Whether you’re aware of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band or not, their story is one that offers a sobering insight into the inner machinations of ’60 rock and roll. It wasn’t all peace, love and partying.
Beset with the internal struggles, shrouded in myth and a little known prophet of the death of the 1960s, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band presented a twist in the tale to the upbeat music of 1960s LA.
Centered on the gravitational pull of the polarising figure, Bob Markley, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band barely scratched the surface of recognition during their time, but their story has lived on and so too has their music.
The formation of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band combined two dissimilar components: the young LA hopefuls, the Laughing Wind (Danny and Shaun Harris and Michael Lloyd) and the second component was the infamous, Bob Markley. Comparatively out of place, Bob Markley was an adopted son of an oil tycoon, many years senior to the group, who, according to the rest of the band, cared little for making music but rather was attracted to the rock and roll clichés that being in a band in the ’60s would surely provide him with. In Lloyd’s words:
“he [Markley] had seen the incredible amount of girls that thought rock and roll was really cool and that was his only motivation.”
After being introduced at a Hollywood party, Bob Markley stood at the proverbial crossroads. There a pact was struck: for access to expensive equipment and a line into the upper echelons of the music industry, Markley would be allowed to play tambourine on stage and reap his perceived amenities of being in a rock and roll band.
Markley was true to his word in the beginning though it was his idea to lumber the group with their mouthful of a band name. Markley organised impressive lightshows for the band’s live performances and funded Volume One which was released in 1966 on Markley’s record label, Fifo.
Volume One consisted mostly of cover versions of songs like the garage rock classic “Louie Louie,” the Kink’s “You Really Got Me” and a handful of Bob Dylan covers. At this stage, Markley’s creative influence was at a minimum, but his hand did stretch to some writing like the lyrics of “Don’t Break My Balloon” a bewildering garage rock-esque song to which the track title is repeated throughout. Much of the album is the same — a regurgitation of what other garage bands of the time were doing so much better. It’s fair to say that they hadn’t yet found their feet.
Markley later managed to attain a three-album deal with a Warner records subsidiary, Reprise. On the surface, all seemed well; however, it later became known that Markley had registered the band’s name with the record label rather than the band’s members. Ultimately, this meant that Markley could replace any member he wanted and legally they wouldn’t be entitled to any royalties due to their names not officially being on the contract.
In a nigh evil masterstroke, Markley had swiftly locked the four into a litigious quandary that enforced him as an authority. Essentially, Markley had control over the band’s output and personnel despite assuring the others his intentions were purely of the lecherous kind.
And so their symbiotic relationship began.
Volume One wasn’t received all too well critically or commercially, therefore in what seemed to be an effort to rewrite the past, Part One was released in 1967. Part One resembled a formation of the group that was near devoid of Markley’s later sometimes laughably surrealist, often profane and often politically entrenched lyrical content that would subsequently permeate the group’s later albums. For now, Markley’s creative involvement of writing lyrics was growing, though not in exclusivity.
However, Markley penned and recited the spoken word lyrics to “1906,” a single from the album, which details a dog’s premonition of an earthquake… obviously. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band had little to no commercial success outside of LA; it’s not hard to comprehend when “1906” was used as a single over remarkable songs like “Shifting Sands” and “If You Want This Love.” Such was Markley’s way, favouring to release his surrealist recitatives as singles over songs that were both melodic and well-arranged and in some cases lyrically a compliment to the music.
Markley’s dictatorial control was soon becoming all too evident. The gulf between Markley and the rest of the band was growing to be more than a mere sufferable nuisance, but now was beginning to strain the core of the group, as Shaun Harris recalled:
“he [Markley] had no musical aptitude of any kind and so what he was trying to do to be different and innovative ended up sounding contrived.”
Michael Lloyd was the first member to leave of disillusionment with Markley’s influence stating that:
“[Markley] wasn’t content anymore just being the guy who ended up with the girls he could get from it. Now he wanted to be respected.”
The pact had run its course for Lloyd culminating in a fistfight with Markley. He was the first to fall, but not the last.
Enter Ron Morgan, a lead guitarist from Colorado, Lloyd’s replacement.
By 1967, the release date of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s third LP Volume Two, the ’60s drug culture was in full swing. Experimentation with cannabis and LSD seemed to mirror the experimentation in the music of the ’60s, which was no doubt correlative. Ironically, however, with the exception of Ron Morgan, for all the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s quirks, the use of illicit drugs was not their source.
