While Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin were setting the musical tone for 1960s counterculture, Denver-based Lothar & The Hand People were following the lead of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leon Theremin and Robert Moog, all the while fueled by Tim Leary’s LSD flooding their Mile-High City. Combining rock & roll with electronic music, they made a name in Greenwich Village before venturing to psychedelia’s ground zero, San Francisco, cutting two albums with Capitol Records. Fifty years later, Sundazed Records has unveiled two albums’ worth of live recordings from the late 1960s. Jim Allen spoke with two original “Lotharians” about the band’s history for PKM.
Lothar & The Hand People were on the outside of everything. In 1968, when they released their debut album, Presenting… Lothar & The Hand People, flower power was the cultural coin of the realm, but they assayed black-humored tunes about “Machines” enslaving humanity, and society’s desensitization to “Sex and Violence.” Guitar heroes were emerging as the new rock royalty, but they introduced air-strumming rock ‘n’ roll kids to then-radical electronic instruments like Theremins and synthesizers. And while the counterculture was busy lionizing enfants terrible like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, Lothar & The Hand People gleefully immersed themselves in the realm of the Nutty Professor, delivering oddball avant-garde experiments one moment and the Woody Woodpecker theme the next (yes, literally).
After five years of active duty, the band officially closed up shop 50 years ago, and the door to their fascinatingly weird world was shut for good… until now. After half a century of scant attention paid to the band’s left-field legacy, 2020 is shaping up to be their biggest year since, well, 1968. Respected reissue czars Sundazed Records are unveiling two LPs’ worth of the first unheard Lothar recordings since 1969’s Space Hymn. The two albums, Come Along: The Exodus 1966 and Machines: Amherst 1969, are previously unreleased live documents that bookend the band’s career, capturing their garage-rock beginnings and their later electronics-aided exploits, respectively. But to really understand the Lothar story you have to lean back for the long view.
John Emelin, the band’s singer and Theremin player, grew up in Mamaroneck, a suburb of New York City that he remembers being “as straight and square as it gets.” Like a lot of kids coming of age in the ’50s he was galvanized by the raw rock ‘n’ roll sounds exploding out of the transistor radio discreetly placed under his pillow at night. But he also had more outré interests. “I was always interested in the sounds that came out of science fiction movies,” he remembers. “I had some albums of that stuff, [featuring Thereminist] Samuel Hoffman, and that’s how I discovered the Theremin.”
The Theremin was the first real electronic instrument, invented by Russian scientist Leon Theremin in 1920. A box-like construction with a pair of antennae, it’s played by waving one’s hands near the antennae without actually touching them, and it emits an otherworldly tone. In Emelin’s youth, it was mostly the domain of electronics hobbyists. Dr. Robert Moog, yet to revolutionize music by inventing the synthesizer, had a Theremin business at the time, and a teenage Emelin ordered one of Moog’s instruments.
A couple of years later, he headed to the University of Denver to study communications, packing carefully. “I brought my Theremin to college,” he says, “doesn’t everyone?” But for a while, Emelin kept his electronic experimentation closeted, pursuing a less arcane musical path in public. With his college roommate, Richard Willis, he started a jug band, which was all the rage in the first half of the 1960s. But Emelin, who was also a DJ on the college radio station, hadn’t lost his passion for rock ‘n’ roll, and after he and Willis went to see The Rolling Stones play, they followed the electrical impulses to their logical conclusion and elected to form a rock band.
Lothar and The Hand People were born in 1965, with Emelin on vocals, bassist Rusty Ford, drummer Tom Flye, and W.C. Wright soon taking over for Willis. The notoriously absurdist name came from a friend’s dream. They played their first gig that October at the college’s Student Union. By the end of the year, they’d added lead guitarist Kim King and graduated to local clubs. Like most of their contemporaries, they were simultaneously compelled to innovation and yoked to imitation.
“I brought my Theremin to college,” he says, “doesn’t everyone?”
“We had imagined ourselves out of a mold like the British Invasion bands who were writing their own material,” explains Emelin, “[but] you still had to play enough covers for people to have a really good time dancing and drinking.” The band’s early sets were accordingly heavy on the garage-rock standards of the day, be they blues tunes like “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” R&B hits like “In the Midnight Hour,” or rockers by everybody from The Kinks to The Kingsmen. But they were already writing their own material too, some of it in a rip-’em-up rock ‘n’ roll mode, but some showing folk and even country influences.
Come Along, capturing the band at nationally known Denver club The Exodus, shows that even in their lumpenprole phase, Lothar & The Hand People could tear it up and set it on fire. And they might have gone on that way if not for the arrival of a crucial catalyst.
In April of 1966, when LSD was still as legal as lemonade, early adopter W.C. Wright made an acid-induced exit from the stage in the middle of a gig, never to return to the band. But before the month was out, guitarist/keyboardist Paul Conly had taken his place. Like Emelin, Conly was fascinated by electronic and avant-garde music.
