My record collecting began in earnest in 1985. By that time, rock & roll was around 30 years old. I was still in my teens. I wasn’t around when Elvis started shaking his hips, and in my efforts to map out the history of popular music, my reference points were fairly limited. In some ways, this made the discovery of Tim Buckley, The 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Sly & The Family Stone, Nick Drake and Captain Beefheart even more thrilling, for I couldn’t imagine anyone else sounded quite like them. Of course over time perspective becomes clearer: recognising how The Velvet Underground or Can fit with the past and present lends their legacy even greater import. Then an LP like Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows comes along and I’m thrown into confusion.
So when Julian Cope suggested that Cold Sun invented post-punk, he must have been equally bewildered by what he heard. Nothing remarkable about that comment except that Dark Shadows was recorded around 1970. And just to clear up any confusion, the punk to which Cope was referring was not the ’60s garage variety.
Cold Sun were formed in Austin, Texas. Bandleader and electric autoharp wizard Bill Miller, was obsessed by fellow Texan psych freaks The 13th Floor Elevators. He modelled his vocal style on Roky Erickson’s and like Tommy Hall, chose a unique instrument with which to make music. In many ways, Cold Sun are the Elevators’ spiritual heirs. The band made little impact during their short lifespan, and disbanded in 1973. Miller would go on to join Erickson as a member of The Aliens in the late ’70s.
Mystery surrounds the recording of Dark Shadows; the band had signed to local independent label Sonobeat, but the label faced bankruptcy before any of their music could be sculpted onto wax. Even after the album was eventually granted a release on Rockadelic in 1989, not everyone hailed it a great lost psychedelic masterpiece. Indeed there is a Texan Psychedelia website out there where the contributors make little effort to be diplomatic. They make no bones about it: they hate Cold Sun. The threads are filled with denigrating remarks about how they ‘suck ass’ and so on. Unless the website is run by some longtime adversary of Miller, then it’s a genuinely puzzling reaction, for Dark Shadows has stood the test of time remarkably well. Indeed it is every inch the travelling time capsule that Cope suggests.
‘Ra-Ma’, a one-stop potted history of psychedelia starts out like some weird discordant tonal experiment in math rock from the mid-’90s, Miller’s autoharp sounding like switchblades being sharpened, before morphing into some Roky-inspired demented stream-of-consciousness rant about Egyptian mythology over the fried desert psych sound of Bull Of The Woods. There’s some genius guitar playing from Tom Mcgarrigle as he trawls through the debris of late ’60s Velvets’ via a prophetic detour to the ’80s, where The Chills’ feverishly tumbling ‘Pink Frost’ is, unbeknownst to itself, gifted some fresh ancestry. It sounds like nine separate ideas thrown on top of one another, and is insanely beautiful. ‘Ra-Ma’ would appear as the opening track on the original Rockadelic issue of Dark Shadows from 1989, but the track sequence on the first issue was not that which the band had intended, with ‘Ra-Ma’ originally envisaged as the last track. Curiously, the track earmarked by Miller as the album’s opener was ‘South Texas’ whose beginning is virtually identical to ‘Ra- Ma’. “Inspired by a weekend in Texas with two girls from Corpus Christi and a big bowl of peyote salsa at a drive-in Mexican restaurant”, ‘South Texas’ is a place where lips whisper of strange visions, cracks in the wall procure geckos whose stares bore into the soul and guitars weep and bleed in equal measure.
The Velvet Underground – that most un-psychedelic of bands – played some shows at The Vulcan Gas Company in Austin in October 1969. One can only suppose Miller was in the front row. Ostensibly a Roky tribute, ‘See What You Cause’ is a primitive little VU rocker, like a two chord rhythm being bashed out on tin cans.
It’s not all brilliant. For some ungodly reason, ‘For Ever’ reminds me of the Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jungle Love’. What concerns me even more is that I actually know that song! There’s a bizarre little glam break, after which the rhythm decelerates before speeding up into a frenzied SST-style thrash.
There are so many touchstones here, most of which are from albums made after Dark Shadows, for instance the bawled phrasing over these lines from the seven minute rave-up ‘Fall’ (“Bullets, cannons roaring past, yet he does not hear a sound”) anticipates Patti Smith’s primal scream on ‘Land (of 1000 Dances)’. It contains a berserk cameo for the harmonica – there is another one on ‘Ra-Ma’. The first few bars of ‘Twisted Flower’ meanwhile are borrowed from The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’, although ultimately the song bears more than a passing resemblance to the obscure sub-Doors psych nugget ‘Suicidal Flowers’ by The Crystal Chandelier.
One can forgive ‘Here In The Year’ it’s occasional meandering intrusions into groovy Strawberry Alarm Clock territory and even its momentary collapse in the middle, for it is bookended by two of the most sublime passages of music on the album. The first has the sort of pretty little butterfly picking that might have floated off the grooves of a Felt record from 1986; the second refracts the same melody through the most gorgeously transcendent use of feedback I have ever heard – think Galaxie 500 stretching out the beautiful tension of ‘Heroin’. It sounds twenty years ahead of its time.
Dark Shadows is the fearless creation of a unique foursome of peyote-fuelled Texan heads, so obsessed with making music that they believed they could change everything. In that sense, it is a tragic, even desperate failure, but I’d recommend you give it a moment: it will seek out your soul and suck you in with its deranged beauty. (JJ)
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