Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Tarantula - Tarantula (1969 us, stunning tight psych jazz brass rock)

What was quintessential can quickly fade. It then becomes the gift of those who decide where relevance exists, and there lies a problem. History is largely a composite, a construct by those who were not present. Much of what is deemed to be wholly representative of an era was largely ignored at the time: the poetry of Rimbaud, the paintings of Van Gogh or the songs of Nick Drake. Messages can take a long time to get through to receptive ears, and one such missive that remains in transit is Tarantula's sole album, from 1969.

It mattered little then, and matters little now, but it is a perfect freeze-frame of the dissolution and ideals of the Sixties. Wigged-out but flawlessly played, this much-ignored, authentic slab of pure psych-prog has a loose-limbed cohesion and is wonderfully weird. In terms of curio and masterpiece, this one exists as an authentic souvenir of the times: California, circa '68-69, just as the flowers start to wilt upon the heads they'd once adorned, and the string pops on the cheap strands of love beads. Unruly, crackers, and out to lunch, this was the soundtrack of uncertain lives. The times seemed to be blessed with optimism, but reality shatters every dream.

This is the last gasp of peace and love, but one whose final breath is imbued with the knowledge of impending darkness. Formed by ex-Spanky and Our Gang member Oz Bach, and produced by Chad Stuart of Chad and Jeremy fame, the album slithers all over the place like a divinely mad snake on the trip of a lifetime. Eastern influences, military drumming and pieces of pastoral delight combine to intoxicate and alienate in equal measure. This spider has been out in the sun too long, is both scary and mad, but wishes to infiltrate the eardrums and share the madness. Joining Bach on bass, were Steve Zwirm, drums, Tom Grasso, organ, Thad Maxwell, electric guitar, and Mike Edelman on vocals, flute and sax.

Inspired perversity stripped much of Tarantula's efforts of its obvious commerciality. The opening track "You" has successful single a la "Spirit in the Sky" written all over it, whilst "Electric Guru" is an adept exercise in bottling the mysticism and ideals of the era. "T.V. Repairman" sounds like Zappa auditioning for Hair. His diversity is referenced on much of the proceedings, but a bunch of also-ran Franks these boys were not. They possessed a strangely spiritual inclination, as betrayed in "Love Is for Peace," their only single. It's a mantra-like chant for space cadets of any era, right down to the Scottish reel they mange to rope into this diligent tapestry of insanity before abandoning it a few seconds later.

Perhaps the beautifully melancholic "Thoughts for Anne" betrayed too much of "Eleanor Rigby" to impress the purists of the day, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a finer song. Rarely have Americans managed to sound so chamber-gloomily English and haunted. The divinely titled and terribly louche "Peach Fuzz and Peppermints" sounds like something a stripper might have shaken her moneymaker to, in a 1930s sin bin, before descending into the kind of fuzzed-out intensity only Patti Smith now seems capable of generating.

"Red Herring," as the name suggests, goes all over the shops, but somehow manages to never topple into the abyss it so perilously skirts, whilst "Billie the Birdman" begins as pure Beatles in "Strawberry Fields" mode, but ends as a whimsical Blur at their most Parklife. The brief, sad smattering of applause at the track's demise, and that of the album, portended the meager portion of appreciation shown Tarantula. Things didn't translate into wider recognition and success, and they didn't cross the line from 1969 to '70. It is easy to see why they never hit anything resembling the big time. They probably weren't even attempting to, and may not have managed the consequences of success too well. Albums like this don't get made because of good sense and rational behavior, but they do betray impeccable timing and taste.

As Mr. Wilde once opined, "All things in moderation, especially moderation."

Tarantula thankfully gave free rein to their notions, albeit briefly, and left us a box of tricks worthy of Pandora. More Peach Fuzz everyone? 
by Robert Cochrane on March 12, 2008
1. You (Mike Edelman) - 3:24
2. Electric Guru (Mike Edelman) - 5:38
3. T.V. Repairman (Tom Grasso) - 2:43
4. Love Is For Peace (Oz Bach) - 6:37
5. Poison Dance (Tom Grasso) - 6:16
6. Thoughts For Anne (Oz Bach) - 2:44
7. Peach Fuzz And Peppermints (Tom Grasso) - 3:53
8. Red Herring (Mike Edelman, Tom Grasso) - 7:40
9. Billy The Birdman (Tom Grasso) - 3:29

*Tom Grasso - Piano, Organ, Vocals
*Mike Edelman - Electric Flute, Saxophone, Vocals
*Thad Maxwell - Electric Guitar, Vocals
*Oz Bach - Electric Bass, Vocals
*Steve Zwirn - Drums

Related Acts
1966-70  Spanky And Our Gang - The Complete Mercury Recordings (2006 four discs box set)