Friday, 30 April 2010

Lower East Side and Greenwich Village identities The Holy Modal Rounders started as an acoustic folkie duo of Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, wandered in and out of the Fugs, expanded to include playwright Sam Shepard and assorted other players including, at one stage, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (later of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers). They weren't for everybody. and while they might have been well-versed in traditional folk, they worked the material from an off-kilter gonzo perspective in ways coffee house contemporaries like the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary didn't, refusing to take things too seriously.

Rear View: "The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders"

Moray Eels Holy Modal Rounders

I don't know how many copies of The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders have been sold world-wide, but you can put Hughesy for at least three of them, three to me, and an unknown number to friends and acquaintances who've been subjected to it over the past forty years.

I doubt that there was a single instance around the dinner table at The Verandah Bistro and MacWine Bar where someone like Buckwheat Zydeco and the Ils Sont Partis Band had produced a comment along the lines of Where do you find this weird shit, Hughesy? wouldn't have seen me hurtling towards the stereo.

Weird? That's not weird! This is weird! would have been the comment as whatever was playing was replaced by The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders. There may have been someone who was so impressed by Stampfel and Weber's anarchistic feral yelp to have chased down their own copy, but I doubt it.

It's not, after all, as if this is the sort of album that's going to attract a tag like Belongs in every discerning listener's collection the way that Elektra stablemates Forever Changes, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and East-West would.

Much as I love The Holy Modal Rounders there's no denying that they're an acquired taste, and individual mileages are going to vary substantially even among dedicated fans. Indian War Whoop was one of my very first purchases from the iTunes store, but to date I haven't managed to listen to both sides at one sitting (the album comprises two side-long tracks) and I'm careful not to try if Madam's within earshot.

Having experienced an extreme reaction to Robyn Hitchcock, there's no way I'm going to risk playing Jimmy and Crash Survey the Universe or The Second Hand-Watch while she's nearby. I mean, if I can't get through both at one sitting...

My initial exposure to The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders came through my mate Eric at a time when I was buying what I could afford and Eric was buying what he could find.

While he couldn't find everything his collection contained a wide range of interesting ephemera, some of which found their way into the repertoires of Heavy Chunder and Snafu.

Had Snafu found a way to extend its brief and inglorious career there's every chance tracks like Bird Song, One Will Do For Now and Dame Fortune would have joined the Werewolf in said repertoire.

It was several years before I managed to track down their earlier work, and the hit and miss flow of information into Townsville (though the ratio was inclined tilted towards the hit side of the equation) meant I'm not sure whether I was aware of Stampfel and Weber's involvement with The Fugs.

By the time Cloncurry Jim imported the gloriously ribald Golden Filth Stampfel and Weber had long flown The Fugs' coop.

When the album under consideration was recorded, the original acoustic warped folkie duo had expanded to a five piece electric band, including playwright Sam Shepard on drums. I seem to recall them appearing on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, around this time in the same slot that shot Tiny Tim into his fifteen minutes of fame.

I’d already heard of them when they did.

You wouldn't have been betting on the Rounders gaining the same degree of notoriety, though. Stampfel was in the process of assembling a new band (The Moray Eels) out of the drug-addled wreckage of The Holy Modal Rounders.

Having been induced to record an album for Elektra by producer Barry Friedman (who was about to change his name to Frazier Mohawk), the sessions verged on anarchy, and the results were edited into side-long suites that weren't suited to radio airplay even if the contents had commercial potential.

My first copy of the album, found in the second hand racks at Brisbane's Record Market (if I recall correctly) was soon worn out, at least partly due to damage resulting from attempts to find a particular track for specific listening. I suspect that Eric’s copy had much the same fate, and would have been replaced at least once.

Having found a CD copy, however, I can vouch for the fact that the digital separation into individual tracks enabled Hughesy to add frequent Rounder insertions into Tuesday night's Fools Gold or Sunday afternoon's High Class Music on the local community radio station. The side-long suites might not have been radio-friendly back then, now that they'd been digitally separated the individual tracks worked quite nicely in the environment I was working in.

The radio show was done by plugging my laptop into the board at the station, working from my iTunes library, which also provided the backdrop while I was working, so the basic method when I started assembling a playlist was to keep an eye out for transitions and crossfades between track that sounded good - a nice contrast, perhaps, or a seamless transition in other cases - and it was an environment where some of The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders worked pretty well (once we'd omitted the really strange stuff, which probably wasn't classroom friendly anyway).

All in all, I suspect the album got more than its fair share of airplay, though the actual playlists have long been consigned to lost in a system crash land.

In retrospect, and having read Stampfel's liner notes to the CD reissue, the album's very much a product of its time, largely through large quantities of psychotropic substances that were being consumed. It's worth remembering that 1968 wasn't entirely devoted to flower power, peace, love and understanding.

