My social life's a dud.
The thing about bands like The Music Machine, as I've mentioned many times before in my frequent babblings about garage rock, is that you can never tell if any of their other material will be any good. I love "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five, but, wild imaginings of Lester Bangs to the contrary, it's pretty much the only worthwhile thing they ever recorded. I had an inkling that The Music Machine might be different, though, due to the reputation in garage rock circles of their mercurial vocalist and main songwriter, Sean Bonniwell. Nonetheless, I waited a long time to check their other stuff out--after all, there's never a lack of newly uncovered garage rock bands to dig into, especially if you read Ugly Things, or the writings of Richie Unterberger (or, like me, both). I finally got around to doing so when the new issue of Ugly Things came in the mail and it featured a cover story, by Unterberger himself, about The Music Machine. I knew that reading it would make me want to listen to their music, so I decided to get a jump on things by downloading anything and everything I could find by them.
I ended up with the only official album by the original Music Machine lineup, "Turn On The Music Machine", as well as a 20 track compilation of recordings released under the name Bonniwell Music Machine (what Sean Bonniwell called later incarnations of the group, after the rest of the original lineup quit on him in late 1967), "Beyond The Garage". From reading the Ugly Things article, I've now learned that most of the tracks on the Bonniwell Music Machine album were recorded by the original Music Machine lineup anyway, just not released until after the rest of them had quit. This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the Bonniwell Music Machine album is quite a bit better than "Turn On The Music Machine." The latter was rush-released after the success of the "Talk Talk" single, and it contains nearly as many tossed-off covers (included without the band's input, and much to their chagrin) as original Sean Bonniwell compositions. Of the five covers, only "See See Rider" is up to the standards of the Bonniwell originals, though "Hey Joe" is close. "96 Tears" and The Beatles' "Taxman" sound phoned in, and the version of Neil Diamond's "Cherry Cherry" leaves the band's standard sound completely behind, instead bringing in flutes, crooning vocals, and sweetly strummed, clean guitars. It's godawful, and unfortunately, Bonniwell's "Some Other Drum" isn't much better. For the most part, though, the original tunes are great--"Trouble" and "Masculine Intuition" in particular have the same dark, ugly punk-before-it-officially-existed vibe as "Talk Talk", while "The People In Me" and "Wrong" are based around gloomy, minor chord melodies that communicate that "something's not quite right here" feel that was often the flipside to the desire of the 60s counterculture to break the shackles of society's prevailing ideals. The best tracks on "Turn On" remind me of that comment in that Decibel article I spent some time discussing a couple weeks ago, about "a bummer that slaps the hippie dream in the face." No matter how much flower-power crap was floating around during that decade, and no matter how much people like the editorial staff of Rolling Stone or my then-Woodstock-attending/now-Republican dad want to remember the 60s as a time of nothing but love, peace, and groovy times, there was plenty of this kind of resentment and alienation in the mix back then too, and it's that stuff that really calls to me in my continued investigations of the 60s musical era.
A quote from original Music Machine guitarist Mark Landon, taken from the Ugly Things article, actually reinforces what I'm talking about, and proves that it was a conscious thing on the part of at least The Music Machine, and, one would guess, probably some of the other bands that were around back then, too. Landon: "I used to go and listen to other bands all the time, and they'd play original material. And again, we're in the age of flower power. It was all meandering drug-crazed political slop. It was just terrible. I hated a lot of that stuff. [Sean]'s songs, to me, had more focus and more melodic content, and a lot less meandering. Music in those days tended to just wander around. I listened to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" recently, and the whole thing is just so drug-tinged, self-indulgent, and meandering; it just goes on and on and on. I guess it had its place, but it wasn't what I liked. There were other groups that did that kind of music, I thought, but so much more focused. Groups like the Yardbirds, for instance. To me, you couldn't compare the Yardbirds to the local groups here in LA at that time. When I heard Sean's stuff, I thought to myself, 'I like this. I like the focus of it. I like the fact that there's an intensity. It's not just, look how stoned we can all get.' That was important to me. I wasn't a stoner, and had no intention of being one, and none of us were. Even though you had to pretend sometimes. Because in those days, if people offered you a joint and you said no, they'd go like, 'What's the matter, are you some kind of narc? What are you, the man?' Everybody was then living in this drug culture. We hated it. Don't get me wrong, we partied a little bit too. But not as a matter of 24/7 around the clock walking down the street being stoned all the time--working being stoned, in the studio being stoned, everybody just being stoned all the time. Yeah, everybody smoked a little joint now and then. That was the times. But our focus wasn't about drugs. Our focus wasn't about flower power. It wasn't about peace, love, and Hare Krishna. Our focus was about playing hard rock and roll. That's what we wanted to do--our own kind of rock and roll, our own sound and our own style. That's what it was about."
Ok, yeah, that was a long quote, but how badass is that? Even in 1967, these guys saw the down side of the whole hippie thing, and they wanted no part of it.
The recordings that they made after their rush-released album, the ones that ended up on the Bonniwell Music Machine album, and are now available on the "Beyond The Garage" reissue (and, apparently, on the more recent double-disc "The Ultimate Turn On" [by the way, I don't usually like puns, but this one is pretty creative, so it gets my approval], which I haven't heard yet), do an even better job of creating an original, heavy rock and roll sound. "Bottom Of The Soul", an original Music Machine recording eventually released as a Bonniwell Music Machine single, begins this album with a thundering bass riff that drives heavy, fuzz-laced verses that contrast nicely with the song's more melodic--but still dark--chorus. Tracks like the harpsichord-tinged "Absolutely Positively," the gloriously raw "Double Yellow Line", and the driving "No Girl Gonna cry" are all at least the equal of tracks like "Talk Talk", "The People In Me", and "Trouble". But The Music Machine's best moment comes on track 7, "The Eagle Never Hurts The Fly", a song on which Bonniwell and company break away from their typical pounding garage sound to move into the realm of studio experimentation. The song features all sorts of incidental sounds buried in the mix, from quietly lurking harmonicas to screeching duck calls. Bassist Keith Olson tunes his bass to some incredibly low registers, and at strategic moments, unleashes a throbbing low note that could shake the fillings out of your teeth at proper volumes. Meanwhile, Mark Landon drop various lead lines throughout the track, sometimes playing through reverb, sometimes fuzz, and sometimes both. Sean Bonniwell's vocals are impassioned, moving beyond his usual angry, declamatory style into a pleading blues shout that calls Eric Burdon of The Animals to mind. Apparently this song was one of several unsuccessful attempts by The Music Machine to follow up the "Talk Talk" single. While no one can deny its brilliance, it's hard to believe that anyone thought this track could make it into heavy rotation on the AM stations of 1967. It's a shame; perhaps if The Music Machine could have had a second hit single, they would have stayed together longer and made even more great records. Thankfully, there are at least these few tracks floating around out there for our enjoyment. It's discoveries like this that keep me digging deeper and deeper into the pantheon of obscure 60s garage rock, and indeed, music in general. I'm sure there are plenty more still out there waiting for me, and I look forward to discovering them. For right now, though, these Music Machine tracks will more than tide me over.
The Music Machine - Trouble
The (Bonniwell) Music Machine - Bottom Of The Soul
The (Bonniwell) Music Machine - The Eagle Never Hurts The Fly