By Richie Unterberger

At first glance and hearing, The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds might seem like an anomaly in the Elektra catalog. When it appeared in 1967, the label was recognized primarily for its eclectic catalog of folk recordings, and starting around 1965 for its run of extremely important folk-rock records by Love, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, and others.  Just a couple of catalog numbers in advance of the album was the debut by the Doors, which would advance Elektra to a whole new level.

    The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds, however, was like none of those records. It was not so much the product of a group or artist as it was a collectively-hatched concept album, matching psychedelic mood music with spoken prose and all manner of exotic and electronic instrumentation. It was, as the subtitle boasted, "celestial counterpoint with words and music." And as the back sleeve instructed, in capital purple letters, it "MUST BE PLAYED IN THE DARK." Should there have been any doubt that it was serious, the astrological sign of each contributor listed on the back sleeve was announced, in parentheses, after each name, even for Elektra owner Jac Holzman. Artist Abe Gurvin and art director William S. Harvey concocted a suitably florid sleeve, with a mosaic of colors so bold and gaudy they nearly glowed in the dark, supplemented by huge wavy title lettering and a nocturnal backdrop.

    Divided into 12 separate tracks, one for each astrological sign, it appeared just as both psychedelic rock and astrology itself were coming into vogue in the youthful counterculture. In some respects it was similar to other instrumental psychsploitation albums of the time, with a spacy yet tight groove that could have fit into the soundtrack of 1966 Sunset Strip documentaries, played in large measure by seasoned Los Angeles session musicians. In other respects, it was futuristic, embellished by some of the first Moog synthesizer ever heard on a commercial recording, an assortment of exotic percussive instruments, and sitar. The arrangements were further decorated by haunting harpsichord and organ, along with standard mid-1960s Los Angeles rock guitar licks. For those who took the astrology as seriously as the music, there was the dramatic reading of narrator Cyrus Faryar, musing upon aspects of each astrological sign in a rich, deep voice without a hint of irony.

    Only a few of the musicians involved in the album were listed on the back cover, and much mystery has surrounded the conception and realization of the record in the ensuing years. As it happens, though, the album featured some of the creme de la creme of the Los Angeles session musician clique, as well as some notable contributors with strong ties to the early-1960s folk music that had been Elektra's backbone prior to 1965. In addition, there were precedents for albums not tied to a particular artist in the Elektra discography. Only two or three years before, the company had released a 13-volume series of Authentic Sound Effects, as well as records on how to play bass and blues guitar. The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds was not an accidental one-shot aberration from an out-of-control producer, but in fact instigated by Elektra founder and president Jac Holzman himself.

    "The idea was mine," Holzman confirms. "It was not my first choice for a concept album. But the person I broached [my first choice] to stopped returning my phone calls and stole the idea for himself. I was pissed, and then decided that the Zodiac was an even better concept, and far more hip for its time. Plus, it neatly divided itself into twelve tracks."

    Producing the album was Alex Hassilev, one-third of the Limeliters, the successful pop-folk group of the early 1960s who had recorded their debut LP for Elektra in 1960 (followed by numerous other ones for RCA). Hassilev had recently formed a production company with Mort Garson, who had arranged one of Alex's RCA albums (as well as doing some arranging for fellow Limeliter Glenn Yarborough). "Mort was going to do most of the arranging, I was going to do most of the producing, and we were going to make millions of dollars," says Hassilev today. "But of course, that never happened."

    Yet in the meantime, "we had sold a concept to Jac to do a series of concept albums called 'The Sea,' 'The City,' and I think there was another one as well. He went for it." But Rod McKuen did his own album matching words about the sea to arrangements by Anita Kerr on the early '67 Warner Brothers LP called The Sea, which to Hassilev's recollection "kind of torpedoed our project. As I recall, Rod was supposed to be part of that project; that's how we sold it. And Rod jumped ship, and went over to Warners with Anita Kerr.  That was definitely a bitter pill, 'cause [Garson] wrote a bunch of music that never saw the light of day."

    Something of the original sea concept did survive on the Dusk 'Til Dawn Orchestra's Sea Drift LP, produced by Hassilev with an orchestra conducted by Garson, and released on Elektra just before The Zodiac (in fact, it bears catalog # 74008, just one digit shy of The Zodiac's #74009). In comparison to The Zodiac, according to Hassilev, the wholly instrumental Sea Drift "was a much more conventional album, a symphonic type of album. I went to England to record it with English musicians. The Dusk 'Til Dawn Orchestra was a bunch of English session players, like twelve strings and four celli and that kind of stuff. It was supposed to have had Rod McKuen on it. It was a bad scene.

