2/16/2008

I love the sound of a guitar playing...

I know I've talked to you guys about Randy Holden before, back when I was checking out some of those albums that Decibel Magazine picked as the top 50 obscure proto-metal albums or whatever. I distinctly remember telling you guys that "Population II" was the absolute jam, and posting an mp3 of "Guitar Song", the opening track off that album. Therefore, I don't want to belabor the point too horribly much.

But the new issue of Ugly Things had a cover story on The Sons Of Adam, who were the second group Randy Holden was ever in, and technically the first group too, since the Fender IV, his surf group, was just Sons Of Adam with a different drummer. The story in Ugly Things went into detailed discussion of his time in both bands, and even talked a little bit about The Other Half, the band he joined after leaving Sons Of Adam, who are best known for their song "Mr. Pharmacist", which made it onto the "Nuggets" box set and was covered by The Fall. So, as a consequence, I've been listening to a lot of Randy Holden lately. All eras, from his early days in Fender IV and Sons Of Adam to his work with The Other Half and Blue Cheer, up to and including "Population II". And I've been thinking about what a great guitar player he really was.

I know "Population II" was the final realization of what he'd been trying to do all along, and that it undoubtedly marks the pinnacle of his career. And don't get me wrong--a good bit of the listening I've been doing has been to this album in particular. It's pretty fascinating--he talks in the interview he did with Richie Unterberger for Perfect Sound Forever about the custom silver stompbox he had during that time, which doubled the volume he got from his amp without adding any distortion. You can hear that thing all over "Population II", and while I've always been the type of guy who loves fuzz and crunch, and would never have thought that I'd be stoked about a pure clean guitar tone ripping through my skull, I can't deny that the clean gain he gets from that mysterious pedal is sick and crazy and totally on another level from pretty much anything else I've ever heard. I walked to the store tonight with "Fruit And Iceburgs" on my Ipod, and at some points when his leads would switch speakers rapidly (why, I ask you, did people stop playing with the panning on stereo albums after the 60s ended? That shit was cool!), I felt like my head was going to split open, in the best possible way.

But none of this is said to belittle any of his other work. Take the Fender IV, for example--I've long been a huge Dick Dale fan, but I've never found any other surf music that blows me away the way Dale's surf-era recordings do. Nobody else deals out as punishing a barrage of notes, nobody else rattles the speakers of his amp as harshly, nobody else sweeps me up and carries me along like an out-of-control tsunami the way Dick Dale does. Don't get me wrong, I like Link Wray and Duane Eddy and The Ventures and Davie Allan and a lot of other stuff from the era, but nothing else grabs me and drags me along in its wake the way Dick Dale's stuff does.

But the Fender IV come damn close. Randy Holden's got that same double-picked note assault as Dick Dale, and his guitar tone is almost as noisy as Dale's. And if the Fender IV are, in the end, a little too mannered to just sweep me away like Dick Dale, they make up for it with some interesting original tidbits, mainly the ska-influenced upstroke rhythms that Randy got rhythm guitarist Jac Ttanna to play underneath his frenetic leads.

Sons of Adam, who were 3/4 of the Fender IV, plus later Love drummer Michael Stuart, were more standard garage rock in the "Nuggets" style, and although I would like to hear a more assertive vocal style on their tracks, Randy's playing is always strong and solid. The excellent guitar breaks on their cover of "Mr. You're A Better Man Than I", originally by The Yardbirds, are excellent, but the best overall track from Holden's time with them (he and Michael Stuart had both departed by the time of their third, most famous single, the Arthur Lee-penned "Feathered Fish") is "Saturday's Son", which is an excellent garage punk track in the "we're bad seeds" template that was so popular then.

The Other Half takes what Sons Of Adam were doing and improves upon it, by adding the stronger, snottier vocals of Jeff Nowlen, and giving Randy more opportunities to stretch out and get psychedelic. They were still garage rock in the style of The Seeds, and in fact, "Mr. Pharmacist" sounds like it could have been written by Sky Saxon, but they have a lot more going on in their sound than that song demonstrates. The best demonstration of just how free they can get comes on the last song on their album, "What Can I Do For You", which is split into two tracks, "(First Half)", which was released as a single, and "(The Other Half)", which adds nearly seven more minutes to the track's original 2:42 length, most of which are just Randy Holden cranking out the same intense, string-bending leads that show up all over "Population II". Here, they're blasted out over a slow blues vamp.

However, on side two of Blue Cheer's "New! Improved!", constituting all 15 minutes of Randy's recorded tenure with that band (who went to shit as soon as he left), he first taps into the sound that would become his forte on "Population II". Basically, both his half of "New! Improved!" and all of "Population II" sound like some sort of frozen wasteland, in which the only living thing for miles around is Randy Holden's delightfully organic guitar wailing. The rhythm section (or, in the case of "Population II", the drummer) gives him ground to stand on, and his rhythm guitar tracking adds distant mountainous formations to the landscape, but once he steps on that little silver box and kicks his 8 Sunn full-stacks into high gear (by the way, I'm not making that up), all is leveled for hundreds of miles around. The clean, pure volume of his guitar tone evokes a frosty coldness in my mind, and when it swirls around from speaker to speaker, it's like the winds kicking up swirls of icy powder to spin into my ears and tunnel into my mind. It's insane. I love it.

The Fender IV - Everybody Up
The Sons Of Adam - Saturday's Son
The Other Half - Oz Lee Eaves Drops
Blue Cheer - Peace Of Mind
Randy Holden - Keeper Of My Flame

By the way, the title of tonight's entry is taken from the first line of the first song on "Population II", "Guitar Song". The full lyric is "I love the sound of a guitar playing. I love the way it makes me feel inside." Right on, Randy. May you never stop playing.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus,. kid next thing you know you'll posting paeans to Randy California.

a face in every mountain and a soul in every stone,

Wm Mills

4:33 AM  
Blogger Andrew TSKS said...

I dunno, man. There's a big difference between Blue Cheer and Spirit.

That said, I've been thinking lately that "The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus" is due for a re-evaluation...

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear you. Though i'm partial to Leigh Stepens era Cheer myself (see "Second Time Around" from Vincebus Eruptum). More primal land beyond the 10-on the amp dial guitar grope than the Hubert Sumlin in chainmail via Iommi-esque thud of Holden.
And Spirit, ehh. I've Dr.Sardonicus for over a decade now and if i did drugs anymore Hoffman never made a strain of LSD-25 strong to raise it a notch above tepid. However there's a track from Spirit's "Son of Spirit" LP from '76. "The Other Song" that's as a touched an anthem as ever spilled from the hands of Herr California. Pure 4AM late-night driving with one-eye shut and no clear destination in sight.

-Will Mills

8:16 PM  
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