Photo- Live 1967 archival release
The Story of The Parable of Arable Land
by Kelechi Wisdom
The Red Krayola (or Crayola) formed in Houston, Harris County, Texas and are one of the longest running underground rock bands of all time, they've been in operation for over 50 years which in terms of longevity could be seen as a direct precursor to a group like the Fall; however, in terms of sound, the comparisons run much deeper than that. Beginning in late 1966 with angsty-anarchist college dropout Frederick Barthelme (brother of short story writer Donald Barthelme), as well as Steve Cunningham; a seventeen-year-old hippie, fully in-tune with the ins and outs of the Houston psychedelic rock scene, and finally, young student, intellectual, sole constant, musician, and visual artist: Mayo Thompson.
Prior to the advent of the RC, Thompson would experience some slight musical excursions, starting with the late 1950's where he would receive piano lessons in boarding school, and then later play in a band in primary school, but the pivotal moment in Thompson's early career is his performance at the University of St. Thomas on November 15, 1964. At this time, he was part of a comedy group called "the Balalaikas," but for his folk-blues inspired set, he'd go solo with a cover of "Baby Please Don't Go" the famed blues standard covered by Texan guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins, and with it all coming full circle, Hopkins would later be labelmates to the Crayola on Texan independent record label International Artists.
In their early years, RC were assessed as a psychedelic rock group and you'll even see them fall under that moniker today, due to the mind bending stereo mix of their debut album that would trick you into believing they were routinely pot smoking acid heads. However, at heart, they were an intensely polarising avant-garde rock band who made it their mission statement to push rock music to its very limits, years before anyone from Faust to the Residents would decide to embark on that journey. The band were more academic than its contemporaries, possibly the most academic, even if some aspects of them felt more slapdash than others - they matched the approach to rock that "art-punk" groups in the late 1970's would coin, sometimes leaning on labels as "aggressively avant-garde" and or "pretentiously progressive."
Mayo Thompson was studying at St. Thomas University, trying variously, off and on, in some cases simultaneously, pre-Law, Creative Writing, English and American Literature, Philosophy and Art History, before dropping out and starting the Red Crayola with Rick Barthelme in 1966. Thompson and Barthelme started out as filmmakers, inspired by the works of the French new wave, most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Roland Truffaut Eventually, they smashed their cameras and made it their initiative to pursue a future in rock and roll music.
A driving force in their brash spontaneity was Thompson's European expedition a year prior; in 1965, he visited: Italy, Paris and the United Kingdom (to name a few places). However, the most important thing to take away from this trip is that the British R&B/rock and roll scene inspired him to form his own band. Thompson remarked that in childhood, most told him that he could not sing his way out of a bucket. However, after hearing Mick Jagger and Ray Davies' lack of conventionalism when it came to singing, this sparked the surge in him to pursue music more seriously. The R'n'R dream- get rich and famous, have hits, tour worldwide and record plenty - even amidst the rabid experimentalism of the group, Thompson remarked those were still very sought after goals. Although it is not the main reason he plays, he lives for the day that the band gets a hit.
Additionally, prior to the Red Crayola, bassist Steve Cunningham had already performed on a commercially released album called Holy Music by Malachi on the 19th of August 1966, a droning psychedelic folk record where he plays the Jew harp for most, if not all, of the runtime. To add on, he worked at La Maison and was studying as a philosophy major at the University of St. Thomas. Jim Staralow, a club regular who was the first manager of the 13th Floor Elevators offered Cunningham a job as a roadie, but he declined it to join the Red Crayola in September 1966.
They rehearsed and rehearsed, which subsequently birthed their first batch of songs "Vile, Vile Grass," "There, There Betty Betty," "Concrete Block," "Transparent Radiation" and "Mother." Record producer Bill Bentley described the band screaming and hollering during the rehearsals to the point that one could not even make out their lyrics.
