It was late 1966, and Fontana Records had assembled several dozen members of the press to hear the label's newest and most adventurous act at its London headquarters. The Misunderstood had just blown the audience's mind by running through a set of songs that took the psychedelic explorations of the Yardbirds to new heights. Monstrous feedback dovetailed with shimmering Indian-flavored melodic passages; Glenn Ross Campbell coaxed all manner of dive-bombs and eerie tidal-wave sustains from his steel guitar. But the band had one last trick up their sleeve.
"We pulled out an envelope," remembers Campbell. "We said, 'There's a piece of paper in the envelope with a word written on it. What we want you to do in this next song -- if you want to call it that -- we'll play for approximately six minutes, and then we're gonna ask you questions about what you heard. And what we want is, basically, your feelings -- what the song made you feel like, or makes you think of. We're not interested in whether you think it was too loud or too long. We're not interested in a critique. We just want to know what you were feeling.
"At the end, we asked three or four people. One person goes, 'I kept getting flashes of when I was a kid in my father's apple orchard or something.' The next one goes, 'I had a craving for applesauce.' We did about three or four, and they were all spot-on. So we open the envelope, and of course the word in the envelope was 'apple.' One way or another, everybody we talked to, their feelings or thoughts were centered around apples. Oh, man -- the flashbulbs went off, and some women started screaming, yelling out, 'They're witches! They're witches!'"
If the Misunderstood were indeed witches, they were sorcerers of the most benign and progressive sort, using their extraordinary powers to smash the outer limits of psychedelic rock, expounding a message of love and possibility. Their supposed supernatural powers, however, could not prevent a few external Blue Meanies from breaking up the party almost before it had started. In early 1967, the Misunderstood should have been standing alongside Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and others as the greatest newcomers of the just-blossoming psychedelic scene. Instead, the group had suddenly and irrevocably dispersed, unable to keep playing together in the face of insurmountable obstacles placed in their paths by both the American and British governments.
Just two years before they seemed poised to become underground heroes in London, the Misunderstood were a struggling American garage band, finding what work they could in Riverside, California. Evolving from a surf combo called the Blue Notes, by 1965 they had added lead singer Rick Brown and begun writing material in the spirit of blues-based British Invasion heroes like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. An acetate from around this time (some of which can be heard on the Before the Dream Fadedreissue) shows them to be an above-average garage act, caught in the transition between surf music, Del Shannon, and the Animals. There was little to indicate that they were any more special than hundreds of other similar bands across the U.S.; being based a good 50 miles of so from Los Angeles meant that they were unlikely to attract any attention from the music industry.
The arrival of Glenn Campbell (no relation to Glen Campbell the pop star) helped the band find a much more startling direction. Campbell had already played the swooping, ear-catching steel guitar leads on an instrumental single by the Goldtones, "Gutterball," now considered a cult classic in its own right by surf collectors. Always looking for new sounds -- "the steel for me was just a big experimentation," to be used "in every way conceivable" -- Campbell was asked to audition by the Misunderstood, looking for a replacement for recently departed guitarist George Phelps. Used to getting physically beaten up for bringing a steel guitar to rock group auditions, Campbell made sure he was heard by bringing along eight or so of his own friends to stymie any threat of physical attack. He needn't have worried -- after just one song, he was in.
Campbell brought not only a new instrument into the group, but new influences as well. His eclectic tastes extended beyond rock and blues to Indian ragas, Library of Congress recordings of tribal New Guinea music, and African songs with cycles that wouldn't repeat for minutes on end (as opposed to the usual four measures or eight-bar repetitions found in much pop music). "Usually I would meet with resistance from most bands I'd been with," says Campbell. "But with Misunderstood, there was none of that. They were fascinated, much as I was. They were willing to try anything. There was never any of the usual sort of ego paranoia. They'd take a chance of looking like a fool just to try something new."
