NorCal nuggets

Mucho psych-rock of the late ’60s! Mind-numbing musical arcana! Jackson Griffith!

Ah, simpler times. Davis’ Oxford Circle sampled unselfconsciously from the splendid range of ‘60s menswear.

Ah, simpler times. Davis’ Oxford Circle sampled unselfconsciously from the splendid range of ‘60s menswear.

In the beginning, there was the Dead.

The Grateful Dead, and the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and perhaps a few other bands of near-equivalent cultural gravitas.

As it were, the rock-god version of Zeus had hurled a Mescaline-colored bolt of electricity from his lofty perch atop Mount Sutro toward the corner of San Francisco’s Haight and Ashbury streets, scoring a direct hit, and thus an entire patchouli-scented subculture had sprung up overnight sometime around the early spring of 1966. A year later—voilà!—the Summer of Love sallied forth from that blessed corner and captured imaginations around the world.

So goes the accepted narrative. That particular story line has had a few patrons to help it along over the years: Rolling Stone magazine, that self-anointed bible of rock journalism based originally in San Francisco, and the late promoter Bill Graham, who dominated Northern California’s live-music scene for over two decades, along with the rabid cult that grew up around the Grateful Dead.

But there’s another version of the story, and it goes something like this: What happened in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1960s emerged from causes and conditions already extant in Northern California. In the larger culture, you had the word-images of the Beats, who had exerted a certain amount of influence on the literary scene after World War II, and also the collision of Eastern and Western ideas that resulted from San Francisco’s position as point of entry for the Pacific Rim—not to mention the city’s historic affinity for such iconoclasts and nonconformists as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Emperor Norton.

But in a purely musical sense, there was an explosion of young rock ’n’ roll bands across America that followed in the wake of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964. Northern California had a bumper crop of them, and many made it beyond the garage-practice-space and teen-dance level to the recording studio, where their music was captured for posterity on the dominant medium of the era, the 45-rpm single.

That alternate musical narrative is finally being told via a lavish new four-CD box set, Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970, released last month by Rhino Records, the reissue division of Warner Music. The set, published in the format of a 120-page coffee-table book with the CDs inserted in pockets on the inside back cover, includes 46 pages of copious notes by Alec Palao, the 45-year-old London native turned Northern California rock expert who compiled and produced it.

Grace Slick figured nobody’d ever thought to flip off the camera before.

There are 55 pages of exquisite photographs, too, many never seen before. “It was very important to have photos that hadn’t been seen a million times,” Palao explained over the phone from his El Cerrito home. “And I wanted to depict the bands in their youth and with a fresh look, not a bunch of tired-looking hippies. Everyone was just coming out of the mod look and starting to freak themselves out a little bit. It’s more in line with the aesthetics of the music.” Palao also commissioned two short essays, by music writers Ben Fong-Torres and Gene Sculatti. Oh, and the black-and-silver cover was designed by graphic designer Prairie Prince, longtime drummer for the Tubes.

As swell as the visuals are, the story’s in the music. What this set does is reframe 1960s San Francisco rock by placing it where it belongs, in the context of the larger Northern California milieu. And that milieu included Sacramento, as well as the East Bay, Marin, the Peninsula and San Jose.

“Everything is interlinked,” Palao said, “whether people choose to remember it that way or not. A lot of people don’t; they’ll say, ‘Public Nuisance, why are they on here?’ It definitely was important to have them, and the New Breed, and the Oxford Circle on the set. I’ve always thought that the hierarchy or meritocracy of San Francisco rock was a flawed concept.”

The four CDs are organized thematically: The first, titled “Seismic Rumbles,” opens with Dino Valenti’s anthem “Get Together”; the hit version of the same song, by the Youngbloods, closes disc four. Some of the tracks may be familiar: an early version of Country Joe & the Fish’s antiwar ditty “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a demo of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Bo Diddley cover “Who Do You Love,” along with We Five’s pop-smash version of Ian & Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind.” Others are by early versions of well-known bands: a Dylan-esque “Can’t Come Down” by the Warlocks (aka Grateful Dead), or “Human Monkey” by the Frantics, (which morphed into Moby Grape). Still others are lesser-known gems by bands like the Beau Brummels, which featured now-Sacramento-based singer Sal Valentino.