To set the scene, Thompson had dropped out of Uni while Barthelme had been kicked out of the architecture course for delinquency (to the dismay of his father). At heart, they embodied everything that would describe the punk rock movement of the late 1970's, angsty youth wanting to push boundaries, subvert, and instigate conflict. The Crayola got their kicks from testing how far they could go before someone decided to unplug them or start a fight, they were confrontational and enticing. How many buttons could they push in one night? Thompson remarked "I would say, the mindset of those people in the '70s was something like our mindset in the mid-'60s. They hated everything too that had happened before."1
Red Crayola would empty venues faster and more efficiently than any bombing bar band could ever dream of, which garnered them notoriety for being a group that were never allowed to play the same club twice. They were infamous for their antics and noise fests, employing their "freak-out" cohorts dubbed the Familiar Ugly. If the Red Crayola bombed, they'd empty the venue; however, if they managed to entertain people with their academic novelty... They'd empty the venue anyway! A notable story is their one-time failed cover of the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction" played at a girl's dormitory dance. The RC were jamming out "Hurricane Fighter Plane" and "War Sucks" until one of the schoolgirls begged them to play a song they could actually dance to. Thompson recalled their version was so last minute that he didn't even know how to play the riff (take that DEVO). Steve Cunningham remarked: "those were the days when we thought we could guarantee satisfaction."2 They were later paid a hundred dollars for their services.
So, how did the name "Red Crayola" even come about? The story goes that in July 1966, Barthelme was cruisin' round the streets of Los Angeles in his newly bought Blue Fiat, with Mayo Thompson in company, and they came to the conclusion that they'd name their band after the primary colour for a famed children's crayon manufacturing company, and by chance or by wit they came up with "Red Crayola," a parody of the hip and trendy Californian psychedelic bands of the era. Over the summer, they looked for band members who could fit the bill, but could not seem to hold anyone, that was until they met Steve Cunningham, a bassist, who with friend Bonnie Emerson, a local female guitarist, joined the group - Danny Schacht, a harmonica player would later follow suit. The RC's closest rock and roll grimaces were more in line with the sound of Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground than that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The band can be seen in a live image using Fender amps, which had a built-in tremolo setting, which explains why the opening and closing tracks of their debut use the effect. On the back cover producer Lelan Rogers' (brother of famed singer Kenny Rogers) calls the band part of the "rebellation generation." The band were discovered by Rogers while they were performing at local radio station KNUZ's battle of the bands event at Houston's first shopping mall, the Gulfgate. He was out looking to buy a new parakeet for his wife, and he was the house-in producer at a Texan independent record label, which scouted for new and out there talent. RC were accompanied by a smaller subset of the Familiar Ugly, where someone could be heard playing on a taxi horn. Their strange performance garnered a sizeable crowd who were entranced by the band- they had never seen anything like it. Rogers' later recalled "There was this group of kids, three of them, up on a stage that had four or five different kinds of instruments and they could not play a note. They were just making noise and they were really putting the people on. I figured anybody that was able to put on a crowd like that -- there's got to be a market. I went over and I said, 'Hey guys, give me a call.'"3 Thompson later described Lelan Rogers as a hype man, who packaged their debut record perfectly, from the liner notes to its psychedelic sleeve design. The abrasiveness of their sound was marketed efficiently to the hippies as the new other thing, which must have taken real talent as there's possibly no one today who could help sell 50,000 copies of such inaccessible material, labelled as music for those in strait-jackets. Steve Cunningham coined the album's title "The Parable of Arable Land."
50 FRIENDS - 3 HOURS - 2 REELS - 1 TAPE
April Fool's Day, 1967. The day 50+ people walked into Walt Andrus studios on a hot Texan day to record one of the strangest albums of all time, joined by a bike rider who upon stumbling on the group waiting outside the studio. He stopped by to ask what was going on, shortly in no time he was recruited to come in and persuaded to bring his Harley Davidson too. They'd play for an hour, exhausting one master tape, take a smoke break, then repeat it all over again. Thompson recalls: "There were 8 microphones set up and all that down onto one channel. So it mixed itself, its organic self."4 Barthelme and Thompson regret not recording in multitrack as they would have had more control over creating a more immersive experience. George Banks, the informal manager of the 13th Floor Elevators, was the one to illustrate the album cover. The irony of the sleeve looking like it was painted with coloured felt-tip pens rather than Crayola crayons is ever so endearing.
