Ultimate Spinach, man... yeah, BABY, yeah!!!
By Wil Forbis
Ever see the late 60's hippy film, "Psyche Out," starring Jack Nicholson? Christ, what an atrocity. It's one of the quintessential flower power films of the era, in which Jack leads a bunch of dropped out, tuned in hipsters around Haight Ashbury. Together they all have trippy adventures while fightin' off oppression from "the man." And one of the great (e.g. horrible) scenes is when Jack and his "band" get up and play some of most gawdawful hippie drivel you can possibly imagine, replete with elongated guitar solos, zoomy camera shots, and grooved out, absurdist lyrics about the new generation of love.
"Psyche-Out" was a good example of everything wrong with the confusing combination of art, music and culture known as Psychedelia. Musically, Psychedelia was often no more than an ill-conceived conjoining of other styles that was then filtered through a reverb pedal set to 10. Lyrically, it was cumbersome to the point of absurdity, with an inflated belief in its own self-importance, convinced that it would start a revolution that never happened. As a social movementů well, it's hard to tell if Psychedelia ever really was one. Most of what we now look back on as being relics of the era, such as films like "Psyche-Out," were really products manufactured by the suits as a way of cashing in on the Psychedelia craze. You would be hard pressed to find anything really genuine in the whole scene.
But if you're into making the commitment to seriously get your groove on, you'll find Psychedelia did indeed have a few gems to offer. Ironically, one of the most genuine musical groups to come out of the psychedelic era was, in many ways, one of the most manufactured. That group was called Ultimate Spinach and it was their combination of way-out lyricism, ambient space grooves and baroque chordal structures that is the subject for this piece.
Ultimate Spinach released three albums in just under a two-year period (1968-1969) and have since existed as a historical footnote to one of the more interesting periods of rock history. The late sixties were when Rock and Roll collided head first with big business. It was the point when the hype machine was created, and the industry squares realized that not only could they cash in on the fads of the day, they could actually create these fads. The Ultimate Spinach story reads as a illuminating look at the train wreck that occurs when na´ve, drug addled musicians run headfirst into the music industry's rock and roll hamburger grinder.
The best place to start with an analysis of any band is to take a look at their name. Ultimate Spinach was a perfect representation of one of the most time-honored rock and roll naming schemes. See, you take one word, like, say, "Ultimate" and then combine it with another word that has absolutely nothing to do with it, for example, "Spinach." This sort of free form artistry represented the open-mindedness of the hippy culture. Your dad might say, "Ultimate Spinach? What could that mean? How stupid!" but that's just cuz' your dad was a closeminded clod who probably voted for Nixon and supported the war in Viet Nam. A person really committed to exploring the possibilities of the universe would be willing to sit down and mentally gestate on what "ultimate spinach" could be. Was it a cry for veganism? Was it proclaiming that plant life was superior to humans? How about a great recipe for salad? Maybe a testament to Popeye? Who knew? And if you think this sort of thing was only limited to the sixties, go buy a Stone Temple Pilots album.
This spinach might not be the ultimate, but it's pretty damn good.
There were really two key players in the formation of Ultimate Spinach. Ian Bruce-Douglas was the initial instigator and main songwriter for the band. Though he has, in interviews, separated himself from the class of citizens known in the late 60's as 'hippies,' it would seem to be a case of splitting hairs. (In this case, rather greasy, lice ridden hairs.) With long locks and a beard, he was another member of the musical masses of the day that were trying to create expansive mind bending rock with a message (albeit, a message often obscured under the weight of it's mythological references and drug induced imagery.) Ian's contribution to the Ultimate Spinach machine was that of the being the main composer, lyricist, instrumentalist and singer for the first two Spinach albums. The second figure in U.S.'s rise was Alan Lorber, a producer and arranger, who created the "Bosstown Sound" of the late 60's. Similar to the Grunge fad that hit Seattle in the 90's, the Bosstown Sound came about as a result of the record labels' attempt to mine a particular geographic scene for the music it was producing. San Francisco was known to be producing the psychedelic rock of the day and Boston was hyped as the sort of the East Coast version.Was Boston really a haven for Psychedelia? Well, certainly it had some psychedelic bands, as did most major cities of the day, but the Bosstown Sound was as much due to Lorber's P.R. work as it is was the local musicians.
