Journalist Lester Bangs, never known for understatement, wrote in Creem magazine in 1971 that ESP-Disk’ was, “the most prototypically Underground record company in America”. This, for once, wasn’t entirely Bangsian hyperbole. ESP-Disk’ was a record label that proudly sheltered artists who did not want to concede to the mainstream. It had its statement of intent printed on each release: The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk’.
The label’s founder was Bernard Stollman, a lawyer by training and a progressive by nature. He had undertaken legal work for a number of years with African-American artists, particularly drawn to those who adopted an experimental approach to musical idioms. Improvisational jazz-based music was his special passion, and this was well represented on his label. Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman all recorded for Stollman.
ESP-Disk’s first release was the Esperanto-language Ni Kantu En Esparantu, in 1963, and, for years, all ESP-Disk’ releases carried Esperanto-translated mail order information. Even the label name itself reflected Stollman’s interest in the artificial language. Stollman had found putting out Ni Kantu En Esparantu an enjoyable and relatively simple exercise. He decided to use his new label for all manner of niche interests; records that were not necessarily commercially viable but that he felt were artistic in their approach. Aside from jazz, experimental rock was another sturdy plank of the label – the ESP-Disk’ roster boasting The Fugs and The Godz – and it also became on of the first enclaves for a new breed of adventurous, psychedelic, US folk music.
No one act wore that badge more convincingly than Pearls Before Swine. “I wrote a song in 1954, when I was seven, called ‘The End Of The Trail’ about a dying cowboy,” says Tom Rapp, the group’s founder and leader. “Looking back, I realise I must have been this strange all my life”. Born in Bottineau, North Dakota, Rapp had begun playing music at a very young age, learning his craft from local musicians and eccentrics. His parents nurtured his precocious talent, entering him into local talent shows – once alongside a certain Bobby Zimmerman. “Both of us lost to a little girl in a red, sequined dress who twirled baton”, remembers Rapp.
In 1966, after Rapp had graduated from high school, he was involved in a car accident. “I remember lying there thinking the universe doesn’t care at all, the only thing holding us up is us. And then I thought, there’s a song there. . .” Tom Rapp wrote the first Pearls Before Swine song, ‘Another Time’, about the experience.
Rapp, along with his friends Wayne Harley, Lane Lederer and Roger Crissinger, often played music while hanging out; so when Rapp found that, following on from ‘Another Time’, songs were flowing to him, the quartet would work them up together. Rapp decided to send these songs to The Fugs’ label, as he was a fan of the band. A positive telegram whizzed back from ESP-Disk’ and soon Pearls Before Swine were preparing to cut their first album.
Rapp drew on a wide range of influences for his songs. Alongisde the personal experience of ‘Another Time’, ‘Uncle John’ and ‘Drop Out!’ were two songs related to Rapp’s anti-establishment and anti-war views. Still other songs were a product of his erudition and fascination with history. There was also a streak of Fugs-like insolence, most notably on ‘Oh Dear (Miss Morse)’ which spelled out F-U-C-K in Morse Code. “I looked up Morse code in a Boy Scout manual and tried L-O-V-E but that didn’t work metrically, but F-U-C-K did”, he says. “God’s will there, I think.”
