Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
Billy Miller3 Visionary Songs
AOTM #108, May 2009ce
3 VISIONARY SONGS by BILLY MILLER was created by Julian Cope for the purposes of this review.
- Fall (7.12)
- Ra-Ma (11.19)
- Here In The Year (8.54)
How Billy Miller Invented Post-Punk in 1970
In 1970, Visionary Lyricist and e. autoharp wielder supreme Billy Miller recorded these three astonishing songs with his quartet Cold Sun AKA Dark Shadows, in Texas’ legendary Sonobeat Studios1, creating a startlingly rich-but-ragged heathen-as-fuck post-psychedelic sound that many believe was way ahead of its time. Like Van Der Graaf Generator, these gentlemen sounded punky, defiantly imperfect (though rhythmically masterful) and appeared to share most in common with groups of the Post Punk late-70s: the euphonically atonal Blue Orchids, Vic Godard’s raging weaklings Subway Sect and the spiritedly ‘off’ chorales of ex-Saint Ed Kuepper’s Mr. UDDICH-SCHMUDDICH GOES TO TOWN-period Laughing Clowns. Miller’s ensemble brought forth an erotically Satanic sound something like early Una Baines-period The Fall attempting Savage Rose’s take on the Doors via EASTER EVERYWHERE -meets-Van Der Graaf’S proto-J. Rotten fist-shaking Zoroastrian defiance. Phew! Furthermore, Billy Miller’s barbarian lyrical yawp exuded a post-‘Hippy Dream’ Knowingness similar to that of much later groups such as the Patti Smith Group/Television/Neon Boys, whilst Miller’s experimental Terry Rileyan electro-strummin’ was so wanton, so urgent, so pestering, so spiritedly untutored and Rule Breaking that it’s hard to imagine these poor dudes was plying their trade so long ago that they had to tolerate the opinions of Cream fans. Sheesh! You think Blue Cheer was slagged off as ‘inauthentic’? Fergettaboutit! At least those druids came bearing electric guitars. Our man Billy Miller? Get the Joe Meek Freek with the plug-in angel’s harp! Mercy!
Front sleeve of Rockadelic’s 1989 DARK SHADOWS LP
Since his lizard’n’snake collecting youth, Billy Miller had long been a follower of the nightmare antics of England’s outrageous Screaming Lord Sutch, and a devotee both of one-time Sutch producer Joe Meek and his stratospheric Selmer Clavioline-driven Telstar sound2 AND of Del Shannon’s equally mysterious and equally Clavioline-driven hit ‘Runaway’3. The piercing oscillations of this bizarre 1955 monophonic miniature keyboard (replete with knee-operated chrome volume lever) plagued & obsessed the young autoharpist, who began searching for an ‘electrifying’ method with which to integrate his own ‘too quiet’ folk instrument into a rock’n’roll context. The answer was not easily forthcoming in those barren Texas surroundings, besides which many contemporary musicians regarded the autoharp as far too passive an instrument with which to accompany any singer of rock songs; the instrument is held hard against the chest with the left hand and ‘thrummed’ with the right hand, rendering the performer rigid and almost preacher-like: a far cry from every rock’n’roll archetype Billy Miller had thus far encountered. This was, however, a time for destroying archetypes. And when the first wave of Rock’n’rollers bit the dust – Elvis into the army, Chuck off to gaol, Little Richard to the ministry, Eddie and Buddy to the Afterlife – the next truly interesting wave of artists that inspired this young songwriter was led by one of the greatest Rock’n’roll Iconoclasts in all of Ye Rawk History: ladies’n’gentlemen please welcome that mythical and jug-wielding Gurdjeffian scholar Mister Tommy Hall and his 13th Floor Elevators! Yee har!
Front sleeve of World in Sound’s recent compilation
“I’m worrying about looking wooden behind my autoharp?” laughs our Billy. “Why, this T. Hall druid’s got nothin’ to hide behind but a clay pot to piss in… now, that’s confidence for you!”
