At least eight miles high
Nick Saloman and Terrastock define the new psychedelia
by Matt Ashare
The threat of creative stagnation isn't a new pariah. Ten years ago the British
music critic Simon Reynolds surveyed the then nascent indie-rock underground
and concluded that there were big problems impeding its musical growth. "For
more than a decade," he wrote, "the specter of the return of the hippie, of
progressive rock, has haunted music making. . . . Fact is, it's
precisely the too-thorough internalization of punk's dread of the hippie and
the resulting strategy of self-limitation that has led to a kind of dire
stasis: regressive rock."
In other words, an ideological hatred of hippiedom inherited from punk had
stymied indie rock's musical progress, holding it back from valuable
psychedelic explorations. Reynolds might have done well to listen more closely
to the swirling assault of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade (SST, 1984)
or the trippy, (blue)grass-smoking space jams of Meat Puppets II (SST,
1984), not to mention the mind-melting distortion of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur
Jr. But at the time those were admittedly exceptions to hardcore punk's
anti-hippie rules, and to the prevailing jangle pop of R.E.M.
The same year Reynolds published his "Regressive Rock" essay, Londoner Nick
Saloman released the first of his many albums as the Bevis Frond, 1987's
home-recorded Miasma (Reckless). Saloman was something stranger than an
exception. A bona fide product of the hippie '60s, he'd devoted two decades to
playing Cream- and Hendrix-inspired psychedelia in bands before hitting the
mid-30s wall, giving up on his rock-and-roll dreams, and emerging unwittingly
as an indie-rock cult hero of sorts.
As he tells it, by phone from England, "When you're that old and you've never
gotten anywhere, you kind of think that you've had it. So I just decided to
start doing self-indulgent stuff on my own without worrying about things like
getting a record deal. I just figured I was too old and that the stuff I wanted
to do wasn't something that anyone would be interested in anyhow. I wanted to
have a bit of fun by putting something out on vinyl so I'd have something to
play for my grandchildren. That was really the only point of it. I honestly
didn't think for a minute that anyone else would care. But lo and behold,
people were interested, and I guess it changed my life."
Now 44 years old, Saloman is one of the central figures in a new and growing
indie-rock underground that seems to be getting over punk's kneejerk
anti-hippie-ism. Ptolemaic Terrascope, a 'zine (or, as it says on the
cover, an "Illustrated Occasional") that Saloman publishes, has been covering
and informing this loose "scene" for the past seven years. When the 'zine was
in financial trouble last year, a call went out for interested artists to
donate tracks for a benefit compilation. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Robyn
Hitchcock, and Seattle producer Jack Endino all responded, along with indier
acts like Palace, Flying Saucer Attack, the Olivia Tremor Control, and Boston's
own Magic Hour. The result, the two-disc benefit album Succour,
was released by Flydaddy (now based in Newport, Rhode Island) in the US in
Flydaddy, which is set to release the latest Bevis Frond disc, Son of
Walter, domestically later this year, is also playing a key role in
organizing "Terrastock," a three-day music festival fundraiser for Ptolemaic
Terrascope that will take place at the Rogue Lounge in Providence on April
25, 26, and 27. Saloman will be there to perform as the Bevis Frond for the
first time on US soil (he did play a brief solo gig with Mary Lou Lord at the
Linwood Grille last summer), as will Bristol's space-rocking ambient outfit
Flying Saucer Attack. But the bill for the festival (sold out as of last week),
which was originally going to feature just locally based bands, has grown into
a minor who's-who of indie rock. Veteran avant-gardists the Supreme Dicks and
Silver Apples will be rubbing shoulders with young Beatles-loving popsters like
Papas Fritas and the Olivia Tremor Control. Indie-folkies Damon & Naomi,
Mary Lou Lord, and Richard Davies will play alongside hypnotic electronic
outfits like Hovercraft and NYC's Bowery Electric.
