A new reissue on Drag City shines a light on Pearls Before Swine’s freak classic
In June 1967, two legendary psychedelic albums hit the streets: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles and One Nation Underground by Pearls Before Swine.
At the time One Nation was released, no one had ever heard of Pearls Before Swine. The album’s jacket offered little help. A badly reproduced detail from the Hieronymus Bosch painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” was the front cover. The back cover listed the names of the band members, but there was no photo, just the oddly drawn face of a pig – or a swine? No information about them was available in those preInternet days. The music was a blend of acoustic folk with touches of electronic and world music influences, what would be called freak folk today. The lyrics were surrealistic and the singer had a slight lisp, with a sing/talk style similar to Dylan’s. One critic at the time imagined it was a collaboration between Bob Dylan, John Lennon and the other Beatles, recorded using pseudonyms. The truth was more mundane.
The Pearls were a quartet of teenagers from Melbourne, Florida – singer/songwriter and guitarist Tom Rapp; banjo and mandolin player Wayne Harley; bass player Lane Lederer and keyboard player Roger Crissinger. They sent a demo tape to ESP-Disk, a small label in New York City that had just released the second album by The Fugs, a politically incorrect band of revolutionaries led by poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg. They figured that a label willing to indulge the beatnik madness of The Fugs might have an ear for the sounds of their outside the box songwriting. ESP liked what they heard and invited the band to New York to record.
When they got to the ESP studios, they found a room full of instruments, including ouds and early synthesizers. They had no grand plan, but fashioned the arrangements in a creative fever that produced one of the oddest albums in the ESP catalogue. Folk ballads, primitive garage band rock, raging anti-war songs and the album’s centerpiece, “I Shall Not Care.” That song was a three part, five minute, psychedelic excursion that took you into the grave, to experience a shrieking swirl of non-existence, before rising again in a gentle rebirth.
One Nation was never a hit, but it stayed in print for decades and created an underground buzz. ESP asked Rapp and his friends to return to New York to record a follow up. The result was 1968’s Balaklava, a wrenching anti-war album, driven again by Rapp’s melodic gift, his poetic lyrics and unique, behind the beat phrasing. This time, session players augmented the band’s playing with a bit of professional polish. The psychedelic influences were subtler, but just as compelling.
The battle of Balaklava was one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Crimean War. The album opens with an 1890 recording of trumpeter Martin Landfrey, playing the call that signaled the start of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the most famous military disaster of that battle. The music that followed was filled with the anti-war emotion that was running high at that time.
The first song, “Translucent Carriages,” features a chiming acoustic guitar and Rapp’s hushed vocals. The song expresses the quiet, overwhelming grief experienced by the survivors of armed conflict. A wraith like whisper floats in the background, adding a dramatic counterpoint to the lyrics. “Images of April” continues the theme of loss and regret. Rapp could be describing the end of a love relationship or the death of a family member. The language is simple, but the psychedelic flourishes give the song a dark, disturbing aura. The distorted sounds of barking dogs, squawking crows, muted percussion and clanging electric guitar intensify the feelings of anguish.
Rapp’s voice and his acoustic guitar dominate “There Was a Man,” a song heavy with irony. Christ comes to town, but people get bored with his miracles and message of universal love. When the disinterest of the population drives him away, nobody cares. It’s an anticlimactic second coming as Rapp sings – “No one thought to ask him to stay, and he knows that we never will.”
“I Saw the World” draws on the country music Rapp listened to as a boy, but country is seldom this desolate. Brooding cello, haunted honky tonk piano, icy electric guitar and the sound of waves whispering on a beach, make this tale of unrequited love almost overwhelming. The feeling of hopelessness continues on “Guardian Angels.” The opening line – “You know that your guardian angel is dead,” sets the stage for another emotional exploration of unattainable affection. The pleading vocals are treated to mimic the sound of an early Edison cylinder, implying the distance between the lover and the beloved. Rapp is backed by a classical string quartet that intensifies the melancholy lyrics. There is no chorus to provide release, just a linear description of a godless, uncaring world that ends with the singer offering his hand, hoping for the best: “Love is the weapon left after the fall, it may not seem like much, but girl, that’s all that’s there.”
Next up is a straightforward performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” that seems like a ray of sunshine after Rapp’s disconsolate meditations. “Lepers and Roses” returns to the album’s main theme, survival in a world where war, pain, suffering and a lack of compassion seem to overwhelm all positive emotion. Classical references from Greek mythology drift through a muted soundscape created by distorted flutes, acoustic bass and meandering electric guitars. Rapp’s pleading, tearful vocals are submerged in the mix, intensifying the track’s bleak outlook.
Another historical recording, this time the voice of Florence Nightingale, is next. Nightingale became famous for her care of the wounded during the Crimean War. The sound quality makes her voice almost unintelligible, except for the words “Balaklava” and “Thank You.”
The penultimate track, “Ring Thing,” sounds anomalous at first. It references the climatic scene of Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, when the ring of dark power is finally destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. The sounds are a thick, sinister blend of churchy organ chords, finger-picked, bass heavy, electric guitar notes, distorted cymbal splashes and howling bagpipes, mixed into a foreboding, ambient haze. Rapp’s chanted recitation is morose. Placed in the setting of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, which was then polarizing the country, this doom-laden track echoes the feelings of the anti-war movement – that all protest might be futile.
The last track, “Rewind,” is an aural prank, the sound of a tape rewinding and grinding to a halt, then the voice of trumpeter Landfrey repeating the phrase that opened the album. At the time of its original release, the album was praised for wearing its anti-war heart on its sleeve. Unhappily, the sentiments expressed on Balaklava are still relevant today.
Drag City is to be congratulated for reissuing the 50th Anniversary editions of Balaklava and One Nation Underground. They had the tapes re-mastered by Richard Alderson, who produced the original sessions, restoring them to their full sonic glory. Sadly, Tom Rapp passed away before Balaklava was reissued, but he shared some thoughts about its pending reissue, and his career, when we spoke about the One Nation Underground release last December. Despite the trials he was facing, his sense of humor was intact.
“Let’s see,” Rapp said. “I made Balaklava, sold popcorn at the Harvard Square Theater, then went to Brandeis University and graduated in 1981. Graduated from University of Pennsylvania Law School 1984, civil rights lawyer for the good side in Philadelphia. Got four hours sleep for the years between 1981 and 1984. Groin cancer from 2014, to now. I had to give up a lucrative career as a scrotum model. Still being treated. I’m not dead.”