Delighted by the psychedelic hootenanny conjured up by the jug-informed Elevators sound, and inspired by the strange manner in which Buddy Holly-obsessive Roky Erickson was obliged to get his caterwauling tonsils around Tommy Hall’s extraordinarily instructive and esoteric lyrical observations, autoharpist Miller threw all caution to the wind and brought forth an inspired series of tumbling & ever-becoming, tempo-changing compositions, whose breath-taking musical flights, abrupt halts & sudden airlifts evoked nothing less than the switchback Peyote ride of some brave-but-clueless native Texas shaman astride the great Night Mare of the Norse Myths (recently imported by Whitey) as she vainly attempts to dislodge him from her saddle-less back. And within these new and highly arranged compositions, the extremely demanding and focussed songwriter carefully itemized all the musical highpoints of his life thus far and, like some psychedelicized carnival barker luring unsuspecting kids to his midnight carousel, disgorged the entire contents of his Peyote’n’Sci-fi mind into the music of his band. Herein, the unearthly and electronic Joe Meek-isms stood shoulder-to-shoulder with EASTER EVERYWHERE-style lyrical poetry of great protracted beauty, whilst elsewhere Miller’s raging ensemble united other bizarre early ‘60s pop experiments such as the Jaynetts creepy ‘Sally Go Round the Roses’ and the Shirelles’ Titanic ‘Baby It’s You’ with the darkest moments of such near contemporaries as the Music Machine, the Doors and Burton Cummings’ The Guess Who at their most malevolent.4 Billy Miller was joined in these experiments by drummer Hugh Patton, bass player Mike Waugh, and close friend and fellow Velvet Underground obsessive Tom McGarrigle, whose own guitar style was an unlikely mix of fuzzed-out staccato Seedsian Jan Savage-ry, cyclical Sterling Morrison-isms and pure white light feedback of the kind even the hoity-toity L. Reed would have approved. So when the Velvets fetched up in Austin for their now-legendary Autumn 1969 Texas tour, both Miller AND McGarrigle were equally absorbed by the manner in which Messrs. Reed, Morrison, Tucker & Yule had subsumed the cacophony of their earlier LPs into a far more palatable (even occasionally ‘alien MOR’) listening experience; yet one that remained still just as clean, just as uncluttered, and almost as meditative as those early Terry Riley/John Cage/LaMonte Young-inspired John Cale minimalist drone experiments on top of which Lou’s first Velvets songs had been superimposed. And so it was that Billy Miller’s Cold Sun AKA Dark Shadows worked up a whole set of highly original songs, alongside several others (some co-written with McGarrigle) that fitted in more successfully with the W. Coast mores of the period. Fortunately or unfortunately for us, no one was able to place the band’s Sonobeat recordings with a major record company, and the project soon lay dormant before being shelved in favour of the four musicians becoming the backing band of the recently-released King of the Psychedelic Gaolbirds, Roky Erickson. Seemingly going nowhere and finding himself invited to become musical director of his fave singer’s band, Billy Miller jumped at the chance. Re-named Bliebalien by their new boss, the band forgot their beginnings and this current Album of the Month material lay forgotten for close to two decades, until it was released by America’s Rockadelic Records in 1989. I have only a passing interest in the general Cold Sun canon of shorter songs, as they were to my mind essentially no more than nice meditations on typical W. Coast ‘Greasy Heart’-styled workouts; all a bit ‘So What?’ at this late stage in the game. So let us now take a look at these three Visionary songs, songs which so set Billy Miller aside as a rare Gnostic Poet. For all three compositions are possessed of a Clarity, a Daring & a sense of adventure that makes them Transcendental.
Commencing with a hugely compressed cross-kit drum-roll, the seven-minute ingrown majesty of ‘Fall’ casts off like some cartoon hoedown, a steam-powered and agricultural rave up, an Okie Doors fronted by a straw-chewing & wide-eyed teenage Keltic bard, whose mind is so o’erflowing with imagery and Life Force that his mush-mouthed proclamations to his Muse skip & trip from his errant gob at such a rate he can barely keep tabs on what’s been did and what’s been hid. Querulous as early N. Young and earnestly spazmo as Crispin Clover as BACK TO THE FUTURE’s George McFly, Billy Miller’s delivery herein is probably the most confidently unconfident this side of Jonathan Richman’s first Modern Lovers’ LP. One day, young men will woo beautiful women successfully by invoking these very words:
“This hour your everlasting form,
Waves from the windowsill,
And I see your moonlight eyes,
Turning this way still,
Once I was a drunken mass of men,
At the garden wall,
Now I’m a dancing Prince of Light,
Who knows no fear at all,
I’ll never go to war,
I’ve been there before,
Napoleon is standing fast,
On the battleground,
Bullets, canons, roaring past…”
Kiddies, how often am I drawn to type out the words, fer Chrissakes? This is the Shit, brothers’n’sisters … declaimed like a youthful Vachel Lindsay ranting from atop a flatbed at a Springfield, Ohio agricultural show. For two full minutes, Miller sustains this magical & wonderfuelled gush, until the whole track halts abruptly, a Biblical mist rises up and a brand new Declaration takes us over, this time performed according to the Frankie Laine system. Now, we’re experiencing Death C&W as morose as SCOTT 4, as a spectral army treks across an Armenian Spaghetti Western with Mt Ararat rising at their backs. Vast and Simple as Hawkwind’s Mellotron 400-fuelled WARRIOR ON THE EDGE OF TIME-period, of Creedence’s meditative marathons ‘Pagan Baby’ and ‘Ramble Tamble’, this Billy Miler song was – back in 1970 – undoubtedly Music of the Future. Hereafter, ‘Fall’ descends into a bludgeoning Post Punkiness that comes over like The Badgeman playing Salem Mass’ 1970 epic ‘Witch Burning’; same use of so-called Satanic chords to scare the Elders and entice the Young. The song finally concludes after some truly euphoric chordal autoharp/guitar interplay that reeks of the Velvets, but is Nth degrees more moving. Indeed, it’s always put me in mind of Donald Ross Skinner’s contribution to my 1990 version of Roky’s ‘I Have Always Been Here Before’. But then, we were attempting to sound like Billy Miller, after all.
