Sunday, April 1, 2007


Forty years ago: April, 1967

The Indigent Ministers' 1967 release, Camp Scratch, is out of print and hard to find, lamentably. I didn't become familiar with this oddly quirky band until 1978's disco-era return to psychedelia, The Episcopalian Alien Sarcophagal Society, which is probably my favorite if only because it's so completely out-of-step with the timbre of its times. But the first album by Bill Melater and company has to rank as one of the more glaringly overlooked gems of the era.

The arrangements show the influence of The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out from the previous year (notably the noise fest of "Help, I'm a Rock") and now that I've become more familiar with the '60s output of The Beach Boys, it's easier for me to see why some of Melater's songs have been likened to "Brian Wilson meets Syd Barrett": there's something demented about the lyrics and the music is childlike in a kinda sinister way. Note though that this album, released in April 1967, precedes Pink Floyd's debut by several months. Note too that the attribution of "harmonica--a friend" in the liner notes sparked much conjecture that this was possibly an appearance by Dylan during his reclusive period after the motorcycle accident. It's never been completely disproved. More certain is the likelihood that Melater actually penned the lyrics for the album, even though they were initially said to be the work of eight-year-old Matthew Thomas, who earned the nickname "Little Shelley" at the time, for his precocious poetry. Simply put, the album is couched in a certain mystery, maybe even allegory, and should be added to any attempt to sum up psychedelia pre-Sgt. Pepper.

The title song runs for eleven minutes and clearly shows the influence of Dylan's lengthy cut of two years previous, "Desolation Row." Melater's sense of phantasmagoria is campier (pun intended) than Dylan's and that's part of the fun: "Aardvarks eating orange ice cream / down there by the mill stream / keep me contented with the wilds" isn't a line you're likely to find in Dylan's repertoire, though the delivery is reminiscent of the Man from Minnesota -- but not outright parodic as in Zappa's "Trouble Coming Everyday." Note too that The Beatles' "Penny Lane" topped the charts in March, '67 and "Strawberry Fields Forever" hit the Top Ten in April, and hallucinogen-inspired retrospects on childhood seemed to be the order of the day. Fine with me, I was only a kid at the time and associate both those songs with my childhood.

The Ministers' debut strikes me as a kind of nightmare version of a Disney film in which it's not so much that the visuals have changed as that their implications have become somehow unsettling. See for instance "Doom Troop": "we like our work, work, work / we never shirk, shirk, shirk / the tasks we're made to do / oh yes, for me, me, me / it's quite a spree, spree, spree / to have to clean the zoo." For a different feel, there's the obligatory vaguely medieval sound that crops up on so many albums of the era, yes, replete here with harpsichord and mandolin, "She Spins": "Nights of gold thread / pulled from her own head / she spins / a trestle of tresses / she spins / a flaxen ladder / to let him in." Melater was always an imaginative lyricist and the late '60s was the perfect period for the kind of play he's prone to. Musically, the album is dense and layered with lots of overdubs that seem to be deliberately discordant with the basic track. Sounds have a tendency to leap out at odd moments. It's dated, yes, but still fun.

When I first heard the album, I was put off by the lackluster production -- it certainly sounds like a shoestring recording -- but there doesn't seem to be any CD version, remastered or otherwise, coming in the future. Find a vinyl copy if you can.

Now we run
Because it's fun
Never caring what comes next
What germs we catch
No postmortem or pretext
Just Camp Scratch

--Melater / Thomas, "Camp Scratch" (1967)

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