The dark, mystical, poetic first album from Tom Rapp & Co. continues to fascinate in the form of a new 50th anniversary edition.
BY BARRY ST. VITUS
It’s not a stretch to proclaim the ‘60s as a dazzling renaissance of musical creativity and exploration that covered a wide spectrum of genres. A pie chart would show large portions of the sound rooted in blues and folk music, the rest in pop, R&B or garage. Pearls Before Swine started out in Florida, made a demo, sent it to Brooklyn label ESP-Disk, and were welcome aboard the label. The band headed north in the spring of ’67, and laid out the One Nation Underground album in three frantic days with the label’s in-house producer, Richard Anderson. It dropped in October of that year. Unfortunately, the band, like others on the label, like Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs found out, were paid practically zero for the album. Somehow, their second album, Balaklava, also ended up on ESP, but they moved on to Reprise and Blue Thumb in later years.
One Nation Underground is now reissued by Drag City as a 50th anniversary, mono-restored remaster; Anderson himself was responsible for this remastering and he has vastly improved the sound. At the time of its original release, it was a rather arcane oddity, even in an era of unbridled musical experimentation, with moody, atmospheric songs in a new, acid-folk genre, and played with odd-sounding and exotic instruments that sounded like they came off of The Garden Of Earthly Delights cover art by Hieronymus Bosch—guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, autoharp, vibraphone, English horn, harpsichord, clavioline, finger cymbals, celeste, organ, oscillator, sarangi, and the Swinehorn that multi-instrumentalist Lane Lederer created. Plus a banjo.
The music was dark, mystical, penned with much poetic license, and conjured an aural mustiness of medieval wooden objects in a museum. Many of leader/troubadour Tom Rapp’s future themes featured references to Jesus, but not quite in His current, familiar persona, but, rather one that presented Him more as a metaphysical and mystical being, separate of later church dogma and commercialization. Rapp’s lyrics are sagacious, vivid, and hallucinatory. His imagery redolent of olden times, velvet, lace, harps, harpsichords, lisping lepers, hunchbacks, and fair ladies.
Some of the music tread alongside the compositions of Dylan, Donovan, and the Incredible String Band, to some degree, but, was wholly in its own dimension. The ten tracks are each diverse enough to make the album sound more like a set on a radio show. “Another Time” is straight-ahead folk; the very Dylan-ish “Playmate,” with its top-heavy Farfisa and plinking banjo; the “Ballad To An Amber Lady”; and the gentle lushness of “Regions of May”—all are moody and hypnotic. “Drop Out!” shifts into sixties sentiment, with its suggestion of casting off society, again back to the folk mode. There’s also the oddball “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” (which actually does have Morse code in it that translates to “FUCK”), plus the raw, raging, anti-war, proto-punk “Uncle John,” and the mesmerizing psych of “I Shall Not Care.” The album finishes up with the aptly named, swoony, druggy (mostly) instrumental, “Surrealist Waltz.” (You can download a live 1998 version of “Miss Morse” HERE.)
Oddly enough, for all of its acid-flavored ambiance, Rapp had never done any drugs, mostly just riding high on tobacco—Winston cigarettes, to be exact. The album grew into a cult favorite, drawing in a wide audience of people as diverse as Iggy Pop and Leonard Cohen, whose cover of “Suzanne” the Pearls made their own on Balaklava, still my preferred version to this day. I was a teen when One Nation Underground was released, and I recall buying it based mostly on the cover art, but, soon fell under its numinous and haunting spell, and played it regularly. I eagerly snatched up Balaklava when it was released the following year, and was even more blown away by that sophomore release. Hopefully, there are plans in the works for its half-century anniversary release next year.
PBS had four final albums together before Rapp went solo, supporting acts like a young Patti Smith in ’76, before retiring from music for a while and entering a legal career as a civil rights attorney. He emerges occasionally for rare live shows, and has appeared at several Terrastock festivals, including the 1998 event San Francisco. He was a guest of mine on KALX Berkeley then, along with Nick Saloman of the Bevis Frond and Country Joe McDonald. And he also returned to the recording studio in 1999 to cut A Journal of the Plague Year for Saloman’s Woronzow label.