     "In any event, we went ahead with The Zodiac. Mort was of course assigned the task of writing the music for the individual signs." The Juilliard-educated Garson, already in his early forties, was a seasoned veteran of the industry in many capacities, including composer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, and pianist. Most famous as the co-author of Ruby & the Romantics' 1963 #1 smash "Our Day Will Come," he'd also done arrangements for discs by Doris Day, Mel Torme, the Lettermen, Esther Phillips, and the Hollyridge Strings (famous for their easy-listening adaptations of Beatles songs). It was not, to say the least, the average resume for an artist engaged in any role on a recording for Elektra Records, the most adventurous independent label of the 1960s. And Hassilev was not the sort of producer one might have been expected to get entrusted with an experimental concept album about astrology. Not only was his background commercial folk, but he had barely produced anything prior to The Zodiac, although he did have one of the first home studios in Los Angeles, where Carole King used to cut demos in her early days in the city.

    But Elektra was the type of label to take risks that others might have dismissed as reckless. "Jac, being a very adventurous guy, sonically speaking, really believed in finding new things," enthuses Hassilev. "He bought the idea of doing a kind of electronic score for this project. And Mort assembled this group of musicians, including Paul Beaver." Beaver would play the electronic instruments on The Zodiac, including the Moog synthesizer, a creation at that point known to few, and used by many fewer.

    "Paul in those years was primarily known as a film music effects guy," says Hassilev. "I went down to Paul Beaver's warehouse with Mort to check out what we could use in the way of devices Paul had. He had a warehouse in downtown L.A. filled from one end to the other with these arcane instruments, theremins, and strange beasts that he created himself. So we hired him to be on the sessions, and Emil Richards."

    Percussionist Richards boasted a staggering array of credits. Over the course of his lengthy career he has worked with everyone from Henry Mancini, Dizzy Gillespie, and George Harrison to Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Linda Ronstadt, and Herb Alpert, as well as on over 1700 movies. "At that time, I recorded with just about everybody who came through the West Coast," he remembers. "I'm a friend of Mort Garson's; I was his percussionist, usually did a lot of his stuff. I have a collection of over 700 percussion instruments, and he wanted some strange stuff, I guess.

    "I turned him onto Paul Beaver, who at that time was one of the only guys into electronics. Paul and I had a group going at that time called AHA, the Aesthetic Harmony Assemblage. Paul was the first guy to use the Moog out here; he introduced the synthesizer to the West Coast." The Zodiac, according to Richards, was not the first album to use the Moog synthesizer: "I think we preceded [it] with an album I did for Uni called Stones. We took everybody's birth stone, and I wrote twelve songs. I was actually, I think, the first one to use the Moog on the West Coast. [The Zodiac] was closely behind this."

    Adds Hassilev, "The AES [Audio Engineering Society] convention was taking place as we were getting this album together. It may have even been going on during the recording of it. I do know that I went down to the AES convention to check out this thing called the Moog synthesizer, and to meet Robert Moog. And I was just bowled over by this thing. We decided to hire the Moog, which was the only existing one in town at that time. I mean, nobody had started to work with this instrument yet. We hired it right out of the AES convention and brought it here. But of course, it didn't play in real time. We overdubbed it."

    Although the assortment of percussive and electronic instruments was pretty advanced for its time, the sessions for the album were actually pretty straightforward. Hassilev: "Mort wrote the score, and pretty much it was all written out, every note. There was probably some slight improvisation of the percussion. We recorded the album, I believe, probably in four sessions. The narration, of course, was overdubbed, but the tracks were played live. All parts of the tracks, except the Moog."

    Recording live presented its own challenges, particularly in "capturing Paul Beaver's sounds and all of Emil Richards's stuff. I mean, Emil ran around that studio like a sprinter. I'm not kidding! Because the score called for him to play five or six different instruments during the course of one song. Some of this stuff was large. He would run from one to the other, and play them on cue. It was something that really hadn't been attempted quite in that way before, at least not to my knowledge.

    "Emil had just an incredibly large collection of stuff that arrived in a semi truck. He had the water chimes; they're a chime that has a doppler effect. It goes"--here Hassilev breaks off to mimic a swift high-to-low descension--"'Baaawwmm.' [It's] literally a set of metal plates that are lowered manually into water. He also had a fantastic bamboo instrument that makes the most incredible percussive rattling noise." The water chimes, clarifies Richards, are "four brass discs; I commissioned someone to build this instrument for me. You dropped them into a trough of water, and that microtonally bends the pitch downward. " The bamboo instruments, he adds, were "angklungs, bamboo rattles from Southeast Asia."

    It was the Moog that supplied the freakiest swoops and textures on The Zodiac, and the greatest challenge to capture on tape. "The Moog, while a wonderful instrument, had very unstable oscillators," explains Hassilev. "They were good, but you had to warm up the machine. It took time for everything to stabilize. And then it wouldn't necessarily stay in frequency, which meant the tuning would go out. It had problems. It wasn't until later, when they were able to stabilize the output of the oscillators, starting with the ARP synthesizer and others, that they became more accepted."