Although Frank Davis is not credited on the LP, Thompson in an interview with Keith Connolly of BOMB Magazine stated the following: "Lelan was great with us on Parable. He guided us through. Luckily too, the late great Walt Andrus--who, along with the equally great Frank Davis, made Parable the record we hear." Additionally, Paul Drummond a famed 13th Floor Elevators, historian stated that the production on the record resembled Davis' style more so than Rogers'.
The record has very slight tinges of known contemporary music structures like some of the blues and folk influences that permeate in "Transparent Radiation." However, as it was very in fashion at the time, the album prefers to make usage of eastern scales as can be heard in "Pink Stainless Tail" and "War Sucks." Ravi Shankar influenced guitar lines, similar to that of the Byrds, with many subtle undertones of raga rock and drone. Also heard is acid-laced guitar jamming, zoning in-and-out as they try to escape the hellish inferno that the Familiar Ugly have engulfed themselves in.
Although all of the songs are credited as being written by the whole band, the truth was revealed on the second issue of Mother: Houston's Rock Magazine (1968) - "Hurricane Fighter Plane" was written by Thompson, the music to "Transparent Radiation" was written by Barthelme while the lyrics were written by Thompson. Barthelme and Thompson wrote the lyrics to "War Sucks" while the music was written by the whole band. Barthelme also wrote the music to "Pink Stainless Tail" while the lyrics were written by Thompson. "Parable of Arable Land" was written by the whole band while "Former Reflections Enduring Doubt" was entirely written by Cunningham.
Free Form Freak-Out & the Familiar Ugly
The Familiar Ugly's ringleaders were F.R.B. Rapho (Mike Metyko), "Red" George Farrar, Jamie Jones, Joe Pritchett and Bill "Smith" Smith. Additionally, according to Rogers' liner notes for the Elevators debut album, DJs across the country were asking, "What's that funny little noise in that record?" Red Krayola's retort was to make DJs ask, "what's that funny little record in that noise?" Their inception began at one night's show at Mark Froman's Love, where audience members were called in on stage to improvise and contribute to the noise. Eventually, it became a routine and a staple of the band's early career. Realising that too many people were joining in, they decided to keep the original band as a trio and label every added member a part of "the Familiar Ugly."
Lelan Rogers remarked that to translate the Familiar Ugly to tape was a challenge. "What they played was not going to be easy to transfer onto a record, I mean, I thought that if a person couldn't see it they were not going to get it."5 The Familiar Ugly were something one had to see rather than listen to, the experience was much more effective live, so why did no one bother to preserve their history by arranging some filming with them? Oh well! Rogers' adds "I called Andrus and, by this time, he thought it was totally crazy anyway ... and I told him to mic the room 'cause I was gonna have a party. Everybody knew everybody. Most of them stayed and they came in with their trips."6 No surprise that a lot of the freewheelin' hippies in the Familiar Ugly were under the influence while recording.
"Free Form Freak-Out" was a term coined by Lelan Rogers, and pans as one of the most extreme pieces of free improvisation ever, with the involvement of over 50 people creating a soundscape where no sound is left sparse. The freak-out still rivals those who'd attempt to create chaotic music decades after this record's inception. The Familiar Ugly played on spoons, a chest of drawers, Coca-Cola bottles, jugs, mouth bow, harmonicas, buzzsaws, industrial power tools, a motorcycle, power drills, sticks, bells, flutes, kazoos, piccolos, rocks, balloons, hammers... etc. Throughout the record, one can hear a member of the Ugly who brought in an old wax recording of Jelly Roll Morton's rendition of "Buddy Bolden Blues," which is interesting as Buddy Bolden is widely considered to be the inventor of jazz, which creates a very postmodern sort of effect as early 20th century jazz meets mid-20th century avant-jazz. Each noise track will cause you to ponder how any of this could be considered rock music, it's so fragmented and devoid of Chuck Berry riffs, barre chords and 12-bar blues structures that it seems impossible or incredibly ludicrous to ever assume that this could ever be considered rock and roll.
