The United States of America is my favorite album of all time. At the time of writing this blog post, I have a modest LP collection of about 30 or so albums. The USA was, for the longest time, the holy grail I was always searching for in particular. I scoured every outlet in my area for about 2 years before I finally got my hands on a copy. I actually bought two–one to play and one to frame on the wall as a collector’s item. (Hey, we all have our own niche objects we take pride in possessing, right?)
There’s something really special about artists who came out of nowhere to make a single “statement” before seemingly retreating into obscurity forever. If you’ll recall my earlier entry about obscure records, many of the most fascinating things on that list came from one hit wonder groups. While bandleader Joseph Byrd would get a second record made, the USA themselves were destined to join a hundred other self-titled, one-off groups of this era.
I find this breakup maybe the most unfortunate of these one-album bands, because based on the previously unheard stuff included in the latest Sundazed repressing, it seems like the USA had a lot of room to grow and expand. Their second wave of material had a more laid back folk rock style vibe to it. These tracks are completely at odds with what was included in their self-titled release. “Tailor Man” , “Perry Pier” and “Do You Follow Me” in particular wouldn’t have been out of place being sung by The Mamas and Papas, The Byrds, or dare I say, even Bob Dylan. It shows that they weren’t just sitting on only a few bits of material; they could have went on and released more LPs under various different genres if things played out differently.
A Bold Sound with an Unapologetic Message
I love their LP itself chiefly because it has such a unique arrangement–there’s no guitarist, only an electric violin, primitive oscillators and ring modulators. You would never confuse any songs from the USA with the material from any other band; it almost sounds like something out of the future or another planet. It’s a willful disregard for the “rules” of rock arrangement and production up to that point, rebelling against a medium that had been about rebellion to begin with. It also uses audio sampling from the earlier tracks in the last one to create a sense of finality, a sort of audio-fractal spiraling in on itself at the end of an intense trip.
Dorothy Moskowitz is perhaps my favorite lead vocalist in any band due to her ability to sound both domineering and delicate, soothing and off-putting, all at the same time. She’s like a femme fatale or fairy tale witch, luring you in with her genteel femininity but you can sense she’s leading you somewhere unpleasant. Almost like a psilocybin siren or something of that nature. In general, I love art that makes me feel two or more contradictory emotions at once and the entire journey of the USA revels in that sort of uncertain aesthetic.
Out of everything I’ve heard in this genre, (and that’s a lot believe me,) the USA went further “out there” than any of the other counterculture LPs by far. For example, in one track (“The American Way of Love”) they make references to gay sex in a bathroom, topless strip clubs and banging in the backseat of a car. Other songs discuss a straight-edge couple’s unfulfilled dreams (“Stranded in Time”), the very real threat of government censorship, nuclear war (“Where is Yesterday”), and BDSM sex between a cheating husband and his scandalously young mistress (“I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar.”) Plenty of late 60’s albums criticized society and the government of course, in fact it pretty much comes with the territory. But none took it to the level of openly honoring Socialism (see next section) and kinky, non-monogamous sex like this one. I’ve taken the time to listen to over 400 albums from ’65 to ’75, and this release stands alone in that baldfaced embrace of debauchery. Whether you agree with its messages or not, you must respect that kind of unfiltered bravado.
All that said, it’s not as if the band were unreasonably pretentious or dreary either. For every biting social commentary, there’s another track that’s more laid back and fun. “Cloud Song” is one of the most soothing you’ll ever hear from any group. It is the feeling of astral projection and dissociation, of zoning out and admiring the clouds we often forget to appreciate in life. “Hard Coming Love” is like an orgasm set to music, specifically the “pulse” sounds which introduce the verses. “Garden of Earthly Delights” is a metaphorical look at lust as a garden of forbidden, corruptive fruits. It is the twisted, horrifying dreamscape to counter the more benevolent ones the Beatles took us to in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or the Freeborne painted with “Land of Diana” (which is itself one of the best overlooked psych rock classics, by the way.) Then there’s “Coming Down” which is a straightforward track about tripping, specifically coming down from the peak of one.
Sympathy for the Socialist
(Who, in 1968, was Pretty Much the Devil)
Probably the most controversial aspect of the USA is the fact that they wrote a tribute to Che Guevara, a communist revolutionary, with “Love Song for the Dead Che.” Now, I want to make it known upfront I’m not necessarily sympathetic to Che, and I’m not advocating for any socioeconomic model here. I’m just talking about the music and the moxie it takes to release a song like that, especially while his acts were recent and the Cold War dominated foreign policy. It’s the furthest I’ve ever seen a counterculture band go in terms of making a political statement; you see a lot of Vietnam War critiques, swipes at LBJ and digs at our domestic policy. But openly singing a tribute to an enemy of the US was something else–not a single album in my list had done so either. When you combine it with the band’s name (shared with the country) I always saw it as an unabashed declaration from the outcasts of their existence, and right to speak their mind. It’s saying to the “Silent Majority” conservatives, Capitalists and moralists “we’re here too–the socialists, weirdos and fetishists. We have as much right to be here as you, and we’re not going anywhere.” Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you have to admire the guts and the importance of a pushback after the excesses of McCarthyism.
That brings us to the opener, the only track I haven’t described yet, and in my opinion the most impressive tour-de-force of any album I’ve experienced. “The American Metaphysical Circus” is an unmatched examination of Late Stage Capitalism-Consumerism and the nightmare world it’s ensnared us in. It uses audio sampling of old folk songs in the beginning to create the feeling of a neighborhood carnival or circus. Personally, I see this intro as a reference to the old Roman maxim of bread and circuses–keep the peasants distracted and the powers that be can get away with anything. The chorus by Moskowitz is like a slogan to psychedelia in general “and the price is right, the cost of one admission is your mind!” The verse lyrics describe the consolidation of corporate power over our lives, and as the song goes on, Dorothy’s voice gets more and more distorted as if to emphasize the loss of genuine humanity in the world. But she’s not describing some hallucinogenic wonderland like “In Another Land” or “Spanish Castle Magic” and so many other psych rock classics. She’s merely describing the actual world we live in. The irony being, the all-encompassing crony-capitalist society we’ve built is crazier than any circus or drug hallucination could ever be, when you stop and actually think about it–when you “wake up” as I guess some might phrase it.
I cannot recommend this song, or this album enough. Again, I’ve listened to ~400 psych or prog rock albums and I’ve yet to find one that comes anywhere close. A lot of albums from the 60’s hippie scene languished in fantasy or only skirted the line of society’s dark underbelly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does make me appreciate this one, which stared down the monsters of the world without fear.
Scans from a Crawdaddy Magazine Story about the USA
Thank you for reintroducing me to this album and for helping me come to terms with side two (after half a century of prevaricating). “Cloud Song” is my favourite track–something to do with that hypnotic alternation of the C and D chords and the lighter-than-air arrangement. (To say nothing of Dorothy’s voice.) No wonder it’s your all-time favourite album…
I agree. Probably the greatest album ever recorded!!