Next up, the lone drums that kick off the epic eleven minutes of ‘Ra-Ma’ invokes CCR’s proto-Krautrock version of ‘Suzie Q’, but the Divine Autoharp soon intercedes, and Miller delivers us into very eerie & discordant territory. Then, what the fuck? Out of nowhere, the band launches into a bizarre hybrid of THE SOFT PARADE’s title-track and the Velvets’ ‘The Murder Mystery’, as the whole band speak-sings across each other. Then, just as abruptly, a scything scuzz-fuzz riff kicks in and Billy’s invoking Ancestral Roky from atop some ancient Texan lawhill. Another change into a rampant (and deadly sleazy/stripper music) Alice Cooper-like Jimbo rip (I shit you not!) and we’re stratosphere-bound with an adolescent space trek that opens out into the Simply Saucer variety of punk Floyd. Just as quickly, ye Wide Eyed Bard from the album’s beginning returns to claim his tune:
“All is calm, back to life again,
You are young,
Open your eyes, begin,
Take me off to the woods,
Beyond the wind,
Find a place to be grown - to fit in…
The tortoise before you saw De Gama as he landed
We can make our life in a temple of stone,
It took an age or two to get home,
Now, see the tree and how it has grown,
It was a seed in my hand when the tortoise was born…
Here, down on to the falling land,
From your feeling hand I step on the wind,
Now I know they can never hurt you again,
Infant Vision lives at higher than pilot’s airflow…”
At this point, Billy Miller and the whole ensemble accelerate into the greatest dream music I’ve heard since Neu! , it’s the music they’ll play on the elevator that takes me down into Hell, fer shit-damn-sure. Bury me to this music. Drape your bodies over my coffin and wail for me to THIS music. Then ye final tempo change at 8-minutes-and-41-seconds delivers us into The Divine Brothel, a heavenly womb/tomb full of bosomy loving sacred whores/houris carrying bongs’n’endless pints of beer and chanting sacred texts, with a tuxedo’d Roky Erickson as the in-house chanteur. Some songwriters have long careers and never nail as many poetic truths as this one song.
‘Here In The Year’
The 9-minute behemoth that is ‘Here in the Year’ is a true Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, greeting us with all the seeming Festive Tradition of some Robbie Burns’ ode set to music, toppled over a waterfall of guitar notes similar to that perplexing instrumental beginning tacked on the start of the LOADED-versh of ‘Sweet Jane’. That the song is nothing of the sort becomes apparent only well after listeners minds have been successfully hoodwinked by enough hoary Bach-ian fugues, cascading EINJAGER UND SEIBEN JAGER-period D. Secundus Fischelser e. guitar & Arcane lyrical allusions. Thereafter, we’re lured further Underground by the sheer venerable and dignified ‘Wishful Sinful’-ness of it all. There’s no doubt that lyrically, this gorgeous and extraordinary song is a true offspring of Tommy Hall, whose own highly wordy songs forced upon Roky Erickson such a tumbling and unsettled delivery that it made Arthur Lee and Bob Dylan look positively languid. Hey, but suddenly we’re thrust unprepared into the Valley of Van Der Graaf Generator and Alrune Rod (these entrenched fuckers been at war for years), and we get shot by both sides before being zipped Down Down Down a sonic corridor back into Post Punk. Yup, it’s 1979-83 all over again and the Chills are Pink Frosting us to death. Whoa, whoa, we’ve shifted again and now, over cascading Joe Meek-ian Bach fugues, the Miller’s lamenting J. Morrisonesque-as-though-through-a-Ray Collins/Mothers filter. Man, this send-up sure is moving. I mean, this Poet is Goofing maximum stylee and still I’m blarting big old puddles round the base of my pewter computer. Clang, all change into a Van Dyke Park-ian knees-up, and … whoosh, out we are sucked through the asshole of a goose into (yup, again) some clattersome Post Punk of the Blue Orchids variety … ten years early. I would imagine it’s highly likely that the extremely fundamentalist and hip Cleveland band the Mirrors had heard this bunch, for there’s big similarities in their Twin Obsessive Takes on L. Reed & Co.
