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Joseph Byrd

August 25, 2008 by garry

Joseph Byrd is a composer and music teacher who's been working since the 1950s. After starting out playing in pop, jazz and country bands as a Tucson, Arizona teen, Byrd moseyed on over to Stanford college in New York City in 1959, where he became a student of experimental composer John Cage and joined the nascent Fluxus art scene. He even debuted his first minimal music works at Yoko Ono's loft! Soon after college, Byrd accepted a teaching position at UCLA in the mid '60s, but after the music bug bit him hard, he quit to play full-time. His most well-known work appeared on two LPs at the end of that decade.

Byrd's first band, the short-lived United States of America, splashed out a unique spray of rock, psychedelic and avant-garde music. They eschewed rock's staple instrument, the electric guitar, in favor of then cutting-edge electronic devices like an early, primitive synthesizer and a ring modulator, the whoosh and bleeps of which they blended in with crystal clear female vocals and searing violin to effortlessly bake a whole loaf's worth of damaged space age pop. After the release of their one and only self-titled LP in 1968, the band played a few shows, then promptly and predictably imploded due to the usual drug problems and creative differences.

Byrd wasted no time refurbishing his nest with another group, this time a studio-only entity known as Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. Their lone LP, The American Metaphysical Circus, is another oddball classic. Opening with some dark, electronic soundscapes laminated with haunting, moaning female vocals that segue into an awesomely catchy, lightweight, psychedelic rock song; a parody of many musical styles then follows: ’60s pop, romantic ballads, vintage hot jazz (in one speaker only with tons of surface crackle added for authentic 78 rpm record sound), old folks' sing-along piano ditties, etc. with occasional ominous electronics bubbling up to the surface. The overall “Age of Aquarius” feel is subtly twisted by beautiful, mostly female vocals belting out some fairly mentally disturbed lyrics.

In the '70s, Byrd went on to release albums of Christmas music and patriotic songs, and in the following decades, he also scored music for numerous films and TV shows, and even supplied sound effects for toys. He currently teaches music history and theory at College of the Redwoods in Northern California.

Timeframe: Pre-Altamont.

Public Impact: Although the United States of America's album was initially acclaimed by critics, it failed to shift very many units and promptly disappeared for a several decades. It has however, enjoyed several re-reissues since the '90s, and is still available today. Ironically, the Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies album, which remained in print throughout the '70s and '80s--and enjoyed a lone CD re-issue in 1996--is currently deceased. Regardless, the electronic / rock hybrid experiments conducted by these two bands--along with several of their contemporaries like The Silver Apples and White Noise--went on to inspire numerous like-minded musical outfits in the decades that followed.

Learn more about:

The United States of America at
MySpace, Sundazed and Last.FM

Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies at
Last.FM and MySpace


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