“I listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio,” says Conly, “the people I considered pioneers in electronic music.” But Conly never had even the primitive electronics of the era at his disposal, and like a lot of the period’s open-minded youth, he ended up in rock ‘n’ roll. At his very first rehearsal with the band, though, he saw the future sitting discarded in a dusty corner.
“At our first rehearsal,” he remembers, “which was in this back room at the Denver Folklore Center, I looked in the corner of the room and there was a Theremin. I was amazed, because I knew what it was, but I’d never seen one in person. When I saw that John had one, I was over the moon. Soon after that I said, ‘John you’ve gotta play that during ‘Louie Louie!’ He did, and people loved it.”
To your average mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roller, a Theremin was a magic box from outer space, and that’s pretty much how audiences reacted when Emelin started making mysterious gestures to coax otherworldly sounds from the thing onstage. “In late 1965, part of the eight million doses that Timothy Leary set loose on the country came through Denver,” says Emelin, “so you had a lot of people high in the club. We got a very positive response to it.”
Soon, instead of simply providing a blast of freakiness in an otherwise conventional framework, the device led Lothar & The Hand People down a different path. By the time Conly joined, they had already decided to move to New York and try to make it as original band. Now that they were moving into headier realms, it became easier to start swapping out the old cover tunes for more mind-expanding originals. When they hit the Greenwich Village club scene in August 1966, earning a residency at The Night Owl Café, they had already become a very different band.
With their outré electronic touches setting them apart from the pack, the band built up a buzz in the Village. Richard Pryor clowned around with their Theremin when they worked the Café a Go-Go together; they met Paul Simon and Andy Warhol, and jammed with Jimi Hendrix; they gigged with The Byrds at The Village Gate; legendary photographer Richard Avedon not only did a shoot with the band, he booked them to play a party for his son.
Soon after that I said, ‘John you’ve gotta play that during ‘Louie Louie!’ He did, and people loved it.”
Lothar soon stormed the West Coast too, where they played and partied with The Grateful Dead. “We got a really good response to the Theremin when we started playing the light show clubs on the West Coast,” laughs Emelin, “the Fillmore and The Avalon, because people were out of their heads, it was wonderful.”
Before the year was out, the band had a deal with Capitol Records and began recording their first album. Unfortunately, label relations were less than rosy. “They put us on ice effectively for a year and a half,” remembers Conly, “by putting out singles that we didn’t particularly like and not promoting the band, not putting out an album. Somebody called Capitol Records once trying to find out when our first album was gonna come out, and the people that answered the phone in Los Angeles said that there was no such group on the label. That’s what we were up against.”
Richard Avedon not only did a shoot with the band, he booked them to play a party for his son.
For the most part, the three singles Capitol released in 1967 (none of which made it to an album) did little to display the uniqueness of Lothar & The Hand People. “Have Mercy” was simply a rocking cover of Don Covay’s R&B hit “Mercy, Mercy.” “Rose Colored Glasses” is a gentle folk-pop ballad, albeit a pretty one with slightly psychedelic lyrics. That track’s B-side, “L.O.V.E. (Ask for It By Name),” is the most representative of the bunch, with subtly cynical lyrics framing love as a marketing campaign, and a production amply adorned with Theremin.
With its trippy lyrics, fuzz guitar solo, and closing Theremin blast, “Comic Strip” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band’s debut album, except for the anomalous horn section slapped onto both that song and its B-side, the rather saccharine pop song “Every Single Word.” “I was not very happy at the end of this session,” says Conly of the former, “because it seemed too square and without enough acid influence.”
According to Emelin, the band had actually begun recording an album as early as 1966, but it wasn’t released until 1968 due to “the vagaries of the business, and our own foolish pride in some ways. We recorded the whole thing and then decided that we wanted to do it again, which was a big mistake, but we didn’t know that. We started [over] from scratch, I think it was probably in late ’67.”
One possible advantage to taking a second stab is that more sophisticated technology became available, thanks to two electronic innovators: Robert Margouleff and Walter Sear. In the ’70s, Margouleff and his partner Malcolm Cecil would help produce, record, and program synthesizers for all of Stevie Wonder’s classic albums, as well as forming pioneering electronic duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. But in 1967, Margouleff was a young producer with a studio full of tantalizing gear, and Lothar & The Hand People’s debut LP was one of his first major productions. “He had a Moog in his recording studio,” recalls Emelin, “so we had basically 24/7 access to this thing, which was very fortunate.”
Engineer and electronic musician Walter Sear was Robert Moog’s right-hand man, and by 1967 he’d crossed paths with the band too. “Walter set up the first deal we had with Moog,” says Conly, “where he supplied us with synthesizers for recording and performances. It was sort of an endorsement deal. We had access to the soundstage and whatever recording equipment that Bob Margouleff had there, and the state-of-the-art synthesizer that Walter Sear had.”
