1960s Bay Area pioneers Fifty Foot Hose were too far out even for the hippies (think: Jefferson Airplane meets Stockhausen), opening shows with “Do The Dog” and closing them with room-clearing “electronic freakouts”. Half a century later, they’re still ahead of the pack.
Nobody “got” Fifty Foot Hose. They were probably the world’s first electronic rock band, but in 1967 that meant diddly-squat. They emerged from the heart of the late-’60s Haight-Ashbury scene, but the hippies didn’t get them.
“[The hippies] were just as pedestrian as people 20 years earlier who were listening to Perry Como and Frank Sinatra,” remembers bandleader Cork Marcheschi. “If you were not playing within their ballpark, you might as well have been Perry Como or Frank Sinatra. We were perceived as weird, because, you know, the psychedelic people were pretty parochial in their musical taste, and if you pushed them a little bit, they kind of backed off and looked at you funny.”
The company that released their landmark 1967 album Cauldron didn’t get them. “The large record labels just did not understand this music,” says Marcheschi, “like they didn’t understand punk, like they didn’t understand rhythm and blues. I really think the strategy was, ‘Let’s just put a bunch of these bands out and see if anybody gets interested in any of them.’ We get the LP out and we’re all kind of expecting something to happen and nothing happened.”
The press didn’t get them. “We couldn’t get reviewed to save our lives,” recalls Marcheschi, “we couldn’t get anything. One little blurb that we got from Ralph J. Gleason was, ‘I don’t know if they’re immature or premature.’ We basically could not get arrested.”
Even the audiences didn’t get them. “You’d be left with two to three people out of maybe a 75-person house that you had driven out,” Marcheschi remembers. “The worst situation ever was when we played the Bermuda Palms in San Rafael. We had a five-night run and after the second night the guy started changing the name of the band on the marquee for the last three nights.”
The other electro-psych bands that followed in their wake, like Silver Apples, United States of America, and Lothar & The Hand People, didn’t exactly race up the charts either, but at least they earned a bit of attention at the time. Our intrepid trailblazers, however, might as well have been peddling diaphragms in a convent. It all made perfect sense to them, of course. “We’d sort of decided that if you pull the electrical cord out of the wall on a rock band, the entire thing goes silent, so it must be electronic music,” explains Marcheschi.
The man whose homemade electronics set the band apart from the paisley hoi polloi was admittedly coming from a place not a little removed from the usual rock ‘n’ roll inspirations. “Edgard Varese…Jackson Pollock…the Japanese Gutai group that were doing this theater where three or four people would come out covered in mud and scream and holler and, with axes, destroy a piano that was amplified. That’s the stuff that was really turning me on,” Marcheschi enthuses.
Ironically, it was in the Summer of Love that Marcheschi met a likeminded guitarist named David Blossom, when both young men were gigging in conventional rock and R&B bands. “David and I just hit it off instantaneously,” Marcheschi says. “He talked about psychedelic music and I talked about electronic music and avant-garde music and musique concrete.” The very next day they got together to see what would happen if Blossom’s psychedelic leanings collided with Marcheschi’s interest in the avant-garde experimentalism.
“I was making electronic sculpture,” says Marcheschi, “with motors and lights and buzzers and things that made sound, and doing sound installations with Theremins in my sculpture, so that when you approached the sculpture, the thing would kind of start to produce sound.”
A couple of other rockers intrigued by the avant-garde had taken a stab at incorporating experimental/electronic influences into their music. There was The Beatles’ notorious, never-released “Carnival of Light” and The Mothers of Invention’s “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” but even the most forward-looking rockers had never dreamed of basing their entire sound on such an approach. In that sense the budding 50 Foot Hose was truly in uncharted territory.
“David, his [vocalist] wife Nancy, and I just started to talk about, ‘Let’s do something really interesting and different with music, something that other people aren’t doing yet,” Marcheschi remembers. “So we found some people that would do what we wanted to do, or at least would try it. We went through three different drummers before we ended up with Jerome Kimsey, who was really quite good and really understood where we were going. Larry Evans, our rhythm guitar player, I think was just so stoned that he could get into this space. The rest of the band was straight. Dave and I weren’t drinkers or drug people. But Larry made up for the rest of the band. He really did himself in. And we never really had a [permanent] bass player, we had a continuous turnover of bass players.”