The opening freak-out is almost a direct precursor to industrial music and the sounds of the Japanese noise scene (Japanoise) that would emerge many years later. The hairs inside your ears die out as they burn at every cymbal crash while sleepwalking guitar lines act as interludes to the next song. If the full 3-hour session tape ever surfaced, we would probably discover the humble beginnings of many subgenres, including "harsh noise" music lodged between each reel. The suspenseful and mechanical nature of the second freak-out reminds me of the background music to a fictional sci-fi horror in the style of John Carpenter's the Thing, while the third freak-out feels like a band performing in the middle of a construction site with power drills that howl like jackhammers.
In retrospect, other '60's groups would follow a similar idea. For example, New York City's ESP-Disk signed experimental proto-industrial band Cromagnon, who were similar to the Crayola in some ways as they held their own sort of Familiar Ugly dubbed the "Connecticut Tribe" in close proximity. The tribe employed homeless people right outside the studio as well as strangers to come in and bang on metal trash cans and anything they could bring in that would contribute noise. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? These sounds were featured throughout Cromagnon's 1969 album Orgasm and most notably on the album's infamous opener "Caledonia." Furthermore, the first gig for German krautrock band Amon Duul had over 40 people on stage as mentioned in a biography called Tanz der Lemminge by rock historian Ingeborg Schober. In a way the trend caught on, didn't it? Trailblazers.
Who's to blame for the Parable of Arable Land?
Mayo Thompson points to the work of Albert Ayler's 1965 release Bells and John Coltrane's Ascension as being driving forces during this time period, while Barthelme recalls the raucous depravity of the Fugs and the Mothers of Invention as being bright thin-white pillars that guided their musical fighter plane. Rock and jazz stood as great contributions to the psychedelic stew brewing from the black cauldron of these Texan long-haired art-freaks, but one of the pivotal ingredients was that of the work of modern classical composers: John Cage (who apparently Barthelme knew personally), Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch, whose influence cemented the Red Crayola's mission statement and position in rock history, the exact path they wanted to walk by and what they chose to accomplish with their music, their mission statement was to do what had never been done. Eastern influences such as that harking back to traditional Arabic oud taqsim as well as Indian classical music seem to have influenced the guitar sound and improvisation of the whole album.
The Red Crayola's place in the history of noise rock is a strange one. Their debut album is most notable for presaging the genre. However, they tended to lean more towards extreme free improvisation than what would traditionally be categorised as noise rock (on par with John Zorn, AMM & Nihilist Spasm Band). The Velvet Underground's first and second efforts would resemble the genre's conventions far more than the scorching "free form freak-out" ever did, due largely in part to Lou Reed's usage of feedback. Nevertheless, when listening to the final "free form freak-out," one can still detect where noise rock and no wave would stem from, as that track shines through as the record's most intense freak-out segment. This is the birthplace for extreme noise rock along the lines of Arab on Radar and early-Half Japanese alike. Elements of post-rock can also be found here as each song leads into the other as one long continuous piece. Thompson abstains from using guitar distortion or feedback, the former might have been a conscious effort as to not date the album with the time period's early stages of effects pedals, and who knows about the latter.
The Red Crayola's debut is often overlooked in the pantheon of prophetic '60's albums. Some say it's an inaccessible mess or it should have stuck to one concept instead of two but it's obvious that those features were never its faults. I didn't like it at first either, but I've probably heard it a dozen times since my first listen - it is a record that takes time, disliking of cliches but it can be seen as an acquired taste. And hell, who knows what the unrecorded/lost outtake songs entailed? ("Mother," "F.R.E.D," "Water Vessel" and "Concrete Block"). The structured nature of the 6 songs might prompt people to view this as a concept album, but Mr. Thompson has declared that notion to be false. The Beatles had the record come to their attention, while Jimi Hendrix supposedly bought it due to the album cover resembling his own drawings. John Peel apparently hated it at first, but would later play it on his show amidst the album's 1978 reissue in the UK.
