The Album List: #98 13th Floor Elevators “Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators”

I spy with my little eye…

Roky Erikson is one of those poor tortured geniuses who lost their marbles due to drugs (well, more likely biological reasons, but the drug stories are always cooler). Like Skip Spence and Syd Barret, he is largely forgotten and unknown to a generation who benefited from his brilliance. Unlike those two poor sods, Roky came out the other end of it eventually, and continues to be brilliant.

13th Floor Elevators came out of Texas in the mid sixties,  and were one of the first bands to be called psychedelic. They created walls of sound dense guitars with reverb and an “electric jug”, essentially a jug with a mic, that jug master Tommy Hall blew into. Yes. A jug. They were a jug band. The rich guitar textures would be massively influential on Texas bands ( Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is known to be a huge fan), and later the Brit pop shoegazer scene (Primal Scream is an obvious descendent).

The album has what is essentially their only hit single, the glorious, feral “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, with its propulsive guitars and Erikson’s yelping vocals. The song has become legendary as a garage rock classic over the years, used notably in High Fidelity and True Blood.  As far as “kiss my ass, we’re through” songs go, this is simply one of the greatest, and easily the most emotionally honest.

There is a looseness to the record. It’s not hi-fi, polished, or commercial sounding in any way. In fact, I’m sure low-fi purists like Sebadoh are envious with just how shambolic this album sounds.  It’s never more clear than on the messy “Tried To Hide”.

Second single “Reverberation (Doubt)” is a sonic piece of guitar genius. Chugging riffs matched with the deep hooting from that blasted jug just sounds so cool and unlike anything else from the era. The song is beloved among Roky fans- Jesus and Mary Chain even covered it.

Television, Tom Verlaine’s fantastic art punk band from the late seventies, would cover the Elevator’s “Fire Engine”, which has the added bonus of fire engine siren noises played in the intro, then when Roky sings the phrase “fire engine”, creating an added layer of sonic wonderfulness. During the song, the noise becomes less siren sounding and more wolf howl in sound. It’s just so wonderfully bizarre.

Ultimately, without Erikson, who would be diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in a mental hospital after a 1969 marijuana bust, the band splintered.  Erikson would be in and out of care through out his adult life, possibly made worse by the treatments given to him, though no one knows for sure.  After years of struggling, he finally, with the help of his brother, Sumner, was able to begin to record again, and the new-found appreciation of his music by artists as varied as R.E.M., Primal Scream, Spacemen 3, and Julian Cope brought Roky’s music to a new generation. He’s still here, still playing, and still completely amazing.


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