Marcheschi, who had previously played bass in The Ethix and other bands, reveled in his newfound freedom and went full-on mad scientist with his DIY electronic arsenal. Reeling off his extensive bag of homemade tricks with the gloriously geeky enthusiasm of a kid showing you his rock collection, he recounts, “I had two audio generators, a Klemt Echolette, which was a German, three-headed variable-speed tape loop, several microphones and old Shure mixers, tiny electronic kits that you could buy from Radio Shack — one was supposed to be an electronic organ; the thing could have never been used for anything like that, we ended up naming it a Squeaky Box because it sounded like you were torturing mice. There was a thing called Electronic Bongos that basically gave you 60-cycle hum and picked up random radio stations and police calls. There was a siren, which we just bastardized and you would pick up fragments of rising and falling pitches. Then I had an old Dan Electro guitar that I just used for feedback, and two Theremins.”
Incorporating his fine arts training, Marcheschi’s aforementioned “electronic sculptures” were wonders to behold as well as hear. He describes one as “A WWII plastic 12-inch outdoor speaker that had come off of a Navy ship so it was weather resistant. And we had that turned so it faced straight up, and I would support ball bearings on it and then put very low bass tones through it. So the ball bearings would not only just rumble, you could see from the audience these steel balls jumping and clacking and banging as they dropped back into the speaker.”
But exposing the band’s revolutionary sound to unsuspecting audiences required cramming it awkwardly up against much more straightforward styles. Marcheschi used his booking connections from The Ethix to get gigs at which the new band mixed new material with crowd-pleasing covers under the old band’s name. “We learned a pretty good handful of your standard rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, Chuck Berry standards. We were gonna be playing some of the Fifty Foot Hose songs live, and once the clubs that we were playing heard them they’d never have us come back. It was just the only way that we could keep the band alive. So we’d play these clubs and we’d start out playing ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ or ‘Do the Dog’ and by the end of the evening we were into this electronic freakout freeform stuff in dance clubs, and we never got hired back to any of ’em.”
Once the band had enough material for a full-fledged set of Fifty Foot Hose songs, they recorded a live demo at a friend’s Haight-Ashbury house, which led to a deal with Mercury Records subsidiary Limelight. “I took the tape to [music lawyer] Brian Rohan,” says Marcheschi. “Two months later I get a telephone call. He says, ‘There’s a guy here from Mercury Records who’s interested in your tape.’ A day or so later, [Limelight bigwig] Robin McBride comes down from Chicago to San Francisco and goes over to my mom and Dad’s place, and in the family room we play for him, and on the spot he signs us up.” It was the ’60s.
[The hippies] were just as pedestrian as people 20 years earlier who were listening to Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. If you were not playing within their ballpark, you might as well have been Perry Como or Frank Sinatra.
Mercury secured Fifty Foot Hose a proper rehearsal space, where they rubbed shoulders with bands like Mother Earth and Blue Cheer. Around October of ’67 they went to Berkeley’s Sierra Sound to record. Mercury seemingly got the biggest “freak” they could find at the time to produce, reaching out to now-legendary Grateful Dead soundman Dan Healy.
“We truly were novices,” Marcheschi remembers. “Whatever Dan Healy said, we basically did. He never fooled with the music… I guess we were actually kind of lucky because he was really willing to let us go wherever we wanted and was able to do some things for us that we couldn’t do. Once we left Sierra and went to Trident in San Francisco it was three more weeks to sweeten and to mix. We really did as good as we could do in terms of being as inexperienced and frightened as we were. Dave and I were really uptight characters. We were way too serious, and had a lot of things blown out of proportion.”
A crucial factor that helped give the album a unique sound was the decision to keep the electronics off-brand. “We had the opportunity of either going with a Buchla synthesizer or a Moog synthesizer,” says Marcheschi. “This was at the moment in time when Mercury had signed us, and they said, ‘You guys can take your pick, we’ll foot the bill and you can record with it.’ And I thought, ‘If we use a Moog it’ll sound like a Moog. If we use a Buchla it’ll sound like a Buchla. We’ll just go with our own equipment.'”
Even at that, Marcheschi recounts, “There was equipment that I had that I could use [live] that we couldn’t use in the studio. Pieces of live arcing equipment; these big bottles of water filled with aluminum; and then I would be playing certain things like these microphones in front of this big 18 inch speaker, controlling this feedback really precisely. We’d occasionally take this one old Dan Electro guitar and just lean it up against an amp and I would play the guitar without touching it, from behind my equipment, just to get the feedback started and then feed it into the tape loop. Occasionally the whole thing would get away from you, and all you could do was stand back and kind of crack up and laugh.”
