Listen and you’ll see: Jon Savage on Family

It’s strange how few records from 1967 actually sound truly psychedelic in the 21st century.

Sure, there are some terrific punkers from within the maelstrom – like the Outcasts’ “1253 Blair” – and acknowledged classics by the Beatles and Pink Floyd (“I Am The Walrus”, “Matilda Mother”) but if you listen to classic summer of love albums like “Surrealistic Pillow” they’re surprisingly conventional. Sure, the feelings are deeper and there is poetry in the words and sensitivity in the music. But they’re not mind-melting.

That would occur later, from 1968 until the early seventies – when the energy of the counter-culture finally dissipated. Just think of the difference between the Grateful Dead’s poor first album and 1968’s “Anthem of the Sun”, which is one of the comparatively few documents from the period to accurately present the profound sensory impact of LSD – in particular the overwhelming input of sensory material. If you’ve got acid rock, you want it to sound like acid, right? Well that was my quest back then as it is now.

Family’s first album, “Music In A Doll’s House” was released on Reprise Records – with a ‘tricolour’ label – in the UK during July 1968. They were the first British group to be released on Reprise in the UK and the US simultaneously. The label had been founded in 1960 by Frank Sinatra and began pretty much as a Rat Pack outlet before picking up the Kinks’ US distribution in 1964. By the time they signed Family, they were moving into the counter-culture with acts like the Electric Prunes, Tiny Tim and Joni Mitchell.

“Music In A Doll’s House” was produced by Dave Mason, who had just quit Traffic – but not before writing the group’s most psych songs: “House For Everyone”, “Utterly Simple” and the immortal “Hole In My Shoe”, which reached number 2 in autumn 1967. In early 1968, Mason released his one and only solo single, “Just For You”/ “Little Woman” which continued this psychedelic vein with flutes, bongos, Indian drones and somewhat abstruse lyrics. A period classic, it went nowhere.

Family were already well known as a popular club act: a hard-driving rock blues act with considerable musical dexterity and flexibility, fronted by a ferocious, gravel voiced force of nature, Roger Chapman. The grafting of Mason’s psychedelic tendencies proved successful: “Music In A Doll’s House” is a great collection of songs and styles successful woven together with orchestral arrangements (some by future Womble Mike Batt) and brief, instrumental reprises.

Voyage comes half way through the second side, and is set up by the haunting Peace of Mind, which is drenched in reverb and wah-wah. Voyage begins as a classic quest song: ‘A veil unfolds across my eyes/ A shadow falls on open skies/ Seeds of doubt leave me without/ Any idea of my whereabouts’. The changes initiated by acid are profound, disorientating and confusing: ‘Where do I look for proof/ Who do I ask and what do say/As I sail on my voyage of truth’.

Everything in the track is treated, from Roger Chapman’s opening vocal onwards. The group settle into a brief, riff-laden chorus before Ric Grech’s heavily-phased violin makes an entrance. There’s another verse follows, followed by a melodic mellotron bridge. The violin recurs, with darkening feedback that sounds like scudding storm-clouds. A final burst of the chorus, and then we’re into it: the clouds fill the sound picture, while underneath an ascending mellotron melody mutates through various filters to offer the final possibility of hope.

This all occurs within 3 minutes 36. That’s what’s so great about early psychedelia. It doesn’t go on and on like some progressive rock would a few years later. There is still a pop sensibility, a discipline that leaves you wanting more by knowing when to stop. Voyage is a headphones brain-burst that actually gives you a sense of what LSD was like: which means you don’t have to take the drug. Although they would continue making pretty good records until 1973, Family never recorded anything quite so powerful again.

Jon Savage is an author and film-maker. The film of his latest book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth” is directed by Matt Wolf and will premiere in 2013. With Johan Kugelberg, he has just compiled edited “Punk: An Aesthetic” for Rizzoli. He lives in North Wales

1 Comment

  • emma says:

    this is really nice

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