Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The United States of America


Released 1968 on Columbia / Edsel
Reviewed by xyz, 21/11/2000ce


The story of the United States of America is the story of Joe Byrd, sixties electronic music visionary. Byrd was a teaching assistant at UCLA studying acoustics, indian music and psychology and living in a beachfront commune when in the summer of '67 he left to seek his musical fortune. Formerly a jazz musician with a strong interest in the then primitive electronic music of the era, the United States of America was his brainchild. Having previously worked as a conductor, arranger and producer in New York his musical ability was already well established. So upon recruiting girlfriend Dorothy Moskowitz (vocals) and fellow UCLA students; Gordon Marron (electric violin), Craig Woodson (drums) and Rand Forbes (bass), the United States of America were ready to rock.

Essentially this self-titled album is standard late 60's psych-pop/rock fare, with three and four minute songs largely concerned with the twin themes of psychedelic experience and parody of the american dream. Hardly revolutionary maybe, but introduce the pioneering synth work of Byrd and the exquisite tones of Moskovitz's haunting voice and you have the ingredients for something a little more awe inspiring. Byrd and Moskowitz were responsible for the majority of the songwriting here, but Byrd was the principle figure in piecing the project together.

Opener The American Metaphysical Circus owes a significant debt to the UK paisley pop scene but is well executed enough to set the scene for what is to follow. Immeadiately noticable in the clean production sound and the integration of electonic fx, which for 1968 is nothing short of startling. It's perhaps not until the third track that the USA really come into their own however. Indeed, the eerie Cloud Song is nothing short of genius. Moskowitz's out-there harmonics floating over a background of ambient synth and electronic violin washes. Next up is possibly their best known track, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Famous for the kind of electronic wooshing noises that Dave Brock and co could only dream about in '68 married with hard rockin' drums and full-on vocal assault, the powerful proto space rock acheived here is all the more remarkable for the absence of a guitarist in the lineup.

Further on through the tracklisting the album becomes somewhat hit and miss, but Byrd's experiments serve to elevate the tunes far above the sonic boundaries of their peers. Not until Love Song for The Dead Che however, do the USA start to realise their full potential again. A haunting vehicle for another of Dorothy Moskovitz's celestial vocals in the vein of the earlier Cloud Song, this really is a tear-inducingly beautiful piece of music. The two part closing track, The American Way of Love is also notable in its transformation from a conventional psych-rock tune into a whirlpool of electronic effects climaxing with excepts of the previous track before dissolving back into the mix. Perhaps the influence of producer David Rubinson should not be overlooked in the overall sound acheived on this release.

This was the sole release from the United States of America, with a clash of personalities between apparent control freak Byrd and the rest of the band coinciding with their demise. Furthermore, a series of unsuccessful live shows couldn't have helped with the USA often paired with unsuitable bands and failing to reach the kind of audience they deserved. One such band was the Velvet Underground, and when upon leaving that band, Nico apparently unsuccessfully tried to join the USA lineup.

Post USA, Byrd formed Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies and released a second album, The American Metaphysical Circus (taking its title from the opening track on the USA album), but pretty much sunk without trace. Later he turned his hand increasing towards production while releasing further experimental synth albums under his own name. Moskowitz then later went on to join Country Joe McDonald's All Star Band.

The time has surely come for the United States of America to be re-evaluated in the sense that it was hugely influential in integrating revolutionary electronic sounds in a rock context and still manages to sound remarkably fresh today. Not an insignificant acheivement surely.


Reviews Index