US SPACEROCK
A Brief and Personal History by a Participant (Part 1 1975-2001)

by Doug Walker

From Aural Innovations #18 (January 2002)

I find it quite unfathomable that American SpaceRock hasn't gained much interest with the music community in light of the fact that the US was one of the two countries that actually had effective SpaceFlight programs. Often, US SpaceRock bands have had to hide under the banner of "Psychedelic" or "Progressive Rock", with little indication that a band might have more unearthly pretensions! As well, many of the groups that work in these musical areas are located in far-flung parts of our vast country, unaware that there might be others working on similar musical structures in different locations! This piece is an attempt to shed light on a few of the SpaceRock pioneers, and give an overview as to the status of what has become a large, widespread and diverse form/scene played by bands throughout the US

LIKE PROJECT MERCURY: 1975-1978

During the early 70s, a number of musicians throughout the US expressed great interest in the music of UK/European "progressive" and SpaceRock groups/musicians. The works of Pink Floyd had become widely popular, as they issued a number of defining recordings during the 1971-1975 period (Meddle, Obscured By Clouds, Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here). Hawkwind had toured the US twice by 1974, playing to curious audiences in NYC, Cleveland, Washington DC, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. Roxy Music (with Eno) had played here in 1972, opening for Jethro Tull, setting the stage for the growth of SpaceRock in the US.

In Los Angeles, Synthesist Nik Raicevic had released 5 indie LPs between 1970 and 1975, and developed a performance style on Analog Synthesizers that presaged the (so-called) "Berlin School" of Electronic improvisation! Finally retiring from music in 1976, Raicevic apparently sold his Modular Moog to a former race car driver named Steve Roach, who began to perform a weekly Electronic Music series in clubs in his San Diego hometown.

1975 saw the first major activity, mostly growing out of the local Rock scenes in the cities of New York, Cleveland, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Baltimore. In Cleveland, the demise of locally famous Garageband "Rocket from the Tombs" led to the formation of Pere Ubu, who gained immediate attention with the release of "Heart of Darkness", their first single. Although a description of the bend in I-90 in downtown Cleveland, the band's debt to mid-seventies Hawkwind is unmistakable! Allan Ravenstine's Synthesizer work was extremely subtle, while Guitarist and leader Peter Laughner orchestrated a sound redolent of LPs like SPACE RITUAL or Amon Dl's "Wolf City". Although frontman David Thomas often cited HW as a major influence over Ubu, he never sought (and probably would not have) or exploited the band's music as SpaceRock, but in hearing (soon to be issued) a live Bootleg from a show 5/5/76 in Cleveland, the area they worked in was Spacey, and made much of Thomas' infantile howling ignorable.

From nearby Akron, DEVO began it's trajectory towards their hot period in the late 70s. Make whatever of the concepts of De-Evolution you might, but they too evidenced a sound made up from elements/ideas being put forth by HW and early Roxy Music! The band's first appearance 10/31/75 is documented on CD ("The Mongoloid Years"), and despite the juvenile humor and drunken ravings of Murray the K (those who grew up in the sixties will remember Murray the K as both the fifth Beatle, and a DJ banished from NYC radio for his involvement with Pro-Marijuana activists. He ended up on Cleveland Radio, and became notorious for his riotous drunken behavior!). DEVO went on to fame and fortune, and continued to display their SpaceRock/KrautRock influences throughout their "hit records" period.

In Washington DC, SpaceRock began to raise it's ugly head with the formation of MARS EVERYWHERE by Guitarist Ernie Falcone and Clarinetist/Guitarist Barney Jones in the Winter/Spring of 1976. ME proudly declared themselves a SpaceRock band, although both of the founders were involved in the burgeoning Progressive Rock scene, which grew and mutated in the area (a scene which also gave us the MUFFINS, MICHAEL BASS, COOL & the Clones and HOWEVER). Originally the group was primarily involved in Free Improvisations based as much on the work of HW as that of Morton Subotnick, Stockhausen and the AACM. Recordings issued in 1988 by AudioFile cassettes of ME recorded in the Summer of 1976 ("VISITOR PARKING") reveal a rather sedate but all-inclusive improvisational trio of Guitars, Synthesizers, Glissando Guitar and Electronic Keyboards. The playing is tight, and each member creates music quite sympathetic to the other musicians. Things were to change as the core of the band began to evolve during the late 70s.

