Electric Flag on Disc
A Review of Studio and Bootleg Recordings
By David Dann
The following series of reviews and analyses attempts to provide the listener with a guide to the Electric Flag’s music. Included are most bootlegs that document the band’s creative output over its 11-month existence and give an excellent picture of one of the most innovative rock bands of the late sixties.
Here's where to find these Electric Flag recordings:
• Both “Old Glory: The Best of the Electric Flag” (which has the band’s Monterey performances) and soundtrack to “The Trip” (in an abridged version of the original Sidewalk release) are available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and many other music websites.
• The various
bootleg performances can most often be found on eBay by searching on “Electric
Flag.” It is recommended that the buyer contact the seller for details on a
particular bootleg’s contents before bidding as dates and tunes are not always
clear in the offering information.
Soundtrack to 'The Trip'
Late April/early May 1967; Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA
During a 10-day period in the spring of 1967, the Electric Flag worked in the studio on the music that would eventually form the soundtrack to the movie “The Trip.” It was their first project as a cohesive band.
The sessions sometimes included the full group but more often utilized just a few of the Flag’s players, depending on the music’s purpose. Some of the more provocative sounds were created early on by a quartet comprised of Bloomfield, Goldberg, Gravenites and Paul Beaver.
Those pieces – “Joint Passing,” “M-23,” “Synesthesia,” “A Little Head,” “Inner Pocket” and “Fewghh” – create a richly diverse series of moods and at times anticipate John Cale’s Velvet Underground experiments. Bloomfield uses controlled feedback, volume effects and overdubbing, playing both electric and acoustic guitars. Barry Goldberg augments his organ with harpsichord, piano and celeste. And prominently featured in “Synesthesia” is another instrument unusual for 1967 – an electric violin. It’s played by Bobby Notkoff, who is making his recording debut.
Notkoff uses a conventional fiddle with a Gerry-rigged pick-up – really a small microphone modified to fit his instrument – to produce his sound. His pure tone and excellent intonation would soon gain him numerous studio sessions and eventually secure him a place in Neil Young’s group Crazy Horse.
After a few days, the other band members were in the studio and the group began sounding more like the Electric Flag.
Trumpeter Marcus Doubleday recorded the curious two-beat march, “Hobbit,” with Goldberg playing quirky countermelodies on organ accompanied by a rhythm section consisting of bassist Brooks and Bloomfield on spoons. Doubleday also plays a neo-Mariachi piece (Herb Alpert-meets-San Francisco) called “Green & Gold” which accompanies the film’s scenes of Fonda wandering in the woods followed by a damsel in flowing attire and two ominous, hooded riders on horseback. Michael adds a marvelous harmony part on guitar to Marcus’ clear-toned, slightly-behind-the-beat attack which perfectly evokes the laconic pleasures of Mexican border music.
Buddy Miles makes his first appearance in the studio on a fractured waltz called “The Other Ed Norton” which serves to set the mood for the film’s surreal carnival scene. The piece features drums, a calliope, orchestra bells, the Moog, a shrill ocarina and Bloomfield playing suck-and-blow harmonica. After an off-kilter opening segment, Doubleday enters playing a melody which sounds a bit like a warm-up exercise for baroque trumpet. Marcus’ fine classical technique is on full display, lending credibility to superlatives that were often used to describe his playing back in Seattle.
Miles and Paul Beaver open “Flash, Bam, Pow” with a furious drum-and-synthesizer duet, a crescendo reminiscent of the collective cacophony sometimes heard in free jazz pieces. Here it underscores a moment of panic on screen as Fonda’s stoned character flees – of all things – menacing coats in a closet. The piece then kicks into a heavy rock beat driven by a power trio of guitar, bass and drums and closes with a pastiche of Beaver’s synthesizer noises – oscillations, hisses, gurgles and the like.
