Rock groups are supposed to be hatched in garages and inner-city lofts, not the upper reaches of academia. That wasn't going to stop Joseph Byrd, experimental composer and ethnomusicologist from the UCLA New Music Workshop, from devising a plan in 1967 to approach rock'n'roll from the opposite direction.
Byrd, who had frequented avant-garde circles since hanging around with Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, and Virgil Thomson in the early '60s, used the United States of America to bring cutting-edge electronics, Indian music, and "serious" composition into psychedelic rock and roll. The group's sole, self-titled album in 1968 was a tour de force (though not without its flaws) of experimental rock that blended surprisingly melodic sensibilities with unnerving blasts of primitive synthesizers and lyrics that could range from misty romanticism to hard-edged irony. For the relatively few who heard it, the record was a signpost to the future with its collision of rock and classical elements, although the material crackled with a tension that reflected the United States of America itself in the late '60s.
By mid-1968, the grand experiment was over. Conflicting egos, a drug bust, and commercial pressures all contributed to a rapid split. The United States of America may have had their roots in the halls of higher learning, but ultimately they were prey to the same kind of mundane tensions that broke the spirit of many a band that lived and died on the streets.
From the time Byrd founded the band in Los Angeles with colleague Michael Agnello, says singer Dorothy Moskowitz, "group dynamics were never a strong point in the USA." Moskowitz, Byrd's ex-girlfriend, had a background in writing and performing for musical theater. She moved from New York to California to join the group and, as she puts it, provide "the requisite schmaltz." Bassist Stu Brotman, once of the stunningly eclectic L.A. psychedelic group Kaleidoscope, was also an early member.
But he and Agnello were gone by the time the group began recording for Columbia. Agnello, a radical sort, was arguing with Byrd over leadership of the band, and not sure the act should even be signing to a record label in the first place. "When you ask why the group broke up, well, why did the group even record after it broke it up?" points out Moskowitz.
Yet the lineup that cohered for the album brought impressive credentials to the table. Electric violinist Gordon Marron expanded the instrument's parameters with a divider that could raiser or lower it an octave, as well as tape echo units and ring modulators. Rand Forbes played an unfretted electric bass, and drummer Craig Woodson would tinker with his sound in unusual ways, attaching contact microphones to his set and suspending slinkies from cymbals to get a musique-concrete effect. Ed Bogas added organ, piano, and calliope.
Most of the material was penned by Byrd and Moskowitz, the latter of whose alto delivered the lyrics -- which are alternately evocative and foreboding -- with a cool precision reminiscent of an icier Grace Slick. Byrd was chiefly responsible for the electronic textures that would provide the album with its most distinguishing characteristics. This was 1968, remember, when synthesizers had rarely been employed on rock records. What Byrd crafted were not simulations of strings and horns, but exhilarating, frightening swoops and bleeps that lent a fierce crunch to the faster numbers, and a beguiling serenity to the ballads. Byrd had crucial help in his endeavors from Richard Durrett, who designed the Durrett electronic music synthesizer used by the band, and from Tom Oberheim, who pioneered the use of the ring modulator employed by the USA. Nico, Moskowitz has recalled, tried unsuccessfully to join the band, after leaving the Velvet Underground.
Add to this mix a fascination with modal playing and Indian music. Byrd and Moskowitz were serious students of North and South Indian music, and had already made little-known contributions to a Folkways LP of Indian music by Gayathri Rajapur and Harihar Rao, recorded in 1965. Country Joe & the Fish, the Doors, and others were opening the gates for modal playing in rock and roll, and the USA were one of the first ones through; Frank Zappa had also opened the possibilities for incorporating ideas from contemporary composition into a rock format. And then there was Byrd's application of concepts from Charles Ives, which simulated marching bands moving from opposite sides of the stereo spectrum...
Was it all too much to fit into one album? "As a whole, the album does not have a coherent, unified vision," declares Moskowitz, who now lives near Oakland, California, where she composes music for both adult and children's theatrical events in the San Francisco Bay area. "Joe had vision, but by hiring all these interesting people, it had to be diluted. Everybody had to have their say. I'm told that someone took the album to Apple Records. The Beatles listened to it and asked, 'Which is the band?' If you listen to each song, it's almost like a variety show.
"Today you would say, it's a cultural blending of avant-garde music, of elements of Indian music. If you asked me back then, I'm not sure what we were doing. That might have been the basic charm of the group. We were charting territory for which their were no names."
Recording the electronics in particular proved a challenge for both the band and their producer, David Rubinson, who remembers, "The ring modulator and the volt-control oscillators and voltage control filters -- they didn't come in a set, like they did in a Moog. You had to build each one -- which they did -- and actually hard-wire them together. It was an eight-track album. So all that synthesized stuff was painstakingly layered in, sound by sound, one oscillator at a time. Now you may get a bank of oscillators and you can run six, eight, twelve of them in a row, and make all kinds of wonderful waves, shapes, and it can be very complicated. But at that time, it was not possible.
"It had one oscillator, one ring modulator, one voltage control filter -- that's it. It looked funny. It was like aluminum boxes, little knobs sticking out, and patch cords. And it was very exciting to me, because it was a marriage of a lot of what was happening in what people called classical music at the time. When people think about what Steve Reich was doing then, and Terry Riley was doing then, and what Joe Byrd was doing then, it was very, very similar in different areas."
Aside from the even more obscure San Francisco group Fifty Foot Hose, the United States were virtually alone in their attempts to combine psychedelic rock with cutting-edge electronics. The very fact that the equipment was so primitive, however, lent a spontaneous resonance and warmth that has rarely been achieved by subsequent synthesizer technology. Listen to "Hard Coming Love," for instance, where the oscillations seem to be launching into outer space from an Olympian-sized swimming pool. Moskowitz's voice was also run through electronic filtering at times to give it a particularly eerie quality.
