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Rock and Roll Feature: A Tribute to Sky Saxon through the Music of the Seeds
This is the twenty-ninth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
This month's feature article has been thoroughly difficult to write from day one. It began as an idea back around mid June actually... the thought process being that it was time to shift gears a little and cover something a little more well known and accessible. It was a good idea, and towards the end of June I had an album picked (a rather famous Rolling Stones album actually) that I thought would suffice and had started the intensive listening process and planning my writing.
On June 25th 2009 though, the late great Michael Jackson died... and of course like so many others I felt the need to at least make a small tribute. I'd considered making my feature my favorite Jackson album... Thriller... but decided against it, opting for a smaller tribute you can read here: Mourning the King of Pop: The Passing of Michael Jackson. So much was being said about Jackson already that I thought a larger more elaborate tribute was more than likely to get lost in the shuffle and lose some of it's impact.
Then I learned of another unfortunate and untimely rock and roll death... the death of Sky Saxon. Saxon passed away on the same day as Michael Jackson and so unfortunately his death went almost completely without any sort of notice, media coverage or even mention in many cases. I even saw a few people who happened to mention Saxon's passing misquoted by other media outlets that assumed the statements were about Jackson. I decided something had to be done and so I decided to make this months feature something of a tribute to Sky Saxon and his impact on rock and roll... specifically through the music of his original band: The Seeds and their second album A Web of Sound.
As I said, writing this feature was a bit of a challenge... perhaps the most challenging I've dealt with so far... and not just because of the changing topics. I would not consider myself a hardcore Seeds fan at all. I'd heard their music, albeit briefly and new of their importance and place within the rock and roll chronology, but didn't actually own any of their albums and hadn't taken as much time as I would have liked to really delve into their catalog before starting this feature. They only made 4 main albums (three studio and one live I believe) and these days even the reissues are out of print, making even tracking down any album for a reasonable price difficult. I did though, and then spent the following week or so listening to it non-stop in preparation for the feature, to really do the band justice and give Saxon a fitting tribute to honor his passing as well as share some great music.
Sky Saxon fronted the Seeds during their brief career, roughly 1966-1970, and then went on to record with a few other bands, as well as solo, even becoming something of a mystic guru for a while in Hawaii I believe. In terms of '60s credibility, Saxon is credited by many as having coined the term "Flower Power"... a fact that even without his musical career would certainly makes him an icon of the psychedelic era and of pop culture. Still, it's with the early proto punk, psychedelia of the Seeds that I think Saxon's impact has been most felt.
It's worth clarifying that this is NOT the same band I discussed last month, Nick Cave's outfit, the Bad Seeds... that's just a strange coincidence. No... the Seeds are far different from the Bad Seeds (despite obvious name similarities) and actually came far earlier. Many would cite the Seeds as something of the original garage rock band, and although that's definitely true, their influence stretches far deeper than that.
If one drew a triangle and placed at the three points the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the Sex Pistols, the Seeds would fit firmly in the middle as the band that ties (and actually predates, although in the case of the Velvets only by a short while) all of them together. The rough edged, psychedelic rock and roll precursor (or contemporary) of the Velvets, the proto punk fuzz guitar precursor of the Stooges and the snotty, swagger and sneer precursor of the Sex Pistols... except that the Seeds were doing all of that in 1966!
Yes, it was in 1966, right on the heels of their self titled release, the Seeds put out A Web of Sound... They'd had a hit with "Pushin' Too Hard" from their first album, and were quick to expand, but stay true to their roots at the same time. It all starts off with a farmer...
"Mr. Farmer" actually, a fuzzy, psychedelic little garage rock diddy about... well a farmer of course. On first glance this track may seem to fit in right along side other budding psychedelic bands of the time, but the fuzzy haze hints at something just a little bit more, Saxon's vocal inflections in particular giving it a bit more of a biting edge that in might have otherwise. It was released as a single and shares a lot in common with "Pushin' Too Hard" stylistically, but it's distinctly rougher, fuzzier and wilder. "Pictures and Designs" is pushed even farther still with it's stomping beat on the verses contrasted with more swirling, psychedelic choruses. There's also some biting fuzz and extended organ lines that have a slightly "haunted" quality to them. Add in Saxon's wailing vocals and you've got a track that hits hard for '66 or even today... this one is one of my favorites from this album.
"Tripmaker" sounds more like standard garage rock to my ear, at least in terms of the structure and beat. Again it''s the vocals that push it further though... that and a driving chorus. Even a casual listen to this one is bound to remind more than a few people of bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols... it's all there in the vocal bite. I also like the rough, noisy splashes of piano in the middle section of this one. They have a spontaneity to their noise that just fits so well. "I Tell Myself" by contrast sounds almost restrained... even sweet... but it still have sliding guitar parts and shifting keys (as in musical keys) that give it a psychedelic edge. "Faded Pictures" has rapidly become another of my favorites from this album. There's just something to it's subtle guitar parts, dreamy slow beat and the stark vocals that works. It's almost spine tingling just how sparse and minimal it sounds... the light punches of keyboards and chimes... it's a bit psychedelic, but more so haunting and definitely striking.
