Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review: The Chocolate Watch Band's 'No Way Out' and 'The Inner Mystique'

That the musicians whose name appears on the album cover may have had little to do with the music inside was one of the great open secrets of the ‘60s record industry. The press crucified The Monkees when word got out that they didn’t play a note on “Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer”. Pet Sounds was regarded as a work of tremendous artistic value (particularly in the UK), yet it is essentially a Brian Wilson solo project, the other Beach Boys having contributed little instrumentally and recording vocals under their leader’s direction in the same way, say, studio musician Hal Blaine laid down his drums. But the bands understood these particular arrangements. Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter understood they’d been hired to play the roles of a band on a TV show, and only rebelled and demanded to record their own music after the press started ridiculing them. Mike, Carl, Dennis, and Al recognized Brian’s genius, and only deposed him from the producer’s chair when they felt his ambitions had gotten too ambitious during the SMiLE sessions.

The Chocolate Watch Band’s situation was a lot sloppier.

The Chocolate Watch Band was San Francisco’s top garage band, a group that continued bashing out Stones and Soul covers with maximum chutzpah and minimum frills even after their neighbors had started dazing off into marathon jams. At times this is the band that appeared on the records that bore the “Chocolate Watch Band” label. At other times, it was this band—but fronted by a session singer (and that’s a trick The Monkees and The Beach Boys never dared pull). Sometimes the real Watch Band had literally nothing to do with their recordings, producer Ed Cobb and engineer Richie Podolor bringing in both studio singer Don Bennett and a cast of studio musicians to cut bizarre psychedelic opuses under the banner of The Chocolate Watch Band.

Understandably, the group was shocked and revolted by Cobb and Podolor’s tampering and came to consider their albums entities completely unrelated to the real Chocolate Watch Band. They continued playing their Stones and soul covers on stage and left the trippy experimentation to albums they had little hand in making.

As is the case with The Monkees’ first couple of records, the synthetic creation of No Way Out and The Inner Mystique does not mean this is unworthy music. In fact, these records are shockingly vital and unpretentious in spite of their contrived creations. Yes, that is Bennett taking center stage on “Let’s Talk About Girls”, the pulsing nugget that kicks off No Way Out (1967). But with all apologies to Dave Aguilar, the band’s rightful singer, a great track is a great track. Still, it is strange that Cobb felt it necessary to replace Aguilar with Bennett on several of the album’s vocal tracks, since his totally commanding and quite archetypal soul roar is more accessible than Bennett’s strange, twenty-fathom bass. One certainly doesn’t miss Bennett when the band’s real singer does his convincing Jagger impersonation on a psych-tinged reading of Chuck Berry’s “Come On”, the menacing singles “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love In)” and “No Way Out”, and the spellbinding Bo Diddley-raga “Gone and Passes By”.

But credit where credit is due, Cobb and Podolor’s band-less instrumentals are pretty delectable psychedelic-era mood music. Spaghetti Western guitars, overzealous echo, celestial organs, funky percussion, ample fuzz. Their outrageously dated titles—“Dark Side of the Mushroom” and “Expo 2000”—just contribute to their retro-charm.

No Way Out may not be an accurate representation of The Chocolate Watch Band, but it is a beautifully blended collaboration between the raw garage rockers who deserve that name and the studio Svengalis who assumed it. The Inner Mystique (1968) splits those two poles dramatically. Cobb and Podolor take over side one. The Watch Band contributes absolutely nothing to the Bennett-sung cover of We the People’s “In the Past” or the ornate instrumentals “Voyage of the Trieste” and “Inner Mystique”, which toss sitar, flute, and alto sax into the increasingly jazzy psychedelic gumbo. Side two is The Chocolate Watch Band at their most naked, rampaging through a set of Kinks, Dylan (by way of Them), Brogues, Standells, and Hank Ballard covers, only occasionally supplemented with a Bennett vocal. Inner Mystique is disjointed in a way No Way Out isn’t. Because the Watch Band doesn’t do anything particularly radical with their covers, the producers’ gorgeous tracks win this schizophrenic tug-of-war.

Sundazed Records has now given No Way Out and The Inner Mystique a fresh remastering job. What the hell is this label’s secret? It somehow always manages to present these old records with the warmth and depth of vinyl and the clarity and crispness of CD. These discs sound fabulous, though Jud Cost’s liner notes completely gloss over the fascinatingly convoluted stories behind these albums in favor of routine tales of the Watch Band’s formation and roadwork. So uninformed listeners may be confused by the strange inconsistency of these records. Yet they’ll probably still dig the strangeness and the inconsistency that gives them so much personality.

Get Sundazed’s Chocolate Watch Band reissues at Amazon.com here:
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