So, the track by track commentary:

The opening Bird Song (actual title: If You Want To Be A Bird) is, of course, the album's best known cut, thanks to that sequence in Easy Rider, and represented Stampfel's girlfriend Antonia's first attempt at songwriting.

As far as paeans to personal liberation go, the closing lines (If you want to be a bird it won't take much to get you up there/When you come down, land on your feet) are remarkably down to earth advice as the song sequence segues into One Will Do For Now (Stampfel: one of the best songs Weber ever wrote) with an almost resigned guess I've just about had enough for the moment vocal over tinkling harpsichord that works rather well. The keyboards (played by Richard Tyler) are remarkably prominent throughout, given that the Rounders started as an acoustic folkie duo.

The ugly side of life in New York's East Village provides the source material for Takeoff Artist Song, with Stampfel plotting serious revenge on the perpetrator of a hostage where's the drugs and money? situation. Honky-tonk piano, and stoned semi-coherent ramblings towards the play-out after the stated intention to put drano in his dujis (should sort him out, that one) and afterwards piss on his tombstone/desecrate his grave. Having read the explanation in the liner notes I suspect I'd have done the same.

The cover of Michael Hurley's Werewolf, as stated above, found its way into the repertoires of certain Townsville bands, and is done acapella since there were issues with the instrumental accompaniment. The feral yowl continues to deliver much pleasure as a vessel for deranged self-amusement to this day.

Interlude, a heavily treated keyboard interpretation of The Stars and Stripes Forever clocks in at not very long, but was frequently used as a transition between songs in a twelve- to fifteen minute set on Bowen community radio.

Dame Fortune (actual title, Song of Courtship to Dame Fortune) is a rather wonderful number, a rare collaboration with Stampfel's words added to a Weber guitar instrumental. There's a certain charm to observations like life's an easy hurdy gurdy.

Mobile Line (should've been Mobile Line Gonna Carry Me Away From The Curse of the Bullfrog Blues) starts out as the familiar jug band standard covered by, among others the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, but rapidly moves into unfamiliar and relatively uncharted territory, while the 22-second Duji Song (duji = heroin) represents a brief intermission between ridding oneself of the bullfrog curse and the mental disintegration of My Mind Capsized.

Or is it actually mental disintegration? Lines like the law of gravity's a friend of mine/It's a sensible law. I think it's fine represent a sensibly well-grounded orientation.

At least they do to me.

Kicking off side two, STP Song (Stampfel's preferred title August 1967) was an attempt, while under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen, to write a song inextricably linked to a particular time frame that simultaneously captured the essence of the STP experience. Which is, I guess (never having travelled those paths) the sort of thing that those stimulants might prompt you to try.

Oh, and do it all in a minute and twelve seconds.

After the STP commercial part (have a revelation, the first one's free/Soon you'll be addicted to eternity) there's a chilling summary of what was happening in a lot of cases as unattainable idealism, the If you're going to San Francisco flowers in your hair vibe got transformed by the sordid reality of what many of the travellers found when they got there (Seems he was a flower child just last week/Now he's got the clap and just a needle freak).

Interlude 2, a rather tasty little guitar instrumental with some verbal ramblings from Stampfel and Sam Shepard, was another favourite crossfade between otherwise incompatible tracks back in the radio show days. Like Stampfel I would have preferred it to go on a little longer - the music's some of the best playing on the album - but (despite suggestions that large quantities of material ended up on the cutting floor) you can only work with what you've got.

Finally, there's the odd pairing of Half A Mind and The Pledge, which I regarded as evidence of the unhinged chemical shenanigans that were going on nearby. Half A Mind is a remarkable rant that leaves you wondering exactly what it was about (you get the general gist, but it's the specifics that I end up wondering about) while The Pledge was originally part of a Stampfel scheme to record patriotic standards with new warped lyrics, culminating with a totally straight choral version of America the Beautiful.

It didn't quite work out that way, though, and with the choral part in the can and Stampfel unable to do the lead vocal justice, it apparently became necessary to have Sam Shepard intone the Pledge of Allegiance over the choral background, something he wasn't able to bring off due to an unexpected memory (chemical induced?) lapse.

Half a capsized mind, indeed.

To this day Stampfel is fairly consistently dismissive of the album, but I must admit to having loved every one of its twenty-six and a bit minutes for a good forty years.

Oh, and, given the slightest encouragement I will serenade the neighbourhood with my imitation of The Werewolf, a rendition that has been known (and I have witnesses) to still the drunken carousals of the local Rugby club.

Strange and terrible, indeed.

Now, about those remaining items in the Rounders’ back catalogue. We’ll be needing to replace some of this vinyl...