While remaining fairly blues-based, the group began to improvise and experiment with amplification and guitar effects in a manner reminiscent of the Yardbirds, who were, Campbell noted, "almost to us like a kindred spirit." An obscure single of blues numbers recorded by the Misunderstood in their Riverside days betrays relatively little in the way of daring approach. Unreleased demos of "I'm Not Talking" (based on the Yardbirds version), however, are startling even today, with their shrieking banshee steel guitar leads, blistering raga runs, and extended bouts of feedback. Campbell points out that it was all but impossible to find old blues records in the States in those days, meaning that they had to be learned by playing them over and over at the house of a friend who had a big collection. "That's also partly why we never copied anything exactly. Because we didn't have it to copy. That's another thing that led us to be a little more original, because we didn't have any choice. Our memories weren't photographic enough to copy 'em directly."
Southern California didn't know what to make of a group that would literally leave the stage for extended periods to let their instruments feed back on their own. Even on rare trips to Los Angeles, says Campbell, "The audiences just didn't know how to take it. They came to a standstill, would stare, mouths hanging open." Part of the thrill was the sheer novelty of seeing a steel guitarist set up his equipment in a hard electric rock combo -- "it looked weird, sounded bizarre, and added greatly to the uniqueness of the band. Most kids didn't know what it was. I used to hang sort of joke packets of potato chips and those little beef sticks off my guitar on strings and sell them at gigs."
Glenn pushed things into a different dimension by asking some engineers he knew to construct a light show of sorts, well before such accoutrements were common at rock concerts. "I wanted to make a unit which, as you play, would be assigned three primary colors. It would divide the musical frequencies up to those colors, and pulsate the lights accordingly. We were told it was impossible to make at that point. But I refused to give up, so I got some motorcycle light bulbs and car tail lights, hooked them up with guitar jacks, and stuck them into the external speaker connections of our amps.
"And lo and behold, they worked like a charm. They weren't color, but they were white, and as you played and got louder, they would ebb and flow with the volume and frequency range. We tried it at rehearsal with the lights out at my mom's house in the living room, and it was great." When it came time to debut the contraption in front of an audience, "We got the instruments feeding back, and left the stage. The way we did it, they would just go on indefinitely. The feedback would go into harmonics and octave changes and so on. It was quite eerie in itself. But when you combined that with these lights, it was a really bizarre effect. The lights were going up and down, [the audience's] faces would come into focus and stuff, and they were absolutely hypnotized, stunned, just standing there. We thought, man, we've stumbled onto something here. From that time on, we were considered the sort of alchemists of the music scene."
But Riverside -- where the band were regularly hassled, sometimes physically, merely for wearing their hair long -- was not exactly the most sympathetic climate to boldly take rock groups where none had gone before. What they were doing was more in line with British groups such as the Yardbirds and the Who. The arrival of a certain British DJ into San Bernardino confirmed an inkling they were starting to toss around in their minds. Radio personality John Ravenscroft -- soon to change his name to John Peel and become Britain's most influential rock announcer/programmer (as he still is three decades later) -- became a big fan of the band, helping them to arrange demo recordings. When the Misunderstood mused how they might stand a better chance of acceptance in England, Peel encouraged them to make the move. Unlike most young men with little cash, less name recognition, and no work permits, the group decided to go for it.
Not ones to accept what could or couldn't be done with their music, the band scrapped together enough money to make the journey. Some of the funds were raised by winning several Battle of the Bands competitions that Campbell cheerfully admits "were virtually fixed -- but, I mean, we probably would won it anyway." They had to smuggle their equipment off their boat through U.K. customs with help from a sympathetic crew, and soon found themselves riding into London, a couple of impressed females in tow. As Campbell remembers it, they were riding in the same sort of baggage compartment that the Beatles used for a famous scene in A Hard Day's Night.As far as the band knew, John Peel's parents were expecting them at a house in London, where the Misunderstood planned to stay until they got settled. So far, so good, but the screenplay would soon be hijacked by the likes of Fellini and David Lynch.
"We're riding high," recounts Campbell gleefully. "We got off and a get a taxi to John's place. We thought they were all informed and knew we were coming. There's nobody there. I mean, we've got a mountain of equipment -- amps, drums, all in cardboard boxes. We're sitting there, it starts raining on us, and we're pulling out raincoats and putting it over the equipment and getting soaked. Pretty soon the neighbors get curious, 'cause we'd been there overnight. They come the next morning and bring us cups of tea and more blankets. We're all wrapped up like Indians on a reservation.