30 miles up the road from DC, Baltimore Synthesist Stuart Rosenzweig called together other like-minded sonic explorers to form the group TANGENT. Also based in improvisation, TANGENT developed a sound that had much to do with the mid-70s works of TANGERINE DREAM/KLAUS SCHULZE/ASH RA TEMPEL, recording their works onto cassette and selling them through magazines like TRANS-OCEANIC TROUSER PRESS. The music, all improvised, was sold to the audience on tape; the only recording I've been able to obtain displays a two-man version of the band. The execution of the music is flawless, with a decent mixture of melody and non-harmonic content within the Electronic improvisations.

NYC was in the throws of the CBGB experience and the Loft Jazz scene, but SpaceRock made little impact on NYC musicians. 1975-1976 saw concerts by Third Sun (One of NYC's original ProgressiveRock units when formed in 1971, the band had mutated a sound not unlike VDGG playing the Art Ensemble of Chicago songbook) and Long Island based Master Radio Canaries, but few recordings exist and neither band engaged in studio recording. Both groups engaged in performance at prestigious venues like Environ, Jazzmania and CBGB, although performances usually left the Punk rock audiences bewildered, and the Jazzbos confused! Also active in NYC were groups led by Synthesist Josef Lyons (who became involved with Octave-Plateau Electronics), and mad Tenor Saxophonist Von Elmo.

Things were stirring on the West Coast as well; the Decayes, TuxedoMoon, the Residents and Chrome began to function in performance and on recordings. Excepting the Decayes, most of these groups were based in the San Francisco area, and drew heavily from their antecedents (the "FlowerPower" era of the late 60s). Barring the work of Chrome, none of these groups sought or accepted the SpaceRock mantle, but the music betrays them as having SpaceRock intents and musical properties. The Residents moved quickly to suppress the SpaceRock elements in their sound as they began getting notices based on their rendition of Jagger/Richards' "Satisfaction".

As the scene progressed into the late 70s, some of the bands began changing sounds/approaches to conform more to the increasingly fragmented mainstream of Rock Music. In particular, DEVO found a great degree of media acceptance, having tailored their music to fit the bourgeoning FM radio market! Their 1st LP fully integrated the influences of Eno-era Roxy Music, Hawkwind and Kraftwerk with a wider range of interests as diverse as the Kinks and a variety of grade B Science Fiction movies! Live they rocked the house with high-energy tales of SpaceJunk, Mongoloids and Pinheads!

Pere Ubu too found interest amongst a wide audience, ranging from RIO Prog-Rockers to Punks; with the loss of Guitarist Laughner (he left in early '77), the band's sound became more "Avant-Garage", the SpaceRock input mostly supplied by Synthesist Ravenstine's bank of EML Synthesizers, and an overall band sound rendolent in "DO RE MI" era Hawkwind. Their first LP (Feb 1978) is a screamer from start to finish, also quite a high-energy affair that owes a large nod to the original Stooges!

Partially due to the poor musicianship of the NYC bands (I was there; like it or not, and the NYC bands like T Heads, Ramones & Blondie COULD NOT PLAY), Ubu garnered much acclaim in Europe, and made major footholds in the Midwest and East/West coasts of the US. Unlike their Akron cousins DEVO, they were unable to get mainstream airplay, and had (more or less) reached a creative impasse by 1979, leading to Guitarist Tom Herman leaving the band at the end of the year. The Residents also enjoyed success with a similar audience, as did TuxedoMoon, who emigrated to Belgium. The New York bands dissolved by 1977, and many of the musicians either faded into obscurity, or became involved with the growing "PunkJazz" community.

Gong founder Daevid Allen was attracted by the PunkJazzers, and moved to NYC in 1977 to organize a band capable of performing his trilogy (basically the LPs "Flying Teapot", "Angel's Egg" & "You") before live audiences, and ended up working with the fledgling Material. Another NYC bound Brit was King Crimson founder Robert Fripp, who became curious about the NYC Rock scene based on reports he received from Brian Eno, who had come in 1974 and maintained a residence here since then (living in the Soho section literally next to Phillip Glass, Rashid Ali and Ornette Coleman!). Yet another migr' was Henry Cow founder Fred Frith, who then made connections with the Random Radar collective located in Washington DC. All were to come together in a seminal tour that did much to establish the music within the USA

PROJECT GEMINI: 1978-1981

The underground grew by leaps and bounds despite the increasing fragmentation of the Rock scene in the late 70s. Listeners began to respond to the growing list of self-declared SpaceRock bands, which had sprung from the US Progressive Rock and Punk communities. Some, like Pere Ubu and Devo managed to gain status on the fringes of the mainstream. Many others were able to take advantage of the low cost of manufacturing LPs to document the music being made. Still others coalesced into collectives like Random Radar Records. Chrome released 2 LPs ("Alien Soundtracks" & "Half-Machine Lip Moves"), and records by group as diverse as the Muffins, & Rupert Chappell began to turn up in hip record shops alongside imported examples of the European Progressive scene. Others like Tangent and OHO marketed music on tape and LP through the underground rock press.

