For every story of a Velvet Underground where the triumph of art doesn’t translate commercially, there’s one of the Music Machine — where something is so colossal that it runs through prevailing trends like a bull in a china shop and knocks the door down. Such was the case in 1966 with “Talk Talk,” an explosion of artistry and aggression bolstered by a pounding keyboard lick that stormed to #15 on the charts — and on an independent label (Original Sound), no less.
Just a year after honing their sound in, literally, a garage, the Music Machine improbably achieved that feat. But while they would not duplicate it, they recorded many other original compositions that were just as strong — at least two albums’ worth, in fact. A strong case can be made that they were every bit as good and as innovative as their more renowned East Coast contemporaries, the Velvet Underground, if not as influential and, sadly, even more short-lived. The Ultimate Turn On is an expanded reissue of the band’s original line-up debut album, Turn On the Music Machine.
While it’s by no means a bad thing that the Music Machine are categorized as a 1960s garage band, they were anything but unsophisticated teens getting acquainted with their instruments. Rather, they were seasoned veterans with folk (guitarist/lead vocalist Sean Bonniwell, bassist Keith Olsen, drummer Ron Edgar), blues (lead guitarist Mark Landon), and session experience (organist Doug Rhodes). They were intent on creating something completely outside of the norm from the outset, and their recordings amply demonstrate how far they exceeded that goal. And by dressing in black, dying their hair black, and sporting black gloves — they didn’t look like anyone else, either.
However, like any artist, the Music Machine had influences. But their sound bears no obvious antecedents or comparisons — awash in minor keys and an instrumental prowess in an era before technicality was valued in the rock medium. Notwithstanding their roots, they rock — hitting changes on a dime and surging forward with tight rhythm exercises that wouldn’t be fully explored until the dawn of heavy metal several years later. Even among L.A. contemporaries like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Love, the Music Machine held their own.
Like those titans, the Music Machine’s debut album is loaded with original ideas and stunning songs. “Talk Talk” is but the tip of the iceberg. “The People in Me” swings with a groovy Bonniwell vocal, twangy guitar riffing, and Edgar’s spunky stop-and-start drum interludes. “Trouble” is an in-your-face fuzz-guitar feast bolstered by Rhodes’s haunting keyboard fills and paranoid lyrics by Bonniwell, whose vocals also add depth to two atmospheric numbers that verge on psychedelia: “Masculine Intuition” and “Come On In”. “Wrong” continues on that darker path, while “Some Other Drum” seems more rooted in folk. That background is also undoubtedly why Bonniwell’s lyrics transcend the typical boy-girl love themes of the day by instead favoring more introspective, psychological subject matter.
While two of Turn On‘s five covers (included against the band’s wishes) — “Taxman” and “Cherry Cherry” — are actually quite good, they were nevertheless unnecessary for a band that already had a wealth of fine originals at their disposal. Evidence comes in the two singles included on disc one. While it’s no surprise that it missed the charts, “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly” is a simply stunning step forward in the band’s sound, propelled by a virulent guitar riff and Bonniwell’s rough-hewn vocals and turnabout lyrics (“what’s good for the gander is bad for the goose”). “Double Yellow Line” and “Absolutely Positively” likewise show considerable progress, displaying a melodic sensibility not inherent on earlier material. In an artistic sense, “I’ve Loved You” may be the most impressive of all, managing to contain a common theme within the framework of the Music Machine sound and not lose anything in translation. (Later, all four cuts would turn up on the band’s classic second album on Warner Bros., The Bonniwell Music Machine — though the Original Sound version of “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly” has extra sound effects at the beginning and end.)
And just in case the four single sides aren’t enough evidence, disc two offers alternates and outtakes from the Original Sound vaults — many of them seeing their first release, all excellent. True, none of the alternates are as good as the released versions — but for those who admire greatness, there’s a lot to be gleaned from hearing the original arrangement of “Masculine Intuition,” a demo of “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly” with slightly different lyrics, as well as early versions of “The Trap,” “Discrepancy,” and “Affirmative No” from the second album. One song, the brooding “Sufferin’ Succotash,” makes its first appearance anywhere. And to top that all off, there are video clips of “Talk Talk” and “Cherry Cherry” from a local TV show — which are cool in spite of being lip-synced.
If the alternates aren’t enough incentive for some to buy Turn On (which has been reissued several times before) again, the sound will be. While the previous reissues all use the album’s inferior stereo mix that neuters “Talk Talk”, The Ultimate Turn On offers both the stereo and, finally, the punchy mono mix on disc one. In more ways than one, this is a release that lives up to its title.