"We're there, literally, for a couple of days. Finally, John's parents come home. And they walked straight by us, didn't even look at us. We went banging on the door and said, 'Excuse us, but we're the Misunderstood.' And they go something like, 'Yeah, we can believe it!'" The band had to wait yet another eight hours before Peel's parents got hold of their son in the States to confirm the story and let the Californians in. Their hearts sunk when they found unsent promo packages in one of the closets, and realized "there was nobody waiting to see us or any interviews set up or anything." But they did call a manager from a list that Peel had supplied, and through that contact got a deal with Fontana Records.
Rick Brown came over a couple of weeks later than the rest of the group, and had somehow been led to believe that the Misunderstood were already famous in England. Instead of mobs of screaming fans, he was met by bandmates so strapped of cash that they'd had to jump subway barriers just to make the trip to the airport. Ending up at the wrong side and running late, they then had to run across a landing strip as a plane was taking off overhead. Getting back into London meant crashing the subway barriers again; "The cops were chasing us and jeez, this wasn't what Rick had in mind at all!"
The band were by now getting more "unsettled" than "settled"; bassist Steve Whiting got a job at a hospital carrying body parts down to the incinerator that lasted about one day, and, more seriously, rhythm guitarist Greg Treadway was drafted and had to return home to join the Navy. The band were living in a rat-infested basement that was so cold that ice cream wouldn't melt, although Brown managed to share a flat with Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck. Yet in the midst of this Keystone Cops-gone-Kafka routine, the band actually began to make some headway.
With a new English guitarist, Tony Hill, the band recorded material for Fontana that stands as a pinnacle of early psychedelia. The guitar work was thrilling, Campbell's especially, recalling Jeff Beck's most experimental work with the Yardbirds, with the unusual super-amplified steel guitar runs adding textures that were (and still largely are) unheard of within a rock context. While the songs could be recklessly cosmic, they were delivered with a mix of aggressive raunch, hypnotic raga-rock, and sudden shifts into meditative passages of glistening beauty. Best of all was "I Can Take You to the Sun," which shows the band at its most tender and Indian-influenced, moving from a Yardbirds-ish rave-up to an exquisitely delicate acoustic classical/raga guitar arrangement, devised and played by newcomer Hill. "I Can Take You to the Sun," backed with "Who Do You Love," would be their debut single; four other tracks from the sessions, thankfully, surfaced in 1982 on the Before the Dream Faded reissue.
"When Tony was in the band, we virtually had no limits," exclaims Campbell. "We could do umpteen different styles or colorations. We were approaching it like a trio, much like Hendrix did later, and Cream, even though there [were two guitar players]. But the way Tony and I were playing, it was almost like one instrument. We kind of weaved and ducked and twisted around, but quite often, we were taking solos at the same time. And we were sort of dancing together as soloists.
"I actually had an advantage over the guitar in the sense that I had this huge fat sound, and I could sustain it as long as I want. [With] regular guitar players, there wasn't a whole big choice of pickups, and their strings are thinner; I had huge, heavy strings. I could get quarter-tones, eight-tones, anywhere in between, where guitar players can only get half-steps, except when you bend strings." Campbell also used a fuzz box that "made all these horrendous noises. We cranked it up like screaming and squawking and feedback, which was exactly what we wanted."
The single wasn't a hit, although Fontana had been excited enough about the group to actually bump established artists' studio time to make room for the Misunderstood's sessions. And the band weren't entirely pleased with the coverage surrounding the "apple" incident at Fontana's press launch. "I had a book that was about two and a half inches thick," says Campbell. "It was a notebook of various chords and rhythm combinations and all sorts of stuff, inversions, harmonies that would seem to produce certain effects, so that we could write songs with these various already researched combinations, and expect a certain response from an audience. The idea was not to control an audience. The idea ultimately was that we could set up healing centers to use music and lights in a sort of holistic kind of way, and also to communicate our experiences.
"But we all got a bit worried, and we actually took the book and destroyed it. We might have been maybe giving ourselves a little more credit than we were due. We felt we stumbled onto something we didn't really want to get in the wrong hands, and it kind of spooked us a bit. So that book just got torn up and burned."
