By the mid-60’s Seattle’s once thriving R&B teen dance bands were on the wane. Members of outfits like the Dynamics, The Viceroys and the Frantics were eagerly tapping into the first stirrings of the underground psychedelic movement. Most of the bands making the transformation were not doing it for purely mercenary reasons. Many players had simply aged and evolved, while remaining true to their R&B and garage-like beginnings. Many of the psychedelic bands coming out of Seattle still held onto an insular, regional sound that favored hippie-ballads and gentle horns, reeds and the organ that had become a staple of Northwest rock since Dave Lewis. They favored a more tie-dyed approach rather than the aggressive guitars and overtly political or socially conscious lyrics of bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Doors or Quicksilver Messenger Service.
They also lacked the lush production of bands coming out of New York City. If there is a word that describes the Northwest psychedelic sound it could very well be “comfortable”…not in the passive sense, but in the sense that gentler, more flower-powered sounds were being made. Perhaps the exception to this rule was The Frantics who’s remaining members moved to San Francisco, renamed themselves the hippiesque Luminous Marsh Gas, eventually to become one of the mightiest bands of the psychedelic era-Moby Grape.
Crome Syrcus was no different than many other NW bands. The had arisen from the ashes of a teen R&B, jazz influenced outfit called The Mystics. The Mystics had an enthusiastic fan base and were able to tour regionally, but ultimately had a relatively short career. By 1962 drummer Jim Plano had joined the military. Dick Powell, the band’s vocalist and guitarist John Gaborit remained stateside, and eventually brought on bassist Lee Graham and keyboard player Ted Shreffler. Jim Plano’s position as drummer was filled by Rod Pilloud. Once assembled, the new band christened themselves Crome Syrcus.
Soon the band was finding regular gigs on the nascent psychedelic circuit in Seattle. Their distinctive sound often relied on two keyboards played by both Powell and Shreffler. John Chambless, the coordinator of the Berkeley Folk Festival had seen Crome Syrcus at The Eagles Auditorium (it’s unclear who the headliner was that night). He quickly booked them to his Folk Festival and on July 2nd 1968 Crome Syrcus played their first Bay Area gig. In fact Crome Syrcus would eventually base themselves in San Francisco, but they were to spend just as much time in New York City for the next couple of years.
Soon after their stint at the Berkeley Folk Festival they came in contact with Robert Joffrey, founder, director and primary choreographer of the Joffrey Ballet based in New York City. Joffrey himself was a native Seattleite and was taken aback by the band’s musicianship and professionalism. Before long, Joffrey had commissioned the band to adapt music for Teo Macero’s ballet “Opus 65″ to be perfomed with the dance. The ballet was presented at Seattle’s Eagle’s Auditorium, but Joffrey had bigger things for the band. He lured them around the country, and eventually to New York City to work on several projects with his ballet company.
According to troupe member Trinette Singleton:
“We would do residencies at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington in the summers and that’s where a lot of times new works were created and so that was where we really got into working on this piece. One day, he (Joffrey) brought in a musician, Hub Miller, that he knew from Seattle. He probably had been meeting and talking to Hub weeks and weeks before Max and I ever knew it, about writing a commissioned score for this particular piece. Hub wanted Mr. Joffrey to listen to a couple of rock bands that were sort of making a scene in Seattle at that time. So we go to this night club place and there’s a band playing, it’s the Crome Syrcus and suddenly they’re going to be doing the commissioned score for it, and Hub’s going to head it up. So, okay, there’s going to be a rock band in the pit. That was part two of the equation I guess you could say.”
Joffrey had a vision of creating a ballet that took advantage of multi-media, unusual scenarios, and the daring of many of the be-ins that had been popping up around the country. Joffrey’s ballet was to be somewhat akin to the acid tests of the mid 60s, but the experience was meant to be a multi-media drenched journey rather, and presumably without the acid, though who’s to say how many audience members took part in the event stoned?
