There are a lot of great artists I’ve had on the wishlist for Hidden Gems but Ethan Miller has been hovering near the top for some time now. The psych vet’s been holding down time in a rogue’s gallery of great bands over the past few decades – Comets on Fire, Heron Oblivion, Feral Ohms, and Howlin’ Rain. The latter is back with their first album in three years and its one of their best yet. I finally snagged Ethan to run down a pick for Hidden Gems but he’d done me one better. In this special edition of the feature, the songwriter rounds up some deep cuts that inspired the direction for the upcoming Alligator Bride and he delves into their influence on his own writing. As expected there are quite a few nuggets from the ‘70s rock canon but also as many surprises in the running as well. Check out the picks and a playlist from Ethan below.
When Andy asked me to do a ‘Hidden Gems’ write up about an overlooked LP that I love I had been working on this playlist already and it was full of many such albums. So, we figured we’d tweak the form a little. This playlist isn’t all lost/deep deep cuts but even the known tracks included here are a little shadowy to me one way or another.
1.Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs – “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (Live)” – from ‘Live! at Sunbury
One of my favorite ‘never heard of it’ jams of all time. Fuck that, one of the best rock and roll songs and performances ever. In the opening lines Billy speaks to the crowd: “I wrote a song a little while back, it was inspired by the way some people treat me, people I used to know, they think I freaked out, too much acid and too much smoke and booze…so I wrote a song called ‘Most People I know think I’m crazy and this will be coming out as a single for us in about a week or so, so we’d like you to listen to the words” and then he takes off with this 4 part harmony intro that just erupts into screaming huge amp 70’s Australian boogie that’s just totally juiced till the last note. Includes extended jam sections with sick riffs and bulldozer boogie over-the-top delivery. Ben Flashman from Comets turned me on to this jam, said it reminded him of Howlin Rain and that he thought I’d like it. It’ remains a deep inspiration and blue print for loose, wild, huge-amp good-time music. Total watermelon rock.
2. Epitaph – “Reflexion” – from Outside the Law
Another fave lost psych/ guitar heroics gem. Noel Harmonson, my then Comets and now Heron Oblivion bandmate turned me onto this record back in Santa Cruz in the early 2000s. The guitar shit on this record is totally over the top. Pound for pound this record just might be stacked with more insane twin (triple! Quad even!) guitarmony lines than any other record I’ve ever heard. Kind of like if Television remade an Allman Brothers record and then left all the extra guitar tracks up in the mix instead of only choosing two to use~ ha ha. Nutso. Such a cookin’ feel to the way these guys groove too.
3. The Only Ones – “The Beast” – from Special View
Does everybody already listen to The Only Ones?? Was I the only record nerd left who didn’t have a clue about this band? I just really went deep on these guys after hearing a half of a side of one of these records in Stranded in Oakland a few months ago. This record is an absolute classic! I quickly became fairly addicted to this record and it’s many fascinating landscapes and dirty back alley doorways to killer jammed out other worlds. Heavy echoes of Television, Nikki Sudden, The Saints and then these amazing jammer sections that just build and build to a power thats waaaaay beyond the sum of its shambolic pop parts. So so so so much character in this record.
4. Free – “Oh I Wept” – from Fire and Water
‘Overlooked’ masterpiece – this album? Not sure about that. It’s got an ENORMOUS hit on it that is still an FM radio staple and timeless classic. BUT does everyone go deeper beyond that into the mesmerizing, sleek minimalist architecture, incredible performances and vision for this album as a whole? I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of ‘less is more’ in a rock and roll album than this record. Not even ACDC matches the minimalism of this record. But it must have been a totem for them to move toward in stripping rock and roll of all but muscle and blood wrapped tight around bone.
Listening to this beautiful record must be what it felt like to sit in the ancient Roman sun on the aqueducts above the city, the black behind your closed eyelids exploding with bright shapes from the burning sun, one hand trailing at your side in the clear flowing water carried above the city on giant marble pillars from distant sources. That’s how this song feels to me, every time I listen to it. It has never, ever lost an ounce of impact and time travel to me.
5. Meat Puppets – “Up on the Sun” – from Up on the Sun
Howlin Rain opened for the Meat Puppets at Scala in London in 2008 and they were great. I was a fan to some extent before that but it invested me in a slower deeper relationship with their records afterward that I’m still sorting out. Total mutated music. Galapagos rock. When I hear the Meat Puppets in their best moments I imagine Greg Ginn feeling like he’d found the essential SST group to represent all the weird musical tangents going on in his own head and record collection; Zappa, The Talking Heads, The Dead and god knows what else that’s been absorbed as influence and come out the other side as a totally unique style and character. It just sounds like this stuff was grown in a petri dish in a rural Arizona garage and got all its DNA mixed up and after a few weeks it’s a bulbous living blob – hairy and totally weird but scientists all say ‘what a gorgeous specimen!”
