Sign Of Aquarius (aka Love Commune) is a hippie exploitation movie shot in Cleveland in 1970. Arriving on the heels of Altamont and the Manson Family murders, Sign Of Aquarius is a hot mess of cliches that sees the counter culture through a brown acid fog instead of rose-tinted Summer Of Love granny glasses. It’s an Easy Rider bummer filled with hard drugs, bathtub LSD and softcore flower child group gropes. Later, padded with some blaxploitation jive (power to the peepholes) it was re-titled Ghetto Freaks to bring in the Times Square crowd. The movie stinks as bad as a crash pad mattress but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Milos Forman’s hippie dippy crapfest Hair. And it has a weirdly compelling, occasionally amazing, soundtrack composed by Tom Baker and Al Zbacnik.
The soundtrack was released as Sign Of Aquarius on the Adell label in 1970. It’s rare as shit and I couldn’t find the soundtrack anywhere on the ‘net for downloading. But I managed to source three of these tunes from a VHS copy of the movie I own and one from the album itself. Four songs that make up the best tracks on the record: “Om, Pax, Om”, “Mousey,” “Soorangi,” and the strangely titled “We Are The Aquarius” (shouldn’t it be “Aquarians”?) are here for your listening pleasure. It’s some really dynamite stuff with the particularly awesome “Om, Pax, Om” being, to my ears, a psychedelic classic. The other tunes are funky breakdowns with one Moogy drone bit with some jazzy sax that takes place during a bad acid trip that pre-dates some of John Carpenter’s minimalist synth work.
I had to add some light show trickery to obscure a bunch of nudity during “Om, Pax, Om” but otherwise here’s my favorite moments from Sign Of Aquarius in all of its unadulterated badassness.
As far as reading for research is concerned, I’ve always been very fortunate in my friends. For years, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist in the computer branch of the National Physical Laboratory (whom I visited regularly until his death—his lab was just a ten-minute drive away), literally sent me the contents of his wastebasket. Once a fortnight, a huge envelope arrived filled with scientific reprints and handouts, specialist magazines and reports, all of which I read carefully.
In his last book, the autobiography Miracles of Life, Ballard sketched his late friend, who died of cancer in 1979, during the filming of his last TV series, The Mighty Micro:
Chris Evans drove into my life at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy, a huge American convertible that he soon swapped for a Mini-Cooper, a high-performance car not much bigger than a bullet that travelled at about the same speed. Chris was the first ‘hoodlum scientist’ I had met, and he became the closest friend I have made in my life. In appearance he resembled Vaughan, the auto-destructive hero of my novel Crash, though he himself was nothing like that deranged figure. Most scientists in the 1960s, especially at a government laboratory, wore white lab coats over a collar and tie, squinted at the world over the rims of their glasses and were rather stooped and conventional. Glamour played no part in their job description.
Chris, by contrast, raced around his laboratory in American sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt open to reveal an Iron Cross on a gold chain, his long black hair and craggy profile giving him a handsomely Byronic air. I never met a woman who wasn’t immediately under his spell. A natural actor, he was at his best on the lecture platform, and played to his audience’s emotions like a matinee idol, a young Olivier with a degree in computer science. He was hugely popular on television, and presented a number of successful series, including The Mighty Micro.
I’m afraid Evans’ producers at ITC made him cover up his Iron Cross, but The Mighty Micro is up on YouTube (except episode two, which you can find at archive.org), and it’s fascinating to watch. Based on Evans’ book of the same name, the series looks at the history of counting machines, calculators and computers in order to understand the radical changes the microprocessor will bring about over the coming decades.
Of course, some of the show’s predictions are wide of the mark. Citizens of the UK were not able to vote through their television sets by the mid-80s, computers have not eliminated war, and as you are no doubt painfully aware, robots have not yet replaced our teachers or bosses, or delivered the five-day weekend. The series’ emphasis on the psychological dimension of technological change, however, is properly Ballardian, and many of its claims are eerily prescient. The third episode hints at the ways our notions of privacy will be reshaped by computers; the fourth, which includes a look at a 1979 prototype of a Kindle-type device, ends with this message-in-a-bottle to the present moment:
The one note of warning is sounded by the compelling nature of the computer itself. Increasingly, it will draw you into an obsessive embrace, where the world comes to you in your home. The current limitless fascination with microprocessor-based toys is but a tiny indicator of the trend towards an introverted society.
With the computer as an increasingly interesting and useful companion, could the factories and office blocks empty, commuter lines fall silent, as we retreat into our own private universe?
Adam Ganderson who writes for Chips and Beer Magazine contributed this to Dangerous Minds.
Vom might be the weirdest punk band to ever exist. Made up of guitarist Phil Koehn, bassist Lisa Brenneis and rock writers Gregg Turner from Creem and “Metal” Mike Saunders, who is credited with being the first person to use the term “Heavy Metal” in a record review, the band was fronted by primary rock critic and Blue Oyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer.
It didn’t matter that in 1976 Blue Oyster Cult was one of the biggest heavy metal acts on the planet, by that time Meltzer claimed to be done with rock and especially rock writing, which was at that point already sagging with record label PR hacks trying to get their name “out there” in order to reap the socio economic benefits of being a music insider. Basically, what the music journalism game has become today, just on a different pay scale.