One Nation Underground was released in spring 1967, with the ‘Hell’ panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights on the front cover. “We always thought, ‘who wants to see four more white guys on a record covers?'”, says Rapp. “We didn’t care about being famous. Also, having no photographs allowed for the creation of weird myths – that we were all in our sixties; we had a dwarf drummer; we were really well-known musicians doing experimental projects…” The artwork’s nightmarish intensity echoed Rapp’s fragile, mystic voice and the crooked acoustic apparitions within. Perhaps surprisingly, given its idiosyncrasies, the album was a strong seller. Pearls Before Swine presumed royalties would come to them somewhere down the line. When ESP-Disk’ asked them to do another album, Rapp readily agreed. “Balaklava was always going to be an anti-war concept album”, says Rapp of the second album, named after a battle in the Crimean War, recorded during the Vietnam conflict and brimming with dystopian and historical titles like ‘Lepers And Roses’, ‘Trumpeter Landfrey’ and ‘Florence Nightingale’. “I had recordings of the actual bugle sounded at the Charge of the Light Brigade, in the Battle of Balaklava in 1854, and of Florence Nightingale, who treated soldiers as a nurse there. It was the last time that war could seriously be considered ‘glorious'”. In contrast to the impromptu way One Nation Underground had come to life, Balaklava took 18 months from concept to vinyl. “It took so long because all the time people were leaving the group, other people were joining, others were in college and couldn’t get away,” said Rapp back in December 1968 in an interview with The New York Times. “We recorded things, and a month later they sounded awful. Eventually it got done.” Balaklava was more polished, but n less poetic than its predecessor. The scratchy ‘samples’ of the bugler, Trumpeter Landfrey and of Nightingale, lend subtle pathos and locate the album far from the direct simplicity of most folk protest songs. It was the pity of war as lamented by the psychedelic ’60s.
Again, the group resisted showing itself on the album’s front cover and used a painting instead; ‘The Triumph Of Death’ by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, a macabre panorama depicting the skeletons slaughtering the living. On the reverse, Rapp chose the cold turkey drawings of Jean Cocteau from his Opium autobiography. “They seemed to express all the pain in the world”, says Rapp. “Perfect”.
After Balaklava – another successful album sales-wise- Pearls Before Swine made no further records for ESP-Disk’. Although Rapp appreciated the ethos of the label, grateful for Stollman’s pioneer mettle, there was one big problem. They never got any money. After Balaklava, Pearls Before Swine inked a deal with Reprise, as did The Fugs, another band sick of not being paid.
In The Fugs’ first line-up were two folk musicians, Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel, better known as The Holy Modal Rounders. This duo could easily lay claim to have kick started the whole psychedelic folk sound in the US. Together since 1963, their first two albums had been released on Prestige; their self-titled debut contained the first use of the word ‘psychedelic’ in popular music. In contrast to the considered introspection of Pearls Before Swine, the Holy Modal Rounders’ records were anarchic and impulsive, deriving inspiration from goofy, old-time Americana as much as contemporary folk and rock sources. However, Stampfel and Weber, the latter a particularly combustible character, had fallen out and the band ceased to exist in 1965. Stampfel also quit playing in The Fugs at around the same time, while Weber continued, only to be kicked out shortly afterwards when they too ran out of patience with the bedlam that followed in his wake.
In early 1967, Bernard Stollman rang Stampfel, urging him to consider a Holy Modal Rounders album for ESP-Disk’. Stampfel told him of the problems with Weber: he wouldn’t rehearse; he wouldn’t commit; he couldn’t be forced to do anything. Stollman didn’t share Stampfel’s concerns and he persuaded the Holy Modal Rounders, now comprising Stampfel, Weber, Sam Shepard (then a budding playwright and drummer and Lee Crabtree, into the studio. During the sessions, Stampfel and Weber were speeding and completely unrehearsed. The resulting album was Indian War Whoop, released on ESP-Disk’ in 1967. Today, Stampful dislikes the record intensely, regarding it as sloppy, and a crystallization of all the problems he’d warned Stollman about. Furthermore, Stampfel didn’t attend mix sessions, a decision he also now regrets. “If you make an album, you gotta be there when it’s mixed because if you’re not, things will happen that will make you very unhappy,” he says. One of the decisions taken without the band’s consent was to dispense with gaps between the songs for a more overtly psychedelic effect.
Indian War Whoop is certainly very, very different from the first two Holy Modal Rounders records, and also quite unlike the gently surreal glide of label-mates Pearls Before Swine. The deranged skillet-licker feel in still in there, but now it’s encircled in a hoop of full-on psychedelia and spaced-out improvisation, which doesn’t always work, meaning the Rounders lose some of their special individuality. But it nevertheless has some significant moments. Traditional folksong, represented by ‘Sweet Apple Cider’, ‘Soldier’s Joy’ and ‘Bay Rum Blues’, is deconstructed to a kind of babbling extent which the Rounders (or anyone else for that matter) had only previously hinted at. The spoken-word interludes and hallucinogenic tableau move the first two albums’ warped folk music decisively into the summer of 1967. If nothing else, the album got the Rounders back together, even if it only lasted as long as the studio time.