Featuring briefly on Part One, Morgan haphazardly replaced Lloyd as primary guitarist. By all accounts, Morgan embraced the LA drug scene. His wavy fuzz-ridden guitar tones and explorations into new, affected sounds evoked the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s many counterparts of late ’60s psychedelia. Morgan helped shape the group’s sound after Lloyd’s departure as evinced in the track “Smell of Incense” from Volume Two confirming a more consistently electric-folk driven psychedelic sound.
With a sound that was becoming thoroughly psychedelic, it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the group had no place for the purely medicinal influences that frequented ’60s LA. That’s not to say illicit drugs were a prerequisite of ’60s psychedelia, but with the increasing popularity of drug-fueled mind expansion, ten-a-penny visions of enlightenment and music intent on reflecting that scene, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, in that respect, were an anomaly. Therein lied the group’s plethora of dichotomies, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band emulated the late ’60s hippie culture rather than performing it. They sang songs condemning war and violence yet fought amongst themselves, they became increasingly anti-capitalist yet Markley was the son of a wealthy oil tycoon reputedly only motivated by his salacity.
Markley would present the rest of the band with pages of lyrics that if they weren’t impenetrably surreal were denunciations of war and violence, to which the rest of the group had to cut down and find something lyrical within the mass quantities. More often than not, the songs, and indeed the lyrics, hit the mark despite seeming to run contradictory to Markley’s beliefs, and being, for the most part, a shared embarrassment for the rest of the group.
In the song “In the Arena” Markley speaks the lyrics:
“In the arena the crowd is restless/Tonight, one time only, 1500 white-collar/ Gun carrying, club-bearing policemen/ The city’s finest, will charge unarmed children, mothers/ Crippled, hippies, freaks, professors and other peace marchers/ Never before have you been able to witness so much cruelty/ Live and in colour/ In the privacy of your own room.”
Markley’s lyrics were thoroughly reproachful of the politics of the 1960s offering a bleak outline of the darker side of the ’60s. Nevertheless, for the rest of the band they stood as a constant reminder of Markley’s dualism and unflinching creative control.
Amongst some perfectly thought out psychedelic music, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s albums are littered with Markley’s surreal lyrics like in “Buddha” Markley’s words are:
“You have a perfectly round tongue/ Painted green/ And a fountain, and a mountain/ And a tunnel for me to follow/ And a door inside your mind/ That you won’t open.”
Shaun Harris openly chided the song’s lyrics saying that:
“I’m not going to ask that they play that at my wake.”
And too did the rest of the band often meet Markley’s lyrics with perplexity thus highlighting the creative chasm spreading between them. To the rest of the band Markley seemed to so desperately want in on the LA “scene” of the late ’60s that he fabricated a distorted imitation of its exponents, even to the extent of sporting clothes that made him look younger in a conscious effort to disguise his insecurities of old age.
Volume Three: A Child’s Guide To Good & Evil
Released in 1968, A Child’s Guide to Good & Evil was the last album the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band released on Reprise marking the beginning of the end for the group. Although it’s arguably the most well-received album the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band released, critically not commercially, what was once disillusionment with Markley was now taking a turn for the worst.
Danny Harris was notably absent from the album’s recording due to battling with depression. So the band, ever reducing, recorded with the remaining members, Shaun Harris, Ron Morgan and Bob Markley. As with all West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s albums, the drums were outsourced to various session musicians notably, Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine.
Bob Markley was now in complete control of the group’s lyrical themes as he expanded on the anti-war and egalitarian ideas of Volume Two, but Shaun Harris thought it was merely Markley’s desperate attempt to seem “hip.”
Of his own lyrics Markley said:
“The lyrical content is so meaningful and gets in so deep that we are treading the fine line of perfect taste,” quoting Dylan as his contemporary.
Perhaps Markley was just a misunderstood genius, if indeed a vulgar one, but his lyrical content once again belied the persona he presented to the rest of the group. Responding to “Until the Poorest People Have Money to Spend” Harris said that:
“Markley would have been the last person in the world to give anyone a farthing.”
Regardless of Markley’s lack of the band’s endorsement, the lyrical themes of A Child’s Guide to Good & Evil display a somewhat unique and austere summation of what was becoming the end of an era. “In the Country” details a prescient end to the upbeat, floral ethos of the ’60s that had been flourishing in LA.
“San Francisco is dead/ In LA no one’s on the street/ Let’s go/ off on our own/ In the country” followed by “Spark is locked away/ Brown is down in jail again/ Any minute the man/ Will bust us/ A world upside down/ Gives a medal for killing/ Now I’m some kind of freak/ For wanting changes.”
