I think it was around 1970 or so when I came across an album titled, Inventions in the bargain bin at a music store in Pomona, California. It had a picture on the cover of this guy with a bunch of guitars; Fender Strat, and acoustic, another electric guitar in the background and some weird looking, pear shaped thing I was to learn was called an Oud. It was labeled ‘Folk Music’ and I was getting myself educated on the folk movement of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s ; Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, John Fahey, guys like that. I think the LP cost $0.98, which believe it or not, was a lot of money to a 15 year old. But, I pictured myself a connoisseur of music, and was developing a self-image as an “music intellectual”. Most of my education on “cool music” came from liner notes on albums and “hip” magazines like Down Beat and FolkRoots magazine. Well, I had never heard of Sandy Bull, but I figured with all those guitars on the cover. Even more interesting was there was only all these guitars and a drummer listed as musicians. When I got it home and gave it a spin, I was at first disappointed – this was not rock and roll, or even the folk I was used to - , and then amazed by how he got some of these sounds. It seemed a ‘blend’ of classical sounds with psychedelic music.
Turned out that he used over dubbing, and though I had almost assuredly heard albums with over dubbing, they were nothing like this. There was a song called “Blend II” that had a drum solo that blew me away. I played the album for friends but they weren’t nearly as ‘turned on’. as I was and I eventually left the record behind for more mainstream stuff like 3 Dog Night and CCR. It was years before I heard another Sandy Bull album. Around 1977 or ‘78 I again found one of his albums in the bargain bin, only this time it was at a little shop in Braintree, England. That LP was E Pluribus Unum but I had to look at the record label to tell this as the LP came without a cover. It didn’t stand up to Inventions but it was still cool, in an off beat way. here was this odd musical instrument, and Bull using a tape recorder to add in all these banjo and guitars and layer it all on top. In many ways it was a more laid back psychedelic sound that the Psychedelia of the mid to late ‘60s.
This album was recorded live in 1976, at the Berkeley Community Theater, the legendary venue at which just about every major folk, jazz, blues, and rock band of the era performed. Sandy had opened for Leo Kottke. You’ll hear the Oud more prominent here than on some earlier recordings and it has a more “eastern” flavor, even though the compositions aren’t exactly Eastern/Oriental tunes. What’s more is the sound is probably more clear or bright, or at least less muddy as Bull had acquired the earliest version of a TASCAM 4-track recorder that was what he used to lay down the backing tracks, and a Rhythm Ace “drum machine” .This was his ‘band’. On, his earlier recordings he used a 3 Track recorder, so the Tascam was pretty impressive for it’s time, as was the Rhythm Ace.
The resulting tape captured not only a great live performance by one of the most brilliant, under appreciated and eccentric musicians of the time,but Sandy’s quirky sense of humor, It’s on full display as he introduces the “band” and also in a hilarious story about what inspired the song “Alligator Wrestler.” The song “Love is Forever” makes it clear that he was not a great vocalist, but it doesn’t matter because the melody and the sentiment are both memorable. “Driftin” is inspired by the Band, The Drifters and display’s a touch of Bulls inspiration drawn from pop music.
When the name Sandy Bull comes up now a days among aficionados and the cognizante , it’s in hushed tones of reverie, and for good reason. We’re just the latest name-droppers on a list that started with legends like The Beatles and Hunter S. Thompson, and today, his records have a resurgent influence. Bull cut four classic albums for Vanguard Records from the early ‘60s through the early 70 while dealing with a serious drug problem. But Sandy was the real deal; categorizing his musical contributions to the world or his influence on others is kind of impossible. Who else was trying to play ragas and classical pieces on banjo in 1963? What other honky musicians were adding exotic instruments and teaming up with respected jazz drummers like Billy Higgins to expand their multidimensional sound? Through his signature “blends” of folk, pre-war blues, eastern music, acid rock, and everything else he threw into the drugged mix, Sandy Bull gave the world a great gift—while leaving only four proper albums in his wake.
Here’s a fifth, and if you are even a casual fan of guitar music or artists like John Fahey, Jack Rose or Robbie Basho, you owe it to yourself to delve into Inventions and the unhinged, bottom-of-the-barrel brilliance that was sandy Bull.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved