Wednesday 21 April 2010

Peanut Butter Conspiracy: Turn On A Friend


Album Review of:
(Sony Collectables COL CD 6096/ Sony A-27366)

‘Centuries of time, confuse the mind,
we live just to learn, are we finally learning to live…?’
(“Living Dream”)

It’s June 1967, and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy single “Turn On A Friend” is rather sniffily reviewed in a determinedly un-groovy ‘New Musical Express’. The uptight writer whines not only that he can’t decipher the words, but worse – if it’s about what he fears it’s about, he prefers not to know anyway, as though it’s altogether better he’s unable to decipher them. Of course, the song probably is about what he feared it was about. It’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that all that catchy chorus about ‘don’t be a miser, make your friend wiser’ is not entirely unrelated to Timothy Leary’s magical alchemy. And what else can those luring harmonies drawing you into ‘life is a trip if you know just-a how to use it, a rocket-ship ride whenever you choose it’ be about, if it’s not about the ingestion of certain chemical formulations? But its all so swathed in honeyed candy-cane hooks and love-euphemisms it’s also a pretty darn-good Pop single of its admittedly-crazy times. Or maybe the po-faced scribe was onto something? After all, there have been periodic rashes of narco-panic across the years ever since. Over Rave culture and the many MDMA re-combinations that shoved Shamen’s ‘e’s are good, e’s are good’ up the chart (and how come no-one thought to sample Conspiracy’s “Ecstasy” into a dance mash-up around this phase?), or the later moral panic over legal highs. And even though they were generally less drugs-literate back in 1967, was anyone really scammed by the tale about “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” being inspired by Julian’s school painting? Rock historian Lillian Roxon dismisses Peanut Butter Conspiracy as merely ‘one of the first of what were eventually to be hundreds of groups with trippy names’, neatly encapsulating the entire arc of their career with ‘some of the novelty appeal they had at the beginning faded somewhat when groups with trippier names, trippier songs and trippier music eventually overtook them’. But there’s more to it than that. The group-name Peanut Butter Conspiracy is a cunning elision of the mundane and the sinister, implying that this is a counter-culture subversion that begins at the suburban breakfast table. A sugared pill. Which is precisely the way “Turn On A Friends” functions. Perhaps, as the fire-cracker skies of their “Wonderment” suggests, they were simply ‘so far ahead we’re losing…’?

Once the Ashes – who cut a one-off single of Jackie DeShannon’s “Is There Anything I Can Do?” for LA indie Vault label, prior to that they’d been called the Young Swingers, and what self-respecting group could endure a name like that for long? Writer-bass-&-vocalist Alan Brackett – responsible for “Turn On A Friend” and “It’s A Happening Thing”, and writer-guitarist-vocalist John Merrill – who wrote “Then Came Love” and “Dark On You Now”, with Hippie-chick Barbara ‘Sandi’ Robinson whose angelic voice combines the strength of Mama Cass with the svelte beauty of Mama Michelle. This group-nucleus was carried over into PBC. Ashes drummer Spencer Dryden quit to replace Skip Spence in Jefferson Airplane. With new drummer Jim Voigt, new guitarist Lance Baker-Fent (of Green Man Media) bringing the line-up to five-strength, and ‘with the help of Owsley’ the Ashes became Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and signed to Columbia (CBS). Two albums followed, both recorded within the same year, the first with the super-promotable title-slogan ‘The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Is Spreading’ (Columbia 9454, 1967). Hot-shot producer Gary Usher was brought in to fine-tune its first sessions, bringing Glen Campbell and Ricky Nelson/Elvis-guitarist James Burton with him, to fill out what he perceived as their commercial deficiencies – something that still riles ex-members of the group. The launch single lifted from it, “It’s A Happening Thing” seemed to justify his vision as it first achieved regional radio high-rotation, before eventually peaking at a national no.93. Then I picked up on its airy yet dense-packed harmonies on UK pirate radio waves too, blown in on a breeze perfumed with the strangely evocative aromas of mystic West Coast long-haired New Age weirdness. It’s anthemic communal quality seemingly powered by the same contact-high as the Chester ‘Chet (Dino Valenti)’ Powers/ Jefferson Airplane song ‘Let’s Get Together’. Yet the lyric works both as a generalised love-generational love, as well as a personalised happening-thing gushing about ‘this love that flows within the heart of me’ as ‘the world and you become a part of me’. The chorus-hook ‘love is the grooviest thing… in the world’, carries the cautionary ‘up till now’ as though offering an escape clause in case something even groovier might be lurking just over the psychedelic horizon. There’s some spiky guitar in the spacey mid-point break, until it rides out on a ‘Penny Lane’ swoosh of reverberating feedback echo.

