Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies

A trip back to ’60s psychedelic music

While it’s quite possible that more than three weeks of social distancing are starting to have an impact, I can say without hesitation that my interest in psychedelic music predates COVID-19 – I would say by at least three decades. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

I guess a good way to start would be to define what I’m writing about. According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music (sometimes called psychedelia) is a wide range of popular music styles and genres influenced by 1960s psychedelia, a subculture of people who used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia and altered states of consciousness. Psychedelic music may also aim to enhance the experience of using these drugs.

To be clear, I don’t want to judge people using drugs but personally don’t take any and never had any particular interest to explore stuff. With the exception of alcohol, which I occasionally like to enjoy, I guess the furthest I ever took it was to try cigarettes during my early teenage years. Around the same time, I also smoked a cigar, cleverly thinking that just like with a cigarette, you’re supposed to inhale. As you can see, I was definitely young and stupid. And, yes, I did feel a bit funny afterwards! ūüôā

Psychedelic Music Collage 2

Psychedelic music has some characteristic features. Again, Wikipedia does a nice job explaining them: Exotic instrumentation, with a particular fondness for the sitar and tabla are common. Songs often have more disjunctive song structures, key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones than contemporary pop music. Surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics are often used. There is often a strong emphasis on extended instrumental segments or jams. There is a strong keyboard presence, in the 1960s especially, using electronic organs,¬†harpsichords, or the¬†Mellotron, an early tape-driven ‘sampler’ keyboard.

Elaborate studio effects are often used, such as¬†backwards tapes,¬†panning the music from one side to another of the stereo track, using the “swooshing” sound of electronic phasing, long delay loops¬†and extreme¬†reverb. In the 1960s there was a use of electronic instruments such as early synthesizers¬†and the¬†theremin. Later forms of electronic psychedelia also employed repetitive computer-generated beats.

Before getting to some examples, I should add that psychedelic music developed in the mid-’60s among folk and rock bands in the U.S. and the U.K. It included various subgenres, such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock and psychedelic pop. The original psychedelic era, which is the focus of this post, ended in the late ’60s, though there have been successors like progressive rock and heavy metal and revivals, e.g., psychedelic funk, psychedelic hip hop and electronic music genres like acid house and trance music.

Apparently, the first use of the term psychedelic rock can be attributed to The 13th Floor Elevators, an American rock band formed in Austin, Texas in December 1965. Here’s their debut single You’re Gonna Miss Me. Written by guitarist and founding member Roky Erickson, the tune reached no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became their only charting song.

Eight Miles High by The Byrds is one of my favorite tunes from the psychedelic era. Written by co-founding members Roger McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), the song first appeared as a single in March 1966 and was also included on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension released in July of the same year. That jingle-jangle guitar sound and the brilliant harmony singing simply do it for me every time!

In May 1966, The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was also included on the U.S. edition of Aftermath, the band’s fourth British and sixth U.S. studio album. Not only did Paint It Black top the charts in the UK, U.S., The Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but it also had the distinction to become the first no. 1 hit to feature a sitar.

One of the hotspots for psychedelic music in the U.S. during the second half of the ’60s was San Francisco. Among the key bands based in the city by the bay were Jefferson Airplane. Here’s White Rabbit, a tune written by lead vocalist Grace Slick. Initially, it was recorded for the band’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow from February 1967. It also came out separately as a single in June that year.

After ten paragraphs into the post, it’s about time I get to the band that probably is one of the first that comes to mind when thinking about psychedelic rock: Pink Floyd, especially during their early phase with Syd Barrett. Here’s a tune I’ve always dug: Arnold Layne, their debut single from March 1967, written by Barrett. According to the credits, this video was directed by Derek Nice and filmed on the beach in East Wittering, West Sussex, England in late February 1967.

March 1967 also saw the release of Purple Haze, the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes. The track features blues and Eastern modalities, along with novel recording techniques and sound effects like the Octavia pedal that doubled the frequency of the sound it was fed. The song also marked the first time Hendrix worked with sound engineer Eddie Kramer who would play a key role in his future recordings. Purple Haze climbed all the way to no. 3 in the UK; in the U.S., it only reached no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Two months later, in May 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It included the psychedelic gem Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds, the tune that inspired the headline of the post:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

While credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as usual, the song was primarily written by Lennon.

After the break-up of The Animals, lead vocalist Eric Burdon formed Eric Burdon & The Animals in December 1966. The band subsequently relocated to San Francisco. In May 1968, they released their second album The Twain Shall Meet. Among the record’s tunes is the anti-war song Sky Pilot. Credited to Burdon and each of the other members of the band Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar, violin), Barry Jenkins (drums) and Danny McCulloch (bass), the tune also appeared separately as a single. Due to its length, the track had to be split across the A and B sides. Remarkably, Sky Pilot reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and no. 7 in Canada and Australia. Chart success in the UK was more moderate, where it peaked at no. 40.

In June 1968, Iron Butterfly released their sophomore album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The 17-minute title track, which occupied all of the record’s B-side, was written by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Doug Ingle. Separately, a shortened version appeared as a single and became the band’s biggest hit reaching no. 30 in the U.S. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida not only is psychedelic rock, but is also considered to be an early example of heavy metal. Here’s the single edit.

The last tune I’d like¬†to highlight is Shotgun by Vanilla Fudge. It was included on their fourth studio album Near the Beginning from February 1969. “Near the End” perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, since by that time, the original psychedelic era was entering the twilight zone. Written by Autry DeWalt, the tune was first recorded by Junior Walker & the All Stars in 1965.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

 

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s¬†distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction¬†in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries¬†(JMI) in 1957,¬†started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental¬†was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental¬†organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player.¬†Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith¬†playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The¬†Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees¬†eventually learned how to play their instruments. Here’s a TV clip from 1966, which looks like the guys know how to play for real; if they’re faking, it’s certainly done well!

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post,¬†is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case.¬†It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube