For a story like this, how can you NOT pick Beefheart’s “Electricity” to kick-start this mother, huh? If the thesis statement runs along the lines of: electricity is to music as punk rock is to pop — then you really have to put your cards on the table up front, dig? And truly, “Electricity” was the lighthouse beacon straight ahead across black seas, a song that laid bare a new path that rock and roll could forge through the saccharine formula that was prevalent across the musical landscape in 1967.
Already in the years between the early and late 1950s the world has seen an incredible revolution in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, and the ’60s see a massive array of miniature musical revolutions to match, each setting the course for a wide number of new interpretations. For Beefheart, it was the dirtiness of rock ‘n’ roll, it was the strangeness of The Blues (with a capital T & B) all mixed with this country shuffle, that really turned him on. But Beefheart wanted to distort both the recording of his vocals specifically and the artform as a whole intellectually, to return the music to its raunchy & rebellious origins. Ambitious? Absolutely. No small feat for any band of any era. Beefheart’s deconstruction of the blues/rock jam is so perverted it just oozes with the grime that is unmistakably punk in spirit and form. “Oh, they do it that way? Well, we do it this way.” There’s a sort of Troggs-y quality to the forward momentum and chord-progressions, true, but even that comparison only highlights the weirdness of the bass-line, a direct ancestor of the first Clash album, or some Ramones tunes. This, in many ways, is the source of the infection, patient zero, at least of this particular strain.
The myths surrounding this number are, themselves, larger than life, and the most appropriate pieces of foreshadowing if ever there were any. As it goes, Jerry Moss (the co-owner of Beefheart’s label) claimed the song was “too negative” for him to allow his daughter to hear it, leading to A&M Records dropping Beefheart. It is also said that in an effort to get the gritty vocals, The Captain shattered a microphone during one take. But the strangest legend of “Electricity” comes from one account of a legendary performance on 11 June 1967. The Magic Band was slated to play on Day Two of The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, by all accounts the first true rock festival as they exist in the modern form.
By way of an all too appropriate tangent within a tangent within an annotation, it is interesting to note that the promoters (Tom Rounds and the staff at KFRC 610) were inspired by the success of The Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California, who were putting together these multi-stage, two-day events with music and artists and food and drinks, packaged together as a weekend of renaissance style fun. They wanted to do a rock & roll / freeform radio version of their event, and out of this was born The Fantasy Fair, a less documented affair that happened a full week previous to The Monterey Pop Festival, and really kicked off The Summer of Love.
The Fantasy Fair was, for lack of a glamours way of putting it, trying to capitalize on the rise of Psychedelic Rock. Sgt. Peppers had just come out, and everybody was talking about the San Francisco scene, which was already a few years old by then, and was was already being considered old news by the hipsters who were moving on to the slightly “harder” stuff that was happening in the underground “garage rock” scene of the late ’60’s. KFRC figured they could squeeze a few dollars from these hippies and make a mark in a big way for freeform AM radio by covering the event. Everybody wins.
They were, of course, 100% right. While there were absolutely financial motivations, KFRC was also looking to reclaim rock and roll from the awful version that America was living with in those days. The early ’60’s had seen the rise of the disdainfully named “bubble gum” craze, called such not only for the association that the music was for children, but for the added insult that the music was also quickly flavorless, and ultimately disposable. The Pat Boone-ification of these baby-faced teen idols led to a very bland format, which at the time was parading as “rock and roll.” A lot of people remembered how exciting it was to hear Little Richard on the radio, and were not getting the same vibe from Paul Anka. At least with the scene at The Fillmore, it could be said to be about, and for, adults who liked to rock, and who remembered that rock and roll used to be fierce and seedy, and fun. The Rock Festival, as an artistic statement, was to draw a line in the sand and say, “over here, we try to expand our minds like real adults.”
Were we ever so naive?
The line-up at The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival is a veritable who’s who of late ’60’s rock bands: The Doors, Canned Heat, Chocolate Watch Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, The Fifth Dimension. It is in this insane time and place where Captain Beefheart performed his greatest version of “Electricity.” Here’s the scoop: The Seeds has just laid waist to the audience, themselves already declaring so-called “psychedelic” rock to be bullshit they produced their own hard-driving sound that was pretty formidable for audiences who were there to see Tim Buckley, or had heard that, “Mr. Tambourine Man” cover and thought it was “pretty.” The Doors had already begun to walk the darker side of rock music, and there was a small but dedicated group of folks who were exploring things that were new and different. The Magic Band sets up, trying to find a way to follow the propulsive set The Seeds had just offered. The crowd is ravenous. They are ready to rock. Time freezes. You can hear the sound of a pin dropping amplified through stage speakers.
The Magic Band winds up, rears back, and lurches forward. “Electricity” issues forth to a slightly perplexed crowd. They don’t know what to make of it. A few are just loaded, so they start to dance. Others just watch. Several wander off. One person is turned away slightly, eating. But most are trying to get into it, trying to figure it out. This whole weekend has been about something new, and they are eager. This song is a little shaky on the landing. Perhaps not the best song to open with, but Beefheart insisted. If they could just get to their next tune, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which has been a bit of a hit when it came out and got a ton of radio play, perhaps they could win–
Beefheart signals, and the band lurches to a halt. They’re confused. What happened? The audience is stunned. They really don’t know what to make of the situation. Beefheart silently straightened his tie, and pointed to a girl in the crowd. Off mic he says, “she has turned into a goldfish.” Silence, quieter than before. Beefheart walks toward the girl, right off the front of the stage, pitching up face first in the mud and grass below. “That’s it!” yells Ry Cooder. “I have had it with your pretentious unpredictable bullshit, Don!” Cooder walks off stage, and out of The Magic Band forever. As Cooder leaves The Captain – still face down – signals again, and the band picks up the song (as best they could, sans one guitar), as if nothing had happened. As the show went on, you could see Beefheart smiling through the grass stains on his face.
The Seeds claimed it was the best performance they had every seen anywhere, and they should know, as they caught the whole thing from the side as they shared a joint.
Fuck the Summer of Love. This festival was the beginning of Punk Rock.