for heavy metal. But to the RK, this was cheap and they weren't trying to be five years ahead of their time, but half a century's worth. Even the back cover is ahead of its time, as it depicts Thompson wearing all black with a trench coat on, looking like he's in a post-punk group like Joy Division, while Smith grins on with glasses that make him appear as if he's Jason Pierce of Spacemen 3. When it came to the cover art, Mayo Thompson drew it himself although it was credited to the whole band on the record sleeve- what's more DIY punk than drawing up your own album cover?
But even after saying all this, the Red Krayola were not the only band to border on these sounds- a few other releases from the sixties have been described as predicting post-punk such as Lothar and the Hand People's robotic cover of Manfredd Mann's "Machines" sounding like the Flying Lizards, the Index's dark and gloomy cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" not being too far off a first wave gothic rock band, as well as Ruth White's eerie proto-industrial spoken word "The Clock" and Joe Meek's proto-Martin Hannett sounding Joy Division-like track "Crazy Drums" from 1961. But, God Bless prefigured indie, lo-fi, slacker rock and post-punk years before those respective genres would even take form. All the while the Beatles were still an active rock band, The Red Krayola had beaten most of their avant-savant futurist contemporaries just by simply proposing the idea that less was more.The whole album was an overall testament for what was to come, or simply the end of the game itself. No one was ready for it, existing completely out of step with the era's zeitgeist and youth culture, and as Thompson later stated: "doesn't belong to the cozy explanations of the '60's." It's bound for a possible resurgence, because unbeknownst to those who've unconsciously been influenced by these left-field experiments: history might someday prove this album right.
Tommy Smith was perhaps the most prolific short-term drummer in the Red Krayola, It felt like he was more influenced by the R&B of the time à la James Brown rather than standard rock, which makes his playing sound a lot more contemporary as those genres would later influence hip-hop, breakbeat and a myriad of other musical movements. His whereabouts today are unknown, Thompson himself has said he has not been in contact with him for over 50 years. If alive, he has probably forgotten about the album, not knowing how he created one of the most mind bending works of the 1960's. Red Krayola were not in awe of Sgt. Pepper or many of their chart topping contemporaries. Rather they paid closer attention to anyone who was doing something different. In order to never sound like anyone else, they were trying to fully commit to doing what had never been done before. They'd listen to the Velvet Underground, and for other bands, that would be the moment they'd choose to emulate and ape every single aspect of their being, but for the Red Krayola, they paused, looked back, and thought to themselves: "I loved that, now let's make sure to never make anything like it." As Mayo Thompson put it: "Why do what somebody else was already doing? Why even try? Because we also did not see ourselves as part as what everybody else was doing. We were not hippies." Red Krayola couldn't opt for backing vocals because harmonies were the devil. And parodies? Too on the nose; you can't throw in a pastiche - it'll date the whole thing! Who's gonna be singing "Louie, Louie" in the 23rd century? If someone had already done it, they no longer wanted to participate. This philosophy provided them a chance to look into the places no one else was really paying attention to.
Steve Cunningham was equally important to the equation as his massive upfront bass lines resembled more that of the post-punk scene before its time than mid-'60's psychedelic rock. Who knows what inspired him to play like that, but on many of the songs on this album, you'd imagine him to be the 45th Fall bassist that Mark E. Smith had luged brown-bottles at.
It's hard to say if God Bless could ever be considered the first official post-punk album, Mayo Thompson's contribution to the UK scene ten years later support this avenue as it's not like the album was created and remained dormant for years with no relation to what would come next. Thompson went on to produce a lot of early post-punk from the UK and even managed to influence some artists with his music, so the album has some correspondence with the scene, to the point that when the Red Krayola returned in the late '70's, they fit in like a glove, but the album came out in the 1960's and prior to the coinage of punk rock. On top of that, when God Bless released in May 1968, it did not ignite the post-punk scene. Everyone who listened to it didn't start emulating it. There was no real movement- it was overlooked and did not receive any attention outside of musicologists and historians even to this day. The main point is that God Bless might fit into the post-punk timeline, if you see it through the former lens, and it's not entirely out of bounds to mention it outside of "chronological" terms as an antecedent to the scene. It follows the same techniques and ideals as those in the post-punk movement so it can at least be seen as the grandfather to the movement, in ridiculous terms: "proto-post-punk."
