50 Years Ago: The 13th Floor Elevators Unveil ‘Psychedelic Sounds’ Debut
A lot has changed in the five decades since the 13th Floor Elevators added some drops to psychedelic music, but one thing remains the same: the power, beauty and insanity of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.
In the couple years after the big bang of the British Invasion, rock 'n' roll exploded in a variety of directions. From beat to pop, from folk rock, to blues rave-ups, it all happened quickly. The first traces of psychedelic music could be found in recordings by Donovan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. But the 13th Floor Elevators were arguably the first genuine, full-fledged psychedelic rock 'n' roll band.
Singer and guitarist Roky Erickson had a vision. In 1965, he led the Spades, who released the single "We Sell Soul," which made some waves in their native Texas. Within a year, he had joined up with with guitarist Stacy Sutherland, jug player Tommy Hall, drummer John Ike Walton and bassist Ronnie Leatherman to form the 13th Floor Elevators. Taking elements of folk, blues and early rock 'n' roll, Erickson and company twisted it into a shape that would be copied by many others over the next several years. The band signed to International Artists, a Texas-based label that released the Elevators' stunning debut album in October 1966.
From the opening riff of "You're Gonna Miss Me," the album is an unhinged psychedelic ride, musically and lyrically. The garage-band blast of that first track became a template for future generations of primal rockers that followed. Released as a single prior to the album, it even dented the Billboard charts, reaching No. 55.
"People in Austin were experimenting with psychedelics as early as 1961," recalled songwriter and band ally Powell St. John. "In fact, there was an earlier generation of counter culture types who, I am sure, were experimenting with them even earlier than that. We all read Huxley's Doors of Perception and Drugs and the Mind by Dr. Robert S. DeRoffs. This is what provided the philosophical underpinnings for the Elevators and their music."
Songs like "Roller Coaster" and "Fire Engine" took off for the skies, while other tracks like "Splash 1 Now I'm Home" and "Kingdom of Heaven" carry a haunting beauty unlike anything else recorded by anyone up to that point. Like the Velvet Underground, who created their own world with their music, the Elevators performed a similar trick. The brittle but shimmering guitars of Erickson and Sutherland rise and float above the driving rhythms.
Erickson gets much of the credit for the Elevators' sound, but the songs were often collaborations with the band's jug player, Hall, who penned many of the lyrics. "I never considered myself a musician and still don't," Hall told the Austin Chronicle in 2004. "I was real interested, however, in introducing people to ideas and insights I was gaining through my use of LSD. Everything I wrote was inspired through my taking LSD. I invented the electric jug totally out of my desire to find a place onstage with this new group, so I could be a part of it, and so I could communicate my new ideas through the lyrics I wanted to write."
At their core, the Elevators were a loose and raucous rock 'n' roll band. But unlike their spiritual brethren in San Francisco, they avoided long and often meandering free-form jams. And unlike some of the Los Angeles psych-rock groups, they steered clear of polishing their sound.
The legacy of the Elevators' music has grown over the past 50 years, with new generations of adventure seekers turning their ears to the band's music. “The saga of the 13th Floor Elevators was an Old Testament tale, and Roky Erickson was its Job,” said musician Julian Cope in the forward to the band’s Paul Drummond-penned biography, Eye Mind. “In 200 years’ time, there will only be two ’60s bands that count:: the 13th Floor Elevators and the MC5.”
1966's Best Rock Albums