As my dear friend and 13th Floor Elevators biographer Psychedelic Paul Drummond commented at the dawn of the publication of KRAUTROCKSAMPLER , it is not in the interest of most rock writers to re-evaluate their chosen pantheon of great ‘60/70s artists because they already have too much emotional and career baggage invested in their preferred Muses, ie: they have already devoted so much of their time to investigating the lives of J. Lennon, J. Morrison, S. Barrett, B. Dylan, R. Erickson, L. Reed, I. Stooge, etc., that it would be debilitating to ‘fess up and admit there may still remain some possibly even greater artists awaiting discovery. History tells us otherwise, however, as evidenced by the careers of Vincent Van Gogh and William Blake. Neither was recognized until long after death, AND Blake had to suffer the double indignity of being close friends with one of the most famous and esteemed artists of his day, one John Flaxman. Who he? Exactamundo! As Lenny ‘Romeo Blue’ Kravitz once sung: “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over”. In other words, the aforemenched list of ‘60/70s Luminaries doesn’t even count historically until everybody’s taken their rightful place in the line-up. Like Underground heroes Todd Clark, Mizutani, Klaus Dinger and Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, whose records were only released locally or with minimal advertising, the songs of Billy Miller need first to be re-habilitated and sent out into the so-called ‘Real World’ before we can see with what wider truth they resound for the listening public. Back in the ‘80s, Skip’s legendary OAR LP was generally [under]classed as a spirited-but-sub-MADCAP work. Hell kiddies, pre-KRAUTROCKSAMPLER, most UK journos shared David Quantick’s NME description of German ‘60/70s music & musicians as ‘overlong sub-Mike Oldfield dirge made by humourless men with Bavarian landlord moustaches and exchange student haircuts’. Oops. Nowadays, this music is so accepted that German National TV even makes 6-part Krautrock documentaries. Perceptions change with Time. So please check out the new and excellent (and well-meaning) ‘new’ Cold Sun album on Germany’s World in Sound Records, and please do make the effort to struggle through the more average Clearlight/sub-Doors/sub/J. Airplane material, for the Miller’s truly bejewelled and gold encrusted nuggets still lie in the sheltered depths of the album’s Boneyard awaiting your appreciated uncovering. In the meantime, please give this Album of the Month another spin, and delight in the knowledge that, even though many unique & Herculean artistic events evade discovery for decades, some Intrepid & Forward Thinking Motherfucker will eventually glimpse their obscured genius glinting down there in the gloaming and haul them blinking and coughing once more into the Daylight. To Billy Miller. Come on!
- Sonobeat Records was the home of Johnny Winter’s early releases, and later of psychedelic band The Conqueroo.
- The unearthly sound of the Clavioline was something of an all-purpose secret weapon in the Sci-Fi and Horror-obsessed early ‘60s. Indeed, Joe Meek united the two obsessions on his 1961 Parlophone single ‘Night of the Vampire’ by the Moontrekkers, forcing electronic epiphanies into the burning tailout of each refrain before concluding the 7” in a barrage of screams and backwards FX.
- Del Shannon’s musical collaborator Max Crook so modified his own Clavioline that he re-named it a Musitron, and tried un-successfully to patent his modification as a brand new design.
- There are three stages to the Guess Who’s career. Led by Randy Bachman and bespectacled singer Chad Allen, this Canadian outfit began in the early ‘60s as a beat combo with some great singles. Next, a very young singer/pianist/flautist Burton Cummings took them to international success singing his own and Randy Bachman’s Top 40 hit songs while releasing bizarre Doors Wannabe LPs totally at odds with their housewife charm. Finally, Bachman left to form BTO, leaving B. Cummings to work out his Jimbo fantasies on the awe inspiringly crass live LP LIVE AT THE PARAMOUNT (with its 17-minute version of ‘American Woman’ and drug anthem ‘Truckin’ Off Across the Sky’), before succumbing to an innate Canadian conservatism that eventually nosedived into a swamp of moustachioed merely-achieving-ness… fascinating but do be wary!