6. Pretenders – “The Phone Call” – from Pretenders
Plenty has been said about the Pretenders. I don’t think this album’s been overlooked or ‘lost’ in anyway. It’s a classic. But it was a big record for me when I was about 17 and 18 and I hadn’t been back in a long while. Jeff, (bass player of Howlin Rain) said the verse sections of our song ‘Missouri’ had a Pretenders vibe and that struck a nerve with me because it got me considering the way music may get into your creative DNA and pass along into your song and writing without having made a direct or purposeful reference to it for decades.
7. Love – “August” – from For Sail
Starts with the anxiety ridden morse code guitar figure and this longing verse that sounds like it may have been left over from the ‘Forever Changes’ song bag, hot super active groover and then ends with a totally killer unhinged guitar solo section. I was listening to a ton of the post Forever Changes records during Alligator writing and rehearsal: Out Here, For Sail, False Start. All super awesome records that got shit-canned to the rare/ lost section of the record store even though they’re each rough-edged, desperate classics of the late 60s early 70s psych rock era in their own way.
8. Link Wray – “God Out West” – from Link Wray
Total joy music. The PERFECT combination of fuzz guitar and uplifting rural hippie music. New-found Christianity, back to nature, and heavy LSD consumption is one of my favorite trifecta flavors of psych rock. Norman Greenbaum, Jeremy Spencer and the Children, the Billy Thorpe track of #1 above- yeah, it’s the start of a whole playlist in itself. Got this record in 2001 or so in Santa Cruz and it’s never come off the record player. ever. One of the best records of all time. No shit.
9. Mighty Baby – “Egyptian Tomb” – from Might Baby
This is a case of art imitating music criticism. When the first Howlin Rain record came out deep head writers like Tony Rettman dropped names like Mountain Bus and Mighty Baby as influences on Howlin Rain’s sound. To which at the time I had not heard. 12 years later I had indeed fallen in love with the sound of those records and they really did become influences on a Howlin Rain record. This Mighty Baby record is another one of those records like The Only Ones LP that you hear it for the first time and wonder how in the hell you hadn’t been listening to this since you were 10.
10. Christine McVie – “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby” – from The Legendary Christine Perfect Album
Greatest Fleetwood Mac solo record? In the story of Fleetwood Mac there are many many more sensational characters than Christie but her style and musical class is unfuckwithable. She crushes. This is one of the all-time great Friday night party with a few intimate friends records.
11. The Grease Band – “Mistake No Doubt” – from Grease Band and Amazing Graces
Fellow Alligator Chris Robinson turned me onto this album. Everyone who loves earthy 60s/70s jams who puts ears on this thing for the first time has instantly just drawn a new line in the sand. That beautiful sound of kerosene burning in the middle of the night, when exhaustion becomes grace and heightened clarity, all endings and beginnings smoldering into a present moment. I believe that in the coming years people will begin to talk about this record in the same way they talk about the magic and mystical power of Astral Weeks. But even more astonishingly it sounds like the best songs on this album are conceived before our ears by improvisation not just performed through improvisation. This record is a fucking unicorn.
12. Santana – “All the Love of the Universe” – from Caravanserai
It’s odd to me that this is actually the precursor to Lotus, (one of the fiercest live albums ever) and Love Devotion Surrender with John McLaughlin, (for sure the fiercest English language spiritual album every made??) Both were to follow the year after Caravanserai. Here he’s just getting warmed up with his echoplex and a ‘speaking in tongues’ maniacal solo guitar expression that would fully come to fruition on those two aforementioned albums but the super charged funky fusion here is its own brief little sub-genre in the Santana story. John Moloney, first Howlin Rain drummer, gave me this record as a gift when we recorded the first Rain LP and it has served to inform certain feelings and flows on Alligator all these years later. Still love it so much. They capture the funky, spiritual, flowing magic of some of the longer jammers on Stevie Wonder’s futuristic psychedelic R&B masterpieces of the 70s and blends ecstatic cocaine vibes with just enough of the Lotus fury Santana was headed for just around the corner. Total Sci-fxploitation.
13. Pentangle – “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” – from Reflection
What a deep beautiful tune. I go to Pentangle to ground me and put my head straight, but like Fairport, even in the most mellow tunes, there’s a real edge there, an ominous tone and quite often a lethal tale. They give an extra ‘specter of death’ vibe to this traditional tune. It’s a great lesson on how to remain haunted in a literary way even when taking it to the most earthy, acoustic, chill level. Pentangle/ Fairport also a huge fave and influence on HR drummer Justin Smith too.
14. Help Yourself – “Alabama Lady” – from Beware the Shadow
Another case of art imitating musical criticism. Another lost gem discovered from critical comparisons when the first HR album was released in 2006. Not sure this totally influenced Alligator Bride but it’s definitely been reflected in the live set we’ve developed for the album tours. Another T. Rettman ref I believe.
