Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Randy Holden - Population 2

Randy Holden
Population 2

AOTM #45, February 2004ce
Released 1970 on Hobbit GRT Records
Side One
  1. Guitar Song (5.42)
  2. Fruit & Iceburgs (8.05)
Side Two
  1. Blue My Mind (5.34)
  2. Keeper of My Flame (9.23)

Note: In the wake of the cryptic allusions to this record on the ROME WASN’T BURNED IN A DAY album cover, and its being blasted over the speakers throughout those ROME shows; plus Ethan Miller from Comets on Fire’s hecking me to give it an Album of the Month slot, it seemed like a good time to tell this sad sad tale. That the artist himself believed POPULATION 2 to have never been commercially released is weird enough, but the betrayal of this supreme guitar hero by his management by the impounding and selling of all his equipment on the eve of POPULATION 2’s release is a tragedy of titanic proportions, especially when both Randy’s guitar AND his beloved Sunn amplifiers could, in his unique case, be considered to have been his muse above any female in his life.

Note 2: If any of you lucky suckers with a copy of POPULATION 2 have noticed that my song times above differ from those credited on Randy’s LP sleeve, well excuse me, but my times (though shorter) are correct, babbies. Those good people of Hobbit records who couldn’t even get the times right musta been using the Victorian Long-minute.

Note 3: Randy Holden deserves to go down in history not for what he achieved but for what he WISHED to achieve. Reading some of the comments he’s made about rock’n’roll music and the effect of the electric guitar puts me in mind of Faust – the group AND the literary character. Those comments certainly define Randy Holden as having a truly shamanistic nature; probably somewhat akin to the more resilient Mizutani from Les Rallizes Denudes. That POPULATION 2 is as good as it is almost a bonus. That Randy was as forward-thinking a Motherfucker set him way back and probably cost him his entire career.

‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy

POPULATION 2 is a legendary album for several reasons, but none more so than because it’s the most strung out, wrung out ambient hulk of metalwork to rise from the mystic portals that crossed the 1960s over into 1970. When Andrew Marvell wrote about ‘desarts of vast eternitie’ in the 17th century, he was for sure anticipating Randy Holden’s POPULATION 2, deffo the most aptly-titled record ever. For it sounds like the musical equivalent of two loners in the Belfast shipyard, working heads down and wall-eyed during afterhours to create a solo aircraft carrier of Howard Hughes-ian proportions. That big, that lonely, that singular – a friendless featureless musicscape that rivals Skip Spence’s OAR and Klaus Schultze’s CYBORG for sheer doing-my-thing-till-I’m-damned proportions. Maybe that’s why so few have even heard this sucker. Like punks who name-dropped the Stooges during ‘77 when they’d only ever heard LUST FOR LIFE, even metallers and guitar freaks who’ve never heard POPULATION 2 allude to it in conversations. For it so irrigates the souls of those in the know that their descriptions waft into the collective consciousness of outsiders, who quickly beg, steal or borrow a burn from any friend of a friend of a friend of a friend… However, unlike most of the supposed lost gems that fetch big money in collectors’ circles, POPULATION 2 is a genuinely life changing experience.

