Ultimate Spinach, man... yeah, BABY, yeah!!!
Ever see the late 60's hippy film, "Psyche Out,"
starring Jack Nicholson? Christ, what an atrocity. It's one of the quintessential
flower power films of the era, in which Jack leads a bunch of dropped
out, tuned in hipsters around Haight Ashbury. Together they all have trippy
adventures while fightin' off oppression from "the man." And one of the
great (e.g. horrible) scenes is when Jack and his "band" get up and play
some of most gawdawful hippie drivel you can possibly imagine, replete
with elongated guitar solos, zoomy camera shots, and grooved out, absurdist
lyrics about the new generation of love.
was a good example of everything wrong with the
confusing combination of art, music and culture known as Psychedelia.
Musically, Psychedelia was often no more than an ill-conceived conjoining
of other styles that was then filtered through a reverb pedal set to
10. Lyrically, it was cumbersome to the point of absurdity, with an
inflated belief in its own self-importance, convinced that it would
start a revolution that never happened. As a social movementů well,
it's hard to tell if Psychedelia ever really was one. Most of what we
now look back on as being relics of the era, such as films like "Psyche-Out,"
were really products manufactured by the suits as a way of cashing in
on the Psychedelia craze. You would be hard pressed to find anything
really genuine in the whole scene.
But if you're into making the commitment to
seriously get your groove on, you'll find Psychedelia did indeed have
a few gems to offer. Ironically, one of the most genuine musical groups
to come out of the psychedelic era was, in many ways, one of the most
manufactured. That group was called Ultimate Spinach and it was their
combination of way-out lyricism, ambient space grooves and baroque chordal
structures that is the subject for this piece.
Ultimate Spinach released three albums in just
under a two-year period (1968-1969) and have since existed as a historical
footnote to one of the more interesting periods of rock history. The
late sixties were when Rock and Roll collided head first with big business.
It was the point when the hype machine was created, and the industry
squares realized that not only could they cash in on the fads of the
day, they could actually create these fads. The Ultimate Spinach
story reads as a illuminating look at the train wreck that occurs when
na´ve, drug addled musicians run headfirst into the music industry's
rock and roll hamburger grinder.
The best place to start with an analysis of
any band is to take a look at their name. Ultimate Spinach was a perfect
representation of one of the most time-honored rock and roll naming
schemes. See, you take one word, like, say, "Ultimate" and then combine
it with another word that has absolutely nothing to do with it, for
example, "Spinach." This sort of free form artistry represented the
open-mindedness of the hippy culture. Your dad might say, "Ultimate
Spinach? What could that mean? How stupid!" but that's just cuz' your
dad was a closeminded clod who probably voted for Nixon and supported
the war in Viet Nam. A person really committed to exploring the possibilities
of the universe would be willing to sit down and mentally gestate on
what "ultimate spinach" could be. Was it a cry for veganism? Was it
proclaiming that plant life was superior to humans? How about a great
recipe for salad? Maybe a testament to Popeye? Who knew? And if you
think this sort of thing was only limited to the sixties, go buy a Stone
Temple Pilots album.
spinach might not be the ultimate, but it's pretty damn good.
There were really two key players in the formation
of Ultimate Spinach. Ian Bruce-Douglas was the initial instigator and
main songwriter for the band. Though he has, in interviews, separated
himself from the class of citizens known in the late 60's as 'hippies,'
it would seem to be a case of splitting hairs. (In this case, rather
greasy, lice ridden hairs.) With long locks and a beard, he was another
member of the musical masses of the day that were trying to create expansive
mind bending rock with a message (albeit, a message often obscured under
the weight of it's mythological references and drug induced imagery.)
Ian's contribution to the Ultimate Spinach machine was that of the being
the main composer, lyricist, instrumentalist and singer for the first
two Spinach albums. The second figure in U.S.'s rise was Alan Lorber,
a producer and arranger, who created the "Bosstown Sound" of the late
60's. Similar to the Grunge fad that hit Seattle in the 90's, the Bosstown
Sound came about as a result of the record labels' attempt to mine a
particular geographic scene for the music it was producing. San
Francisco was known to be producing the psychedelic rock of the day
and Boston was hyped as the sort of the East Coast version.Was Boston
really a haven for Psychedelia? Well, certainly it had some psychedelic
bands, as did most major cities of the day, but the Bosstown Sound was
as much due to Lorber's P.R. work as it is was the local musicians.
So what did early Ultimate Spinach sound like?
It was pretty crazy stuff, daddy-o! What really defined the psychedelic
music form in general, aside from the absurd lyrics and penchant for
spacey instrumentation, was the structure. Your average pop song usually
follows a pretty straight format:ABABCAB (verse, B-section, verse, B-section,
Chorus) with some minor variation. But Psychedelia was more like: ABADQOLFDX
ad infintium... One minute you're listening to a three part barbershop
harmony, the next it's a metal guitar solo followed by some strummed
sitar. Psychedelia had all the cohesiveness of a serious mushroom trip,
or one of Cody Wayne's blogs.