The Parable of Arable Land has been compared to the likes of John Zorn, Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett, and Captain Beefheart - some would argue it rivals Trout Mask Replica by predating it in terms of abrasiveness and completely unhinged unstructured strangeness, but that is all up for debate. In terms of musical open-mindedness, not many musicians who lived through the '60's or even their own respective counter-cultural zeitgeists ever expanded themselves past their decade. Thompson went from psychedelia in the '60's, to punk in the '70's, to post-punk in the '80s and electronica in the '90s. Musicians normally never adapt to changing styles, cultures, and ideas as Thompson did, it is very rare for artists to still work in the framework of a different era not akin to the one they were most known for. Very few such as David Bowie and Lou Reed for example kept scoping for new sounds as the years went pass, as evident in Bowie's interest in Death Grips as well as Reed's enjoyment of Kanye West's Yeezus.
In summary, The Parable of Arable Land is an album that's both lethargic and lysergic, a psychedelic jungle of 50 member noise-music ensemble and three manned proto-punks. The opening track slams-you-in-the-face into an expressionist hellscape; the land fades back, and you wake up inside a single-seat fighter aircraft. A faint voice crawls out from the distance - it's "General Fox." He's sent you on a mission to tread through coarse roads, radioactive wastelands and constantly shifting plains. This is an album which has been long overdue for praise. Still to this day, it is not revered by most as one of the greatest albums of the 1960s, never mind 1967. Unfashionable then - not yet fashionable now. Cop in or cop out. It's R'n'R in the nude.
Lelan Rogers mentions that one of the reasons the Red Krayola never released a single was because of the controversy surrounding the sentimental lyrics in "War Sucks." As a result, the album received little to no airplay as most radio stations refused to play the record. Rogers also asserted that there was no need to release a single because the 13th Floor Elevators, which had been selling well, were already supporting the album. Paul Drummond writes in his 2007 book Eye Mind: Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators that the Red Crayola recorded a session in February 1967 for songs that would be re-recorded on their second album: "Dairymaid's Lament" and "Free Piece," it was to be their first single, but that never came to pass. Another reason there might have been no singles is due to the album's symbiotic nature. Every song works with each other, you can't play one song on its own (except for the title track), which makes it difficult pick out a single for release, unless some artificial tinkering is involved (i.e. adding a fade) the songs will abruptly cut off. The version of "Hurricane Fighter Plane" with absence of the Familiar Ugly that was released years later. It could have been a contender for a single. Additionally, Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation failed to include the Crayola= even though IA bands were experiencing a resurgence, no tracks off the band's debut or sophomore LP were included by Kaye. Punk rock was tied to the Elevators, but also the Crayola at times. The relationship the Elevators had with the Crayola is almost like that of the Stooges and the MC5. They are normally mentioned in the same breath, but in the latter case, in a state of rivalry. The IA bands were much more like comrades. However, the Crayola seem to not be as synonymous as the Elevators in the modern era, as they lack as many passing mentions.