“I was not very happy at the end of this session,” says Conly of the former, “because it seemed too square and without enough acid influence.”
Emboldened by their enthusiasm for electronic experimentation and the strides they’d already made with the Theremin, the band dove in with the zeal of a pirate gang in a diamond mine. Not that it was easy going. “All of that stuff took enormous amounts of time,” explains Emelin, “because we were working with monophonic synthesizers. And those early synthesizers were hideously unstable, so that made it all the more difficult.”
“That’s where the guys really got experienced in production and engineering,” says Conly, “because we basically engineered our own first album. Out of that, two of the guys [Flye and King, later] became really highly qualified and really successful recording engineers. I just learned how to do it out of self-defense.”
The technical advances dovetailed with the band’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting, and each fed into the other to create the fertile loam from which Presenting… Lothar & The Hand People grew. The original liner notes to the 1968 album wryly introduce a quintet of “unhome, unspun, uncuddly young men.” The first cut, “Machines,” was a future-shock anthem way ahead of its time, with a clanking, mechanical-sounding arrangement that comes off like a cross between Devo and latter-day Tom Waits.
Ironically, this angular forecast of industrial music was actually written by Mort Shuman — best known as co-writer (with Doc Pomus) of pop hits like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment” — and first recorded in 1966 by Manfred Mann. But it was obviously waiting for Lothar & The Hand People to realize its full potential.
“Sex and Violence,” with lyrics consisting entirely of the title lasciviously intoned again and again; “Ha (Ho),” with its refrain of maniacal laughter; and “Kids Are Little People,” a sort of acid playground song, all up the ante on the archness and sardonic humor, freely tossing psychedelia and electronics into the mix. At the time the only thing even close to it in rock was the work of absolute outliers The Mothers of Invention.
Balancing things out on the other side of the seesaw are “This Is It” and “That’s Another Story,” bearing country/folk touches that seem to reach back to the days of the Denver Folklore Center. With their combination of rootsy reverie and LSD-friendly lyrical perspective, they could’ve slipped onto a Byrds or Buffalo Springfield LP without anyone looking askance. The songs’ warm but heady vibe even points toward where The Grateful Dead would be headed in the early ’70s.
Even with modular synthesizer patch cords festooning the studio like an upended vat of spaghetti, electric guitars remained the band’s primary tools. “This May Be Goodbye” and “You Won’t Be Lonely” show that a part of Lothar & The Hand People’s rock-club sensibility still remained, and the tunes could have fit quite nicely amid the rave-ups of their Denver days.
At the time the only thing even close to it in rock was the work of absolute outliers The Mothers of Invention.
The album’s two other cover tunes underscore the degree to which Lothar & The Hand People were giddy pranksters eager to tweak people’s expectations, with tongue fixed firmly to cheek. The band’s subversion of “Bye Bye Love” with queasily undulating Moog evokes visions of an Everly Brothers in Outer Space album. And when they leap with all 10 feet into the Woody Woodpecker theme song, complete with sped-up cartoon voice, they earn the right to take even the most far-flung electronic excursions without risking accusations of pretension.
Good thing, too, since the two real electro-powerhouses on the album took the band miles beyond what most of their contemporaries were doing. Even The Beatles hadn’t yet come within spitting distance of a synth on record. “Milkweed Love” singlehandedly invents the genre of Moog folk, with waltz-time acoustic strumming framed by bursts of synthesizer that are alternately aching and transporting, as they support a set of yearning, trippy-but-tender lyrics, achieving a completely unironic poignancy.
The album’s real tour de force, though, is “It Comes On Anyhow,” a kaleidoscopic, electro-acoustic audio collage that includes martial drumming, squeaky toys, monastic chanting, “prepared” piano, and of course a non-stop barrage of electronic bleeps, blasts, swoops, and squawks. Atop all the madness, Emelin’s voice continually resurfaces to dispassionately repeat, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter…” The band was at the leading edge of fashioning electronic sound paintings in a “pop” context — almost 20 years later, the track was sampled significantly for “It Doesn’t Matter” on The Chemical Brothers’ gold-selling album Dig Your Own Hole, itself deemed to be pretty au courant in 1997.
Lotharmania did not erupt upon the album’s release, though the record did get some good reviews. In Rolling Stone, Lenny Kaye famously declared it “electronic country… good-time music played by mad dwarfs.” The band continued to go down a storm onstage. In 1969, they were regulars at New York hotspot The Scene, where they would jam with Hendrix and Johnny Winter, and seemingly impressed a pre-ELP Keith Emerson. “He was in the audience when I was playing the synthesizer and using the ribbon controller in the way that he did later on,” remembers Conly. “In my mind, I showed him how to do it and then he went and got his own.”
