The Second Disc

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The American Metaphysical Circus: Esoteric Label Mines Art Rock From The USA, John Cale

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United States of AmericaUnder the auspices of its new president, Clive Davis, Columbia Records aggressively courted the rock revolution in the late 1960s. The classy home to Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams built upon its successes with Paul Revere and the Raiders, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan to tap into the youth market with a wide variety of rock artists. Two outré albums from the venerable Columbia catalogue have recently been reissued by Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint, and they both live up to the label’s name.

The United States of America only released one album in its short career. The self-titled 1968 LP for Columbia’s classical Masterworks division was unusual even for the heady, excitingly adventurous times and a true example of “alternative” rock! The six-person band consisting of Joseph Byrd (electronic music/electric harpsichord/organ/calliope/piano), Dorothy Moskowitz (lead vocals), Gordon Marron (electric violin/ring modulator), Rand Forbes (electric bass), Craig Woodson (electric drums/percussion) and Ed Bogas (“occasional” organ/piano/calliope) defiantly rejected the conventions of the young rock scene. With no guitar player, the band’s sound was heavily electronic and unabashedly avant-garde. Byrd was a student of avant-garde hero John Cage and a member of the Fluxus “anti-art” art movement. Despite these credentials, he became interested in the power of pop and rock with young people. Through an association with Masterworks head, producer John McClure, Byrd and co. were signed to Columbia in the hopes of earning their underground sound a wider audience.

Byrd and the band dubbed The United States of America blended San Francisco-style acid rock with dense soundscapes and experimentation achieved by electronically altering the sound of conventional instrumentation. The self-titled The United States of America was uncompromising and unlike any other release on the pop-rock scene. Produced by David Rubinson – who would go on to collaborate with Herbie Hancock, The Pointer Sisters and Phoebe Snow – it melded compositional and musical sophistication with utter primitivism. Its tracks formed a song cycle about American life, with sharply satirical, often absurdist lyrical observations and no concessions to a commercial sensibility. Columbia marketed the album with an ad reading, “There’s a United States of America that’s a far cry from Mom, Apple Pie and The Flag,” but it was never destined for mainstream success.

After the jump: more on The United States of America, plus a lost album from John Cale and Terry Riley – and order links, track listings, etc.!

Various pressures and the popular “creative differences” led to a breakup of the band; Byrd released one more album for Masterworks, 1969’s The American Metaphysical Circus, with a group he called The Field Hippies. (That LP’s name was derived from the opening cut on United States.) Esoteric’s new, deluxe, slipcased edition of The United States of America includes ten bonus tracks, all of which premiered on a Sundazed reissue in 2004. These include alternates, audition performances and a handful of tracks recorded after the album’s March 1968 release. Sid Smith sums up the art-rock cult classic in his new liner notes, and the booklet also features full lyrics, credits and numerous photographs. Ben Wiseman has newly remastered this edition.

John Cale Terry Riley - ChurchVelvet Underground co-founder John Cale shared with Byrd a background in Fluxus and an association with John Cage. Cale and Lou Reed had spurred each other on in the Velvets, Cale’s experimental leanings combining with Reed’s dark pop sensibility to create a style that was equally uncompromising but perhaps more recognizably musical than, say, The United States of America. After creating the masterpieces The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat, however, Cale departed his band and embarked on a solo career. Following his work with the band on Nico’s Chelsea Girl, Cale arranged the cool chanteuse’s 1969 sophomore album, The Marble Index, and co-produced her 1970 LP Desertshore with his trademark avant-garde/neo-classical influences. He also championed the proto-punk assault of The Stooges’ debut album in 1969 and signed to Columbia in 1970 for his own recordings.

Cale’s Columbia debut turned out to be Vintage Violence – a folk-pop effort that was removed from his work with either The Stooges or Nico – but The Church of Anthrax, just reissued by Esoteric in a remastered edition, was actually recorded first. Whereas Violence featured Cale supported by a band including Garland Jeffreys and Harvey Brooks, The Church of Anthrax was a collaboration with minimalist composer and musician Terry Riley. Arriving after the surprisingly accessible Violence, Anthrax was perceived as a return by Cale to his underground roots. On the album co-produced by Masterworks’ John McClure, Cale played bass, harpsichord, piano, guitar and viola, while Riley handled organ, piano and soprano sax. Two drummers joined the sessions – Adam Miller and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ Bobby Colomby. Much as he had championed Joseph Byrd, McClure did the same for Riley, releasing two of his prior projects through Columbia and matchmaking him with Cale. (Those two albums, In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, have also been reissued by Esoteric.)

Four of the five tracks on the primarily instrumental Church of Anthrax were jointly credited to both artists, with the one vocal track – the folk-ish “The Soul of Patrick Lee,” sung by Miller – written solely by Cale. Most of the tracks were created via improvisation, employing drones, noise and repetition to create an often unsettling, primal and to some, impenetrable, atmosphere. Elements of the album recall both The Velvet Underground and Riley’s Curved Air, while “Patrick Lee,” on the other hand, anticipated the sound Cale would further refine on Vintage Violence. Cale and Riley ultimately clashed over the album’s mixing, with the latter walking out on the project and causing the delay in releasing it. One track, to this day, remains in the Columbia vault, entitled “October Procession.” Esoteric’s reissue of Church of Anthrax has been remastered and annotated by the same team of Ben Wiseman and Sid Smith, respectively, and includes lyrics to “The Soul of Patrick Lee.”

Both The United States of America and The Church of Anthrax remain undoubtedly challenging works that may well prove rewarding to many of the more adventurous souls out there. Both are available now from Esoteric Recordings and can be ordered below!

The United States of America, The United States of America (Columbia CS 9614, 1968 – reissued Esoteric ECLEC 2449, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. The American Metaphysical Circus
  2. Hard Coming Love
  3. Cloud Song
  4. The Garden of Earthly Delights
  5. I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar
  6. Where is Yesterday
  7. Coming Down
  8. Love Song for the Dead Che
  9. Stranded in Time
  10. The American Way of Love: Metaphor for an Older Man/California Good Time Music/Love is All
  11. Osamu’s Birthday
  12. No Love to Give
  13. I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar
  14. You Can Never Come Down
  15. Perry Pier
  16. Tailor Man
  17. Do You Follow Me
  18. The American Metaphysical Circus
  19. Mouse (The Garden of Earthly Delights)
  20. Heresy (Coming Down)

Tracks 11-20 are bonus tracks first issued on Sundazed SC 11124, 2004
Track 11 recorded December 15, 1967
Track 12 recorded December 13, 1967
Track 13 recorded December 11, 1967
Track 14 recorded May 9, 1968
Tracks 15-17 recorded July 30, 1968
Tracks 18-20 recorded September 1, 1967

John Cale and Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax (Columbia C 30131, 1971 – reissued Esoteric ECLEC 2448, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. Church of Anthrax
  2. The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles
  3. The Soul of Patrick Lee
  4. Ides of March
  5. The Protégé

Written by Joe Marchese

July 30, 2014 at 10:19

One Response

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  1. Hmmm… given the USA CD is still in print in the US and with used prices on Amazon of at least 55 GBP for ‘The American Metaphysical Circus’, you’d think they’d reissue that one first…


    July 30, 2014 at 15:59

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