"Hurricane Fighter Plane"
"Hurricane Fighter Plane" is an ultimate in anachronism- if you read the lyrics and squint your eyes hard enough it could almost be perceived as a love song. The repetitive post-punk-like bassline mixed with minimal organ lines courtesy of 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, all speak of the future. Hear the birth of gloomy post-punk and neu-romantic new wave. Guitars are fed through reverb chambers as well as flanger and tremolo flourishes, the type of effects layering that would make up the iconography of the shoegaze movement, it is no wonder bands like Spacemen 3 and Galaxie 500 would later find their way to this sound. Absurdist verses about six buckets, were not the product of a drug trip but rather Thompson making notice of large buckets of sand hanging on the studio wall. The repetitive kick-drum heavy nature of Barthelme's performance acts as an almost "proto-motorik beat" that presages the consistency of Dusseldorf drummer Klaus Dinger who co-founded NEU! and played in early Kraftwerk, Barthelme's drumming also resembles the repetitive patterns similar to what New York City-based drummer Danny Taylor of Silver Apples would embark on the following year. Barthelme's inexperienced drumming relies much on repetition as he claimed to be "the worst drummer of all time," which is why some of these songs have a sort of "proto-krautrock" tinge to them. The song shines as a psychedelic fever dream in its stereo mix with its shuffling out-of-time overdubbed drumming. Erickson's final solo acts like a landing light as the shuttle-like organ, similar to that of early-Pink Floyd fades out, as the song finally ends with the Familiar Ugly exploding right back into the chaos. The rhythm guitar sounds like a propeller while the bass and drums lock into a mechanical groove, similar to that of a massive WWII Fighter Aircraft gliding through the sky. "Hurricane Fighter Plane" is a song that you could record the worst possible cover of and it'd still sound good because of how perfectly written the original was.
"Transparent Radiation" is like a folk-blues number from hell, with Thompson's British cadence sounding as if Arthur Lee was caught in a semi-cacophonous maelstrom all the while simultaneously trying to escape a mirroring-mechanical whirlwind. Aesthetically, it matches that of a retro futuristic post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, a myriad of doctors wearing chrome-plated hazmat suits treading through busy gravel with clicking Geiger counters that parrot the sounds of heavy-hailstorms. In subtle ways, the whole track could be seen as an anti-war song, as the aftermath of nuclear disarray is presented under the guise of grotesque genetic mutations and unfathomable decay. It's a world where Roky Erickson's hard panned reverb-laden harmonica guides us through a sensuality one can't explain. The guitar is barely audible, in mono and stereo, it's decipherable at times but completely dematerializes in a heartbeat. However, that is just one of the many features that aid the otherworldly atmosphere of this song. Thompson's literary somewhat Dylanesque lyrics with a rhyme at the end of every verse, help create another layer of surrealism. Finally, the vocal track is overdubbed and hard panned on each channel, one is ahead of the other, fluctuating and increasing only to fall out as the tape rolls on.
Thompson chose to open early shows by introducing it as the band's "folk-rock number"; on the song's demo track, this comparison is much more apparent.
Additionally, Thompson can be heard laughing his head off at his very own lyrics, but can you blame him, who wouldn't? "Expert men not knowing what they meant / Eating babies for nourishment" is a line so subversive and absurd that it causes listeners to ignore the subtle commentary regarding field experts making contradictory statements in the wake of dire straits, which is almost as prophetic as it sounds. The line could also be an attack on the bourgeoisie as it bears much resemblance to the writings of a political satirist that Thompson was very much familiar with. Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal" states that Ireland's poverty stricken Irish children should be butchered and fed to the wealthy English which at the time served as a reminder for the English's exploitation of the Irish people. The line itself can be inferred as being sung from this vantage point or really just solely existing as another stream of fantastical lyricism that can be heard permeating throughout the whole song.
The demo of the song is reminiscent of Galaxie 500 inspired slowcore bands. In conclusion, "Transparent Radiation" stands out as one of the most eccentric psychedelic rock tracks of the era, with a whimsicality that could make even Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett blush. it's a song that sounds so futuristic and yet so dated, all at the very same time, with Thompson's brand of maniacal lyricism bending the bridges between reality and fiction. One has to look no further to find a well-constructed cover, as the UK's Rugby duo, Spacemen 3's transformative rendition transmutes the original into the Velvet Underground inspired blues rock jam it was always meant to be.
See Part 2 of this article
Our 2023 interview with Mayo Thompson
Our 2007 article on and interview with Mayo Thompson
Another article on Red Crayola's debut album
Our article on God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It