Psych album of the week: The United States of America (1968)

Even when the ironically named band played things more-or-less straight, it did so in astonishing ways

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The United States of America released only one album, a self-titled LP in 1968.

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear.

The business of making a record was heady stuff in the mid to late ’60s. This is true not just because of the amount of weed and LSD kicking around the music scene, but because technological advances had made it possible to create and capture sounds that the world had never before heard.

In England, George Martin and the Beatles were busy employing these technologies—including multitrack recorders and primitive modular synthesizers—in the service of some of the greatest pop music ever made.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Joseph Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz had other ideas. Already established as a composer of some note—with Carnegie Hall recitals and collaborations with the likes of La Monte Young and Yoko Ono on his C.V.—Byrd decided in 1967 to channel his avant-garde aesthetic into rock music.

He called the band he formed, with Moskowitz on lead vocals, the United States of America. This was surely an ironic choice; by that time Boyd was thoroughly radicalized, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. The United States of America’s first and only album, a self-titled effort released in 1968, documents both Byrd’s sonic obsessions and his sociopolitical views.

The LP begins with “The American Metaphysical Circus”, which is sort of a dystopian-nightmare answer to the circus-poster whimsy of the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”. Instead of merely listing the acts they are about to witness, ringmaster Moskowitz invites the audience to join in the fun—which in this case includes torturing animals and bleeding children. As her litany goes on, her voice disintegrates into incoherence, thanks to the timely application of electronic processing.

Even when the United States of America played things more-or-less straight, it did so in astonishing ways. The acid-rock freakouts “Hard Coming Love” and “Coming Down” could easily have turned into bargain-basement Jefferson Airplane imitations, but the wild oscillations of custom-built synthesizers and ring modulators push them into some bizarre sonic spaces.

It was undoubtedly a little too far-out for all but the most adventurous listeners at the time, but The United States of America proved influential to later generations of musicians, including Broadcast and Stereolab.

Standout tracks

“The Garden of Earthly Delights”, “”Hard Coming Love”, “Cloud Song”

Sonic psych-out

When Craig Woodson’s double-time drums kick in halfway through the first verse of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, it sets the pulse for a withering look at the dark side of the peace-and-love generation, complete with nightmarish synth blasts and Moskowitz’s musings on poisonous gardens and blackening mushrooms.

Trippiest lyrics

“If you’re harder yet to please/We have most delightful dreams/Our recorders will preserve/The intensity and passion of your screams…And the price is right/The cost of one admission is your mind.” (“The American Metaphysical Circus”)

“Lemonous petals, dissident play/Tasting of ergot/Dancing by night, dying by day.” (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”)

“A thought of coloured clouds all high above my head/A trip that doesn’t need a ticket or a bed.” (“Coming Down”)

In their own words

“Maybe we didn’t have enough of a grassroots following; maybe Columbia thought our work was too drug-inspired to market us. This always bewildered me, since there was no proselytizing, and the electronic effects on the record owed more to our interest in new music than to any substance we may have abused.” (Dorothy Moskowitz on why the band’s music got little airplay)

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