In Dorothy's opinion, "Synthesizers in those days were so unpredictable -- that was part of their appeal. You didn't know what was going to happen! So you'd turn on the volume -- you'd get a 'squawk,' or you might get a 'bleep.' It didn't really matter, so long as you were playing in rhythm. And that was very exciting. So you'd go 'bling, bling,' and that became part of the rhythm track. Nowadays, you can pretty much pre-program the precise 'ping' or 'click' you want. Back then, the limited technology didn't allow for the kind of options we have now.
"In the mid-'60s, a synthesizer was considered an instrument on its own terms, not a means of duplicating the sound of something else. It expanded the palette and gave the music a dangerous edge. It certainly did lend a richness."
Columbia balked at a plan to use an album cover of, in Rubinson's words, a flag with blood dripping from it (Moskowitz doesn't remember the illustration as being quite so blatantly anti-Establishment). The LP was eventually issued with more standard band photographs, in a plain manila wrapper with a red stamp that declared, "United States of America." Onstage, according to Rubinson, the band "reproduced the album exactly." So when it came time to go on the road and bring the USA to the real USA, playing the music was not the chief problem. The greater problem was finding a sympathetic audience for such an unusual act.
At such venues as Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery, the band felt in their element. It wasn't as easy playing for audiences that expected out-and-out rock and roll, like the one that gave the group the thumbs-down on an ill-fated pairing with the Troggs. The USA also played once with the Velvet Underground, which seemed like a more copacetic match, although Moskowitz has related how the Velvets knocked over the USA's amplifiers as they were going offstage.
Tensions within the group escalated into a backstage fistfight between Byrd and Marron at one of their most high-profile gigs (at New York's Fillmore East). "Joe Byrd was one of the most insane examples of control freak that I've, to this day, ever experienced," observes Rubinson. "At that time, I was in my twenties, and I wasn't the easiest person in the world to get along with either, I guess. But he was really bizarre, and a very, very difficult person to deal with. So there were constant personality conflicts in and among the band. People quitting, people getting replaced, arguments, yelling about intonation, and so forth. They were very talented people, and I don't think they liked being dictated to. But he had a vision of what he wanted."
The final straw, as far as the lineup from the first album was concerned, was at a gig in Orange County, California, in which three of the members were busted for marijuana, leaving Joe and Dorothy to complete the show with help from the support act. And Rubinson didn't like the direction in which the United States of America were going.
"The band started off as a completely revolutionary, anti-authority, nihilistic group. Whatever they wore, whatever they wanted to do, it was the opposite of patriotic. It was supposed to be an anarchist kind of group, to do everything possible to rub the wrong way. To take no conventions seriously. They became less anarchistic and less different, and submitted material which was kind of ordinary."
In a letter to Richard Kostelanetz that was reprinted in Kostelanetz's book The Fillmore East, Byrd states that he started the band "as an avant-garde political/musical rock group," with the intention of combining electronic sound, musical/political radicalism, and performance art. "The idea was to create a radical experience. It didn't succeed. For one thing, I had assembled too many personalities; every rehearsal became group therapy. A band that wants to succeed needs a single, mutually acceptable identity. I tried to do it democratically, and it was not successful."
Moskowitz offers a different perspective on the clash between Byrd and Rubinson: "[David] didn't like the fact that Joe hired studio horn players, and that we all of a sudden lost our pure sound. He thought we were attempting a slickness, and he didn't like it. I didn't care either way, because the original album had syrupy movie theme music, if you notice. To me, the intent of the US of A was to pull from different genres. That was the excitement. If Byrd wanted to use horn players doing Motown licks -- no problem!
"But Joe heard him grumbling. And his response was, 'Let's get rid of Rubinson.' Although I didn't agree with David aesthetically, I felt loyal to him. He was, after all, the one who had put us on the map. Joe might have been well-advised to step back and ask, 'What would you rather I do here?' But no, there was this arrogant angry reaction between the two of them."
The US of A split into two factions, one being Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies. Moskowitz' group was, in her words, "a very mild-mannered, non-electric band. Too mild." When the Field Hippies recorded their only LP for Columbia -- which was a rather uninspired effort with the odd tune that was obviously aiming for a USA-type feel -- there was one last chance to reunite the Byrd-Moskowitz partnership.
"I got a call about three months later, after the breakup from Joe's producer," says Dorothy. She remembers being told, "'The instrumentation is wonderful, the songs are great, the singers are not [that good]. And we listened to your demo, and the singing is really nice, but the people you put together are just sub-standard. Why don't you come back, and work again together?'
"I was too angry. I was too leery. I had been with Joe romantically in the early '60s, and I had been with him professionally in the mid-'60s, and I was tired of dealing with tension and being the moderator. I was on his side aesthetically. I was not very happy with the way he conducted his personal affairs. In terms of fame and fortune, it might have been the wrong decision. But the fact that I'm sitting here in this lovely suburban house, with a fine family..." She pauses, and smiles. "I guess I'm glad I got away from it, more or less intact."
The United States of America(1968,
Columbia/Legacy). Now on CD with two extra cuts, this remains one
of avant-rock's greatest moments. But not at the expense of good
songs, whether driving rockers ("Hard Coming Love," "Garden of Earthly
Delights") or ethereal ballads ("Clouds," "Where is Yesterday," and the
wonderfully titled "Love Song For the Dead Che").
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