Jan and Dean – Command Performance

ImageAlthough they never received anywhere near the same level of success or fame as The Beach Boys, this surf rock duo once dominated the top of the charts for a brief time period in the early 60s. Jan and Dean released this live album in 1965 on Liberty Records just as their popularity was starting to wane. Command Performance is essentially a greatest hits album performed in front of a live audience. The album is packed with many of the duo’s classic hits including “Surf City” and “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” Interestingly enough, Jan and Dean even cover a couple of their rival’s songs like “I Get Around.” The duo did reportedly have a friendly working relationship with their rivals, despite not becoming the same household name as The Beach Boys. Although the album itself is not all that imaginative, it does serve as a snapshot of the West coast surf rock scene in the early 1960s. Each song brings the driving electric guitar rhythms that have come to symbolize the heart and soul of surf rock. With pleasant, easy harmonies and fast tempos, these songs are quintessential rock ‘n’ roll songs that helped lead to more progressive rock styles such as garage rock and punk rock. Although many of the album’s songs are relatively well-known, it is not without its surprises. The song “Sidewalk Surfin'” is fun and catchy even though it never enjoyed the same success as songs like “Surf City.” Jan and Dean also close this album with a cover of “Louie, Louie,” one of the most celebrated garage rock songs of all time. This cover supports the rock narrative that links surf rock and garage rock with protopunk and later punk rock music. While this album can be mundane at times with many of the songs sounding quite similar, it is also important to recognize the role surf rock bands like Jan and Dean had in experimenting with the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. It is easy to dismiss bands like Jan and Dean 50 years after their prime. It is much more accurate to look at the influence they had on the development of rock ‘n’ roll and how they contributed to the sounds of middle and late 60s underground rock bands.  B

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The Electric Prunes – Underground

ImageIn this follow-up to their self-titled debut, The Electric Prunes define themselves as a unique psychedelic rock band by including much more original material than on their first album. Released on Reprise Records in August of 1967, just four months after their debut album, this album demonstrates how much the band had matured in such a short span of time. While their self-titled debut album was successful and was certainly a solid effort, it lacks original material and fails to establish a unique sound for the band. This album, however, displays a psychedelic rock band willing to diversify their sound. Instead of creating more cookie-cutter psychedelic rock songs, the band adds complexity and depth with their own newly found songwriting skills. This increased complexity is evident as soon as the needle drops. The opening song “The Great Banana Hoax,” is an original tune built on the foundation of solid rhythmic garage rock beat with spurts of psychedelic effects. Instead of dominating their sound with fuzzy guitars and intricate melodic psychedelic beats as they did on their first album, The Prunes incorporate these characteristics much more subtly and handsomely. Time and again they show that they are more than just a bag of cool studio effects––they are solid rock musicians as well. Songs like “Wind-Up Toys” and “Hideaway” are other great examples of original songs using psychedelic effects more selectively. These songs still certainly qualify as psychedelic rock songs; however, they may not be as buzzy and fuzzy as most of the songs on their first album. The biggest surprise on this album is the original single “It’s Not Fair.” This song is so unique that it evades categorization. It might be described as honky-psychedelic-garage-country-rock. “It’s Not Fair” incorporates subtle psychedelic effects into a driving honky-tonk country rhythm played by garage rock musicians. It is perhaps my favorite song on the album. My only complaint with the album is that it could feature even more original tunes. While seven originals is a whole lot more than two, the cover songs on the album aren’t quite as strong as the band’s own material. In particular, “I Happen to Love You” and “I” lack the same enthusiasm as other efforts. This criticism is perhaps a bit nitpicky, as neither song is all that bad. When both sides are played through, there’s really very little to be disappointed with. This album is necessary for any psychedelic or garage rock fan, particularly fans that enjoy the subtle nuances that can separate one psychedelic 60s rock band from another.  A

Vanilla Fudge – Vanilla Fudge

ImageAlthough Vanilla Fudge has often been described as one of the greatest cover bands of the 60s, this self-titled debut album remains exquisitely unique. Released on Atco Records in 1967, this Vanilla Fudge is composed of almost entirely covers except for a few short interval instrumental songs. Despite the fact that most of these songs are considered cover songs, Vanilla Fudge is able to inject such an exuberant amount of psychedelic sound into the very core of each song, warping and distorting the sound so many times over that the word “cover” no longer seems very accurate. For example, the opening track is a cover of The Beatles’ famous song “Ticket to Ride.” However, it is immediately clear that this version of the song is unlike any other version of the song previously recorded. For starters, the entire song is played at a much slower tempo. Slowing the tempo of songs would become the signature style of Vanilla Fudge. This technique allows the band to explore more distortion, extend solos and jams, and tap into the very depth of sound. “Ticket to Ride” is a psychedelic combination of all of these features, including Mark Stein’s extensive keyboard jams. Most of the album continues in this exploratory vein with each cover song having its own highs and lows of experimental psychedelic exploration.  Perhaps one of the most unique and personally gratifying covers is that of Cher’s “Bang Bang.” It contains a variety of quick guitar jams and dominant keyboard numbers all while maintaining a loosely centered core of this Cher’s original song. While their unique covers are usually what draws fans in, they can also have the opposite effect on listeners. After going through an entire album, their experimental psychedelic sound can become nearly formulaic and even burdening. While their ability to explore the depth of popular rock songs is unquestioned, this can act as both a gift and a curse depending upon the listener’s mindset and sensibilities. That being said, this album is worth picking up purely for its one-of-a-kind approach to rock ‘n’ roll.  B