Interestingly, a group of avant garde jazz musicians from Chicago – Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell – who would later become the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago had briefly been Bloomfield’s neighbors on Wellesley Court. Bloomfield knew their wildly eclectic music, and he knew more than a little about contemporary jazz improvisation. (Pete Welding, a writer for Downbeat magazine and a record producer, had given Michael a crash course in jazz in the early ’60s and the guitarist took inspiration from John Coltrane’s work in putting together “East-West” with the Butterfield Band.) So the tumultuous beginning to “Flash, Bam, Pow” – something unheard of in pop music – may have been inspired by the music of the Art Ensemble or by other jazz avants. It was, for Bloomfield, just another musical color in his ever-broadening palette of aural styles.
“Home Room” is a pop ditty that featured both horns for the first time – Peter Strazza having joined the sessions on tenor saxophone. Another pop piece, “Practice Music,” must have sounded dated even in the fall of 1967 when the soundtrack was released. Based on the “Louie Louie” chord pattern, the hornless tune has Gravenites playing rhythm guitar behind a brief Bloomfield solo and fades after a theme evoking the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” It’s heard during the first nightclub scene while Fonda scores his acid and a rock band practices on stage in the background. The band, looking very young and slightly awkward, is the International Submarine Band, and the trite tune fits perfectly with their vaguely unhip appearance.
On the appropriately named “Peter Gets Off,” Strazza is the soloist, backed by a furiously comping Bloomfield and by Harvey Brook’s loping bass. A one-chord jam, the tune eventually gets away from Strazza whose chops aren’t quite up to the task. The piece works quite well however as accompaniment to the bad portion of Fonda’s trip as he races through the club-hopping crowds on the busy Sunset Strip.
Bloomfield gets a chance to stretch out on the hornless “Fine Jung Thing,” soloing at length on blues changes with an altered turn-around while Gravenites again plays rhythm. At more than seven minutes, this is the longest piece the band recorded for the movie and it serves well to build the intensity of the second nightclub scene. As Fonda’s dazed character cluelessly banters with an impatient waitress, dancers writhe and the ISB is again seen working out (not very convincingly) on stage.
It’s curious how Michael’s guitar sound on “Fine Jung Thing” differs from the classic Bloomfield tone. It’s possible that he may have played whatever guitar was on hand in Universal’s studios, something he was known to do. Paul Rothchild, producer of the first Butterfield recording for Elektra, recalled that Bloomfield had used a studio Hagstrom to record some of the tunes on that record.
More of Bloomfield’s guitar talents are again featured on “Gettin’ Hard,” a heavy Chicago-style blues based loosely on Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” The choice of tune was appropriate, as the insistent beat accompanies the final love scene between Fonda and co-star Salli Sachse. Strazza plays both tenor and baritone saxophones, and he and Doubleday ran through typical riffs while backing the soloist. The tune is the first example of the Electric Flag covering a straight blues number, a practice that would provide them with a large part of their concert repertory over the next year.
“Senior Citizen,” a classic jazz parody with pretty chord changes, lets the horns tailgate around a simple theme in typical New Orleans fashion. Featuring Barry Goldberg playing tack-hammer piano while providing a subtle continuo on organ, the piece is comprised of several run-throughs of a melody and a couple of “oh-foh-dee-oh-doh” breaks punctuated by Doubleday’s trumpet. “Psyche Soap,” also a Dixieland-style send-up, is the only tune to feature a vocal. It provides the sound of a commercial heard after Fonda’s character turns on a TV early in the film. Nick Gravenites sings about the title product through what sounds like a megaphone, accompanied by trumpet, piano, guitar, bass and drums. The piece runs less than a minute and provides an incidental moment of comic relief.
“Peter’s Trip” – the movie’s title tune – likewise has no real soloist but brings together all the musicians for a full ensemble effort. Its form is played through four times on the soundtrack album with Notkoff’s electric violin in the lead on the Eastern-sounding theme and Goldberg’s harpsichord lending a Baroque touch. Framed at both ends by Paul Beaver’s tick-tocking Moog, the piece sounds at once oddly dated and enticingly exotic. Movie goers, however, could leave the theater humming its simple but memorable melody as it recurs repeatedly throughout the duration of “The Trip.”
Aside from a few minutes of material from a crash pad scene and parts of the film’s trailer, all the music used in “The Trip” is contained on the Sidewalk release.