Before the year was out, a second album, Space Hymn, was released. The songwriting had grown in sophistication — “Today Is Only Yesterday’s Tomorrow” for instance, reflected Conly and Emelin’s interest in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. “Sdrawkcab” (reverse the letters) boasts a synth-flecked Beatles vibe. Some country-rock flavor comes through in “Midnight Ranger” and “Say, ‘I Do,'” but the title tune is an epic cosmic journey, and throughout the album the band displays a greater mastery of their electronic toolkit.
Nevertheless, Space Hymn echoed its predecessor in maintaining a safe distance from mass appeal. “At the time,” says Conly, “I thought, ‘Well gee, I thought this stuff was so great, it must not be so great. People aren’t snapping it up at the record stores.’ But the truth is that nobody ever knew about it… without marketing and publicity.”
By the time they played Amherst College in Massachusetts (the very show chronicled on the aforementioned Machines LP), the band had decided the gig would be their last. “The second album had come out and it sold some,” Conly says, “but it seemed like the sales were dropping down, it wasn’t really gonna go anyplace. And coincidentally, different contracts that we had were coming to an end. We realized that we could probably get another album deal from Capitol but that it wasn’t gonna be easy.”
Ask Jonathan Richman, a fan who attended their Boston shows as a teen and whose early musical efforts were encouraged by the band.
Emelin lays responsibility for the split on his own doorstep. “I had eyes to get out of the business,” he admits. “I feel like I was the main mover in breaking up the band. I’m not really a musician, I was an impostor, so I was ready to go someplace and not be a full-time musician.” He did just that, embracing the early-’70s “back to the land” movement and building a house back in Colorado for himself, his wife, and his kids. Today he’s happily retired in Mexico.
Flye and King had already started putting their recording studio experience to work as professional engineers by that point. King was even working as Hendrix’s assistant engineer. They had a clear path beyond the band, and they made the most of it. Flye became an engineering superstar, helming the board for Don McLean’s American Pie, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, Rick James’s Street Songs, and countless others. King, who died in 2016, became a busy engineer/producer as well, and went on to work with everybody from Jethro Tull to Weather Report.
Ford made his way out to California, where he would eventually hook up with Mike Love and play with both The Beach Boys and Love’s side project, Celebration, before becoming a successful producer of TV commercials. Conly had been involved in commercials since 1968, when he and Walter Sear began operating out of Robert Margouleff’s studio as creators of electronic music for ads. But right when the band was ending, he was asked to write music for Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway play The Unseen Hand, which edged him onto a different path, and he embarked on a composition career for TV and film that continues to this day.
And that was it for Lothar & The Hand People. There would be no reunions, and until 2020, no archival releases. But somehow their sound has abided over the years. Despite its obscurity, their first album has managed to remain in print for much of the last half-century on various labels. And mostly through word of mouth, their accomplishments have never been completely forgotten.
Ask Jonathan Richman, a fan who attended their Boston shows as a teen and whose early musical efforts were encouraged by the band. “I got back in touch with him 15 years ago or something and he thanked me,” says Emelin. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t be doing this now if it weren’t for your encouragement.'” Ask The Chemical Brothers, whose Lothar sample sat in a place of prominence on their US breakthrough and biggest album to date. Ask The Lothars, a multi-Theremin alt-rock band formed in the ’90s, whose name and instrumentation leave little doubt about their source of inspiration.
We had this vision of the future where whole records would be made with nothing but synthesizers and vocals, and that’s pretty much every record that’s out now.”
Ask music-minded SNL alumnus Mike Myers, whose recurring “Lothar of the Hill People” sketches on the show were an obvious nod to certain innovative quintet. Ask Sundazed Records’ Jay Millar, who says of the label’s new Lothar live releases, “it was a gift when we discovered that Paul Conly did such an excellent job of archiving the band’s past. It’s a staggering amount of beautiful music and we’re excited to be the ones sharing it.”
Or just go straight to the source and ask John Emelin about the motivations for the music the band made. “Some of us had this hunger to be able to build sounds out of nothing,” he says, “and that was what the synthesizer was in those days when there were no presets. You had to construct sounds out of basic elements, and that was extremely attractive to us. There’s a touch of the mad scientist thing in that too, which is always attractive,” he laughs. “We were in our early 20s and convinced we were gonna change the world. We had this vision of the future where whole records would be made with nothing but synthesizers and vocals, and that’s pretty much every record that’s out now.”
“I think it’s way cooler that we weren’t commercially successful,” reckons Conly. “We just wanted to do music that was original. That’s why I was drawn to electronics in the first place. I realized there was this whole world of colors of sound that was possible. You could create sounds that no one’s ever heard before, ever, by synthesizing them. I thought, ‘How could I not want to do that?'”