It’s a mystery why the Holy Modal Rounders haven’t gotten as much revisionist historical fanfare as the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. The two albums they released in 1967 and 1968, Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, were paradigm-shifting masterpieces, every bit as radical as the Velvets’ banana-sticker-cover self-titled debut and Freak Out! and Absolutely Free by Zappa and the Mothers. In some ways, the Holy Modal Rounders’ records are even more avant-garde because all the weirdness is poured into traditional forms that at that point in time hadn’t had much affiliation with pop, stuff like folk and hillbilly music and ragtime and Tin Pan Alley and punk, long before punk even existed. And in so doing, they offer a stunning view of the infinite possibilities of rock and pop that would be explored in the coming years by young musicians all around the world.
That’s not to say these records inspired legions of sonic experimenters. Most likely, they didn’t. I’d never heard of the Holy Modal Rounders before this year, when my uncle loaned me a record they did in the mid-seventies with Michael Hurley, and in the time since I became acquainted with them I’ve discovered that most of my music savvy friends hadn’t heard of them either. That’s probably because these records are weird beyond weird; so weird that they verge on sloppy, kind of like the music I used to make with my buddies in high school when we’d get really stoned, turn on a tape recorder and strum warbling chords on an acoustic guitar and bang on pots and pans and make spooky sounds with our mouths. The difference here is that the Holy Modal Rounders are skilled musicians, and at the heart of all the psychedelic spontaneity is some solid playing. The fiddle work in particular is top notch. And it’s all stirred together with heavy doses of studio effects—echo, delay, reverb—that give the records a dreamlike quality. Listening to these records is like floating through the greatest flea market on earth, a place jam packed with Americana ephemera that drifts in and out of focus through a hallucinatory haze. You’ll be floating along, grooving on an echoing organ line that sounds equal parts Star Trek soundtrack and funeral parlor dirge, when suddenly the muffled drums quicken and a strand of fiddle cuts in and you’re tapping your foot to a down home barnburner. After a minute or so of that, it might slide into a ragtime ditty, similar in melody to Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” except it sounds like it’s being sung by cartoon rednecks with super-secret intellectual alter egos.
In other words, these records are just as wild and crazy as can be, and they were wild and crazy at a time when few musicians knew it was even possible to be so strange. If I had first heard them without knowing what they were, I would’ve thought they’d come out earlier this year, and that they were cutting-edge, DIY, underground freak folk, not music that’s older than I am. I’d say they were wildly influential if I had a notion that a lot of later artists had heard them and followed suit, but the annals of rock history are too quiet about the Holy Modal Rounders for me to believe that their influence was direct.