I love a good music mystery and I discovered another good one concerning a pair of albums made by a band of two names, The Firebirds and The 31 Flavors, in the late sixties.
The Firebirds album “Light My Fire” and the 31 Flavors album “Hair” were both published on the Crown Records label, apparently the former in 1968 and the latter in 1969. Both albums feature the use of heavy distortion and a Jimi Hendrix-inspired approach largely overlaid with Blue Cheer fondness for heaviness. As such, these two heavy psychedelic albums have earned themselves a place among the ranks of other proto-metal artists from the late 60’s.
But who were The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors? It seems the albums have caught the attention of many bloggers and music reviewers around the world and some posts include several comments by people who are familiar with the recordings. There are some conflicting facts: for example, one writer says that Crown was the British supermarket label answer to the American K-Tel and thus the band(s) must be British, while another site says they were probably from L.A.
Recently Gear Fab Records have released a double-disk re-issue of these two albums and I ordered a copy from Amazon. The CD comes in a mini-album paper sleeve with a single square sheet of paper printed on one side only with minimal background information. To understand the recordings well, it seems one has to know about Crown Records, and there is an excellent web site here: The Crown Records Story. As it explains, Crown Records emerged as a budget label of the New York-based Modern and RPM Records (suggesting the band was likely American). At first they re-issued previously published stock but later began releasing new recordings. In many cases, existing hit songs were re-recorded on Crown by bands that often included one former member of the band that created the hit song. Crown often bought the rights to songs for a flat fee to avoid paying royalties and session musicians were paid a daily wage. Crown became known as the “King of Junk” for all its shoddy rehashes of well-known songs and albums comprised largely of filler.
Based on what I have found, The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors (and later in 1969 known as The Electric Firebirds on their “Dance Party Time” album) were likely a young group that was paid to record covers of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and later songs from the “Hair” musical soundtrack, “Hair” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” for Crown Records. To fill the album, the group were permitted to record their own songs, and as many of the songs are instrumentals, I suspect that they were likely a trio of guitar/bass/drums with one member providing vocals on a few songs. Not on any of the web sites I checked nor on the square paper that came with the CD is any credit given to any band members, and considering Crown’s policy of buying up rights and paying musicians a working wage, it’s no surprise that no one was given any credit. Quite likely the albums were just meant to be sold to poorly discerning buyers who only recognized the titles of the well-known songs printed in large letters on the album cover.
As for the albums, the music suggests a young band that had some songs well-rehearsed and ready for studio recording but some others that sound as though they were possibly improvised and recorded after only one or two rehearsals, particularly on the first album. The running order of the songs on the album cover is not the same as on the CD and I found that on some sites that picture the original vinyl albums, the running order is different again. Here’s a quick run down of the music on the Gear Fab re-issue.
Light My Fire – The title track sounds like a guitar/bass/drum backing track for the famous Doors’ song. It’s in a slightly different groove but you can sing the lyrics to the music. Maybe try a deep and smooth lounge singer vocal style and see how that works.
Delusions – This introduces the mega-fuzz guitar but needs some help. I can’t help think that this one was not well-rehearsed prior to recording.
Reflections – Takes on a very serious heavy psych/fuzz guitar journey, complete with Mitch Mitchel style drumming and a rudimentary attempt to blend Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” with Blue Cheer’s more doomy sound.
Bye Bye Baby – A blues effort of b-grade.
Gypsy Fire – Send in the Hendrix mimics. The vocal style here is a deliberate attempt to sound like the legendary JH.
Free Bass – A short instrumental that features a not-so-interesting bass solo. This track is actually part of an instrumental piece that also featured a drum solo and a guitar solo but those two would not appear until the “Hair” album. I listened to the three instrumentals back to back and clearly they are from the same session.
No Tomorrows – Ultra fuzz here as the band reach the apex of their proto-metal sensibilities. The sound is rather crappy and it reminds me of my best friend and I at the age of 16 and before we took any guitar lessons jamming in his bedroom. There are audible pops in the sound that suggest this CD release was taken straight from the vinyl. In spite of the sound quality and garage band sound, the song does attempt to push the boundaries of heavy rock. The guitar solo and accompanying drums, however, sound unfocused and could have used more work.
Warm Up – The opening track on the original album, this song has left me with little impression. It seems I already removed it from my iPhone!
Hair – Appalling. Who is singing? Someone was drunk and taking the piss on Bob Dylan. “Not lack for bread”? Good only as a painful joke.
Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In – A young woman who didn’t place in a high school singing contest gets the lead vocals here. Sometimes going flat, this is one of the most abysmally performed vocal performances I have ever heard on record.
Protest – Has potential. Less distortion (none on the Hair songs). With a little more work this could have turned into something. As it is, it’s not too shabby.
Free Fuzz – The guitar solo part of the the “Free” series. At times the guitarist seems to be on to something but I think the “Free” series was just an improv jam session. At least the distortion is back.
One-Two-Three-Four – Another song that seems to have great potential. Perhaps after a year or so of playing together, the band actually managed to work out their material more for their second recording session with Crown. Another no-distortion number that resembles a less intense song by the very intense Sonics.
Real Far Out – The distortion is back but used with a little more attention to detail here. This is an instrumental that show cases the guitar playing in a bluesy kind of style.
Free Drums – The drum solo in the “Free” series.
Distortions of Darkness – Ah, here we have the song, or instrumental, that most proto-mental fanatics (including me) came for. The guitar here attempts to make Blue Cheer look like a flower meadow. Actually, it reminds me of a very early version of the music of Pelican on “What We All Come to Need”.
All in all, a few tracks here make this double-album CD release worth checking out. Whatever happened to the band? With this re-issue of their work will someone stand up and claim it as theirs? Did anyone later become famous elsewhere? Or did everyone take up non-musical careers and are now enjoying their retirement oblivious to the fact that their music has now garnered interest?
Here are links to other sites that discuss these two albums. Read the reviews for some wonderful descriptions of the music.