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In author Richie Unterberger's estimation, no other decade produced as much great music as the '60s. Of the many overlooked geniuses of that era, the author has chosen 19 to profile in his latest book, Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock. And all of them are artists whose boldly creative efforts revealed "a search, conscious or unconscious, for artistic expression that led them down previously uncharted paths." In contrast to Unterberger's previous homage to underrated artists, 1998's Unknown Legends of Rock and Roll, Urban Spacemen is limited to cult figures from the '60s.
The author's own introduction to these off-the-commercial-radar visionaries occurred in 1979, when he discovered Love's 1967 Forever Changes LP ("Its greatness was an indication that there was far more terrific music out there awaiting discovery than I ever knew existed"). Unterberger chooses to focus on those artists that he felt "passionately curious about," and his choices reflect the eclectic nature of that decade's ever-changing musical spectrum. With a foreword by Paul Kantner, who praises "the path less traveled" of the musical visionaries found on the following pages, Urban Spacemen relies heavily on the author's first-person interviews. Some of his subjects freely discuss their past work, while others are slightly more reluctant. But Unterberger, always careful not to offend, doesn't press his recalcitrant subjects when they get vague on the details. Each profile includes Unterberger's richly descriptive commentary of his subjects' musical output and ends with a list of recommended recordings. (Just one gripe: It would have been better if the old photos included in the book had been accompanied by some updated ones.)
The music business's apparent indifference to making stars of these artists didn't seem to matter to many of the musicians, whose creative instincts took precedence over commercial aspirations. That includes London's the Pretty Things, who played blues and R&B-style rock "with a savage power second to none in the mid-1960s." You can't help but wonder if guitarist Dick Taylor's assertion that "commercial success was never particularly on our agenda" isn't a way to ease his pain over the band's failure to take advantage of the British Invasion by touring the States in the '60s (a baffling decision made by the group's co-manager).
The Electric Prunes, on the other hand, hit commercial pay dirt on one of the first psychedelic hits ever, 1967's "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)," yet theirs is a tale of frustrated artistic ambitions. Thwarted by music execs who didn't permit them to record much of their own material or even select their own songs, the Prunes nevertheless managed to display a real knack for studio trickery and special effects.
Unterberger's inclusion of Bobby Fuller (who scored big with 1966's "I Fought the Law") is because of the immensely ambitious Texan's "dedication to artistic expression equal to that of any of the more avant-garde musicians in this volume." With his teen-idol good looks and Buddy Holly fixation, Fuller was on his way to finding his own sound before his gruesome death at age 23, attributed to asphyxia due to inhalation of gasoline (inexplicably ruled an accident, despite the mutilated condition of his body). The author lauds Fuller's DIY ethic -- he built his own studio, released his own records and was an engineer and producer with a growing desire to concentrate on recording rather than touring -- unusual for the time.
One of Unterberger's more wary -- and interesting -- subjects is Mike Brown, keyboardist and composer for the Left Banke ("Walk Away Renee," "Pretty Ballerina"), who becomes uncomfortable discussing his musical past. With his deft melding of pop and classical forms, Brown has been heard from little since the '70s, yet he remains a prolific writer who has simply chosen not to release his work and doesn't seem particularly interested in discussing the reason. (Brown's contempt for what he calls the "impersonal and aesthetically sterile machinations of today's music industry" offers a good clue.) Brown, who bristles at the very notion of changing his music to meet commercial demands, calls the idea of someone trying to alter his music "really sick" (though he's currently writing a solo instrumental project that he hopes will garner him a cult following) and remains in thrall of the transformative power of a great tune. "All these good songs, they take you somewhere," he says. "If it takes you to the subway station, it's not the greatest thing. But if it takes you somewhere higher, it's a good thing."
It may have been their nationality that kept the Mexican American band Thee Midniters from achieving any real success outside of their native East L.A. Unterberger calls them "the best Latin rock band of the 1960s," because their dynamic rock-soul confections contained elements of psychedelic music and Mexican-style boleros. Bassist Jimmy Espinoza describes to the author the frustration of being "put in the Latin bag," stressing that "the '60s were integrated, the whole peace, love, black, white, brown, we're all the same -- that's who we were."
Unterberger cites folk-rock pioneer Dino Valenti's personality as the main factor that doomed his chances of achieving a big commercial breakthrough. With an "inimitable talent for alienating people" (ironically, Valenti wrote the peace-and-love anthem "Get Together," popularized by the Youngbloods), Valenti's wildly strummed guitar and intense singing style conveyed a solid rock 'n' roll attitude, yet he never succeeded in getting into a big rock group when the folk-rock sound exploded. It didn't help that Valenti's refusal to listen to anyone and his distaste for the recording process and publicity resulted in a series of missed opportunities.