Psychedelic Fever

fever-treeStart with a base of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; add a dash of Ravel’s Bolero early on.  Blend in Vanilla Fudge liberally, and do it with Love.  Layer in some heavy soul, and sprinkle liberally with Seeds.  Jazz it up by serving in flutes.  This easy recipe can be made in Texas and California.  Enjoy.

When I was in my second year of high school, the guy who sat in front of me in home room turned to me one morning and said, “You like all that weird music, don’t you?”  The year was 1968, and I had to admit that he was right.  Turns out his cousin worked at a radio station and occasionally passed on comp copies of new albums they’d received and my classmate had something he hated so much he was sure that I’d like it.  Heck, I’m not proud, so I said yes.

The next day he brought in the album for me, which turned out to be the eponymous debut of a band out of Houston by way of LA: Fever Tree.  My classmate turned out to be right: I liked that weird music.

1968 was a good year for psychedelic music from San Francisco, LA, and London, and lots of places in between.  It was the year of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, the Airplane’s Crown of Creation, the Dead’s Anthem of the Sun and Moby Grape’s Wow!.  The Doors released Waiting for the Sun, The Notorious Byrd Brothers changed the band’s image, and Iron Butterfly got Heavy before releasing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, while the Mothers declared they were only in it for the money.  Across the pond, the Nice debuted with both The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Ars Longa Vita Brevis, Eric Burdon returned from Monterey with The Twain Shall Meet, Every One of Us and Love Is, and the Move release their first, self-titled album.  It was the year of Cream’s Wheels of Fire, Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, Traffic, Nazz, and Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets.

Fever Tree was pretty small change amongst all that, but I fell for them hard, perhaps because they blended so many of the themes that were emerging at the time, which is probably just another way of saying that there was plenty of calculating going on about how to make a splash and find a way onto the airwaves.  I suspect they did neither, and I was surprised to find that all four of their albums can still be purchased on CD (in two double-album compilations) on Amazon.  I don’t know a soul who’s ever heard of them.

But when my order of their first two records, Fever Tree and Another Time, Another Place arrived in the mail last week, I took an instant time trip back through 35 years, and every note sounded as fresh in my mind as if I’d hear the albums last month.

Fever Tree opens with a pair of tracks called “Imitation Situation” and “Where Do You Go?”  The first tune starts out with some rattling percussion, a flamenco guitar run, and then the opening riff of the Bach Toccata.  When the vocals kick in, they’re accompanied by trumpet and strings that come straight out of the orchestral arrangements from the classic psychedelic gospel of the previous year, Love’s Forever Changes.  The melody gets cuts off mid-phrase by a modulated electronic glissando and dissolves into a chemically altered guitar wail that serves as the lead-in to “Where Do You Go.”  The instrumental break on that song is supplied by Rob Landis’s flute, and stolen straight from Bolero.   When the verse returns, the guitar gets twisted up and down the scales to produce an effect that’s not far removed from the effects you’ll find on 1968’s great electronic psychedelic episode, The United States of America, another self-titled debut album.

For all these flirtations with classical music and musique concrète effects, Fever Tree’s roots as a bar band are never hidden for long.  Although many of the songs were authored by the producer team of Scott and Vivian Holtzman, there are some great covers that show where the band was coming from, starting with Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and One-Half.”  What’s probably the first cover of a Neil Young song, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” did a lot to confirm my newly minted admiration for Young.  I’d been blown away by 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Revisited, where Young actually got to sing his own songs, like “Mr Soul” and “Broken Arrow,” for the first time.  (The version of “Clancy” on the Springfield’s debut was sung by Richie Furay; the producers thought Young’s voice too thin to carry the song, one of the more spectacular misjudgments in rock history.)

There’s a medley of “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” that opens with another nod back to Bach via a contrapuntal harpsichord and guitar introduction.  It gets gussied up with horns interpolating riffs from “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby”: more echoes of Forever Changes.  The transition from “Day Tripper” to “We Can Work It Out” is handled cleverly by fusing the two songs’ lyrics together: “It took me so long to find out / Life is very short.”

fever-tree-2Fever Tree as bar band returned with a vengeance on the follow-up album.  Another Time, Another Place has a completely different sound and feel to it, and Fever Tree announced it right away.  The second album starts off with a reworking of one of the songs from Fever Tree, “The Man Who Paints the Pictures.”  The version on the debut album sounds like the Seeds, with snare rolls and snappy guitars.  The remake begins with slow bass chords that are straight out of the school of electric blues as practiced by groups as diverse as the Blue Project or Eric Burdon and the Animals.  In truth, the sound probably owes more to the Vanilla Fudge and their throaty electric organ sounds than anything else.

The next track, “What Times Did You Say It Is In Salt Lake City,” literally plays homage to the bar band ethos, with a flubbed intro and overdubbed background noises reminiscent of Janis’s atmospheric exertions on “Turtle Blues” from Cheap Thrills.  Much of the rest of the album sticks with this heavy, dark inflection.  The experimentation of the psychedelic era was giving way to the ascendant electric blues and jazz tradition that we’d hear so much of at Woodstock.  There’s a gentle, acoustic interlude on side two, “I’ve Never Seen Evergreen,” that’s sung by guitarist Michael Knust sounding like Donovan without the Scottish burr and that recalls some of the delicacies from Fever Tree (like “Filigree and Shadow” and “Come With Me”).  The seven-minute “Jokes are For Sad People” instrumental trades the honky-tonk bar ambience for the jazz lounge: it’s ambitious but ultimately a little dull.

You don’t have to read what I’ve written hear very closely to find the subliminal message: Fever Tree was not a band of striking, fundamental originality.  They were, however, very good at taking everything that was in the air around them at the moment and fusing into something that could have had real commercial potential and bridged the AM sensibility of snappy pop with the emerging FM tenets of album-oriented rock.  They weren’t a great band, and they certainly didn’t make rock ‘n’ roll history.  On the other hand, they weren’t a cheap rip-off like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and others best forgotten.  Even the two sides of their early single, “I Can Beat Your Drum” b/w “Hey Mister,” available on volume 12 of Mindrocker are good fun and above average for the genre, if not as interesting as the album material.  An hour spent with these two records serves as a very pleasant anthology of 1968’s musical trends.  I’m surprised by how good they still sound so many years later.

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