So what did early Ultimate Spinach sound like? It was pretty crazy stuff, daddy-o! What really defined the psychedelic music form in general, aside from the absurd lyrics and penchant for spacey instrumentation, was the structure. Your average pop song usually follows a pretty straight format:ABABCAB (verse, B-section, verse, B-section, Chorus) with some minor variation. But Psychedelia was more like: ABADQOLFDX ad infintium... One minute you're listening to a three part barbershop harmony, the next it's a metal guitar solo followed by some strummed sitar. Psychedelia had all the cohesiveness of a serious mushroom trip, or one of Cody Wayne's blogs. And Ultimate Spinach were no exception. "Ego trip" off the first album, starts of with some reverberating spoken word before diving into an organ driven rock riff with heavy Doors inflections. The elongated "Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess" lays a series of falsetto vocals, phased out guitar, therimin riffs and feedback squwks over a droning bluesy bass part. Other tunes in the Bruce-Douglas version of Ultimate Spinach use harmonica, sitar, wood flutes and effects garnered by playing with the speed of the audio tape.
After the first two albums (titled "Ultimate Spinach" and "Behold and See") were released it was becoming clear that all was not well in Ultimate Spinachland. The band that Ian Bruce-Douglas had assembled was turning against its leader. The reasons for this was a clash of culture. Bruce-Douglas was the only member who fit anywhere near the hippie subculture, with the other members of the band having feelings ranging from indifference to hatred of the shaggy folk inhabiting America's street corners. (Rumors exist that the animosity between Ian and some members of the band was so great that certain Ultimate Spinach players slipped him high potency psychotropic drug in an attempt to space him outů permanently!) As a result, Ian Bruce-Douglas was removed from the band he'd created after the second album. The claim was being made, well into nineties, that he vanished of the face of the earth and was never heard from again but the Ian Bruce-Douglas web page effectively refutes this argument and makes clear that Ian only vanished from people who weren't willing to put forth any effort to find him. Nonetheless, Ultimate Spinach was left without a songwriter and creative visionary.
So once Douglas left, there was really only one thing to, right? With the main impetus for the band out of sight, the suits would have to call it a day and let Ultimate Spinach fade somewhat gracefully into obscurity, right? Wrong-O! Instead, a third album, "Ultimate Spinach III," was released with almost an entirely new band! (Guitarist Barbara Hudson and drummer Russ Levine had played on earlier albums.) The new band included several lunkheads from another east-coast pysche band, Chamaeleon Church. (A group that had included future comedian, Chevy Chase, in its ranks.) Playing lead guitar on "U.S. III" was a cat who would go on to great success. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter was a young session guitarist extraordinaire, who eventually slung his axe as a member of both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. (He also developed a side interest in ballistic missiles and laid some of the groundwork for what would become the controversial Reagan era Star Wars defense shield! Talk about a Jack of All Trades!)
Now with any band there's always the purists who feel that the minute the main dude leaves, or the band somehow changes its sound, it's no longer worth listening to. You know, the guys that whine that after Syd left, Floyd was no longer worth listening to, or that after Roger left, Floyd was no longer worth listening to, or that after every Beatle but Paul quit and he changed the name to Wings it was no longer worth listening to. And I'm sure hardcore Spinach-heads would argue that after Bruce-Douglas left, Ultimate Spinach died. But truth be told, the third Spinach album ain't that bad. Granted, it's a totally different sound... Gone are the alien lyrics, extended sitar solos and psychedelic ambient spaciness, but in its place is some pretty good blues-rock of the sort that was taking over America. And I'll tell you, I've always liked blues-rock, so who am I to diss the final Spinach offering. Hell, if the band was going to make any attempt at a lasting career, with or without Douglas, it would've had to make the switch... there's only so much Psychedelia you can ask people to take.
Nonetheless, the third Spinach album was the last and the band disappeared into the woodwork. There they lay up until the late nineties when Lorber saw a chance to make a bit more cash and he orchestrated the re-release of all three albums as well as a good bird's eye view of the band called The Very Best of Ultimate Spinach. (Which I am listening to right now.)
All in all, it's easy to look back on the Ultimate Spinach story and wonder if it's relevant today. But look closely and you see some of the same dramas being played out in the rock and roll theater of now. Bruce-Douglas was the na´ve musician who got played by the straights and thereby spoiled on the art of music making. (Need I mention that he doesn't own the rights to any of his songs?) Alan Lorber helped kick into gear the corporate hype monster that dominates the current record industry. However, while some might say that music industry tricks the public with every one of the inane fads it creates, I'd argue that we want to be tricked. Whether it's Psychedelia, Grunge, or Rap-Rock, the public wants the industry to whip up and endless series of musical genres to satiate our thirst for something "real". And, ultimately, (or should I say, spinachly) who's to say to that a band created by the machinations of the record execs in any less real then a band germinated in any of America's numerous sub-cultures?
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.