Thursday, February 04, 2010

The greatest band you've never heard of

Or maybe you have heard of psychedelic pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators. If you have, you're lucky. I only found out about them last year, even though they're a '60s band.

They were only together from 1965 to 1969 and only put out three studio albums, the last coming out after they'd more or less broken up. Led by lyricist Tommy Hall, who was into psychedelic drugs as a means of raising consciousness, the band was heavily into marijuana and LSD. Ultimately, this led to the band's breakup, when lead singer Roky Erickson was busted for marijuana possession and ended up spending three years in a mental hospital rather than go to jail on a felony charge.

Erickson was one of the greatest rock singers ever. His passionate, often screaming vocals heavily influenced Janis Joplin, who was friend of the band. But Erickson struggled for decades with drug addiction and mental illness, which kept him from the fame and fortune his talent deserved.

Musically, the 13th Floor Elevators ranged from straight-up old-school rhythm and blues to tripped-out psychedelia. Their R&B songs were solid, but their psychedelic songs were awesome. They featured fuzz-tone guitars and Tommy Hall's weirdly frantic electric jug. And Hall's strange lyrics, in Erickson's passionate voice, brought the whole thing together.

Here's four of my favorites.

"You're Gonna Miss Me" (1966) The clip is from some kind of Dick Clark show. The vocal sound that influenced Janis Joplin is pretty obvious.

"Splash 1" (1966) is a beautiful falling-in-love song; I really love the lyrics.

I've seen your face before
I've known you all my life
And though it's new
your image cuts me like a knife
And now I'm home
And now I'm home
And now I'm home, to stay
The neon from your eyes is splashing into mine
It's so familiar in a way I can't define
And though this is awful speedy
We needn't bother speaking
All we might say is understood
The fierceness of my feelings
rocks me like a war
It's good to know we won't be strangers anymore

"Roller Coaster" (1966) A quintessential LSD song. You can really hear the jug on this one. It's that weird "doo-doo-doo-doo-doo" sound.

"Slip inside This House" (1967) This is kind of a tour de force of everything that was great about the 13th Floor Elevators -- the fuzzed-out guitars, the intense vocals, the weird electric jug sound, and some awesomely trippy lyrics, like these:

Every day's another dawning
Give the morning winds a chance
Always catch your thunder yawning
Lift your mind into the dance
Sweep the shadows from your awning
Shrink the fourfold circumstance
That lies outside this house don't pass it by.

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