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13th Floor Elevators: Live Evolution Lost

Valuable but flawed remaster of a near-legendary gig.

If it’s generally accepted that the 13th Floor Elevators were America’s first great psychedelic rock band, then it’s also true that they were one of the movement’s first casualties.

They emerged from Austin in 1965, lacing their splenetic garage-punk with weird cosmology and the curious gurgle of an electric jug.

By the following year they’d released one killer mini-hit (You’re Gonna Miss Me), a seminal debut LP (The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators) and wowed crowds at West Coast venues like the Avalon Ballroom. Unfortunately though, their reputation spread in more ways than one. The music was informed by a prodigious drug intake, the band ingesting copious amounts of acid in the hope of achieving some grand spiritual enlightenment. The cops were never too far away.

The knock-on effect was a fair degree of paranoia, which certainly seemed to play a part on the night of 18 February 1967. It was set to be a celebratory show at the newly built Houston Music Theatre, with the band’s International Artists label on hand to record the night for a proposed live album. But the heavy police presence, along with rumours of a bust, destabilised things from the off. The fact that guitarist Stacy Sutherland freaked out after dropping a huge tab of acid only made things worse.

The resulting gig, presented here in its entirety for the first time, can be seen as a microcosm of the Elevators’ entire career: wild, woolly, flashingly brilliant but ultimately doomed. With Sutherland barely able to stand up and singer Roky Erickson often missing whole verses, they sound like a band distracted by the scale of the occasion.

They’re are at their howling best on Fire Engine and Roller Coaster, the songs rendered all the more psychotic by the perpetual bleat of Tommy Hall’s jug. And Splash 1 still comes over like the deathless classic that it is. But the chief bugbear about this whole release is the muffled audio quality. At times it really is unlistenable, made more puzzling by clearer, fan-mastered bootlegs of the same show already in existence.

One saving grace, for hardcore followers at least, is the inclusion of the Elevators’ live jam with running buddies the Conqueroo. Again, it’s hardly pristine, but at least you get to hear them tearing a hole through Blue Suede Shoes and Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. The other is the neat and (ironically) elegant two-CD mediabook this is presented in.

Unsurprisingly, the record label consigned these tapes to the storeroom, and when second album Easter Everywhere arrived later in ’67, the band were already falling apart. It started here.

Rob Hughes
Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.