Re-listening to Touch
Reflections on nostalgia and psychedelia
by Wally ShoupDuring the summer of '69, word on the street was that the "ultimate" psychedelic rock record had been released and was out there somewhere, just below the radar screen. My buddies and I, interested in all things psychedelic, were determined to find this Holy Grail. And, sure enough, we did. The record was the self-titled debut of a group called Touch and everything about it – the cover art, the personnel, the trippy lettering – was as mysterious and enigmatic as you hoped it would be, as if this unknown artifact had dropped in out of the blue for world edification.
We got ourselves properly prepared, so to speak, and put it on. The sound poured out – rich, full, reverberant, state-of-the art studio magic – the music full of twists and turns, the singing celestial, the lyrics enlightened and appropriately anti-establishment, but our minds, sadly, were not blown. Impressed? Yes, but the 'ultimate'? No.
Then came the clarion, morse-code-like beginning to the final cut, "Seventy-Five" and, for the next twelve minutes, we were trans-fixed, buffeted and hurled through a sonic universe that shook us to our boots. We looked at each other. Fuck. What was that? OK, OK – this is the ultimate – and for the remainder of the summer, we, like good disciples, spread the word, turning everyone we knew – acid head or not – onto Touch, specifically the track "Seventy-Five." It never failed. It even freaked a few folks out. But, invariably, the music blew people away.
Fast forward thirty-five years and a few words about me. I play freely improvised sax and have been involved in improvised music since the mid-70's. I'm decidedly not nostalgic – in fact, anti-nostalgic. I feel little connection to members of "my generation" who drop beaucoup bucks keeping 60's re-hash acts alive, who show little or no interest in current music, and who can't comprehend the spontaneous, in-the-moment music that fills my life. I'm personally not interested in re-living a dim past where 60's music serves as a reminder of idealism, shucked long ago in order to "get a life" (prophetic quip from the 70's: In the 60's, there was marijuana; in the 70's, there's real estate).
But, for some reason, I started thinking about Touch and found a newly-minted CD (re-issued by The Wild Places as WILD011), curious as to how it would sound now, how much it would 'hold up'. Because it sure as hell knocked me out at the time.
I put on "Seventy-Five" right away, and though no serious "flashbacks" (for better or worse) occurred, a strong surge of feelings overcame me. As the music progressed, I found myself caught up in it once again, carried away (in spite of myself) by the sheer exhilaration and dynamism of the music.
It's a compelling artifact from the late 60's. Five relatively unknown musicians, transformed by studio wizardry and psychedelics, had, in their own way, "broken through" and liberated themselves. You can hear it. It's contagious. Whether or not it comes from naivete or a calculated jump onto the bandwagon, they've gotten the message and they're spreading it. It's LSD evangelism - pure, sincere, unadulterated, all packaged up in glorious "20/20sound."
("Twenty/twenty sound is to sound what twenty/twenty is to vision. In its concept, an equal division of musical content has been distributed on both channels, thus, as in the case of the eyes, the ears are both able to focus for themselves and the listener is not required to sit directly center as in the case of the phantom center speaker")
After all, their stated message was "to cause the listener to achieve an altered state of consciousness, not through meditation or drugs, but through music."
I got an immediate jolt of nostalgia. It evoked in me what nostalgia evokes in everyone – a memory, seemingly timeless, that erases all the years. I hadn't heard this record in 30 years, yet it could have been last week. I was riding high on a blast of yesterday. It didn't last long. That's a problem with nostalgia. But once it wore off, I realized that this music, or at least its spirit, has stayed with me all these years, occupying a very special place in my musical soul, and that spirit isn't a nostalgic one.
But first, what about the music? Well, for many today, it will definitely sound old-hat, maybe, even cringe-worthy. All the later excesses of 'progressive rock' – the visions and ambitions of groups like Yes, Styx, Kansas, King Crimson – are here in spades. Mixed and morphed genres, shifting time-signatures, orchestral 'movements' within pieces, five-part harmonies – Touch used all these and more unabashedly.
But – and here my nostalgia no doubt kicks in - "Seventy-Five" goes way past these latter-day groups in its psychedelic effects – extreme stereo-panning, radical use of reverberation, 'really really quiet/really LOUD' dynamics, experimentation in voice alteration (not unlike Tim Buckley's in StarSailor) and guitar tone (making it sound just like the singer's voice), and the incredible conclusion where the stereo cabinets themselves become buzzing agents of sonic over-drive – all these go into zones where the comparisons end. The latter-day groups – for all their excesses – were much more reigned in than Touch. Touch also has that sound of discovery – they were innovating this stuff, taking chances, going further out, setting the bar higher. That was the zeitgeist of the era.
The musicians, it turned out, were pros – Don Galluci, the main writer and keyboardist, was a big part the early 60's Northwest rock scene; had, in fact, played, on "Louie, Louie" and led a band called Don and the Goodtimes, which included several members of Touch.
They moved to L.A. and became regulars on Dick Clark's Where The Action Is, but the times changed. The post-Sgt. Pepper music world no longer interested in their brand of old school, so they decided to push their creative juices. The organ-driven r 'n b underpinnings and rocking guitar indicate their roots, but the classical flourishes and jazz flirtations hint at musicians who had been cooped up in 'good time music' too long. They were ready to spread their wings.
So, beyond the studio effects and acid propaganda ("Your eyes, they just see Truth you make them, why not let them see, why not set them free?"), what's ultimately striking and thrilling (a word that's left my vocabulary) about the music is its sheer uplift and sense of exultation. These guys wholeheartedly embraced the tacit message of the 60's: that there is something beyond - you can touch it, you can experience it, you can express it. The self-questioning, doubt and cynicism of the '70's seemed light years away when they went into the studio in 1968.
Unfortunetly, not everyone wanted to go on their ride. After declining to tour, for the very good reason that the recorded sound couldn't be duplicated live, record sales dropped and that was the end of Touch. One visionary album and out. As it should be. "Ultimate" albums can't be topped. Besides, the "60's" were nearly over, edging closer and closer to hitting the wall.
Don Gallucci remained in the music business, producing Iggy and the Stooges' Fun House, another amazing record (that didn't sell), another artifact of the times and one just as exhilarating as Touch, though headed 180 degrees in the other direction (back toward the primal) and much more influential in the long run.
For me, the psychedelic spirit embodied in Touch's music made me yearn for other music to take me where they had taken me. Music that took me beyond what I knew or thought possible. And it wasn't hard to find. It was everywhere. You just had to go outside the rock world. The spirit of quest and search in their music pointed out, not down, inspiring me to scour the musical horizons, eventually discovering my own music, one which hopefully embodies the same spirit, though expressed in a much different language.
Their message, their sound, however quaint, dated or grandiose it might sound from today's jaded perspective, pushed '60's rock music about as far as it could go and deserves a place near the psychedelic pinnacle. In its highest form, psychedelia represented a strong cultural need to expand and grow spiritually, and that spirit, if applied rigorously, can serve as a useful anti-dote to the human, all-too-human, desire to dwell in the past.
Also see Wally Shoup's article on Don Gallucci and his work with the Stooges
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