Upon its release, the album failed to reach the success of the band's first effort and instead sold a mere 6,000 copies compared to the 50,000 of their first album. Quickly after that, they ran into more altercations with their label, and as Tommy Smith left the band to find work elsewhere, the live concerts were cancelled and the Red Krayola finally disbanded. It would take almost a decade later for the post-punk, indie and the DIY movement to blossom before Thompson could finally make his long awaited return to rock music. You could argue that the album didn't influence a huge range of artists, but one has to admit that it still managed to predict everything- it was a manual for future bands which no one could manage to find but ended up acting out as a real-life Marty McFly moment, only to be witnessed by those who had gone down massive avant-psych rabbit holes. In the end, you dream of contributions and competency that could have successfully improved this album, but that's not the goal one should have in mind. As challenging as God Bless can be, you should also see how it is actually one of the softest and easy-going avant-garde records of all time, to the point that sometimes it doesn't feel like an experimental album in the same league as Trout Mask Replica and Meet the Residents. Songs like "Sherlock Holmes" are tracks everyone can listen to, so where does this narrative come about? In songs like "the Shirt" and the closer "Night Song," the album's reputation has almost been completely skewed as it seems to be something only recommended to academics, avant-garde connoisseurs and psychedelic drop-outs alike when in reality, it appeals more to those who have an interest in alternative rock music more so than anyone else. The album's incorrect marketing scheme was probably responsible for its commercial downfall- the only audience who could have ate it up in the '60's was the art world, IA trying to sell it to those into psychedelic rock music like the Grateful Dead, clearly shows why most sales were quickly returned. The audience for God Bless didn't exist yet, they could only be found in the alternative scene of later decades, and it's a tragedy companies like Rough Trade didn't exploit this fact as diligently as Lelan Rogers would have if he had an interest in musical marketing during that era.
Mayo Thompson would later move to England in the late '70's where he'd become a pivotal member of the newly formed independent record label Rough Trade, acting as a record producer and executive, Thompson actually began producing records in the '60's, as he somewhat co-produced God Bless, and then was set to fully produce the psychedelic solo album of a friend called Johndavid Bartlett, but the tapes were later lost. Geoff Travis had now put Thompson in a position by which he was able to co-produce many releases from some of the earliest post-punk and indie groups such as: the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers, Swell Maps, the Raincoats and Cabaret Voltaire; and would even later work with the likes of the Smiths and Primal Scream, helping secure a partnership between the Smiths and filmmaker Derek Jarman into making the "Queen is Dead" music video for the band. Thompson might have met and befriended Jarman through their shared visual art background which continually contributed to and demonstrated the influence he still had in the alternative music scene. And for every UK post-punk revivalist of the current post-Brexit/crank wave era that crams in weekly bouts of noise at local venues, be informed that it all began with a few art students in Houston, Texas. Thompson's barebones approach at deconstructing rock music seems to anticipate the whole post-punk movement; God Bless exists as the Godfather of the whole genre and as the movement grows bigger and bigger, with the now in fashion crank wave/post-brexit scene gaining popularity through artists like Wet Leg, IDLES, Parquet Courts, Squid, etc.