Joffrey insisted his ballet be scored by rock musicians, but instead of the focus on band as entertainment he wanted to create a stilted, avant garde version of what ballet, modern music the new technological imagery could be. The title of Joffrey’s proposed ballet was “Astarte”, named after a late-bronze age goddess that represented birth, renewal and war. The name Astarte itself was the greek name of a goddess found throughout many cultures in the ancient world-from Mesopotamia, and The Middle East. The goddess was also worshipped by the Caananites, Egyptians and the Phonecians. In fact the goddess is found in the Jewish Bible as an icon to be avoided. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Astartes’ worship is repeatedly condemned in the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Judges, the Israelites are punished for straying after the god Baal and “the Astartes” (Judg 2:13–14; 10:6–7); the people are similarly castigated for Astarte in 1 Samuel (7:3–4; 12:10); Jeremiah castigates the people for making offerings to the queen of heaven, a goddess who most probably represents a syncretism of Canaanite Astarte… Nevertheless, the very fact of these multiple condemnations is evidence that, for at least some ancient Israelites, the cult of Astarte held great appeal”.
This complicated exploration of disobedience, the vicissitudes of the world, sexuality and revolt that was at the core of Robert Joffrey’s ballet. If the ancients had persisted in worshipping a god that represented sex and and revolt, why shouldn’t contemporaries? Especially in the free-wheeling 1960s.
Months were spent writing the score, (mainly the work of Crome Syrcus’s Lee Graham and Ted Schreffler) while Joffrey and his dancers filmed many of their parts to be projected simultaneously with their live performance. The filming by Gardner Compton also included seemingly everyday (but fascinating) images, to East Village go-go dancers. Etheral scenery and various multi-exposure effects were also shot in order to be directed at the stage from several projectors in the balconies. Lights glimmered and flashed giving off an almost disco-like affects. Principal dancer Maximiliano Zomosa emerged anonymously from the audience, walked onstage and removed his clothing excepting briefs. Not everyone in the audience understood this was part of the ballet, and on occasion tried to prevent him from disrobing.
The bulk of the dance consisted of Zomosa’s character being the sexual object of the goddess Astarte. All the while the psychedelic music and imagery filled the theater. It concluded by Zomosa finally walking out onto 56th street (near-naked) through the theaters actual huge backstage doors. The idea may seem almost cliché today, given the revamping of this kind of conceptualism throughout the media over the years…but there’s no doubt that this ballet was an original stab at a new type of mixed-media. It was truly revolutionary.
During the ballet, Crome Syrcus played their instruments live, as an orchestra would have done from the pit. The band and their music was just as central to the ballet as any of the dancers or effects. Although there are only a few known snippets of the work caught on film or audio we know from reviews that the ballet Astarte was well-received and lauded as a completely new direction in music and dance. Its world premiere on September 20, 1967 at New York’s City Center Theater also cemented Joffrey’s troupe as one of the preeminent ballet companies in the United States. The excitement of the collaboration between Joffry and Crome Syrcus, while using interactive media was so successful that the ballet made the cover of Time Magazine on March 15th 1968.
For the months it was performed it seemed nothing less than visionary…but of course all visions rely on a good deal of work. Much later, in 2012 dancer Dermot Burke told the Washington Post’s Sarah Kauffman
“Those of us who were in it were just tired, sore and hungry. We didn’t realize we were living through a revolution in American dance.”
Unfortunately we have no publicly documented comments by members of Crome Syrcus concerning their part in Joffrey’s masterpiece, but it’s clear they gained a high national profile from it, and 1968-1969 would prove to be the band at it’s zenith. Aside from touring and spending time between San Francisco, Seattle and New York the band released a series of singles in 1968. “Lord in Black” b/w “Long Hard Road” (Piccadilly Records-an offshoot of Jerden Records), “Take It Like a Man” b/w “Cover Up” (Command Records), “Take It Like a Man” b/w the alternative “Crystals” (Command Records) and in 1969 a re-release of “Lord in Black b/w Long Hard Road” on the Jerden label.
In 1968 Crome Syrcus recorded their only LP, Love Cycle. The title song was a 17:11 minute pastiche of psychedelic, folk, pastoral and symphonic sounds. The concept of varied styles was not foreign to Crome Syrcus since-unlike many bands, then and now-all members had seriously studied music…some at the University of Washington. The rest of the album (side two) contains five examples of Northwest meets San Francisco psychedelic hippie-pop. The arrangements are fairly delicate and lower key than the best of the Bay Area bands of the day, but still effective and definitely part of a sub-genre that was wildly popular at the time.