A fuzz-bass propels the more good-to-be-alive bubble-pop ‘B’-side, extending the sugared-pill ambiguity with generous hip-vocabulary references to a ‘trip through my thoughts’ and an invitation to ‘take me along on a trip through your mind’. The album’s second single – “Then Came Love” betrays the credible influence of Mamas & Papas harmonies and a hint of the John Phillips-melancholic in its changes. They’d learned their lesson well. It’s lush with over-smoochy strings and decorously ornate lyrics about a love that ‘glides on glowing wings’ to ‘land upon my soul’ where it casts ‘shadows of your love upon my heart’. Elsewhere there’s more variation. The non-original “Second Hand Man” warns his potential lover that hey, he’s been around, with its faintly vaudevillian strut climaxing with an ‘Oh Yeah!’ flourish. Even stranger, Baker-Fent’s only writing contribution “The Market Place” is a more fluid sinewy esoteric tempo-shift narrative of love-&-revenge with zany guitar effects, burbling flutes and tingling percussion. It tells of a flawed romance with just a nudge of contra-Marty Robbins. He meets her in the market where ‘your thoughts are turning onto me, my heart like a candle of flame, my eyes are burning like coals in me’. But her father’s disapproving bad-guys are closing in, and they have guns. Instead of dying a hero’s death as in ‘Gunfighter Ballads’, he admits ‘it has been lovely, but I’m too young to die’. And he’s over the wall, running. Until, safe in the next city he’s telling tales of her beauty, leaving some other foolish young victim to fall for her charms. “Dark On You Now” – re-recorded from an earlier Ashes version urges you to ‘swallow the sun’ to counteract life’s darkness. And then there’s the odd construction of Al Brackett’s “Why Did I Get So High?”, with Sandi’s strident vocals book-ended with cascading ba-ba-ba harmonies. Although he now concedes the song’s a partial response to the Fugs “I Couldn’t Get High” the ambiguity is left sufficiently open to suggest a romantic betrayal, as though the high involved could be nothing more than a hormonal rush that has left her with ‘my heart is dead, and so’s my head’… a teasing duality that’s maintained clear through to the final quirky electro-throb line where all pretence is dropped and Sandi up-fronts it all with ‘why did I get so stoned?’ Nevertheless, a more enlightened ‘New Musical Express’ reviewer welcomed the album’s ‘combination of folk-beat and flower-power’, calling the PBC a ‘West Coast group spreading not peanut butter, but love!’ It recommends the ‘peppy beat, with twangs and tambourine’ of this ‘exuberant, compulsive disc’, while reserving special mention for the ‘girl lead singer – a great voice, not unlike our Kiki Dee’.

