by Ryan Martin
Is there a quantifiable distinction, from piece to piece, that marks an album as worthy of being called a masterpiece? Is it the melody? The rhythm and groove? Or is it the statement buried within the lyrical subtext? Beyond that, is a masterwork simply a product of its time? A necessary snapshot of an instant, written in both sound and stone, or in this case, vinyl.
And, if all these factors prove true in that they are necessary for a work to be lauded as important, is The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, recorded by the eponymous 13th Floor Elevators, released Oct. 17, 1966 by the independent record label International Artists, worthy of this high distinction.
By all counts, yes. The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators is a musically progressive snapshot of a distinctive time in the history of both music and the United States.
The year is 1966, and a movement of monumental importance and travels across the water between the United Kingdom and the United States. The counterculture is in full swing on the California Coast – and people converge in San Francisco on a scale that rivals even the largest of religious pilgrimages. The bay is the Counterculture’s Mecca.
There’s a man on the radio, an ex-Harvard professor, talking to anyone who would listen. He says, as recorded in the book Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness by Neil Strauss, to “turn on, tune in, [and] drop out” to America’s youth in the hope of changing society by not taking part in the mainstream world. The professor’s name is Timothy Leary, and his mantra becomes the code of the merry pranksters.
For the youth, the Sixties are a time of mental and spiritual expansion. There is something locked down, deep inside the conscious of man – and now, they have a key. A chemical key by the name of LSD. Lysergic-Acid Diethylamide. A clear, odorless, tasteless chemical with powerful effects ranging from altered perception of time, to auditory and visual hallucinations. As asserted by Grof Stanislav’s book, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, many believe the drug played a spiritual role in awakening the mind and spirit.
Roky Erikson, and his fellow bandmates of the 13th Floor Elevators subscribed to these same beliefs – as chemical expansion played an important role in both the Elevator’s music and their lyrics.
The story of the 13th Floor Elevators begins far from the golden coast of California and instead takes place in Austin, Texas, in December of 1965. Found in the book, Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, written by Paul Drummond, Roky Erickson and his initial group, the Spades, split – leaving Roky Erickson without a project. Teaming up with Tommy Hall, a song writer and electric jug player, the duo eventually joined up with Stacy Sutherland (guitar), Benny Thurman (bass), and John Ike Walton (drums) who had been playing in local coastal towns under the moniker: The Lingsmen.A full band was then formed.
So, now there was a band – but a band needed a name. As referenced in the Margaret Moser article, “John Ike Walton” for The Austin Chronicle, the drummer John Ike Walton suggested the name “Elevators” for their psychedelic project. Soon after, TommyHall’s wife, Clementine Hall, suggested adding “the 13th Floor” to the band’s name as a reference to the 13th letter of the alphabet: M. The letter was significant, in that it was a reference in itself to a popular drug of the counterculture – one that was also enjoyed by the band members. Marijuana.
The band was then taken from Austin to Houston at the prompting of producer Gordon Bynum to begin recording for his newly formed label Contact. Two tracks were recorded. The first was Erikson’s brainchild, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which later appears as the first track and single for the Elevators’ first album The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. The second song recorded was written as a collaboration between Hall and Sutherland. The track was “Tried to Hide,” which would eventually close their first album. These first steps the Elevator’s made in recording could be called symbolic bookends in their placement on the album.
After touring through Texas, the Elevators’ single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” started to gain steam outside of Texas. The single charted at the number 55 position on the national Billboard chart.Their rising popularity, particularly in the San Francisco Bay area, prompted the Elevators to tour the West Coast.
As written in Eye Mind, the previously referenced book written by Paul Drummond, once the band began to gain national popularity, the Elevators signed a record contract with the International Artists record label in Houston, Texas, which was also home to several contemporary groups hailing from Texas, including Red Crayola and Bubble Puppy. International Artists released the Elevators’ debut album – and the album soon became a popular, psychedelic cornerstone of the Counterculture.
The album was well received by listeners and critics alike, but the Elevators were never rose into superstardom. This isn’t to say their debut album isn’t a masterwork – which it is. The Pitchfork Media has given The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators a rating of 9.1 out of 10 in a review written by Stephen M. Deusner. Deusner writes:
“The 13th Floor Elevators were a remarkable band: Erickson’s wild-man vocals create an atmosphere where unfettered mayhem reigns. Stacy Sutherland’s piercing guitar puts a dark mood on “Roller Coaster” and “Reverberation (Doubt)”, while drummer John Ike Walton ties it all together.” – One can read further at: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11855-the-psychedelic-sounds-of-i-have-always-been-here-before/
It is this, what I’d refer to as tightness, between all the musicians that gives their chaotic rhythms and dissonant psychedelic sounds direction. Never does the album feel unnecessarily noodly or scattered.
All Music, the online music guide website, has also given the Elevators’ debut album exemplary marks; a 4.5 out of 5 star rating in a review by Mark Deming. Deming writes:
“Roky Erikson’s vocals are strong and compelling throughout, whether he’s wailing like some lysergic James Brown or murmuring quietly, and Stacy Sutherland’s guitar leads — long on melodic invention without a lot of pointless heroics — are a real treat to hear. And nobody played electric jug quite like Tommy hall…actually, nobody played it at all besides him, but his oddball noises gave the band a truly unique sonic texture.” – One can read more at http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-psychedelic-sounds-of-the-13th-floor-elevators-mw0000109270
The sound of the Elevators’ is notably unique. The first track, “You’re Going to Miss Me,” is a guitar driven, psychedelic romp with plenty of 60’s flair. The song keeps its forward momentum with a consistent, but danceable rhythm that nearly begs a body to move as Erikson wails “I’m not coming home,” with gusto.
“You’re Going to Miss Me,” in all its strength and power, leads into the much darker “Rollercoaster,” which begins with a slow, creeping guitar lead. The song eventually changes its tempo when it hits its stride. Erikson’s philosophy of chemical expansion rings though in the semi-cryptic metaphor of a rollercoaster ride. “I say, I say come on, and let it happen to you. You gotta open your mind and let everything come through.”
“Splash 1,” the third track of the album, is saccharine and psychedelic number with echoing chorus laid over Sutherland’s guitar track contrasting with Erikson’s droning, reverb heavy, vocal delivery.
“Reverberation” is true to its name. The Elevators in their fourth track (and second single from the album) crank the reverb up to eleven in this midtempo, yet high energy, hard rock foray that might be the roots for modern punk.
The first side of the album ends with the song “Don’t Fall Down.” Over jangly guitars, Erikson croons about some mystery woman (see drug) who provides comfort.
“Everytime you need her, she is there To ease the pain that fogs you”
The second half of the album starts with sirens. Actual sirens. “Fire Engine” starts things off real strong with the same sort of early punk of “Reverberation.” “Thru the Rhythm” carries the same sort of vibe and leads well into “You Don’t Know (How Young You Are),” another high energy song that with a heavy groove and a walking bassline.
“The Kingdom of Heaven” ironically brings things back down to earth with its slow and considerably darker tone. Its a spooky soundscape is overlaid with Erikson’s trademark abstract lyrics.
The album ends with a one-two punch of “Monkey Island,” and “Tried to Hide.” Two upbeat and powerful pieces of garage rock that hold the listener’s attention in an energetic chokehold.
As a whole, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’ abstract imagery and instrumentation is an accurate snapshot of Sixties counterculture.