One of these dudes has a drink named after him at the True Love Coffeehouse. Which one? Well, who here looks like a “Dark Lord” to you? Oh, wait, they all do.

Some are of interest for other reasons. “Bye Bye Bye” by the Tikis features drummer Ted Templeman, later the record producer who recorded Montrose and Van Halen’s hard-rock debuts. And, because San Francisco FM-radio legend Tom Donahue’s Autumn Records was the dominant indie label, there are several tracks—by the Beau Brummels, the Charlatans, the Warlocks, the Great! Society (featuring Grace Slick), the Vejtables and the Mojo Men—recorded by Autumn’s house producer, Sylvester Stewart, later known as Sly Stone. Plus, even an odd cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” by peninsula band the Grass Roots, before it moved to Hollywood and became an AM-radio hit machine.

Disc three (“Summer of Love”) and four (“The Man Can’t Bust Our Music”) contain more familiar musical terrain—e.g., the Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a couple of Santana tracks, some Steve Miller Band cuts (featuring future star Boz Scaggs), “Omaha” by Moby Grape, “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer, and a couple of Grateful Dead gems, including a rare single version of the live staple “Dark Star.” (“I’m sure there’s a lot of Deadheads who don’t even know there’s a studio version of ‘Dark Star,’” Palao said.) The only glaring omissions are tracks by the Golliwogs/Creedence Clearwater Revival, which Palao couldn’t license.

But for local fans, disc two, “Suburbia,” is the reason to get this set. It opens with “Psychotic Reaction,” that ersatz-Yardbirds nugget by San Jose’s one-hit Count Five (“That whole intro is one of the most visceral 20 seconds in all rock ’n’ roll,” Palao enthused), and closes with “Hearts to Cry” by Pleasant Hill band Frumious Bandersnatch, which included future members of Journey and Steve Miller’s band. Three local bands made the cut: First is the Oxford Circle (“Foolish Woman”), led by longtime local blues player Gary Lee Yoder—who also appears on two tracks on disc four; “Lemonaide Kid” by Kak and “Fool” by Blue Cheer.

As Palao puts it: “I think it’s interesting that Sacramento’s tradition of suburban rock ’n’ roll had some kind of effect in San Francisco, even if it was just the fact that Oxford Circle would go down there and blow everyone off the stage with their show, which was honed at places like Governor’s Hall and the Cottage and the Trip Room. Sure, they were taking their lead from the Yardbirds and whoever, but solid rock ’n’ roll and showmanship would still blow other bands off the stage.”

One of <i>these </i>dudes later became an Eagle. Which must be why the blond guy is looking at him funny. Because, you know, not liking the Eagles is totally the hipster thing to do. Even many decades ago, before the Eagles existed.

Also on the disc is “Want Ad Reader” by the New Breed, later known as Glad and—after current Eagles member Tim Schmit left the band to join Poco—the country-rock combo Redwing. And Public Nuisance, the psych band fronted by David Houston, who’s still active performing and producing records here, is represented with “America,” a Houston-penned song. And don’t miss “Rubaiyat,” by Concord’s the Immediate Family, with Tim Barnes—later of Stoneground (with Sal Valentino) and Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers—on guitar and lead vocals.

What makes the entire set work is the outsider perspective Palao brought to it. “Like most Europeans,” he explained, “I’m obsessed with grassroots American culture. I always felt it was important to document an era, but apart from that, I look at it like a popular-culture crusade—in the same way it would have been great to have documented what was going on in the ’20s in New Orleans with the Dixieland bands, or blues singers like Robert Johnson. But all those people are gone. So maybe Public Nuisance and Oxford Circle aren’t on that level to academics, but in 50 years they probably will be—as an expression of that time period in rock ’n’ roll, and this locale, and the ideas that were going on here.”