Everything You Need to Know About the 13th Floor Elevators can be found in this quote: "The saga of the 13th Floor Elevators was an Old Testament tale and Roky Erickson was its Job," says musician Julian Cope, who wrote 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."
That's pretty lofty praise, but Cope has a point. The 13th Floor Elevators were one of the most forward-looking bands of the era and arguably, the first genuinely, all-out psychedelic band. There were other motions in that direction, most notably Country Joe & the Fish and the Grateful Dead, though both those bands were as indebted to the traditions of folk and blues as they were mind-expanding sounds. The Beatles and Donovan had begun to incorporate some of these ideas into their music, but the Elevators had their phasers on lysergic stun from all points inward and outward.
After you trip life opens up / You start doing what you want to do / And you find out that the world that you once feared / Gets what it has from you
Erickson sang that lyric on "Roller Coaster", the second track on the band's 1966 debut. No reading between the lines necessary there. Sonically, the band employed a biting, reverb-drenched guitar attack that, coupled with Roky's intense snarl, made for a truly unique approach. And we can't forget Tommy Hall and his jug, which added a most twisted element to their sound. Read more to find out Everything You Need to Know About the 13th Floor Elevators.
YEARS OF OPERATION: 1965 - 1969
ORIGINAL LINEUP: Roky Erickson – lead vocals, guitar / Stacy Sutherland – lead guitar, vocals / Tommy Hall – electric jug, vocals /John Ike Walton – drums / Ronnie Leatherman – bass (Walton and Leatherman were replaced in 1967 by Danny Thomas and Benny Thurman respectively)
KEY DISCOGRAPHY: The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966) / Easter Everywhere (1967) / Bull of the Woods (1969) / Sign of the Three Eyed Men (Box set - 2009)
Roky Erickson was a misfit kid who loved rock and roll. In 1965, he dropped out of high school a month before graduating to become a musician. Later that year he and his first band, the Spades, made their first single, the crude and hypnotic "We Sell Soul." Written by Erickson using the pseudonym Emil Schwartze, it has the bare-boned elements of what would become the sound of his next step.
Shortly after the Spades dissolved, Erickson formed the 13th Floor Elevators with other like-minded souls. The band signed to the Texas-based International Artists label and released their classic debut single, "You're Gonna Miss Me," in early 1966. Their mind-blowing debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, would follow that summer.
"You're Gonna Miss Me," was a minor hit, making it all the way up to No. 55 in the summer of that year, staying on the charts for nearly two months. The band even made an appearance on Dick Clark's Where The Action Is, playing poolside as bikini-clad girls danced and swayed to the jarring sounds. By all accounts, Roky was already an "unusual" character, but with some help from jug player and songwriting partner Tommy Hall, he and the whole band, got even further away from reality.
"Roky's second acid trip hurt him. Hurt me too," recalled drummer John Walton in the 2005 documentary, You're Gonna Miss Me. "Tommy gave us too much. I had a real bad trip, but he didn't admit he had a real bad trip. He kept on taking the acid, thinking everything would get better."
The band followed up their landmark debut with Easter Everywhere, which was released in late 1967. By this point, the band were swimming in even murkier waters with such songs as the lead track, "Slip Inside This House," standing alone with no peers at hand. It would all prove too much of a beast to harness and with internal issues among band members, things fell apart rapidly. Following a faux live album in 1968, a third and final studio album would see release in 1969. Bull of the Woods was a seriously disjointed effort that lacked the spirit and shine of the first two. This was the end of the line for these pioneers.
Erickson had a variety of health issues, both mental and physical, but would return to making music. His first solo album, The Evil One, was produced by Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1981. Over the years, Roky would release a series of incredible solo recordings including such classic tracks as "Two Headed Dog," "Bermuda" and "I Have Always Been Here Before." His most recent album of new material was True Love Cast Out All Evil in 2010, which was a very fine return.
Though they only existed a short period of time, the imprint left behind by the 13th Floor Elevators runs solid and deep with generations of psychedelia that would follow owing a large debt to the masters. Interest in the band has grown over the years, culminating in a re-issue project that included the massive multi-disc box set, The Sign of the Three Eyed Men, in 2009.
Artists ranging from from ZZ Top, Robert Plant and Spacemen 3 to Primal Scream, Black Angels and Ty Segall can be traced back the influence to Roky and company in one way or another. In fact, Erickson was the subject of one of the very first tribute albums, 1990's Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, before they became all the rage.
"To this day, Roky Erickson stands alone because he had the gift of that wonderful voice," said ZZ Top leader Billy Gibbons in the You're Gonna Miss Me documentary. Though stranger things have happened, one of the most unlikely is that in 2015, the 13th Floor Elevators announced they will reunite to perform at this year's Levitation Festival, which is named after an Elevators song. One glance at the lineup and you will find plenty more disciples of Erikson's sound and vision.