Even Blossom’s guitar setup flouted the norms of the time. “David’s guitar was very unique,” explains Marcheschi. “He had a Gretsch Viking and had removed the pick guard and had holes routed in the body and had built a repeat percussion, a super fuzz, some kind of a little phase device, and one of these Squeaky Box things into the guitar.”
Cauldron was released in December of 1967, and its innovation vastly outweighed its impact at the time. Even in a month that saw the release of revolutionary records like Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, the album’s opening salvo was somewhat less expected than a bungee jumping contest at a cocktail party. Opening track “And After” is a slowly ascending electronic rumble that sounds like some great robotic beast slowly rising from beneath the earth’s crust before ascending skyward. It’s followed by “If Not This Time,” where Nancy Blossom’s spooky, vibrato-less voice, awash in echo, rides above the arch, angular unison riffs of husband David and bassist Terry Hansley while Marcheschi’s Rube Goldberg-like array of electronics alternately wails, burbles, and explodes in the background.
While “The Things That Concern You” is a poppy anomaly that Marcheschi regrets to this day, a concession to its composer, rhythm guitarist Larry Evans, it’s nevertheless bookended by two otherworldly electronic interludes, followed by “Red the Sign Post,” a viciously rocking tune where Nancy’s saber-toothed vocal and David’s feedback wizardry vie with Marcheschi’s nightmarish visions for prominence, creating a proto-space rock sound that prefigures Hawkwind.
A little later, Cauldron closes with a remarkable triptych. “Fantasy” fuses bluesy, psychedelic jamming with spacey artsong, primal, minimalist grooves that presage Can’s early-’70s output, and utter electro-maniacal chaos. “God Bless the Child” radically juxtaposes the Billie Holiday standard with Marcheschi’s outward-bound atmospheres, to surprisingly poignant ends. The closing title track is surely Fifty Foot Hose’s most stunning moment. A peek at a future that never actually arrived, it almost completely tosses traditional melodic elements out the window, bringing together drastically processed vocals, tape manipulation, and brain-frying electronic atmospheres for an apocalyptic tour de force closer in spirit to avant-garde composer Luigi Nono’s work than it was to even the most outré elements of the ’60s Bay Area scene.
Putting it all in context, Marcheschi muses, “Very few people have ever touched on culturally what was going on at the same moment in history in the late ’60s, putting the fine arts together with some of the popular arts. In Europe they do it a lot more. Compositions like [Terry Riley’s] In C had been written and were actually being paid attention to. Terry Riley was writing Rainbow in Curved Air at the time we were recording Cauldron. Things were happening at the [San Francisco] Tape Music Center in terms of performance art. It’s taken so long for that kind of thing to cross over.”
Surely no sane person could have expected Cauldron to make Fifty Foot Hose a household name at the time, but the album’s unprecedented innovation even eluded the most progressive portion of the blossoming counterculture. The album tanked, and the band was quickly faced with harsh realities and hard decisions. “I was married, with a baby,” says Marcheschi. “David and Nancy had a kid and were getting ready for a divorce. Everybody was broke. Everybody was disappointed.”
The band soon split. The Blossoms got a gig performing in the new hit musical Hair. Marcheschi went back to school and completed his MFA degree; he became (and remains) a respected multi-media artist. But the Fifty Foot Hose story has a belated happy ending.
By the ’90s people were finally ready for the sounds Marcheschi and his mates made three decades earlier. Cauldron was reissued on CD. The band had been cited as an influence by the likes of Pere Ubu and Jello Biafra. And Marcheschi was emboldened to restart the band with a new lineup, performing live and even releasing a new album, Sing Like Scaffold. Finally Fifty Foot Hose began to achieve at least a kind of cult status.
By the 2010s, Cauldron had been re-released everywhere from Belgium to Greece. And now, through their Modern Harmonic imprint, premier reissue label Sundazed has made the album available on LP in the U.S. for the first time since Limelight blithely birthed it half a century earlier, complete with a history of the band written by Marcheschi himself. Not only that, they’ve given the world a glimpse of the band’s prehistory by simultaneously unveiling the LP Bad Trips, a collection of pre-Cauldron rarities including outtakes, demos, and Marcheschi’s earlier experimental outings.
Finally, five decades later, listeners “get” Fifty Foot Hose.