How Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of the Mind’ Bridged Psychedelia and Hard Rock
The Amboy Dukes released one of the era's most definitive singles in April 1968, as "Journey to the Center of the Mind" perfectly captured the bridge between psychedelia and the emerging hard-rock sound.
Though primarily known as a footnote to the career of Ted Nugent, the Amboy Dukes were a classic example of teenage America embracing the British Invasion and trying to make their own statement. The Amboy Dukes formed in 1964, taking inspiration from the likes of the Animals and the Rolling Stones.
A self-titled debut arrived in late 1967 to little, if any, fanfare outside of their home base of Detroit. Despite a highly energized take on the blues classic "Baby, Please Don't Go," and a couple of well-placed covers of Cream and the Who, the LP fizzled out. With album No. 2, Journey to the Center of the Mind, the Amboy Dukes had an ace up their sleeves. The title track, written by Nugent and Steve Farmer, was pure dynamite.
Though drug connotations are obvious, the notoriously anti-drug Nugent claimed to be unaware of such things. "I've been criticized so many times because, 'oh yeah, sure Ted, you didn't know that was about drugs,'" he said on VH1's Behind the Music. "I thought, 'good idea, journey to the center of your mind ... good idea.' A person should always reflect." Whether Nugent believed that, it certainly fit the ongoing hallucinatory mood of the times.
Listen to the Amboy Dukes Perform 'Journey to the Center of the Mind'
This one track, however, is only part of the album's story. Journey to the Center of the Mind kicks off with a one-two punch of "Mississippi Murderer" and "Surrender to Your Kings" – both raw, blues-soaked rockers, full of gritty desperation. Amboy Dukes singer Farmer does his best down-and-out bluesman impression to good effect. We are also made well aware that Nugent was a force to be reckoned with on guitar. His lead on "Flight of the Byrd" which is down and dirty, while his playing on "Scottish Tea" is highly melodic and inventive.
Despite the raunch of much of the material, there is also more pop sensibility to Journey to the Center of the Mind that plays through nicely. When that approach works, such as on "Missionary Mary," it's truly clicks. The approach is more tentative on "Why Is a Carrot More Orange Than an Orange," which delves deeper into waters more familiar to the Strawberry Alarm Clock or even the Lemon Pipers. Its pseudo-intellectual gibberish lyrics and an almost bubblegum musical approach seem a step too far for the Amboy Dukes. The second half of side two plays out like a suite, with the songs – all written by Farmer – connecting to each other.
Even in the album's more pop-oriented moments, however, Nugent can be found trying to push things in a harder-edged direction. The "Journey to the Center of the Mind" single charted at No. 16, but the LP only hit No. 74. Nugent wanted a full-on heavy band and, within a couple more years, he would be the sole original member left in the Amboy Dukes.