The Misunderstood would never get a chance to implement their still-futuristic notions (and before you laugh too hard, consider that Jimi Hendrix has also been said to have considered the use of music as a healing mechanism). Their gigs were infrequent due to lack of work permits, though those that saw them were impressed, including Pink Floyd, who had yet to make records -- "we kept getting reports from people that were seeing Pink Floyd that they were copying a lot of our stage act." From Campbell's perspective, the Misunderstood were truly ready to assert themselves once drummer Rick Moe heard Mitch Mitchell's drumming on Jimi Hendrix's first single, "Hey Joe." "I wanted another soloist in there, coming from the drums. I go [to Rick], 'That's the kind of drumming I'm talking about.' And he goes, 'Now I see what you mean!' To me, that was the last awkward link in the group. From then on, we could have just skyrocketed. That probably saddens me more than anything, because he knew what I was talking about. I can't even remember now if we ever even got a chance to rehearse again after that."
Because Rick Brown had gone back to the United States to sort out his draft problems -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out, since he was briefly drafted before going AWOL in Haight-Ashbury. With the FBI on his trail, he returned to London briefly, managing to slip out of England just before the authorities caught up with him there; he went on from there to India to join the Hare Krishnas for a time, after which he eventually established himself as a gemologist. Meanwhile the rest of the band had unsuccessfully auditioned for a replacement vocalist. In keeping with the larger-than-life adventures that seemed to be dogging them at this point, they found themselves stranded in France in early 1967 after being sent to nonexistent gigs. Whiting managed to get back into England with the help of an elite London call girl, on the pretense that she would marry him. Moe and Campbell got shuttled back and forth on the ferry between France and England for three days; immigration refused them entry to either country, and they were reduced to stealing food off of other passengers' plates. They were even considering jumping overboard to reach England before being dissuaded by the crew.
Finally they were allowed into the U.K., on the condition that they leave within 24 hours. Campbell had to sell his steel guitar, and Moe his drums, to pay for their tickets back to California. It was suddenly over, although Glenn would soon return to England to front an entirely different lineup of the Misunderstood that played a much different sort of blues-funk-rock. Campbell hadn't wanted to use the Misunderstood name for this venture, but was pressured into it by his record company.
Says old friend John Peel of the Misunderstood's peak lineup today: "If they'd managed to get themselves sorted out in London, I really think they would have done quite extraordinarily well. Even if they hadn't been influential up to that point, I do think they could have certainly taken their place amongst the more notable bands at the time. They were barely getting started. It's one of the great disappointments of my life, really, that Rick got drafted, and it all fell apart."
Amplifies Campbell: "I think we would have achieved quite a bit. I think it would have been a major group. It would have been like a symphonic rock band, really. Not that we'd have done that -- what I mean is, there would have been a lot of colors, a lot of shades, and lots of ideas thrown in there. The only thing that really stopped it was the bloody Vietnam War. I'm not saying that just [in] a selfish respect. For such a useless war, its tentacles just reached everywhere."
Campbell went on to experience a bit of success in the U.K. in the early '70s with the bluesy hard rock band Juicy Lucy. He's now living in Auckland, New Zealand, where he does a lot of session work and TV/radio ads, and plays with New Zealand country artist Al Hunter. Not that he's stopped experimenting -- he's recently built an archtop nine-string semi-acoustic guitar with special blues and jazz tunings, using an old Hofner body. "Everybody said it couldn't be done -- it's really revitalized my interest in music."
Trying to summarize a one-of-a-kind band like the Misunderstood is nearly impossible, but Campbell gives it his best shot: "It wasn't that we were so much overlooked when we were around. It was just that nobody knew we existed! The people that heard us couldn't overlook us. We were just too different.
"The Misunderstood might have some powerful, rough sections that were anger. But we'd always balance it off somewhere in the song with something soft, and more serene. It's like a good book. It takes you through ups and downs, but in the end, it all balances out."
Before the Dream Faded(1982, Cherry Red, UK). Half of this disc contains interesting cuts from the band's Riverside days in the mid-'60s, illustrating their evolution from a decent garage band to a Yardbirdsy blues-psychedelic one. Pretty good, but what you really need to hear are the six tracks they recorded in London in 1966 (all contained here). This is not just overlooked psychedelia, but a tantalizing glimpse into directions that were never fully explored in rock music as a whole before the Misunderstood's tragically premature demise. Believe it.
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