(And We All Win)


America has gifted the world with more than its share of inspired musical genres; the roots of country, jazz, rock, rap and punk with their various offshoots can all be traced right here to the good ol’ U. S. of A. One of my personal favorite genres is the rockabilly and garage-rock movement of the 50’s and 60’s. In a post-Elvis world, it seemed as though every teenager wanted to pick up a guitar and unleash his innermost frustrations, or at least make the girls swoon. Ramshackle recording studios captured these would-be rock n'roll troubadours, resulting in a minimalist, lo-fidelity experience that undoubtedly rattled countless AM radios at the local drive-in movie theatre. The rockabilly style has since been evoked successfully by everyone from The Stray Cats to The Reverend Horton Heat, but there’s something primal about those original 50’s and 60’s artists that stirs the soul. The music dates back to a time when the biggest dream was a date with the prom queen and the biggest nightmare was atomic annihilation, or as it turned out later, getting drafted.


It was this era in which Hoyt Axton’s Explodes! (or Hoyt Axton Explodes!, if you prefer) was produced. Up to this point in his career, Axton had made a name for himself as a bluesy country balladeer. He would later become famous as both the writer of one of the biggest-selling singles of all-time (“Joy To The World”) and for his performance as Randall Peltzer, the happy-go-lucky father in the movie Gremlins. In other words, Hoyt Axton was the last guy you would expect to be cranking out angst-y, blistering proto-punk in 1964. Largely ignored and long since forgotten, this record definitely deserves a spin.


“Never Gonna Work” kicks off the LP with a bubblegum beat and the unforgettable verse, “I was born in the back seat of a Chevrolet – doin' 'bout 110.” It’s clear from the outset that this is a different Hoyt Axton from his earlier folksy offerings. Amped up and armed with treble-heavy guitars and girl-group choruses, he delivers an intense vocal performance that emulates the psychotic rambling of a forlorn chain-smoker. His throaty croon drifts between cocksure bravado and nervous chaos, often within the same song. The arrangements are of the “three chords and a cloud of dust” variety (one song actually manages to shave it down to two chords), the instrumentation is sparse and economical, the longest song clocking in at just over three minutes. As you might have guessed already, it’s pretty much the perfect record.


Things take a turn for the bizarre with “There’s A Tiger In The Closet,” a Nuggets-esque romp told from the perspective of an innocent child with an imaginary friend. “His coat is cotton candy–his eyes are gumdrop red,” Axton sings cautiously, around the same time that The Beatles were making their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and some three years before John Lennon would use one of his son’s drawings as inspiration for his own psychedelic fantasy yarn.


Indeed, Hoyt Axton seems ahead of his time both lyrically and musically. “Red White And Blue” is a thinly-veiled commentary of the Vietnam War at a time when America’s youth was just beginning to find its voice. Lamenting a young soldier’s untimely death, he sneers “Hey hey mama, ain’t ya proud?,” his voice dripping with sarcasm to the beat of a lonely military snare.


Just when Explodes! seems in danger of getting heavy, “L.A. Town” follows with a clunky three-chord tribute to the City of Angels, or at least a native Oklahoman's idealistic perception of Los Angeles circa 1964. “Hollywood and Cadillacs and lots of pretty girls,” Axton croons as if the city were one gigantic wonderland. Next up is an alarmingly upbeat rendition of the Elvis Presley classic “Heartbreak Hotel,” the only song on the record not penned by Hoyt himself. Stripped of its emotional weight by a rambling rockabilly tempo and a howl-at-the-moon vocal delivery, it seems like a curious choice for a cover until one realizes that Hoyt's mother Mae actually co-wrote the song.


At this point you’d almost be forgiven for thumbing through your iPod library, but this is where things begin to pick up. Instead of getting bogged down in a mire of Side Two filler material (as was the case with many albums of its time), Explodes! doubles down with one underground gem after another. Hoyt spits out “Goodbye, so long, go to hell!” with an evil cackle on “Lonesome Road.” “Double Double Dare” is arguably the record’s finest moment, as a sinister organ drones between alternating minor chords (a technique later employed by The Seeds on their garage-punk classic “Pushin’ Too Hard”) while Axton twists and snarls his way through the lyrics with a shaky tremolo delivery that recalls a young Iggy Pop (!). “ABC Song” is pure novelty, but again it’s Axton’s delivery—a raspy combination of gravel-pit growls and screechy falsettos—that seals the deal. By the time the album reaches its conclusion with the galloping “To Love (Young Man)”, it seems like Hoyt is just getting started.


More Ramones than Woody Guthrie, I can’t imagine that the psychedelic basement grind of Hoyt Axton’s Explodes! was hugely popular with his fanbase, which perhaps is the reason that he never recorded anything remotely similar after it. In any case, it is a fascinating example of an artist taking a chance… and succeeding. - BW

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Twilight Zone poster art by Bill Wood.