Rock is a young person’s game, but extreme literate weirdness is best left to those who’ve been around the block enough times to know where the real bizarre shit can be dug up. Red Crayola first surfaced on Texas’ International Artists label during the psychedelic ’60s. Barbecued Texas original Mayo Thompson (guitar, vocals) would remain the group’s mainstay throughout its checkered career, but the lineup that recorded 1967’s The Parable of Arable Land contained someone whose fame would not be in music: drummer Frederick Barthelme (younger brother of postmodern master Donald Barthelme), a widely acclaimed avatar of the “dirty realist” school of American fiction. Barthelme quit the group after that one album, but he and Thompson have remained close, and the writer contributed cover photos to Three Songs.
The first two Red Crayola (thanks to prompt objections from the manufacturer, the name was quickly changed, in America at least, to Red Krayola) records couldn’t be more different. The Parable of Arable Land is vintage psychedelia that boasts a more engaged intelligence than most of the era’s aural acid baths, and its excellent songs (“Hurricane Fighter Plane” obviously influenced Pere Ubu’s sound; Spacemen 3 later covered “Transparent Radiation”) are punctuated by “Free Form Freak-Outs,” random noise excursions by a large group of Texas hippies. God Bless the Red Krayola is a considerably more subdued but qually eccentric effort, with an emphasis on very brief, acoustic-based numbers; “Ravi Shankar: Parachutist” and “Tina’s Gone to Have a Baby” are among its memorable titles. (Galaxie 500 covered the LP’s “Victory Garden” on a 1990 single.)
Red Crayola then faded into limbo until turning up to do sessions in 1976 with the Art & Language organization, which yielded the demos collected on Corrected Slogans; the album parallels somewhat the serious/silly music of Robert Wyatt. Largely acoustic in nature, Corrected Slogans has extremely simple songs, operatic vocals and complex lyrics that are satirical and/or political.
Exhilarated by the critical success of Pere Ubu’s dada punk, Radar Records reissued The Parable of Arable Land in 1978 and God Bless in 1979. Mayo Thompson and New York drummer Jesse Chamberlain reformed Red Crayola to make Soldier-Talk, aided by Lora Logic and the entirety of Pere Ubu (which Thompson later joined). Uniting Red Crayola’s flower-power garage music with modernistic, fragmented arrangements and a fierce, broken beat, the album centers on cynical military themes. A challenging work.
Reuniting Red Crayola with Art & Language, Kangaroo? tones down the chaos for a musical discussion of Soviet Communist ideals and history, including the gentle, poignant instrumental, “1917.” More in the style of avant-garde theater music than rock, the LP is like Brecht out of Vivian Stanshall, with impressive results. Black Snakes has more of Thompson’s dramatic vocals and features Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine on sax and synth. The cornerstone tracks are “The Sloths,” a peculiar rewrite of a James Thurber short story (The Unicorn in the Garden), the puerile “Ratman, the Weightwatcher” and “A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock.”
Three Songs on a Trip to the United States is packaged as an EP, but it’s practically album length; the A-side contains the three songs themselves, while the flip is a generous chunk from a German concert featuring the stripped-down lineup of Thompson, drummer Chamberlain and synthesist Ravenstine. Both sides find the Crayola back in the sometimes crazed, sometimes obtuse psychedelic mode of the band’s first Radar 7-inch, “Wives in Orbit.” (The live side contains a reading of that tune that’s even more frenzied than the original.) The studio side is frustratingly murky. As intriguing as it would be to hear what the Texas-born expatriate has to say about a visit to the country he left, it’s impossible to make out much more than a phrase here and there. Still, it’s a safe guess that “California Girl” isn’t a song of praise; nor, for that matter, is “Monster.” Pretty slamming stuff nonetheless and, like the rest of the Crayola’s oeuvre, a genuine mind trip in almost every sense of the term.
Returning from a five-year studio absence, Thompson encountered simpatico members of the ’90s generation (specifically members of Gastr del Sol, Tortoise and Overpass, plus Chicago’s fearless Drag City label) and entered the most audibly productive phase of his career, issuing two new albums plus two arcane oldies inside two years.
Recorded by a collective of seven (including guitarists David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke and Tom Watson, drummer John McEntire and German synthesist Albert Oehlen), The Red Krayola is a potent modern exposition of Thompson’s Beefheartian musical inventions and wickedly offbeat lyrics. For all its idiosyncratic juxtapositions, the album is a relatively straightforward electric affair — alternately engaging and patience-testing — that sends antagonistic elements (noisy guitar, catatonic electronic blips, contrary rhythms, Thompson’s ever-changing vocal affectations) out to disrupt the calmly logical organization of restrained, tuneful inventions like the waltz-time “Jimmy Silk/Supper Be Ready Medley,” “Pride,” “Book of Kings” (which paraphrases Carly Simon and quotes children’s verse), the courtly, Roxy Music-like “Miss X,” the chromatic “Art-Dog” and “Suddenly,” crooned as a sweet harmony vocal exercise. Traditionally cavalier in his appreciation of song structures, Thompson fleshes out the album with “Rapspierre” (another of his accelerated Marxist theory courses, this one containing sing-song doggerel about monkeys, random keyboard noises and turntable scratches), the ripping drive-gear “People Get Ready (The Train’s Not Coming)” near-instrumental and the catchy mantra “I Knew It.” Provocative and, for the most part, highly entertaining.
Nine more new songs can be found on the brief, wispy and unambitious Amor and Language, the work of numerous musicians, although the undifferentiated list of participants includes sexy cover model Rachel Williams. Unlike the cagey complexities of The Red Krayola (and despite the admonition to “play extremely loud”), the “The Ballad of Younis and Sofia” and “Luster” — which use only skeletal bits of guitar and organ for accompaniment — are typical. Actually, the mild-mannered approach is appealing and accessible, giving Thompson’s penchant for eccentric lyrical terrain a clear field. Adding to the bizarre historical recitation of “A-A-Allegories” and the frozen waste matter falling from the sky in “Stil de Grain Brun,” the detailed geometric romance of “T(I,II)” is intriguing enough, doubling the pleasure as the sonic doodles suddenly give way to a normal-sounding (with squiggly synth) rock band instrumental. Some people try to sing the periodic table of the elements and get called asshole; this never happened to Mayo Thompson.
Coconut Hotel, however, is pushing it. The all-improvised doodles on various real (guitar, horns, bass, piano, organ) and found instruments (mainly splashing water, handy clangables, shakeables and chalkboard-pleasant scrapeables) was recorded in 1967 by the original Red Crayola (Thompson, Steve Cunningham and Barthelme) and understandably rejected by International Artists as the followup to The Parable of Arable Land. The trio’s photo on the back cover is no less unnerving or off-putting than the random contents, which could only serve as a fatal test for hypertension or the soundtrack to something far more squirm-inducing than Eraserhead.
Thompson’s 1970 solo album, Corky’s Debt to His Father, released by an obscure local-label in Texas, was revived in England years later and finally introduced to American CD racks through the good offices of Drag City. A left-field version of a blues and neo-vaudeville album — played mostly acoustic on slide guitar, piano, bass and elementary traps, with some horns and electricity — Corky’s Debt doesn’t sound much closer to any mainstream in 1995 than it would have done a quarter-century earlier. The fairly titled “Good Brisk Blues” might have come from a Dylan bootleg, and “Venus in the Morning” does suggest a functional knowledge of barrelhouse music, but the lyrics (“they cover her politely from all indelicate eyes”) are from a completely different realm. A self-conscious embrace of abnormality in all its glorious dislocation.