Nowadays, we think of the Boogie Down Bronx, and psychedelia is the last music to come to mind. Hell, rock in general doesn’t belong beyond 14th street in New York City. Yet, something quite magical has emerged from the Bronx in 1964, and anyone who knows the Nuggets set should know the Blues Magoos like the back of their hand (for those that don’t, they did “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”). I certainly do (their second album IS the namesake of this very blog afterall). So it strikes me as a little odd that when snooping around the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn*, I should happen upon a pristine, if only a little dusty, copy of the Blues Magoos’ third album (their second for the Mercury label) Basic Blues Magoos. Such a title works both polarities of the word into something extraordinary.
After the jump, a full reflection the lost classic “Basic Blues Magoos.”
Such a name, “Basic Blues Magoos,” brings about the sense of the tongue in cheek that most bands try desperately to avoid. Yep, just your basic third album, take it or leave it, move along, love it or loathe it, who cares. But a band like the Blues Magoos are far smarter than a critic might give them credit for. According to legend, this was the first album to be conceived outside of the studio, and instead written in a Bronx home once occupied by Gram Parsons and after the band had toured opening for the Who. To call it ‘basic,’ I think, is to show off that this is the result of a band being exactly who they want to be, producers, label execs, and even fan expectations be damned. Where 1966’s Psychedelic Lollipop and 1968’s Electric Comic Book share similarities of aesthetic and intention (though, in my opinion, Electric Comic Book saw the band grow in a very unexpected way, but I digress), Basic Blues Magoos is easily their finest, most advanced, and perhaps even their most personal record yet.
Where Psychedelic Lollipop took advantage of the popular sound of the time, and Electric Comic Book embraced it while turning it on its ear (it’s one of the few American psych album to present a level of cartoonish playfulness for what it is, and not take it too seriously), Basic Blues Magoos shows the band growing some considerable musical muscle. The songs composing the first two albums are adequate presentations of the Magoos’ sense of songwriting craft, sticking primarily to pop with the occasional strange feedback or organ/keyboard flourish, but this album grows into a wild, uninhibited territory where instrumentals can go beyond items like Electric Comic Book‘s instrumental or “That’s All Folks.” Dropping the sunny, child-like demeanor (though, still retaining some of the humor) produced a more organic feel in terms of musicianship and production. In fact, producers Bob Wyld and Art Polhemus must be praised and damned for sticking to their lo-fi guns at the time, drowning the richness of the Magoos’ expanding sound while still grounding the band in something familiar.
But the true star is in the Blues Magoos’ new found sense of self. While still sticking to a pop music structure, the lyrics and composition itself is far more mature. Opening with a sunny-but-grounded “Sybil Green (Of the In Between),” dominated by a jaunty pace and a typically psych keyboard played by Ralph Scala, followed by the fun, protopunk cover of “I Can Hear the Grass Grow,” the entire first side seems dedicated to showing just how strong the band could be left up to their own devices. Unlike the first two, the band isn’t afraid to indulge int he occasional folk track, a sort of Forever Changes-era Love-lite, in tunes like “Yellow Rose,” where the band strips down to acoustic guitar, keyboard, and vocal. While not impressive, especially as the band cuts the track short in the middle of a jam at 2:30, it is a personal milestone for a group whose previous efforts would vamp on good-natured puns (“Cher O’Bowlies,” anyone?) and rely on the aesthetic of bright keyboards to convey that this is a psych band. While that worked in the past, Basic Blues Magoos shows a band stretching the sense for themselves, and no one else, bordering on progressive by the time it hits the somber, but aggressive “I Can Move a Mountain.”
Side two opens with a track whose title implies that the Blues Magoos are still the band who enjoys a good joke with a fun, blues-based toss off like “The President’s Council On Psychedelic Fitness,” a track that could fit just as easily in between Electric Comic Book, even with a fun if uneven found sound collage a la Sagittarius’ “My World Fell Down.” Yet, moments like this are also what gives the band confidence to play a single D note for an entire minute of the record on the penultimate “Subliminal Sonic Laxative;” a joke on the kind of experimental you might expect from the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd-wanna-bes of the time, but certainly nothing like that here in America. Meanwhile, “Scarecrow’s Love Affair” presents something completely foreign to the Blues Magoos repertoire, a track experimental by virtue alone, and not by songwriting craft, as if this were to be the one ‘Pretty Things’ song on the album.
But where the first side is dominated by songwriting muscle, this side is entirely a showoff of weird ideas and instrumental prowess. No where else does Geoff Daking’s drum work sound more confident in the midst of adventure than it does on this side of this record. No where else could a tune like “There She Goes” exist, lest the Magoos trained around London’s famed U.F.O. club. Yet, after the tasty instrumental “Accidental Meditation,” there’s the fine blues, organ work, and brovado of “You’re Getting Old,” with a breakdown section worthy of designating as the earliest moment possible to consider the birth of progressive rock. Before long, after the frustrating low, almost silent, “Subliminal Sonic Laxative,” the album finishes off with the glorious harmonies and fun of “Chicken Wire Lady.”
Unfortunately, this was the last album to feature the classic line up of the Magoos, with Ralph Scala on keyboard, sharing vocal duty with Emil ‘Peppy’ Thielheim (also on guitar), Mike Esposito playing lead, Ronnie Gilbert exploring the bass in a way unseen in prior Magoos releases, and Geoff Daking pounding away on the skins. The band would split and move on to different things, except for ‘Peppy’ Thielheim who would continue the Blues Magoos name through two, reportedly, disappointing entirely blues-based albums. Still, Basic Blues Magoos should stand as a testament to the band’s own incredible prowess, and should not be mourned as potential contenders. Instead, it’s simply one of those albums worthy of another spin.
*I found the album at a store called Fox and Fawn, a thrift place that has a small selection of well-labeled, well-loved artists. I say ‘well-labeled’ in that they had tags on every record, describing exactly how it sounds. While I usually appreciate accurate recommendations, I was put off by their difficult selection of music, despite finding this gem. It is not easy to be a thrift store, and to have a record section so fastidiously dedicated to more-obscure-than-obscure indie-folk and the a whole metric ton of Krautrock bands, and not much else, with little to no organizational standard.
Be this a warning: if you go to Fox and Fawn for records, expect an underwhelming experience. Yes, there’s some cool stuff (I also found the first Standells album and a record by a band calling themselves The Prime Movers, but clearly are not Iggy Pop’s original band), but it’s strictly for the ultra-weird, moody post-punk/avant garde crowd. Go in for vintage/thrift clothing, and have a good time. If I didn’t spend money on the music, I probably would have found a sweet vest, really.