Meanwhile, strengthened on-stage by the addition of ex-Sound Machine guitarist Bill Wolff, they toured. There were also soundtrack opportunities, for Russ Meyer’s gratuitous gross-out ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’, for plastic pseudo-hippie ‘Angels From Hell’, and for ‘Hell Ride’ which would lead Brackett into TV-work (including ‘Happy Days’ and the ‘Top Gun’ movie). While, if the keynote for the first PBC album was Mamas & Papas harmonies, the second LP ‘The Great Conspiracy’ (Columbia 9590, 1968), takes its pulse from Jefferson Airplane’s trading alternate male/female voices as on the first folkier Signe Toly Anderson-fronted ‘Takes Off’ (both Peanut Butter Conspiracy Columbia albums are now featured in full on this Sony Collectables single-CD). ‘The Great Conspiracy’ takes off with the “Turn On A Friend” single, which ‘Q’ magazine (April 1991) calls a ‘pure LA professional contrivance and not unpleasing’, sweetening the airwaves by urging ‘show them the way’ to wake up all mankind, then ‘spread it around’, pivoting on a mid-point spacey jam. Re-issued by Drop Out records in March 1991 a more enlightened incarnation of ‘New Musical Express’ acknowledged ‘a prime dollop of sixties psychedelia that’s spread on thick and has managed to avoid going stale’. In many ways the ideal late-summer album, it’s less quirkily diverse, more consistent than its predecessor, from the slight 0:30-minute “Invasion Of The Poppy People” to the 6:30-minute “Too Many Do”, to the involved ornate arboreal structure of “Lonely Leaf” showcasing Sandi’s voice at its most piercingly beautiful. “Captain Sandwich” maintains the earlier wackiness with appeals to a hippie super-hero who could have been lifted from a Robert Crumb strip (‘which button to push that says happy? which lever to pull for pleasure?’), while “Time Is After You” clicks with ‘I just want to be free of time to live my life free of strife’. A hardly unusual appeal to embrace the unconventional, the apparent lyrical clunkiness of ‘no time cards, alarm clocks, no red lights and other miscellaneous humdrum’ comes right in its tick-tock chiming-guitar delivery as a near onomatopoeic mimic of the drudgery it attacks. This time around they weave a looser instrumental approach involving pretty much every West Coast picking-style in the manual, as music-scribe Johnny Black points out ‘they show off their abilities to greater effect in the lazy, stretched-out subtlety of “Too Many Do” with its Byrds bass line and lead guitar licks’ (in ‘Q’ magazine, April 1991). And yes, although their beguiling guitars spin off into then-trendy solos, they are never allowed to outstay their welcome by getting over-indulgent, witnessed to pleasing effect on “Ecstasy” and “Wonderment”.
Although to me, there’s little evidence of Lillian Roxon’s ‘trippier music’ overtaking them, it seems the Peanut Butter had spread about as far as it was going to spread. There was a final 1968 single for Columbia – “I’m A Fool” c/w “It’s So Hard” with strings and horns, which reached no.125 on ‘Billboard’, both sides here are CD bonuses, after which they re-signed to the Warner Bros subsidiary Challenge for a 1968 LP ‘For Children Of All Ages’. It started out as an Al Brackett solo project. He writes all the songs. And the album features a reconfigured line-up adding Clear Light organist Ralph Schuckett. Merrill had quit to reform Ashes, but he stays around long enough to play. The final split – barring later reformations, came in 1970. Sandi, who went on to play duo with her husband, died in 1988. A previously unissued track, “Peter Pan” uses the JM Barrie character as a drugs metaphor in the way Grace Slick uses ‘Alice In Wonderland’ – ‘come take a trip with Peter Pan to Never-Never-Land’ where mushrooms grow and grown-ups never go, with a ringing refusal to grow up, ‘we’re gonna stay young, have fun, we’ll never grow old, y’know, years may come and years may go, we’ll never grow old’. Sandi, at least, lived out that ambition by never growing old. And, listening to the history compressed onto this good-value CD, the first PBC album closes with “The Most Up Till Now” with harmonica, Byrdsian cosmic noodling, with Sandi’s vocals soaring over pumping harmonies on a ludicrously euphoric up-hook that runs ‘What’s happening?!? I’m happening!!! – it’s a beautiful thing. The world’s happening! You’re happening! Let’s happen Together!’ which still comes across as a fairly groovy idea.


Alan Brackett (bass-vocals), John Merill (guitar-vocals), Barbara ‘Sandi’ Robison (vocals), Spencer Dryden (drums), Jim Cherniss (guitar-vocals)

(1965) ‘Love Her Every Day’ c/w ‘Or Else You’ll Cry’ (Courtney 746)

(1965) ‘Let’s Take Our Love’ c/w ‘The Wind’s Up High’ (Portafino 901) John Merrill’s Byrdsian ‘A’-side

(1966) ‘Is There Anything I Can Do?’ c/w ‘Every Little Prayer’ (Vault 924) ‘A’-side written by Jackie DeShannon

(1967) ‘Dark On You Now (Original version)’ c/w ‘Roses Gone’ (Vault 936)
both sides featured on LP ‘WEST COAST LIVE-IN’ (Vault 7980) plus ‘Time Is After You’, ‘One-Nine-Six-Seven (1967)’, ‘Big Bummer’, ‘Floating Dream’

(May 2005) ‘SPREADING FROM THE ASHES’ (Big Beat) Seven Ashes tracks including two ‘A’-sides + ‘Roses Gone’, plus early Peanut Butter Conspiracy tracks. Includes the Hollies song ‘So Lonely’, ‘You Should Know (Live)’, ‘Love’s Last Ground’, ‘Time Is After You’, ‘Flight Of The Psychedelic Bumble-Bee’, ‘Light Bulb Blues’, ‘Shirley Can You Come Out And Play’, etc. With twenty-page booklet by Alec Palao

(1970) ‘ASHES WITH PAT TAYLOR' (Vault LP 125) second incarnation of The Ashes, featuring John Merrill with vocalist Pat Taylor. Eleven tracks, including Merrill songs ‘Simple Complexities’, ‘Sands Of Love’, My Life Has Changed’, ‘Return Home’ etc

(1971) ‘Homeward Bound’ c/w ‘Sleeping Serenade’ (Vault 975) ‘A’-side written by Paul Simon. Both sides from LP.

