One album wonders: The United States of America's The United States of America

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 19, 2015 06:23am | Post a Comment

During the Album Era (mid 1960s-mid 2000s), the LP was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. Some bands recorded just one album during their time and, whether popular or not, they are the so-called one album wonders


The focus of this edition of one album wonders is United States of America, a band formed and led byJoseph Byrd for a couple of years in the late 1960s. Their sole album, United States of America, only reached 181 on the Billboard charts after its released but has in the years since achieved well-deserved cult status. 

Byrd was a composer born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised in Tucson, Arizona. In Arizona he’d played in various popcountry, and jazz ensembles before moving to California to attend Stanford University. At Stanford he met avant-garde composer La Monte Young. After relocating to New York, La Monte Young and Yoko Ono curated a series of performances, the Chambers Street loft concerts, which featured pieces by Henry Flynt, Jackson Mac Low, and Byrd -- part of the embryonic art scene which would eventually emerge as the Fluxus movement.

In 1963, Byrd began a relationship with Dorothy Moskowitz and the two relocated to Los Angeles where at UCLA Byrd co-founded the New Music Workshop with Don EllisCraig Woodson, and others. Four years later, in 1967, Byrd recruited Moskowitz (the two had by then separated) to sing in a band he'd formed with Woodson (on percussion), called United States of America. Other early members included Michael Agnello and Stu Brotman (bassist in Canned Heat and Kaleidoscope). The band were later joined by Gordon Marron (electric violin and ring modulator), and Rand Forbes (bass).

In December, 1967 the United States of America recorded what was to be their sole album, an eponymous concept album. Some reviews have suggested that there was nothing else like the United States of America at the time, which overstates their experimentalism and gives the impression that the band were something other than what they really where, which was a top psychedelic band with heavy use of electronics. The results aren't entirely dissimilar to those of bands like Fifty Foot HoseThe Fugs, Jefferson Airplane, The Red Crayola, and Silver Apples

Lead track "The American Metaphysical Circus," for example, emerges from a cacophonous collage of circus music into something from the same corner of the universe as The Monkees' "Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)." "Hard Coming Love," released as the album's single, is acid rock, albeit acid rock which prominently features violin and electronics. At other times the album sounds like a more left field Left Banke or The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." In other words, one foot is solidly on pop ground -- which is by no means a slight, but rather a counter to the narrative offered by some less charitable reviewers that the band's music is "just noise," which is far from true.

The recording of the album included contributions from Ed Bogas on keyboards, who signed on as a full-time member when the band toured the East Coast. In 1968, another single single “The Garden of Earthly Delights” b/w “Love Song For The Dead Ché” was only released in Europe. The band's tour was apparently plagued with difficulties. The early synthesizers could be described as temperamental and three members were arrested in Orange County for possession of marijuana before a performance, which left Byrd and Moskowitz alone to perform on the concert. After the tour the band members went their separate ways.

Byrd formed Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies (who were incidentally another one-album wonder), and went on to release two solo albums in the mid-1970s, A Christmas Yet to Come and Yankee Transcendoodle. He also scored several films (Agnès Varda's Lions Love, Bruce Clark's 1971 The Ski Bum, and and Robert Altman's H.E.A.L.T.H) and taught music courses at several colleges. Moskowitz (later Moskowitz-Falarski) performed with Country Joe McDonald's All-Star Band and later taught music in the San Francisco Bay area. Marron worked as a Los Angeles studio musician and later moved Hawaii. Woodson too has taught music and performed with the Kronos Quartet. Forbes pursued work in computers. Rogas composed music for several animated works, most infamously (with Ray Shanklin), Fritz the Cat. Since 1992, The United States of America has been issued and re-issued on compact disc several times and in 2008, on hi-def vinyl by Sundazed.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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Dorothy Moskowitz (1), Acid Rock (3), One Album Wonders (63), Psychedelia (20), The United States Of America (1), Acid Rock (3), Joseph Byrd (1), Album Era (2)