The Legend of:
THE WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND
by Tim Forster- page 1 -
Despite an ever-increasing following from collectors since their demise, for the past thirty years the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band have stubbornly resisted attempts to uncover the truth behind their mythology. Almost every aspect of the group seems to beg unanswered questions.
To begin with there was the name itself. Long and unwieldy, it seemed designed to defy recollection and sink the heart of poster designers everywhere. Was it a six-word manifesto of creative intent, or simply a cynical attempt to climb aboard the 'psychedelic' bandwagon? Then there were the song credits and album photos, according to which a certain Bob Markley was the band's driving force, a position seemingly confirmed by the appearance of his final 'solo' LP: 'A Group'. Yet, somewhat confusingly, on the back of that album's sleeve there appeared - for the first time since the band's debut on the Fifo label - pictures of all four original members. Last, and definitely not least, there were the songs themselves. Along the way the music encompassed almost every musical genre - harmonic guitar pop, acoustic folk, psychedelic rock, jazz and avant-garde; and then there were those extraordinary lyrics - some starkly political, others naive and child-like; at times dark and sinister, at others simply insane. As Brian Hogg observed in his sleeve notes to Edsel's mid-80s compilation 'Transparent Day': "(t)here are few groups as enigmatic, as mysterious or as plain contradictory..." This article does not pretend to be a definitive account of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band - indeed, it now seems clear that some questions will never properly be answered - but the story which emerges is fascinating nevertheless, not least as an insight into how extraordinary music could emerge from a group driven by internal conflicts and held in the thrall of a man driven by dubious motives.
Born in Colorado Springs in 1946 and '47 respectively, Shaun and Danny Harris were brought up with three sisters in an atmosphere of prodigious, but decidedly eccentric, talent. Their father, Roy Harris, was the world-renowned composer of sixteen symphonies while their mother, Joanna, was a classical pianist who taught post-graduate at New York's Julliard School of Music. As Shaun ruefully recalls, such an environment proved to be something of a mixed blessing: "One day our mother was showing us a couple of harmony things on the piano and my dad came in and said to us: 'You're never going to even approximate my success, so let's go out to lunch!' Neither Danny nor I were trained in instruments when we were young and our parents didn't force us. I think that was unfortunate. Later I would be asked to compose movie scores but I had to turn the work down because I didn't know how to write music." Years later, Shaun and Danny would proudly play their father the test pressing of the first Reprise album. As Dan recalls: "He listened to it in silence and then told us to sit down. We thought he really liked it until he said 'It's like bringing you up for seventeen years and realising you're members of the Hitler Youth Movement'! It was just so far removed from his way of musical thinking. That kind of thing has happened all our lives."
Meanwhile, in Beverley Hills, despite the fact that neither of his parents were professional musicians, Michael Lloyd's mother insisted that he take lessons from a young age: "I had been playing classical piano since I was four. In the 4th grade of grammar school I met Jimmy Greenspoon who was a piano player too and we started playing duets and writing our own little instrumental songs. At that time we didn't really sing so we decided that one of us had to learn the guitar. We both tried, but since Jimmy was more of a piano player than a guitar player, I learnt the guitar and that was when we started to play Surf music." In 1962, while still at junior school, Michael and Jimmy formed their first band, the Dimensions, and began to play Surf instrumentals inspired by bands like the Ventures. The following year, having built up an impressive reputation locally as a live act, the New Dimensions [as they had now become] cut their first record at Stereo Masters, the 2-track studio where The Beach Boys had made their debut two years earlier: "We actually played with The Beach Boys at a couple of concerts, but we never thought of them as a Surf band because as far as we were concerned the real Surf music was instrumental!" Despite releasing several albums [recently compiled on a Sundazed CD], Lloyd's band had little of the success of their illustrious predecessors, but it was while recording at Stereo Masters that Lloyd had a chance meeting which was to prove prophetic. As Kim Fowley recalls: "I was there mastering one day when I saw this kid being dropped off by his mother with several reels of tape under his arm. I guess I was 24 and he was 14. I said to him "Excuse me young man, are you a musician, engineer or producer?" He said "All three. Who are you?" It was the beginning of a friendship that was to prove highly significant, not just for Fowley and Lloyd, but also for the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
When The Beatles invaded America in 1964 Lloyd, in common with many others, realised that the future belonged to vocal music. For a brief period the New Dimensions performed and recorded as a vocal group under the name the Alley Kats, but when the members drifted apart Michael formed a new group, the Rogues. In the Fall of '64 he left High School and entered the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Hollywood Professional School and it was there that he met the Harris brothers for the first time.