Alan Brackett (bass-vocals), John Merill (rhythm guitar-vocals), Barbara ‘Sandi’ Robison (vocals), Lance Fent (replacing by Bill Wolff on guitar-harmonica), Jim Voight (drums)

‘if you don’t want to grow up, you’d better slow up,
make up your mind, close your eyes – come with us now…’
(“Peter Pan”)

(1966) ‘Time Is After You’ c/w ‘Floating Dream’ (Vault 933)

(January 1967) ‘It’s A Happening Thing’ c/w ‘Twice Is Life’ (USA Columbia 4-43985, UK July CBS 2981)

(March 1967) ‘THE PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY IS SPREADING’ (US Columbia 9454) ‘It’s A Happening Thing’, ‘Then Came Love’, ‘Twice Is Life’, ‘Second Hand Man’, ‘You Can’t Be Found’, ‘Why Did I Get So High?’, ‘Dark On You Now’’, ‘The Market Place’, ‘You Should Know’, ‘The Most Up Till Now’, ‘You Took Too Much’

(March 1967) ‘Then Came Love’ c/w ‘Dark On You Now’ (Columbia 4-44063)

(1967) ‘Turn On A Friend’ c/w ‘Captain Sandwich’ (US Columbia 4-44356, UK June CBS 3543) ‘Turn On A Friend’ also included on UK CBS hit budget-sampler LP ‘THE ROCK MACHINE TURNS YOU ON’

(December 1967) ‘THE GREAT CONSPIRACY’ (US Columbia 9590, UK CBS 63277) ‘Turn On A Friend’, ‘Lonely Leaf’, ‘Pleasure’, ‘Too Many Do’, ‘Living Loving Life’ ‘Invasion Of The Poppy People’, ‘Captain Sandwich’, ‘Living Dream’, ‘Ecstacy’, ‘Time Is After You’, ‘Wonderment’

(November 1968) ‘I’m A Fool’ c/w ‘It’s So Hard’ (Columbia 4-44667) Both sides written by Al Brackett

(1969) ‘FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES’ (Challenge 2000) Re-issued in 1996 as Sony Collectables COL-0529, the ten original tracks plus seven bonus previously unissued tracks. Includes ‘Gonna Get You Home’, ‘Back In LA’, ‘Have A Little Faith’, ‘Good Feelin’, ‘Loudness Of Your Silence’, ‘It’s Alright’, ‘Out In The Cold Again’, ‘Now’, ‘Return Home’, ‘Simple Things’, ‘Think’, ‘Show You The Way’, ‘’Try Again’, ‘Try’, ‘You’re Not Getting Into It’, ‘What Did I Do Wrong?’, ‘Stayin Inside Kind Of Day’

(1969) ‘Back In LA’ c/w ‘Have A Little Faith’ (US Challenge 500, UK October, London HLH 10290)

(1991) ‘THE PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY: TURN ON A FRIEND’ (UK LP Demon Drop Out DOCD2000) compilation of ‘It’s A Happening Thing’, ‘Then Came Love’, ‘Twice Is Life’, ‘Why Did I Get So High?’, ‘Dark On You Now’’, ‘The Market Place’, ‘You Should Know’, ‘The Most Up Till Now’, ‘Turn On A Friend’, ‘Too Many Do’, ‘Living Loving Life’ ‘Invasion Of The Poppy People’, ‘Living Dream’, ‘Ecstacy’, ‘Time Is After You’, ‘Wonderment’ (‘NME’ writes ‘as period pieces, PBC’s songs still hold their ground, while some of the material here could easily be transformed into nineties dance-trance with hardly any additives required’ – 23 March 1991)

(2005) ‘LIVING THE DREAM: THE BEST OF PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY' compilation including two previously unissued tracks ‘Peter Pan’ & an alternate version of ‘Wonderment’

‘Everyone has a ball in their mind,
and when it explodes, blows your mind…’
(“Living Loving Life”)


Anonymous said...

Very insightful blog and I enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

There is also an album from the late 60's called Astrology which features a short interview with Al Brackett and a bit of music, but it's very hard to find.