The Twisted, Tortured Genius Of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band [Part One]
Schizo? Probably. Genius? Definitely.
“Peaceful people, offering opinions/Protesting what you sincerely know
is wrong/Be ready, be ready/You will probably be beaten/You will probably
be arrested, and questioned/Your beliefs will be twisted/Your rights will be
The excerpt above is not a treatise concerning the recent goings on in Ferguson, Missouri – the tune was written some forty-plus years earlier. Those words are not only prescient in nature, but serve as a rude awakening that things in America have actually gotten worse, not better. The man behind those lyrics is Bob Markley, and the song in question is “In The Arena.”
It opens Side One of Volume 2: Breaking Through, the third album by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, but before we go any further, a little backstory is in order. Musicians Shaun and Danny Harris (bass and guitar respectively), along with Michael Lloyd (guitars), were three teenagers of marginal aptitude, whose songs tended to be boilerplate renditions of 50's/60's-informed pop-rock. They christened the trio The Laughing Wind, however, they lacked the financial resources to commercially release what they had hoped would be their debut LP.
But a sea-change was about to arrive, in the form of one Robert “Bob” Markley. The adopted son of an oil magnate, Markley was a savvy lawyer, but his heart didn't seem to be committed to that career path. Markley himself had played in various college bands as a somewhat awkward bongo player – his heart may have been in it, but his talent was dubious. But being the son of a millionaire had given him entree to a wealth of connections, including producer/songwriter Kim Fowley – a somewhat obscure purveyor of pop-sike, whose music now boasts a substantial cult following.
Markley also hosted a teenage rock'n'roll show in Norman, Oklahoma – much in the style of network programs Shindig! and American Bandstand. Markley's photogenic looks caught the eye of an executive from Warner Bros studios, who invited him to Hollywood to pursue a movie career. As fate would have it, Markley was a failure as a potential Hollywood star, which was propitious in that it caused the introduction of Markley by Fowley to The Laughing Wind. Although Markley did release a record while under contract to WB (the now-notorious “Summer's Comin' On” 45), it was clear he lacked the singing skills to be a true pop star. But that would become a moot point, as his subsequent involvement with the trio was about to take the band to soaring (if not commercially bankable) musical heights.
Lloyd and the Harris brothers were at first skeptical in bringing Markley into the fold, but when they realized his money could afford them access to state-of-the-art recording facilities, their apprehensions subsided. With Markley's cash behind them, they were able to complete work on Volume One (with no less than renown producer Bob Irwin [Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel] at the helm - having pressings made for the small Fifo label in 1966. The regional success of that record, coupled with their impressive concerts in clubs around Los Angeles (they were one of few bands at the time that featured a light show accompanying their performances) nabbed them a 3-disc deal with Warner Bros record subsidiary, Reprise.
However, it soon became apparent that Markley would not be content acting as a silent partner – he would not only ingratiate himself by insisting on adding percussion during their recording sessions (word has it, Markley's percussive contributions were so out of time, the group members had the engineers mike it way down in the mix), but since he was about to become the band's sole lyricist, he soon took over, crediting Volume One to The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (which Danny, Shaun and Michael all despised for its unwieldy name) and presenting himself as the driving force – which in retrospect, wasn't entirely untrue.
On Part One (which Markley considered to be the band's proper debut, even though it was the follow-up to Volume One – which in itself, was cause for confusion with the similarity in their titles), his lyricism put a distinct imprint on the band's songwriting: from the charming “I Wont Hurt You” (sample lyric: “My pale blue star, my rainbow/How good it is to know you're like me/Strike me with your lightning/Bring me down, then bury me with ashes...”) which would predate Radiohead's pop minimalism by decades, to the brilliant “Transparent Day” (a marvelous slice of pop that bore a delicate familiarity to the Strawberry Alarm Clock), and the Love-informed ballad, “Will You Walk With Me”, Markley's touch was not only indelible, but fascinating. And as the band members began to actually experiment with combining divergent musical styles, it only served to highlight Markley's lyrical genius: sometimes twisted, sometimes haunting, sometimes scathingly political. The aforementioned “In The Arena” begins with a megaphoned voice (Markley's) announcing:
“In the arena, the crowd is restless/Tonight, one time only, 1500 white-collar, club-bearing policemen....the city's finest, will charge unarmed children, mothers, cripples, hippies,
freaks, professors, and other peace marchers/Never before have you been able to
witness so much cruelty, live and in color, in the privacy of your own room.”
And if that intro wasn't ballsy enough, a lingering, feedback-driven riff dissolves into a driving rock beat that is peppered with an ominous chant (ala The Electric Prunes' Mass In F Minor) before shifting a third time into that “peaceful people” passage, where Danny Harris appears to channel Sonny Bono's pop-protest songs of the same period. The tune ends with this reprieve from Markley:
“In the arena next week, in person/Due to popular demand/Negro looters of all ages will
be shot/Come early for the best seats/Come early, for the good times start at 2pm.”
Markley may have been raised in affluence, and likely spoiled as a child, but that did not stop him from having a strong proletarian ethic, eviscerating those with money and power in many of his song lyrics. Some of the titles alone are bellwethers of his hippie idealism: “Until The Poorest People Have Enough Money To Spend”, “Where Money Rules Everything”, “Anniversary Of World War III” (where Markley took a daring cue from minimalist composer John Cage, as the track is one minute and thirty-six seconds of total silence) and the biting “Carte Blanche”, where Markley's autobiographical lyrics muse on his relationship with hotel magnate progeny Trish Hilton:
“Hey Trish, come on home/You've been gone too long/Hey Trish, I tried to
phone/They say you're on an island/You left behind a hotel chain/And a stately
reputation/Hey Trish, you tried before/But can you make it on your own?”
Some critics might label Markley a hypocrite, seeing as he was not financially committed to many of the causes he vocally espoused through his lyrics, but I for one, don't doubt his sincerity. One of the recurring themes is the struggle to maintain a sense of innocence and idealism in the midst of a materialistic, violence-driven world:
“The stains of childhood cannot be erased/Like a paper tattoo/But babe,
don't let that drag you down, like they're expecting it to do”
- “Here's Where You Belong”
“Susanne, hunt for me/Every night, it's hard to sleep/The river takes
my years along/Susanne, hunt for me/I'm a desperate man/In
a land where so much is wrong/Where money rules everything”
- “Where Money Rules Everything”
“You can't change me into something that I'm not/I like too much
the rain, the power of my brain/The sunshine and the open road, ahead of me”
- “Eighteen Is Over The Hill”
While the seeds of Markley's world-weary and often childlike view were planted on Part One, his lyrical vision expanded on Volume Two: Breaking Through (1967) and A Child's Guide To Good And Evil (1967) - the former balanced trenchant numbers “In The Arena” and the minor radio hit, “Suppose They Give A War And No One Comes” (which made effective use of an anti-war speech made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) with beguiling love songs “Smell Of Incense” (co-written by guitarist Ron Morgan, [who replaced Lloyd at Markley's urging] and later covered in a substantially inferior version by Texas garage outfit Southwest F.O.B.) and the similarly sitar-enhanced “Buddha” whose lyrics are as inscrutable as they are catchy:
“You're so beautiful and naive/With bells on/Give me fantasy – tell me my
dreams/I want so hard to please you/Many times, too many times I see everything/
Just the way it is/Let me in, let me in, I'll give you candy/Let me in, let me in,
I'll give you avocados/That's much more than most people have to offer”
Next time: More on the band's accomplished fourth album, leaving Reprise, and the later
independent recordings by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.