Newsflash: The most far-out album on Lelan Rogers’ International Artists label was not created by the 13th Floor Elevators. Nope, that honor goes to Houston’s the Red Crayola (later the Red Krayola, because crayon corporations are spoilsports). Fifty years ago, guitarist/vocalist Mayo Thompson, drummer Rick Barthelme, bassist Steve Cunningham, and the Familiar Ugly (you know, those folks) came together to formulate a blueprint for psychedelic music that few—even the band themselves—have matched in structure and ingenious madness. Their debut album, The Parable Of Arable Land, remains a classic that continues to inspire heads who love the sound of confusion.
The album’s unique format spawns six somewhat conventional songs that are surrounded by “Free Form Freak-out”s. The effect is like a bizarre DJ set in which the transitions are ruptured by instrumental and vocal anarchy. These are howling voids, calamitous cacophonies out of which songs escape, like inmates from a burning insane asylum. The Red Crayola shattered rock-song norms, filtering free-jazz and avant-garde composition into their primordial psychedelic ooze. We’re still experiencing flashbacks from it.
“Hurricane Fighter Plane,” the first song proper, soars in on one of the most ominous, driving bass riffs ever conceived. Thompson sarcastically revels in the destructive power of the titular subject while guitar and organ whorl with sinister intent, the vaportrail of exhaust after a strafing sortie. 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson allegedly guests on keys here, as well as on “Transparent Radiation.” Speaking of which, this stands as one of the strangest ballads of all time, a surrealist ecology lament (I think) in which Thompson’s droopy, lachrymose vocals relate the following:
“Styrofoam people quite violent
Clear light glowing right out of my tent
Expert men not knowing what they meant
Eating babies for nourishment
A funny bird with forehead bent
Ozone over our continent
Slogans tell me that I can rent
That was one of the more coherent passages. Anyway, you gotta love the beautiful, shambling melodic figure that ekes its way through distant harmonica plumes. Spacemen 3’s 1987 cover extrapolated this lo-fidelity gem into a celestial symphony of tragic grandeur; they really blew it out into an interstellar sprawl.
Its hard to be more explicit than “War Sucks,” an emphatic boot to the balls of the politicians responsible for sending Americans to Southeast Asia to fight an unwinnable war. One consolation prize for such a brutal, massive loss of life is this proto-punk, metallic KO to bellicosity. (Spectrum—led by Red Crayola superfan Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember—covered “War Sucks” in 2009.)
If side 1 flexes raging rock muscles, side 2 explores weirder, more subdued moods. Well, “Pink Stainless Tail” is the exception; it’s an adrenalized analogue to “Hurricane Fighter Plane,” inflated by one of those riffs that you want to punch the sky to for hours. Garage-psych doesn’t get much more potent. “Parable Of Arable Land” sounds like the pitch-shifted quacking of a mechanical duck in the throes of a traumatic trance, while a panoply of percussion toys get a workout. This is a freak-out of a less free-form nature. The LP closes with “Former Reflections Enduring Doubt,” a deeply affecting ballad laced with juddering guitar FX, Thompson’s voice lugubrious and laden with Leonard Cohen-esque desolation. Parable goes out with a whimper, but what an odd whimper it is.
It’s a mystery why Drag City—who has issued several Red Krayola and Mayo Thompson works—isn’t giving Parable a deluxe 50th-anniversary reissue. That being said, this one’s not that hard to find. And find it you should. -Buckley Mayfield