Recorded in an opera house on 20 Sunn amps wired in parallel (‘It was the only place we could rehearse that would carry all the amplification’) by this ex-member of instrumental surf loons Fender VI; this Sons of Adam lead guitarist (whose cover of Arthur Lee’s ‘Feathered Fish’ is a lost classic), this co-writer of the slow slow semi-achieving The Other Half (whose LP Randy rightly dismisses despite their wunnerfuel 45 ‘Mr Pharmacist’), POPULATION 2 sounds absolutely unlike any other LP (even the similarly epic-styled side 2 of NEW! IMPROVED! BLUE CHEER which Randy wrote on his own before disappearing).
When this surf punk’s career began in 1964, instrumental music was at its height and he always maintained that he ‘wanted to do nothing but the instrumental thing … because the instrumentation was where I really got my joy’. Well babies, seems to me like he was still just as resistant by 1969’s POPULATION 2! You think Jimi Hendrix’s vocals were just throw-aways (there to provide punctuation to a bunch of jams) until you hear Randy Holden’s vocal style, that is. And just as Kiss’ Gene Simmonds musta written his bass lines around his punches in the air, Randy Holden probably wrote down every yelp, howl and grimace on paper. Which is why I love this Randy LP so fucking much. It approaches genuine sonic meltdown in the manner in which it smears layer upon layer of sludge trudge guano riffery until you get the impression that the brick walls of that empty opera house will be forever imbued with the sonic ur-klang of this Yankee Reaper. And if the forced march of Black Sabbath’s first three LPs’ slowies were partly informed by the lumpen-metal of side 2 of Grand Funk Railroad’s red sleeved LP GRAND FUNK (‘Winter & My Soul’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Outside Looking In’), then they were equally caught in the thrall of the post-Leigh Stephens Blue Cheer beast that Randy coaxed back into life for one last swansong before seeing them consigned to the good time soul of Delaney & Bonnie (ho-est of hums). And that Randy managed only one side with Blue Cheer is a damn near perfect metaphor for the whole careering showbusiness of this guitar druid. Once you get started, oo it’s hard to stop, sang Chaka Khan. Tell that to Randy Holden, baby – his career was more stop-start that a rush hour hitch-hike through Tijuana contraflow (‘Watch out for that dead German Shepherd with the distended belly! Oops, too late!’).

POPULATION 2 doesn’t start. It just fades in like it’s been going around and around since the beginning of time… as though Hey Joe was walking through Hungerford killing the same 13 people over and over and we could still go there and witness it if we were to board a plane right this minute.1 As if calling the opening track ‘Guitar Song’ was not enough, Randy then seeks to re-emphasise this obsession by beginning his vocals:

‘I love the sound of a guitar playing,
I love the way it makes me feel inside.’

The main riff is a Troggsian Purple Haze shot so full of largactyl that it keeps slowing down, while Randy is commander-in-the-field howling out instructions in a sub-Mae West style to his sole underling. That’s right babies, we ain’t talking about a three man army here – this is a power duo! And from the Kwalo Klobinskyian Outer Limits future warrior sound emanating from this coupla annointed bozos, Randy musta chosen Chris Lockheed as his drummer mainly because Lockheed was the plane company that made the Starfighter – the USAAF’s ultimate plane crash disaster that got sold on to W. Germany’s post-war Luftwaffe (sic sic sic!). Randy was once quoted as saying:

‘Fender, he was a brilliant man. He took military technology and turned it over… Pretty amazing when you think about it.’

A beautifully poetic thought, Herr Holden. You could, however, turn that right around and suggest that with POPULATION 2, Randy took rock’n’roll and turned it over to the military. Though I guess if they’d played this sucker outside General Noriega’s house instead of Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ on endless repeat, Noriega woulda held out longer thinking heroically that the entire Yank army was at his door. Meanwhile, amidst this chaos, Mae West Hendrix is still issuing more incomprehensible orders and declaring:
‘And I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love.’

This is one darkly erotic Muse that Randy Holden has caught by the short’n’curlies. She shrieks and howls in gorges and on hilltops, she fakes death in her own mound then rises like a Phoenix, she manipulates and she engorges, she is penetrated as she consumes, and all the time Breakneck Holden is a-holdin’ on for dear life: a paraglider towed behind a careering V16 1934 Chrysler Airflow with Cruella DeVille at the wheel.

Fading in next comes the re-recorded proto-Sabbath of ‘Fruit & Iceburgs’, the Dantean doom descent that Randy originally sung on side two of NEW! IMPROVED! BLUE CHEER (one of only two new songs that Blue Cheer learned in the entire time he was in that group). But whereas Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley merely played their leaden parts as though learned by rote, here the now pumping rhythm track is consumed by a Jeff Beckian scythe guitar (the kind perfected on ‘Under Over Sideways Down’) here melded into a twin harmony doom raga that, according to Randy, made Blue Cheer sound ‘quiet, placid and peaceful, what you listen to when you’re eighty years old in your rocking chair’.