For the recording and release of Love Cycle the band had been signed to Command Records by Peter Kamin, son of long-time Seattle Symphony director/conductor, Milt Kamin. Originally Command (or Command Performance as it was originally named) had been an audiophile imprint that released the very best in classical and jazz recordings, as well as a few pop artists thrown in. Cover art was designed by top of the line artists and records were presented in gatefold sleeves which were uncommon in the 1950s and early 60s.
The label was formed and run by the famous violinist/bandleader- turned audio engineer Enoch Light. Command musicians were recorded magnetically onto 35mm film rather than tape. The entire width of the 35mm film was coated with iron oxide, leaving the width of the entire tape available for multi-track recordings far beyond the 3-4 track tapes that were commonly used into the late 1960s. This technique also allowed for very wide, dynamic instrumentation to remain on single tracks rather than the “stacking” of tracks that was relied on up until the time of digital recording. In 1959 Command was acquired by ABC-Paramount although Light remained at the helm.
In 1966 Enoch Light left Command Records to establish Project 3, and standards of recording and presentation at Command started to deteriorate almost immediately. At the same time Command began to rely on repackaging and re-releasing former titles in the label’s catalog. The initial idea of recording Love Cycle as envisioned by the band and Peter Kamin was to return to the quality that the label demanded before Enoch Light’s leaving. Whether the release of Crome Syrcus’s Love Cycle met that criteria is up to discussion. The standards may have been higher, and the recordings were bright and clear but most fans of psychedelic and pop music did not rely on the nuances of jazz or percussion aficionados. They were more interested in songs, lyrics and volume. By all accounts Love Cycle more than met these standards.
Although the album became somewhat of a must-have for psychedelic pop fans, Love Cycle became unavailable for many years. Although bootlegs existed even they were hard to find prizes for collectors. Since about 1990 the album has seen several authorized pressings and digitalizations. A revisionist glance back at the psychedelic era had caused a more sympathetic audience and many young musicians were interested in updating the genre. Later pressings and CDs of Love Cycle are relatively easy to come by these days. Anyone interested in psychedelia, and especially Northwest psychedelia should have a listen. Even though Crome Syrcus found it’s greatest success in New York and San Francisco, it still retains an essential basis in Seattle music history.
Crome Syrcus spent 1969 through 1973 as both a headliner and as an opening act for greats like The Doors, Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and shared bills with dozens of other 60s stars, but their recorded output had come to a standstill. Even so they still were a big draw, and were featured on the bill of Boyd Grafmyre’s remarkable Seattle Pop Festival held at Gold Creek Park in Woodinville WA during July of 1969. Other top-drawer performers included The Doors, Chicago Transit Authority, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Charles Lloyd, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Ten Years After, Spirit, The Byrds and many other big names, as well as a very early version of Alice Cooper.
Crome Syrcus were also part of the line-up for the Second Sky River Rock Festival held in Tenino WA, just south of the Washington State capitol, Olympia. Artists taking part in the festival, which took place August 30 and September 1, 1969, included James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, The Youngbloods, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Guitar Shorty, Country Joe and The Fish, Pacific Gas and Electric and Sons of Champlin among others.
Crome Syrcus continued until 1973. The genre they had worked in fell out of favor, and without any recorded output continuing would be somewhat futile. Each went their separate ways-all remaining as musicians at least during the imeadiate aftermath of the band’s demise. They had proven to be one of the Northwest’s leading psychedelic lights, toured with some of the most famous bands of the day and had taken part in one of the most important and innovative breakthroughs in the history of dance. They also left one of the best (underrated) albums of the psychedelic pop era.
-Dennis R. White. Sources, Walt Crowley “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the 60’s in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995); Vernon Joynson “The Acid Trip – A Complete Guide to Psychedelic Music”(Babylon Books, 1984) Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival, the second, held on August 30, 1969” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 1271 06/06/1999); Unknown Author “Enoch Light” (SpaceAgePop.com); Author Unknown “The Crome Syrcus (ProgArchives.com); James Bush “The Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Susan Ackerman “Astarte:Bible” (Jewish Women’s Archive, date unknown); Sarah Kaufman ”Joffrey Ballet documentary honors the revolution that was choreographed” (Washington Post, January 26, 2012); Shari Candler,“The making of Joffrey’s ‘Astarte’ (American Masters, PBS, first aired December 28, 2012); Sasha Anawalt “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of An American Dance Company. (Simon & Schuster, 1996); Photo: Tom Matthieson.