Vom (vomit abbreviated) turned out to be the test model for Angry Samoans (minus Meltzer) and was there as punk was taking hold in Los Angeles, when it was a legitimate “thing” but not so much of a thing that it had been scooped up by corporate bozos. These guys were pranksters, not really a surprise in the case of Meltzer who would sometimes mail his garbage to addresses chosen at random from the phone book. They would drape barbed wire in front of the stage, release live crickets at shows, and at least once hit someone in the face with the mic stand. Musically, they kinda stunk. But they were also great. Nothing about this band made complete sense and it wasn’t supposed to. It was concussed. Damaged but not broken. Juvenile. All the things that once made rock ’n’ roll relevant. Vom only lasted a year, but in that time they got about as close as music can get to capturing the sound of what Meltzer once called “children throwing tinker toys at the wall.”
Below are the videos for Vom’s “Punk Mobile”, “I’m In Love With Your Mom”, “Animalistic” and the timeless classic “Electrocute Your Cock” all of which also turn up in Angry Samoans: True Documentary.
By September 1968, Lou Reed was hell-bent on kicking John Cale out of the Velvet Underground. Reed and Cale started the band, but after two albums, Lou was no longer interested in working with the Welsh musician. It’s always been unclear as to why Reed felt this way, but the most plausible reason is that he sought to make the Velvets more accessible, while Cale wanted to keep one foot in the avant-garde. Regardless, in late September, after what would turn out to be Cale’s final concerts with the group, Reed met with drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison and gave them an ultimatum: Either Cale goes or the band is finished.
John Cale and Lou Reed in New York City, 1968
Reluctantly, Tucker and Morrison agreed to sack Cale. But with Cale’s exit and upcoming concerts scheduled for the first week of October, a replacement needed to be found—and fast. Doug Yule, a Boston musician who was friendly with the band, was quickly brought into the fold. Yule would have to swiftly learn a set of songs, many of which he hadn’t heard before because they hadn’t been released yet. He made his way to New York City to rehearse for shows booked at a small venue in Cleveland called La Cave. Yule’s first gig with the Velvets is usually cited as having taken place on October 2nd, though in his exhaustive book, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day, author Richie Unterberger writes that Yule’s debut was October 4th. Either way, the band’s new member had little time to prepare.
The new VU, 1968
The Velvet Underground played two sets that first night in Cleveland with Yule, and thanks to recordings which were subsequently bootlegged, we can hear what they sounded like during this historic show. Incredibly, Yule already appears to be a good fit. He’s obviously up for the task, coming up with interesting bass lines—even singing background harmonies—on songs that he had just learned. His harmony vocal gelling perfectly with Reed’s during a lovely version of “Jesus” is just one of many cool moments. Reed’s guitar work is also noteworthy, like during the wild and weird middle section of “I Can’t Stand It,” but it’s the track that opens the first set that takes the cake.
“What Goes On” was one of many numbers played that first night that Yule barely had time to acquaint himself with (the tune would be included on their next album, The Velvet Underground, which came out the following year). There’s nothing all that interesting happening here at first (though Yule once again contributes some mighty fine harmonizing); that is, until Reed kicks off the initial solo with a fierce blast of noise. He follows up with melodic lines that resemble what would be heard on the now-familiar album take, but while the guitar tone on the LP version is psychedelic, here it’s all about volume and distortion. During the second and final solo, after a similar melodic passage, Lou lets it rip. At around the 4:52 mark, he goes into hyperactive overdrive, whipping up an atypically riotous, face melter of a solo that’s downright giddy in execution. It’s the sound of a man set free.
This joyfully savage version of “What Goes On” would appear decades later on Peel Slowly and See, VU’s 1995 boxed set, and to date it’s the only track from the Cleveland concerts to be officially released. In his liner notes for the box, David Fricke is suitably inspired by the rendition, writing that it’s “rich with pyro-fuzzbox spew and climaxes with a staccato rush of tonal destruction over Sterling Morrison’s implacable, syncopated rhythm clang.”
Slade in Flame (a/k/a Flame) is a lot of fun—duh, it’s got Slade playing in it—but it’s also the only rock movie I know of that shows how desperately sad and awful show business can be. Set in the ‘60s, the movie starts out in the dingy, Broadway Danny Rose world of small-time entertainers: the cramped offices of talent agents who book jugglers and rock bands alike into bingo halls, wedding tents and bars. From there, Slade’s alter egos, Flame, climb to the top, but I wouldn’t say things get better for them.
Andrew Birkin (brother of Jane) based his screenplay on road stories he heard from Slade and their manager and producer Chas Chandler, who had a story or two to tell, having played bass in the Animals and managed Jimi Hendrix. Slade wanted Birkin and director Richard Loncraine to put the harsh reality of the rock biz onscreen, as Noddy Holder explained in a 2002 interview about the movie (embedded below):
When we read [the treatment], we liked the story, the basic idea of the story, but it wasn’t true to life of what a band’s all about. Unless you’ve been in a band, [screenwriters] tend to write about the myth of rock ‘n’ roll, not the reality of rock ‘n’ roll, and we wanted to show what rock ‘n’ roll was really like behind the scenes, not what the fantasy out front is, y’know, that everybody sees, the glitz and glamour and the parties and all that—we wanted to show the other side of the business.
Though the soundtrack and book were enormously successful in the UK, drummer Don Powell’s book, Look Wot I Dun, reports that Slade didn’t see any profits from the movie itself. However, Slade in Flame has consistently appeared in best-of lists since its release, and critic Mark Kermode has called it “the Citizen Kane of British pop movies.”
Watch it here before it gets yanked!
After the jump, a nearly hour-long interview with Noddy Holder that was an extra on the 2004 DVD of ‘Slade in Flame’...