Randy sings the vocal line along with the guitar, creating an EMERGE-period Litter-at-16RPM feel, crumbling to a halt every so often as wildly unrestrained and excessive Glenn Ross Campbell-style atonal a-rythmical sunbleached slide guitar broncos across the stereo panning, in a numbing slowness that musta been truly out-to-lunch in those late-60s days of speed and dexterity. Then out of nowhere comes the brief intermission of ‘Between Time’ – a backwards ‘You Really Got Me’-version of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. ‘I been loving this guitar for a long long time’ sings Randy. No shit, Sherlock Holden. ‘Well the rhythm of the music will a-thrill your soul, till you got no time to get old… And it’s alright now’ opines Randy. Then it’s cut back into the second purely instrumental half of ‘Fruit & Iceburgs’, this time treading Odd’s line between the barren-ness of ‘Ladytron’ from the Roxy Music LP and some of the doomiest of Van Der Graaf Generator’s stuff, Randy’s guitar truly transcendental as though becoming both Andy Mackay’s oboe and David Jackson’s saxophone simultaneously.

Intermission: or ‘the present day power duo refuses to die’

Thus endeth side one, in which you really do get the impression that Randy Holden was moved by some greater ur-force. For myself, when considering even some of my most full-on peers, I’ve noticed that life for them has just recently started to ‘wear off’ in the past half decade. But when Randy was quoted in 1995CE, he still spoke of his Guitar Muse as though she was some succubus who devoured him every night, calling the guitar ‘a total, full-blast, full-on love affair. The louder and clearer that baby was, the more beautiful it was. Hitting that guitar string on a voluminous [sic] amp was just heaven, and people felt it.’ In that same year (1995CE), Randy recorded an album called GUITAR GOD for the Japanese Captain Trip label and it was damned good. Not quite such singular earthshaking savagery as POP 2 but still a motherfucker (almost) all the way through. Who played drums? Paul Whaley from Blue Cheer! 25 years on and these druids wuz still at the mound invoking the reluctant sleeping Goddess like the Odinesque Svipdag in the Norse Myths!

POPULATION 2 slight Return

Side 2 opens with the truly cinematic roar of ‘Blue My Mind’ in which Randy finds himself at a porn show watching his new girl friend as the star of a blue movie that’s truly blew his tiny mind. ‘Is it really you that I’m watching? That I’m seeing…’ he croaks still in his bestest most defiant Mae Westian come-up’n’see-me style. ‘I hope this ain’t true… Don’t you think I don’t know what you’re doing?’ Now, ordinarily I’d be on Randy’s side and feeling bad for the dude. But if her misdemeanours can conjure up such errant guitar savagery, then I’m all for her taking her exhibitionism to new heights just to piss him off. Just as the Five could take a song as simple as the Troggs’ ‘I Want You’ and melt it down into something akin to Beethoven’s 5th, so Holden and Lockheed here create as thunderous an orchestration as ever helped shore up the walls of Asgard. That Randy Holden was aiming for something at least akin to the aforementioned description is somewhat supported by this comment he once made about the force of the ‘lecky guitar:

‘I once thought at some depth what a nuclear bomb would sound like in close proximity. I concluded it would be so overwhelming it wouldn’t be heard, but simply be all-encompassing, beyond imaginable experience. I was so affected by the idea of what such sound would feel like that I wandered into the arena of attempting to produce a sound that would be so overwhelming, it would create a silence all its own.’

