Monthly Archives: April 2010

Cromagnon

Okay, we really went into the vaults for this one, kids. Cromagnon was a project formed in the late ’60s for the influential ESP-Disk label, which put out some of the wildest, most freeform music of the era, including albums by the Fugs, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and even the godfather of the psychedelic era, Timothy Leary. The official story behind the band is that it was started by a pair of successful pop songwriters named Brian Elliot and Austin Grasmere who wanted to do an experimental album. When they approached ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman about the project, he allegedly asked what their theme would be, and when they replied, “Everything is one,” he gave them the go-ahead.

At this point, the story gets a little murky. Supposedly, Elliot and Grasmere decamped to some kind of hippie commune to record with a group of musicians known only as the “Connecticut Tribe” that may or may not have included future members of The Residents and Negativland. Whoever they were, the Tribe helped Elliot and Grasmere record a single album under the Cromagnon name. Originally released in 1969 as Orgasm and later reissued as Cave Rock, it’s an absolute mind-fuck of a record, a dadaist/tribal freakout combining primitive percussion and musique concrète; creepy non-verbal groans, grunts, chants and shrieks; bagpipes; Hendrix-esque blasts of psych-rock guitar; Brian Wilson harmonies; sampled radio broadcasts; and a whole host of other sounds whose origins are impossible to discern. At the time of its release, it must’ve been enough to send even most the tripped-out “Revolution No. 9″ enthusiasts scurrying back to their parents’ Johnny Mathis records.

The mystery of the Connecticut Tribe’s identity, and the complete lack of any further Cromagnon releases, has helped fuel the myths and rumors surrounding the group. Even the identities of Elliot and Grasmere have remained somewhat enigmatic. Who were these alleged bubblegum hitmakers turned hippie/freakout psychonauts? And why have we heard nothing further from them since 1969?

Well, we can’t answer that last question, but thanks to the crack team of researchers here at TWBITW, we can shed some light on the true story behind Cromagnon. Turns out the “Connecticut Tribe” wasn’t a hippie commune at all, but a bunch of dudes from a ’60s pop-rock group called The Boss Blues (plus various friends, guest musicians, and even people who just happened to be passing by the studio when they needed an extra pair of hands to bang on stuff). Elliot was the band’s producer and Grasmere was their lead guitarist; you can see a picture of the band’s full lineup, including the late Grasmere, on this guy’s page (you’ll have to scroll down a bit, but it’s there). In 2002, the three surviving members of The Boss Blues–Sal Salgado, Peter Bennett and Vinnie Howley–gave an interview with Connecticut radio station WXCI where they talked at length about Cromagnon and the recording process for Orgasm (which was in fact not recorded on a hippie commune, but mainly in a makeshift studio in New York City). In 2009, some kind soul transcribed the interview for the ESP-Disk website, so the band’s history is now laid out for all to see. (Sorry, everyone who was really, really sure The Residents were actually behind the whole thing.) The interview is long but well worth reading for anyone who’s at all interested in the band; it also features MP3s of most of the tracks from Orgasm, so you can hear for yourself just how off-the-deep-end these guys got.

Sadly, both Grasmere and Elliot–the latter of whom, the other guys admit, was the principal architect of the Cromagnon sound–have passed away, so despite the occasional reunion-tour rumors, we’ve probably heard all we’ll ever hear out of this strange little footnote from the psychedelic era.

As far as we can tell, this video for Cromagnon’s best-known track, “Caledonia,” is not an official one, but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless. Trippiest use of bagpipes ever? We’re gonna say “aye.”

P.S. Special thanks to WTFmusic.org and their deliriously exhaustive catalog of weird music for turning us on to these guys.

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Señor Coconut

First off: our sincerest apologies for how quiet it’s been around here lately. Between my new job and the start of baseball season (Jake loves his fantasy league even more than he loves his PBR), we’ve had a hard time making time for TWBITW. We promise to do better, starting today.

So let’s get back on the weird band wagon with an artist by the name of Uwe Schmidt, better known to the world as Señor Coconut. Schmidt’s shtick, if you want to call it that, is taking pop and/or electronic music and reimagining it in various ways–most famously, under the Coconut alias, in the form of various kitschy Latin styles like the mambo and the cha-cha. His biggest claim to fame is a Señor Coconut album from 2000 called El Baile Alemán (that’s Spanish for “The German Dance,” for all you land-locked Amurricans) that consists entirely of cha-cha versions of Kraftwerk songs. If that sounds ridiculously specific–well, it is, but it’s kind of surprising how well it works. The distance from German techno to Esquivel’s “space age bachelor pad music,” it turns out, is not that great.

Schmidt followed up his Kraftwerk homage with an album that was even more ridiculously specific–Yellow Fever!, a 2006 set consisting entirely of Latin jazz versions of songs by Japanese electronica pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra. In between, he dropped another album called Fiesta Songs that included Latinized covers of songs like “Smoke on the Water” and “Riders on the Storm.” As awesome as that sounds, most of the songs on Fiesta Songs are a little too cheeky and obvious for their own good–somehow, the cha-cha kitsch only really works if the source material isn’t too familiar. Schmidt’s version of “Smooth Operator,” for example, is so close to Sade’s that it starts to sound uncomfortably like Muzak. Which could have actually been Schmidt’s intention, but still, we’ll take “We Are the Robots” over this stuff any day of the week.

It’s worth noting that Señor Coconut is actually probably Schmidt’s least weird alias, and that he operates (smoothly, no doubt) under literally dozens of others–Wikipedia lists over 60 of them, although some, like “Superficial Depth” and “Weird Shit,” sound like they might have been made up by someone on Red Bull-fueled Wiki bender and are difficult to vouch for. Among the better-known ones are his glitch project Atom™ (formerly Atom Heart), the “electrolatino” project Lisa Carbon (which sounds a lot like Señor Coconut, except the music is all original) and an album called Pop Artificielle released in 1999 under the name “lb” that’s basically just familiar songs like James Brown’s “Superbad” and the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” programmed into a speech synthesizer and various analog synths to make them sound as artificial as possible. Clearly, this guy never met a pop song he wasn’t ready to deconstruct.

Most recently, Schmidt released another Señor Coconut album called Around the World that revisits the sort of Top-40-run-through-a-cha-cha-blender approach he took on Fiesta Songs, but with arguably more entertaining source material. This time, he tackles Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” Prince’s “Kiss” and our favorite, that ridiculous ’80s hit “Da Da Da,” one of those stupid novelty songs that actually sounds about a thousand times better when you do a stupid novelty cover of it. And add dancing girls in bikinis with pitchforks to it. Yes, we think this video is hot, and we’re not afraid to say so.

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