15. Canned Heat – “Time Was” – from Blind Owl Wilson
Sutro Park and Mississippi Records brilliantly compiled Al Wilson’s tracks from Canned Heat and surrounding sessions into a ‘lost’ Blind Owl record and it’s one of the greatest records of the late 60s and it’s been sitting in disparate pieces before us on the kitchen table hiding in plain sight all these years. You’ll be hearing the influence of this comp loud and clear on A LOT of your favorite psych and indie records over the next couple years. Mark my words.
16. Steppenwolf – “Chicken Wolf” – from At Your Birthday Party
The Bass on this album is so incredible. So round and huge. Nobody seems to mix rock records with the bass leading like this anymore. I was obsessed with trying to mix with the bass leading a full rock band on Alligator Bride and I think I did it to the point that Jeff, who LOVES to hear the sound of his bass said, ‘uh, I know this is a kind of weird thing to complain about but the bass seems a little high in the mix…” Ha. Ha. Done and done.
17. Patti Smith – “Ask The Angels” – from Radio Ethiopia
Whenever I face that cold ceiling of doubt in the middle of some sleepless night, or the financial woes of being an independent artist, or some critic with a long reach has just seemed to have made it their personal life mission to take a gleeful and poorly written but well-maximized shit on my art and inevitably something creeps up in the back of the mind whispering ‘maybe they’re right’ or ‘this isn’t worth it, you’re grinding yourself into dust and you should get out’ I check in with Patti and I say fuck that and spit in the face of that shit and blast her jams and back that motherfucker down back out of my head. Patti is a living breathing reminder of what it means to be an artist in action, living it and breathing it for life and to be fierce and ecstatic through creativity. Heron Oblivion played the Beach Goth Festival a few years ago and Patti just floored us as we stood at the side of the stage on a grassy hill watching her just tear a hole in the night. She literally tore all the strings off her guitar with her fist like she was pulling tall grass out of the earth.
18. Elvis – “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” – From Elvis in Memphis
Elvis. Amazing. He crushes when he opens his mouth and music comes out. He and the TCB band are just killing it and cooking it up right on the hood of the Cadillac in the hot Memphis sun. Another bass inspiration track too. Bass obsession a running theme through Alligator Bride for me.
19. Moby Grape – “Changes, Circles Spinning” – from Truly Fine Citizen
Finally back in print. This was a great lost gem for a while before it got the digital treatment. You hear a ton about Flying Burrito Bros and the Byrds west coast country thing but not so much about Moby Grape’s great country phase. During those lost years when this album was totally out of print Adam Payne from Residual Echoes/ Six Organs/ Leaf Blower gave me a cdr of it and told me it would influence Howlin Rain. And it did! Gorgeous song. Kind of a fucked-up mix but it’s really ethereal and beautiful because of it.
20. Grank Funk – “Got This Thing On the Move” – Grand Funk
One of the top 5 rock albums of all time. period. The raw large format polaroid pic of a killer band ripping without a lot of (or in most cases on this album any) other shit piled on top. And by far the rippingest bass sound and bass mix on any rock album ever. ever. ever. What the fuck. Incredible. Got turned on to this in about ’98 in Santa Cruz and never got over it. Can listen nightly. Bong rock for sure, but sounds GREAT on speed and whiskey too, naturally.
21. Joni Mitchell – “The Jungle Line” – from The Hissing of the Summer Lawns
The Alligator Bride didn’t come out having a ton of direct Joni influence but I use her records, especially this one, as a reminder of how elastic song and melody can be and she’s got those great lyrics that follow characters around like you’re gliding through an experimental novella with her. This record is incredible. Another Unicorn.
22. Grateful Dead – “Morning Dew, Lyceum, London, England 5/26/1972” – from Europe ’72 vol 22: 5/26/72
Crushing performance of MD by the most underrated and overrated band of all time. The most loved and hated group in rock and roll. The most worshipped and most vilified. For those of us that love; the obsession rolls on and deepens minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, decade by decade. It seems like the official Europe ’72 version of this performance has a lead vocal overdub to smooth out the edges and has been pitched up to make the tempo and feel a little less zonked. This original non-overdubbed/ non-pitched performance has everything a Dead head loves about Jerry, the super vulnerable, breaking lead vocal, full of sorrow and imperfection and utter transcendence both of character and artistically. The incredible solo could be summed up the same way. The band is playing amazingly, complete with weird slip and slide moments of REAL human performance. Goes without saying by now that I was obsessing over Europe ’72 a ton while we worked on Alligator.
23. Roy Harper – “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease” – from HQ
Crushing tune follows another crushing tune to end the playlist. Like the Meat Puppets my relationship with Roy Harper’s catalog is an ever-evolving thing and one I can’t completely define. That said, how is this song not the British fucking national anthem?!? Sun going down over the ghost of the British empire, a pint of ale catching the last rays of sunlight in the glass as the sky turns purple over acres of green. Damn. So that’s how you write a song.