A silence all its own, babies. A silence all its own. It makes me cry just to think about this poetic soul adrift in a post-Mansonic world of Linda Ronstadt and Jann Weaner’s ROLLING STONE magazine, musing in his room about guitar music so loud it would ‘create a silence all its own’. This 20 Sunn amp former surf punk was on a proto-Glenn Branca trip a decade too soon. Randy shoulda be in Germany or Japan or Scandinavia or somewhere else crazy where they’d have had the intellectual capacity to realise his vision. California in the early 70s? Gimme a break!

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox and tell you that POPULATION 2 concludes with the 9-minutes plus of ‘Keeper of my Flame’; the best song on the LP and anutha mutha that fades in and halts, as Randy Mae hiccups: ‘Hey Baby’. Then we’re off into the only mid tempo track on the whole LP. Indeed, it sounds fast as a bastard compared to the rest, and only here does Randy’s Muse manifest as a real (though still unapproachably shadowy) lady. Chris Lockheed’s tom-toms are totally unsupported by bass and the groove kicks and kicks and yooz soon dancing around the room, fist in the air, screaming ‘Randair! Randair! Randair! Randair!’ like each time you call his name will carve him deeper into the bedposts of history. Soon, out of nowhere, comes a Glam Descending Glam Dicenn to end all fucking Glam Dicenns. It’s right in the pocket of that whole tradition of ‘Maggot Brain’, ‘Safe Surfer’, ‘Pyjamarama’, and the ‘Moonage Daydream’-tail out and it is one deadly beauty. But just when you want it to last 20 minutes, in comes the sonic traffic accident: a stop-start beakdown somewhere between Sir Lord Baltimore’s ‘Pumped Up’ and Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Around 6.50 comes the halting slow down to end all slow downs and we’re off into another singular signature tail out, the only difference being that this was the one that signalled the end of Randy Holden’s career. Call in the re-mixer! We neeeeeds an ambient metal version RIGHT NOW! Four songs across two sides ain’t nothing to be unhappy about, but I WOULD have appreciated them all being twice as long. The problem was that this record shoulda been the beginning of something huge, and ended up as the end of something not less than disastrous...

What Happened Next? Or ‘How several abject motherfuckers fucked up a true Motherfucker’

With Randy waiting around for POPULATION 2 to get any proper release, he went into ‘a state of deep shock’ when a Hobbit Records executive accused him of spending all his time having fun. ‘I worked my butt off for twenty hours a day rehearsing, writing, just total devotion, seven days a week, and this clown is sitting there with some illusion that I’m going to the beach’. In a state of severe despair, Randy then learned that an equipment manager at his management company had sold all 20 Sunn amplifiers and his Gibson SG Deluxe to a Hollywood music store. It proved to be the end for Randy Holden’s poetic mind, and he was utterly destroyed (‘I really wasn’t sure if I was gonna be alive the next minute, it was so bad’). By the end of that same year (1970), he’d abandoned all hopes of making music and moved to Hawaii, where he took up fishing and the buying and selling of boats.
‘People in the business have this way of taking an emotionally vulnerable musician … and making them feel like they’re garbage and worthless.’

To say I understand how Randy Holden felt is something of an understatement, indeed to write this now is to glimpse once again my own impotent rage of 22 years ago. However, whereas I rose out of it because my Muse was real, female and strong, Randy Holden was consigned to the rubbish tip for the rest of his natural. I’ve been promising POPULATION 2 as an Album of the Month for some time now, and hope I’ve at least skimmed the surface of this truly spectacular LP. In decades to come, it will for shit-damn-sure become the subject of an entire book. Randy, I love you and know yooz still out there. Your GUITAR GOD album is also fucking superb – so just give us some more of that Mae Westian Sludge and make it endless, ambient and brain damaging like the 21st century so clearly NEEEEEEEEDS! Until then Ladies’n’gentlemen, I present you with POPULATION 2 by Randy Holden, – probably the only guy to have talked it as poetically as he walked it.

  1. I’m writing this review in Room 46 of Hotel Forum, Pompeii, kids. Now just how fucking Rawk in that? Mount Vesuvius is just 5KM away but it’s Randy who’s smokin’!