Shaun and Danny had been living very much in the shadow of their parents' musical careers, which had taken them all over North America and beyond, but in 1962 the Harris family settled in Los Angeles. It wasn't long before the two brothers joined the Snowmen, a local band who had already had a minor hit, 'Ski Storm', under the guidance of Fowley. Shaun remembers: "The guitar player was Chris Gordon who I met at a Summer Camp for entertainers' children in the mountains. I contacted him when we got back to LA and we ended up in that band. We had a rehearsal place behind one of the members' houses. Up until then Danny and I had been playing more like folk music and I had never used an electric guitar - only a nylon stringed acoustic - but I really liked playing this guy's Stratocaster and twin reverb amp. I liked being in a band but I never felt I had the stage presence for it - I just liked the music. The first recording I actually remember was called 'While I Was Away', or something like that. When it was pressed up I drove out to California going to little radio stations, but I had no idea of the complexity of the record industry. I heard it played a few times, but it never really saw the light of day. That was quite dispiriting really. When Danny and I went to Hollywood Professional School Lloyd was in a band called the Rogues and we were in the Snowmen. There was a little bit of competition and I remember them coming to see us one night. Michael had real dedication but the rest of his band were just High School students looking for something extra to do [one member of the group, Michael Lembeck, went on to be the Director of the TV show 'Friends']. Danny and I had a whole lot of dedication too and I started playing bass in the Rogues. I had never played bass guitar before, but Michael showed me how in about 5 minutes." For a short while Shaun played bass in the Rogues and whilst he was a member the band released a single on Fowley's Living Legend label. Entitled 'Wanted: Dead Or Alive' b/w 'One Day', the A-side was a joint composition between Michael and Shaun.
Danny also remembers this time: "I went to the same Santa Monica High School as Ry Cooder and we would play Bluegrass together. When Shaun and I joined the Snowmen I was 16 and he was 17 and we played every night at the Methodist Church in Pacific Palisades. Although I could play great Bluegrass and Country guitar, I was such a bad electric guitarist that they only allowed me to play a nylon acoustic and no one could hear me! It was just at this time that we met Michael who had his own band the Rogues. Shortly after that we started our last years in High School at the Hollywood Professional School. At that time Michael was living in Beverley Hills and we were living in Malibu, so we would come by and pick him up on the way into school. The teachers there were all at least eighty years old with shiny blue hair. I stood for Student Boy President and won! So I got to meet people like O.J. Simpson. He spoke at the Police Academy and told me: 'Stay at school Dan and get into your music, but stay healthy!' Kim Fowley and Michael came out to hear us playing at the church. That was the time when he had groups like the Laughing Wind who were recording on Tower Records. It was a week after that we started playing together. You could say that it happened over night. We were going to the same school and all playing in bands."
After the trio realised that they shared a common passion for music, they used some recording equipment
borrowed from Shaun and Danny's father to set up a small studio in Michael's bedroom. It was there that
they made some of the rudimentary recordings which would later appear as 'Volume 1' on the Fifo
label under the name of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Shaun: "My dad had some old Ampex
recording equipment in his garage and we took this stuff over to Michael's house. We would work all
night and have school the next day and make demo records for people like Kim Fowley. The personnel in
those days were Danny Belsky [who had already played sax with Lloyd in the Dimensions], Michael, Danny
and me. Dennis Lambert was a guitar player in the band in the early days and later we added John Ware
[who replaced Belsky] on drums. My girlfriend took the picture on the cover of the Fifo album - I think
that was outside our recording studio in Beverley Hills."
Judging by their achievements thus far, it is clear that Shaun, Danny and Michael lacked neither the talent nor the ambition to achieve considerable success - had they been left to their own devices. According to Lloyd, the trio had already released a single on Tower records - 'Good To Be Around' b/w 'Don't Take Very Much To See Tomorrow' - under the guise of the Laughing Wind. Their destiny was, however, about to take a rather unusual turn, for it was during the period of these early recordings that the fateful meeting with Bob Markley came about. The unwitting introduction was made by Kim Fowley: "I first met Markley in 1960 because we shared the same Attorney. He was about 7 years older than me and was a guy in the tradition of Robert Conrad. He had a Colgate smile and he looked like an actor. As a child he had been adopted by an oil millionaire. He got a degree in law and was in college groups playing the bongos - a beatnik kind of thing - and he had a TV show in Oklahoma which was like American Bandstand. So there he was as the Dick Clark of Norman, Oklahoma when this Warner Bros executive came through town, saw him on camera and said: "Gee, why don't you come to Hollywood and be an actor?" So he went to Hollywood and got signed to Warner Bros, but he failed as an actor and then he recorded that single - it was worse than Fabian! Luckily he still had his inheritance and his big house. So he was an actor, singer and lawyer who didn't act, couldn't sing and never practised law!" That single was, of course, the infamous Bob Markley '45 released on Warner Bros: 'Summer's Comin' On' b/w 'It Should Have Been Me'. Although on its surface a fairly standard piece of teenage doo-wop, there is something decidedly weird about the record and Markley's spoken 'rap' anticipates the vocal style which he would later adopt on songs like '1906'. It would be no coincidence when, a few years later, the Reprise subsidiary of the same label released three albums by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.