Lost Classics of the 1960s: Future Megastars in Obscure Bands, Vol. 1
A carefully curated selection of obscure musical wonders from an ex-disc jockey with a specialization in American and British psychedelia recorded from 1965 to 1972.
I’ve wanted to start publishing compilations of this sort for a long time: ten-track LPs of songs future megastars recorded when they were with bands no one’s ever heard of.
It’s actually one of my favorite elements of the music of the era I’m expert in—1965 to 1972—that so many artists who would become significant to my life in the 1980s and beyond were making art in a decade (what academics sometimes call the Long Sixties) that ended four years before I was born in 1976. In fact, the Long Sixties gave birth to so many future stars that the music of that period quite nearly establishes what at first seems a bizarre maxim: if there’s a type of art out in the world that you really like, the odds that some significant piece of it was born in the Long Sixties is extraordinarily high. The first rap song? The Long Sixties (Gil Scott-Heron). The first heavy metal song? Same (Blue Cheer). Trance? Electronica? Same (Kaleidoscope, Silver Apples). Country-rock? Same (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers). And the list goes on.
This maxim is so exquisitely applicable that when I first got excited about psychedelia in the 1990s, I wondered if there had ever been any great psychedelic bands from my hometown, Boston (I grew up in a rural-cum-suburban town right at the outskirts of the metro area). So what did I find? Well, not only was there a vibrant sixties music scene in the capital of Massachusetts—marketed as the Bosstown Sound—but there was even a psychedelic song from the 1960s about my favorite baseball team growing up, the Boston Red Sox. And boy, is this 1968 song by Earth Opera a very weird (and extremely political) one with a terrifying ending:
In the 1980s, my first musical love—I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it—was Billy Joel, who, and here’s that maxim again, got his start in a sixties band. Most of my friends liked Bruce Springsteen better, but if they were hoping to escape The Maxim, sorry, Springsteen got his start (and not just as a musician, but as a musician with recorded output) in a sixties band. While squares like me and my friends listened to Billy and Bruce (and of course Michael Jackson, who started out in The Jackson Five in 1964), slightly older kids who were more “in the know” were still into Blondie, who got her start in a sixties band, and “classic rock” bands like Yes and Queen and The Ramones—all of whom started out recording music in the sixties. Even Led Zeppelin, which of course was a sixties band at its founding, found its birth in several even earlier sixties bands that played more stereotypically “sixties” music, most notably The Yardbirds.
Did you love movies in the 1980s? Then you probably saw a lot of them with Chevy Chase as the lead. Chase was in a series of sixties bands before he became an actor, one of which, Chameleon Church, was actually pretty good.
Having said all this, of course not all the before-they-were-stars music out there is great. Some of it certainly isn’t. And some of these stars are (rightly or not) still not over the fact that they have juvenilia out there. Billy Joel famously blocked a much-needed CD reissue of his first LP with The Hassles, which had the domino effect of making impossible a CD reissue of the band’s second LP—which contains the very best work Joel did before the atrocity of his brief stint in the duo Attila and the fairly slow start to his solo career. Just so, many fans of the artists who got their start in the sixties won’t listen to that work because it’s so… well… sixties. It sounds dated to the ears of dedicated fans. But if you judge the work on its own merit and in its own context, you see that in songs like “Earth” by Smile (a group of musicians that you might know better as the future Queen) or “Jeanetta” by Mabel Greer’s Toyshop (who the prog fans among us now know as the band Yes), you can see flashes of genius. And in a few rare cases the artists themselves will admit it; I give Marky Ramone, a follower of the Twitter feed attached to RETRO, enormous credit for acknowledging that he did his best drumming with the band Dust (not because his skills diminished over time, mind you, but due to the fact that Ramones songs didn’t call for many fills or too much flair).
I’m expecting this will be an ongoing series at RETRO, as I do my best to—whether the artists can see the value in their juvenilia or not—resurrect some of their early work to show how the Long Sixties shaped the work of artists who are still relevant today. I mean, while I wasn’t myself actually a big fan of Chevy Chase in the 1980s, I adored him in Community (NBC) in the 2010s; knowing that he was a drummer in a psychedelic band during the period of time that I think most conclusively shaped music is profoundly meaningful to me. So too is hearing the sense of humor and warmth and vulnerability of a band that in its later incarnation remains opaque to me (I refer here to the Stalk–Forrest Group, which became Blue Öyster Cult). I know that as this series continues, there will be many more such discoveries for both you and me.
As ever, please know that I read all your comments and take them into account quite seriously! If you’ve got a good example of a recorded song from a future megastar in an obscure band, and if that recorded music is from the era between 1965 and 1972, it may well end up in a future edition of this series! So do feel free to discuss not just these ten songs, but any that they make you think of in the comment section below!
So without any further ado, on to some very obscure—and in many instances unjustly “lost”—music by future megastars!
(1) The Hassles, “Hotel St. George” (1969)
Featuring: Billy Joel
(2) Smile, “Earth” (1969)
(3) The Syn, “Grounded” (1967)
(4) Steel Mill, “Goin’ Back to Georgia” (1970)
Featuring: Bruce Springsteen
(5) Wind in the Willows, “Moments Spent” (1968)
Featuring: Deborah Harry (Blondie)
(6) Chamaeleon Church, “Come Into Your Life/Camilla Is Changing” (1968)*
Featuring: Chevy Chase
*Yes, this is how they spelled the band name. Apparently both “chameleon” and “chamaeleon” are accepted spellings for this particular Old World lizard.