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The cult sound of 13th Floor Elevators and Sam Gopal

  • 13th Floor Elevators are considered the pioneers of psychedelia in the US
  • Indo-British rocker Sam Gopal’s esoteric sound is showcased on ‘Escalator’

13th Floor Elevators perform in Austin, Texas in May 2015. getty images
13th Floor Elevators perform in Austin, Texas in May 2015. getty images

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Two very dissimilar things led me to two bands that may have had more in common than may seem at first. The first was the news at the end of May that Roky Erickson, singer, guitarist, and frontman for the erstwhile Texas band 13th Floor Elevators, had died at 71. The second was the realization that an album by a British band named Sam Gopal turned 50 this year. Sam Gopal, named after its founder, an Indian-origin Malaysian who lived in London in the 1960s, is an underrated band that many may have never heard of, while 13th Floor Elevators may be better known but are equally under-appreciated.

When the 13th Floor Elevators were founded in Texas in 1965 and made their unique brand of psychedelic, mind-expanding drug-fuelled music, the term “psychedelic rock” was yet to be coined. That would have to wait till the explosion of trippy, psychedelic music happened in San Francisco, a city that is usually associated with the origin of the genre. But 13th Floor Elevators (nicknamed by early fans simply as the ’Vators) pre-dated that movement, and although their career was short—they disbanded by 1968—they are considered the true pioneers of that genre in the US. At the core of the ’Vators were Erickson’s vocals—strikingly raw and unique—and lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland’s mind-altering riffs.

The ’Vators found a growing breed of fans—yet to be called hippies—in their home state initially and then elsewhere in the US. The title of their first album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, which was released in October 1966, was probably the first time the word “psychedelic” was used in reference to music. But the band’s heavy use of acid or LSD (still legal at that time) and marijuana (already illegal) led to several skirmishes—with the law as well as with the band-members’ mental illnesses. The main proponent of the acid that the band used regularly wasn’t Erickson but the ’Vators’ lyricist, Tommy Hall, who had a penchant for experimenting with mind-altering drugs.

That debut album would be the first of only three studio albums that the band would release in a career that witnessed its members getting busted, and, particularly in the case of Erickson, suffering bouts of serious mental illness. In 2010, a version of The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators was released with 27 songs, including early mono versions of some of their best tunes. Their most well-known track was You’re Gonna Miss Me and it is the opener on the 2012 release. For any aficionado of psychedelic rock, the band and its music are obligatory listening. But as West Coast rock music exploded and San Francisco became the haven and centre of the world’s psychedelic movement, the ’Vators, sadly, didn’t get the fame they deserved as the true pioneers of the genre of music associated with that culture.

Today, however, we can explore an “all-you-can-hear” buffet of the ’Vators’ sound: There are remastered albums, out-takes, live sessions and more, available for a few clicks, to music-loving digital explorers.

But not so for Sam Gopal. The eponymous man behind that band was a tabla player who had honed his talent since he was a little boy before moving to London in 1962 amid an atmosphere where musicians (and bands, such as The Beatles and Rolling Stones) were discovering Eastern sounds and melding them with Western idioms. Gopal (little is known of his whereabouts and whether he is alive, except some reports that he was involved in a serious car crash) formed his first band in 1966. It was called Sam Gopal’s Dream. He played the tabla, and had mates on lead guitar, bass, keyboards, and vocals.

It was a short-lived band that had no albums to its credit and soon disbanded. Things changed then. Gopal formed a new line-up and called it, simply, Sam Gopal. For the vocals, he enlisted Lemmy (yes, metalheads, you heard right; the same Lemmy or Ian Fraser Kilmister who would go on to later found Motörhead). Their first release was Escalator (1969) with 13 songs, most of which Lemmy, according to a probably apocryphal story, wrote in a single alcohol- and drug-fuelled night.

Escalator, which turned 50 this year, showcases Sam Gopal’s esoteric sound. Escalator’s songs have a blues bedrock but are layered with meandering guitar riffs and deep Oriental influences, and stream of consciousness lyrics that are obviously drug influenced. But the real bonus is the experience of being able to hear Lemmy in his formative years, honing his skills as a vocalist who would later go on to perform in bands such as Hawkwind and Motörhead.

It is sad that Escalator is the only album by Sam Gopal that you can get easily. My introduction to it came a few years ago when I was browsing a tiny vintage clothing store in Gothenburg’s bohemian Haga district. A song I had never heard was playing and I had to go and ask the long-haired owner what it was. Not a man of many words, he said: “Horse. Sam Gopal.” With that clue, I explored and found Escalator on the internet. It was an eye-opener.

Horse is the penultimate track on Escalator but is as psychedelic as the rest. Like much of the rock of 1960s-era London, Sam Gopal were influenced by the blues, but their songs stand out because of what they do to them. The last track on Escalator is their version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Back Door Man. Slowed down and heavy, it’s a treat.

Not much is known of what happened to Gopal but there is another album by his band, titled Father Mucker, released in the 1990s from early recordings. It’s incredibly difficult to find but it’s a gem, and, if you can lay your hands on it, it will be worth the effort.


Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ by 13th Floor Elevators from ‘The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators’

2. ‘Slip Inside This House’ by 13th Floor Elevators from ‘Easter Everywhere’

3. ‘Wait For My Love’ by 13th Floor Elevators from ‘Bull Of The Woods’

4. ‘Horse’ by Sam Gopal from ‘Escalator’

5. ‘Back Door Man’ by Sam Gopal from ‘Escalator’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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