Now Spinning: Five Man Electrical Band

Between the band’s completely insane Five Man Electrical Band name and the British Invasion-inspired styling on the LP cover, it sure is clear that this one comes straight out of the 1960s. As someone with a soft spot for the era and open ears, especially for those lesser known bands that may not have made it all that far from their original garage formation space, I’ll roll the dice on just about anything at the right price. I had fairly low expectations for this one – figuring I was in for some pleasant if unremarkable cliche-filled, sunshine-y pop, somewhere between The Association and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. It might make me tap my foot, it might make me want to throw up… but for a couple of bucks, what the hell, let’s find out. And while that Summer of Love influence unquestionably pervades, and in the occasionally cheesy manner, what I found upon listening was actually quite a bit more complex and carefully developed, holding up surprisingly well years later.

The album opens on an almost comically predictable note, with a gentle staccato guitar riff and keyboard drone reminiscent of Ray Manzarek and The Doors, backing an airy vocal from leader Les Emmerson that is joined for soaring harmonies by the end of the first verse. But the song is immediately distinguished by a remarkable transition into an addictive bridge complete with rolling fingerpicking, gentle harmonies, hand claps and even melodica – that might make Paul McCartney jealous. At the same time, lyrically, lines like ‘Life is just one continuous bad disillusioning dream to anyone who tries to reach for the sky and gets caught living in between’ and ‘Minstrel, minstrel play your song and go away / Minstrel, minstrel hang on tomorrow’s another day’ suggest a darkness, and perhaps a disillusionment with their musician career choice, that stands out in stark contrast to the lighthearted harmonies.

Musically, the album is very familiar for its time but delivered with a touch more creativity than one might expect for songs that stay very comfortably in the psychedelic pop vein. There’s no overload of fuzzed out wah-wah guitars or other indulgences of instrumental psychedelia here, with intricate, The Beach Boys-inspired vocal harmonies dominating over the instrumentation. In fact, unless you count a couple of very brief swelling organ breaks, there are no instrumental solos on the album at all. More often than not, a gently propulsive bass is the leading instrument, but little details – like the strings on ‘Half Past Midnight’ and ‘Runnin’ Back To You’, psychedelic Leslie Speaker vocal effects on ‘Private Train’ or flowery organ on ‘Maple Lane’ – keep things plenty interesting. The songs are short and straightforward, and in less than a half hour, the LP is over – and there’s nothing wrong with that! The Five Man Electrical Man debut is hardly a lost gem of the psychedelic era, but a catchy and very enjoyable listen recommended for fans of The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Hollies, The Growing Concern etc.

Funny enough, I’ve learned that Five Man Electrical Band did have a brush with success and a hit on their next album, in 1971. The single ‘Signs’ climbed all the way to #3, ending 1971 as #24 on the Billboard chart. An iconic, if perhaps rather derivative, track of the counterculture, the song opens with ‘And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply’” and features one of rock and roll’s all-time defiant ‘huh’ grunts, but seems to have been forgotten over the years, along with its creators. It’s easy to imagine an alternative universe where this song is released in 1968, winds up on the Easy Rider soundtrack, and catapults the Five Man Electrical Band to stardom. But Five Man Electrical Band were from Canada, not California, and it took years to attract the attention of Capitol for a major record deal, by which time their style sound was already falling out of vogue. While the ‘Signs’ single became an (unexpected) hit in 1971, the LP received very little promotion or label support and was even removed from stores due to a marijuana plant on the cover, and this little electrical band fizzled out shortly after.

Recommended Tracks: “Five Man Electrical Band”, “Maple Lane”, “Black Sheep Of The Family”, “Didn’t Know The Time”

Turntable: Dual 1225
Amplifier: Realistic STA-90
Speakers: EPI M50

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