The lyrics are exactly what the album title suggests — blurring the line between naivety and cynical reportage. The idea for positive change was indeed ending for many at the turn of the ’60s; the Vietnam War was ongoing, Martin Luther King’s assassination shook the Civil Rights Movement and riots swept across the nation. Despite the rest of the band’s disdain of Markley’s creative tyranny and amongst the often fey and childlike, overly whimsical lyrics, conceptually, Markley did present something that was at least relatively idiosyncratic of the era if you can separate the art from the artist, which is no easy feat.
Musically, the album developed on the folk and psychedelic fusion of the former album. “Eighteen is Over the Hill” captured the bittersweet theme of the album perfectly shifting from major to minor keys with, as always, beautiful vocal harmonies. Guitarist Ron Morgan adopted the ubiquitous sitar for many of the songs; overall, the album marked maturation in sound.
Still, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band garnered little public interest, which was in no small part due to Bob Markley. Markley refused to tour with the band insisting that they should stay in LA. Shaun Harris stated that:
[Markley’s] “ultimate aim was to just have an album to show some girls in LA and bring them back to his house.”
Therefore, Markley refused to commit to touring outside of his comfortable framework of Beverly Hills.
The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band was further dissolving. Ron Morgan became more committed to his other band, Three Dog Night and the Harris brothers embarked on a tour with another group, California Spectrum.
Where’s My Daddy?
One year after A Child’s Guide To Good & Evil in 1969, and despite the band seeming to want to go their separate ways, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s inevitable magnetism prevailed for yet another tumultuous recording of Where’s My Daddy?
Dropped from their label reprise, the independent record label Amos picked them up, which was owned by Jimmy Bowen a longstanding producer of the group. Where’s My Daddy? can only be described as a coffin nail. The album saw the return of Michael Lloyd though as punishment for his dishonourable discharge, Markley omitted his name from the album’s credits. Not that that’d be such a bad thing, where the other albums had at least some shades of perfection Where’s My Daddy?, was creatively a shaky pastiche of country, folk and soft rock.
Now having full control of the band’s lyrical output, Markley took his creative control to new disturbing heights. Markley’s lyrical inspiration for the album was that of a young girl (“Poor Patty”) who traverses various depraved scenes of LA during the apex of the summer of love.
Where’s My Daddy? starts innocently enough, though throughout Patty’s journey she slips through Markley’s desolate imaginings of a sordid city that wants nothing more than to steal her innocence, and indeed it does. By the penultimate track “Coming of Age in LA” “Poor Patty, a beautiful orphan of ten” is “beaten raped and robbed.” The darkness that was always implicit in Markley’s lyrics, here takes quite a literal and unnerving turn. Perhaps Markley’s statement of a broken society, but it’s hard not register anything but unease given Markley’s later suspected arrests for charges involving underage girls.
There is no solid evidence to either confirm or deny whether Markley was truly arrested for charges of sexual misconduct with underage girls. Allegedly, Markley also, long after the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s disbandment, suffered from mental health issues but little is actually known of his later life.
When asked about Markley’s lyrical themes surrounding children Shaun Harris said that:
“If Markley was obsessed with children it wasn’t in a positive way.”
However, in truth Markley’s words were always mystery to the rest of the group. As Lloyd said:
“We never knew what was behind Bob’s lyrics.”
It can’t be stressed enough that there isn’t evidence enough to substantiate Markley’s alleged crimes. Although Markley was, to the rest of the band, an undoubted sleaze, much is resigned to myth of his later life.
After Where’s My Daddy? the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band eventually collapsed. One year later Bob Markley released another album under the name Markley, A Group that actually featured all the band’s members, minus Ron Morgan, but dictatorial as ever and locked into their devilish pact, the album was agreed to be released as a Markley solo album although its compositions were collaborative. The album proved only to be a further crawl into obscurity that finally cut the cord of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
Amongst the endless stream of psychedelic bands that came out of the ’60s, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band unduly suffered anonymity. As the end of the 1960s loomed, unlike so many other groups, they presented a depiction of a world burning rather than gloating in its daffodil-like perfection. They were premonitory in as much as they weren’t taken with a collective ethos that seemed not to reflect reality.
Naive as they may have been, and as strange as their story is, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band created, for the most part, inspired music coupled with a later unrealised vision of anti-war and anti-greed in spite of each of their intentions.
All information retrieved from respective album liner notes.