Terrastock is still a far, far cry from a hippie revival. But it's one
indicator that indie rock has taken on a new face, that the canon has expanded
to include the early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, a heavier emphasis on the
later years of the Beatles, krautrock hippies Can and Amon Düül, and
space-rockers like Hawkwind, along with the old guard of the Velvet
Underground, Stooges, and MC5. In some cases the result has been dubbed
"post-rock," as in postmodern rock, as if to disguise the fact that groups like
Chicago's Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, England's Flying Saucer Attack, and
Seattle's Hovercraft can trace their roots back to the formerly unfashionable
sources mentioned above. But in truth, this movement is different. The scene
associated with Terrastock is devoid of the nostalgic impulses that unite
Deadheads, or the attention to period fashions that has marked '60s and '70s
revivals. (The Olivia Tremor Control borrow musical ideas from Sgt.
Pepper, but they don't have the matching jackets to prove it.)
"I think what these bands are doing now is picking up on sounds they like,"
observes Saloman. "Kids who are 20 today were born at the same time the Sex
Pistols were happening. So the '60s is way removed from what they knew about.
And it's impossible to grasp the subtleties of fashion change that happened 20
years before you were born. It's like my mom trying to explain the difference
between early-'30s band music and mid-'30s band music. To me it all sounds the
same. So you just pick on the things that sound good. And in that respect
what's happening now is really quite honest."
Through the Bevis Frond and Ptolemaic Terrascope, Saloman has come to
embody the hybrid sensibility of the elusive "what's happening now." He's a
link to the past who is respected not out of nostalgic reverence but for his
contemporary accomplishments. He came out of the psychedelic '60s, but he put
himself on the map two decades later using the tools of indie rock: dozens of
self-released singles and LPs on his own Waronzow label and a self-published
'zine. He is, in some ways, a living, breathing, guitar-playing bridge between
the original psychedelic rock movement and the scene that encompasses
"Over the last 10 years I've fought a battle against people labeling me as a
far-out hippie revivalist," he explains. "I got heavily known as being Mr.
Psychedelic. But I guess to a certain degree I have to say, `Yes, I am that.' I
don't see it as an insult, really. I've always been into the positive side of
it, the good songs and interesting music. The stuff that I was doing way back
in the '60s was really just kids playing cover versions. What I started doing
in the mid '80s was to combine the music that I had grown up with and my own
The result, on Son of Walter, isn't quite as easy to pin down as
Saloman would have it seem. There are long, winding psychedelic guitar jams,
bittersweet acoustic numbers, screaming acid-blues rockers, and a couple of
grungy pop gems that bring to mind latter-day Hüsker Dü or the last
couple of Screaming Trees albums.
"When I was a teenager I used to go to these gigs at the Roundhouse in London
called Implosions, on every Sunday," Saloman recalls. "You'd get maybe six
bands, ranging from Black Sabbath to Fairport Convention, and it would all make
sense. You could have Black Sabbath with Fairport and Soft Machine on the same
bill and nobody thought there was anything wrong with that. So I don't think
you can limit what's appropriate for Bevis Frond or for Terrascope.
We've always tried to avoid boundaries."
Saloman may be more open-minded than some of the other artists booked to play
Terrastock, but he's clearly become an influential voice. His involvement with
Mary Lou Lord's forthcoming major-label debut on the Sony Work Group label will
only raise his profile. He contributed songs to the disc -- "It was a
combination of stuff I'd just written and she chose, stuff I wrote specifically
with her in mind, and stuff we wrote together," he explains -- and played
guitar at the sessions.
When he was lamenting the stasis of indie rock 10 years ago, critic Reynolds
never argued for a wholesale return to hippiedom or progressive rock. And he
never denied that the vintage prog-rock and psychedelia he was championing had
indeed become bloated with self-importance. He simply felt it was a mistake
that indie rock had "time and time again chosen the Byrds of `All I Really Want
To Do' over `Eight Miles High' . . . the Velvet Underground of
`There She Goes Again' over `Venus in Furs,' the Pink Floyd of `See Emily Play'
over `Interstellar Overdrive.' "
Reynolds must have known that Hüsker Dü had recently covered "Eight
Miles High," that the avant-noise of "Venus in Furs" was being echoed in the
tweaked sounds of Sonic Youth. But he wanted to hear more of that, to promote
psychedelia as a dominant aesthetic. At the very least, Terrastock suggests
that he's gotten his wish. Even Saloman, who prefers to play down the event's
significance, finds himself acknowledging that something new is happening. "If
I'm getting phoned up from Boston for interviews and being flown out to LA to
play on a major-label record, then things must have changed. Nobody would have
touched me with a 10-foot barge pole 10 years ago."