The Rounders made just this one record for ESP-Disk’, and, like Pearls Before Swine, received no royalties for it (although Stampfel mentions that, in 1966, Stollman gave him $200 — royalties from the Fugs’ debut album). When Indian War Whoop was done, Stampfel once more vowed never to work with Weber again — a pledge that wouldn’t even last as long as the one he had made in 1965.
Although the riot that was Indian War Whoop and the plaintive intensity of the two Pearls Before Swine albums are ESP-Disk’s best-known experimental folk albums, the label also put out a number of less successful, now barely recalled, albums in the genre. Randy Burns flirted with psychedelic touches on his three loner-folk albums for the imprint. Lesser-heard still were the albums released on ESP-Disk’s short-lived Oro subsidiary, launched in 1967. Planned as a ‘pop’ label, of its four LP releases, three were folkish. There was an album by Todd Kelley, originally self-titled but reissued under the name Folksinger, capturing the sensitivity of the New York strummer; an effort by All That The Name Implies, Side One (Play The Other Side First) — a far more hippie-oriented record, bristling with tambourines, congas and idealism; and then there was Bruce MacKay. His 1967 album, Midnight Minstrel, seems indebted to Tim Buckley and perhaps even Pearls Before Swine. It wasn’t a particularly original listen, but the album proved that new slants on folk were quickly starting to filter through.
Bernard Stollman has claimed that, by 1968, ESP-Disk’ were attracting attention from the US government and/or the Mafia. Distribution deals in Japan and Europe mysteriously fell through and the pressing plant was allegedly bootlegging ESP-Disk’ releases. “It is a mystery, and whether the US government got involved, I can’t even begin to guess”, Stollman told the All About Jazz website in 2005. “We had been effectively out of business since ’68, but for six years we kept going on money we had in the bank.” Stollman has also alleged he got a call from Elektra president Jac Holzman, encouraging him to sell up to Warner Brothers, and that that furthermore, The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine move away from the label was engineered by the government to silence the two bands’ anti-war stance.
Unsurprisingly, neither The Fugs nor Pearls Before Swine see it this way. “The Fugs’ relationship with ESP records was, to mildly state it, turbulent”, runs The Fugs’ official history on their website. “We were told, for instance, that the Mafia was illegally manufacturing Fugs records and selling them. We can be forgiven for not really believing that the Genovese crime family would bother with the Fugs, when there were the Beatles, the Stones, Mantovani, and Petula Clark to rip off.” Rapp is even more forthright when it comes to Stollman’s story. “My real sense is that he was abducted by aliens, and when he was probed, it erased his memory of where all the money was. I think that probably makes as much sense as the Mafia and the CIA,” he told Jason Weiss for the forthcoming book Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America.
Nevertheless, the release schedule soldiered on into the late 1960s. It was then that two novel records by true originals were recorded but which — perhaps due to ESP-Disk’s financial, or perceived political, troubles —were very poorly distributed. Even when judged by ESP-Disk’s recondite standards, they languished in obscurity for decades.
The first of these was by an artist that even the Pearls Before Swine leader found outlandish. In a video blog uploaded to YouTube in 2010, the enigmatic singer-songwriter Ed Askew reminisced about the time the group visited his apartment in the late ’60s. “I remember Tom Rapp saying Stollman had sent him a bunch of records and they had listened to my record and they thought it was really strange”, he recalls with a chortle.