And Ultimate Spinach were no exception. "Ego trip" off the first album,
starts of with some reverberating spoken word before diving into an
organ driven rock riff with heavy Doors inflections. The elongated "Ballad
of the Hip Death Goddess" lays a series of falsetto vocals, phased out
guitar, therimin riffs and feedback squwks over a droning bluesy bass
part. Other tunes in the Bruce-Douglas version of Ultimate Spinach use
harmonica, sitar, wood flutes and effects garnered by playing with the
speed of the audio tape.
After the first two albums (titled
"Ultimate Spinach" and "Behold and See") were
released it was becoming clear that all was not well in Ultimate Spinachland.
The band that Ian Bruce-Douglas had assembled was turning against its
leader. The reasons for this was a clash of culture. Bruce-Douglas was
the only member who fit anywhere near the hippie subculture, with the
other members of the band having feelings ranging from indifference
to hatred of the shaggy folk inhabiting America's street corners. (Rumors
exist that the animosity between Ian and some members of the band was
so great that certain Ultimate Spinach players slipped him high potency
psychotropic drug in an attempt to space him outů permanently!)
As a result, Ian Bruce-Douglas was removed from the band he'd created
after the second album. The claim was being made, well
into nineties, that he vanished of the
face of the earth and was never heard from again but the Ian
Bruce-Douglas web page effectively refutes this argument and makes
clear that Ian only vanished from people who weren't willing to put
forth any effort to find him. Nonetheless, Ultimate Spinach was left
without a songwriter and creative visionary.
So once Douglas left, there was really only
one thing to, right? With the main impetus for the band out of sight,
the suits would have to call it a day and let Ultimate Spinach fade
somewhat gracefully into obscurity, right? Wrong-O! Instead, a third
album, "Ultimate Spinach III," was released with almost an
entirely new band! (Guitarist Barbara Hudson and drummer Russ Levine
had played on earlier albums.) The new band included several lunkheads
from another east-coast pysche band, Chamaeleon Church. (A group that
had included future comedian, Chevy Chase, in its ranks.) Playing lead
guitar on "U.S. III" was a cat who would go on to great success.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter was a young session guitarist extraordinaire, who
eventually slung his axe as a member of both Steely Dan and the Doobie
Brothers. (He also developed a side interest in ballistic missiles and
laid some of the groundwork for what would become the controversial
Reagan era Star Wars defense shield! Talk about a Jack of All Trades!)
Now with any band there's always the purists
who feel that the minute the main dude leaves, or the band somehow changes
its sound, it's no longer worth listening to. You know, the guys that
whine that after Syd left, Floyd was no longer worth listening to, or
that after Roger left, Floyd was no longer worth listening to, or that
after every Beatle but Paul quit and he changed the name to Wings it
was no longer worth listening to. And I'm sure hardcore Spinach-heads
would argue that after Bruce-Douglas left, Ultimate Spinach died. But
truth be told, the third Spinach album ain't that bad. Granted, it's
a totally different sound... Gone are the alien lyrics, extended sitar
solos and psychedelic ambient spaciness, but in its place is some pretty
good blues-rock of the sort that was taking over America. And I'll tell
you, I've always liked blues-rock, so who am I to diss the final Spinach
offering. Hell, if the band was going to make any attempt at a lasting
career, with or without Douglas, it would've had to make the switch...
there's only so much Psychedelia you can ask people to take.
Nonetheless, the third Spinach album was the
last and the band disappeared into the woodwork. There they lay up until
the late nineties when Lorber saw a chance to make a bit more cash and
he orchestrated the re-release of all three albums as well as a good
bird's eye view of the band called The
Very Best of Ultimate Spinach. (Which I am listening to right now.)
All in all, it's easy to look back on the Ultimate
Spinach story and wonder if it's relevant today. But look closely and
you see some of the same dramas being played out in the rock and roll
theater of now. Bruce-Douglas was the na´ve musician who got played
by the straights and thereby spoiled on the art of music making. (Need
I mention that he doesn't own the rights to any of his songs?) Alan
Lorber helped kick into gear the corporate hype monster that dominates
the current record industry. However, while some might say that music
industry tricks the public with every one of the inane fads it creates,
I'd argue that we want to be tricked. Whether it's Psychedelia, Grunge,
or Rap-Rock, the public wants the industry to whip up and endless series
of musical genres to satiate our thirst for something "real". And, ultimately,
(or should I say, spinachly) who's to say to that a band created by
the machinations of the record execs in any less real then a band germinated
in any of America's numerous sub-cultures?
Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.
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