Yet and still, only a fraction of the music was SpaceRock, although some very excellent recordings made by highly innovative musicians raised the bar for Progressive music as a whole! In May of 1978, producer and impresario Georgio Gomelsky organized a traveling showcase of American Progressive Rock. Calling it the ZU Mani-fest, the shows in NYC, Baltimore and Los Angeles exposed an eager audience to headliners Daevid Allen/NY GONG, Yoch'ko Seffer and the MUFFINS. Those acts were backed by progressive bands from local regions (in NYC, Theoretical Girls, DNA, Baltimore had MARS EVERYWHERE and Michael Bass, LA sported the FAR EAST FAMILY BAND and Jason Martz.

MARS EVERYWHERE had forged itself into a more traditional band form, recruiting Drums (Robin Anderson), BassGuitar(Greg Yaskovitch) to Synthesist/Keyboardist Tom Fenwick, which allowed for heavier input from Barney Jones' Reeds and Live Electronics, and showcased Ernie Fenwick's SpaceGuitar sound. Yet improvisation was still at the core of the sound, as a bootleg tape (12/15/78) of the affair reveals. Despite some obvious musical reference to "Close Encounters", they weave a quite intricate Electronic Improv, which segues into "Mare Chromium". Here they display a instrumental power, with Glissando Guitar and Keyboards creating a bed for the Delicate Reeds of Barney Jones! Further maturation of the instrumental approach hinted at during this show can be found on the tape ME submitted to Random Radar in the Spring of 1979, During the same period, personnel changes within the group led to Jones taking on the drums which he learned to play in six months. He developed a distinctive sound that fit the drummer's role in the group with excellence. Other changes took place until summer 1979 when Carlos Garrazza took the Synthesizer/Keyboards chair. More shows were done towards the end of '79 (including a packed house of over 1000 at the Washington DC Ethical Society to witness NYC PunkJazz group THE YETI, MARS EVERYWHERE and THE MUFFINS live), often in tandem with their neighbors on the Random Radar label.

Beginning in 1974, the Trans Atlantic Trouser Press constituted the only independent journalism in the US dedicated to coverage of the American Progressive scene, although they originally began publishing with heavy coverage of the "Progressive Rock" scene in Europe and Great Britain. As the music became more popular, the magazine became more mainstream, being distributed in indie record stores and on newsstand in cities throughout the US until it's demise in 1982

Conclusion of Part 1

Although many of the early American SpaceRock pioneers were in isolated areas, the music tended to grow due to the moderate success of the Progressive Rock movement here, and reactions to the straighter aspects of that genre. Some were able to tailor their experiments to fit the needs of the commercial marketplace, some obtained fairly fanatic followings and many had taken advantage of the low cost of independent LP production to document their sounds. Independent Retail Record dealers still dominated the market, and often appealed to buyers interested in the music and some even served as distributors. Part 2 of this piece will move into the periods 1981-2001, detailing the rise of an openly identifiable SPACEROCK underground during this period

DISCOGRAPHY

1. Nik Raicevic: "Head" Buddha Records 1970
I have no catalogue numbers for this LP. It may have been reissued in Europe during the 1980s, but I have never seen it.

2. LaMonte Young: Dream Theater 1960-1965
This band released NO recordings, but snippets have surfaced from tapes held by Tony Conrad. I have heard recordings made during the WKCR-FM (Columbia University NYC) LaMonte Young Birthday Broadcast in 1986.

3. Pere Ubu: "30 Seconds over Tokyo"
The band's first single, included on the "Datapanik" boxset. Included also are the other studio recordings with Guitarist/founder Peter Laughner.

4. Pere Ubu 5/15/76
This has been floating around as a bootleg cassette and CD. Rumor has it the date will be officially issued later in 2002.

5. DEVO: The Mongoloid Years'
Issued by RykoDisc in 1998 and is a fine display of the SpaceRock Roots of one of America's least favorite bands!

6. Mars Everywhere: "Visitor Parking"
Issued by AUDIOFILE tapes in 1988. An excellent recording given to Audiofile by the late Barney Jones, it is the full version of the concert from which their track on the RANDOM RADAR Sampler LP was taken.

7. Chrome: "Half Machine Lip Moves"


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