Rough Trade was the breeding ground for the early indie and DIY scene. When Thompson revived the Krayola, he did not stick out like a sore thumb, he fit right into the post-punk scene of the late '70's because what he had already been doing in the '60's was no different to what these art dropouts were attempting to reconcile in. The Rough Trade bands were the start of the whole sound and aesthetic. Post-punk had come about a bit earlier but still was being made much more popular through the label's unorthodox approach to distributing independent material. Before you knew, it they took over the world with jangle pop savants like the Smiths and Britpop enthusiasts Pulp began to dominate the charts. Thompson had been there since the beginning, in the pre-history where he and his crew managed to presage the sounds coming from a future pop movement. To its early beginnings as he produced and collaborated with many of the poster-children of the movement, while still distributing and making deals within the company as a close compatriot of CEO Geoff Travis. By the time, Thompson revived the Red Krayola and released Soldier-Talk, joined by Jesse Chamberlain in 1979, the post-punk sound had already infiltrated the airwaves, and it felt like world had finally caught up to God Bless, although not in full. It would take many more decades for the lo-fi and more experimental tracks to make sense aesthetically to the public eye, but for the 1970's, the kids had a better shot at understanding what was going more so than those in the 1960's.
It feels almost like the first wave of indie bands in the late '70's and of the Rough Trade/Cherry Red/Mute/Factory generation had taken most of their cues from God Bless. Bands who would also emerge from Creation Records, also seem to have some similarly sonic resemblances to the album. It's as if the Red Krayola acted as the missing link between '60's avant-garde rockism and '80's-'90's alternative rock, just as much as the Velvet Underground did, although the RK received less attention for it. In that sense, it's hard to know if God Bless disappearing from the face of history would have really changed anything- the Velvet Underground's albums still helped realise most of what would come later but in a broader sense. VU records were very ahead of their time, lyrically, sonically and ideologically, but there's not a single VU track that sounds like "Dairymaid's Lament," "Jewels of the Madonna" or "Leejol" does.
There's always going to be precursors, progenitors and anomalies when it comes to genres. The point one should take away is that genres are not streamlined, there's no set dates that define the beginning of a musical style- they do not take form in a day, and even when it is believed that a genre only evolved throughout one decade. You may still find early forerunners to it in previous decades, because everyone is always innovating and one is bound to walk in on something they shouldn't have. This is what I call the "Kaufman Paradox" as Andy Kaufman's anachronistic dry-deadpan, absurdist and awkward humour was very ahead of its time in the late '70's stand-up scene, yet wouldn't become commonplace till it reached its apex in the '90's-2000's cultural and media climate. Kaufman in the '70's was an anomaly- he had his influences but there weren't any real points of reference in the public consciousness for audiences to hold onto. Hell! this rule in itself might be a logical fallacy/paradox, as it would imply that even with Kaufman being an anomaly in his era, there might probably be an even earlier anomaly in correlation to his pioneering awkward style, and to me this would be the short lived 1969 proto-Adult Swim TV show Turn-On which somewhat predicted many elements of Kaufman's whole shtick as well as 2010's post-ironic humour. But even when saying all this, one could assume there's another precursor, and a precursor to that precursor... And so on. This is the cycle of influence.
To better explain the paradox, one has to understand that if an anomaly isn't engraved into the etches of pop culture, it is only but an anomaly in documented history; Turn-On might be a precursor to Kaufman's style, but it was widely unknown about due to its quick cancellation, so it's as if it never really existed in the pantheon of 1970's culture. This is the same world God Bless inhabits. Albums like Trout Mask Replica were influential and known in many rock circles and scenes, helping them at least reach some kind of cult status amongst the public and the underground surrounding a scene, yet an album like God Bless went widely unheard of except to a handful of musicians, so it more or less could be written off in the history of rock music, as it's almost like it never existed to most, and if anyone who was part of the original post-punk scene were asked about it, they might even say they had never heard of it. The album exists as a true anachronism that resembles what would become post-punk without really influencing it at all.
See Part II of our article on God Bless
Also see our 2023 interview with Mayo Thompson
And our 2007 article on and interviews with Mayo Thompson
And our article on Red Crayola's debut album
And yet another article on The Parable of Arable Land