"Rolling Machine" is actually a pretty accurate title for the next track. It's rollicking, swaying, beat has an almost circus quality to it that is punctuated by short blasts of organ and the fuzzy timbre of the entire track. "Just Let Go" on the other hand sounds a bit darker and smokey...even driving... with plenty of bite and fuzz guitar. When I hear this song it's almost like listening to a Stooges demo... that's how strongly I hear the connection between these two bands.
And then the album closes with a 14 minute epic called "Up In Her Room". A driving rocker with all that good fuzz guitar and as the title surely suggests, a hefty does of sexuality. This song almost certainly sounds like a precursor to "Sister Ray" a similar, but more advanced exploration of noise and fuzz that would be recorded by the Velvet Underground in a brief year or two. Although the track is not exactly the easiest to listen to in its entirety (neither is "Sister Ray") it works well taking on an almost hypnotic quality that builds into a full on explosion of noise and fuzz as it closes. It's the kind of freakout that you can only imagine how massive it was live, as the studio recording obviously doesn't do it justice, before petering out... overall good close for the album, although not exactly a "traditional" one for 1966.
It's a good album, certainly a fun and artistic listen, but what really strikes me about it is how obvious the influence of the Seeds becomes when you actually hear the music. Suddenly a lot of the early punk scene pieces fall right into place.
Musically and stylistically I most connect the Seeds to the Velvet Underground, but as a sort of counterpoint... two bands trying to do something very similar, but coming at it from two completely different scenes and directions. And it makes sense. The Velvets were part of the 60s east coast scene, the Seeds the west coast and L.A. scenes... very different environments. Mary Wbronov (former dancer at the Dom where the Velvets played) described it like this: "...There was a big dichotomy: they [the west coast scene] took acid and were going towards enlightenment; we [the east coast scene] took amphetamines and were going towards death..." She wasn't referring in any way to the Seeds directly with that quote, but it fits well for a comparison between the Seeds and the Velvets. Although you can certainly hear the dramatic similarities between the two, the differences are also obvious, like day vs night ... or enlightenment vs death... the Seeds vs the Velvets.
As helpful as that comparison to the Velvet Underground might be, I don't think a really does the Seeds justice. This band (along with many others) is literally the roots of all punk... without question. I mentioned the connection to the Stooges and it's true, I hear a lot of the Seeds in the Stooges... or visa versa. It's almost like if you reached through the radio and turned everything musically up about 5 notches... fuzz, lyrics, vocals etc... the Seeds would practically morph into the Stooges, Saxon taking on Iggy Pop's trademark growl. Of course that vocal snarl and spit doesn't just speak of Iggy Pop... no.. it also says Johnny Rotten loud and clear. Like if you could turn everything up another 5 notches after the Stooges the band would them morph into the Sex Pistols. In fact on some of these tracks (and ones from the band's self titled release) it's almost like you can hear Saxon starting at Mick Jagger's bluesy swagger and morphing it into Johnny Rotten's biting sneer on the same vocal line.
So I guess you could say that the Seeds are the connection between the Velvet Underground and the later Stooges... AND then again the connection between the Stooges and the later Sex Pistols... although still predating all three bands by as little as a year and as much as a decade.
Of course you could also make the Seeds connection to bands like the Doors, as both share a certain something... a feel of sorts... that is very distinctly a product of the L.A. scene, in the 60s, at least when compared to say the San Francisco crowd. It wouldn't be a stretch to hear a strong connection to the Who either while you're at it. The riffs, the chord progressions, very similar to the Who. Iron Buttery? The fuzz of their trademark song has it's basis in the Seeds as well. The roots of so much are all in there. If hearing and recognizing all these connections isn't the best testament to the impact the Sky Saxon and the Seeds have had on modern rock and roll, I don't know what is.
I also can't think of a better tribute to the late great Sky Saxon than listening to a great album like A Web of Sound, or their self titled album, or their third and far more psychedelic album Future, and recognizing just how big an impact he and the Seeds have had over the years. Although both Sky and the band have had something of a cult following over the years... their impact tends to be greatly overlooked and that's a shame. This is classic rock and roll at it's finest... true punk before anyone had even thought about calling it that.
So this month, in memory of Sky Saxon, I hope that a few more people out their realize just where Sky and the Seeds sit in the rock and roll pantheon. Of course condolences go out to the friends and family of Sky Saxon, as well as to all the fans of his music across the world. We'll miss you Sky, but I have no doubt that your influence will continue to cross generations for years to come.
For more information on Sky Saxon, please check out the official Sky Saxon website here: www.skysaxon.com
If you want to check out this album you might find it difficult to track down as I did... at least for a decent price. You can find it at Amazon used, but will probably have to get it coupled and re-released with their self titled debut like I had to...not that that's a bad thing though... whether it's a decent price is debatable of course: The Seeds/A Web of Sound
Oh and just in case you thought I made up that quote from Mary Wbronov, you can find it here... although I've also seen this interview in various artistic journals elsewhere: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue4/summeroflove.htm