    Filling out the personnel for The Zodiac on more conventional guitars, bass, and drums were top Los Angeles sessionaires, although unfortunately the precise names and details have been lost to memory. Hassilev is fairly certain that bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine--both at the very top of the list for rock, pop, and session calls in Los Angeles in the 1960s--comprised the rhythm section. Holzman thinks Blaine was on the date for sure; Cyrus Faryar remembers Bud Shank playing bass flute, and Mike Melvoin, who played on numerous jazz and pop sessions (including some harpsichord on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds), contributing keyboards. Kaye, who did uncounted sessions in the 1960s (including some others with Garson, and some other dates with Beaver), recently confirmed after listening to the record that it is indeed her on bass: "That's me on the whole thing. [The] double paradiddles, tons of slides, and the octave licks [are] typical of my playing." Garson, she adds, "was an extremely talented arranger. I can see his face now, sort of smiling here and there as if he was up to some mischief."

    Once the music was finished, Moog and all, one more component would be needed to put it to bed. This was the spoken astrological narrative, written by Jacques Wilson, and voiced by Cyrus Faryar. Like Hassilev, Faryar was a young veteran of the early-1960s folk boom, having played with Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers (led by ex-Kingston Trio member Guard, and also including Judy Henske) and the Modern Folk Quartet. Also a session musician who played on some of Fred Neil's finest records, he was well known to Hassilev. "Cyrus has an absolutely gorgeous voice," beams Hassilev. "That's why I suggested him for the role."

    "Although I had a chance to review the text, one never knows how it is going to sound," says Jac Holzman. "Because Cyrus was new to this type of recording, as were we all, I didn't listen carefully to his track, since I intended to have him redo it against the finished stereo music track. The musicians' union frowned on overdubs, but with him there in the studio, who was to know. After the sessions, when I listened closely to how Cyrus fitted into the music, plus the quality of his reading, we just kept most of everything he did. It was wonderful."

    "I had a great and grand time doing it," says Faryar. "The funny thing about it was that I got paid, like, a couple of hundred bucks. For some reason, years after that, I was thinking, 'You know, I didn't get my whole paycheck.' This is like ten years or eight years or something after it was all over. I went down to Elektra one day and talked to Suzanne Helms, the lioness in charge of everything down here. They looked it up and they'd been holding this $800 check for me for like, about, eight years! The rest of my session money, for doing the job."

    Over the years Faryar (who eventually recorded a couple of albums himself on Elektra in the early 1970s) came across admirers of The Zodiac and his narration in some of the most unexpected places. At one party he met the late Graham Bond, the brilliant but erratic British blues-jazz-rock musician noted for dabbling in the occult, who moved to the States in the late 1960s. "When Graham showed up, the scuttlebutt was that he was the illegitimate son of Aleister Crowley, legendary author, necromancer, and mystic," reminisces Faryar. "Graham never denied that, and I think he allowed the rumor to circulate and played upon it. He was sort of introduced into society at this party at some record guy's house. He was an impressive fellow--large and stocky and like a movie kind of guy, flashing eyes and the whole bit. Just checking it out to see if any of these people were real, or if they were going to fuck with his head or something like that.

    "We met, and Graham knew it [The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds] by heart! He said, 'Cyrus! Are you the bloke that made that record?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'I love that record, mate, come here!' It was just hysterical. And we just became  pals. Right away, his whole facade just evaporated, and he was just this real guy. I will always remember that as a great moment."

    There would be no follow-up to The Zodiac on Elektra; there are, after all, only twelve astrological signs, all of which had been used up by a track apiece on the album. Garson, however, would go on to devote more than half a dozen LPs to separate, individual Zodiac signs on A&M, and use the Moog and electronics on obscure albums like Electronic Hair Pieces and Wozard of Id. He's more renowned, however, for scoring National Geographic, as well as doing the theme for that series. Now living in San Francisco and still composing, he declined to be interviewed for these notes, preserving some of the mysterious aura that has surrounded The Zodiac since its release. As the album became harder and harder to find over the years, its price tag followed its lyrics into the heavens, no doubt bolstered by the cover, which was eye-catching even by Elektra's own high standards.

    For years afterward, Hassilev had a studio in Los Angeles and continued to produce, working on projects as diverse as albums by Hoyt Axton and Ananda Shankar (Ravi Shankar's nephew, who combined traditional Indian music with modern electronics), a single by Seals & Crofts, and commercials with Van Dyke Parks. He's still playing as part of the Limeliters, and still proud of The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds. "What I chiefly remember is that the recording of the music for me was just a joy," he summarizes. "Working with Cyrus was wonderful, and working with Jac was great too. Jac was there for all the sessions, supervising this whole project. In that period, he was the hands-on for everything." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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