Ed Askew had performed at poetry events while an art student at Yale University. One of the unique features of his act was his choice of instrument, something he had been playing since his teens: a tiple. This is a small instrument, with superficial similarities to a ukulele and lute, and a history dating back to 16th century Colombia. Askew’s tiple was a US-manufactured Martin instrument, a ten-string with four courses, the outer courses having two strings, the inner three. It is complex to play, and sounds like it. When Askew moved to New York, he began to work the Greenwich Village circuit, taking the tiple and singing at basket houses. An onlooker suggested he get in touch with Bernard Stollman. A 1968 album for ESP-Disk’ resulted, originally self-titled but soon reissued as Ask The Unicorn, the title by which it’s more commonly known. Ask The Unicorn’s personal subjects are embedded in dreamlike verse; this nuanced and opaque lyricism betrays Askew’s familiarity with poetry readings. The tiple-playing, which gives the songs an echoic texture, akin to a symphony through a telescope, is offset by the harrowing quality of Askew’s voice. He has claimed his vocals sound so stressed because the tiple was such a difficult instrument to play, requiring his full concentration. It is an utterly compelling album. Askew almost immediately laid down the follow up, Little Eyes — a more delicate creature than Ask The Unicorn, with calmer vocals. It was recorded cheaply as a virtual live performance. However, by 1970, ESP-Disk’ was losing money hand over fist, and Little Eyes stayed in the vaults.
The second of ESP-Disk’s later folk mavericks was a man named Jim Holberg. While living in Lancaster, California, he bought a motorcycle from a colleague. Testing it out that very same night, he collided with a Chevy Corvette filled with drunken teenagers who had run a red light. The result for Holberg was a fractured skull, spinal meningitis, hearing impairment and an epiphany. He became convinced that conventional life was not for him. The insurance money from the accident allowed Mij (as he was now calling himself) to buy a good guitar and to travel, so he went to Boston. “I was in the park trying to see how high I could get my voice to go, when suddenly it cracked from a weak falsetto to another range that doesn’t sound false and is strong and carries for blocks”, Mij recalls. Not only did this new voice give his music an inimitable quality, it opened up his mind further to the possibility that, somehow, the music that was flowing through him was the product of a greater force. Mij was singing in New York’s Washington Square one Sunday when Stollman approached him with an offer to record for ESP-Disk’.
The music on Mij’s album, originally titled Color Mij By The Number but reissued as Yodeling Astrologer, streamed out in a haphazard but, as Mij saw it, predestined fashion. “The songs that were me, most of the time came out in twenty minutes’ writing, like ‘Planet Of A Flower'”, he says. The album’s most unusual track, ‘Grok (Martian Love Call)’ was largely a matter of studio experimentation. “I didn’t have a high voice song written yet, so I took stuff out of my head and worked it into a song right there.” The contents of his head included whistling, vocal pops and clicks, snatches of the spiritual ‘Sinnerman’ and an invented language, delivered in high-pitched yelping dissonance. Elsewhere, Mij claims he was attempting to write Dylan-esque songs, notably ‘Door Keys’ and ‘Look Into The (K)night’, but even these are exceptionally far out, especially the latter with its angular strumming and heavy reverb. The engineer Onno Scholtze was on hand to even out Mij’s flights of fancy, making them work on record without losing their spontaneity. Mij was unhappy that he only got very limited studio time from ESP-Disk’. “I told them to write on the album that it was made in only three hours, because I didn’t have a chance to fix any of my mistakes”, he says. “It makes it total ad lib. Also, all those funny things I put in, and the mistakes… losing my place in the song and trying to get back to the verse that I forgot … it was a mess, really, but it was also a miracle how everything came out.”
ESP-Disk’ continued limping on until 1974 when, Bernard Stollman claims, the bootlegging had structurally damaged the label so fatally that it made continuing in any form unfeasible. Stollman has also alleged that, in its dying days, the CIA planted a staff member at ESP-Disk’ to deliberately undermine the company from within. Whatever the truth, it was a messy and inglorious finale.
Despite its corner-cutting, questionable financial policies, and sometimes fraught relationships with its artists, ESP-Disk’ provided one of the earliest homes for the stranger end of folk music in the US. The albums from this period are a microcosm of how far folk could stretch, given unfettered artistic control, and of just how beautiful and weird folk music could be. These records would prove both a touchstone for and an alternative narrative to a blooming psychedelic folk movement in the America beyond the ESP-Disk’ cloisters.
Seasons They Change: The Story Of Acid, Psych and Experimental Folk by Jeanette Leech is published by Jawbone Books in early 2011